instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Strawberries at Christmas

I read a short story once -- by Damon Runyon, I think; one of his schmaltzy ones -- in which a woman tells a would-be suitor that she'll go out with him (or was it marry him? stories like this simplify things) if he brings her fresh strawberries on Christmas.

Nowadays, that doesn't seem like such a tall order, but in the story the difficulty of the task in 1930s New York City literally went without saying. I think the man wound up spending all his money to have a bunch of strawberries brought up by train from Florida.

All for naught, as it turned out, since when he showed up at her door with the strawberries, she was engaged to someone else. Turns out she was just messing with him. Merry Christmas, fellah.

Like I said, schmaltzy.

That story (really, that fragment of a memory of a story) comes to mind now as I read some of the commentary on the controversy stirred up by Nancy Pelosi's invocation of St. Augustine in defense of her gravely evil political program.

The question, "When does ensoulment occur?" is interesting, philosophically and historically.

But it seems to me that a lot of pro-abortion people say, "Tell me when ensoulment occurs," in the same spirit that the girl in the story said, "Bring me strawberries at Christmas." You can go off and put together the historically most complete and philosophically most unassailable answer you like, but when you bring it to them you'll find they were just messing with you. They will tell you, as Nancy Pelosi herself said immediately after burning herself on the flame of St. Augustine, "The point is, is that it shouldn't have an impact on the woman's right to choose."

Moreover, it isn't just pro-abortion people who will send you chasing after strawberries at Christmas. Anti-anti-abortion folks, too -- whose chief contributions to the public debate are criticism of and opposition to pro-life arguments -- will often insist on the necessity of settling fundamental philosophical questions first, despite the facts that (a) they aren't the sort of questions that ever really get settled, and (b) as a practical matter nobody cares what the answers are anyway.


Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Note for sophists

"Pluralistic" does not mean "of or relating to a situation or society in which moral behavior is optional."


Monday, August 25, 2008

Hey, kids, let's put on a fast!


A nine day fast prior to the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who under the title of the Immaculate Conception is the Patroness of the United States.

Offered on behalf of the Church in the United States in the two months before the 2008 general election,
  • that her unity may be made manifest by the charity of her members;
  • that she may be seen as both the sign and the safeguard of the transcendent character of the human person;
  • and in reparation for the many manifestations of our country's disdain for that transcendent character.
Since one doesn't fast on Sunday, the days of the fast are August 29-30 and September 1-6.

And, although this fast does not bind under law,
The law of fasting allows only one full meal a day, but does not prohibit taking some food in the morning and evening, observing —- as far as quantity and quality are concerned -— approved local custom.

More authoritatively, the Bishops of the United States invite the faithful to pray the Novena for Faithful Citizenship.



The Purity of the Church Turf

"What ho, Berggo!"

"What ho, Willie!"

"What ho, Poleslip! What ho, Ginger! What ho, Eustance!"

"What ho!"

"What ho!"

"What ho!"

Greetings done, silence settled upon the junior members of the Sub-Committee on the Use of Holy Water Outside Ordinary Time. We junior members ourselves were settled upon the furniture in the Reading Room, which have the most comfortable chairs at USCCB HQ. The senior members of the Sub-Committee, including two cardinals and three archbishops, were hard at work in an upstairs conference room, and just as happy as we were to have us out of the way until it was time to vote.

As I swirled the ice in my bourbon and s., I took another look around the Reading Room. As pleasant as it was, you had to watch out for the Oldest Member of the American Episcopate, who liked to haunt this chamber and corner unwary young bishops with long, unlikely tales from his youth.

Once, I even spotted an otherwise harmless looking bishop who was trying to read over by the window. We were both dashed uncomfortable about it, but he did the decent thing and left.

This afternoon, though, the five of us were alone. Three were restoring our tissues after a satisfactory lunch, and Eustace had simply unhinged his jaw to allow his thoughts to flow freely.

Ginger -- you may know him as Bishop Edgar Port-Canantrop -- was peering with nearsighted eyes at a photograph he had drawn out of a briefcase on the coffee table in front of him.

"I say, Ginger," I said, knowing this crowd generally relied upon me to set the conversational sails. "What's that?"

"Eh? Oh. It's a photograph."

I gave him a moment, in case there was more to come on the B-side, before prompting, "A photograph of what?"

"A Confirmation class from this past spring. One of the parents sent me a copy. My chancellor insisted I work on catching up on my private correspondence during this trip."

"Why do chancellors always assume we've nothing but free time when we come to Washington?" Berggo asked as he stood up and stretched. He walked around behind Ginger and bent down to look at the picture.

"I always love to see --" he began, but then straightened up immediately with a strangled cry. He peered forward again, but again shied away from Ginger's picture like a vegetarian discovering an ox tail in his salad.

"Berggo, you ass," Poleslip said. "Stop bobbing up and down. You're making me seasick."

"Come and see," Berggo said ashenly.

"Let's have a look then." Poleslip leaned forward and took the photograph from Ginger. "That's you in the middle, right?"

"In the mitre, yes," Ginger nodded.

"And there are the kiddies arrayed about -- ooh." Poleslip's eyes grew wider as he lowered his eyebrows. It was a striking effect.

"What is is, Poleslip?" I asked, marvelling at the effect the photograph was having on the company.

"It's... that's...," Poleslip explained. "That's quite a... a striking sanctuary the church has, isn't it?"

"Don't be a chump," Ginger answered sharply. "It's not striking, it's horrific. That frieze around the altar alone kept me up at night for a week. Be thankful you can't see the tabernacle. Taken as a whole, this church is easily the ugliest monstrosity to ever visit the nightmares of a liturgical space designer."

"Oh, don't say that, Ginger," Eustace said, finally adding his oar to the conver.

"But Eustace," Poleslip sputtered, "you haven't even seen the photograph."

"I don't have to," Eustace answered with calm assurance. "Because I have seen what they've done to St. Leonides in my own diocese. The interior is that than which nothing uglier can be conceived."

Berggo clapped his hands excitedly. "Gentlemen! We have here two bishops who freely admit to grave ugliness in a church under their care. Who can say how many of the whole Conference feel this way? Do not disappoint me, my brothers. The time has come for us to act!"

"Act?" I replied. "Act how?"

"Why, with an ugly church contest, of course!"



Saturday, August 23, 2008

The devil laughed

I think Barack Obama's choice of Joe Biden -- a pro-abortion Catholic -- as his vice presidential candidate will prove gravely harmful to the Church.

We have not yet recovered from the wounds inflicted when a pro-abortion Catholic ran for president in 2004, and I predict more heat and less light will be brought to the fight this time around.

Who's up for a fast?


Friday, August 22, 2008

Who's ignoring whom?

This is a great paragraph:
While there is a great deal of interest in and curiosity about the devil in the realm of possession and exorcism, there is much less interest in him in the realm of one's day-to-day life. Indeed, in the realm of our own lives. For the most part, people of America generally proceed with their daily lives as if Satan did not exist at all. An undue fascination with the details of possession is perhaps not spiritually healthy but neither is ignoring the existence of the devil and the reality of evil. We can be sure he is not ignoring us.
It's not often these days that an American bishop writes very much along these lines, or concludes an essay with words like:
When we look at our society and see the depths of depravity to which it has already sunk we must, like in the parable of the wheat and the tares, come to the unmistakable conclusion that "an enemy has done this."


Not so tendentious after all

In a recent post on the draft Democratic Party platform, I'd written:
Pro-life Democrats are also pleased, because it ... er, has the words "reduce" and "abortion" in the same sentence. And it recognizes the legitimacy of a woman's right to choose "to have a child" -- by which is of course meant, "to give birth to a child," since a woman would hardly choose a safe and legal abortion if she didn't already have a child to abort -- and the Democratic Party is evidently such that its recognition of a woman's right to bear children is considered a sign of progress.
I meant it to sting. The platform isn't just weak beer from a pro-life perspective, it's horse piss -- and yet some pro-lifers seem thankful to Obama for the opportunity to drink it.

At the time, I allowed that the above-quoted paragraph could be called a tendentious caricature of the pro-life Democratic position. I now find Michael Yaki, the platform director who worked on crafting the abortion plank, quoted as saying basically the same thing I did in that post, in some of the same words:
For the first time, the Democratic Party is using "reduce" and "abortion" in the same sentence, and for the first time it talks about the decision to have a child and supporting that decision.
Except instead of "horse piss," he calls it a "breakthrough."


Horsing around with hypotheticals

Let's say Alice and Bob are candidates running against each other for political office.

Let's say Alice's campaign gets hold of a video of Bob, taken in a restaurant during a foreign vacation some years earlier, in which Bob says, "I have to say, I do like the taste of this horse meat."

And let's say her campaign rightly believes that an ad featuring this video would repay itself in votes for Alice from the anti-horse-eating demographic.

Would it be wrong for Alice's campaign to run such an ad?

If the role of public authority is to ensure the common good (see CCC 1898), then the role of a political campaign is to put forth reasons why its candidate would best ensure the common good.

To intentionally put forth invalid reasons is to lie, and to lie is always wrong.

If, therefore, Alice's campaign doesn't believe the fact that Bob once ate horse meat is a valid reason (or at least further evidence) Alice would better ensure the common good, then it would be wrong for them to run a commercial implying so.

If they do believe it's a valid reason or further evidence Alice is the better choice, then I think they could run an ad, as long as it gives the reason or explains the evidence.


It never hurts to be reminded

In the context of morality, "you may do this thing" implies "it is in keeping with God's will for you to do this thing."

In the same context, "evil" means "contrary to God's will."

So "you may do evil" implies "it is in keeping with God's will for you to do what is contrary to God's will."

"You may do evil," then, is literal nonsense. It remains nonsense even if you add the condition "that good may result."

Thus, "You may not do evil that good may result," isn't just Catholic teaching. It's a truth, even a tautology, that follows immediately from the very meaning of the words.


Wednesday, August 20, 2008


And it came to pass, that the rich man's brother died also, and he too was buried in hell. And lifting up his eyes when he was in torments, he saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom still: And he cried, and said: Father Abraham, have mercy on me! Behold, I have an 'I Voted!' sticker. And Abraham said to him: So?


Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Not even Wales

Mark Shea suggests that Douglas Kmiec could be made Attorney General for Wales in an Obama administration.

Kmiec is known to me only as that Republican who keeps writing absurd opinion pieces about how truly madly deeply pro-life and anti-abortion Obama really is, if only we had eyes to see.

The "Attorney General for Wales" crack is, of course, a reference to one of the best lines in Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons. Richard Rich is leaving the courtroom, having just perjured himself in order to condemn Thomas More, and More notices that Rich is now wearing a dragon seal, symbolizing his new appointment as Attorney General for Wales. More says, "Why Richard, it profits a man nothing to lose his soul for the whole world... but for Wales?"

(Kmiec, as it happens, used to be the St. Thomas More Professor at Catholic University of America's law school.)

I, too, had thought, "But for Wales?," when reading pieces by other Catholics in the tank for Obama. No lesser of two evils for these folks. Obama isn't just better than McCain on the war or on universal health care. He's more pro-life! He's more anti-abortion! He's not a cynical manipulator of the hopes and fears of unintelligent Catholics; he's a Democrat!

Now, though, I think "But for Wales?" is unfair to most Catholics For Obama. Richard Rich (certainly in the play, and almost certainly in real life) chose freely to perjure himself in order to benefit himself at the price of another man's life. His was old-fashioned, self-serving treachery.

All indications are that Catholics for Obama believe the claims they make about their man (and again, these aren't least-bad claims, these are best-good claims). On dotCommonweal, David Gibson not only thinks the gravely evil Democratic Party draft plank on abortion is "a victory for Democratic pro-lifers," but he detects "the whiff of desperation" in one pro-abortion writer's celebration that the plank no longer suggests that abortion should be rare.

Personally, I don't detect the whiff of desperation in such comments from pro-life pro-Obama Catholics, much less any cynicism or duplicity. I think they're expressing opinions that are entirely honest and sincere.

Entirely daft, as well. Maybe the Attorney Generalship of Neverland is available?


Monday, August 18, 2008

Sophist softies

Suppose a man knocked on your door one evening and said:
Hello. I'm here to abduct your family and sell them into slavery.

Now, I know that many people, people of good will, believe this is wrong. I understand that, and I respect their opinion.

At the same time, many others are equally convinced of the need for slaves, particularly when our own government can't guarantee that hard-working families will have time to clean their own houses.

For my own part, I have thought long and hard about this difficult issue, an issue that doesn't admit of simple answers. And I've come to the decision that the right thing for me to do is to be a slaver. But a new kind of slaver, one who does not vilify those who disagree.

I may be wrong. But my heart tells me what I must do, and though I will reach across the old battle lines on this issue, I will not compromise my principles.
Would this speech sell you on the goodness of being abducted and sold into slavery?

If so, you really shouldn't be on the Internet.

But, if not ultimately persuasive, it is full of words some find almost irresistible sweet.

I've written before about the effect those four little words, "I could be wrong," can have. They're so... so reasonable, aren't they? Anyone could be wrong, everyone is wrong at one point or another. Admitting it is an act of someone open to discussion, and openness to discussion is -- in some eyes -- an indispensable virtue.

If someone tells me he could be wrong, then I may well say to myself, "Here's a fellow I can work with. I can support him where we agree, and I can reason with him where we disagree."

In other words, "I could be wrong," can sound like, "I can become whatever you want me to become." And who doesn't like the sound of that?

New to me in this campaign cycle is the magic in expressing respect for those who disagree. Even when the disagreement is recognized by all parties as insurmountable, expressing respect earns respect.

And not merely the respect due to someone who, objectively speaking, has only granted for the purposes of his speech that the people who disagree with him aren't all idiots. Saying you respect those who disagree with you -- whether you do respect them or not -- can help persuade some numbers of those who disagree with you to support you, and even to invent new arguments supporting you on the very subject they disagree with you about!

How come this?

I don't know for sure, of course, but the only way I can make sense of this is by supposing that there are people for whom the process of discussion is more important than the conclusion.

Why would that be? Maybe because you can't be wrong if you don't reach a conclusion, and if you're never wrong you must be awfully clever. Maybe because people who are sure in their conclusions and don't respect those who disagree are so disagreeable, and some people want to be as different from them as possible. Maybe because they're in the grip of a crippling epistemological theory that denies that anyone can actually, you know, know anything for certain. Maybe because the people they admire have always been able to talk and talk and talk and talk about things, then start all over the next day. Maybe they were educated in an environment that rewarded sophistry. Maybe they're still in such an environment.

Maybe I'm wrong about all this.


The picture of ashen gray

There is only one thing in the world worse than wanting to share your opinion about something, only to discover your opinion is ignorant, shallow, and barely even coherent. And that is to discover your opinion is ignorant, shallow, and barely even coherent just after you've shared it.


Friday, August 15, 2008

Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell in unity

The Democratic Party's 2008 draft platform includes a four-sentence section titled "Choice":

Sentence #SentenceGravely Evil?
1The Democratic Party strongly and unequivocally supports Roe v Wade and a woman's right to choose a safe and legal abortion, regardless of ability to pay, and we oppose any and all efforts to weaken or undermine that right.Yes
2The Democratic Party also strongly supports affordable family planning services and comprehensive age-appropriate sex education which empowers people to make informed choices and live healthy lives.Yes
3We also recognize that such health care and education help reduce the number of unintended pregnancies and thereby also reduce the need for abortion.Yes
4The Democratic Party also strongly supports a woman's decision to have a child by ensuring access to and availability of programs for pre- and post-natal health care, parenting skills, income support, and caring adoption programs.No

Pro-abortion Democrats are very pleased with this, because unlike several previous Democratic Party platforms it doesn't say abortion should be "rare," and it speaks of "the need for abortion," and the last sentence, while basically irrelevant to the pro-abortion position, might help their pro-abortion candidates get elected.

Pro-life Democrats are also pleased, because it ... er, has the words "reduce" and "abortion" in the same sentence. And it recognizes the legitimacy of a woman's right to choose "to have a child" -- by which is of course meant, "to give birth to a child," since a woman would hardly choose a safe and legal abortion if she didn't already have a child to abort -- and the Democratic Party is evidently such that its recognition of a woman's right to bear children is considered a sign of progress.

Pro-life Democrats are also pleased because the drafting committee called them and sent them emails during the process of composition. Of course, the pro-abortion side gave up nothing and gained quite a bit, including the esteem of the pro-life side, but what matters is that pro-life Democrats feel like they're accepted into the [strongly and unequivocally pro-abortion] party.

The above reasons are drawn -- or tendentiously caricatured, if you prefer -- from The New Republic's Eric Zimmermann's description of the process by which the section was composed. He calls the result a "compromise."

That seems to be the right word.


Showing my work

In my previous post, I left it as an exercise to the reader to determine whether and why it might be true that
It would take a monstrous god indeed to create a universe in which such an exchange -- my damnation for my brothers' salvation -- were possible.
TSO cautioned that
... the "monstrous god" argument is somewhat slippery because that so often morphs into "any god is monstrous who isn't the way I imagine God to be" (i.e. as in "only a monstrous god would allow Hell/evil/suffering as the coin of the realm, etc...)".
So here's what's monstrous about a god who would accept my damnation for my brothers' salvation:

First, I have in mind a god, along with that god's revelation of salvation and damnation, that is as close as possible to reality. How much, or rather how little, would a god who would accept the damnation-for-salvation offer have to differ from the God Who Is?

Well, the God Who Is is both Justice and Love, and there's nothing either just or loving in being prepared to accept such an offer. Such a god would not particularly will my good, assuming it's good to be saved -- if he did, then it would be a sin for me to offer to be damned. And to punish one person in place of another is not to render to each what is due them (and again, this differs from Christ's sacrifice not least because it deals with eternal life rather than temporal life).

Moreover, how could we reconcile the possibility of damnation-for-salvation with the Two Great Commandments? Only by making loving God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength consistent with separating yourself from Him for all eternity as a means of loving others. If that sort of inversion of the commandments is possible, do we really have a god lovable enough to warrant loving him as the greatest commandment?

For that matter, the second greatest commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself, and damning yourself for your neighbor is loving your neighbor even more -- unless, again, damnation is good for you, and I don't think even the staunchest double-predestinarian would say it's blessed to be damned for loving God and your neighbor.

And what would be the practical effect of the damnation-for-salvation possibility? We would all, each of us individually, be obliged to ask this god to damn us for the sake of our brothers. It would, after all, by assumption be in accord with the god's will and with love of neighbor, so how could we fail to do so?

In sum, we'd have a god that doesn't love us demanding us to love him, then allowing us to do in a way that entail eternal punishment. Unless the whole thing was merely a Catch-22, and whoever offered to be damned was saved and whoever didn't wasn't -- which would be even more perverse.

Which is why I wrote what I wrote.


Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Be careful what you wish for

When St. Paul writes
For I could wish that I myself were accursed and separated from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kin according to the flesh.
I've always understood the curse to be damnation, and the wish an understandable sentiment rather than any sort of suggestion or recommendation for himself or his readers.

It would take a monstrous god indeed to create a universe in which such an exchange -- my damnation for my brothers' salvation -- were possible. For that matter, the salvation itself would be monstrous, to be spent in the company (or at least at the pleasure) of such a god. And, I suppose, the creatures saved would be monsters also, if they could find eternal happiness in such circs.

Here are happy words: Our God is not that way, our universe is not that way, our salvation is not that way, and we are not that way.

Not so happy: we do, I think, tend toward conceiving all these things in those ways.

But we are saved by the New Covenant, not the New Haggle. We are judged, not by weighing our good deeds against our sins, but by weighing Christ's sacrifice against our sins. Eternal life is to know the only true God, not unending enjoyment of earthly pleasures.

And yet... isn't being accursed and separated from God for the sake of His brothers precisely what Jesus did?

You could certainly say He was cursed, but the curse clearly wasn't damnation. And separation from the Father is impossible for the Son, so however you want to think about Holy Saturday, you shouldn't imagine the soul of Jesus helpless and alone in Sheol as the souls of even the just were before the Harrowing. When Jesus said, "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends," He was of course speaking of laying down one's earthly life, not of laying down one's eternal life.

For that matter, it's not clear that St. Paul was referring, even in hyperbole, to his own damnation. A curse whose punishment is separation from Christ -- which, for St. Paul, would be separation from what he desired most -- need not be permanent to be a most dire curse. There are many examples of saints who could be said to have been accursed and separated from Christ during the dark nights of their lives, who thereby gained graces leading to their own salvation, and it seems of many others as well.


Monday, August 11, 2008

Bad language

Among the sad debasements of its inherited culture our society has engaged in is, I think, the sad debasement of the word "virgin."

It's not just that virginity past a certain too-young age is seen as something shameful. It's not just that virginity is generally understood in a purely negative sense (much like "laity"). These things, I suspect, have been with us for a long time.

But the word "virgin" seems to be used, with increasing frequency, to mean "someone who does something for the first time." And when "virgin" means "someone who won't be a virgin tomorrow," when virginity is by definition temporary and in the process of being disposed of, then you simply can't have a culture that comprehends, much less honors, virginity.

Which means, among other things, you simply can't have a culture that comprehends, much less honors, religious life. (Or, for that matter, childhood.)