instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Resolving terminology

WHEREAS the term "pro-life" was coined in 1973 by anti-abortion advocates to present their position in a positive light; and

whereas attempts to insist that the term always bear a broader meaning are therefore unfounded acts of spurious etymology; and

whereas my own proposal for broadening the meaning went exactly nowhere; and

whereas criticism of persons and organizations who identify themselves as "pro-life" that are based on arguments that they do not advocate every position that might be implied if the term had a broader meaning is therefore ill-founded; and

whereas such criticism is very often ad hominem political posturing;

Therefore I am resolved to let people say "pro-life" if they mean "anti-abortion," while at the same time reserving the right to ask, "Yes, but Great, and are they pro-Fifth Commandment?"

UPDATE: Reserved question reworded to be less obnoxious confrontational.


Thursday, May 26, 2011

A lapse in judgment

Mark Shea links to a curious article by moral theologian Janet Smith in First Things, in which she argues that St. Thomas was wrong to conclude that "false signification" -- what normal people would call "lying" -- is always sinful.

The nub or crux of their disagreement is this:
  • St. Thomas taught that every lie is a sin -- more precisely, that every act by which "a person intends to say what is false" is "evil in respect of its genus" -- because, "as words are naturally signs of intellectual acts, it is unnatural and undue for anyone to signify by words something that is not in his mind."
  • Prof. Smith thinks it can be both natural and due to signify by words something that is not in your mind.
That much is unremarkable; the list of Church Fathers and Doctors who disagree with St. Thomas on this point is probably longer than the list of those who agree. What I find curious is how much attention Prof. Smith pays to why St. Thomas was wrong:
The mistake that Aquinas makes (and those words do stick in my throat!) is that he analyzes the question of lying with a prelapsarian understanding of the purpose of signification—an understanding that presumes the innocence of man before the Fall.
There follows, in the remaining 1,800 words, fifteen more mentions of "-lapsarian" things, both "pre-" and "post-."

That's a whole bunch of lapsarianism.

What makes it odd is that none of it is necessary. If she had left out the whole -lapsarian angle, if she had left it at, "This is what he says is the nature of speech, this is what I say it is, and this is why what I say it is is right," then she wouldn't have had to beg the question of whether there is a prelapsarian nature of speech different from a postlapsarian nature.

As it is, by allowing that "the purpose of signification in the postlapsarian world" is not "the same as that in the prelapsarian world," she is obliged, I think, to explain how the Fall changed the nature of speech. Not just the circumstances in which we might speak, but what speech is. If St. Thomas was right about what speech was before the Fall, and if the Fall didn't change what speech is, then St. Thomas is right about what speech is now.

Explaining how the Fall changed the nature of speech is a tall order -- one not made easier by the fact that we hold by faith that the unchanging God spoke to Adam and continued to speak to fallen man. Had Prof. Smith hewn to Ockham's Razor and not made her thesis more complicated than necessary, she wouldn't have that obligation, and she might even have come up with better arguments for her position than, "What culture doesn’t permit spying, police sting operations, and research programs involving deception, let alone jocose lies and social courtesies involving falsehood?"


Wednesday, May 25, 2011

A winning issue

In a comment on a post below, Sherry Weddell writes:
A while back, I was speaking at a conference with Archbishop Chaput and listened to him passionately plead with his audience to GO INTO POLITICS. But all his audience wanted to talk about was how to force their bishop to issue statements - as though that make the parties all jump to attention.
True, episcopal statements change few minds. And there's an irony in the fact that the people I've run into who are most vocal about the need for their bishop to issue a statement are similarly vocal about how untrustworthy their bishop is as shepherd.

Nevertheless, focusing on getting your bishop to issue statements is a winning proposition.
  • If your bishop does what you want him to do -- he issues a statement you want him to issue; he doesn't issue a statement you don't want him to issue -- then your righteousness has been confirmed.
  • If your bishop doesn't do what you want him to do -- he doesn't issue a statement you want him to issue; he issues a statement you don't want him to issue -- then your righteous indignation has been confirmed.
Either way, you're in clover.


Monday, May 23, 2011

But compared to his brother, this man was a saint!

As Robert King points out in a comment, a parallel question to that asked in my previous post could be asked of Catholic Democrats:

How about if, instead of arm-twisting Catholics to vote for lousy Democratic candidates, you arm-twist Democrats to nominate good candidates?

Honestly, though, I don't know how many Catholic Democrats there are who arm-twist other Catholics to vote Democratic and are themselves still capable of arm-twisting other Democrats.

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Friday, May 20, 2011

In law, it's called "extortion"

In politics, it's called "annexation."

In pro-life Catholic circles, it's called "voter guides."

Here's a thought: How about if, instead of arm-twisting Catholics to vote for lousy Republican candidates, you arm-twist Republicans to nominate good candidates?

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Saturday, May 14, 2011

A useful illustration

In a perfectly reasonable comment on the post below, Philip writes:
The lesser evil is still evil. I agree. Though as Catholics we are sometimes faced with individuals who advocate evil who are running for office. Can we vote for them?
In writing this, he makes his own small contribution to perpetuating the cycle of candidates who advocate evil.

Can we vote for individuals who advocate evil who are running for office?


We can't vote for them. We can't vote for them because there are no elections being held today.

Why is anyone talking about voting? Now is not the time to talk about voting. Now is the time to talk about promoting candidates who don't advocate evil.

If instead of talking today about what we should do today, we talk today about what we should do in a year and a half, we are acting in a way that turns false dilemmas into real ones.

Why do we do this?

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Next year's dilemma is this year's false dilemma

A few responses to a few responses to my post below that asked what the hell is wrong with Republican Catholics (some of these responses were eaten during this week's flu):

1. That a candidate may not agree that waterboarding is torture is irrelevant to the question of whether he supports torture. If anything, that he supports torture without realizing it is grounds for rejecting a candidate as too muddle-headed for the job.

2. And yes, the Church has not officially taught that waterboarding is torture. But I'm not stating that waterboarding is torture because it's Catholic doctrine. I'm stating it because it's true.

3. My issue here is not with politicians. My issue here is with Roman Catholics who enthusiastically endorse politicians who advocate grave evil. If Catholics didn't vote for these politicians, they wouldn't be politicians anymore, they'd be cable news pundits. As Anita Moore says in a comment below:
We're not going to get candidates who don't advocate grave evil until we repent, convert and otherwise straighten up.
4. The proportionality argument -- that the other party's grave evils are much more grave and evil than our party's -- is a complete nonstarter.

Let me retype that, since the proportionality argument ("70% Less Evil Than The Other Leading Brand!") is a popular one:

Whether torture is a less important issue than abortion is completely irrelevant today.

Today is May 14, 2011. The general election for U.S. President is a year and a half away. The ballots have not yet been printed. There is no choice to be made today between a candidate who supports torture and a candidate who supports abortion.

Again: There is no choice to be made today between a candidate who supports torture and a candidate who supports abortion.

The choice to be made today is whether I am satisfied with choosing between a candidate who supports torture and a candidate who supports abortion.

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Wednesday, May 11, 2011

What the hell is the matter with Republican Catholics?

In particular, what the hell is the matter with you, Deacon Keith A. Fournier?

A vote for Rick Santorum would be material cooperation in grave evil.

A vote for Tim Pawlenty would be material cooperation in grave evil.

A vote for Herman Cain would be material cooperation in grave evil.

Just say no.

(Image source.)

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In the Spring, a young wombat's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of play

Image stolen from Daily Squee.


Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The ugliest art that mankind is producing

Mark Shea quotes a Barbara Nicolosi podcast:
The art made by Christians today is not only not beautiful, but tends to be among the ugliest art that mankind is producing.
Mark offers a reason:
I think it's the "Little Drummer Boy" effect. Art that sucks (Music=pa rum pa pum pum) is thought to be humble. Art that's good is fancy pants aesthetics that those damn bi-coastal Blue Staters like. So Christians make sucky art and pride themselves on their humility. Til "suck" is decoupled from "humble" the problem will continue.
I'd suggest it's because the Christians making art today tend to be bad artists.
In particular, they aren't concerned with whether their art is good, they're concerned with whether it's Christian. And if you can't distinguish between good art and Christian art, you're a bad artist.


Monday, May 09, 2011

Shed for one unto remission of sins?

In a comment on the post below, Fr. Dismas writes:
If Bin Laden had been the only person to fall to sin, then I believe that our Lord would've done whatever it took to redeem him for this life and the next.
This could make an interesting (and perhaps not altogether pointless) thought experiment: Given what faith and reason tell us about the world as it is, what might be the case in a world in which only one person fell?

The one case I really hope would not occur is that God would save the fallen soul without a free act of repentance on the soul's part. I hope this would not occur because I believe God will not save fallen souls in the cosmos He has created without free acts of repentance on the souls' part, and I don't see why freedom and repentance would be any less important to God in the case of a single person than in the case of everyone.

I don't think God would simply let the person die in his sins without offering him a chance to freely repent. That would be treating a human as though he were an angelic being, at least in St. Thomas's conception; at any rate, it would be treating a human as though we are not capable, with God's help, of changing for the better in time.

Would something like the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection be the means by which God would offer the one fallen man a chance to freely repent? I suppose it might be, although I can't imagine what a crucifixion would look like in a world with only one sinner.

And if it were, if God were to send His Son into the world to redeem this one sinner, would there be any possibility of the sinner not being saved? Can God's word return to Him empty? We know that none of those given to Jesus are lost; the Incarnation was a complete success, if I may, when measured against its purpose. Would an incarnation be a success if the Son did all that was necessary to redeem the one sinner, yet the one sinner wasn't redeemed?

And what does any of this say about God's mercy and salvation, which we are celebrating this Easter Season?


Thursday, May 05, 2011

The consequences of ignorance

In a previous post, I argued that (apart from canonizations and private revelations) we cannot be certain, either by faith or by knowledge, of anyone's eternal fate. Let me mention a few consequences of this fact that may suggest why it is fitting that we lack the capacity for such certainty.

The first reason is related to Brandon Field's comment on my earlier post:
I'm pretty sure that people who want to rejoice at the idea of another person in Hell don't have an accurate concept of Hell.
If some combination of faith and reason provided the means for us to be certain that a particular person is in hell, then sooner or later the doctrine of damnation would become dull. As it is, we've done a good job of losing interest in the Four Last Things. I'm not sure how much of that is due to unfounded certitude, but I think it would be even worse if we were capable of certainty.

Just look at how dull we find the dogma of the Resurrection of Jesus from the Dead. We can barely make it through an Octave before the Resurrection is buried for another year. That, at least, is a dogma we need to know; certainty in the fate of any one person is not.

Another consequence of uncertainty is that we must respect the virtue of hope. Hope lies in the mean between despair and presumption. It's not easy to maintain that balance. Being uncertain about the fate of anyone else helps train us to hope in (rather than presume or despair of) our own salvation.

A third consequence is that we must respect the freedom of others throughout their lives. Though sin weakens the will and vice makes it harder to choose the good, still we believe that up until the moment of death every human being is capable of turning to God, however imperfectly, in repentance and love. This capacity is something we must acknowledge, in others as well as ourselves.

Another consequence is that we ought to be humbled by our limitations. We don't, we can't, know everything about the life to come. We can't pass a final judgment on anyone. We are not God; we are not His deputies; we are not His advisers; we are not His confidants. We are His servants and His children, and that only by His wholly gratuitous love for us.

The final consequence I'll mention is that we cannot mark the limits of God's mercy. We must confess that it is possible that the worst sinner, with no outward sign, be given the grace to ask for and obtain God's forgiveness. This should be cause for wonder and awe -- as well as the humble acknowledgement that our own hope for salvation lies wholly in God's mercy and not at all in our own virtue.


What, never deny? Well, hardly ever

Mark Shea has taken another whack at the "miracle of the hidden fish sandwiches," the false notion that Jesus did not feed multitudes miraculously but that "the real miracle" was His moving the hearts of His listeners to share the food they had brought with each other.

As has been noted, in the comments on Mark's article and elsewhere, the "caring and sharing" story flat-out contradicts the written Gospel accounts (not to mention the Near-Eastern culture of hospitality).

I'd suggest there are two reasons why a person might prefer to contradict the Gospels on this point rather than accept them.

One is good old-fashioned rationalism of the 19th Century German stripe, according to which miracles are impossible. What is a rationalist to do with the six accounts of miraculous multiplication of food? Keep the food, get rid of the miracle.

The other is an attraction to the idea that listening to the words of Jesus can and should move our hearts to charity toward our neighbor. For those thinking along these lines, it's not so much that Jesus could not have multiplied the food as that it would be so much more awesome -- greater evidence of His divinity, even -- if instead He made those in the crowd love each other.

This second reason is not, like the first, a direct rejection of the Catholic faith. It is, however, lousy theology. It's an application of the principle, "When the facts contradict your theory, get rid of the facts."

And while such transparently lousy theology should be trampled underfoot, the trampling should be done while recognizing the good intent of the lousy theologian. It's not true that the Gospel accounts of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes is in a direct sense about the love of neighbor Jesus' disciples must have, but there's nothing wrong with thinking about the love of neighbor we must have when you hear those passages. What is wrong is to think only of that.


Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Are you sure you're sure?

I sympathize with those who are frustrated by the claim that we can't be sure that Osama bin Ladan is in hell. Hell certainly exists, people can certainly be damned, this man's sins were certainly damnable. How can we not be certain he is damned?

But let me ask it the other way: How can we be certain?

There are two ways to be certain, about anything: knowledge and faith. By faith, we are certain of the universal premise, "All who die in unrepentant moral sin are damned."

By knowledge we are certain of ... actually, we aren't certain of anything. We don't know the state of anyone's soul at death (even a canonization or a private revelation gives certainty only by faith).

We may have a pretty darn firm opinion of the particular proposition, "This man died in unrepentant mortal sin." But -- and this just adds to the frustration, especially for think-out-loud moderns -- we have been commanded by God to abandon opinions of that kind of particular proposition.

Rather than being frustrated by the commandment against judging even in the most obvious cases, rather than being frustrated even by those who go too far in saying, "If we can't be certain any one person is damned, we can be certain no one is," we might profitably meditate on the why of the commandment, on the meaning and effects of that epistemological gap, unbridgeable in this life however short it may appear, between the premises we accept by faith and the conclusion we all but can't help jump to.


Sunday, May 01, 2011

Catching up with the de facto

On April 8, 2005, I wrote:
What was shown to two billion people today wasn't only a funeral Mass, it was also an act of canonization.

While waiting for the de jure to catch up with the de facto, I will refer to the late pope as the blessed John Paul.
So, yay!