instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Monday, March 29, 2010

Non pro mundo

In the Last Discourse, St. John records this prayer of Jesus:
Now glorify me, Father, with you, with the glory that I had with you before the world began. I revealed your name to those whom you gave me out of the world...

I pray for them. I do not pray for the world but for the ones you have given me, because they are yours, and everything of mine is yours and everything of yours is mine, and I have been glorified in them.
The words I've italicized are challenging. They challenge the universalistic spirit of our times -- which, I suspect, is largely a matter of evangelical sloth; it sure saves me a lot of trouble if everyone is saved.

At the same time, they pose a challenge of humility for those who want to profess an orthodox understanding of predestination. If I take it upon myself to determine who belongs to God and who belongs to the world, I run the risk of finding out too late that I am one who belongs to the world.

Let me add this suggestion: The world can be found within the heart of each person for whom Jesus prays,. It's there in the form of sin, attachment to sin, and even not-altogether-sinful attachment to anything that is not God. In praying for His disciples, Jesus does not pray for them as they currently are; rather, He prays for them as they belong to the Father -- which is to say, as they are perfect.

Today's sinner is the same person as the Last Day's resurrected saint. But all of today's sinner is not resurrected -- or, equivalently, the sin that makes the Last Day's saint less than he should be today is not included in his resurrection.

The prayer of Jesus is heard and answered; neither for His own sake, nor for His Father's -- nor, for that matter, for His disciples' sake -- would Jesus pray for that hard, unredeemable part of our hearts that belongs to, even constitutes a part of, the world.


Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Gospel according to Robert Bloch

One of the most frightening books I own is Christian Prayer: The Liturgy of the Hours.

As just one example, this if from today's Morning Prayer:
Help us to bear witness to you
by following [Jesus'] example of suffering
and make us worthy to share in his resurrection.
Imagine for a moment what it would be like if God said, "You asked for it, you got it!"

Yet I blithely asked exactly this of God this morning, and in a little while will again say, "Amen," when the priest offers the same prayer as the collect of Palm Sunday Mass.


Friday, March 26, 2010

Game Show Theory

The Monty Hall Problem* can be stated this way:
There are three doors, numbered 1, 2, and 3, but otherwise identical. Behind one door is a prize; behind the other two doors is nothing. Each door is equally likely to have the prize behind it.**

Is the probability of choosing the door with the prize behind it higher if you choose one door or if you choose two doors?
It can be stated this way, but it isn't, because as always mathematical accuracy sucks the fun out of everything. The fun in this case is watching people struggle to understand the counterintuitive implications of a door with no prize behind it being opened.***

I think what makes the implications counterintuitive is the order in which the game unfolds. If it's laid out all at once, as I did above, the answer is obvious.

When it comes at us in stages, though, we get confused. We know at least one of the unchosen doors has nothing behind it, so we assume subsequently learning a particular door has nothing behind it tells us nothing new. And if we're told nothing new, then both the door we chose and the other remaining door each still has a 1/3 probability of having the prize, so why change? And if 1/3 + 1/3 doesn't add up to 1, we just normalize the probability vector to <0.5, 0.5>.

Ha! No, we stick with the door we chose because it's the door we chose, and no fork-tongued game show host is going to talk us out of the prize we earned by our own gloriously autonomous act of free will.

Or perhaps, as good poker players, we recalculate the pot odds and figure there's no angle in changing our mind now.

In any case, one way or another it comes down to this: we don't properly account for the fact that the game show host knows which door has the prize behind it. We are given new information, and we don't notice what that information means.

* Not to be confused with the Wayne Grady Problem, which is having a lot of talent but no suitable outlet (cf the Dick Van Dyke Problem).

** While I'm here, I can't be the only one who, as a child, thought it would be great to win a donkey.

*** For those who care about such things, I'd thought of bringing up the Monty Hall Problem in the context of the Influence of a Vote Problem, then decided against it forgot about it, then saw it mentioned in the comments on this post, then decided to write about it, then didn't have time, then saw it mentioned again, and finally decided to write about it for sure.


Thursday, March 25, 2010

The nub or crux

When it comes down to it, there is only one accepted form of argument: the argument from authority.

And there is only one accepted authority: the one accepting it.

Everything else is diplomacy.


Wednesday, March 24, 2010

I spoke too soon

The other day I said Catholics pray to saints.

What I should have said was:

Christians pray to saints.

And if you run into a Christian who says otherwise, ask him, "Where have you been bub?"
From the Council of Trent, Session 25, emphasis and formatting added:

The holy council commands all bishops and others who hold the office of teaching and have charge of the cura animarum, that in accordance with the usage of the Catholic and Apostolic Church, received from the primitive times of the Christian religion, and with the unanimous teaching of the holy Fathers and the decrees of sacred councils, they above all instruct the faithful diligently in matters relating to intercession and invocation of the saints, the veneration of relics, and the legitimate use of images, teaching them that
  • the saints who reign together with Christ offer up their prayers to God for men,
  • that it is good and beneficial suppliantly to invoke them and to have recourse to their prayers, assistance and support in order to obtain favors from God through His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who alone is our redeemer and savior;* and
  • that they think impiously
    • who deny that the saints who enjoy eternal happiness in heaven are to be invoked, or
    • who assert that they do not pray for men, or
    • [who assert] that our invocation of them to pray for each of us individually is idolatry, or
    • [who assert] that it is opposed to the word of God and inconsistent with the honor of the one mediator of God and men, Jesus Christ,** or
    • [who assert] that it is foolish to pray vocally or mentally to those who reign in heaven.

* "And though the Church has been accustomed to celebrate at times certain masses in honor and memory of the saints, she does not teach that sacrifice is offered to them but to God alone who crowned them;*** whence, the priest does not say: "To thee, Peter or Paul, I offer sacrifice,"**** but, giving thanks to God for their victories, he implores their favor that they may vouchsafe to intercede for us in heaven whose memory we celebrate on earth." -- Council of Trent, Session 22, ch 3.

** See 1 Tim 2:5, "There is also one mediator between God and the human race, Christ Jesus...."

*** "If anyone says that it is a deception to celebrate masses in honor of the saints and in order to obtain their intercession with God, as the Church intends, let him be anathema." -- Canons On The Sacrifice Of The Mass, n 5, Session 22, Council of Trent

**** "But who ever heard a priest of the faithful, standing at an altar built for the honor and worship of God over the holy body of some martyr, say in the prayers, "I offer to you a sacrifice, O Peter, or O Paul, or O Cyprian?" For it is to God that sacrifices are offered at their tombs -— the God who made them both men and martyrs, and associated them with holy angels in celestial honor; and the reason why we pay such honors to their memory is, that by so doing we may both give thanks to the true God for their victories, and, by recalling them afresh to remembrance, may stir ourselves up to imitate them by seeking to obtain like crowns and palms, calling to our help that same God on whom they called. Therefore, whatever honors the religious may pay in the places of the martyrs, they are but honors rendered to their memory, not sacred rites or sacrifices offered to dead men as to gods." -- St. Augustine, City of God, VIII, 27


Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Faithful citizenship

Proposition: The act of voting is the stone in the stone soup of political responsibility for Catholic citizens of democratic countries.



The lathe of heaven

I like to chew on knotty questions, but every now and then I run into one that even I can tell is just flat-out beyond my reach.

For example, from an email received today:
I am Dr. Marc Schneider and I work for Multilingual Search Engine Optimization Inc. in Washington DC ( Tel: 1-202-558-2504) - I would like to speak with the person in charge of your international clientele. Who is my contact? Who should I speak to??
I... I don't... ....


In that day all their thoughts shall perish

I put my quotation of Psalm 146/145 under the snooty heading, "On the political question of the day," not to be coy about its relation to the passage of the health care bill, but because it's sound guidance on the political question of any day.

Commenting on the political question of yesterday, someone wrote:
Back in November of 2006 (yes, 2006), my pastor ... basically said that the election of Obama (or Hillary or any other Democrat or Giuliani) would lead to this eventuality: the slaughter of hundreds of thousands or millions or more innocent babies.
Good news, then! The signing of the health care bill into law does not in itself constitute the slaughter of a single baby.

It does, though, change the circumstances in which babies may be slaughtered. (Not that the circumstances were all that circumscribed last week.)

So: What are you -- "you" meaning the individual reader of this sentence, which includes me -- going to do about it?

[Note: While there is a difference between answering, "I'm going to vote Republican in November," and answering, "I'm not going to do a damn thing," it's not a significant enough difference to spend any time on.]


Monday, March 22, 2010

Catholics pray to saints

When I first saw some damnfool Catholic criticizing Nancy Pelosi for saying Catholics pray to St. Joseph, I put it down as a bit of political insanity.

Then I heard about the Anchoress saying the same damnfool thing:
"Italian Americans" certainly do honor St. Joseph, but they do not "pray" to him.
And I figured, if you trust the Anchoress for your Catholic doctrine, particularly as it relates (in however idiotic a fashion; thanks ever so much, Mme. Speaker) to politics, you get what you pay for. (As the Anchoress herself said when corrected, "Yeah, I never get that stuff right.")

But now I see the Happy Catholic saying the same damnfool thing:
That's the only explanation I have for someone who says we pray "to" a saint (instead of ask him to pray with us or for us)....
And I am forced to conclude that, either Republicans are generally imbeciles, or a lot of Catholics in the United States live in fear of Protestants saying bad things about them.

Both may be true, of course, but I'm more concerned with the second possibility.

Here's the thing:

Catholics pray to saints.


No quotation marks.

No "if you look it up in the dictionary."


And if that upsets some Protestants, so what?

Because guess what. If you add all the quotation marks and in-a-senses and distinctions and but-that-doesn't-means and qualifications and apologies and forelock-tugging you like, those Protestants will still say bad things about you.

Own your faith, for crying out loud. As Carla Tortelli said, this isn't a religion for wusses.


On the political question of the day

Put not your trust in princes:
In the children of men, in whom there is no salvation.


A keen point

A couple of times, St. Thomas makes use of the following analogy from Aristotle:

Understanding is to Willing
A Principle is to the End
A Conclusion is to the Means

In other words, the means are like the conclusion of an argument, given that you want to obtain the end:
  1. I want a donut. ["a donut" = the end]
  2. If I buy a donut, I will have a donut.
  3. Therefore, I want to buy a donut. ["to buy a donut" = the means]
This is another way of showing how the means follows [logically] from the end, although we often think of the end as following [chronologically] the means. We may obtain the end after we obtain the means, but we will the means after we will the end.



Sunday, March 21, 2010

Willing ends, willing means

Ten days ago, I blogged on St. Thomas's teaching that we will things we think are good for us.

Now, a thing can be thought to be good -- which is to say that we can desire it -- in three ways: it can be desired for its own sake (this is called a "virtuous good"); it can be desired for the sake of enjoying it (a "pleasurable good"); or it can be desired for the sake of some other good (a "useful good").

In ST I-II,8,2, St. Thomas teaches that the will is concerned both with the end and with the means -- that is to say, both with virtuous and pleasurable goods, which are ends, and with useful goods, which are means. We desire both means and ends with our will.

That said, desiring an end is the fundamental act of the will, while we only desire means because they relate to ends we desire. So it makes sense that we use the verb "to will" primarily for the act of desiring an end, and a different verb -- St. Thomas uses "electio," which can be translated "to choose" -- for the act of desiring a means to an end.

And, to keep things from being too simple, the "simple act of willing," which is the act of desiring an end, which is the act of desiring some virtuous or pleasurable good, is sometimes called "volition."*

I think my convention will be this: If I use the verb "to will" without saying what exactly is being willed, then I mean the simple act of willing an end. But I will also sometimes write "willing the means," meaning the act of desiring a means to an end. (This may be a case where everything makes perfect sense until you try to explain it.)

Article 3 ties it all together: Since acts are specified by their objects, and since the end is a different species of good than the means, it follows that the act of willing a certain end and the act of willing the means to that end are two different acts. They both move the will toward the same end, but the first act moves the will "absolutely" or directly to the end, while the second act moves the will to the end as the reason for willing the means.

By the way, I called the act of willing a certain end "the first act" in that last sentence because it was the first of two acts mentioned in the sentence before. But it's also the first act logically -- you can will the end without willing the means, but you can't will the means without willing the end -- and, often enough if not always, it's first chronologically -- you will the end first, then settle on the means, then will the means.

STILL TO COME: That second act of willing the means will turn out to be the act of intention.

AND MORE: One wrinkle in the above is lumping pleasurable goods in with virtuous goods as ends. Virtuous goods are desired for their own sake, so it makes sense to call them ends. Pleasurable goods, though, are desired for enjoyment, so doesn't that make a pleasurable good a means to the end of enjoyment? We'll iron this out, I hope, when we get to the question on the act of enjoyment.

* This is done to avoid confusion.


Friday, March 19, 2010

From one adorer to another

I see the complete works of St. Peter Julian Eymard are on-line. (In French, but you can't have everything.)

St. Peter Julian was the founder of the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament, whose "mission is to respond to the hungers of the human family with the riches of God's love manifested in the Eucharist."

I mention him today because St. Peter Julian had a special devotion to St. Joseph, and saw in him, whose life was devoted to raising Jesus, the archetype of Eucharistic adorer. Among his writings available in English, I particularly recommend Month of St. Joseph.

Here are some barbarous translations of a few prayers to St. Joseph composed by St. Peter Julian Eymard:
Prayer for placing himself under the protection of the glorious St. Joseph
Great saint, I take you, today and for all my life, as my singular patron, my master, the guide of my heart and my body, my thoughts, my words, my actions, my honor and my goods, my life and my death, and I propose to never forget you but to exalt your holy name and to advance your glory as much as is possible for me. I thus beg you, O great holy Joseph, to receive me as your perpetual servant. Assist me in all my actions and do not abandon me in the hour of my death.

Prayer to present his heart to Saint Joseph
My sweet Saint Joseph, I prostrate myself with love and affection at your feet and I entreat you to deign to approve my poor and weak heart that I present to you, with all that I am, giving it entirely to you... Enlighten, if you will, my darkness, making known to me in which state, condition and vocation, I will be able to better do my duty. Lead me by a most perfect way and obtain for me the grace to live my life in holiness, so that I may have the happiness of glorifying , blessing and loving God in your company, through all eternity.

Recourse to Saint Joseph before going on a journey
Most gently, holy Joseph, I beg you to be a faithful guide in the voyage that I wish to make, by the inexpressible work you endured when you led out and brought back Jesus and Mary from Israel. I ask you to assist me on this occasion and to obtain for me the grace to arrive at the desired place. Amen.

Prayer to Saint Joseph to live in peace
O great saint, by the affliction and great distress in which you found yourself when you had resolved to separate yourself from the Blessed Virgin, your pure wife, and by the joy which you felt when the angel informed you of the sacred mystery of the Incarnation, I beg you that from now on I may live with everyone in most perfect peace.

Prayer for the grace to aspire to perfection
Most gentle, holy Joseph, I beg from you, by the holiness, the graces, and the gifts with which your heart was decorated to make you the worthy husband of the Virgin Mary, mother of my divine Savior, I entreat you to make it possible, through your intercession, for me to achieve a degree of virtuous and perfect living so as to be thus a worthy residence of the Holy Spirit.


Thursday, March 18, 2010

St. Augustine on the fatherhood of St. Joseph

From The Harmony of the Gospels, II, i (emphases added):
2. The evangelist Matthew has commenced his narrative in these terms: "The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham." By this exordium he shows with sufficient clearness that his undertaking is to give an account of the generation of Christ according to the flesh. For, according to this, Christ is the Son of man, a title which He also gives very frequently to Himself, thereby commending to our notice what in His compassion He has condescended to be on our behalf....

Matthew therefore traces out the human generation of Christ, mentioning His ancestors from Abraham downwards, and carrying them on to Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born. For it was not held allowable to consider him dissociated from the married estate which was entered into with Mary, on the ground that she gave birth to Christ, not as the wedded wife of Joseph, but as a virgin.... Moreover, the mere fact that he had not begotten Him by act of his own, was no sufficient reason why Joseph should not be called the father of Christ; for indeed he could be in all propriety the father of one whom he had not begotten by his own wife, but had adopted from some other person.

3. ...[Luke], instead of naming Mary His only parent, had not the slightest hesitation in also speaking of both parties as His parents, when he says: "And the boy grew and waxed strong, filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was in Him: and His parents went to Jerusalem every year at the feast of the passover." ... Since, then, he also makes the statement that Christ was born, not in consequence of Joseph's connection with the mother, but simply of Mary the virgin, how can he call him His father, unless it be that we are to understand him to have been truly the husband of Mary, without the intercourse of the flesh indeed, but in virtue of the real union of marriage; and thus also to have been in a much closer relation the father of Christ, in so far as He was born of his wife, than would have been the case had He been only adopted from some other party?


Happy St. Joseph's Day!

As a Solemnity, today is about 30 hours long.

Hooray for St. Joseph!


Wednesday, March 17, 2010

How old am I?

As I was leaving work this evening, a co-worker more than twenty years my junior said, "Happy Saint Patrick's Day!"

This brought me up short. I'd been working with her most of the day, and only now does she think to mention St. Patrick's Day. The day's over! It's practically St. Cyril's of Jerusalem Day. Why bring it up now, when it's almost nighttime?


Consequentialism, specifically

A while back, I suggested that, a) while there may not be any textbook solipsists out there over the age of nineteen -- people who believe they are the only beings that exist, and that they are just imagining everyone and everything else; b) there are a lot of people who act as though they are the only being that exists, or at least the only one that counts; and c) we can call these people solipsists, too.

I am reminded of this by a sentence in the statement of Fr. Brian Harrison, OS, posted on Catholic and Enjoying It! yesterday. (Yes, it's all in the context of the torture debate, but I'm not now writing on that debate as such.)

After allowing that Marc Thiessen is mistaken on his ideas of pacifism and the principle of double effect, Fr. Harrison adds:
Nevertheless, I regard as manifestly unjust the accusation that Thiessen is guilty of "consequentialism" in a sense that would involve dissent from any teachings of the Church's magisterium.
Having myself accused Thiessen of consequentialism, this statement interests me.

I think the teachings of the Church's magisterium Fr. Harrison has in mind come chiefly from Veritatis Splendor, which says that consequentialism "maintain[s] that it is never possible to formulate an absolute prohibition of particular kinds of behaviour" [n 75, emphasis added], and that consequentialist theories "are not faithful to the Church's teaching, when they believe they can justify, as morally good, deliberate choices of kinds of behaviour contrary to the commandments of the divine and natural law."

Now, it is simply a fact that Marc Thiessen maintains that it is possible to formulate an absolute prohibition of particular kinds of behavior. Insofar as consequentialism maintains the opposite, he is an anti-consequentialist.

This raises the question, how far is that? In other words, how much does "consequentialism" imply that it is never possible to absolutely prohibit any kind of behavior?

I suggest that, in the walk-about world of people as we find them, the answer is, "Not much."

Consequentialism is different from solipsism in that there do seem to be textbook consequentialists who do insist the morality of every act depends solely on a calculation of foreseeable consequences (see VS 75).

But few people have such categorical moral views, whether consequentialist or otherwise. Most people, I think, have a patchwork moral system, partly rigorous and inviolable, partly highly flexible, partly lies told to children. An academic theologian looking for academic consequentialism will not find much outside the academy; in particular, he's unlikely to find it in a person who "didn't get into the Catholic theological stuff of [waterboarding] until I sat down to write the book" defending it.

Let me propose that "consequentialism" may be used as a generic term, referring to the act of judging the morality of an act solely from its consequences. This is a broader sense than is found in VS, but I'm looking at the question, "Is it true?," not, "Is it dissent from any teachings of the Church's magisterium?"

I will further propose two specific types of consequentialism: doctrinal or textbook consequentialism, the formal moral system described and condemned in VS; and common or garden consequentialism, the unsystematic application of consequentialist reasoning to particular moral questions. We might also call these "consequentialism of conviction" and "consequentialism of convenience," respectively. (Or maybe we trash the species of consequentialism line and say the former is the habit and the latter the act?)

If we may call an individual act of judging the morality of an act solely from its consequences an act of consequentialism, then it doesn't follow that someone is not a consequentialist if he is not one in the sense that would involve dissent from any teachings of the Church's magisterium.




At one time, March 17 was a date on which the person of St. Patrick was celebrated.

Later on, March 17 was a date on which the culture of Ireland was celebrated.

Nowadays, March 17 is a date on which the date of March 17 is celebrated.


Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Gibbons Equality,
or, I don't care whose it is, an ox will be gored

A lot of blog posts about the USCCB emphasize the limited competence of bishops when dealing with practical political matters.

At the same time, a lot of other blog posts emphasize the doctrinal authority of bishops when they teach about the application of morality to political matters.

And I mean "at the same time" literally. Which kind of post shows up on which blog on any given day depends on which political party's interests are in any way being met with uncooperative behavior by the bishops. But if you find one kind of post on one kind of blog, you will find the other kind of post on another kind of blog.

Hence, the Gibbons Equality:

On any given day, the likelihood of a "limited competence" post on a conservative Catholic's blog equals the likelihood of a "doctrinal authority" post on a liberal Catholic's blog.


On any given day, the likelihood of a "limited competence" post on a liberal Catholic's blog equals the likelihood of a "doctrinal authority" post on a conservative Catholic's blog.

I've seen a number of "limited competence" posts on liberal Catholic blogs recently, which of course means there are a number of recent "doctrinal authority" posts on conservative Catholic blogs . The USCCB must be doing something that in some way can be interpreted as uncooperative with the Democratic Party's political interests.


Ecclesiae sanctae lumen

The New Liturgical Movement quotes a press release from the Birmingham Oratory:
The Fathers and many friends of the English Oratories are delighted by the official announcement that our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI will beatify our founder, the Venerable John Henry Newman, in the Archdiocese of Birmingham during his visit to Britain in September.
Capital news!

I read Apologia Pro Vita Sua as a young(er) man, having picked it up in a theological bookstore under the impression that this fellow was the fellow from Philadelphia whose canonization had made a bit of buzz some years before. A happy fault on my part, though I suspect each fellow would claim the other was the greater.


Signs of life

The first half of the Gospel According to St. John is sometimes called the Book of Signs, since it structures Jesus' ministry around the frame of a series of seven signs:
  1. The turning of water into wine at Cana
  2. The cure of the royal official's son
  3. The cure of the paralytic at the pool
  4. The multiplication of loaves
  5. The walking on water
  6. The cure of the man born blind
  7. The raising of Lazarus
One of the lessons implied by writing of Jesus in this way is that, as disciples of Jesus, we ourselves are signs.

Note that I didn't write, "we ourselves are to be signs." We don't have a choice in the matter. We are signs, whether we like it or not. Just ask Lazarus, whose life was plotted against because, merely by being alive, he was a sign of Jesus' power over death.

What we can choose, individually and communally, is what we are a sign of.

Am I a sign of God's love for the world? Of His power to transform lives, and even to bring us into His own eternal life? Or am I a sign of His indifference, irrelevance, or even hatred? Am I a sign that God is just another god, Whose followers do as the pagans do?

Most of us, I'd guess, are mixed signs, changeable and confusing to those who read us. That's the human condition, but it's still a false sign, because God Himself is steadfast and clear. We are to strive to become perfect, not out of fear of damnation, but because anything less than perfection is a false sign of our Lord and Savior. Or, as Jesus said of the man born blind, so that the works of God might be made visible through us.


Monday, March 15, 2010

Telling 'em what I'm going to tell 'em

While I'm at it, let me do a little spadework on ST I-II, qq 8-16, a schematic of which I gave in a post the other day.

We humans can want things. We can want things we see, touch, hear, taste, or smell, and we can want things we think of. The power to want things we think of is called the will.*

So "the will" is a power we have, and according to St. Thomas this power to want things acts in two ways: it can act immediately; and it can act by commanding other powers to do things (ST I-II, 6, 4).

St. Thomas distinguishes six different immediate acts of the will; three are in relation to the end, and three are in relation to the means:
  1. Volition is the act of wanting some end. This is the "simple act of the will" we mean when we say "I want" or "I will that."**
  2. Intention is the act of wanting some end by means of something else. Where by volition I simply want something, by intention I want to do what it takes to obtain what I want.
  3. Enjoyment is the act of... can I just say it's the act of enjoying some end?***
  4. Consent is the act of approving some means to an end. (The means is identified by the intellect by an act of counsel.)
  5. Choice is the act of wanting a particular means to which consent has been given.
  6. Use is the act of executing the chosen means by application of the appropriate powers under the will's control.
Skipping the activity diagrams for now: An act of volition ("I want a donut") precedes an act of intention ("I want to get a donut"). If the act of volition concludes successfully, an act of enjoyment may follow ("Yum!").

As for the means: Acts of consent approve of certain means identified by the intellect ("I can buy a donut," "I can make a donut"). An act of choice selects the particular means ("I can buy a donut"). Acts of use then carry out the means (" I'm reaching for my wallet...").

A final note: For each of these acts, St. Thomas asks whether irrational animals are capable of them, and concludes that they are not. These questions are relevant because St. Thomas considers all of these acts to be "acts pertaining to man," and therefore more closely associated with our final end than those acts that pertain to both humans and the other animals.

* To get fancy, the power to want something is called an "appetite," the power to want something we can sense is the "sensitive appetite," and the power to want something we can think of is the "intellectual appetite." To get really fancy, we don't just sense things, we "apprehend them by sense," and we don't just think of things, we "apprehend them by intellect" or "by reason."

** A variant of volition, which St. Thomas mentions just once, is "nolition," the act of not wanting some evil end. I think I see why he mentions it, and also why he doesn't mention it again.

*** If you like, you could translate St. Thomas's "fruitione" as "fruition" instead of "enjoyment." At least that way, you can say "fruition is the act of enjoying some end," and feel like you've said something nontrivial.



Saturday, March 13, 2010

Chester Arthur Burnett, STL
If you ain't got no money, you got the blues, 'cause you're thinking evil. That's right. Anytime you thinking evil, you thinking about the blues. -- Howlin' Wolf


A shorter schema

I should have done this a while ago, but... well, you get what you pay for.

Anyway, what I'm trying to do is work my way through the section of St. Thomas's Summa Theologiae that deals with acts that are proper to man. (If I finish that, we'll see whether I go on to the second part of the full Treatise on Human Acts, which deals with the passions that are proper to both man and other animals.)

This two-part discussion of human acts comes immediately after the discussion of human happiness (ST I-II, 1-5). St. Thomas explains why:
Since therefore Happiness must be gained by means of certain acts, we are obliged consequently to consider human acts, in order to know by what acts we may obtain Happiness, and by what acts we are prevented from obtaining it.
There, in forty words, is the explanation for studying morality. Not to pass an examination, not to beguile the hours with a pleasant pastime, but to obtain Happiness.

He goes on:
And since Happiness is man's proper good, those acts which are proper to man have a closer connection with Happiness than have those which are common to man and the other animals.
So he starts with Acts Proper to Man.

His discussion is structured thusly (click to enlarge):

So far, I've blogged on qq 6-7. As you recall, in q 6, a 4, St. Thomas teaches that
The act of the will is twofold: one is its immediate act, as it were, elicited by it, namely, "to wish"; the other is an act of the will commanded by it, and put into execution by means of some other power, such as "to walk" and "to speak," which are commanded by the will to be executed by means of the motive power.
The "immediate act" elicited by the will is discussed in qq 8-16:

The act of the will that commands other powers -- that is, that causes you to actually do something beyond merely wishing to do it -- is covered in q 17.

As you can see from the second diagram, St. Thomas teaches that we can wish an end three different ways: acts of volition; acts of enjoyment; and acts of intention. Right now, I'm one article into the three questions that treat the will's immediate act of volition.

(And, at the risk of spoiling things, I can say that the answer to the question in the first diagram, "What distinguishes human acts?" is whether an act is good or evil.)



Thursday, March 11, 2010

Being of good will

In ST I-II, 8, St. Thomas takes up the question of what the will wills.

The first article makes the narrow but important point that we can only will what we think is good for us. This is because goodness is existence under the aspect of desirability, and we can't want what has no existence even in thought. In particular, everything we want has to have the property of somehow suiting us (though this property may exist only in our mind).

I say it's a narrow point because it's practically a tautology: I can only desire something that I find desirable.

I say it's an important point because it can help us to understand how and why people (particularly ourselves) make evil choices. Our will operates on our apprehension of things, not on the things themselves.* To the extent we misapprehend things -- by seeing something that isn't there, or not seeing something that is there -- we are likely to will things we shouldn't or not will things we should.

The first objection to the teaching that we only will the good is that all human powers operate on opposites. Just as sight can see white and black, so the will should be able to will good and evil. St. Thomas answers this by saying that the will regards evil as a thing to be shunned. He proposes that we should speak of "volition" as the will's act of desiring good, and of "nolition" as the will's act of shunning evil (in Latin, that's "voluntas" and "noluntas").

The second objection, that rational powers can be directed toward opposite purposes, is answered by observing that the opposite purposes to which the will can be directed are things like "staying here" and "going there," but they're all desired insofar as they are good.

The third objection I've already alluded to. For a thing to be good, it has to exist, but we can want things that don't exist, or we can want to not do or not have something. St. Thomas calls such negations, privations, and future things "beings of reason;" as I put it above, they "exist only in our mind."

(Talk of "beings of reason" may strike some as a "define 9 as prime"-type dodge to excuse saying things that don't exist have existence. Actually, though, every good we will is a "good of reason," whether associated with an act or a non-act, because every good we will is a good as it exists in our own mind.)

Curiously, St. Thomas doesn't enumerate the objection I often hear, which is that people can and do will evil things because they are evil. My answer to that objection is that to will something is to desire it, and to be desired is to be perceived as good. In other words, "to desire something evil as evil" is a contradiction in terms. In the case of a person of perverse will who says he wants to do things that are evil because they are evil, then, the perversion lies in perceiving evil things as good, not in willing evil as evil.

* The will is the rational appetite; both it and the sensitive appetite** operate on apprehension. Our bodies also have what St. Thomas calls a "natural appetite," which includes such inclinations as falling in air and floating in water. The natural appetite operates, not on how things are apprehended, but on how they actually are -- Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner being noted exceptions. (The former's natural appetite for falling is controlled by his rational apprehension of standing in mid-air; the latter, having never studied law, never does apprehend gravity.)

** The sensitive appetite comprises the concupiscible powers of love, hatred, concupiscence, delight, and sorrow; and the irascible powers of hope, despair, fear, daring, and anger. See ST I-II, qq 22-48.



The website for the Lay Dominicans of England, Scotland, and Wales

It's here. Link via Godzdogz.


Definite problems

There are many way of telling this joke. Here's mine:
Three people apply for a job as a mathematician. They are each asked, "Are all odd numbers greater than 1 prime?"

The first applicant says, "Hmm... 3... 5... 7... 9 -- wait! 9 isn't prime. So no, all odd numbers greater than 1 aren't prime."

The second applicant says, "Hmm... 3... 5... 7... yep, all odd numbers greater than 1 are prime."

The third applicant says, "Hmm... 3... 5... 7... 9... If we define 9 to be prime...."
This may well be the funniest math joke I've ever heard.

But, though sucking the humor from this joke is like sucking the marrow from a sparrow's wingbone, I will try:

Humans have the ability to take evidence, even proof, that their opinion is wrong, and misinterpret it in a way that makes it evidence, maybe even proof, that their opinion is right. We should try not to use this ability.


My favorite novena to St. Joseph

First time in three years I've mentioned this in time for someone to see this, start it, and finish on St. Joseph's Day.
Every day for nine days, turn to St. Joseph in spirit four times during the day and honor him in the following four points. (These "visits" may be made anywhere -- at home, at work, on the street, in the car or bus -- and at any time.)
  1. During the first visit, consider St. Joseph's fidelity to grace. Reflect upon the action of the Holy Ghost in his soul. At the conclusion of this brief meditation, thank God for so honoring St. Joseph, and ask, through his intercession, for a similar grace.
  2. Later in the day, consider St. Joseph's fidelity to the interior life. Study his spirit of recollection. Think, thank God, and ask.
  3. Later still, consider St. Joseph's love for Our Lady. Think, thank God, and ask.
  4. Finally, in a fourth visit, reflect upon St. Joseph's love for the Divine Child. Think, thank God, and ask.
Quoted from here, from a warmly recommended little booklet of prayers to St. Joseph.


Tuesday, March 09, 2010

A heart-filled model

You have, I expect, heard Alexander Solzhenitsyn's widely-quoted line from The Gulag Archipelago:
... the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts.

The daily task of the Christian is to move his heart further and further into the good.

Now suppose the Christian places his heart next to another heart. Not above it, not below it, certainly not opposed to it, but next to it, with each heart aligned to that line separating good and evil.

What can the Christian do then but try to move the heart lying more on the evil side of the line toward the good side?

This is a simplified model, of course. In general, parts of both hearts may need to move for the line to take the same path through each. Zeal for the good is the fuel, though, regardless of which heart is being moved.

Once two hearts are aligned (more or less), they may move together toward perfection.

That would make for a good day's work.


Bad News From Iraq

A letter from Sr Donna Markham, O.P., Prioress of the Adrian Dominicans:
Dear Sisters,

This evening I have received very tragic news about the situation in Iraq. I have just returned from being with the 5 Iraqi sisters who are with us in Adrian. Today, all the Christians have fled from Mosul.

There have been murders and rapes of Christians there and for now they are fleeing to the Christian villages. Sister Maria is very frightened about the safety of the sisters and the Christian people. As of now, the five elderly sisters who have been holding down the Motherhouse are choosing to remain there because they do not want to lose their Motherhouse to the terrorists. She said most Christians are making plans to evacuate from Iraq and, as a consequence, she does not know what will happen with her Congregation. She said they will follow the Christian people where they go, but where that will be is uncertain. The sisters' families remain in grave danger and, as you can imagine, the young ones with us and with Springfield are terrified. As of now, nothing is being reported in the US press. She asks if any of us know people in Washington whom we could contact and tell the story, to please do so. Most importantly, she asks for our prayers.

Love, Sr. Donna
Via Fr. Philip.

This, of course, is on top of other bad news.

But, hey, at least "the United States will continue to work closely with the Iraqi people as we expand our broad-based partnership based on mutual interest and mutual respect." So they've got that going for them.

UPDATE: This letter from Sr. Donna was written on February 25. I have no more recent news of the Sisters in Mosul.


Monday, March 08, 2010

The servant's no prince

Naaman's problem was that he thought he knew the score -- important men do the important things in important ways -- but he was wrong.

That's not to say unimportant men are always better.

The story of Naaman continues after his healing, with Elisha refusing all gifts and approving Naaman's plan to worship only the LORD (with the help of some dirt from around Elisha's house) while still bowing when the King of Aram bows in the temple of Rimmon.

Although Elisha sends Naaman home in peace, Elisha's servant Gehazi figures he should grift something from the still-grateful Aramean. He cons Naaman, then lies to Elisha about it; when all is said and done, he has gained:
  • two talents silver
  • two festal garments
  • leprosy for himself and his descendants forever
A memorable day.

If Naaman is an example of learning to let God act in your life in ways you have not spelled out for Him ahead of time, Gehazi is an example of not learning even as you see God acting in the lives of those around you. He is an antitype of Judas, selling something holy (in his case, the reputation of Elisha) for monetary gain, and finding it a bad bargain.


Hint: Probably not Elisha

Naaman the Aramean comes across as a believable human being in 2 Kings 5. This should not reassure the rest of us human beings, since his instinct is to prefer a lifetime of leprosy to an hour of humility.

At the climax of the story, Naaman's servants ask him, "If the prophet had told you to do something extraordinary, would you not have done it?" He sees the reason in their argument, and washes himself clean in the Jordan.

From the very beginning, though, this is a story of great men who should but don't always listen to slaves and servants. The young Irsaelite slave girl gets things started, but she was evidently not invited to discuss matters -- minor things, like the name of the prophet -- with the King of Aram and the commander of his army.

This leads in due course to some unlamented anguish for the king of Israel, who apparently never considers the possibility that the rumor of a prophet might be true -- until a servant arrives with the message that Elisha's on the case.

It may have been the same servant who delivered the message that so angered Naaman. For that matter, the messenger himself angered Naaman, who wanted the prophet to appear in person to do something, I don't know, prophety.

In the end, Naaman is cured because his wife listened to her servant, the king of Israel listened to Elisha's servant, and Naaman himself listened to his own servants (is it beating this drum too hard to point out that he listened to them when they addressed him as "father"?). The great men he preferred to deal with were mere conduits to... a bath in a river. It took ordinary men to know better than to look down on ordinary means.

So here comes the usual question: Who am I in this story? Or, better: When am I which person in this story?


Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Comment service acting up

For some reason, the comments on most of the "Treatise on Human Acts" posts don't seem to be showing up. My apologies.


Reviewing the circumstances

To sum up the question on circumstances:
  • Anything that relates to an act, but doesn't help determine what specific type of act is done, is a circumstance. A circumstance can change without changing the type of act.
  • Circumstances are morally relevant when they affect how aligned the act is to the actor's final end of happiness with God.
  • Who, what, when, where, why, how, with what: Answer these questions, and you know all the circumstances. Fr. Walter Farrell, OP, in his wonderful A Companion to the Summa, goes as far as to say:
    As a matter of fact, when we have run through these circumstances and discovered who did the thing, where it was done and why, when it was accomplished and how, and who helped, we have covered all there is to know about the event. We not only have a view of the neighbourhood, we have the whole family history and a fairly accurate prediction of the future.
  • If an answer to who, what, when, where, why, how, or with what does help determine the specific type of the act -- meaning that if it changed then the type of act would change -- then it's not a circumstance. Rather, it's a condition.
  • The most important circumstances are why an act is done and what the effect of the act is.
On the second to the last point, determining whether something is a condition or a circumstance seems to be a large part of moral theology.

On the last point, it seems to me that the why and the what meet in the object, so to speak. The object of my act is the immediate end I will; but insofar as that immediate end results in a change to the way things are before I act, it is also an effect. (This further suggests, I think, that both the why and the what at least partly touch on the formal cause.)



Tuesday, March 02, 2010

The most important circumstances

In the fourth and final article on the circumstances of human acts, St. Thomas explains why St. Gregory of Nyssa was right to say that "why" and "what" are the two most important circumstances. (Okay, technically he's explaining why Aristotle was right to say the same thing. But St. Gregory provides the sed contra.)

An act is human insofar as it is voluntary, and it is voluntary insofar as the will is freely moved, and the will is freely moved insofar as there is some end it desires. So the circumstance that touches on the end of the act is the one that is most closely linked to what makes the act a human act, and that circumstance is the "why."

Subsequent tradition has certainly agreed with the two Doctors. Philosophically speaking, the intention of an act is a circumstance, but in moral theology intention is promoted to a distinct component of the human act, separate from the rest of the circumstances. (For that matter, the third component, the object, is also an end, albeit one that, as St. Thomas mentioned in Article 3 ad 3, is a condition and not a circumstance.)

Second only to the end in importance is what most directly touches the substance of the act, which per St. Thomas is the "what" of the act. Again, this may be better thought of as "what is effected," so as not to confuse it with e.g. the "what we do" that is the objective component of the act in the U.S. Catholic Catechism for Adults. The importance of the circumstance "what" in moral theology is reflected no least in the importance of the principle of double effect, according to which a single unintended bad effect can put the kibosh on an act regardless of other, less important (i.e., non-end-related and non-effect-related) circumstances.

As for those other, less important circumstances, for a given act they are ranked in importance based on how closely they approach the end or the substance of the act.

The objections to this ranking seem a bit pro-forma:
  • When Aristotle say that "in which the act is" is the second-most important circumstance, doesn't he mean "time and place," which aren't very important at all? No, he means "what."
  • The end is altogether outside the act. How can it be the most important circumstance? Because it's the most important cause of the act.
  • Aren't "who" and "mode of acting" the cause and form of the act, in which case aren't they the most important circumstances? No, in which case no.
Okay, the final reply is a little more interesting than that: While the "who" is the primary efficient cause, the efficient cause is not as important as the final cause; moreover, "who" includes a lot of circumstances that aren't very important to the act at all (which is not true of "why").

Meanwhile, it seems that students commonly took "mode of acting" to mean something more than it does. As was explained back in Article 2, it only adds certain accidental qualities to an act, and as such is not of major importance.



Monday, March 01, 2010

Conditioned acts

As I mentioned before, St. Thomas follows Aristotle in regarding the final, efficient, and material causes of an act -- the "why," the "who," the "by what aids," and the "about what" -- as circumstances of the act. Which is to say, he sees these causes as accidents, things that could be otherwise without changing the substance of the act.

Hold it right there, says Objection 3 of ST I-II, 7, 3. What do you mean, the causes of the act don't change the substance? The person who performs the act is, as you say, the principal efficient cause, and you're trying to tell me the person who performs the act doesn't affect the substance of the act? So me spending my money and you spending my money are substantially the same act? What kind of cockamamie theory of human acts is this? (I develop the objection somewhat beyond its written form.)

In reply, St. Thomas allows that there can be conditions of the various causes that do affect the substance of the act, and that these conditions are not circumstances. Whose money is being spent, for example, is a condition of the act, not a circumstance, since it can change the act from "use of one's own property" to "theft"; the circumstance in this case would be whether a lot or a little money is being spent.

That said, the various causes can and do give rise to circumstances of acts that don't change the substance. When the act is "use of one's own property," the "who" is constrained to the owner, but when the act is "theft," the "who" could be pretty much anyone else and it would still be theft.

The final cause always has at least one condition associated with it: the object of the act, which is to say the proximate end sought that determines what kind of act is being performed. Remoter ends, though, are always circumstances, because they can't modify the substance of the act itself. This is why knowing that a person has done something only tells you that he wanted to do it, not why he wanted to.

As lagniappe, St. Thomas adds that the effect of the act, which brings in the circumstance "what,"* can also include conditions that change the substance of the act. The example he uses is of washing someone with water: it's a condition of the act of washing someone that you wash them by the act of pouring water over them. Other effects -- he catches a chill, he gets scalded, and so forth -- are circumstances.

* I think "what is effected" might be clearer in meaning, if less precise a translation of "quid agitur" than the "what is done" the standard English translation of the Summa uses.