instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Counseling the counselors

I'm not particularly interested in the Pope's answer, but let's look at this question he was recently asked:
Holy Father, for several weeks there’s been a lot of concern in many Latin American countries but also in Europe regarding the Zika virus. The greatest risk would be for pregnant women. There is anguish. Some authorities have proposed abortion, or else to avoiding pregnancy. As regards avoiding pregnancy, on this issue, can the Church take into consideration the concept of “the lesser of two evils?”
The principle of the lesser of two evils holds that, if someone else is intent on committing evil, you may counsel them to commit a lesser evil instead. You might counsel someone to get revenge in a less violent manner than they're intent on, for example.

The principle doesn't say committing the lesser evil is morally acceptable -- evil is never morally acceptable -- it says counseling the lesser evil is, under some circumstances, morally acceptable. And yes, that means that counseling someone to commit evil isn't always evil. Counseling someone to sin isn't a field to go boldly marching through, and moral theologians don't all agree on exactly where and when you're allowed to step on that field.

Given that, what was the question again?
Some authorities have proposed abortion, or else to avoiding pregnancy. As regards avoiding pregnancy, on this issue, can the Church take into consideration the concept of “the lesser of two evils?”
It frames abortion as the greater evil and avoiding pregnancy as the lesser evil. We could stop there, since avoiding pregnancy isn't evil per se. But let's take "avoiding pregnancy" as a euphemism for "having contraceptive sex," which is evil per se, and a lesser evil than abortion.

The question becomes: Is it acceptable to counsel women to have contraceptive sex rather than abortions?

Which is kind of a screwy question, in a few different ways. For one, notice how the whole Zika virus angle is gone. We can stick it back in, but before we do, notice that it's still a pertinent question. Having a baby with microcephaly is not the only circumstance women say, "If I get pregnant in this circumstance, I will get an abortion." The Zika virus may make the issue newsworthy, but not new.

Okay, I'll restore the newsworthy angle: Is it acceptable to counsel women to have contraceptive sex rather than have an abortion if their baby has microcephaly?

This makes explicit the fact that the greater evil is conditional. If a child is conceived, and if that child has microcephaly, then the mother will abort her child. Does the principle of the lesser of two evils apply when the greater evil is uncertain?

I don't know. In my ignorance, I'll propose that the conditional evil can be treated like a near occasion of sin. Abortion doesn't necessarily follow having sex, but there's certainly a risk that it will. This is similar (the question being, is it similar enough) to, "An act of gluttony doesn't necessarily follow my going to an all-you-can-eat buffet, but there's certainly a risk that it will."1

Now, it is not morally acceptable to counsel committing a lesser sin to avoid a near occasion of a greater sin; that's simply counseling doing evil to achieve good. It might, then, be likewise morally unacceptable to counsel committing a lesser sin to avoid the chance of committing a greater sin.

Even if not, though, notice that the question violates one of the key conditions of the lesser of two evils principle. The evils are not mutually exclusive. Contraceptive sex may still produce a child. Can you counsel committing a lesser evil today, not to avoid the risk of committing a greater evil tomorrow, but merely to reduce that risk? I don't insist I know the answer, but we do seem to be getting farther from the central idea of the principle of the lesser of two evils.

Moreover, the principle of the lesser of two evils only applies when the counselor is morally certain the counseled will commit evil. If the greater evil would be committed tomorrow, it can be asked how morally certain that evil is; the counselor has until tomorrow to talk the counseled out of the evil. In the case of abortion, the counselor has until an unknown hour on an unknown future day. I'm not suggesting that you can never be morally certain, just that you aren't necessarily always morally certain, even when a woman says, "If I knew my baby had microcephaly, I'd definitely get an abortion."

Which brings me to my big point about the question: The principle of the lesser of two evils applies only in specific contexts, with a specific counselor and a specific counseled. It does not apply to what "some authorities have proposed." It doesn't cover blanket recommendations or PSAs. I might be allowed to tell my friend, "If you can't be good, be careful," but I can't tell the world, because there are people in the world who can be good.

Which also means the answer to the question the Pope was asked can't be, "Yes," even if the principle of the lesser of two evils might apply. There is no way that answer would be heard as anything other than a blanket PSA allowing the use of contraception until the Zika virus is completely eradicated. In the event, of course, he didn't answer, "Yes," and it was still heard as "Contraceptives could be permissible to avoid Zika," to quote February 19th's front page Washington Post headline.

1. To go into this a little more: With a conditional evil, it's, "If X occurs, I am morally certain of doing Y"; the chance lies with X, while Y is certain. With a near occasion of sin, it's, "In the presence of X, I am likely to do Y" the chance lies with Y, while X is certain.

Suppose you flip a coin, and win if it comes up heads. An occasion of sin is analogous to your flipping a coin with heads on on side and tails on the other; the odds of your winning depend on how fair the coin is. A conditional evil is analogous to your randomly picking a coin that has either heads or tails on both sides, and then flipping it; the odds of your winning depend on how many of each kind of trick coin you chose from.


Sunday, February 14, 2016

Seriously, though, why "fear"?

I wrote a lot of words yesterday about understanding the gift of the Holy Spirit we call "the fear of the Lord" as the fear of offending the Lord -- not that God is offended in the sense of being miffed or hurt or indignant, but that we have acted toward Him in a way we ought not.

Here let me risk yet more words to suggest why it's nevertheless proper to call this gift "the fear of the Lord," rather than, for example, "the fear of offending the Lord."

We use the word "fear" in different ways. Sometimes it refers to a general disposition ("I fear spiders"), sometimes to a specific experience ("I fear that spider, crawling toward me on the floor"). Sometimes it refers to a passion ("I fear that spider"), sometimes to an intellectual apprehension ("I fear the Russians won't receive this news complacently"). All proper uses share two things in common: first, it relates to something we don't want; second, the thing we don't want hasn't happened yet. In fewer words, "the object of fear is a future evil."

If you grant me that much, then you should grant me that, with respect to our relationship to God, the servile fear of punishment (of doing something wrong because of what will happen to be) and the filial fear of fault (of doing something wrong because it's the wrong thing to do) are both, properly speaking, fear. They both have a future evil for an object.

I propose that the primary reason the expression "the fear of the Lord" strikes us as so odd is that we tend to think of the Lord the way we think of created things. The future evils associated with created things generally are evils of punishment, or suffering, or loss; they're evils that happen to us or those we love. We are more attentive toward, and therefore more fearful about, our own good than the good of other created things -- which is not altogether improper even for Christians, since most created things were made subject to us, and the other persons who are subjects with us have (in general) no more right to do evil to us than we to them. (In Christ, we recognize a duty toward others that purely natural reason might not see, but we still have a right to self-defense, for example.)

In short, most of the time we use the word "fear," it's in a manner analogous to the servile fear of God's punishment. So when we hear "fear of the Lord," we assume servile fear is meant.

But God is unlike created things, in this way as in so many others. In the way we relate to God, what matters first and foremost is God in Himself. As the Act of Contrition has it, God is "all good and deserving of all my love." Of the two evils associated with my acting contrary to His will -- the fault itself and the consequent punishment -- the fault is far and away the worse. God is, so to speak, the first Subject of our relationship with Him, and only after everything that relates to God in Himself is attended to does what relates to us come into play.

In short, filial fear is the proper primary sense of the word "fear" when we apply it to God. We just don't realize it because we're used to talking about fear in relation to created things.

We might even go further and say that God is so good, so holy, that the distinction between offending Him and being punished for offending Him -- the distinction between filial fear and servile fear -- is more academic than practical. Then "the fear of the Lord" is a perfectly apt expression; as God told Moses, "No one can see Me and live." We fear God the way we fear a flood; it's just not in our nature to survive either one.

Recall, though, that St. Thomas called the combined fear of punishment and of fault "initial fear." The message of the Incarnation is that Jesus provides a way for us to the Father, to participate in His eternal life and see Him face to face. This is why the first and least gift of the Holy Spirit is a gift of filial fear, purified of fear of punishment. God can do no more for us than Jesus did for us on the Cross; in the light of the Gospel, the punishments for our transgressions fade to nothing -- or are even welcomed, to glorify God's justice and offer partial atonement (the welcoming part comes from the writings of the saints, not my own personal testimony).



Saturday, February 13, 2016

Fear of the Lord

One of my Lenten self-improvement projects is to use my gifts of the Holy Spirit more. The seven gifts are listed in Isaiah 11:2-3 (I'll throw in verse 1 for some context):
And there shall come forth a rod out of the root of Jesse,
and a flower shall rise up out of his root.
And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him:
the spirit of wisdom, and of understanding,
the spirit of counsel, and of fortitude,
the spirit of knowledge, and of godliness.
And he shall be filled with the spirit of the fear of the Lord.

The Douay Rheims has "godliness" for the gift traditionally called piety. Every Christian receives these gifts when they are baptized (although someone keeps telling our deacons it happens at Confirmation). The Catechism of the Catholic Church offers a brief explanation of their purpose:
The moral life of Christians is sustained by the gifts of the Holy Spirit. These are permanent dispositions which make man docile in following the promptings of the Holy Spirit.
If you want to see what the gifts look like in action, I suppose you should watch someone who is docile in following the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Of myself, I'd say I'm not particularly docile, though I wish I were, though I'm pretty sure I wouldn't enjoy the process of becoming that way. Docile in following the promptings of the Holy Spirit means stubborn in resisting contrary promptings, which means death to self, and that sounds painful.

Which, I gather, is where fear of the Lord comes in. You'll note it's the last gift listed in the passage in Isaiah, and yet as the Bible says in a couple of places, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. (It also says the fear of the Lord is the crown of wisdom and the beginning of knowledge.) St Augustine suggests Isaiah's ordering "begins with the more excellent,"1 making fear of the Lord the humblest, which explains both why it's the beginning of the other gifts (you've got to work your way to the top) and why it's not a particularly welcome gift. Who wants to be humble?

It's hard to say much about the fear of the Lord without apologizing for, if not backpedaling away from, that word "fear." "We aren't afraid of God," I hasten to tell you, "we're afraid of offending him." Which makes sense, sort of, as long as no one notices how close that is to, "We aren't afraid of the lion. We're afraid of waking him up."

Close, but St. Thomas can help us distinguish between them. Following Peter Lombard, he proposes four kinds of fear we might have relative to God:
  • human or worldly fear, which draws away from God in fear of the evils (as we see them) we would suffer if we stay close to Him
  • servile fear, which draws us toward God out of fear of punishment (basically the same motive as human fear, only we're more afraid of what will happen to us if we don't follow God's commandments than if we do)
  • filial or chaste fear, which draws us toward God out of fear of committing a fault
  • initial fear, which is a mixture of servile and filial fear
St. Thomas says the fear of the Lord that is a gift of the Holy Spirit is filial fear. With filial fear, we're afraid of doing something wrong, not because of any particular consequence, but simply because it's wrong  If we love God (Who, by the way, infuses us with the virtue of charity with which to love Him as well as the gifts to do it well), we don't want to do wrong by him. It's sort of like how someone might say, "I'm afraid my father won't like his birthday present." They aren't afraid their father will beat him if he doesn't like it, they're afraid of missing an opportunity to please him.

That's the difference between fear of the Lord and fear of the sleeping lion. Unless I'm a zookeeper and the lion is in desperate need of rest, I'm not afraid of injuring our relationship by waking him up; I'm afraid of getting mauled, which is analogous to a servile fear of God.

Being afraid of doing something is an incentive against doing it. I offend God by doing something He doesn't want me to do or not doing something He wants me to do. If I have a filial fear of the Lord, then I'm motivated to do what He wants me to do and to not do what He doesn't want me to do.

Now go back to the CCC's description of the gifts of the Holy Spirit: "These are permanent dispositions which make man docile in following the promptings of the Holy Spirit." The fear of the Lord doesn't in itself tell me what God wants me to do, but it does motivate me to do it. In this sense, it is the first or beginning of the gifts; by it, I want to be docile in following the promptings of the Holy Spirit.

1.St. Augustine contrasts Isaiah's more excellent to less excellent ordering with Jesus' less excellent to more excellent ordering in the Beatitudes. Hence:
  • Wisdom <--> "Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called children of God. "
  • Understanding <--> "Blessed are the clean of heart: for they shall see God."
  • Counsel <--> "Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy."
  • Fortitude <--> "Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after justice: for they shall have their fill."
  • Knowledge <--> "Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted."
  • Piety <--> "Blessed are the meek: for they shall possess the land."
  • Fear of the Lord <--> "Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
The different sortings make sense, too. Isaiah was prophesying the coming of Christ (the most excellent emptying Himself) and Jesus was preaching salvation (how the least excellent can be raised up to life with God). Note also what this suggests about how our possession and use of these gifts makes us like Christ.



Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Before you do

Think of your family. Think of your friends. Think of yourself, in one week.

Don't give up coffee for Lent.