instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Friday, November 30, 2012

An open thread for St. Andrew's Day

So which Scotch whiskies do you like?


Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Quotable Newman: Justified by Faith

To look to Christ is to be justified by faith; to think of being justified by faith is to look from Christ and to fall from grace. -- Lectures on the Doctrine of Justification, Ch. 13
 From The Quotable Newman, edited by Dave Armstrong.



Sunday, November 25, 2012

The saints of the most high God shall take the kingdom

The one like a Son of man received dominion, glory, and kingship.
 We Christians all understand that this has happened, right?

We certainly understand that the lion received sharp teeth and claws, and the rattlesnake received poisonous fangs, and car-sized pieces of metal received sufficient mass to mangle human bodies when in motion. We demonstrate our understanding of these things in how we live our lives, while some people demonstrate their lack of understanding of these things in how their lives end.

Jesus has received dominion. He has received glory. He has received kingship.

These are sure and certain facts. The question for us is, do we demonstrate our understanding of these facts in how we live our lives?

To put it another way: That God allows us to respond freely to the fact of His Son's dominion, glory, and kingship is also a fact. Which fact, then, is more real and present to us in our daily lives: That Jesus is King, or that we can get away, for a time, with living as though He weren't?


Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Signing over sin

A few weeks back, I heard a short excerpt from Bert Ghezzi's The Sign of the Cross: Recovering the Power of the Ancient Prayer. I've swiped something from that excerpt for personal use, and the early results seem promising.

The fundamental principle is that, as an invocation of Christ's sacrifice on Calvary, the Sign of the Cross is not merely the way we begin and end prayer, but a powerful prayer in itself.

It is, of course, used as a sort of invocational or ejaculatory prayer in various circumstances -- before free throw attempts, for example, and at the mention of the ruined castle that lies half a day's journey beyond the village.

Bert Ghezzi's proposal, which I am adopting as my own, is to use the Sign of the Cross as a prayer for forgiveness and grace immediately following recognition of a fault or sin in something you've just done.

More precisely: Trace the Sign of the Cross with your thumb on your forehead, lips, or heart -- as is done prior to the Gospel at Mass -- depending on the nature of your fault or sin.
  • Forehead: a fault or sin in thought, or against faith
  • Lips: a fault or sin in words, or against hope
  • Heart: a fault or sin in deeds, or against charity
My thinking with the "depending on the nature" business is that it will make me notice, not just the frequency of my sins, but what kinds of sins I tend to commit. If I find I'm always crossing my lips, then I should work on controlling the words that cross my lips. If I find I'm always crossing my heart, then I should work on opening my heart to those around me.

Whether it's actually a useful distinction to try to make, I'm not sure. It may be I only notice certain kinds of sins, or that I find everything basically boils down to a lack of charity. Ask me in a year.

In a year, you can also ask me if I have any personal stories to tell of experiencing the special power of the Sign of the Cross used in this way. To this point I don't, or at least nothing over and above what you'd expect from any sort of conscious attempt to ask promptly for mercy.

At the very least, though, I may be able to make my future purgation (to speak in hope, not presumption) minimally easier, since the Sign of the Cross is an indulgenced prayer.


Thursday, November 15, 2012

They can't even hear you now!

Mark Shea posts a letter he received from an African American reader of Catholic and Enjoying It!

Here's the dynamic described by the letter, as I see it:
  1. A politician or political operative make some statement that contain racist code words. (I mean this as an empirical observation. The statement does, in fact, contain words that, in certain contexts, serve as racist code words.)
  2. African American Catholics point out the racist code words used to white Catholics.
  3. White Catholics dismiss African American Catholic concerns about racist code words.
  4. African American Catholics are left with the sense that race divides them from white Catholics.
As a white Catholic who is not a politician or political operative, I have no particular expertise or insight to offer regarding the real or apparent racism encoded in political speech. I have "opinions," in the contemporary sense that I can open my mouth and form sentences based on what my brain happens to do in response to a racist code word-based stimulus.

But I shouldn't regard Step #2 above as a solicitation of my opinion. It is, rather, an expression of sorrow (to put it very generically), and the primary Christian response to sorrow is not dismissal but compassion.

This holds true even on matters on which I consider myself an expert, even when I determine that the sorrow expressed is unjustified, even when I am morally certain the sorrow is sinful. It doesn't do either of us good -- it's quite likely to do both of us harm -- for me to deliver an objectively true judgment in a manner that ensures the judgment will not be received by the other person, and someone who has just expressed sorrow is not (generally speaking) in a mode to receive blunt judgment of that sorrow.

We've heard these sorts of "win an argument, lose a soul" exhortations before, and I've delivered some myself (to myself as much as to anyone else, for all the good that's done).

But it occurs to me that this may be particularly difficult to recollect when dealing with political matters, which (I assert without proof) American Catholics don't typically regard under the "lose a soul" aspect. Politics is played with a different mindset than religion, or even social interaction generally, and the idea that the primary response to a political assertion ought to be compassion is counter to habit.


Saturday, November 10, 2012

To seek that which is gone astray

Jeff Miller explains the true meaning of statistics about the voting patterns of Catholics who don't go to Mass every Sunday:
Successful programs like “Catholics Come Home” certainly remind us that we should not be dismissive of this group of Catholics as being seen just as something annoying that messes up polling statistics. We can laugh about “Christmas & Easter” Catholics and the other labels we have seen, but evangelizing them is certainly harder than the quick joke.



Friday, November 09, 2012

Felix Typo Alert

On any other blog, this would just be a typo:
 Universal suffrage voting is the sin qua non of equal rights. -- Zippy Catholic



Monday, November 05, 2012


For eight years, I've thought "non-negotiable issues" was a bad term in the context of voting because they are, in practice, negotiable. (Not to mention the question begging involved in enumerating the issues; just last week I saw someone treating the list developed by Catholic Answers in 2004 as though it were somehow authoritative and canonical.)

John McGuinness's comment on a post below --
 It becomes increasingly clear [that] the "non-negotiable issues" theme was misguided, if understandable under the circumstances.
-- now prompts the thought that the whole concept of "negotiation" is ill-applied to voting.

What, exactly, is being negotiated? How I cast my vote, and nothing more. No candidate is offering to change his position in order to get my vote -- and if he did, I'd have little reason to trust him to change if he were elected.

And who, exactly, is the other party involved in negotiating for my vote? Well, the candidates themselves aren't negotiating; their stated opinions are taken as read in these negotiations. For a similar reason, I can't be negotiating with advocates for the candidates, who are even less capable of changing their candidates' positions.

I might say I'm negotiating with myself, except that "negotiating with myself" isn't a very Catholic way of describing the act of prudential reasoning (including listening to one's conscience).

Or I might say I'm negotiating with the electoral process by which the ballot I take into the voting booth is constructed. Zippy would probably not object to my saying that, since on reflection it's an appalling thought irreconcilable with the 4th Grade Civics take on voting that many or most Americans seem to accept.

Who, other than myself or the electoral process, might I be negotiating with?

Now, it is true that Pope Benedict XVI often refers to "non-negotiable" principles, but as far as I can tell he does so in contexts that do, in fact, involve negotiations in which both parties are in principle able to change their positions. E.g.:
As far as the Catholic Church is concerned, the principal focus of her interventions in the public arena is the protection and promotion of the dignity of the person, and she is thereby consciously drawing particular attention to principles which are not negotiable.
Thinking back to Bl. John Paul II's famous teaching that "an elected official, whose absolute personal opposition to procured abortion was well known, could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by" "a more restrictive law, aimed at limiting the number of authorized abortions, in place of a more permissive law already passed or ready to be voted on" [Evangelium Vitae 73], I note that the official's absolute personal opposition to procured abortion being well known functions as an indication that the principle of protecting life in all its stages is being affirmed and asserted, not negotiated. What is being negotiated is the degree to which the society is willing to live up to that principle.

The same idea can be applied to secret balloting in general elections, but I find more often it's mis-applied along the lines of, "First, cross off all candidates who are wrong about the issues I've told you on my own authority are relevant in this election. Next, erase the strike-through on the candidate who is least wrong." Such a process can be described in many ways, but it can't be properly described as a negotiation.

That negotiation as such is not happening with respect to the act of voting reinforces my point that the act of voting is not in itself an important part of the exercise of the virtue of faithful citizenship.



Saturday, November 03, 2012

Unchaining the object

In response to this statement by Colin Donovan in the National Catholic Register:
What would be the object in voting for an imperfect candidate? It would be to limit the evil that a more extreme candidate would do.
Zippy comments:
He apparently thinks the object of the act is a remote intention, like the colloquial "the object of the game is to take your opponent's king."

A lot of 'credentialed' and 'respected' Catholics think that, in my experience.
What I think may be happening in such cases -- including, as it happens, many treatments of the morality of self-defense -- is this: An act is being seen as willed, not for its immediate effect as such, but to cause a whole chain of effects. The last effect in that chain is being called the object of the act, and the intention is taken to be the reason why the actor desires the final effect.

I cast my ballot -- I act -- on the first Tuesday of November, launching a chain of effects that spools out across the months and years without further action on my part. My ballot is put in a ballot box, and later my vote is counted, and that helps a not-worst candidate win, and later on he's sworn in, and then while he's in office he effects less harm than would have been effected if the worst candidate had won.

(The chain of effects is somewhat shorter, and much swifter, in an "act of self-defense." I hit my attacker in the head with the baseball bat, and he is too dazed to continue attacking me, and I survive.)

I think there might be an impression that this chain of effects can be collapsed, with the final effect called the object, because there's only one act.

That this sort of collapsing of chain of effects is not consistent with traditional Catholic moral theology (notwithstanding the regrettable example of St. Thomas on the question of self-defense), if not self-evident, can be proven by contradiction: In traditional Catholic moral theology, the object of an act determines whether the act is intrinsically good or evil. A good effect, however, may be arrived at through a chain of evil effects. If the final effect in the chain is willed, then (in traditional Catholic moral theology) all the links in the chain are willed. It is never morally lawful to will evil. If the final effect in a chain is the object of an act, then the act could be both intrinsically good (as it would be if the final effect is good) and intrinsically evil (as it would be if any of the willed effects is evil). But that's impossible, so the final effect in a chain is not the object of an act.

If someone wanted to argue that, in the assertion that the object in voting for an imperfect candidate would be to limit the evil that a more extreme candidate would do, all of the links in the chain of willed effects happen to be good, that might constitute a partial argument that the intention of the actor is good, but not that the final effect is the object of the act.

All this isn't to say you can't go too far in the other direction, by calling a process or an event of the merely physical order the object of an act ("I didn't shoot him, I just wiggled by index finger"). As Bl. John Paul II puts it in Veritatis Splendor, the object of an act "is the proximate end of a deliberate decision which determines the act of willing on the part of the acting person." That's not always trivial to determine, but it's clearly different from "the final effect in a chain of effects set into motion by the act."



Objections to the explanation

The closer I read the "Is There a Lesser of Two Evils?" article, the less satisfactory I find it.

On the first pass, I noticed that the conclusion was needlessly muddled. Then I noticed the huge chunk of open issues that was begged in asserting:
What would be the object in voting for an imperfect candidate? It would be to limit the evil that a more extreme candidate would do.
Then I noticed what a mess was made of explaining intention as a source of morality in human acts:
If the object of the act is to limit the evil that would occur if the worse candidate, or legislation, succeeded, then the intention must be predominately directed to that object. It should not be primarily to lesser purposes, such as keeping a party in power, aiding this group or that or to some personal advantage derived from policy choices.
An end "must be predominately directed to" a means? How exactly would that work?

The article's treatment of circumstances is pretty well scrambled too:
Finally, the circumstances can also determine whether we can choose the lesser evil.

Father Davis affirmed this in noting that such a vote is justified, made morally possible, by the need to exclude a worse candidate....
But wasn't excluding a worse candidate just said to be the object of the act?

Finally, the whole "scandal caused by the appearance of voting for evil" angle is puzzling to me, considering the fact that Americans vote by secret ballot. Just how remote from the actual act of voting does the author think the act's object is?



And when I say non-negotiable, I mean there is a certain amount of negotiation

Colin Donovan, who hold the incongruous title of Vice President for Theology at EWTN, writes in an essay for the National Catholic Register (which they have incongruously posted in the "Daily News" section):
It is therefore quite clear from the moral theology tradition and specific magisterial teaching that a Catholic may vote for a candidate who does not wholly embrace Catholic teaching on the non-negotiable issues.
Let me correct that for him:
It is therefore quite clear from the moral theology tradition and specific magisterial teaching that a Catholic voter may vote for a candidate who does not wholly embrace Catholic teaching on the non-negotiable issues.
There. That not only omits needless words, it more accurately expresses the moral theology tradition and specific magisterial teaching.

And, by the way, it also justifies (under certain circumstances) a vote for Mitt Romney, who is running television ads in the Washington, DC, market to reassure voters that he does not embrace Catholic teaching on the non-negotiable issues.

(Link via Video meliora...)



Friday, November 02, 2012

Self-defense spadework

Briefly put, the doctrine on self-defense taught by St. Thomas and generally followed by Catholic theologians since is this: It is always a sin for an individual to intentionally kill an attacker, but it is not necessarily sinful for an individual to defend himself in a way that causes the death of the attacker.

If that sounds a bit squirrely, consider this: It is always a sin (says the Church) for a Catholic to intentionally miss Sunday Mass, but it is not always a sin for a Catholic to do something that causes him to miss Sunday Mass.

The general pattern, of course, is this: It is always a sin to act in order to achieve some evil effect (as either the object of the act or the intention of performing the act), but it is not always a sin to act in a way that effects some evil effect. That's the principle St. Thomas states in ST I-II 64,7 that has since been developed into the Principle of Double Effect (PDE), and its validity stems from the fact that the morality of an act depends on the will of the actor. If an effect of an act is not willed by the actor, then the goodness or evil of that effect doesn't affect the objective goodness or evil of the act (though it may affect the circumstantial goodness or evil of the act, which is why there's more to the PDE than the above statement).

I think we can all see that if, through some Rube Goldberg process, my act of telephoning my mother were to cause an orphanage to burn down, that wouldn't make my act of telephoning my mother (which is an objectively good act) morally evil. The wrinkle comes with a foreseeable evil effect. An act which causes a foreseeable evil effect is not, according to Catholic teaching, necessarily evil. If I foresee that my phoning my mother would cause an orphanage to burn down, then (absent even less plausible circumstances) it would be evil of me to phone my mother (in PDE terms, the good effect is not proportionate to the evil effect). But if I foresee that phoning my mother would cause me to overbake a batch of cookies, then it wouldn't be evil of me to phone my mother.

When the proportion of good effect to evil effect is manifestly (I'd like to say "inarguably," but I've been on the Internet for decades) huge or tiny, the PDE produces a generally uncontested result. When the proportion is tighter -- as it is in the case of self-defense, where the good effect is my life continuing and the bad effect is my attacker's life ending -- the result is more disputed. In particular, the Thomistic argument that an act of self-defense that causes the unintended death of the attacker "is not unlawful, seeing that it is natural to everything to keep itself in being, as far as possible," depends on an appeal to a natural privileging of one life over another that some Christians find incompatible with Jesus' teaching (to turn the other cheek, for example).

For my part, I think the legitimacy of self-defense is compatible with the teachings of Jesus; at the same time, I think a lot of contemporary explications of its legitimacy makes self-defense a bizarre exercise in mental gymnastics in no way justified by appeal to St. Thomas....


Thursday, November 01, 2012

A nod to the Common Doctor

St. Thomas's article in the Summa Theologiae on "Whether it is lawful to kill a man in self-defense?"has served as the starting point for much of the Church's subsequent thought on the question (not to mention for thinking about the Principle of Double Effect). The body of the article begins:
Nothing hinders one act from having two effects, only one of which is intended, while the other is beside the intention. Now moral acts take their species according to what is intended, and not according to what is beside the intention, since this is accidental as explained above.

Accordingly the act of self-defense may have two effects, one is the saving of one's life, the other is the slaying of the aggressor. Therefore this act, since one's intention is to save one's own life, is not unlawful, seeing that it is natural to everything to keep itself in "being," as far as possible.
Right away we have the curiosity of St. Thomas saying "moral acts take their species according to what is intended." It's curious, because elsewhere (in fact, lots of elsewheres) he says that "an action has its species from its object."

If you want to build your self-defense doctrine on St. Thomas, then, you're going to have to recognize that, although he most certainly writes here of "intention," what he's referring to is not (unless he's contradicting himself) what we mean by "intention" in the traditional "object"/"intention"/"circumstances" framework, but what we mean by "object." In other words, we should read the above as referring to the kind of behavior the defender is choosing, not the reason why he chooses it.

(It may be that, say, in the context St. Thomas was considering the question, there aren't any generic acts of saving one's life that aren't also specific acts of self-defense, so the object and intention of such acts aren't meaningfully distinguishable. But it's probably better to simply admit that even Homer nods, and that it would have been better if St. Thomas hadn't used "intention" here.)