instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Ever thus

The Anchoress has a good post on St. Catherine of Siena and how she still speaks to the young in the Church. She finishes with links to websites of Dominican Sisters, Dominican Nuns, and Dominican Friars.

No links for Lay Dominicans, although St. Catherine herself was a Lay Dominican.

We get that a lot.


Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Consulting doctors

In a comment below, Paul offers this definition of moral certainty from St. Alphonsus Liguori:
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.
I'm happy with that definition myself, but Paul and I don't quite seem to agree on what it means in practice.

I'll first point out that St. Alphonsus speaks of "moral certainty" as applying to an opinion.

St. Thomas describes opinion as a kind of thought about a thing that might be true or false, and he distinguishes opinion from doubt, suspicion, belief, and scientific knowledge. One who opines, he says, "inclines to one side" -- that is, either the side that says the thing is true or the side that says it is false -- "yet with fear of the other."

St. Alphonsus, then, further distinguishes the morally certain opinion as an opinion where the fear of the other side is imprudent. If we don't know a thing is true with scientific rigor -- with "the perfection of clear sight," as St. Thomas might put it -- but our fear of it being false isn't prudent, then we are morally certain of its truth.

Fear is the desire to avoid a potential evil, prudence is right reasoning about a thing to be done, so I'd say that a "prudent fear" is a desire to avoid a potential evil, where the desire is proportionate to both the magnitude of the evil and its potential of occurring.

The point of defining this concept of moral certainty is to be able to say that, for purposes of moral reasoning, a morally certain opinion should be treated the same as a truth known by science or held by faith.


The deeds and habits of the servants of God

St. Catherine of Siena, Patroness of Lay Dominicans, was a remarkable person. By that, I mean people found it very easy to make remarks about her, not all of them kind or charitable. Even some of those who tried to be kind and charitable found her too much to take.

In a letter she wrote to another mantellata, as the Lay Dominican women of Siena were called in her time, St. Catherine offers this advice, which could be taken as a defense of her own life:
Beware lest thou do like mad and foolish people who want to set themselves to investigate and judge the deeds and habits of the servants of God. He who does this is entirely worthy of severe rebuke.

Know that it would not be different from setting a law and rule to the Holy Spirit if we wished to make the servants of God all walk in our own way -- a thing which could never be done.

Let the soul inclined to this kind of judgment think that the root of pride is not yet out, nor true charity toward the neighbour planted -- that is, the loving him by grace and not by barter. Then let us love the servants of God, and not judge them.
The last sentence is something we hear all the time. What Dr. Benincasa adds in her teaching on the Scriptural injunction is the observation that to judge others by our own preferences amounts to judging the Holy Spirit by our own preferences.

We might answer, "Yes, but the Holy Spirit would never inspire someone to do that!" If we do give that answer, though, we'd better be mighty certain of it. We belong to a Church that has canonized St. Simeon Stylites, St. Philip Neri, and St. Catherine of Siena.

The other point she makes is that wishing to make the servants of God all walk in our own way is, specifically, an act of pride. It's a pride that brooks no competition, lest some other way be thought in some aspect to be better than mine. It claims not only perfection for my way, but total inclusion of everything that is in any way good. It claims God gave me, not just the best gifts, but all the gifts.

To simply state the implications is to refute the claim. Yet the claim is made all the time. I don't think we try very hard these days to dig the root of pride out of our souls.

St. Catherine could tell the Pope to man up because she had uprooted her own pride, and in fact lived a life that could boast of nothing but Christ. If a life that can boast of nothing but Christ doesn't look much like my life, then who's going the wrong way?


Tuesday, April 28, 2009

"They only clothe the naked because they're prudes"

If your only argument against what someone else is doing is that it could have an effect you don't like, then you don't have much of an argument.


A good case of Not Invented Here Syndrome

There are those who say that to sacrifice the lives of untold numbers of American citizens rather than put the screws on a couple of dirtbags is utterly un-American.

There are those who say that what is un-American is to put the screws on human beings in our custody.

I say that the truly un-American spirit at work is the one that tells us Yankee ingenuity can do no better than make minor improvements to screws that were invented elsewhere.

Mark Danner made a related point in a Washington Post opinion piece this past Sunday:
Republicans from Dick Cheney on down have been unflagging in their arguments that these "enhanced interrogation techniques . . . were absolutely crucial" to preventing "a major-casualty attack." This argument, still strongly supported by a great many Americans, is deeply pernicious, for it holds that it is impossible to protect the country without breaking the law.
Though I suppose it could be said that the law was broken into little pieces, then reassembled with a few of the pieces left out.

In any case, the time and energy devoted to drawing lines between legal and illegal acts, to making sure the people we torture are safe, is time and energy not devoted to coming up with moral means of securing our nation.



Certain challenges

There have been some reasonable challenges in the comments below to my claim that the ticking time bomb scenario is impossible. So let me add this:
  1. The impossibility lies, not in the idea that a catastrophic evil will occur, but in the idea that you have perfect knowledge about the villain before you.
  2. As it is actually proposed in discussion, yes, it is often proposed in terms that are literally impossible. I've seen this most in attempts to move away from scenarios that can and do actually occur. If, say, someone points out that interrogated prisoners are often ignorant of any plots, or even completely innocent, another person might reply, "Yeah, but suppose in this one case we just absolutely know that this guy's involved in a plot."
  3. Such literally impossible scenarios can be cleaned up, by adding things like "morally certain," so that they are no longer literally impossible. That does not necessarily make them possible. It remains to be established that a mechanism exists for obtaining moral certainty in such circumstances. If you can't show that such a mechanism exists, then you might as well say, "Suppose you had X-Ray vision."
  4. Note that each correction and adjustment to the ticking time bomb scenario moves us away from the dramatically imagined and toward the real world. Which brings me to one of my other major points: Why don't we start with the real world, and worry about the imaginary world only after we've figured out the real world?
That last is not entirely a rhetorical question. Why is the ticking time bomb question so universally irresistible?

The best answer I can think of is one I mentioned in my last post: Hypothetical scenarios can be very helpful in understanding different facts of an issue.

I ask, then: How helpful has the ticking time bomb scenario been in understanding different facets of this issue?


Monday, April 27, 2009

A real bomb
Suppose you are morally certain that performing a certain act will prevent a catastrophic evil which will otherwise occur.
If I'm a movie producer, and Alfred Hitchcock offers me this pitch, I'm going to say, "You interest me strangely. Go on."

But if I'm me, and someone in a discussion on torture, interrogation, and national security offers me this pitch, I'm going to say, "Why on earth would I suppose that?"

Here are three reasons why I won't suppose a ticking time bomb scenario:

1. It is impossible.

Hypothetical scenarios can be very helpful in understanding different facts of an issue.

But this scenario isn't merely hypothetical, or even counterfactual. It demands moral certainty that can only arise from knowledge of facts that cannot be known. It supposes moral certainty when moral certainty is impossible.

And once I've supposed one impossibility, I'm free to suppose anything, such as photonic quolls that come into existence merely by being imagined, and whose existence necessarily prevents all catastrophic evil.

2. It is impractical.

It's not just the quolls that make this scenario a non sequitur in the national security debate. As Zippy has pointed out, we have actual, real-world scenarios to discuss.

In the actual, real world, impossible scenarios don't occur. If we want to know what to do in the actual, real world, why don't we suppose we're inclined to suspect that performing a certain act could lead to some good but unknown effect?

This is the actual, real-world problem we're faced with, and we can't solve it if we're off worrying about imaginary, impossible problems.

3. It tells us nothing we need to know.

The scenario sets up two questions: What would you do, and what should you do?

If I'm asked the former, I'd want to know why. Am I a moral exemplar, such that if I would do something then it is necessarily good? And if I don't answer the way you want me to, do I cease to be an exemplar?

What I would do might be good, but whether it's good isn't proven by whether I would do it. The same goes for everyone else.*

If the question is, what should you do, then my answer is, "Why are we wondering about morality in impossible and imaginary situations?"

UPDATE: More on moral certainty and the ticking time bomb scenario here.

* I've noticed that when the question is, "What would you do?," the intention is often to direct a torrent of indignation at anyone who wouldn't do what other people actually did in real life. There's a similar phenomenon on the topic of the atomic bombing of Japan. In neither case is the indignation relevant to the moral issue, because, again, nobody's a moral exemplar.



Sunday, April 26, 2009

Three words

One word in each of today's readings jumped out at me at Mass:
  1. "Now I know, brothers, that you acted out of ignorance...."

    Peter has just told the people of Jerusalem that, when given the choice, they rescued a murderer and put the Messiah to death.

    And what does he call them? "Brothers."

    He can do this because he believes the very Messiah Who was put to death will wipe away their sins if they repent and convert. Later he will come to call even Gentiles his brothers.

    Nowadays, we seem reluctant to call each other "brother."

  2. "The way we may be sure that we know him is to keep his commandments."

    But who keeps Christ's commandments? We keep some of the commandments all of the time, and all of the commandments some of the time, but all of the commandments all of the time? "If we say, 'We have not sinned,' we make him a liar, and his word is not in us."

    Can we never be sure we know Him?

    Maybe not, but if (through our own fault) we find we can't keep Jesus' commandments, we might still find we can keep returning to them.

    That's not our end goal, of course. But it might be the means to the goal. After all, "If we acknowledge our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from every wrongdoing."

  3. "You are witnesses of these things."

    The disciples had been with Jesus and seen His works, His death, and now even His resurrected body.

    But they are not merely observers. They are witnesses. A witness sees, and then reports.

    I wonder if the disciples realized, as they followed Jesus in the heady days in Galilee, that they were in training for their new vocation as witnesses to all the nations.

    And of course, we all know that "witness" is just the English word for the Greek "martyr."

    We who have seen don't have a choice. We must also report; we must be witnesses. IF we are not witnesses to the nations, then our very silence will one day be witness against us.


Saturday, April 25, 2009

An unobserved anniversary

April 2 was the six-year anniversary of the introduction on this blog of a topic I've revisited much more often than I would have liked. That first post began with these words:
Some committed Catholics have, in recent weeks, expressed the opinion that torture is acceptable under certain circumstances; the canonical circumstances feature a terrorist with knowledge of where a nuclear bomb that will blow up in one hour is concealed in a large city.
Last night, Deal Hudson expressed the opinion that torture might be acceptable under certain circumstances; specifically, "with the context of war, in the face of clear and present danger to the common good."



Friday, April 24, 2009

A sereous argument

I've seen a lot of arguments like this over the past several years:
The U.S. military's waterboarding of some of its servicemen as part of their training is morally acceptable. But what is morally acceptable can't be evil in its object. Therefore, waterboarding is not evil in its object. Therefore, it doesn't follow from the object of waterboarding that waterboarding terrorists is always immoral.
As far as I can tell, the above is a valid argument as long as we are not equivocating on "waterboarding": that is, if it refers to the same species of act throughout the argument.

Simply put, the argument is valid if and only if the interrogator waterboarding a terrorist is acting with the same object in mind as the trainer waterboarding a serviceman.

If the different circumstances give rise to distinct motives, then the argument can be rewritten as:
When a military trainer waterboards a servicemen as part of his training with the same object with which an interrogator waterboards a terrorist, it is morally acceptable. But what is morally acceptable can't be evil in its object. Therefore, waterboarding is not evil in its object. Therefore, it doesn't follow from the object of waterboarding that waterboarding terrorists is always immoral.
I'd grant that this is a valid argument.

Whether that first premise is true is a whole other question.

Of course, if it can shown that the interrogator's object is always necessarily the same as the trainer's object, then it only remains to establish the truth of the premise, "The U.S. military's waterboarding of some of its servicemen as part of their training is morally acceptable."



Means and motive

So different circumstances can correspond to different motives for acting, which is to say different objects of acting, and objects specify human acts, so different circumstances can correspond to different species of human acts.

If my motive is "to consume food," then my human act is "eating." If my motive is "to consume food" and the food I consume is costly, then my human act is "eating" and the circumstances include "sumptuousness." If my motive is "to consume costly food," then my human act is "eating sumptuously."

As Zippy is forever pointing out, there are no human acts apart from human willing. "Eating" and "eating sumptuously" are different human acts.

And it's not an abstract, grad seminar in philosophy difference; still less is it a rhetorical fiction that must be maintained so we don't have to scrap our whole moral taxonomy. It's a difference as practical and fundamental as the difference between your ox and thy neighbor's ox.

The trick is to make sure you're distinguishing acts according to motive rather than intention. This shouldn't be too hard: it's the difference between "what" and "why," although the fact that in common usage "motive" is used to mean "intention" doesn't help. (For what it's worth, Merriam-Webster Online defines "motive as "something (as a need or desire) that causes a person to act," which is a lot closer to how St. Thomas used "motivus" than to how the word is always used on TV cop shows.)

The practical difficulty in figuring out whether you're specifying an act by motive or by intention doesn't lie in the conceptual differences between motive and intention, but in fallen human nature. There are times when the only means to a good end that I really want are evil, but I really want that good end, so my intellect obliges by convincing itself that the good end I want is the real object of the means, and if the object of the means is good then the means are good (since, what do you know, the intention of the means is good).


Thursday, April 23, 2009

Corrupting circumstances

Human acts are actions willed by human persons, so it makes sense (and in practice has proved useful) to categorize human acts according to the things that are desired by the will. The things directly desired, to be more precise, so that you can distinguish between two human acts that follow different means to the same (remote) end.

The thing directly desired, the proximate end of a human act, is the object of the act. We can say we specify human acts by their objects, or if we're feeling fancy we can say the object determines an act's species.

The morality of a particular human act is fully determined by its object, the circumstances in which it is done, and the intention of the actor (the remote end or the reason why he wants the object of his act).

Nothing new here, and I've been quoting the Catechism on this for years.

But there's a wrinkle in this that I've also been trying to iron out for years. A lot of things that we think of as kinds of human acts seem to be defined in terms of circumstances and intention as well as object. They are, in effect, subspecies of acts that are specified by their objects alone.

Gluttony, for example, seems like a perfect example. St. Thomas defines it as simply an inordinate desire of eating and drinking. But surely whether a particular meal or drink is "inordinate" depends on circumstances and intentions -- how much food and drink you've had recently, for example, or whether you're an athlete in training.

St. Thomas addresses precisely this issue. He follows St. Gregory on the five species of gluttony, which you can remember with this little verse:
praepropere, laute, nimis, ardenter, studiose
In plain English, gluttony can consist in eating
Hastily, sumptuously, too much, greedily, [or] daintily
The first objection to this list of the specific kinds of gluttony is that
the above are distinguished according to diversity of circumstance. Now circumstances, being the accidents of an act, do not differentiate its species.
Say, that's just what I said!

St. Thomas responds:
The corruption of various circumstances causes the various species of gluttony, on account of the various motives, by reason of which the species of moral things are differentiated. For in him that seeks sumptuous food, concupiscence is aroused by the very species of the food; in him that forestalls the time concupiscence is disordered through impatience of delay, and so forth.
"Motives" here does not mean intentions or remote ends, since intentions don't differentiate species of acts any more than circumstances do.

Rather, it refers to what it is about eating and drinking that the glutton directly desires. The object of the sumptuous glutton's act is eating foods insofar as they are costly; if the food he eats isn't expensive, he is not doing what he wills to do.

More generally, St. Thomas argues earlier,
the process of reason is not fixed to one particular term, for at any point it can still proceed further. And consequently that which, in one action, is taken as a circumstance added to the object that specifies the action, can again be taken by the directing reason, as the principal condition of the object that determines the action's species.
It turns out, then, that the object of a human act can be an accident of a more general human act.

And this isn't a sleight of hand so that moral theologians can say that circumstances don't differentiate species of acts, except when they do. It's a recognition that humans actually can and do turn corrupt circumstances into objects of desire, that we can and do sometimes choose things like this-toy-airplane-that-belongs-to-my-older-brother and not merely like this-toy-airplane, which belongs to my older brother.

(We also turn good or indifferent circumstances into objects of desire, but since circumstances can't make evil acts good -- whether you take a circumstance as the principal condition of the object or not -- St. Thomas isn't concerned with that in these articles.)


Terminate it

Hey, kids! Let's stop using the term "intrinsically evil"!

I know, it's widely used and accepted in moral theology. But it's also widely mis-used, and misunderstood even when it's used correctly.

I've seen "intrinsically evil" used to mean four distinct things:
  1. "Objectively evil," which describes an act that is evil in its object, where the object specifies the act that is being performed. This, I gather, is the proper sense of the term; at least, it's how it's used in e.g. Veritatis Splendor.
  2. "Gravely evil," which describes an act of, uh, grave evil. It is a common error to think that objective evil implies grave evil, and the time spent discussing the error is time not spent recognizing that in either case you're talking about something evil.
  3. "Categorically evil," which describes an act that is evil no matter what. The "what" can only be circumstances and intentions that aren't already specified in the act. They can't be another object, since different objects specify different acts; they can't be circumstances or intentions that replace or supplant the circumstances and intentions that contribute to specifying the category of the act.
  4. "Evil," which describes an act that lacks goodness. People sometimes call an act "intrinsically evil" when all they really mean, need, or can justify is "evil."
Better to use four distinct and distinguishable terms than to use one term whose meaning in a particular case isn't always easily distinguished.


Wednesday, April 22, 2009

By the way

The Earth is not my mother. It didn't give birth to me, it didn't raise me, it doesn't love me.

The Earth is my home, and I've been given a share in its stewardship.

My mother is my mother. The Church is my mother. Mamma Mary is my mother. The Earth is not my mother.


Proof, not construction

In some cases, it may be, not so much that a person believes the end justifies the means, but that a person believes the end proves the justice of the means.

If I tell you the Philadelphia Phillies won last night, and you check the paper (ha! No, seriously, you check online) and see that they did in fact win last night, your checking doesn't make me right, it just proves me right.

Similarly, someone might think that the defusing of a ticking time bomb doesn't make torturing the would-be bomber right, it just proves that torturing him is right. Perhaps a proof by contradiction: If it's wrong, then the bomb won't be defused, and many people will die. But the government is supposed to keep its people alive. Therefore it's not wrong.

That may be a subtler distinction than is required, but I think it's a better description of the some of the arguments I see made than saying that a good end turns an evil means good.


Disproportionate infliction of pain

In a discussion on a Catholic and Enjoying It! post on the ongoing defense of the Bush Administration's policy of torturing prisoners, I was invited to address the position staked out by Jimmy Akin in a series of posts back in 2006. This won't quite be the point-by-point rebuttal asked for, in part because there are a number of points I agree with, but you get what you pay for.

The purpose of the series is to develop a definition of torture (in a moral sense, not a legal sense). The definition Jimmy proposes is this:
The sin of torture consists in the disproportionate infliction of pain.
I should note up front that he explicitly called his definition "a tentative one," and I don't know if he has revised it in the nearly two and a half years since he wrote these posts.

In any case, if I were starting with his tentative definition, I would change it to this:
The sin of torture has as its object the disproportionate infliction of pain upon a captive.
Changing "consists in" to "has as its object" sets aside all the business about battlefield surgeries and suchlike acts where the pain may be great but is not the immediate aim. (An act where the pain may be great but is not the immediate aim might still be immoral, but I wouldn't call it torture.)

A condition like "upon a captive" is needed so that things like throwing the first punch in a bar fight aren't accounted as torture. (It probably follows from this that training someone to resist torture by applying torture techniques to them isn't itself torture, from a strict moral perspective, but that's a sufficiently different situation that I think it's plausible to give it a different moral descriptor.)

I'm not sure I would have wound up with "the disproportionate infliction of pain" -- and Jimmy was explicit that the pain can be physical or mental -- at the center of a definition of torture if I'd started from scratch, but I can work with it.

It seems to me, though, that "The sin of torture has as its object the disproportionate infliction of pain upon a captive," is one of those "You are in a tree" statements that are true, but no help at all when it comes to moral guidance. We can use it to distinguish the category of torture from other categories of human acts -- which is useful for systematizing our thinking -- but it falls apart if we wield it in an attempt to settle the question of whether a particular disputed instance of inflicting pain is torture.

It falls apart because it contains the question-begging term "disproportionate." "Is it torture?" reduces to, "Is it disproportionate?," and the evaluation of moral proportion is a vast briar patch in which the thorny questions of torture are a mere bush or two.

Still, I can say this much about evaluating moral proportion in infliction of pain: there is a proportion relative to the one on whom the pain is inflicted, in addition to the proportion relative to the one inflicting the pain. The same face slap that might get the attention of a yegg might kill an invalid.

Yet Jimmy Akin seems to ignore the proportion relative to the one on whom the pain is inflicted in discussing waterboarding:
I would say that waterboarding is torture if it is being used to get a person to confess to a crime (it is not proportionate to that end since it will promote false confessions). I would also say that it is torture if it is being used to get information out of a terrorist that could be gotten through traditional, less painful interrogation means (it is not proportionate to the end since there are better means available). I would not say that it is torture if it is being used in a ticking time bomb scenario and there is no other, less painful way to save lives (it is proportionate since there is not a better solution).
The only concept of proportion I see considered here is whether the act is the best means to an objectively good end. That is certainly an important question, but it is not the only question. Considering the ways in which our society currently muddles its moral reasoning, I'd say the question of whether the act is proportionate to the dignity of the human persons involved -- both pain inflicter and pain inflictee -- is far more important, because it's far more disputed.

Moreover, the statement "It is proportionate since there is not a better solution," is, in a word, proportionalism. Contrary to what Jimmy implies here, the least evil is not therefore good.

UPDATED to add the word "proportionalism" in place of "consequentialism."



Monday, April 20, 2009

The wisdom of youth

Suppose a teenager misbehaves and is grounded for two weeks. Seeing that he is genuinely sorry, his father tells him that, if he clears his dinner plate and kisses his mother on the cheek, his grounding will be lifted.

What does the teenager do?
A. Clear his dinner plate and kiss his mother on the cheek.
B. Grouse about the artificiality of the conditions imposed by his father.
C. Wonder aloud about what sort of occult mechanism could possibly cause his grounding to be lifted by such unremarkable acts.
D. Regard his parents with disgust at their insistence he dance through hoops for a reward.
E. Observe that clearing plates and kissing mothers is something people don't do any more, largely because we now understand that only a monstrous parent would ever ground a teenager.
Teenagers, at least, understand the value of an indulgent father.


Full of grace?

We are an Easter people, as St. Augustine put it. More specifically, I seem to be an Easter Tuesday person, as that's generally when I finish shaking the dust of Lent from my feet and get back to normal life (thus making me a Shrove Tuesday person as well).

Yet the Easter season drags on for weeks. Long after I've recovered from the physical privations (such as they were) of Lent and rebounded from the psychological desolations (see prev.) of Holy Week, I'm still supposed to go about making Alleluia my song. Am I merely imagining a touch of "can we get on with it" in the disciples' Easter season question to Jesus, "Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?"

Still, there may be a lesson in this for me, over and above the fact that the Church continues to not construct herself to fit my druthers. It may be that the joy of Easter is a thing too great to be sustained by physical or psychological means; that it is an act of love for God, and that flagging joy signals flagging love; that he who is tired of Easter is tired of eternal life.


I'll have what He's having

The Gospel according to St. John was written for a specific purpose:
that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through this belief you may have life in his name.
It's a double purpose, reflecting the two fundamental beliefs of the Christian:
  1. Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God.
  2. Through the belief that Jesus is the Messiah, you may have life in His name.
These beliefs can be socially awkward, and the ways in which Christians betray and deny them are legion.

It occurs to me, though, that the faithful Christian will have life in Jesus' name, regardless of whether Jesus is the Messiah. It was a participation in His own life with the Father that Jesus promised His disciples. This is a promise that will necessarily be kept: if Jesus rose from the dead, so will His disciples; if He didn't, neither will they.

Whatever happened to Jesus will happen to us; whatever He is like now is what we shall be like. Christian and non-Christian alike should agree on these points.

The faithful Christian, then, is like the young man at the end of "The Lady or the Tiger?," who, "with a firm and rapid step" and "[w]ithout the slightest hesitation" opened the door his lover had signaled him. Whatever lies beyond the door, Christ has passed through ahead of us, and it is Christ Whom we follow, because it is Christ Whom we want.


Monday, April 13, 2009

Merry Easter!

We all know what Easter means to Christians: the Father's confirmation of Jesus' preaching, proof of His acceptance of His Son's sacrifice, the grounds of our hope for our own resurrection into eternal life, and so forth.

But what does Easter 2009 mean to you, the Christian reading this?

As Pope Benedict XVI wrote in Spe Salvi:
The dark door of time, of the future, has been thrown open. The one who has hope lives differently; the one who hopes has been granted the gift of a new life.
This new life that is our gift, a gift confirmed in Jesus' own resurrection, is triply good. It is desirable because it is useful, as a means to draw others to life; it is desirable because it is virtuous, a thing desired for its own sake; and it is desirable because it is a pleasant thing indeed to live forever with God.

Let us then use, and enjoy, and live our new life. Today, and tomorrow, let us live differently.


Sunday, April 12, 2009

He has raised up for us a mighty Savior
My soul shall be filled as with a banquet,
my mouth shall praise you with joy.
Celebrate, with body and soul, the resurrection of Jesus Christ!


Friday, April 10, 2009

"Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit."

Today the Catholic Church commemorates the Passion of the Lord.

In His passion, though -- in His suffering and death by crucifixion at the hands of men with evil in their hearts -- we also see the action of the Lord.

Jesus died in order that we might have eternal life. This is an act -- a freely chosen action -- of love.

Jesus' love for us comes from the same source everything else Jesus has comes from: from the Father. Jesus is the image of the invisible God. The image of Jesus on the cross is an image of the Father's love for us.

At the end, Jesus returns everything He has, including the love for us which held Him to the cross, to His Father. And His Father accepts it all. The love for us which we marvel at today, the love unto death centuries ago, is the same love with which the Father regards us, today and eternally.


Thursday, April 09, 2009

"It is consummated."

On the cross, Jesus finished the work for which He came into the world.

Not "finished" in the way a test, or a race, or a "to do" list is finished. "Finished" in the way a cathedral, or a sculpture, or a painting is finished. When the work finished is a work of art, the finish is only the beginning.

There is surely something beautiful about a life so well lived that, at the last moment, you can say, "It is consummated," meaning not, "My life is done," but, "My life work has reached its completion."

Since your life's work is given to you by God -- if you're baptized, it's some version of going and making disciples of all nations -- and since what God sends forth shall not return to Him void, but shall achieve the end for which He sends it, you're in good shape to live a beautiful life.


"I thirst."

Thirst is a universal sensation. Every human being gets thirsty, and I wouldn't be surprised if every human being ever born who was capable of it has actually said, "I am thirsty," out loud.

Why do we say this? It could be conversational, as we might announce, "I am tired," to whoever is within earshot. It could be explanatory, in case an observer might wonder why we're pouring ourselves a glass of water.

Many times, though, we aren't merely asserting a fact, we are revealing a need to someone whom we hope will help us.

That Jesus was thirsty on the cross shows He was human. That Jesus said He was thirsty shows He was needy.

If the thought of God making Himself needy doesn't make you tremble, then think of how we, in the persons of those with the galled wine, responded to His need.


Wednesday, April 08, 2009

"My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"

That's a very good question. Why had God forsaken His Son?

(In what sense had God forsaken His Son is another very good question, but for this post I'll use "forsaken" in the sense that Jesus meant when He spoke these words on the cross.)

Could we say that abandonment by the Father is the ultimate proof of the Incarnation?

The Incarnation is the act by which God became man. It took the Church centuries to fully articulate what had been revealed about this, and I doubt a single generation has passed since then without a lot of Christians who didn't really believe it. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, Jesus is God in a man-suit; Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, He is a man with a Divine pacemaker next to His heart.

But that Friday, He was the God-man forsaken by God. Only man can be forsaken by God; the angelic spirits have already chosen their sides, and non-spiritual creatures don't have the kind of relationship with God that can admit of forsakenness.

Jesus was a man, like us in all things but sin, and the "all things but sin" includes the capacity to be forsaken by His Father, a capacity He does not have as the Eternal Son.

So when He was forsaken by His God, Jesus didn't disappear, or evaporate, or deflate like a balloon. He cried out, and He died.


Tuesday, April 07, 2009

"Woman, behold thy son... Behold thy mother."

At the Annunciation, Mary became the Mother of God.

It wasn't until Jesus spoke to her from the cross, though, that she truly became the New Eve, the mother of all those who have eternal life in Christ.

At the Annunciation, the angel was sent to Mary's house.

She had to choose to be at the foot of her Son's cross, though. A natural act for a mother, but one that bore the fruit of the spiritual motherhood of the whole family of God's chosen.

To become sons and daughters of Mary, which is to say brothers and sisters of Jesus, we too must choose to be at the foot of her Son's cross.


Monday, April 06, 2009

"Amen I say to thee, this day thou shalt be with me in paradise."

Generally speaking, it's a good idea to avoid psychological analyses of the people you meet in the Bible. If the reason why someone does something is part of what God wants to reveal, then the reason is usually given more or less explicitly. If the reason isn't given, it's not likely to be the key through which to interpret the passage.

For me, the good thief is a real test of that general principle. Why did he say to Jesus, "Remember me when you come into your kingdom"? Was he being kind to a lunatic? Had he heard of Jesus beforehand? Was he acting on a contrarian impulse? Did he look in Jesus' eyes and see divinity? Was he betting on a long shot?

No, the principle holds here too. The thief's motivation is not the key through which to interpret the passage. The key, of course, is Jesus' response.

It is the response of the Son of Man in His glory, and all the angels with Him, as He sits upon His glorious throne. "Come, you who are blessed by my Father," Jesus tells the thief. "Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world."

And surely no righteous one on the Last Day will be as surprised as Dismas the thief was to find himself in Paradise.


Saturday, April 04, 2009

"Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."

Christians quote these words to each other often, in grappling with the puzzles Jesus' message of forgiveness raises.

This is not a doctrinal statement, though. It's not even a juridical statement, like Jesus' earlier, "Your sins are forgiven."

This is a prayer, offered by Jesus Christ on the cross to the Father for those who crucified Him.

If you add "and He was heard" to that, you've got the Gospel.


What's the matter with scrupulosity?
Then: fear of sinning against God

Now: fear of sinning against fashion
At first, I had "fear of being a sinner" vs. "fear of being a rube." Being a rube, though, is really a sin against intellectual fashion, a sin that some people are scrupulous to avoid.

The idea that Catholics are less scrupulous than they used to be doesn't tell quite the right story. If you think you can do something wrong, then you can be scrupulous.

Let me propose that, today, Catholics are less concerned with what their fellow Catholics think of what they do than Catholics used to be, and more concerned with what the fashionable (social, cultural, intellectual, political) think of what they do than Catholics used to be.

And it may be, not that Catholics today are less concerned with what God thinks of what they do than Catholics used to be, but that Catholics today think God is less concerned with what they do.


Thursday, April 02, 2009

And if I refer to myself as "Ioannes Magnus"?

Michael Sean Winters, in this post at America's blog, is more offended by the use of the term "pro-abortion" than by the fact that President Obama is pro-abortion:
Cardinal George said that he intended no disrespect for the President. Cardinal DiNardo and Bishop D'Arcy also said they had great respect for the President. Yet, all three persist in calling him "pro-abortion." President Obama does not refer to himself that way and would argue the point that there is a distinction between being pro-abortion and being pro-choice. That may be a distinction without a difference, but it requires an argument, not an assertion.
It is a distinction without a difference, and the argument has been made.

The implication that the term "pro-abortion" can never be used unless the argument is reproduced is odd in two respects. It is odd from the perspective of reason, since it ignores the fact that statements and letters like the ones Winters names are written in particular contexts, and within a particular context a conclusion that has been established previously may be used as a premise for a new argument.

It is also odd from the perspective of faith, as it amounts to a defense without just cause of the President's pro-abortion policies. Whatever they're called, they're gravely evil. To make what they're called the point of contention is to deflect criticism from what they are. What cause does Winters offer for his attempt to deflect criticism from the President's gravely evil policies?
More disturbing is the failure on the part of these moral and religious leaders to recognize what respect entails. If anything, it means referring to someone as they refer to themselves.... The bishops need to stop referring to Obama as "pro-abortion." It is disrespectful.
Here we have an assertion that requires an argument.

Since I've never heard an argument for the assertion, I can answer with: No, respect doesn't necessarily entail referring to someone as they refer to themselves.

I'll go further: It by God doesn't entail referring to someone in a term that masks the grave evil they do.

And: If Winters is correct, then the Church's prophetic voice must be excluded from our society.

As I say, it's an odd position from the perspective of faith.

Winters concludes:
The Church can never compromise an essential tenet of its faith, of course, no matter what the polls say. But, the idea that Notre Dame's decision to invite the President of the United States is a "moral outrage" only shows that our bishops are once again out-of-touch with their flock and ineffectual at persuading their culture. It is very sad.
I'd like to see the argument for using "out-of-touch" to mean "not in agreement." And while it is very sad when a bishop and his flock are not in agreement on a matter of faith and morals [I note in passing that this is a wider scope than Winters's "essential tenets of faith"], I'd like to see the argument for the contemporary habit of always blaming the bishop.


Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Another kind of witness

In response to Peter Nixon's post on the Notre Dame commencement topic, Margaret O'Brien Steinfels comments:
Enough with the hyperventiliating!
It's good to know that, even for Commonweal Catholics, dialog is not an absolute good.


The good kind of witness

Peter Nixon has written a characteristically thoughtful piece on the Notre Dame commencement topic. A pure-bred Democrat and an active, though qualified, supporter of Obama during the campaign, he allows himself to raise the question of how comfortable Catholics should be with the President speaking at Notre Dame.

Those who are interested in the topic might profit from reading his post.


Domesticating the public square

I once heard a Molly Ivins radio commentary in which she said mothers would make great political executives, since the arguments they'd hear in politics they've already heard at home. The two dual-use executive examples I remember her giving: "I don't care who started it, it stops now," and, "You can cut the last piece of cake in two, but your brother gets to choose his half first."

It's a clever observation (if not much of reason to prefer electing mothers over fathers), and one that applies to debates on the Internet as well as in capitol buildings. In fact, let me generalize the principle to this:
People make arguments all the time that they'd shoot down themselves if their kids tried it on them.
It's really something to see earnest grownups arguing the logical equivalents of, "You let Donna go to the dance! Why can't I go to the mall?," "I didn't kick him, he walked into my leg!," and, "You just don't understand!"