instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Nothing beats the classics

A man dies and goes to hell. As he's being shown around by a devil, they pass a sign that says, "QUIET PLEASE," in front of a huge, windowless building.

"What's that?" the man asks.

The devil answers, "Oh, that's where we put the Catholics who think they're the only ones in heaven."


Condemned to repeat

At, journalist Tom Ricks wrote:
I think that invading Iraq preemptively on false premises, at the time that we already were at war elsewhere, was probably the biggest mistake in the history of American foreign policy. Everything we do in Iraq is the fruit of that poisoned tree.

But I think also that there are no good answers in Iraq, just less bad ones. I think staying in Iraq is immoral, but I think leaving immediately would be even more so, because of the risk it runs of leaving Iraq to a civil war that could go regional.
Now, it's impossible for circumstances to be such that any act you can choose is immoral, so Ricks is necessarily mistaken in representing the circumstances as a choice between immorally staying in Iraq and immorally leaving Iraq.

But it's not a particularly baffling mistake. If the U.S. invaded Iraq preemptively on false premises, then the ongoing U.S. presence in Iraq is substantially different, as a matter of distributive justice, than the ongoing U.S. presence in, say, Alaska. Surely Ricks's "I think staying in Iraq is immoral" encompasses this meaning.

This position -- that the U.S. was wrong to invade Iraq in 2003, and would now be wrong to leave precipitously -- also happens to have been shared by Pope John Paul II.

Keith Pavlischek of First Things has opened fire on Ricks for his words I've quoted above. Pavlischek repeatedly calls Ricks's words "ludicrous," and mocks them as Ricks's "little contribution to moral theory."

Ricks responds by asking:
How does he think that invading a country pre-emptively on false premises meets Aquinas' second condition ("Secondly, a just cause is required, namely that those who are attacked, should be attacked because they deserve it on account of some fault....")?
Pavlischek replies:
The first thing to observe about Ricks' question is that it is not exactly on point with regard to my post or what Peter Wehner wrote.

My comments were focused on Ricks' assertion that continued deployment of U.S. forces in Iraq was "immoral."
Fair enough, although as I implied above I think Pavlischek reads too much into what Ricks wrote and makes no attempt to understand it in the terms Ricks intended.

Unfortunately, Pavlischek goes on to argue that the answer to Ricks's question about pre-emptive war under false pretenses meeting Aquinas's second condition is yes.

I say "unfortunately" for several reasons:
  1. Pavlischek titled his first post "Thomas Ricks vs. Thomas Aquinas," and opened it by quoting ST II-II, 40, 1. This is an odd choice, because while St. Thomas is of course a major figure in the development of just war doctrine, he is by no means the final word. The Catechism lists four "strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force," and these are in significant ways different from St. Thomas's three necessary conditions. Pavlischek does allude to these, but his story remains that of a bumpkin journalist trying to take on the Common Doctor of the Church.
  2. Following on that, the bishops of the Church have made it pretty clear since 2002 that "pre-emptive war" is unjust. If St. Thomas would disagree, so much the worse for St. Thomas.
  3. In the event, Pavlischek doesn't offer an argument that St. Thomas would agree that a pre-emptive war is unjust. He offers an argument that the invasion of Iraq was not conducted under false premises, an argument about particulars that cannot credibly be represented as St. Thomas vs. anyone.
  4. To defend the invasion of Iraq, Pavlischek -- indeed, anyone who wants to defend it -- has to defend two doubtful positions in a way that looks very much like special pleading: first, that if what is subjectively judged to be a just cause is not, objectively, a just cause, then the war is still just; second, that as long as at least one cause you've mentioned for the invasion is just, then the war is just. These are arguments I'd prefer, on balance, not be associated with St. Thomas.


Monday, March 30, 2009

We have found the Messiah

You'd think by now I'd know what a Christian is.

My working definition of the noun "Christian" is, "A person who believes that Jesus is God." That, as you'll notice, implies a certain level of orthodoxy (in the words of Deacon Payne, "You profess Chalcedon, or you take a beatin'"), because I think it's useful to distinguish the Christian Faith from "Jesus was a wise teacher" syncretism.

But, ever since those early days at Antioch, we have been called "Christians," not "Jesusians." And while Jesus is Christ is Jesus, "Jesus" is His Name and "Christ" is His title. "Christ," of course, is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew title "Messiah" -- the English equivalent is "Anointed" -- and as a title it signifies the union of priest, prophet, and king in the one person through whom God would fulfill His promises to Israel.

As things turned out, that one person is a divine Person. But again, we aren't called "Trinitarians." We are called "Christians" because the Second Person of the Trinity, the Only-Begotten Son of God, Jesus of Nazareth, we profess not as a Person but as the Christ. (We profess Him as a Person too, obviously, but that fact isn't why we're called "Christians.")


So it is through the Christ that God saves the world. Being saved by God is not something that interests only professed Christians and Jews. It's something that interests everyone. The promise of divine salvation, of living forever with God, was made to a particular nation, and fulfilled by a particular individual, but it is extended without particularity to all.

And it is a promise hoped for by all. Everyone wants God to have promised to save them. Everyone awaits the Christ. It's not a Judeo-Christian thing, it's not even a monotheistic thing. It's a human thing.

Our message of evangelization, then, isn't, "Jesus of Nazareth is God." So what if He is? How will that affect people who already know that God is God?

Our message is, "Jesus of Nazareth is God's Christ." And everyone knows what to do when you meet the Christ.


Sunday, March 29, 2009

Not all alternatives are valid alternatives

Reiki has always struck me as a bit dodgy -- or, to use a term from the mysterious East, as a bit ho ki -- and I've never had its utility in evangelization explained to me. So I don't see why it should be so popular among, ah, "ministerial" women's religious congregations, and I'm not sorry to read, in the USCCB's Committee on Doctrine's "Guidelines for Evaluating Reiki as an Alternative Therapy":
Since Reiki therapy is not compatible with either Christian teaching or scientific evidence, it would be inappropriate for Catholic institutions, such as Catholic health care facilities and retreat centers, or persons representing the Church, such as Catholic chaplains, to promote or to provide support for Reiki therapy.
As you'd expect from a committee on doctrine, most of the document deals with the incompatibility with Christian teaching. Reiki's incompatibility with scientific evidence is largely established with the observation:
Reputable scientific studies attesting to the efficacy of Reiki are lacking, as is a plausible scientific explanation as to how it could possibly be efficacious.
The problem seems to be that the mechanism said to underlie Reiki is a "universal life energy" for which, on the one hand, there is no physical evidence or explanation and, on the other hand, there is no shortage of advocates of a spiritual explanation -- which takes us back to the incompatibility with Christian teaching.

I think it would be helpful for the USCCB -- maybe through the Committee on Doctrine, maybe through some other means -- to give a more general teaching on alternative therapies, which more or less by definition (as Bill Logan pointed out in a comment at Via Media) want for reputable scientific studies. I think Bill goes too far in writing of "too great a degree of scientism" in the document, though, because I think there is more that can be said about alternative therapies used in Catholic settings than a categorical "wouldn't be prudent."

Maybe not too much more, though, since quite a few of the alternative therapies in actual use seem to come with a built-in pseudo-mysticism. Finally, there are the wise words of St. Augustine, who in his Literal Interpretation of Genesis cautions:
It is too disgraceful and ruinous, though, and greatly to be avoided, that [the non-Christian] should hear a Christian speaking so idiotically on [scientific] matters, and as if in accord with Christian writings, that he might say that he could scarcely keep from laughing when he saw how totally in error they are.
Link to USCCB document via Via Media.


Saturday, March 28, 2009

A teaching moment

I do find it intriguing, though, that the critics of the Obama column were more offended by my writing than the fact that the President is using their tax dollars to destroy unborn children. (And now to engage in the destruction of human embryos in stem cell research.) But it still seems to me that if the President's anti-life actions don't stir up moral outrage in you, nothing will; if they don't offend your conscience, you need a conscience transplant, my friend.
-- Thomas J. Tobin, Bishop of Providence
Being more offended by words criticizing grave evil than by the grave evil itself is something I've commented on myself, in terms that were not particularly nice. But I'm a private blogger, not a bishop of Providence.

Bishop Tobin is using some strong, decidedly un-nice words here. "You need a conscience transplant, my friend," would clear the street of townsfolk if this were a Western.

Those who in the past have criticized bishops who were un-nice toward apologists for politicians who formally cooperate with the enormity of abortion certainly have grounds to criticize Bishop Tobin for this. Or, more precisely, they have the same grounds to criticize Bishop Tobin for this that they had for their past criticisms.

And what are those grounds?

I've seen a few premises offered. One is that criticizing Democratic politicians makes it easy "to dismiss some of our most outspoken prelates as Republican party operatives when they speak on the life issues," to quote Prof. Cathleen Kaveny, a theology and law professor at Notre Dame. I have more to say about the speciousness of this charge, but here I'll just say that it sounds pretty hollow in the mouth of a Democratic party operative like Prof. Kaveny.

Another, equally specious, premise is that positions like Bishop Tobin's represent a minority opinion in the Church, and so should not be put forward as Catholic teaching. This premise (which has "not a one-issue Church" and "out of touch with Catholicism today" variants) simply dispenses with the whole notion of the teaching office of the bishop. He becomes no longer an overseer, an episcopus, but a spokesman or a facilitator who solicits the opinion of his flock and reports it back to them. (I might add that dispensing with the whole notion of the teaching office of the bishop is not always an unintended implication by those who offer this premise.)

A third premise is the "honey vs. vinegar" principle (and its relation, "don't quench a smoldering wick"). On this reading, telling someone he needs a conscience transplant is imprudent, because few people will respond with, "Yes, you're right, I see now that I was wrong before."

But I don't think that one applies in this case. If the President's anti-life actions don’t offend your conscience, you do need a conscience transplant, in the sense that you can't tell right from wrong (on this point, at least). Bishop Tobin isn't saying that a Catholic can't be a Democrat, or that it was sinful to vote for Obama, or even that it's immoral to like the President. He's saying that "the fact that the President is using their tax dollars to destroy unborn children [and] to engage in the destruction of human embryos in stem cell research" are morally outrageous and offensive -- and as a matter of simple, objective fact, they are.

Bishop Tobin is speaking to people who need to re-form their consciences according to the Church's teachings. And the Church's teachers are, not Democratic sophists, still less those who deny (implicitly or explicitly) that there even is a teaching office in the Church, but the bishops.

The bishops could not be clearer in teaching that abortion is gravely evil. Anyone who doesn't get that by now has long since abandoned the Catholic doctrine of the Magisterium and isn't going to be talked back into the faith with honeyed words in a diocesan newspaper.

Link via The Catholic Key Blog.


Friday, March 27, 2009

A Dominican heart, but Antonian arteries

A Friday in Lent isn't the best time for this, but I did want to point out that Archie McPhee sells a statuette of St. Anthony under the (unofficial) title of Patron Saint of Bacon.

The invocation they provide "to assist with the enjoyment of quality bacon" doesn't seem to be approved for liturgical use:
O wonderous St. Anthony, please bless me with an abundance of quality bacon and grant me the patience and timing to properly fry each glorious strip.
Link via Holy Weblog!


Thursday, March 26, 2009

A painful duty

I hate to do this, but some things can't be passed over in silence.

My own bishop, Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl of Washington, opens his most recent column for the archdiocesan newspaper with these words:
Only in story books do people live "happily ever after." The much more sobering and sad fact of real life is that we all make mistakes. None of us are perfect. We do not always live as we should. Each one of us can recognize in our lives moments of joy and sorrow, occasions of great acceptance and accomplishment as well as times of rejection and frustration. We are capable of marvelously good actions and we know that we also sin. We do not live happily ever after.
With all due respect, your Excellency, it should be, "None of us is perfect."



The role of a priest in a religion is to mediate between the people and the divine. In particular, priests offer whatever sacrifices the religion prescribes be offered on behalf of the people.

In more particular, the Christian religion prescribes the offering of the Eucharist, which is (naturally (and supernaturally)) offered by a priest. (Of course, many Christians don't believe this, which is why they belong to Christian bodies that don't have priests.)

The first precept of the Catholic Church is, "You shall attend [audire, 'listen to'; more 'be attentive to' than 'be present at'] Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation and rest from servile labor."

As all good Catholics know, during Mass the priest acts "in persona Christi," in the person of Christ. And since Christ is both priest (the one offering the sacrifice) and victim (the one offered as sacrifice), so too the priest is to both priest (by offering Christ to the Father) and victim (by offering himself to the Father in participation with Christ's own sacrifice).

And the layfolk in the pews, auditing the priest's actions, are themselves priests of God by their baptism. In their full, conscious, and active participation in the Mass, they not only join in the [ordained] priest's offering of Christ to the Father, but in the [ordained] priest's offering of himself, which they do by offering themselves to the Father, in and with and through Christ.

If the priestly vocations crisis is in simplest terms one of too few laymen stepping forward to fulfill the role of the ordained priesthood, then there might also be a less visible lay vocations crisis with too few laymen (and laywomen) stepping forward to fulfill the role of the common priesthood.


Weak truth beats strong error

The prudent discussion of contending ideas by people seeking the truth is a good thing.

Granted, that's a weak statement, since by definition of "prudent" any prudent action is a good thing, but you got to start somewhere.

Starting from this weak truth, people wind up at all sorts of strong falsehoods.

One strong falsehood that's commonly held is that such discussion is good for its own sake -- that it's a virtuous good, to use the old terminology. In fact, it's only a useful good, a means to an end that is itself a different good.

The prudent discussion of contending ideas by people seeking the truth is good because it is a means for people to actually attain, and thereby to possess, the truth, and possessing the truth is a good in itself (even a participation in man's final and perfect happiness).

And once the prudent discussion of contending ideas by people seeking the truth is regarded as good for its own sake, it's a short trip to the disastrous falsehood that the civil discussion of contending ideas is good for its own sake.

Among the disasters this falsehood visits on those who hold it is this: that someone who engages in civil discussion of contending ideas is seeking the truth.

Add to that misinference the true premise that one who is seeking the truth is open to finding the truth, and you come to the unsound conclusion that someone who engages in civil discussion of contending ideas is open to finding the truth -- which simply reinforces the error that engaging in civil discussion of contending ideas is inherently good.

To stick with the truth of my opening statement, you need to stick with both the "prudent" part of "prudent discussion" and the "seeking the truth" part of "people seeking the truth."


Wednesday, March 25, 2009

"Be it done to me according to thy word"

Saying yes to God seems to bring unimagined sorrows and unimaginable joys.

Personally, though, all I seem to focus on are the sorrows and joys I imagine.


Lies, damned lies, and irony

There's a certain kind of rhetorical irony that has been getting on my nerves of late.

It's the kind that says, "I await your apology," when, not only is the speaker not awaiting an apology, but even if an apology came he wouldn't accept it.

It's the kind that says, "I wonder why she would do something like that," when, not only does the speaker not wonder why she would do something like that, but he wouldn't even listen to a possible reason if one different from the one he's already decided upon were offered.

It's the kind that declares victory and goes home, using words whose literal meaning invites further discussion.


Tuesday, March 24, 2009

I can't contend the following

[without someone to tend against.]

A lot of the contention within the Church in the United States is due to differences of opinion regarding the relative importance of issues.

If, for example, two people choose different priorities from this list:
  • You can go to hell for supporting abortion.
  • You can go to hell for reasons other than supporting abortion.
  • Many Catholics seem to forget that you can go to hell for supporting abortion.
  • Many Catholics seem to forget that you can go to hell for reasons other than supporting abortion.
Then their discussions on politics are likely to be contentious.

Things can get particularly bad if one regards the other's priority as false, and even worse if one regards the other's as false but doesn't admit it.


No sects, please, we're Americanized

I don't consider Notre Dame's decision to give President Obama an honorary degree to be my problem.

Still, I can't quite make sense out of Margaret O'Brien Steinfels response to Amy Welborn's suggestion that "Catholic universities cut the cord with politicians completely":
The Catholic Church is a Church, not a sect. Perhaps it is becoming a sect; Amy Wellborn's proposal to keep politicians away would certainly encourage that unfortunate tendency.
I don't know of any meaning of the word "sect" for which the statement
Keeping politicians away from commencements at Catholic universities would certainly encourage the tendency of the Catholic Church becoming a sect.
is true and the statement
The custom of wearing religious medals would certainly encourage the tendency of the Catholic Church becoming a sect.
is false. But she was clearly intending to criticize Amy's proposal. What, then, does Ms. O'Brien Steinfels mean?

UPDATE: Having followed a link provided by Rodak, I now wonder whether she had in mind something like Max Weber's church-sect typology, according to [Wikipedia's explanation of] which,
Sects are newly formed religious groups that form to protest elements of their parent religion... Their motivation tends to be situated in accusations of apostasy or heresy in the parent denomination; they are often decrying liberal trends in denominational development and advocating a return to true religion.
Accusations of apostasy or heresy, decrying liberal trends, advocating a return to true religion: Yeah, we got that.

This reading is still problematic, though, since it requires a "parent denomination" distinct from and concurrent with the sect, and I'm not sure what that would be.


Monday, March 23, 2009

A word on fasting

In his Institutes, St. John Cassian closes his book on fasting and abstinence with this saying of the blessed monk Macarius:
He said then that a monk ought to bestow attention on his fasts, just as if he were going to remain in the flesh for a hundred years; and to curb the motions of the soul, and to forget injuries, and to loathe sadness, and despise sorrows and losses, as if he were daily at the point of death.
The monk is to treat some things, like regulating his fasts, as though he'll live for years, and other things, like passions and injuries, as though he'll die today.

Can we make a complete list of things that are to be treated as though you'll live for years, and another complete list of things that are to be treated as though you'll die today?

I think the lists would look something like this:

Things to be treated as though you'll live for yearsThings to be treated as though you'll die today
Things you treat as though you'll die todayThings you treat as though you'll live for years


Sunday, March 22, 2009

Argumentum ad Pharisaeum

"The Pharisees thought Jesus was wrong. You think I am wrong. Therefore, you're a Pharisee."

A popular, unsound argument.


Saturday, March 21, 2009

A blind date

Here's a paragraph, which I found hilarious but probably wasn't intended to be funny, from the introduction of M. Eugene Boring's book Revelation. Bolding is mine:
Our earliest tradition dates [the Book of] Revelation "near the end of Domitian's reign" (Irenaeus, Against Heresies V.30.3). The emperor Domitian reigned from 81 to 96, so Iraneus' comment places Revelation in 95 or 96. Since such traditions are not always accurate, however, modern scholars have argued for a variety of other dates from as early as the time of Claudius (41-54) to as late as the reign of Trajan (98-117). Most scholars have decided for the time of either Nero (54-68) or Domitian (81-96), with the great majority opting for the latter. Jewish and Christian literature written after the 66-70 war used "Babylon" as a transparent symbol for Rome, since Rome had besieged and destroyed Jerusalem just as the Babylonians had done centuries before (II Kings 25; cf. II Esdras 3:1-2,28-31; II Apoc. Bar. 10:1-3,11:1,67:7; Sib. Or. 5:143, 159; I Peter 5:13). Revelation likewise uses "Babylon" as a transparent symbol for Rome (14:8; chaps. 17-18; cf. esp. 17:18). This practice did not become common until after the destruction of the city and would not have been appropriate before. It is thus among the strongest items of evidence for dating Revelation some time after 70. The commentary [in Boring's book] will indicate that the internal evidence of the book seems to fit best the time advocated by the earliest external tradition, the reign of Domitian. Revelation is thus best understood as a letter written in 96 by John, a Christian prophet, to churches in Asia that he expected would be facing a terrible persecution.
What would we do without modern scholars?

(Yes, yes, we can learn lots of valuable things from modern scholars. But somehow they never seem to want to teach us the value of our earliest traditions.)


Friday, March 20, 2009

Show me a man

In his portrayal of St. Joseph, St. Matthew fulfills one of the rules of good writing: "Show, don't tell."

Even the one spot where he does tell shows us something:
Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame, decided to divorce her quietly.
St. Joseph's devotees have made a great deal out of those words in bold. Here I'll just point out that the immediate result of his righteousness is... a bad decision.

Now, I'm not a man distinguished by righteousness, and I've made some bad decisions in my time. But none of my decisions to date have been so bad that God had to send an angel to correct me.

And yet, that's exactly the point St. Joseph's righteousness and mercy brought him to. So much for his righteousness and mercy.

From that point on, though, all St. Matthew shows of St. Joseph is his prompt action in response to God's instructions, fulfilling both the will of the Lord and the prophecies of the Old Testament. He doesn't have to rely on his own righteousness, and we don't have to rely on St. Matthew's telling us he was righteous.

In a paradox that's been widely commented on, St. Joseph fulfills the will of the Lord so well that nobody noticed it for centuries. He was like a lens that focuses the light so well that all you think about is where the light is focused -- which, after all, is the purpose of the lens -- and only much later does it occur to you that all the light didn't get on that spot by itself.

All the honor of each of St. Joseph's virtuous deeds recorded in St. Matthew's Gospel comes from and returns to God. But, per the previous post, acts directed to the honor of God are acts of religion.

Joseph most religious, pray for us.


Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Religious habit

For St. Thomas, the virtue of religion is the habit of paying due honor to God.

One objection he considers to this definition is that religion does not order to God alone, since as James 1:27 says:
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
Doesn't religion therefore order one to both one's neighbors and to oneself?

St. Thomas answers this objection this way:
Religion has two kinds of acts. Some are its proper and immediate acts, which it elicits, and by which man is directed to God alone, for instance, sacrifice, adoration and the like. But it has other acts, which it produces through the medium of the virtues which it commands, directing them to the honor of God, because the virtue which is concerned with the end, commands the virtues which are concerned with the means.
Suppose this is correct, that through the virtue of religion you can honor God either directly (by sacrifice, adoration, and the like) or indirectly (by directing other good acts to the honor of God).

Would it follow that you do not have the virtue of religion -- "the chief of the moral virtues," says St. Thomas -- if you do not perform both kinds of acts?


A ridiculous post

I used to say that if something is ridiculous, go ahead and ridicule it.

Now I think that a thing being ridiculous is not in itself sufficient to justify ridiculing it.

Ridicule is a rhetorical poison -- and I mean that in a literal, if analogous, sense. Just as a physical poison is administered in order to kill a physical creature, so is a rhetorical poison administered in order to kill an idea (e.g., a proposition or a principle). In particular, ridicule kills ideas by stripping them of respect.

The death of some thing -- be it a dangerous animal or a dangerous idea -- may well serve the common good, but it does not follow directly that I may then cause its death. As with any human act, administering poison may be done only in accord with right reason.

In what ways can administering poison be contrary to right reason? It can be administered to a thing that ought not be poisoned. It can be administered by a person who ought not poison. And a person who may poison a thing can do it wrong, by e.g. using too much poison, or too little, or too carelessly.

If an idea is genuinely ridiculous -- by which I mean worthy of being stripped of respect, or simply unworthy of respect -- then by definition it's objectively worth being ridiculed, and the question becomes, when is it in accord with reason for me personally to poison a ridiculous idea with ridicule.

It's not reasonably to poison a dead thing, so in particular it's not reasonable to ridicule an idea that already has no respect. I'd add that, since poison is too dangerous to be used unnecessarily, it's not reasonable to ridicule an idea that is already dying anyway. (Although I suppose it's reasonable to watch out for ideas that are (or are tending toward being) only mostly dead.)

This leaves us with the case of a ridiculous idea that has some vitality to it. Here I think we need to judge whether ridicule as a means will achieve the end of killing the ridiculous idea without inflicting disproportionate injury on other ideas (for example, the good names of those who favor the ridiculous idea; even my own good name could be injured if I misuse ridicule).

And here, I think, a lot of people judge their acts of ridicule, not according to the end of poisoning an idea, but according to the ends of entertainment or of personal satisfaction (an unacknowledged daughter of vainglory), and either judgment is counter to reason.

(And yes, this line of thought is related to, and something of a development of, my ill-received posts on irony from one year ago.)


Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Biased news

The Parable of the Wicked Servant presents a view of Jesus' heavenly Father that doesn't sit well with today's universalistic outlook. Jesus concludes the parable, and adds a moral:
"Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt.

"So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives his brother from his heart."
The NAB adds this helpful note:
Since the debt is so great as to be unpayable, the punishment will be endless.
But this story of God handing over a soul to eternal torment is really -- both actually and extremely -- good news!

We are all debtors to God who owe Him a debt we have no way of paying back. Unlike temporal debt, though, it isn't the magnitude of the debt that makes it "so great as to be unpayable." If the debt were merely a hundred million billion trillion times more than we could pay, then once we paid all we could a hundred million billion trillion times, we'd be debt free.

Rather, it's the kind of debt, the disobedience of a creature towards its Creator, that makes it unpayable. Not only can we creatures not pay God back "in full," as the wicked servant promises his king, we can't pay back any of it; there's no currency (or good or service) good for debts of creaturely disobedience.

But see what the parable says:
Moved with compassion the master of that servant let him go and forgave him the loan.
There's only one way we can get out of debt: if God forgives us. Guess what: God forgives us.


Granted, we have to ask Him to forgive us, and we have to mean it, but those are minor details before the great truth that God forgives us.

If this parable is such good news, why does it end with the servant being handed over to the torturers? I suppose because of the impiety of the question which led to Jesus telling the parable. For a disciple of the Son of God to limit himself to forgiving seven times is to profess that God's own forgiveness is finite. Jesus showed Peter what his concept of limited forgiveness looks like when you're playing for keeps.


Monday, March 16, 2009

Will power

The homily I heard this morning drew a subtle point out of the story of Naaman the leper: the slaves and servants had more faith than the king and the general.

The homilist suggested this might be because slaves and servants, those with no standing in society, have no standing to lose by confessing faith in God.

Since I was (for some reason) already thinking about human and Divine will, I suggested to myself (and now to you) that it might be because slaves and servants, whose will in temporal matters is largely bound by their masters, make more use than their masters of their freedom of will in spiritual matters.

Created out of love, created in order to love, if a person finds that circumstances make it hard to love himself -- that is, to act for his own good -- he may also find they make it easy to love God. We are designed to love, not merely in terms of desire (I want the good) but in terms of effectiveness (I have obtained the good I wanted). A slave's self-love is less effective than his master's, so perhaps as a result his love of God is more effective.


Sunday, March 15, 2009

Unveiling Revelation

I'd been told a while ago that, if I wanted a good contemporary commentary on the Book of Revelation, then I wanted M. Eugene Boring's Revelation. Half a while ago, I got the book, and I'm just now starting to make my way through it.

The sixty-two page introduction is worth the price of the book by itself, especially if you got the book half a while ago and have no memory of how much it cost. The opening paragraphs of the introduction are these:
How can thinking Christians who want to live faithfully and responsibly in our contemporary world hear the word of God in Revelation? The basic information one needs in order to read the Apocalypse with insight and appreciation can be concentrated into two simple sentences which represent the thesis of this commentary.

1. The last "book" of the Bible is a pastoral letter to Christians in Asia in the late first century who were confronted with a critical religiopolitical situation, from a Christian prophet who wrote in apocalyptic language and imagery.

2. Like the Bible in general, there is some difficulty in understanding Revelation, but it can and should be understood, for it has had enormous influence in religion, history, and culture and has an urgently needed message for the contemporary church.
The next sixty-one pages are spent developing the ten theses these two sentences contain.

One of Boring's key theses, without which (in his judgment) you cannot unlock Revelation, is that it is a pastoral letter. It was written to a particular audience to address a particular pastoral situation.

This means, among other things, that its apocalyptic imagery was not intended to be opaque or hermetic. The audience (and Boring emphasizes that the letter was intended to be read during worship, so there was a literal audience) would be familiar with the sort of symbolism John used, and would understand his meaning without resort to obscure codes or implausible logical inferences.

It also means that Revelation is not in its literal sense a vision of the distant future. The particular audience weren't particularly concerned with what might happen in 21st Century America; they were more concerned with their own survival.

Still, Boring gives several reasons why it's worth taking the effort to understand the book, the last but not least of which is that in our own time Christians are confronted with various critical religiopolitical situations, just as those to whom John wrote his letter were. As Boring puts it in the last paragraph of the introduction, "Revelation does not speak about our time, [but] it does speak to it."


Saturday, March 14, 2009

Once upon any time

Jesus was pretty smart, don't you think?

For instance, He often answered criticism from the scribes and Pharisees with parables.

How do you dispute a parable?

You certainly can't interrupt it, the way you might interrupt a logical argument. "Excuse me, but your proposition that there was once a man with two sons isn't true."

The best you can do may be to argue that the parable is a non sequitur, that it doesn't address the question you posed. But that's hard to do when, for example, the parable is told by the Son of God, so not only does it address the question you posed, but it does so in such a deep and mysterious way that you have to go off and grapple with it for a while to craft a meaningful response.

In the meantime, of course, the people listening to your dispute have gone home, retold the parable to their family and friends, concluding with, "Then the scribes and the Pharisees went off muttering to themselves, and this Jesus fellow went to dinner with Levi."

And that points to another wise aspect to answering moral challenges with parables. Imagine the tale the spectators of a learned disquisition would tell. "And then this Jesus fellow quoted Baruch, I can't quite recall what, something about bread, and tied it to the bit in Isaiah where he... no, first was Moses' teaching about leaving gleanings for the poor, but the scribes answered with something from... you know, no one ever said where it was from, but apparently someone once said that the LORD will turn His face away from sinners."

So maybe in an oral culture it wouldn't be quite so piecemeal, but in any culture a story will be easier to remember and repeat than a detailed debate.

Even today, when ninety percent of people think it's impolite for the eighty-five percent of us who are religious to admit it in public, we can tell stories of rich men and foolish women and stones and scorpions. The scribes and Pharisees of secularism can answer that our stories are non sequiturs, but I think we can trust those with ears to hear who's telling the truth.


Thursday, March 12, 2009

Read it and weep

I was just about to go to bed last night when I remembered that I hadn't gotten around to looking at the reading and psalm I was scheduled to lect at this morning's 6:30 Mass.

The piece from Jeremiah didn't look too bad. Cursed is the man etc., etc. Blessed is the man etc., etc. Make sure to say "tortuous," not "torturous."

And, hm, it's "blessed" as in "blest," right? It parallels the "cursed," which is surely "cursed." No "bless-ed" (or "curse-ed") here.

And then the psalm... well, the antiphon is, "Blessed are they who hope in the Lord," which I've got to read as "bless-ed," because nobody says "blest" any more, but dang it, if it's supposed to be "blest" that's just how I'll have to read it.

So... what's the rule again? Which "blessed" is which, and how can you tell?

After about ten minutes, I pull up an old post on this very subject, and am reminded by myself of the following:


So a few more minutes checking the Vulgate (Jeremias has "benedictus vir," Psalm 1 is called "Beatus vir," so my initial inclinations were right), and now I can go to bed....

Except I'm compulsive enough that, having just then noticed that the antiphon isn't from Psalm 1 but from Psalm 40, I just have to double-check that one....

Except that, in the Vulgate, Psalm 40 is Psalm 39 (and it's another "beatus vir").


Wednesday, March 11, 2009

There is only one way to separate politics from science

And that is to separate politicians from scientists.

What connects them is money. If you're not for government defunding all its scientific programs, then you aren't for separating politics from science.


Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Scold everything

Curious about what St. Thomas has to say about scolds -- those who habitually berate the morals and actions of others -- I sought, and I found the following, in an article on "Whether doing good to another is a cause of pleasure":
To contradict and to scold can give pleasure in two ways. First, as making man imagine himself to be wise and excellent; since it belongs to wise men and elders to reprove and to scold. Secondly, in so far as by scolding and reproving, one does good to another: for this gives one pleasure, as stated above.
Since scolds rarely actually do good to another, and aren't much concerned with whether they do, they would seem to scold in order to imagine themselves wise and excellent.

Yet if they were asked, I'd guess many of the most obnoxious scolds would say they are merely admonishing sinners, a corporal act of mercy. Who can say which it is?

Acts of mercy are acts motivated by compassion, which St. Augustine defines as "a fellow-feeling for another's misery, which prompts us to help him if we can."

In my own experience, it is not hard for me to tell whether I am acting out of a fellow-feeling for another's misery (though it's not always easy for me to tell someone else). I suspect it's not hard for most of us, most of the time.

It's probably best not to dispute someone who insists he habitually berates the morals and actions of others out of compassion for them. If he's right, then of course you shouldn't dispute him, and if he's wrong, it's not the sort of error that is easily corrected in resistance to a contradiction.


The God in the nighttime

When I was a Boy Scout, I once attended a camporee at which a priest came to offer Sunday Mass for us Catholics. Another Scout in my troop, a Protestant, watched the thing from a distance and said afterward, "It looked like a cooking show."

"Well, it is a meal," was my answer. (Although I didn't think of the answer for many years.)

Have you ever looked -- I mean, really looked -- at what a priest is holding in his hands as he says the words, "This is My Body," during Mass?

If so, then you've seen something absolutely remarkable.

And no, you don't see the bread become the Body of Christ. You don't see anything happen. There's no instantaneous flash, there's no moment where the bread seems to go a little out of focus, no visual indication of the fabric of time and space opening ever so slightly to let in the Eternal.

You've seen the central act of the source and summit of the Christian life... and you've seen nothing happen.

It's said that the phrase "hocus pocus" comes from the Latin "hoc est Corpus Meum," but no stage magician will be invited back if nothing at all is ever seen to happen when he cries, "Hocus pocus!" Yet so eager are we for priests to say, "Hoc est Corpus Meum," when nothing at all is ever seen to happen that we pray for even more priests.

It's why they call it "faith," of course. But it's also very wise. We don't come to Mass for the spectacle, or the special effects (okay, sometimes bells ring). We come and look at a man speak words over bread and wine. The first time, you might come for the novelty, but a time or two more and you'll realize that all you're ever going to see (I should say, all you can ever count on seeing, because you never know what God might do) is a man speaking words over bread and wine.

And then the question is for you to answer: What do you believe is happening?


Sunday, March 08, 2009

Only the one who sins

In Ezekiel 18, the LORD corrects His people's sense of justice:
Only the one who sins shall die. The son shall not be charged with the guilt of his father, nor shall the father be charged with the guilt of his son. The virtuous man's virtue shall be his own, as the wicked man's wickedness shall be his own.
The Israelites of the time, though, preferred to think that a son ought to be punished for his father's sins. And so God adds:
And yet the house of Israel says, "The LORD'S way is not fair!" Is it my way that is not fair, house of Israel, or rather, is it not that your ways are not fair?

Therefore I will judge you, house of Israel, each one according to his ways, says the Lord GOD. Turn and be converted from all your crimes, that they may be no cause of guilt for you.
I think there are a few things going on here.

First, there's the simple fact of true doctrine being taught to correct a false doctrine. Only the one who sins shall die.

Second, there's an insistence that God's way really is more just than man's way. If you hear yourself grumbling against God, watch out! You're making a mistake.

Third, and following on the second point, you are free to insist that you're right and God is wrong, and to go ahead and live your life that way, but in the end your way will be judged according to God's way.

And here let me presume something about God's mercy. If I accept and believe that God's way is the right way, if I confess that I am trying to make His way my way, then He will be very forgiving toward me on the occasions, many though they be, that I fall from the way. But if I habitually veer from His way, then I am actually following another way, and then I will come under judgment.

Finally, note the message of hope in this chapter. I think too much has been made of the possibility of the virtuous man who "turns away from virtue to commit iniquity, and dies." There are stories, at least, of a time when people were terrified that they could live nearly perfect lives, only to succumb to one mortal temptation in their last hour of life.

But I think the real message here is not that we might be damned, but that we can be saved. The oracle begins with mention of the proverb, "Fathers have eaten green grapes, thus their children's teeth are on edge." The Israelites believed that a man could be condemned by God, not only for his past sins, but for the past sins of his father. And if that were the case, if guilt simply accumulated from one generation to the next, what hope could anyone really have of finding favor with God?

In correcting this false notion of justice, the LORD is telling each of His people that, if they choose, they can be forgiven everything that causes guilt in them.


Friday, March 06, 2009

The signs of Jonah

In Matthew 12, Jesus is asked by "some of the scribes and Pharisees" for a sign. He replies:
"An evil and unfaithful generation seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it except the sign of Jonah the prophet. Just as Jonah was in the belly of the whale three days and three nights, so will the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights. At the judgment, the men of Nineveh will arise with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and there is something greater than Jonah here."
That provides a clear enough definition of what "the sign of Jonah the prophet" is (recognizing the ineffable mystery it refers to).

In two other Gospel passages, though, Jesus mentions "the sign of Jonah," but does not give the belly-of-the-whale interpretation. In the passage from Luke, Jesus says that "Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites." The Ninevites (as far as we know) knew nothing of Jonah's time in the whale; what they did know was his his journey through the city announcing, "Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed."

All this suggests that Jonah the prophet was a type of Jesus in two ways, both in his three days in the belly of the whale and in his journey through Nineveh (a three day journey, although the Ninevites began to fast after just one day). (The Lectionary, in pairing the passage from Luke with the third chapter of Jonah, seems to agree with the suggestion.)

And that suggests a unity of Jesus' own preaching and His death and burial. The sign of Jesus isn't His preaching, although His preaching ought to have been a sufficient sign for the scribes and Pharisees. Nor is the sign of Jesus His three days and three nights in the heart of the earth, although His resurrection ought to have been a sufficient sign for everyone.*

The sign of Jesus is Jesus. And He is sufficient.

* Note that speaking of being in the heart of the earth three days and three nights is equivalent to speaking of resurrection; otherwise we'd have to speak of umpty-thousand days and nights and counting.)


Thursday, March 05, 2009

Religious Life is a rum thing

In trying to write a post, or even just leave a comment on another blog, about the Apostolic Visitation of Institutes of Women Religious in the United States and the now-famous email response to it from Sr. Sandra Schneiders, IHM, I find that I have a lot of thoughts and opinions about institutes of women religious in the United States, almost none of which would be helpful to share publicly (or, for that matter, touch on any of my problems).

So I'll settle for making two comments.

First, I'd remind both sides, those who oppose the visitation and those who oppose the opposition, of the wisdom of Gamaliel:
...if this endeavor or this activity is of human origin, it will destroy itself. But if it comes from God, you will not be able to destroy them; you may even find yourselves fighting against God.
Second, I would challenge this statement in Sr. Sandra's email:
We are not after [i.e., out to get] them.
The "we" are the "LCWR-type Congregations" and the "them" are the CMSWR-type Congregations. Sr. Sandra understands the distinction as being based on whether a Congregation is. to quote canon law, "dedicated to works of the apostolate." (I agree there's a distinction to be made based on a Congregation's self-understanding of its purpose, though I don't think I fully agree with the distinction as she draws it.)

I think the claim that "LCWR-type" Congregations are not out to get the "CMSWR-type" Congregations is true in one sense. As far as I know, the "ministerial" Congregations are not trying to interfere with the internal workings of the "apostolic" Congregations.

In a broader sense, though, it's disingenuous for Sr. Sandra and her supporters to lay claim to any sort of "live and let live" philosophy in the Church. LCWR-type Congregations are extremely active, often to the point of aggression, in pursuing their own ends within the hierarchical Church. It shows in the makeup of all kinds of boards, committees, and staffing, at all levels of the Church. In these forums, LCWR-type Sisters are quite as likely to be as authoritarian and unyielding -- to be, in Sr. Sandra's words, "convinced they are right and can only be right if people not like them are wrong" -- as anyone else.

In the Dominican Family in the United States, which has both LCWR-type and CMSWR-type Congregations of Sisters, it is the LCWR-type Sisters who enforce their own style of orthodoxy in inter-family venues, to the point where Family members who don't share their views often choose to simply avoid the venues. (I would cite DomLife as a not very explosive example of that.)

So while the LCWR-type Congregations may be copacetic with the existence and operation of the CMSWR-type Congregations, the former are by no means characterized by a tolerance for diversity not found among the latter.

A key qualification: If self-righteousness authoritarianism is common enough among LCWR-type Congregations, it is by no means universal -- nor is it a necessary component of a "ministerial" form of religious life. Self-righteous authoritarians naturally gravitate to venues where they can impose their wills on others (well, and also Blogspot), but the loudest voices aren't always the best measure of the way of life from which those voices come.


Rated R

Well, I did it. I'm in the club.

Once every couple of years, I'm dragooned as an extraordinary lector at an off-hours Mass. This time, I was scheduled for today's 6:30 am Mass, and had a chance yesterday to read through my part.

The First Reading (from Esther) was straightforward enough. My real concern was the Responsorial Psalm. I do not like the "okay, tenors, let's get some volume now" gesture used to cue the congregation that it's time to repeat the antiphon, and I have found that
If you end the first line on an upward pitch,
And the second line on a downward one,
Giving it sort of a spoken chanted tone,
They know when you're done with the verse.
That works fine with four-line verses, but as you can see today's Responsorial Psalm has two five-line verses,
And with odd-lined verses you sort of have —
   To hold the first line at a constant pitch.
Then go up and down with the second and third lines.
So that's what was on my mind as I approached the lectern.

Then I heard myself proclaim, "Queen Esther, seized with mortal anguish, had recourse to the LORD. She lay prostate upon the ground...."


Tuesday, March 03, 2009

A word from the cupbearer

Here is Nehemiah 8:9-10:
Then Nehemiah, that is, His Excellency, and Ezra the priest-scribe and the Levites who were instructing the people said to all the people: "Today is holy to the LORD your God. Do not be sad, and do not weep"-for all the people were weeping as they heard the words of the law.

He said further: "Go, eat rich foods and drink sweet drinks, and allot portions to those who had nothing prepared; for today is holy to our LORD. Do not be saddened this day, for rejoicing in the LORD must be your strength!"
The bolded words compose the reading from Morning Prayer for the first four Sundays of Lent.

We can debate the significance of the omission of v. 10a; does that mean you can't eat rich foods and drink sweet drinks on the first four Sundays of Lent, or is this a liturgical wink to those who really know their Nehemiah?

Mostly, though, I just want to point out that rejoicing in the LORD must be your strength!


A nice equivocation

It's a shame that "nice" means "kind."

It didn't always. Here's the definition of "nice" from Merriam-Webster Online:
Etymology: Middle English, foolish, wanton, from Anglo-French, silly, simple, from Latin nescius ignorant, from nescire not to know — more at nescience
Date: 14th century
1 obsolete a: wanton , dissolute b: coy , reticent
2 a: showing fastidious or finicky tastes : particular [too nice a palate to enjoy junk food] b: exacting in requirements or standards : punctilious [a nice code of honor]
3: possessing, marked by, or demanding great or excessive precision and delicacy [nice measurements]
4 obsolete : trivial
5 a: pleasing , agreeable [a nice time] [a nice person] b: well-executed [nice shot] c: appropriate , fitting [not a nice word for a formal occasion]
6 a: socially acceptable : well-bred [from a nice family] b: virtuous , respectable [was taught that nice girls don't do that]
7: polite , kind [that's nice of you to say]
If I were a cynic, I might suggest that nothing's so natural as that "foolish" should come to mean "socially acceptable."

As I mentioned above, though, my regret is that "nice" now also means "kind." I regret it because it allows people to say, "Being nice isn't a virtue" -- which is sometimes demonstrated by searching for "nice" in the Bible or the Catechism -- when what they really mean is, "Being kind isn't a virtue" -- which, not to be too nice, isn't true.


Monday, March 02, 2009

No end to problems

For what it's worth, in my earlier problem post I was using the word "problem" in an extremely general sense, along the lines of "a situation in which the means to an end are unknown or uncertain." You try to solve a problem by acting to make the means to the end known or certain (or at least more likely). Think more of a math problem and less of a substance abuse problem.

A problem becomes my problem -- subjectively, at least -- when I choose to act to make the means known or certain.

I was trying to get at two things:

First, the difference between what is subjectively my problem -- a problem I choose to try to solve -- and what is objectively my problem -- a problem I ought to try to solve. The better aligned my subjective problems are with my objective problems, the less time and effort I spend doing things I don't need to do rather than things I do need to do.

Second, the difference between what is my problem and what is your problem ("your" meaning "somebody else's" generally). Jesus teaches us -- not least in today's Gospel reading -- that I am to share in some way every problem that is objectively yours. That sharing, though, can take many forms, from a general benevolence or well-wishing that whatever goods you properly seek you may obtain to assuming the problem in your stead (as one might die for his friends).

Still, what is your problem is not necessarily my problem, as any number of workplace examples make clear. The salesman's problem is to maximize sales; the customer's problem is to maximize the value of his purchases. The floor manager's problem is to keep all workers as productive and happy as possible; the individual worker's problem is to meet his duties to his employer while also looking out for his own long-term career. The research scientist's problem is to collect as much aerial data on the hurricane as possible; the pilot's problem is to keep the plane from crashing.

In these sorts of cases, there may be acceptable solutions to both problems, but the people involved will suffer if they don't keep in mind what their problem really is. The one who treats what isn't his problem as his problem will suffer through not properly solving what is really his problem. The one whose real problem is solved by someone else could also suffer, by for example becoming unreasonably dependent on others to solve his problems or by earning a reputation of using others.


May the Lord rebuke them

This reminds me of this.