instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Friday, September 28, 2007

Deeper than did ever plummet sound

Kat is having a book sale. Sort of.

She has a nice library of awful books. She could try to recoup her investment by selling the books to people who want to read them, but that has that whole objective evil thing working against it.

So instead, she's selling the books to people who don't want to read them. And to save on postage, she'll incinerate them first.

Now, that's what I call buying remainders.

You can help make the world incrementally less evil by sending a few dollars Kat's way. (Proceeds will go to buy books for the University of Dayton distance courses she's taking.)


Thursday, September 27, 2007

Fortess Catholicism's new tenants

Sherry Weddell picks up on the "purity v. charity" angle of the dotCommonweal discussion of Bishop Steenson's announced intention to enter the Catholic Church.

In yet another example of my lack of imagination, I was surprised to learn that there is a very lively concern in some Catholic circles that Pope Benedict XVI (as thorough-going an Augustinian as you'd hope to meet outside Villanova) is going to act on his alleged Donatistic impulse for purity, and thereby... er, preach Catholic doctrine on sexuality and Holy Orders, which those who disgree will disagree with. Or something.

The actual quotation, from Cathleen Kaveny, is:
There is a moral disagreement here --among Christians. It is a disagreement about what the faith actually requires. People who think a small religious group is trading in moral injustices aren't likely to be attracted to the beacon of light of that brilliant little community.
This, apparently, is a case of "purity over charity," the purity being Catholic doctrine and the charity being... er, either not preaching Catholic doctrine or changing it to accommodate those who don't like it. I'm not sure which.

Having poisoned the well, let me try to reconstruct her argument:
  1. Pope Benedict XVI has said a lot about the possibility of small numbers of Catholics being the key to the New Evangelization.
  2. Most people don't like the Church's teachings on sexuality.
  3. Therefore, small numbers of Catholics who hold the Catholic position on sexuality won't draw people to the Church.
Which is a weird argument.

A very weird argument, in fact, and not only for the immediately obvious reason that she seems to be arguing for changing Catholic doctrine to accommodate the preferences of others and calling it "charity."

For one thing, the argument seems to require a concept of reception into the full communion of the Catholic Church that entails nothing more than recognition and agreement -- "Say, what do you know! I just noticed I believe and profess all that the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God. I should join the Church this Easter!" The idea that "very convinced persons with joy of the faith" (to quote Cardinal Ratzinger) might be more attractive than "women can't be priests" (to repeat Catholic dogma) is repulsive is a non-starter here.

For another, it ignores the role of the Holy Spirit.

Or -- well, frankly, what it requires is that the person making the argument have no faith in Catholic doctrine (either because she thinks it's false or because she thinks its truth has no power).

But the really weird part is that, as you remember, all this is taking place in comments on a post about an Episcopal bishop who is joining the Catholic Church. Kaveny and others express concern that Bishop Steenson's motives are political. David Gibson openly speculates that it is a "conversion of convenience." Kaveny claims the right "to gently raise an eyebrow" when Bishop Steenson's letter doesn't satisfy her curiosity as to his reasons (she seems particularly suspicious because it enabled "self-contratulatory crowing on the part of some conservative Catholics").

All this despite the fact that they know jack-all about the fellow or the "Anglo-Papalist" theological stream in which he has been swimming for decades.

So tell me: Who are the Donatists here? Who are speculating about the purity of others? Whose doctrinal concerns are trumping charity and openness?


Wednesday, September 26, 2007

And when I say none, I mean there is a certain amount

In a comment below, Pauli refers to the phenomenon of Catholic priests discouraging people from joining the Church.

Meanwhile, my son keeps asking me awkward questions about whether people who don't believe in Jesus can go to heaven.

The question is particularly awkward because we live in an area with a very large Jewish population, and the yes-and-no nuances of the answer sound awfully academic when a boy is imagining his next-door neighbors in eternal torment.

And I don't think it's escaped my son's notice that I seem pretty blase about the increased risk our neighbors run of damnation.

It seems to me that there are three possibilities:
  1. My neighbors can go to hell for all I care.
  2. I don't think believing in Jesus makes much of a difference in terms of salvation.
  3. I've got to preach Christ to my neighbors.
None of these is especially appealing, but the first is unneighborly and the third means taking on work with a high risk of humiliation. So it's in my own interest to massage the second possibility into a form that's more or less consistent with my understanding of the Catholic Faith.

I wonder whether similar forces are at work when a Catholic priest tells someone Catholicism (or even Christianity) is no big deal. If Catholicism is a big deal, then the priest had better get on his horse and get going, and not just with would-be converts who fall into his lap. But if getting on his horse and getting going would upset his plans, then maybe he's willing to take the broad, flexible outlook on just how big a deal Catholicism is after all.


The change

At 6:02 p.m., Sunday, September 23, 2007, I became an old fogey.

I actually noticed the last tumbler fall into place. I observed myself transition from the judgment, "I do not like bongos at Mass," to, "These bongos are an affront to my parish."

At that very moment, I realized I'd crossed a line. I don't think there's any turning back. For me, on the matter of bongos at Mass in my suburban American parish, there can be no more "not my thing."

Now the only question is whether I live out my life in charity or in bitterness.


Tuesday, September 25, 2007

With what can salt be seasoned?

Cathleen Kaveny is a professor of theology and law at Notre Dame, and a contributor to Commonweal Magazine's blog. In a discussion at that blog on the announcement of TEC Bishop Jeffrey Steenson's intention to join the Roman Catholic Church, she writes:
...George Lindbeck was one of my doctoral advisors. He inculcated in all of us a sense of the fundamental unity of all Christian churches as the body of Christ, and the sense that we were called to work for unity from our own point in that body. So I tend to see it as a a very sad thing when someone decides that they can no longer fulfill that call.
I tend to see it as a very sad thing when someone who teaches theology at a Catholic university has been inculcated with an ecclesiology contrary to Catholic doctrine.

What woman having ten coins and losing one would light a lamp and sweep the house, searching carefully until she finds it? And when she does find it, she calls together her friends and neighbors and says to them, "Weep with me because the coin that I lost is no longer working for unity from its own point in the house."

It's not that hard. Really, it's not that hard. If you're a Catholic theology professor, then profess Catholic theology.

I know, I know, this is terribly narrow-minded and reactionary of me. Clearly, I prefer purity to charity, and I'm a crypto-Donatist, if that label can be granted to one so uneducated.

Still: If you teach Catholic theology, but you don't teach Catholic theology, what are you doing?


Monday, September 24, 2007

That was no wife, that was my lady

Perhaps most unexpected of the answers the LORD gives to Malachi is this:
This also you do: the altar of the LORD you cover with tears, weeping and groaning, Because he no longer regards your sacrifice nor accepts it favorably from your hand; and you say, "Why is it?"-- Because the LORD is witness between you and the wife of your youth, With whom you have broken faith though she is your companion, your betrothed wife.
Our sacrifice is no longer accepted favorably, not just because we've broken faith with the wife of our youth. Of course we're sinners. That's what the sin offerings are for.

But God rejects our sacrifices because He was the witness of our marriage.

What does our marriage back before have to do with our sacrifice here today? Everything, when you're dealing with a God Who Is by nature a relationship of persons.

We invited God to witness our marriage, and He saw what He saw. Now we come along, having broken faith with our companion, expecting Him to unsee what He saw, even as we ask Him to see our sacrifice today.

"Who are You going to believe," we ask the LORD with tears, weeping and groaning. "Me, or Your own lying eyes?"


Q & A with the LORD

An oracle:
Q. How have you loved us?

A. Was not Esau Jacob's brother? yet I loved Jacob, but hated Esau; I made his mountains a waste, his heritage a desert for jackals.

Q. How have we polluted Your altar?

A. By saying the table of the LORD may be slighted!

Q. Why is it You no longer regard our sacrifice or accept it favorably from our hands?

A. Because I AM witness between you and the wife of your youth, with whom you have broken faith though she is your companion, your betrothed wife.

Q. How have we wearied You?

A. By your saying, "Every evildoer is good in the sight of the LORD, and He is pleased with him"; or else, "Where is the just God?"

Q. How do we rob You?

A. In tithes and in offerings!

Q. What have we spoken against You?

A. You have said, "It is vain to serve God, and what do we profit by keeping his command, and going about in penitential dress in awe of the LORD of hosts? Rather must we call the proud blessed; for indeed evildoers prosper, and even tempt God with impunity."
All in all, not a cheery interview with which to wrap up the Old Testament. (The NAB suggests scribes repeated a (relatively) cheerful verse at the very end of the book, so as not to end on the note, "Lest I come and strike the land with doom.")

Still, I think much the same interview could occur now, with the "we" being the members of the Catholic Church (not all her members, I hasten to add).

The answer to the first question is analogous to the insistence in recent years on the unique nature of both Christ and His Church. Slighting the table of the LORD could be understood liturgically, but also in terms of how much individual Catholics sacrifice of themselves to God. Saying God is pleased with every evildoer recalls the "I'm a good person" argument that has been made in both formal and informal ways. And speaking against God in the way He decries is always a temptation when He doesn't meet our personal standards of justice.


Friday, September 21, 2007

The Good is not a good

In his 1912 encyclical Singulari quadam (not previously referenced on this site), Pope St. Pius X writes:
No matter what the Christian does, even in the realm of temporal goods, he cannot ignore the supernatural good. Rather, according to the dictates of Christian philosophy, he must order all things to the ultimate end, namely, the Highest Good.
That Highest Good is, in a word, God. (In a longer word, beatitude, but it turns out to be the same thing. We're capax Dei, baby!)

The idea of the "Highest Good" fits right in with the idea of a "hierarchy of goods," which goes back to Aristotle at least, and which allows us to define moral evil as the choice of a lesser good in place of a greater good. (The idea that we always choose good, or at least what looks good to us, goes back to Plato at least.)

So the overall idea is of an ordering of goods, from the lowest to the highest. The ordering is likely only partial, since it's likely that two goods can be equivalently good (a Phillies victory and a Mets loss, for example). And sitting at the top as the good greater than which none can conceive is God.

But that idea is false. The Highest Good isn't a good, It's Goodness. When we sin, we don't choose a lesser good in place of God -- what does it actually mean to "choose God," anyway? -- we choose a lesser good in place of what God tells us is a greater good.

In these terms, the old Masonic symbol might be onto something:

God is above all goods, but He is not part of or even the limit of them.

Here's the Actus caritatis (Act of Love) found in the Compendium of the Catholic Church:

O Lord God,
I love you above all things
and I love my neighbor for your sake
because you are the highest,
infinite and perfect good,
worthy of all my love.
In this love
I intend to live and die.
Domine Deus,
amo te super omnia
et proximum meum propter te,
quia tu es summum, infinitum,
et perfectissimum bonum,
omni dilectione dignum.
In hac caritate
vivere et mori statuo.

Here God isn't merely the summum bonum, He's also infinítum et perfectíssimum. Speaking of the Highest and Infinite and Perfect Good makes it a bit harder to mistake God as only the best of many or as in any way directly comparable to anything.

When the Pope tells us we must order all things to the Highest Good, we shouldn't understand him as meaning that we "choose God" in the same sense we might choose scrambled eggs or choose to be kind.

Nonisity, to have or want nothing but God, doesn't necessarily mean just me 'n' Jesus sitting on the ground in rags. That would make discipleship a matter of externals. We don't obtain the Highest Good instead of lesser goods, but through them (particularly the virtues and gifts of the Holy Spirit).

So what? So when we as Christians offer Christ to others, we offer Him through created goods. There's an upside to this, since it's easier to accept created goods than the mandate to strip to rags and sit on the ground. There's also a downside, since it's easy to take your eyes off Him and look instead at the created goods.


When in doubt

Zadok links to a story about the banning of rice throwing at weddings in Venice. Seems the rice attracts pigeons, which "are causing incalculable damage to [Venice's] artistic and architectural heritage" with their pecking and their droppings (and, though the newspaper report doesn't mention it, no doubt with their overall creepiness, too).

But just as most spiritual problems have the same solution -- viz, prayer and fasting -- a surprising number of problems we encounter in the natural world have a common, simple, and obvious in hindsight solution.

Here, then, is the stock question one should ask when animal and human interests run at cross purposes:
Have you tried trained falcons?
(Image source.)


Thursday, September 20, 2007

Just Say Yes to Nonisity!

Terrence Berres, Amy Welborn, and Sherry Weddell are critical of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee's reported plan to, er, energize their vibrancy. (I suspect William Strunk and George Orwell might also have words for anyone who proposes energizing vibrancy.)

And all we need to "energize the vibrancy" is energy. So isn't the question the source of the loss of energy? One possibility that comes to mind is asking what might be at stake if a Catholic routinely skips Sunday Mass, or, for that matter, if a Catholic leaves the Church. If the answer is "everything", that's probably more energizing than "not much".
Because, see, that's not the Catholic way, either - the way of evaluating the health and future of the Church via schematics and diagrams and planning packets either. The Catholic way is to imitate the saints, it seems to me. To preach, to teach, to gather the lost, to heal the sick, to be with the poor - to plunge into it.
Christian culture is not self-sustaining. Christian culture is the fruit of personal faith. Without the preaching of the kerygma and personal conversion which is the source of renewal in every generation, Christian culture ultimately withers away and dies.
I've been using the term "nonisity" to mean "the state of being satisfied with nothing less, and nothing other, than God." (From St. Thomas's answer to Jesus' question of what he would like: "Non nisi te, nothing but You.")

I can't see anything wrong with extending the use of the term to include "the state of having nothing less, and nothing other, than God." And if we do that, then we can say that the Church, qua Church, has nonisity. In spades.

Which is to say two things:
1. All the Church has to offer is God.
It has other stuff, yes, but that other stuff and a cup of coffee will get you a cup of coffee. Has the Church given the world the hospital and the university and the Pieta? Sure, but if (per impossible) the Church disappeared tomorrow, there would still be hospitals and universities and (for a little while, at least) the Pieta.
2. The Church offers GOD!!!
How do you sweeten that deal? Why would you try to sweeten that deal?


Wednesday, September 19, 2007

"Science suffers from an excess of significance"

This article suffers from an excess of quotable lines:
...most published research findings are wrong.

"A new claim about a research finding is more likely to be false than true."

...Dr. Ioannidis and his colleagues analyzed 432 published research claims concerning gender and genes. Upon closer scrutiny, almost none of them held up. Only one was replicated.

"People are messing around with the data to find anything that seems significant...."

"The correction isn't the ultimate truth either."
My take on the field of statistics is that it's an arithmetic discipline for making people feel comfortable. Just think about the term "95% confidence": it's a bait-and-switch trick, which works by giving the result of a convoluted and artificial computation the same name as a vaguely understood emotional or intellectual state favorable for decision-making.

Which isn't to say it's all smoke and mirrors. As a statistician I know likes to say, Las Vegas is filled with monuments to the Central Limit Theorem, and all horse players die broke.

But what Dr. Ioannidis is pointing out in the article is that, too often, scientists conduct experiments in statistical alchemy: they want to turn a set of data into a statistically significant conclusion. They do that by loading the data into a statistical analysis software tool, then monkey around until they get a number less than 0.05 (or, if they're desperate, 0.1) to come out of the function they've been told computes significance.

And guess what? Given enough time and experience with the analysis software, it's usually possible, one way or another, to get a score under 0.05.

What does the score actually mean? Well, it means something, probably, but to know just what you have to carefully work through every step taken to obtain it. And statistics is known for counter- and contra-intuitive reasoning, so if you're not an expert in statistics (NOTE: 6 semester hours of undergrad statistics doesn't make you an expert, nor does unlimited hours using statistical analysis software), you shouldn't be too confident your confidence interval tells you what you tell yourself it tells you.

But we're all taught the Scientific Method, which in its simplest form is:
  1. Make a hypothesis.
  2. Test the hypothesis.
  3. Reject the hypothesis if it fails the test.
Rejecting a hypothesis you thought up all by your own self is hard enough when the data proves it's false. Rejecting it when the data doesn't prove anything at all is near impossible, almost as difficult as getting more money after admitting you didn't learn much from the money you've already spent.

I'm not knocking science, or even statistics (which, considered as an applied discipline, is full of deucedly clever (and undeniably useful) stuff). But we have to understand things as they are, not as they are idealized to be, and that includes understanding that the majority of scientists are lousy statisticians.

(Link via Eve Tushnet.)


Monday, September 17, 2007

The work on the Work

Okay, so this isn't the most timely review, seeing as John Allen's Opus Dei: An Objective Look Behind the Myths and Reality of the Most Controversial Force in the Catholic Church first came out two years ago and the paperback reprint three months ago. But I do what I can, when I can, to keep the insect overlords wise and dedicated professionals with a great sense of humor who send me review copies happy.

Between the 2005 hardcover publication and the 2007 trade paperback, the DaVinci Code movie came and went. Allen took advantage of this to frame the preface he wrote for the paperback edition, in which he makes this perhaps surprising claim:
With the possible exception of Pope John Paul II, Opus Dei never had a better friend than Dan Brown.
Brown's absurd caricature of Opus Dei led to "Operation Lemonade," the strategy of using the attention the book brought as an opportunity for the prelature to inform the curious (and the doubtful) about what Opus Dei is really all about.

And if Brown is the Work's second-best friend, John Allen comes in third. From now on, anyone who wants to bring a charge against Opus Dei or its founder will first have to check whether the charge has been investigated and answered by Allen in his book.

He begins with a look at St. Josemaria Escriva, whom some have charged with vanity, Masonry, and fascism, and at the new association he founded, upon the spirituality of divine filiation and sanctification of secular work. Then he looks at eight "Question Marks About Opus Dei": secrecy; mortification; women; money; Opus Dei in the Church; Opus Dei and politics; blind obedience; and recruiting.

Among Allen's conclusions, which may disappoint the anti-Opus Dei folks:
  • "Many of the charges leveled against... Saint Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer... are open to interpretation, and in any event do not seem to disqualify in terms of personal sanctity."
  • "Opus Dei is not especially 'secretive.'"
  • "Practices of corporal mortification... have a long pedigree and accepted theological rational, and do not generally seem to be taken to extremes."
  • Opus Dei is not rich, at least by the standards of other organizations in the Catholic Church...."
  • "The profile of Opus Dei as 'elitist' has some historical validity.... Yet Opus Dei is not 'elitist' in the sense in which people often invoke the term, meaning an exclusively white-collar phenomenon."
  • "Opus Dei's is not an exclusively vertical spirituality; it does have a social conscience."
  • "Opus Dei is not 'taking over' the Catholic Church."
  • "Opus Dei is not the voracious recruiting machine of myth, given the snail's pace of recent grown, averaging 650 new members per year worldwide the last four years."
  • "There's little evidence... that unwilling people are being subjected to this regime [of numerary life] through 'mind control.'"
Even granting that:
  • "A substantial number of ex-members... report feeling damaged by their experience... These reports suggest the need for care in vocational discernment, especially among the young."
Allen follows up with:
  • "Some of the critical testimony of ex-members comed down to the failure of certain officials of Opus Dei to use good judgment. As time goes on and Opus Dei matures, these episodes seem less frequent, and the internal climate seems more open."
Bottom line, and slightly simplifying: Much of the controversy is ill-founded (if often exacerbated by Opus Dei's tone-deaf reactions), and much of the rest is due to Opus Dei's learning curve as it grows from a personal vision of its founder to a self-sustaining, worldwide association of the faithful (i.e., the boneheadedness of iindividual members). I had the sense in reading this book that Allen himself was surprised to come to such a benign impression of the Work.

Still, he offers three suggestions that might help Opus Dei "to thrive, assuaging the anxieties people sometimes have and thus opening new apostolic horizons": increased transparency; increased collaboration with other Church organizations; and increased institutional self-criticism. (Note: All very American suggestions. Even Allen doesn't seem sure they'd have much appeal within Opus Dei. Collaboration in particular is viewed as against "the spirit of the Work," which is directed ad extra.)

In any case, anyone looking for a thorough (in spots thorough to the point of dullness) examination of the controversies surrounding Opus Dei really should start here. Not only because Operation Lemonade and other changes on the prelature's part have made a lot of the criticism anachronistic, but because Allen seems to make a real effort to present both sides of the still-disputed questions surrounding Opus Dei.



The Divine cross-talk act

When the LORD tells Moses He's fed up with "your people," Moses always implores the LORD to remember His promises to His people. And the LORD relents.

The LORD is not fickle, yet everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers of Scripture must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit. So what might He have been up to in these stock exchanges with His chosen servant?

It struck me yesterday that the Divine threats against the Hebrews force Moses to take a stand, the stand of pleading for them before God. Each time he pleads for them before God, he strengthens the bond he has with the people he leads -- with what God calls "your people" when He's angry with them, but "My people" when He's pleased.

So this is not just a pro forma conversation -- "One of these days, POW, right in the kisser!," "Now, now, calm down," "Oh, all right." It is a ritual by which God, Moses, and the Israelites are all drawn deeper into a relationship of love. God begins the ritual, but it is up to Moses to continue it.

But suppose he didn't. Suppose he said, "You're right, LORD. They are a stiff-necked people, and I would love it if Your wrath consumed them. Then you could make of me a great nation." What if he called God's bluff?

Notice that the Church puts the reading of their ritual conversation sparked by the golden calf on the same day as the Gospel reading of the Parable of the Prodigal Son. In that parable, it was the task of the older brother to assume the role of Moses, to intercede with his father on behalf of the younger son. He failed in this rather spectacularly, and wound up harming only himself.

So while the Biblical stories that portray God as capricious and always threatening to find a better people make for dramatic reading (or at least they could, if we paid attention), I don't think God's plan of salvation was really dancing on a knife edge all those years. His plan is sound, secure, and unchanging; the drama comes from our own fickleness: Will we, individually and communally, choose life, or will we choose death?


Sunday, September 16, 2007

My struggle with Girzone

A fan of the writer Fr. Joseph F. Girzone once gave me a copy of his bestselling book Joshua. I made it through four or five chapters before I had to stop.

The title character (there are at least seven books in the series) is Jesus Himself, living an ordinary life in contemporary America. Based on the first few chapters of the first book, Jesus has returned to preach a Gospel of Nondenominational Niceness.

Not for me.

In fact, most fictionalized accounts of Jesus aren't for me. He was surprising enough to those who knew Him best in the true accounts we have of Him that I just don't trust people who claim to know what He'd do here and now (or even in Narnia, whenever). One exception: In the Don Camillo stories I've read, Christ is believable (perhaps because He's crucified and risen).

So I was not excited to see a review copy of Fr. Girzone's My Struggle with Faith arrive in the mail. (As Julie Davis suggested, I'm not sure Doubleday did him any favors by publishing the trade paperback edition on practically the same day the book of Mother Teresa's writings came out.)

Nevertheless, I thought I'd take the broad and flexible outlook and give it a shot, just to see what the fellow had to say, fully prepared to give it up as soon as it became unbearable. (Also, I'd misplaced my copy of the Mother Teresa book.)

My Struggle With Faith never did become unbearable, though, so I wound up finishing it. It's a quick and light read, the theme of which is, "Find a reason for your faith." And as it happens, Fr. Girzone's is (essentially) the Catholic Faith, and his reasons are (for the most part) the traditional Catholic ones. He particularly stresses the early Church Fathers, who as the immediate spiritual descendants of the Apostles ought to know best what it is to believe in Jesus.

This isn't to say Fr. Girzone isn't a typically liberal Catholic. He doesn't like the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (or the Vatican generally), he's for optional celibacy for Roman Catholic priests, he thinks maybe laypeople ought to be able to annul their own marriages, he regrets the temporal power Constantine and St. Gregory the Great gave the Church, he's for opening Communion to those Christians who believe in the Real Presence, he's worried about a possible fundamentalist theocracy, he speaks more of the therapeutic benefits of Confession than of its spiritual benefits, and so forth. I'm not sure I much agree with his take on Jesus (he doesn't go too deeply into this -- or anything else, really -- in this book).

For the most part, though (and reserving especially his opinions on marriage and annulment), these are matters of doctrine and practice rather than dogma. I see nothing wrong with favoring optional celibacy, for example, as long as those who lack the authority don't act on their opinion. And as far as I could tell, in this book at least, Fr. Girzone accepts the authority of the Church.

He does, though, suggest that the Roman Curia has no business ordering the Bishops of the Church about. But I happen to agree with him there.

Overall, I think his idea of Jesus is too fluffy and his take on the institutional Church is too downbeat. Both encourage indifferentism among Christians, although he stresses his faith in the Eucharist, the papacy, and the importance of Mamma Mary, among other distinctly Catholic doctrines. Still, the overall effect is, "I believe the Catholic Church is the one founded by Jesus, but you don't have to, since what matters is Jesus, not doctrine." That strikes me as too either-or.

As the title suggests, the book is mostly about the questions Fr. Girzone has had about the Faith, but the autobiographical context is so sketchy it's hard to tell exactly when he was asking himself many of these questions. In many instances, both the question and the answer that ultimately satisfies him are extremely basic. Is he just thorough in recording what he learned as a young seminary student, or did he really not figure these things out for decades? It's not always clear.

What is clear is that, in his writing and ministry, Fr. Girzone has focused on Jesus as he finds Him in the Gospels. Not all priests do, of course; he writes:
Only in my later years did I come to the shocking realization that Jesus can be quite irrelevant in the life of the churches.... This was first driven home to me one day when an old priest, who had been a friend all my life, said to me, "How can you talk about Jesus for an hour and a half?"

I was stunned. I asked him what he meant by that. His response was, "We were not taught about Jesus in the seminary. We had good scripture courses, and excellent courses in moral and dogmatic theology and in Christology... but we weren't taught anything about the personal aspect of Jesus' life. I don't think I could talk about Him for more than five minutes."
Fr. Girzone, of course, thinks seminarians should be taught about the personal aspect of Jesus' life. I think seminarians ought to be taught to know Jesus Himself, and that priests can hardly blame their seminary syllabus if they grow old without ever knowing Him. Still:
As an elderly lady in Elyria, Ohio, said to me one night, "Father, the way I size up Christianity is like this: The Catholics worship the Church, the Protestants worship the Bible, and there are darn few who ever get to know Jesus Christ." She was right, and it is tragic.
He is right, and it is tragic.

I came away from this book with the impression that Fr. Girzone may have a mission to those who, for whatever reason, cannot be reached by more traditional Catholic preaching. I'm more doubtful his influence on those who simply choose not to be reached by more traditional Catholic teaching is for the good.



Friday, September 14, 2007

The great ecological et et

The larger theme I drew from The Ominvore's Dilemma is disintegration: We are disconnected from the food we eat (what exactly is xantham gum?). The price of the food we eat is disconnected from the cost of producing it (where does the fertilizer go when it rains?). Plants have been reduced to machines for converting nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium into calories. Nutrition is a suite of vitamins and minerals pumped into food from which vitamins and minerals have been stripped; this is called "fortifying" food. "Diet" is a ratio of fats to carbohydrates, or calories to days; a word that used to mean "what we eat" now means "what we don't eat."

When he was visiting Polyface Farms, Michael Pollan learned of the value its 450 acres of woodlot offers the 100 acres of pasture. The trees calm the winds that would otherwise flatten the grass; they cool the farm in summer; they attract birds (who eat insect pests) and chipmunks (who are eaten by weasels (who therefore don't go after the chickens)); they provide woodchips for compost; they store water.

As Pollan writes:
I'd always thought of the trees and grasses as antagonists -- another zero-sum deal in which the gain of the one entails the loss of the other. To a point, this is true: More grass means less forest; more forest less grass. But either-or is a construction more deeply woven into our culture than into nature, where even antagonists depend on one another and the liveliest places are the edges, the in-betweens or both-ands... Relations are what matter most, and the health of the cultivated turns on the health of the wild.
The Church is the environment (one both natural and supernatural) in which man can best flourish. The analogy with ecological environments suggests that both "cultivated" rules and "wild" freedom are necessary, and moreover that it is where rules and freedom meet that the Church will be liveliest.

That, at least, is the hypothesis suggested by my reading. The monoculture of Rules Alone, so to speak, is unsustainable and will eventually lead to sterility and starvation; the wilds alone ill-fit our needs and will lead to malnutrition and starvation.

Pollan concludes the chapter with a quotation from Joel Salatin, the owner of Polyface Farms: "One of the greatest assets of a farm is the sheer ecstasy of life."

Isn't that also one of the greatest assets of the Church?


Corn: It's what's for dinner

The "omnivore's dilemma" is a term coined in 1976 by a research psychologist named Paul Rozin and popularized by Michael Pollan's 2006 bestseller. The dilemma facing the animal that eats everything is figuring out what to eat. Or, to quote the first sentence of The Omnivore's Dilemma, "What should we have for dinner?"1

Rats, reportedly, answer this by taking small nibbles of unfamiliar things and remembering what did and did not taste good or make them sick. Humans answer this largely through culture. What we have for dinner is what our mothers made for dinner out of the available foodstuffs where our family lives.

Put that way, you can see how the dilemma sharpens in a society like ours. The set of foodstuffs available where our family lives is approaching the set of foodstuffs available anywhere in the world. And I don't need to go into ethnic enclaves in the big city to get food that doesn't grow anywhere any of my ancestors have ever lived. I don't even need to go into the ethnic aisle of my supermarket; there's a whole lot more than onions and celery just in the produce section.

Pollan's book touches on some interesting and important questions, and I think it's a better book for not hitting the answers too hard. That may be because he admits he doesn't have many answers, though I suspect part of it is that looking for answers would go beyond his idea of writing "A Natural History of Four Meals," as the subtitle of the book has it. (The four meals: Big Corn (from McDonald's); Big Organic (from Whole Goods); "beyond organic" (from Polyface, "a family owned, multi-generational, pasture-based, beyond organic, local-market farm and informational outreach in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley"); and Pollan's own (from foods the author himself shot, grew, foraged, or begged from friends).)

By way of criticism, I'll just say I found the book of decreasing interest as it went along, probably because of decreasing scope. Big Corn is something that affects us all, even if we aren't "industrial eaters." Organic (both Big and "beyond") is more relevant philosophically than practically. And I think Pollan simply overestimates the fascination of his attempt at a meal where he himself is the complete food chain (not least because of the loopholes he allows himself; it's not exactly My Side of the Mountain, Part II to ask a neighbor for some spare bones from the side of beef they bought so you can make a gravy stock for the wild pig you grill on your Marin County patio).

1. This should not be confused with the "hominahominavore's dilemma": if you eat everything you want, you wind up with the physique of Jackie Gleason.


Thursday, September 13, 2007

Status episcopalis non ordinatur ad perfectionem adipiscendam

Sorry, but I had to smile when I glanced at the reply to Objection 5 in St. Thomas's article, "Whether poverty is required for religious perfection?"

The objection is that "the episcopal state is more perfect than the religious state. But bishops may have property, [so] religious may also."

And St. Thomas begins his reply with the words:
The episcopal state is not directed to the attainment of perfection....
Which explains plenty.

I suppose he could have ended his response right there, leaving us to speculate at what unwritten words might have been spoken between author and secretary before they moved on the respondeo ad sextum. But to clarify his point, he continued:
...but rather to the effect that, in virtue of the perfection which he already has, a man may govern others....
It would be catty to add, "Which explains even more." So I won't.

Still, this idea -- you might even call it an ideal -- of the episcopal state suggests two things: First, the Church is in need of a steady supply of perfect candidates to become bishops. Second, if by chance a diocese winds up with a bishop who is less than perfect, the people of that diocese shouldn't expect him to attain to perfection in the execution of his office; if they want him to become perfect, it'll probably take prayer and fasting on their part to help him along.


Egenus et pauper ego sum

Psalm 85(85) is "a prayer of David" (v 1), and begins by asking God to listen to him because he is "needy and poor." (The NAB has "poor and oppressed.")

Kings aren't often thought of as needy and poor. I don't often think of myself as needy and poor. Somewhat wanty, to be sure. Not as rich as I'd like to prove I can be without being a snob, absolutely. But it would be senseless for me to claim that I am materially needy or poor.

I can use the old spiritualizing trick and say that I am, or am at least trying to be, poor in spirit. (If I had to, I could probably even mumble up something about being needy in spirit, whatever that might mean.)

But I have to be careful if I talk in terms of being (either actually or potentially) poor in spirit, because being poor in spirit is a good thing for me to be. If this is what I have in mind as I pray Psalm 86, then with the first verse --
Incline thy ear, O Lord, and hear me: for I am needy and poor --
I am saying, "Listen to me, Lord, because I am good and virtuous." In other words, "Because I deserve it." And surely the Psalmist didn't intend that; he goes on to say (in v. 5) that God is "plenteous in mercy." If I am asking for something I deserve, that's a matter of justice, not mercy.

So whatever sort of spiritualizing of poverty and need I do, it shouldn't be the kind that turns them into virtues. (On the other hand, I don't want to turn them into vices, either. "I haven't been storing up treasure in heaven, so listen to me," doesn't make any sense at all.)

There is a tradition of understanding the evangelical counsel of poverty in terms of possessing or owning property:
Hence it is that in the attainment of the perfection of charity the first foundation is voluntary poverty, whereby a man lives without property of his own....
This is as opposed to using property, as a monk might use a cell in a monastery.

Now, what spiritual property can we be said to own? What do we have, spiritually speaking, that belongs to us by right, that we can do with as we please, that cannot with justice be taken from us?

Strictly speaking, nothing.

Oh, we can talk about merit and such, but even so, "With regard to God, there is no strict right to any merit on the part of man." The claim we have on spiritual goods exists solely and entirely because God has freely promised them to us.

We are all radically poor in spiritual things. We ourselves possess no spiritual good, and are completely dependent upon God to be able to use the least of them.

What about material goods? I doubt there's a reader of this post (including mendicants) who doesn't possess some sort of physical property.

Or do we? Sure, possession of property is a positive right, even a natural right. But "with regard to God"? No. You can't take it with you, and there's no injustice in that. The LORD gives and the LORD takes away; blessed be the name of the LORD!

It is wisdom, then, to see that, before God, everyone is needy and poor. This takes away nothing from those who suffer need and poverty before men, nor should it be any great comfort for those who don't.

The point is, that when I pray Psalm 86, I don't need to gin up feelings of need and poverty or to imagine what it would be like to be Job on the ash heap. It would suffice for me to understand that, whether I feel that way or nor, I really and truly am needy and poor before God, not just spiritually but also materially. This fact is why I hope for God to incline His ear and hear me. If He doesn't, there's nothing I have that I might not lose the use of.

Thinking about that for a little bit will encourage me to ask that God hear me with more sincerity than I would if I think of myself as fat, dumb, and happy with all my material (and spiritual) property. And that, in turn, will reinforce my understanding of myself as needy and poor, which should reinforce detachment, which would likely result in a reduction in the property I own according to natural and positive law (if not in literal, legal poverty).


Too true

I didn't know the Onion did straight news stories.


Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Inclina, Domine

The opening verses of Psalm 86 is translated by the Douay Rheims Bible (where it's Psalm 85) this way:
Incline thy ear, O Lord, and hear me: for I am needy and poor.
Preserve my soul, for I am holy:
save thy servant, O my God, that trusteth in thee.
Have mercy on me, O Lord, for I have cried to thee all the day.
Give joy to the soul of thy servant, for to thee, O Lord, I have lifted up my soul.
All those "fors" (translating three quias and one quoniam), all that delightful argument:

Because I amGod should
needy and poorincline His ear and hear me
holy [i.e., consecrated to God]preserve my soul
crying to God all the dayhave mercy on me
lifting up my soul to Himgive joy to my soul

Now, we get rid of that first column and wind up with something altogether appealing:

God should
incline His ear and hear me
preserve my soul
have mercy on me
give joy to my soul

But suppose

God doesn't
incline His ear and hear me
preserve my soul
have mercy on me
give joy to my soul

Doesn't that mean that

I am not
needy and poor
holy [i.e., consecrated to God]
crying to God all the day
lifting up my soul to Him

From which we conclude that

I should be
needy and poor
holy [i.e., consecrated to God]
crying to God all the day
lifting up my soul to Him


Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Reeves and the Motu Proprio That Binds, concl.

"Thanks again, bish," he said, looking like a fish who looked like a cat who just ate a canary.

"Not at all."

"I leave for Rome next Monday, and Ernesto has insisted I stay at St. Aldhelm's with him 'til then."

"Capital!" I said, catching the bartender's eye for another round.

"By Jove!" he went on. "Personal secretary to the president of a pontifical commission, and I'm just three years out of seminary!"

"I shall watch your future career with interest."

"Thanks again, bish."

"Not at all."

I took a sip of my drink -- Reeves would approve of the speed a pectoral cross induces among the bartenders in the upper bar at the downtown Knights of Columbus hall -- and added, "I still can't think why Reeves couldn't turn you up at the jail the other evening."

"Who did he say he was looking for?"

"Why, you, of course."

"That explains it," young Thos. said with a nod. "I'd given the police a false name."

"A false name! What on earth for?"

"I didn't think either of us wanted word to get round to Sister Agatha about such a trifling misunderstanding."

I considered this. "Yes, I see your point. Still, I'm surprised Reeves didn't press the matter. It couldn't have taken too long to work through the list of men in stir for impersonating clergy."

He shrugged. "Perhaps he didn't think of it. Ernesto had the advantage that he didn't know what my real name was anyway."

"A dashed good thing for all of us Stinker was so remorseful he insisted on turning the jail inside out. Reeves spoke to him on the phone just before we headed out for the evening, and at the end of the conversation Stinker swore he'd spring you or bust."

"And talk about luck! One of his oldest friends, just settling in at HQ, and needing a personal secretary."

"Not the position I'd wish for myself, my boy, but I couldn't be happier for you."

Young Thos. looked stricken for a moment. "The chaps from Latine Dictum are disappointed, of course, but they understand the need to scale back."

"Quite. As I always say, one doesn't lose one's point man on the Old Missal without having to adjust."

"And Ernesto has promised to do what he can until you find my replacement."

"It couldn't have worked out better if someone had planned it."

"Pardon, your Excellency." Reeves had materialized at by elbow. "Sister Agatha is on your cell phone, inquiring about her protege. While your standing orders are to do what is possible to keep her from reaching you, I thought perhaps --"

"Say no more, Reeves," I interrupted, holding out a hand for my phone. "You are quite right. This is one call from her I look forward to." That alone should give you a sign of how rum a week it had been.

"There is a quiet alcove this way, your Excellency."


Excusing myself from young Thos., who was now mumbling greetings out of an Italian phrasebook to himself, I followed Reeves across the barroom. "I say, Reeves, I hope you're not put out by all this."

"All this, your Excellency?"

"There I was, up to my eyebrows in the soup as we headed for the Matrons' gala. And by the time it was finished, the skies were already starting to clear. For once, I didn't need one of your schemes. In fact," I added as we reached the alcove, "if you had been your usual brainy self at the jail and not insisted your quarry was cataloged under the proper name, all would not now be served up en croute."

"The consequences of my choice of action are indeed gratifying, your Excellency."

"Good of you to take it so well. Carry on, Reeves." I pressed the "mute" button on my phone and surprised the party on the line by calling out, "What ho, aged religious! Pax vobis!"

And I meant it.



Monday, September 10, 2007

Dark night of the sole

In a comment on a post at Swingin' Rosaries, Crusader Coyote wondered why a culture that loved "Footprints in the Sand" can't understand the dryness that characterized much of Bl. Teresa of Calcutta's life.

I suggested the difference was the industrial grade sentimentalism of "Footprints" and the utter lack of sentimentalism in a decades-long dark night of the soul. She replied:
There was enough of the idea in that little thing that they should have been able to draw a connection between that idea and Bl. Mother Theresa's persevering struggles, much like one can draw a connection between a juice box and a fine wine.
Perhaps. In both cases, though, if what you really crave is the sweetness, then the connection may not be apparent at all.

Opposition to sentimentalism is one of my hobby horses, though not one I've ridden to death yet. The dark night of the soul (to the extent I understand it) seems not only to be an utterly un-sentimental experience, but also to be a disinfectant against sentimentalism. Disconsolation neither supports nor can be supported by mushy-heartedness.

I think it's no accident that "Footprints" is written from the perspective of one looking back. The happy ending is, not merely assured, but already attained. The suffering is over; all that's left is an academic curiosity, a question that seems not to have occurred to the narrator until he asks it. And the question is about difficult times in the narrator's life when, on reflection, he didn't notice God's presence.

The dark night, on the other hand, is about times that are difficult precisely because God's presence is not apprehended. To pass through it and then to wonder why God wasn't with you is (it seems to me) impossible. What lies beyond this purgation is not the same spiritual state you were in before, but a more perfect unitive state in which no one would think they had ever advanced alone.

To the extent someone is governed by sentimentalism, purgation will seem like folly (or possibly scandal). Sentimentalism is a contradiction in which pat answers generate feelings of satisfaction, and
Who can know God's counsel, or who can conceive what the LORD intends?
is an answer too pat to satisfy those with real needs. It's not for nothing, though, that the book it comes from is called Wisdom.


Wednesday, September 05, 2007

A big jam doughnut with cream on the top

TSO posted on his pastor's Sunday homily:
Father said that every married couple should identify with the crucifix. Not because marriage is a crucifixion, but because that is a picture of what love is really about.
Let me suggest that marriage actually is a crucifixion -- albeit a relatively pleasant one for many, as crucifixions go.

This goes back to Abba Pinufius's take on the Christian's cross:
As then one who is crucified no longer has the power of moving or turning his limbs in any direction as he pleases, so we also ought to affix our wishes and desires -- not in accordance with what is pleasant and delightful to us now, but in accordance with the law of the Lord, where it constrains us.
In getting married, people surrender the power of moving or turning their limbs, and more generally their wills, in any direction as they please.

Abba Pinufius goes on to observe that literal crucifixion takes one's mind off the desires and cares that fill the lives of others. So too should marriage make worthless to the married many of the goods of the world they valued when they were single.

And there's that whole "till death" part, too.

Which calls to mind St. Catherine of Siena's prayer of praise that Jesus was fixed to the cross, not by nails, but by love. When you stop loving your spouse, when your will is no longer bound to your mutual good, you free yourself from the cross you freely chose. (Which might sound good, except that you will then find yourself on a cross of objective truth -- viz, that you're really and truly married, even if you no longer want to be -- and if you try to buck that cross you can lose a lot more than your life.)

Baptism and Holy Orders are similarly crucifixions; could we say the same about the other Sacraments?


Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Reeves and the Motu Proprio that Binds, cont.

Monsignor Reeves returned at a quarter past martini. I was dealing with the dividend, and reviewing the notes for my after-dinner speech to the Matrons of St. Monica, when he materialized just inside the study door.

"Ah, Reeves," I said, my mood considerably improved by the joke I had just inserted before the final benediction. "Place our young lawbreaker firmly in the third story guestroom -- you might give some thought to how the door could be locked from the outside -- and hurry back. I've got a perfect clipper about Saint Augustine and a Manichee playing golf I want to try out on you."

"I'm afraid Fr. Connaughton is not here, your Excellency."

"Not here? You mean he's given you the slip already? Did he sign on for a three to five year stint as prison chaplain before you has a chance to spring him?"

"I have not seen him since late this morning, your Excellency. The policemen at the jail where he was reportedly taken have no record of him there."

The Booster constitution is one which rebounds quickly from all but the nastiest shocks. And in fact, mine had done so much rebounding all day long that it didn't trouble to bound first at this latest shock.

Instead, I merely remarked, "The fellow's a perfect Houdini, Reeves. He not only disappears from the poky, but he manages to convince the screws he was never there in the first place."

"That possibility did not suggest itself to me, your Excellency."

"No, no, of course not. It's far too simple and straightforward to be true. No doubt Masons, or possibly the Fourth Dimension, lie behind this mystery. As things stand, however," I added, glancing at my watch, "we have thirty-five minutes to get to the Matrons of Saint Monica's gala, and I would rather misplace every last blasted priest of Berggo's diocese, though it mean a battalion of irate Sister Agathas, than to slight the Matrons."

"The prudence of a timely arrival this evening is manifest, your Excellency."

"Besides, Stinker DiPietro will do the worrying for all of us. He called a while ago, you see. Felt awful when he learned that young Thos. really was a priest."

"Monsignor DiPietro is a man of great sensitivity, your Excellency."

"He still would have hit him, of course. You remember how he laid out Pat Murtaugh at our priests' retreat back in Ninety-Seven. But he would have hit him with the respect due a man of the cloth."

Reeves remained silent. He didn't approve of rough stuff from a chap wearing the purple, I knew, but he couldn't help admiring a chap who insisted on a different punch against each ecclesial rank. Semper dignosco, was one of Reeve's watchwords. Always distinguish.