instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Magna veritas et praevalet

Judge Noonan concluded his speech at last Sunday's commencement at Notre Dame with these words:
"Great is truth. It will prevail." This scriptural text is inscribed on the Laetare Medal. Believing the Bible, sustained by this message taken from it, we can work together. Yes! We can work together, serenely secure in that trust that the truth will out.
An inspiring sentiment, but... is it true? Does the Catholic faith really provide the basis for a serenely secure trust that the United States will outlaw abortion?

I begin with a quibble: "Great is truth. It will prevail," is not from Catholic Scripture. Rather, it's from a book Catholics regard as apocryphal and the Vulgate calls 3 Esdras. (The canonical books of Ezra and Nehemiah are the Vulgate's 1 and 2 Esdras, "Esdras" being the Latin form of "Ezra." There's also a non-canonical 4 Esdras.)

(Just to keep things interesting, 3 Esdras is called Esdras A in the Septuagint, and the Orthodox regard it as canonical. It's also sometimes called 1 Esdras, if the Vulgate's 1 and 2 Esdras are called Ezra and Nehemiah. (And yes, in that case 4 Esdras is called 2 Esdras.)

(Also, when I say Catholics regard it as apocryphal, I mean apocryphal, not deuterocanonical. It's not part of the Catholic canon of Scripture.)

So accepting Judge Noonan's conclusion is not quite as simple as "believing the Bible."

At the same time, rejecting his conclusion is not quite as simple as "it's not in the Bible," since 3 Esdras was widely used by the Church Fathers, and as I say the Orthodox regard it as canonical. (For that matter, literally speaking it often is "in the Bible," as an appendix.)

The old Catholic Encyclopedia points out that 3 Esdras "is made up almost entirely from materials existing in canonical books." The passage in 3 Esdras that contains the saying Judge Noonan alludes to, however, is one part of 3 Esdras that does not parallel anything in the Catholic canon.

A sub-quibble, of the relevance of which I am unsure: The Vulgate (3 Esdras 4:41) has, "magna veritas et praevalet," or, "great [is] truth and it prevails." The Latin epigram as it appears on the Laetare Medal is, "magna est veritas et praevalebit," or, "great is truth and it will prevail."

Whether there's a meaningful difference between "the truth prevails" and "the truth will prevail" remains to be seen. (And I should admit I have no idea whether the Greek can be translated as "it will prevail." If so, then any differences between the verb tenses are irrelevant to the larger question of the truth of Judge Noonan's conclusion.)


Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Situational ultramontanism
When I was talking about [Topic A], my Holy Father was the stupidest man alive. When I turned to [Topic B], I was amazed at how much the old man had learned so quickly.
Among the many spectacles Catholics in America offer is the selective invocation of the authority of the Pope.

For example, we currently have people, who on most days will tell you unasked that they don't give a fig what some old, out-of-touch reactionary in Rome thinks, holding up the generally open attitude of the Holy See toward the Obama Administration as the right and perfect measure of Catholic conscience.

Well, no, that's not quite right. The Holy See provides the right-most measure of Catholic conscience. You can be quite a bit more open without their disapproval. Anywhere beyond the Vatican's boundary, though, and you've ceased being Catholic, while, paradoxically, being "more Catholic than the Pope."

I ask you, though: What is wrong with being more Catholic than the Pope?

Your answer will tell me what you mean by the expression, and then we can decide together who, if anyone, it fits.


Just what the doctorate ordered

Judge John T. Noonan's "Laetare Remarks" speeech strikes me as everything Fr. Jenkins could have asked for. I don't mean that in an altogether complimentary way.

I note that Judge Noonan found himself able to say:
Genocide is wrong.
Torture is wrong.
Slavery is wrong.
And abortion?

Judge Noonan could not bring himself to say the word "abortion," much less state, "Abortion is wrong."

Would that have come too close, in his mind, to "shunning or denouncing" President Obama? I don't know.

But I can't see why we should be serenely secure that the truth will prevail if we do not speak it.


Every abortion a wanted abortion

I'm sure it's been observed elsewhere that Mary Ann Glendon's decision against trying to rebut the pro-abortion position of President Obama and the anti-anti-abortion position of personally-opposed Catholics while giving a five-minute acceptance speech looks deucedly wise in retrospect.

Not that the President's commencement address was unanswerable; far from it. But it was well written, and (I suppose) well delivered, and it struck a note that sounded sweet to the ear.

Had Professor Glendon somehow failed to answer it -- either by sticking to her own speech as written and leaving his sophistries unchallenged, or by offering an impromptu answer that wasn't both complete and powerful, as spoken and as compared with his speech afterward in transcript -- then she herself would have been dragooned into the service of excusing the enormity of his policies.

She would have been praised, of course, to make the praise of the President that much greater. It would have been said, "See? Even the smartest pro-life Catholics cannot overcome the wisdom, the moderation, the reasonableness of our President."

In short, the rest of us would be exactly where we are today, and she would be diminished.

Now, had she somehow not failed to answer President Obama, then the media and the anti-anti-abortion Catholics would have set upon her without pity. She would have been condemned for small-mindedness and bitterness at a moment that, literally, called for "open hearts" and "fair-minded words." (And actually, even apart from what the President said, an acceptance speech at a commencement really isn't a suitable occasion to debate the commencement speaker; this point was made by Professor Glendon when she declined the Laetare Medal.)

In short, the rest of us would be exactly where we are today, and she would have been given a lot of misdirected grief.


Monday, May 18, 2009

In continuing good Dominican news



Give the people what they want

What do the people want? An excuse.

Specifically, an excuse to ignore the moral forces that ought to cause them to change course. An excuse to gag the voice of conscience.

For round-heeled progressives who value dialog about truth over truth itself, hearing the words, "Open hearts. Open minds. Fair-minded words," is all the excuse they want.


Wednesday, May 13, 2009

In happier news for the Dominican Order



Prayer Request

Please pray for the soul of Dorothy Murphy, OP, who at the time of her death was serving as the president of the Dominican Province of St. Joseph Lay Dominican Council, president of the Province's Lay Dominican council for Region 6 (MD-VA-DC), and treasurer of the Bishop Fenwick Lay Dominican Chapter in Silver Spring, MD.

When I began looking into the Lay Dominicans in 1998, I found out that Dorothy was in the process of establishing a new chapter in our parish. I showed up at the first meeting, and (barring illness and travel) we've both been at every chapter meeting ever since. She was my formation director, and has continued to inform me about what it is to be a Lay Dominican, a Dominican, and a Christian.

I once mentioned to her that I'd never been at a Dominican function -- chapter, regional, or provincial; meeting, profession, or retreat -- where she didn't speak. (Not literally true, but pretty close.) If she wasn't leading the event, then sooner or later she would make her way to the podium, the lectern, or at least the front of the room with something to say (if only where to line up for food).

Considering the imprint she has left on the Dominican Family -- from our chapter all the way up and out (she was involved with the Lay Fraternities at the international level, participated in a number of national committees across the branches of the Order, and served as a trustee of the Dominican House of Studies) -- I think it can be said it will be years, if ever, before I do attend a Dominican function at which her voice can't be heard.


Saturday, May 09, 2009

Back to nature

There's an interesting observation about natural law made by Christopher A. Franks of High Point University in "The Usury Prohibition and Natural Law: A Reappraisal," published in The Thomist, October 2008:
For Aquinas, appealing to natural law meant recognizing our ontological poverty and confessing that the order thus written into our nature and the nature of the cosmos is a manifestation of God's providence.

In modernity, however, natural law became a way to ground moral claims in a language that apparently appealed to humanity as such regardless of one's religious commitment or moral tradition.
He's using the term "ontological poverty" to "refer[] to the lowly neediness of creatures whose existence is not their possession, but a gift."

And that sounds about right. I often see it suggested that this or that precept is part of natural law, and therefore accessible to all people of good will, without reference to specifically Catholic, or even theistic, principles.

But if there's a natural law written in our hearts, there must be a Writer, Who must have had some reason for writing what He did and not something else.

If speaking just in terms of "natural law" nevertheless implies a supernatural Lawgiver, then maybe natural law isn't such a great way to appeal to humanity as such regardless of one's religious commitment or moral tradition.


Felix typo alert

In a comment at Via Media, Tim wrote:
A corrupt and sycophantic media have raved about the "historic" first black presidenvy....
That, I guess, is the vice of wishing the office was in your guy's hands.



Friday, May 08, 2009

A proposed definition

Can I get away with this:
Personal dignity is personhood itself, considered under the aspect of the respect one person owes another.
This is analogous to saying that goodness is being under the aspect of desire.

It's not ideal, since we're used to speaking of dignity as something a person has, and English at least doesn't really have the right adjective form. We say a thing "is good" while a person "has dignity." We might, before a generous audience, get away with saying a thing "has goodness," but to say a person "is dignified" simply doesn't mean the person is owed respect due to his personhood. We'd want a word like "dignitied," but... well, who really wants a word like "dignitied"?

On the up side, if we understand dignity, not as some quality attached or associated to personhood, but as personhood under the aspect of respect owed, then we are clear on the fact that dignity can no more be taken away or reduced than can personhood itself. I can't take away your dignity, I can only fail to give you the respect I owe you as a person.

Nor, for that matter, can I take away my own dignity; to be undignified is to act as though I weren't the person I am, but it doesn't actually make me not the person I am.

And I think here we can let "the person I am" have two meanings: the ontological meaning, according to which I am an individual substance of human nature; and the social meaning, according to which I am an individual situated in a certain place in my family, community, workplace, and so on.

(The point of being able to support both meanings is that it suggests such a concept of dignity is generally useful.)


Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Execution, si; torture, no

I've seen several variations of this argument recently:
It would seem that every act of torture cannot be evil in its object. For every act of execution is not evil in its object. But execution is a greater punishment than torture. And since life itself is fundamental to all aspects of personal dignity, torture cannot be more contrary to personal dignity than execution. Therefore, all torture cannot be evil in its object.
To respond to this, I will first point out that the Catechism deals with both execution and torture in the section on the Fifth Commandment. But execution is mentioned in the subsection "Respect for Life," while torture is covered in the subsection "Respect for the Dignity of Persons." So, while life itself may be fundamental to all aspects of personal dignity, issues of personal dignity are not wholly subsumed by issues of life. In other words, a thing may be consistent with respect for life yet contrary to respect for the dignity of persons.

The problem with the argument is that it presents execution as the upper limit of a continuum of punishment. But that's not actually the case. Once you execute someone, he's dead. With patience and care, though, there's no fixed limit to how much torment you can inflict upon him.

And I'm not saying that torture can surpass execution on the continuum of punishment. I'm saying that there is no continuum of punishment, because a continuum assumes a single dimension and punishment has at least the two dimensions of life and dignity.

So the fact that execution need not be contrary to the personal dignity of the one executed does not imply that torture need not be contrary to the personal dignity of the one tortured.



Tuesday, May 05, 2009

The Catechism's Case for Torture

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, as you may know, says this about torture:
Torture which uses physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity. [CCC 2297]
Recognizing that what is "contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity" is never morally licit, and that the Catechism is a sure norm for teaching the Catholic faith, how can Catholics conclude that torturing a prisoner to obtain life-saving information could ever be licit?

Clearly, the argument has to be that the kind of torture condemned in the Catechism is not the kind of torture they conclude could be licit.

The Catechism itself provides a suggestion for how that might be done. We can understand the various purposes for torture listed as different motives that specify different moral objects. That is, we could say that "torture" is a general human act of using physical or moral violence, and "confession extracting torture," "guilty punishing torture," "opponent frightening torture," and "hatred satisfying torture" are four species of torture, all of which are evil in their object and therefore everywhere and always immoral.

Thus, we might posit a fifth species of torture -- say, "information obtaining torture." We could establish that this kind of torture is not evil in its object if we can prove both of the following:
  1. "Information obtaining torture" is a species of torture distinct from the four explicitly condemned in the Catechism.
  2. "Information obtaining torture" can be compatible with respect for the person and for human dignity.
This is, by the way, the approach Fr. Brian Harrison proposes in somewhat different form (here and here), a fact I mention since Fr. Harrison's proposal is widely referred to among pro-torture Catholics.

Neither of these assertions is true, so torturing a prisoner to obtain life-saving information can never be licit. Granted, we have to look beyond this one statement of the Catechism to see that they're both false (although just one being false would suffice).

And yes, we do have to look, because as the Catechism goes on to say of "cruel practices ... used by legitimate governments to maintain law and order":
It is necessary to work for their abolition.



Sometimes in life you want to just keep walking

A "What Would Cicero Do?" column posted to a website whose editors see its mission as being a voice for authentic Catholicism in the public square is one of those times.

(Link via Vox Nova.)


Monday, May 04, 2009

The devil's auction

Mark Shea and John McG blog so I don't have to. I'll just add this:

To say, "I'd commit a terrible sin against a terrible sinner in order to save five million innocents," is not to risk a slippery slope. It is to declare that any and every point on the slope -- a sin of any gravity upon a person of any guilt for a good of any magnitude -- is open for negotiation.

And it's not God we're negotiating with.


Sunday, May 03, 2009

Evil schmevil

For those who might think my "merely quibbling over the price" post was over the top, I offer this post by the Anchoress as a typical example of such reasoning by generally morally serious people:
I think I am against [torture] but with this one exception: if I have a choice between saving say, 5 million lives in a nuke-contaminated Chicago or being able to say, "but at least we didn't waterboard that guy," I am inclined to think I would go for torture. The 5 million might still die, it's true, but at least I won't have to answer for standing idly by and watching it so that my morals might remain intact. I will take the chance that my moral failing in that instance will simply join my other moral failings in life, and then God and I will work that stuff out.
No one says, "God and I will work that stuff out," and thinks, "I might go to hell for it."



Saturday, May 02, 2009

"Liguori" is even spelled correctly

This is how you interpret St. Alphonsus.


Friday, May 01, 2009

Being instructed by the ignorant

I've been riding the "you can't do evil that good may result" hobby horse for years. (I just googled a Bitnet message I wrote in 1993 that ends, "Good ends do not justify evil means, before, during, or after the fact.")

It's been only in the past week, though, that I've come to see that it isn't just that a lot of people think you can do evil that good may result (a thought that is only possible for people who don't know what the word "evil" means). It's more than that.

A lot of people think everyone thinks you can do evil that good may result.

And, having established what everyone is, they are merely quibbling over the price.


Gravity isn't certainty

Let me change my reading of St. Alphonsus Liguori's statement, "An opinion of sentiment that is morally certain, is that which excludes all prudent fear of falsity; so that the contrary opinion is regarded as wholly improbable." In effect, I'm going to pretend that semicolon isn't there.

In my earlier post, I said a fear is prudent if it's "proportionate to both the magnitude of the evil and its potential of occurring." But I think it's more sensible to pull the proportion-to-the-magnitude part completely out of the definition of moral certainty, because it operates in our moral reasoning in a way we wouldn't naturally think of directly as certainty.

Suppose: A medical patient is twice as likely to have illness A as illness B, neither illness being especially dire if treated. The treatment for A doesn't work for B, so if he is treated for A but has B, it will be known that he has B when he doesn't respond within a day. (I'm trying to gussy up the old "Take two aspirin and call me in the morning" wheeze.)

We wouldn't say the doctor is "certain" the patient has illness A, but because the gravity of the patient having B when treated for A is not very great, the doctor can be morally certain in prescribing treatment for A. He is not certain the treatment he prescribes will cure the patient; he is certain he should prescribe treatment A.

If the patient is twice as likely to have illness A as illness B, but treatment for A will kill him if he has treatment B, then we're watching House I'm not sure what should be done; moral certainty that the doctor should prescribe treatment A seems to require additional conditions.

Maybe the way to put it is this: The gravity of the effects of acting as though something is true, when it happens to be false, affects the certainty that acting that way is morally good.