instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Pretending to be baffled by pretense

I wouldn't say it's disappointing that Mary Kochan calls Cardinal Rigali's statement, "It is very disappointing that President Obama has reversed the Mexico City Policy...," disappointing.

As she herself puts it, "when something that you have every reason to expect does occur, that is not a disappointment." And I had every reason to expect that people would complain about Cardinal Rigali's statement, because people always complain about every statement made by or on behalf of the USCCB.

At the same time, we had every reason to expect that Cardinal Rigali's statement -- which we knew would follow Obama's reversal of the Mexico City Policy as surely as we knew the reversal would follow the inauguration -- would be expressed in diplomatic language. And "very disappointing" is strong diplomatic language indeed.

For some reason, though, Kochan pretends otherwise:
From the use of "disappointing" we could infer that the bishops may have been expecting something different. If that is the case, they owe the faithful an explanation of why they were entertaining that expectation. Otherwise it means nothing like what "disappointing" means in the ordinary usage of honest, plain-spoken people.
Yes, I suppose we could knowingly make a patently false inference, but why would we? And yes, the word "disappointing" can imply different things; this is a problem why?

Cardinal Rigali's use of "disappointing" is not the baffling mystery Kochan paints it to be. I think it's time that we -- by "we," I mean not honest, plain-spoken people, but the tiny fraction of Catholics who read USCCB statements -- stop pretending that we expect USCCB statements to be indistinguishable from fiery sermons, and simply admit, honestly and plain-spokenly, that we just want them to be fiery sermons (by "we" I mean the people who want USCCB statements to be firey sermons). Then we can move on to the question of whether we should want that.

(Link via Catholic and Enjoying It!.)


Wednesday, January 21, 2009

A perfect ending

Comments on the "Future Perfect" post show the close relationship -- grammatically, at least -- between the ideas of temporal completion (called "end" when its at home) and perfection:
  • In Greek, telos means "end" while the related verbs teleo and teleio mean (according to one source) "to complete; to discharge (a debt)" and "to make perfect, succeed fully," respectively.
  • The verb "to consummate" means both "to finish" and "to make perfect."
  • The verb "to complete" means both "to bring to an end" and "to make whole or perfect."
  • In grammar, the "perfect tense" was or will be completed.
Human beings are not created in a state of perfection. Physically speaking, we start off as single cells and take years to fully develop. Spiritual perfection entails not only the state of loving God perfectly, but the act of done -- that is, of having accomplished (expressed in perfect tense!) -- the will of the Father.

That spiritual perfection requires not merely doing, but having done, the Father's will is indicated by Hebrews 5:9's "when He was made perfect," but I think it also makes sense from the fact that humans are ineluctably temporal creatures. As temporal creatures, we change through temporal processes, and it makes no sense to say we are perfect while we are still engaged in the process of becoming> perfect.

That said, it's also true that at any given point in time, we can only have done what the Father wills us to have done by that point in time. We can, then, be as whole as possible before we are finished doing God's will. In this sense -- whole but unfinished -- we can say Jesus was perfect before His death and resurrection. In this sense, I think, we can understand His command to be perfect.


Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Pronoun trouble

Someone left a pro-abortion comment at Practicing Catholic that includes this statement:
What you consider to be "human", some of us don't.
Without getting into the arguments, I was struck by the result of correcting the grammar, according to the prescription that "who" is used for humans:
Whom you consider to be "human", some of us don't.
The difference in pronoun sums up much (though, sad to say, not all) of the debate over abortion. The corrected version sums up much of why the pro-life side continues to care.


Monday, January 19, 2009

Future perfect

Sometimes I really wish I knew what I was talking about.

Like now, for example. I find that the Greek word translated as "perfect" in Hebrews 5:9:
and when [Christ] was made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him
is the same Greek word translated (twice) as "perfect" in Matthew 5:48:
So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.
That Greek word can be transliterated as teleios, and for all I know it's related to telos, meaning "end." In any case, I can probably get away with saying that the telos of the Incarnation was (in part) Christ's teleios in His death and resurrection.

What does it mean for us, though, who are called to be teleios as the Father is teleios, if Christ Himself didn't become teleios until His death?

I don't know. But in context, Jesus' command suggests that perfection lies in loving those who are bad as well as those who are good. The Father does it as creator and first cause (or, in a word, as Father), Christ did it on the Cross, and we do it by uniting ourselves with the Crucified One.


Cardinal virtues

As I've often said, football really is a silly game.

And yes, I really have often said it. Why, I must've said it a dozen times last night and this morning alone, to say nothing of how often I said it in November.


Friday, January 16, 2009

Uncle Fred meets Father Brown

I recently read The Masterful Monk, a completely outrageous novel from the 1920s by the English Catholic convert and priest Owen Francis Dudley. The book was written in response to the anti-Catholic, pseudo-scientific amoralists of the day, who -- like the anti-Catholic, pseudo-scientific amoralists of our day -- claimed Christianity (meaning the Roman Catholic Church) was the chief cause of misery in Christendom.

The speeches in the book -- one by a biologist arguing that Christianity is nothing but superstition and habit, another by a monk who shows the weakness of his arguments even from a scientific and secular perspective -- could, for the most part, have been given last month. In fact, they probably were, in dozens of college auditoriums and thousands of living rooms rather than broadcast on the wireless live across England.

Fr. Dudley's got his dogma squared away; what makes the book completely outrageous is the plot he devised to propound it. Allow me to spoil it for you:

The villainous biologist is not merely an apostate Catholic calling for free love and state-governed birth control. He's also a murderous lunatic, and a member of a secret organization dedicated to the overthrow of the Catholic Church.

The masterful monk is not only an accomplished apologist for the Faith and reader of hearts. He's also a medical doctor who happens to have saved the life of the villainous biologist back in the War, and to have independent knowledge of a secret organization dedicated to the overthrow of the Catholic Church.

You expect the heroine in these stories to be beautiful. To make her so beautiful that her nickname is literally "Beauty" is to ask a lot of the reader.

And the whole thing is as mannered as dammit. This character wants to tell that character something, but they daren't until that character comes to see something for themselves. If everyone just answered the questions they are asked instead of saying, "I shall tell you, but not yet," the whole thing would be wrapped up at least half a year and fifty pages sooner.

What's most striking, though, isn't the Edwardian romanticism or the uncut didacticism or the grace pies that keep hitting characters in the face, but how big of a deal being Catholic is to the characters. The Catholic characters lived their lives differently (if not always believably so) because they were Catholics, and that difference mattered to both themselves and to others.

As Pope Benedict XVI put it, "The one who has hope lives differently." If Catholics today don't live differently, is that a sign of indifferentism?

There was also a good line about how people say they find the idea of a religious duty to God incredible, when what they really mean is it's inconvenient.


Friday, January 09, 2009

Who's adding nothing?

This is last year's news, but Ad Saeculum recently commented on a piece of commentary by Steven Pinker which disparages references to human dignity in bioethics. According to Pinker:
The problem is that "dignity" is a squishy, subjective notion, hardly up to the heavyweight moral demands assigned to it. The bioethicist Ruth Macklin, who had been fed up with loose talk about dignity intended to squelch research and therapy, threw down the gauntlet in a 2003 editorial, "Dignity Is a Useless Concept." Macklin argued that bioethics has done just fine with the principle of personal autonomy--the idea that, because all humans have the same minimum capacity to suffer, prosper, reason, and choose, no human has the right to impinge on the life, body, or freedom of another. This is why informed consent serves as the bedrock of ethical research and practice, and it clearly rules out the kinds of abuses that led to the birth of bioethics in the first place, such as Mengele's sadistic pseudoexperiments in Nazi Germany and the withholding of treatment to indigent black patients in the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study. Once you recognize the principle of autonomy, Macklin argued, "dignity" adds nothing.
There are many problems with preferring "autonomy" to "dignity" as the basis for bioethics, and Br. Robert mentions some of them in his blog post. Here, I'll limit myself to pointing out one of them:

Pinker's above-quoted conclusion -- that dignity adds nothing to autonomy -- is objectively, demonstrably, you could even say trivially, false.

Personal autonomy, according to Pinker, is "the idea that ... no human has the right to impinge on the life, body, or freedom of another." It is, therefore, a negative characteristic. I don't have the right to do certain things to you.

Dignity, on the other hand, is a positive characteristic. Personal dignity imposes positive obligations on other persons. Your autonomy prevents me from doing things to you, but your dignity compels me to do things for you.

In the most straightforward and literal sense, dignity does add something to autonomy. It adds a duty of commission.

It adds something else, too, if I may step a little past my pledge above to limit myself to one problem with Pinker's position. It adds bounds on informed consent.

According to Pinker, the utility of the principle of personal autonomy "is why informed consent serves as the bedrock of ethical research and practice." But the principle of personal dignity also produces a concept of informed consent -- a different concept, in fact, which again demonstrates the falsehood of the "dignity adds nothing" claim.*

The difference is this: If humans have personal dignity, then informed consent is not in itself sufficient to make research and practice ethical. My reason and choice are how I exercise my autonomy, so any choice I reason my way to cannot compromise my autonomy.

Personal dignity, on the other hand, may be a quality I have because of my reason and will, but it's not exercised through them. (It's not really exercised at all.) So I can reason my way to a choice that is contrary to my personal dignity. If ethics are based on personal dignity, then, I can give informed consent to unethical research and practice, something I can't do if ethics are based on personal autonomy.

* If the intent is to develop a myth which explains why things are the way they are in bioethics, then I suppose Pinker's argument against dignity holds. If humans have dignity, then an autonomy-based bioethics is insufficient, so if an autonomy-based bioethics has to be held to be sufficient, then humans have to be held without dignity.