instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

A call to harms

You may recall that Ezekiel 33:7-9 was the first reading a few weeks back:
You, son of man — I have appointed you as a sentinel for the house of Israel; when you hear a word from my mouth, you must warn them for me.

When I say to the wicked, "You wicked, you must die," and you do not speak up to warn the wicked about their ways, they shall die in their sins, but I will hold you responsible for their blood.

If, however, you warn the wicked to turn from their ways, but they do not, then they shall die in their sins, but you shall save your life.
This passage came to mind in thinking about how fruitless is all the kvetching I see about heterodox Catholics.

More than fruitless, though, it suggests the kvetching might be actively dangerous. A sentinel who does not speak up to warn the wicked about their ways will be held responsible for their blood. Will a sentinel who speaks up in a way morally certain to gratuitously offend the wicked get off any easier?


Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A field guide to smoldering wicks

Following St. Jerome's interpretation of St. Matthew's invocation of Isaiah's "smoldering wick" as signifying "a weak spark of faith in a little one," let me propose three categories of people with a weak spark of faith:
  1. Those who know their faith is weak.
  2. Those who have never thought about whether their faith is weak.
  3. Those who are convinced their faith is strong.
I'm always nervous around people in the first category, for fear that anything I might say to strengthen their faith will wind up snuffing it out.

Those in the second category are at risk of having their faith snuffed out -- by sudden suffering, for example, or even just long-term tepidity -- before they even notice it was only ever smoldering.

Those in the third category are like a man who has built his house on rock, in an earthquake zone. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house, but it did not collapse. Then came the earthquake, and he was lost.


He who distinguishes well, teaches well

Extrapolating from the wearying context, the distinction Ed Peters draws in this post is an interesting one:
Now, although in popular parlance people associate the concept of "infallibility" with teachings to be believed by the faithful, in fact, infallibility also extends to teachings to be "firmly embraced and retained" by the faithful. The difference between the two is not in the degree of certitude to be accorded these distinct kinds or levels of teachings, nor in the degree of irreformability with which each are set forth, but rather, in the virtue by which the faithful come to accept these two types of teachings: through belief in the forever-completed revelation of the Word of God in the former, and through confidence in the continuing guidance of the Holy Spirit in the latter.
In a reflection titled "The Virtue of Confidence," Fr. John Hardon, SJ, draws further distinctions:
There are three words we commonly use together, and they mean almost the same thing, but not quite: hope, trust and confidence. Hope is the assured desire that we shall obtain some future good thing. Trust is the reliance we have on someone that what we hope for we shall obtain. Without trust there can be no hope. We hope to get things, ah yes, but only because we trust someone to give us those things. Confidence is the result of hope and trust. It is the peace of heart that comes from the security which is the result of having an assured hope and a firm trust. We can have confidence only if we first trust, and trusting have hope.
It's a bit... non-self-evident, perhaps, that confidence in God should cause a firm embrace and retention of definitive propositions of the magisterium of the Church. But the question isn't whether we're going to firmly embrace and retain definitive propositions; the question is whose propositions are we going to embrace, and why.


Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Reeds and wicks

In the Catena Aurea, St. Thomas collects a variety of interpretations of Mt. 12:20 (which quotes Isaiah 42:3):
A bruised reed he will not break, a smoldering wick he will not quench, until he brings justice to victory.
We might think of the bruised reeds and smoldering wicks as those opposed to Jesus:
St. Augustine: So He neither bruised nor quenched the Jewish persecutors, who are here likened to a bruised reed which has lost its wholeness, and to a smoking flax which has lost its flame; but He spared them because He was not come to judge them, but to be judged by them.

St. John Chrysostom: The Lord sought to heal the Jews by this mildness. But though they rejected Him, yet He did not resist them by destroying them.... "He shall not break a bruised reed," shews that it was as easy for Him to break them all, as to break a reed, and that a bruised reed. And, "He shall not quench a smoking flax," shews that their rage was fired, and that the power of Christ was strong to quench such rage with all readiness; hence in this is shewn the great mercy of Christ.
Of course, sets of two often remind the Fathers of the Jews and the Gentiles. St. Hilary matches them this way:
He means this bruised reed that is not broken, to shew that the perishing and bruised bodies of the Gentiles, are not to be broken, but are rather reserved for salvation. "He shall not quench a smoking flax," shews the feebleness of that spark which though not quenched, only moulders in the flax, and that among the remnants of that ancient grace, the Spirit is yet not quite taken away from Israel, but power still remains to them of resuming the whole flame thereof in a day of penitence.
St. Jerome proposes it the other way around:
He calls the Jews a bruised reed, whom tossed by the wind and shaken from one another, the Lord did not immediately condemn, but patiently endured; and the smoking flax He calls the people gathered out of the Gentiles, who, having extinguished the light of the natural law, were involved in the wandering mazes of thick darkness of smoke, bitter and hurtful to the eyes; this He not only did not extinguish, by reducing them to ashes, but on the contrary from a small spark and one almost dead He raised a mighty flame.
St. Jerome also proposes a more generic application, which may be the most common today:
He that holds not out his hand to a sinner, nor bears his brother’s burden, he breaks a bruised reed; and he who despises a weak spark of faith in a little one, he benches a smoking flax.
All these interpretations, of course, preserve the basic point of something feeble that ought to be strong, yet toward which God is merciful until the end.

I'll add, though, that reeds and wicks are not inherently images of strength and endurance. If we ourselves are not bruised or smoldering, we might still regard ourselves as not more secure against violence, absent Christ's mercy, than even whole reeds or brightly burning wicks.


Thursday, September 15, 2011

Cheers! (If you know what I mean,

and I think you do.)


Monday, September 12, 2011

To forgive divinely

I heard a perfectly good homily on forgiveness yesterday. Mention was made of the necessity of forgiveness, and much was made of the benefits to the one forgiving.

All very well and true.

And yet...

As Christians, we forgive because God forgives. We forgive in imitation of Jesus, Who forgave because He was God's Son and Image. God forgives because He is love.

God gets no benefit from forgiving us. It doesn't lower His blood pressure; it doesn't free His mind to think on other things. I think you could even say God really doesn't have a reason for forgiving us, in the sense of a reasoned discourse that concludes, "So I'll forgive them." Forgiveness is just what He does.

Now it's certainly true that we do benefit from forgiving each other. We have temporal benefits, of the sort the International Forgiveness Institute (mentioned in the homily I heard) studies. And we have eternal benefits, of the sort Jesus indicates in the Parable of the Wicked Servant.

And it's also true that, forgiveness so often being so difficult, the thought of these benefits can cause us to will to forgive when the thought of being like Jesus and His Father doesn't quite close the sale.

But I'm a little concerned that talk of the benefits of forgiveness can become, de facto, talk of forgiveness as therapy, rather than as Christian discipleship. And once we start valuing something for its natural benefits, we are largely free to set our own value on it. So yes, forgiving your neighbor might lower your anxiety, but hey, if you value your grudge enough, then it's not worth it to forgive your neighbor.

Even if we don't lose track of the commandment to forgive before we ourselves seek forgiveness, I'm not sure that we (by which I mean "I") understand God's forgiveness well enough to pass it so lightly by on the way to discussions of the mechanics and effects of the human act of forgiving.

All of which may only mean I wish I'd heard a somewhat different homily yesterday.


Tuesday, September 06, 2011

A universal solvent

Logicians speak of arguments in terms of validity and soundness. Yet even entirely valid, sound arguments don't always win the day. In fact, it may well be more the rule than the exception that sound reasoning alone fails to persuade others to change their minds.

I have claimed elsewhere that, in the end, the only accepted form of argument is, "Says me." I should have said that's the only verbal argument, because there is another argument, universally accepted as sound in itself and overthrowing all opposition, that requires no words.


Monday, September 05, 2011

As bad as it sounds?

What I was particularly interested in was what the Fathers made of Jesus' command to treat the brother who sins against you and "refuses to listen even to the church... as you would a Gentile or a tax collector."

St. John Chrysostom points out that, when those who actually are Gentiles and tax collectors strike your cheek, you are to offer them your other cheek. St. Jerome concludes that
he is to be more abhorred, who under the name of a believer does the deeds of an unbeliever, than those that are openly gentiles.
St. Augustine points out that a Christian treats even Gentiles and tax collectors in the way a disciple of Jesus ought:
Though even thus we are not to neglect his salvation; for the heathens themselves, that is, the gentiles and pagans, we do not indeed regard in the number of our brethren, yet we ever seek their salvation.
We might then ask, how did Jesus treat Gentiles and tax collectors? How did He expect His disciples to treat them?


Go and tell him his fault

The Church Fathers, as you'd expect, have interesting things to say about Jesus' teaching on what to do "if your brother sins against you."

St. Augustine, for example, presents this teaching as very much a matter of charitable obligation rather than ecclesial administration:
For our rebuke should be in love, not eager to wound, but anxious to amend. If you pass it by, you are become worse than he. He by doing you a wrong hath done himself a great hurt; you slight your brother's wound, and are more to blame for your silence than he for his ill words to you.
He goes on with a word of warning, that we don't always play the part of the wronged one:
And do you confess that by your sin against man you were lost; for if you were not lost, how has he gained you? Let none then make light of it when he sins against his brother.
St. John Chrysostom compares and contrasts the various ways a disciple of Jesus is to react when sinning or sinned against: the offender is to go to the offended (Mt 5:23) before offering his gifts at the altar; the trespassed against is to forgive the trespasser (Mt 6:12); the one sinned against is to go to the sinner (Mt 18:15). God doesn't care who started it, He wants His children to end it.

St. Jerome points out the custom of transferring this teaching somewhat:
If then your brother have sinned against you, or hurt you in any matter, you have power, indeed must needs forgive him, for we are charged to forgive our debtors their debts. But if a man sin against God, it is no longer in our decision. But we do all the contrary of this; where God is wronged we are merciful, where the affront is to ourselves we prosecute the quarrel.
That's not how I'd put it, at least in my case. I figure God can deal with His own affronts, but why else would He be so slow to reprove affronts to me if He didn't want me to prosecute them myself?


Friday, September 02, 2011

Knowledge of gravity

Catholic moral teaching, as we all know, distinguishes between acts that are evil in their object -- and therefore are always and everywhere evil, regardless of circumstances or intentions -- and acts that are not evil in their object -- and therefore may be good, depending on the circumstances and intentions.

Among the acts that are not evil in their object are acts that are, you might say, "presumptively evil." Well, I might say that; a theologian might say something like "evil absent a grave reason." I don't know that they are a formal category of human acts, theologically speaking, but a list of them would include:
  • warfare
  • armed rebellion
  • capital punishment
  • amputation
  • separation from a spouse
  • cooperation with grave evil (the graver the evil, the graver the reason needed)
  • verbal misleading (permitted ex justa causa according to some schools of thought)
  • exposing someone to mortal danger [CCC 2269]
  • divulging private information prejudicial to another [CCC 2491]
And suchlike things.

Now, while the Church does teach that it is up to the actor to determine whether there is a sufficiently grave reason to perform suchlike things, the Church does not teach that the actor can make this determination in any manner he may choose. To the contrary, the Church teaches that the grave reason for which the actor acts is itself subject to objective moral analysis. It is possible to know that an actor -- be it a state in the case of war or a surgeon in the case of amputation -- is wrong in his evaluation of the justification for performing an act that requires a grave reason.

I'll even suggest that a great deal of the Catholic moral tradition is, in one form or another, analysis of the validity of arguments that grave reasons exist to perform acts that require grave reasons. (More generally, it's analysis of the validity of arguments that sufficient reasons exist to justify acts, but acts requiring grave reasons would, I'd say, require more analysis than other acts.)

So it's not really true to say the Church "leaves to the prudential judgment" of an actor the determination of the moral acceptability of an act. The Church only "leaves" us to act under the presumption that our consciences are well-formed in accord with the moral guidance the Church provides. And whether we actually follow well-formed consciences can be known, in certain circumstances, by others.

It's not sufficient, for example, to say of a decision to go to war, "The state knows facts that we do not. Therefore, we can't say going to war was morally wrong." To the extent the argument to go to war is known, it can be evaluated for validity in light of the Catholic moral tradition. An invalid argument does not support its conclusion, even if its premises are true.


Thursday, September 01, 2011

As a reminder,

the fact that Catholic moral teaching holds that a particular species of act is not objectively evil does not imply that any given argument for performing that act is consistent with Catholic moral teaching.

In other words, a particular prudential judgment can be contrary to the moral law, even in matters that the moral law leaves to prudential judgment. This is because reaching a prudential judgment is itself a moral act, and is therefore governed by the moral law.

Just because instances of an act can be morally good doesn't mean a particular instance of the act can't be known to be morally evil.