"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Monday, October 31, 2005

The creepiest horror

Since one nasty image per week is enough (OK, two, if you count Bishop Skylstad's visage), I include a more innocuous one for this Halloween post. That's just as well, because the images are hard to conjure and would be just as varied as individuals. Images of what? The scary stuff that's literally creeping up on us as a country.

I can only describe it by saying that an increasing number of Americans, perhaps even a majority by now, are convinced that it's all going to come crashing down on us before most of us are ready and while some of us are still, unfortunately, alive. "It" in this case is the American lifestyle and the "American dream" that putatively motivates it. Let's face it: the lifestyle of even the average American is unsustainable in the long run; and when the long run becomes the short run, the consequences will be horrific.

For one thing, we consistently spend and consume far more than we save and produce. We now depend on foreigners, largely Asian, to finance our budget and trade deficits. For another, only briefly could we be content with being, and acting as, the world's sole superpower. Now, as our military is already stretched to the limit, we confront not only violent Islamism but also a rising Chinese superpower and a European Union whose economy is already bigger than ours. Worse, our lifestyle depends not only on expanding debt and military superiority, neither of which are indefinitely sustainable, but on utilization of finite natural resources, chiefly oil and soil. Nobody knows when the world's oil will actually run out or become terribly expensive in virtue of demand and the difficulty of extraction; but it will someday, and sooner than most people will be prepared for. Nobody knows when the types of farming we do will exhaust the land; but someday they will, unless our methods and expectations change radically. In the meantime we are fatter than ever even as health care consumes an ever-growing portion of our Gross Domestic Product (last I read, it was 15% and climbing). We are engorged with materialism and the desire for a pain-free existence, like an overfed doe standing in the middle of the highway at night, oblivious to the speed and confused by the lights of the approaching danger.

The collision between dumb habit and harsh reality may come relatively suddenly, with a quick succession of wars and/or natural disasters; or we may just be ground into despair and chaos as everything becomes steadily more expensive and less secure. Probably some combination of all the above and then some. Nobody knows and it doesn't really matter. The truly creepy thing about all this is what the redoubtable Peggy Noonan recently pointed out: many of our smartest people know what's down the road and yet choose to do nothing about it, save to practice the high-tech equivalent of hunkering down in their nests. They can only "eat, drink, and be merry"—for tomorrow they will die, and it will only be their children or grandchildren who die sooner with less merriness beforehand. Business as usual is a lot less costly, now, than the effort to reform now—less costly even than the moral courage to make the dire necessity of reform as clear to everybody as it is to the cranks and killjoys we always have with us.

Noonan, of course, suggests that the heedlessness is due to helplessness: since nobody knows what to do to stop the coming trainwreck, they figure thay might as well get the gusto while they can. People do feel helpless, but I believe that sense is itself a sign of something spiritually deadly: what the Fathers and Doctors of the Church called acedia or the deadly sin of "sloth."

Coming from a family genetically prone to depression and anxiety, I have had to wrestle with this sin, sorely if only periodically, since puberty. 'Sloth' here does not primarily mean laziness, though it often causes lassitude; in essence, sloth is the deadly sin of yielding to the desire to give up. It is a refusal to engage reality at its core, and as such is both a cause and a consequence of despair. It's hard to measure moral responsibility for sloth in individuals inasmuch as it often results from clinical depression, which in turn involves bad brain chemistry whose persistence is not always caused or exacerbated by the effects of personal choices. But what we're dealing with in America today—at least among our élites—is the collective equivalent of sloth for which I believe the privileged are morally responsible. Those who "have" feel helpless because they are unwilling to make the sacrifices necessary to act, on their progeny's behalf, as reality calls for. One sign of that is that the birth rate for native-born Americans is now below replacement level—and the higher the income bracket, the lower the birth rate. Why sacrifice for progeny if one isn't even willing to replace oneself?

Which brings me round to another of my favorite themes: the contraceptive mentality. As sex gets steadily unmoored from procreation, people get more interested in the former and less in the latter. As lust accordingly displaces love, the marriage rate declines and the divorce rate keeps reaching new statistical peaks. That's what's happening in our society, and such is the clearest sign of the malady of our age. The desire to make self bigger, and sate it accordingly by reducing people and the earth to objects for untrammelled use, has become collectively so powerful that true love is seen as a mere ideal for the few fortunate enough not to have been made cynical by experience.

As Old Testament history has long since told us, only a big crash will make people humble enough to start over on a sounder footing. They will be "the faithful remnant." The crash will come and the remnant will respond as they should. That's the only reason I don't despair too. It's a story that's been told before. I suppose it's called 'faith'.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

An exorcist's perspective on the problem of evil

Rome's chief exorcist, Fr. Gabriele Amorth, has been at it a long, long time. It's safe to say that, among living Catholic priests, nobody knows more about the Devil. He has the full support of Pope Benedict XVI, who encouraged and approved an intensive course on the whole subject of demonology and exorcism now being given at the clerics-only Athenaeum Pontificium Regina Apostolorum. Fr. Amorth has presented some theological reflections well worth pondering. Emphases are in bold.

If we see everything in the light of the centrality of Christ, we can see God's plan, who created everything "for him and in expectation of him." And we can see the actions of Satan, the enemy, the tempter, the accuser. By means of his temptation, evil, pain, sin, and death entered the world. It is in this context that we are able to see the restoration of God's plan, which Christ accomplished at the cost of his blood.

In this context, we are made aware of the power of the devil. Jesus calls him "the prince of this world" (Jn 12:31, 14:30, 16:11). John affirms that "the whole world is in the power of the evil one" (1 Jn 5:19); by "the world" John means everything that is opposed to God. Satan was the brightest of the angels; he became the most evil of the devils and their chief. The demons remain bound to the same strict hierarchy that was given them when they were angels: principalities, thrones, dominions, and so on (Col 1:16). However, while the angels, whose chief is Michael, are bound by a hierarchy of love, the demons live under a rule of slavery.

We are also made aware of the action of Christ, who shattered the reign of Satan and established the kingdom of God. This is why the instances where Jesus freed those possessed by demons become particularly important. When Peter teaches Cornelius about Christ, he does not mention any miracle besides the fact that he cured "all those who had fallen under the power of the devil" (Acts 10:38). We understand, then, why the first authority that Jesus gave his apostles was the power to expel demons (Mt 10:1). We can make the same statement for all believers: "These are the signs that will be associated with believers: in my name they will cast out devils" (Mk 16:17). Thus Jesus heals and reestablishes the divine plan that had been ruined by the rebellion of some of the angels and by our forefathers.

We must make this abundantly clear: evil, suffering, death, and hell (that is, eternal damnation in everlasting torment) are not acts of God. I want to expand on this point. One day Father Candido was expelling a demon. Toward the end of the exorcism, he turned to the evil spirit and sarcastically told him, "Get out of here. The Lord has already prepared a nice, well-heated house for you!" At this, the demon answered, "You do not know anything! It wasn't he (God) who made hell. It was us. He had not even thought about it." Similarly, on another occasion, while I was questioning a demon to know whether he had contributed to the creation of hell, I received this answer: "All of us cooperated."

Christ's centrality in the plan of creation, and its restoration through redemption, is fundamental to understanding God's plan and the end of the world. Angels and men received an intelligent and free nature. When I am told (by those who confuse predestination with God's providence) that God already knows who will be saved and who will be damned, and therefore anything we do is useless, I usually answer with four truths that the Bible spells out for us: God wants that everyone be saved; no one is predestined to go to hell; Jesus died for everyone; and everyone is given sufficient graces for salvation.

Read it all.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

The-more-things-change department II

You gotta admire Bishop William Skylstad, President of the U.S. Bishop's Conference, for his consistency. In an era when too many leaders exercise the virtue of prudence mostly by holding a wet finger up to catch the wind, he doesn't care which way the wind is blowing. He is doggedly principled. But of course there's a catch, as there often is with bishops these days and, I'm beginning to conclude from my reading of history, more days than not: the principles, and the consistency with which he applies them, are tragicomically inadequate from a Catholic and pastoral point of view.

In his recent letter to his diocese, Spokane, about the recently concluding synod in Rome, Skylstad writes:

Finally, I want to make a comment on the hysteria created about a rumored statement on homosexuality among seminarians and priests. The rumors have generated a tremendous amount of press, much of it quite negative. There probably will be a statement forthcoming, but from recent reports that appear to be accurate, the statement will be nuanced and balanced. There are many wonderful and excellent priests in the Church who have a gay orientation, are chaste and celibate, and are very effective ministers of the Gospel. Witch hunts and gay bashing have no place in the Church.

That sounds fine and dandy in the comfortably PC confines of many chanceries, of the putatively Catholic university, and of "progressive" parishes. But the legally bankrupt Diocese of Spokane, and not just Spokane, operates with finances wrecked as a just consequence of the wrecking of lives of men sexually exploited in youth by homosexual priests. Girls and pre-pubescent children were abused too; and of course the majority of priests of whatever sexual orientation did not abuse or exploit young people sexually. But I say 'homosexual' not 'pedophile' because the majority of cases involved adolescent boys, not pre-pubescent children of either sex. I said it in July, I implied it anew a few days ago (see below), and I shall say it again: with a few notable exceptions who lack critical mass, the American bishops as a whole just don't get it. They are corrupt, collectively incapable of recognizing let alone acting on the real problems. They proved it by electing Skylstad president last year, and I explained why.

Even so, my observations were not thorough enough even for a blog post. Diogenes at Off the Record has taken this to the next level in the form of an imaginary letter from another bishop to Skylstad. Please read the whole thing. Here's the central chunk of it:

First, by referring to priests with "a gay orientation" instead of "a same-sex attraction," you cross the line from the descriptive and morally neutral to the political and morally problematic. This implies, even if it does not state,acquiescence in the self-understanding of those homosexual persons who callthemselves gay. This is a disservice to those persons with same-sex attraction-- not only those in your own diocese -- who are struggling against enormous odds to live according to Church teaching, and whose resolve is seriously weakened by bishops who suggest "Gay is OK."

Second, it is hardly a secret that your own diocese is bankrupt -- and that because of your and your predecessors' catastrophically bad decisions about keeping sexually disturbed priests in ministry. Yes, I know some victims were female. Yes, I know most homosexual priests don't molest minors. But the fact remains that Spokane was buggered into bankruptcy by priests known to be deviant, and the underlying causes could have been avoided by unexacting prudential decisions well within the moral compass of an ordinary parishioner. Staggering naiveté is the kindest way of accounting for your own baffling action and inaction, and I think it behooves you, as head of a diocese bankrupted by sexual anarchy, not to touch on the subject of gay clergy at all, for any reasons. I say this with the good of the larger Church in mind.

Then too, Bishop Skylstad, the admonition against "witch hunts" comes ill from your mouth. Most Catholics who read that line will recall all too vividly your predecessor Lawrence Welsh of unhappy memory. They'll remember the police report oncerning the male prostitute Welsh throttled during an act of fellatio in a Chicago hotel room back in 1986. They'll remember the fact that it was the terrified prostitute that went to the Chicago police, who in turn only contacted Spokane law enforcement because of a long-shot connection with the Green River serial killer. You were Bishop of Yakima at the time, of course, but your comments on Welsh's behavior three years ago -- "Obviously, he had a very serious drinking problem. Certainly, it's very sad behavior associated with that drinking. That would be my observation" -- render your recent "witch hunt" language farcical. If, confronted with a bishop's sodomy and attempted manslaughter, you can't do better than "drinking problem," would you be able to put the right name to a witch even after she'd turned you into a bat?

Let's face it: in the only relevant sense, there are altogether too many witches on the prowl, and indeed "the witches" are the reason Spokane is not a solvent diocese today. We have to bear in mind, moreover, that the faithful can't help but take to heart the news reports, inasmuch as they've gone unchallenged except on trivial points. They know that Archbishop Hunthausen promised the Spokane detectives to get Welsh into counseling, and they know that, in spite of Hunthausen's awareness of the Chicago episode, Welsh was back in the saddle for the next four years. They know Welsh's drinking caused him to be retired at Bishop of Spokane at age 55 in 1990. Worst of all, though, we have to deal with the fact that after Welsh was deposed from Spokane he was almost immediately made an
auxiliary bishop of St. Paul-Minneapolis. So tell me: how do we explain to the laity why a bishop can pull that kind of squeeze-play, drink himself out the ordinary's job, and still end up ministering to God's people as an auxiliary?

After that due reminder of the Welsh debacle, "Uncle Di", who is a priest, gets back to the main point it helps to sustain. It ain't pretty.

Amy Welborn is spot on, as usual:

There is no great mystery here. Chancery Culture - I will not even call it clerical culture anymore because although clericalism defines it, there have been too many lay people culpable and enabling to simply limit it to that - is all but impenetrable, and the whole thing has become so awash in legal concerns, there is no climbing out. The bottom line is that these guys cannot admit they did anything wrong in any specific terms because even if they wanted to, the lawyers won't let them. It opens them up to even more lawsuits. And many of them don't want to because loyalty to their brother priests trumps almost everything.

I will be brutal about this: those of you not in it just cannot fathom how, tragically, the habits of a career in the religious biz, the culture of a religious institution can deaden faith. It's the exact opposite of what we think it should be, but really...the greatest risk to losing your faith is working in the Church. Not just because of what you see, which is the way people usually think of it, but because the risk is high of matters of faith becoming just a job, becoming an agenda, becoming a corporation to protect and defend, becoming a place where people talk, talk, talk about faith but are spiritually empty.

And then it becomes an excellent place to hide. Because no one will rat on you because, really, who are they to judge, because they haven't really prayed in months, maybe years, either, and God knows what they've got going on the side - it may not be boys, but it may be an obsession with building, a simple contempt for the parishioners you're supposed to be caring for, alcoholism, a boyfriend in the beach condo, a wife and children in the Philippines (really), a determined delight in the golf games at the best courses that your rich parishioners can give...who knows.

But the foundational line - which runs beneath the bottom line - is a profound and shocking lack of faith. Back a couple of years ago, there was a lot of talk about being accountable. The bishops need to be accountable to us, they need to be accountable to the people, to the church, etc.

I said at the time, and I say again - I don't care if the bishops are accountable to me. I want them to be accountable to Christ.

Amen, and Lord have mercy.

Floating the papacy

What if Jesus had handled the foundation of the papacy the way the Vatican has lately been handling the homosexual-seminarian issue? I just came across a dead-on satirical post from Lee Strong's From the Back Pew, imagining the whole thing in the form of a dialogue between Jesus and the Apostle John. The latter muses:

“Thomas? He’s so negative and cynical. He keeps saying things like “Prove it.”

“Hmm. You have a point. Of course, he is intelligent.”

“So is Matthew, but who’d listen to him.”


“Yes. He was a tax collector. I know he reformed and we’re supposed to forgive and all, but still, some don’t trust him.”

“Who doesn’t trust him?”

“Judas, for one.”

“Ah, yes, Judas. Sharp fellow.”

“Judas? Yes. Everyone respects him. You can count on him to get things done.”

“True, Judas has everyone’s trust.”

“I guess if you have to pick anyone, Judas would be a good one. He’s smart. He’s good with money. You get a sense he knows what he’s doing.”

Jesus chuckled.“Not like Simon,” he said. “He means well, but …”

John laughed.“Poor Simon. He keeps messing up. And there’s that mother-in-law of his. Oy! Oh, he tries hard, and everybody likes him, but he’s not the brightest fellow.”

“I like the fact that he acts with his heart and not just his head,” Jesus said.

“Head? Sometimes I think he has rocks in his head.”
Jesus nodded and smiled.“Rocks? Interesting description.”

“If you want my advice, Judas is your man,” John said.

Jesus sighed. “Yes, I think Judas is capable of playing a bigger role.”

“As for Simon,” John added, “well, heaven only knows what he’ll end up doing.”

I am rolling on the floor. So modern, so timeless.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Is happiness good for you?

I admit the question is a bit Berraesque—but only for normal people, not intellectuals or Scotsmen. The former suspect happiness because to them it implies a dangerous lack of sophistication, a naïvetè arising from bovine contentment with mere grass. How could anybody be happy in a world where _______ (fill in the blank with your horror du jour)? For the most part, even the joy of sex is permissible only as a fleeting release from angst or some more specific form of negativity; and if contemporary art is any indication, even the god of creativity is fed by angst. As for Scotsmen—well, you have to remember that their culture, the most depressed on earth, was penetrated by Calvinism centuries ago. Enough said.

The rest of us may take the question, with its obvious answer, as a rhetorical slap in such faces. Of course one would expect psychologists to go further and show just what is worth calling "happiness" and just how it is good; but they haven't. In the past, that's been the job of philosophers, who disagree completely about that as about all other questions. Psychologists, on the other hand, naturally concern themselves with problem people, not happy people; the literature corresponds. To most of them, happiness has not seemed worth studying in depth; when there are no problems to be solved, nobody gets paid to help solve problems. Concern for the secrets of happiness is left to pop writers passing themselves off as spiritual gurus whose perceived triviality grates all the more because it is so lucrative. But like the other prejudices of the mental-health profession, which is no longer ruled by Freudian or any other orthodoxy, that one is under increasingly credible attack. The general leading the charge is Professor Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania, whose "positive psychology" movement is gathering steam. (Hat tip to Kooky Abuelita for the link to the London Sunday Times article.)

Disclaimer: my interest is not entirely objective. During my first year as a philosophy grad student at Penn (1980-81), I earned my keep by acting as "administrative fellow" for one of that campus' then-experimental "college houses," Van Pelt, where students lived with a few faculty who provided cultural enrichment and occasionally even moral guidance. The "faculty master" of that house was none other than Marty Seligman, then a rising star of his profession. Though I admired him for his brilliance and style, he and I did not have the coziest of relationships. I was a rather callow youth, and a tactlessly evangelical Catholic to boot, married to a salty older woman who was intimidated by nobody and didn't much care for him. None of that endeared me to him. We did our respective jobs and that was that. I never realized how pertinent his already-famous theory of "learned helplessness" would be to my recovery, twenty years later, from severe and chronic depression; nor of course did I or anybody else have any inkling that his interest in defining and promoting happiness had a sound scientific source in the research he had already been doing. But now that I think about it as a philosopher heavily influenced by Aristotle and Aquinas, Seligman's approach is as natural as can be. My personal interest in the matter has nothing to do with that.

In general, the bad can only be understood against the background of the good. Evil, understood as what is objectively undesirable either morally or otherwise, has no existence except as a corruption or falling away from good, which is ontically if not conceptually primary. The good is what is objectively desirable, and a living being's nature can be understood in terms of what good(s) it characteristically desires and pursues. Happiness, I would venture to say, consists in the reliable satisfaction of desire for the objectively good (as distinct from what superficially but falsely seems good). The great thing about Seligman's theory—which I urge people to read about in the linked article and follow up—is that it gives some scientific account of happiness thus understood in the case of human beings.

Beyond that, what excites me about Seligman's refreshing approach is that he is successfully overcoming mountains of prejudice in his profession. Academics in general and psychologists in particular are predisposed to smell triviality in any happiness shtik if not outright charlatanism. But he goes doggedly on, spreading his new gospel around the world from its formal base at Penn, gaining millions in grant money, producing as well as collating testable results. Nobody can get away with laughing at him in public anymore. (Save for faculty lounges, to be sure; no academic reputation emerges from them unscathed.) Even the woman I date, who is studying for a counseling degree, waxed enthusiastic about him before she ever knew I had known him. This guy is for real. That he is not another Thomas Moore or Deepak Chopra only adds to his luster in my book; people of any religious tradition can benefit from heeding his work without diluting their own tradition. There's nothing to dislike here, at least not in principle.

I intend to study this in much greater depth, and I recommend that others who care do the same. It will help me improve my life, and might even make Marty willing to talk with me again!

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

The thin line dissolves

Having recovered from the shock of actually agreeing with an editorial in the National Catholic Reporter, I have begun to realize two things about the massive, and massively costly, sex scandal that the U.S. Catholic Church continues to wrestle with.

First, and as NCR says, "the sin must be named." The Church in this country will never recover credibility unless the full extent of the malfeasance and its causes are owned up to. The process is underway—but only through the bishops' gritted teeth, and only because the publicity, the subpoenas, and the damage awards have made some sort of serious response unavoidable. That isn't good enough. As yet there is no apparent collective awareness, among the bishops or those who work under them, that a far more radical housecleaning is in order. Great efforts are being made, as they should be, to weed out old pedophiles and screen out potential new ones; but it hasn't quite sunk in that the real problem is wider and remains rooted in the clerical club itself. Until that sinks in, the momentum of reform will be lost and the seeds of future scandal will be sown.

And that's where the difficulty of naming the sin looms very large. Sure, the scandal mushroomed because of how the bishops avoided accountability; one might therefore call that latter problem "imprudence." But why was accountability avoided? The bishops had a good, formal report on the pedophilia problem as early as 1985; they "received" it and proceeded to ignore it. Surely they should have known that they had a legal bomb ticking. They were even told as much by such whistleblowers as Tom Doyle. What made them think the problem would remain manageable if they conducted business as usual? What accounts for such denial?

Part of it, as I've said before, was the undue influence of homosexuality in the clergy. The vast majority of victims in the publicized cases were adolescent boys; and in one of his last speeches as President of the US Bishops' Conference early this year, Bishop Wilton Gregory acknowledged the ongoing challenge of "preventing the Catholic priesthood from becoming a gay profession." In the last few years, more than a handful of bishops have got into serious trouble for their own homosexual liaisons, though thankfully none of the objects of their affections were under the age of legal consent. Yet at least two of those bishops were clearly forced to resign. And the dozen or so cases we know about are only the ones we know about. So long as homosexuals constitute quite a substantial percentage of Catholic priests—the estimates range between 25 and 60 percent—there will be too much winking and nodding at sodomy in the seminary and beyond. It's only human, after all, and the problem is not about to go away.

Another, equally weighty reason why the scandal developed as it did was what I can only call a false sense of entitlement. Bishops are the authorities in the Church and are directly responsible for her welfare both individually and collectively. They are of course concerned to protect the Church's reputation, with which their own as individuals are closely bound up; and in countries where there is religious freedom, bishops and clergy have usually been given much more benefit of the doubt by civil authorities than the ordinary man gets. Nor must we forget the "seal of the confessional." Given all that, it was and is too easy for bishops to handle privately what would be publicly prosecuted as crimes in most other settings. Couple that with the "therapization" of our culture than began in the 1970s, and it was almost natural for bishops to think themselves entitled to deal with the problem of pedophile and other sexually erring priests more as matters for the confessional and the couch than for the DA.

But in view of the gravity of what was happening, such a sense of entitlement was false. That it persisted for so long is to be explained by the cocoon atmosphere of the club—in this case, the clerical club. The comraderie understandably forged by being collectively "set apart" as sacred, special people, looked up to by the lowly laity, is reinforced and twisted if you and many of your professional buddies are gay. And I'm convinced that many of those bishops didn't want to sacrifice priests for the welfare of the victims and the Church not only because priests were getting hard to come by but also because they never had to sacrifice anything important—such as marriage and family, which they did not desire and therefore could not sacrifice—in order to become priests themselves. Catered to by servants, enjoying fine meals and big fancy houses, they didn't know the meaning of sacrifice anywhere near as well as any ordinary parent does. It was an all-too-charmed existence for too many. It was not to last. The thin line between privilege and irresponsibility dissolved.

But even all that is merely symptomatic: it does not identify the core of the problem. The core of the problem was that there was no moral core. Spiritually speaking, there was no "there" there. The perks of their existence had made them morally vacuous, concerned more with protecting the status quo from which they benefited than with protecting the souls of their flock. They were hardly unique in that respect: many CEOs care more about their stock options than their employees, certainly more than their customers. But one ought to expect better of bishops even if, in this cynical age, that is considered naïve.

The solution is not necessarily what NCR urges: another blue-ribbon commission to study the problems and make recommendations. However good the process and the product, any such undertaking can be ignored after it is ritually praised. The bishops are still very good at that sort of thing. Beyond all bureaucratic mechanisms, the solution is for bishops to do what all Christians are called to do, and begin to do, in baptism: conform themselves with the crucified Christ by dying to the old self. It should truly be said of each and every bishop what St. Paul said of himself: "It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me." Such an ideal is probably unattainable for many in this vale of tears; but a crucial step forward will have been made if the bishops understand what the ideal entails for them, value it above self-preservation, and strive accordingly. Only if the bishops as a whole take that step will the Church in this country be worth anybody else's taking seriously again.

New articles...well, old ones better posted

Over the past month, several readers have informed me that they had been unable to access several articles of mine via the links in the sidebar. They are stored under my MSN Passport account but even giving people Passports didn't help. So I've created three new blogs, each consisting of one iof those articles. You can access them by clicking the old links under "ARTICLES OF MINE" in the sidebar on this blog. (The article on Aquinas is at The Thomist's readily accessible site.)

Comments are allowed and encouraged.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

What was left out at the Synod

As expected, the most widely discussed and publicized topic of discussion at the recently concluded Synod on the Eucharist in Rome was the shortage of priests. As expected, the proposed solution of relaxing the celibacy requirement in the Latin Church was rejected. To me, though, the interesting thing about the exercise was the stance supporting the alternatives proposed in the relevant, published proposition (#11):

The centrality of the Eucharist for the life of the Church means that the problem of the great shortage of priests in some parts of the world is felt very acutely. Many faithful are thus deprived of the Bread of life. In order to meet the Eucharistic hunger of the people of God, who are often forced to go without the Eucharistic celebration for considerable periods, it is necessary to implement effective pastoral initiatives.

In this context, the Synod Fathers affirmed the importance of the inestimable gift of ecclesiastical celibacy in the Latin Church. With reference to the Magisterium, especially to Vatican Council II and to recent Pontiffs, the Fathers requested that the faithful be given adequate explanation of the reasons for the link between celibacy and priestly ordination, in full respect for the tradition of the Eastern Churches. Some reference was made to viri probati, but it was decided that this was an untenable hypothesis.

Furthermore, it must be borne in mind that, in offering the Eucharistic gift to all the faithful, the Christian quality of the community and its force of attraction have a decisive influence. It is particularly important to encourage pastors to promote priestly vocations, ... raise awareness among families, ... ensure (by bishops, with the involvement of religious families and maintaining respect for their charism) a more even distribution of the clergy, encouraging the clergy itself to a greater readiness to serve the Church wherever the need arises.
The referent of viri probati is older, married men who have proven themselves exemplary Catholics. Even the proposal to ordain some of them was rejected. Why, then, is celibacy considered so important that even such a modest relaxation of the current norm was considered "untenable"? Why did the proposed ways of addressing the priest shortage boil down to saying: "the same as before, only better"? For that is in fact what it comes to: the recommendations are no different from those that have always been given.

For the general theological rationale of priestly celibacy, there are no more useful sources than Pope Paul VI's Sacerdotalis Caelibatus and John Paul II's Pastores Dabo Vobis. Even those popes, however, freely admitted that celibacy is not essential to the priesthood: the arguments for it are ad convenientiam, not demonstrative. Yet they assume, as do the bishops of the Synod, that the fittingness of priestly celibacy carries a pastoral weight so great that the Church ought, by retaining the discipline, to risk leaving many Catholics without regular access to the Mass. That assumption makes no sense in purely human terms; from that point of view, it's bad personnel policy. And for many people, that's a decisive reason to drop the discipline. But to me, the human foolishness of it only raises the question whether the discipline makes sense in supernatural terms. I believe it makes perfect and tremendous sense for the world today—but not for the reasons Catholics usually give.

The reasons usually given are purely practical: time, energy, and money. A celibate, single man has more time and energy to devote to priestly duties, and needs less money, than a married man (especially one with young children). That's all true. But given the level on which such reasoning operates, one could make a strong case that such advantages of celibacy are outweighed by the disadvantages, well-known to the bishops, of limiting the priesthood to celibates. It's all a matter of calculating utility: is the net utility of the current discipline greater or less than its net disutility? Reasonable people can and do disagree about that; indeed, debate conducted on such terms will never be settled. Yet the real point of celibacy remains and outweighs all such considerations even as it subsumes them.

The real point of the discipline is to symbolize, and thus facilitate the reality, that the priest is an icon of Christ the Bridegroom of his Bride, the Church. The priest is married to the Church, whether or not he is also married to a particular woman. By focusing attention on that, the celibacy discipline helps to make concrete the reality thus symbolized. And why is that so important? Because failure to appreciate the nuptuality of Catholicism is probably the main cause of dissent and indifference in the Church today. People do not understand why and how marriage is the most visible, and sacramental, analogy of God's love for his people or how the spiritually fruitful and central analogy is replicated, on a collective scale, in the hierarchical nature of the Church herself. That is why most of the dissent and indifference in the Church today have to do with questions of sex, gender, and power.

If the baptized in general understood that they belong to the Mystical Body of Christ, which is one with a divine Person as spouses are one body with each other, they would actually appreciate why true marriage must be indissoluble, why the husband is head of his wife, why sexual intercourse must be limited to marriage and not closed to new life, why the clerical hierarchy exemplifies the same sort of spiritual reality—and thus why its members fulfill their role so much better as celibates. A married man, ordained or no, has to put the welfare of his wife and family first: his marriage to a particular woman must take precedence, if and when there's a conflict, over his marriage to the Church. That's why the utilitarian considerations are relevant even if not in themselves decisive. They point to the real spiritual issue I have described. And that issue is absolutely vital. Without the insights consequent on understanding that issue rightly, people will continue to view the Church primarily as an institution and her norms about sex and marriage primarily as life-denying. With those insights, the Church comes to be seen primarily as a bride and her norms about sex and marriage come to be seen primarily as ways of describing how the nuptial reality of the "economy" of salvation is lived out in those areas. By the same token, priestly celibacy will be seen as a way of affirming and supporting marriage, not as a way of denigrating it. All of that is essential to the Church's mission of evangelization in the world today because the most important means of evangelization is Catholics who appreciate and live their faith in its fullness, even as the biggest obstacle to evangelization is the failure of Catholics, lay and clerical, to do so. That is why retaining the celibacy discipline is so important.

I've explored such themes more deeply in past posts. So if the Synod Fathers, from the Pope on down, expect "the inestimable value of celibacy" to be made clear to the faithful, that's where they need to focus. It's an immense catechetical task best conducted in terms of "the theology of the body" (see the link in the sidebar). Yet I detected no awareness of that in the Synod proceedings. The bishops still seem, as a body, clueless about the means to their admirable end. Nothing substantial will change until they get a clue.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

The Church and intelligent design: Part Umpteen

Physicist Stephen Barr, author of the worthy book Modern Physics and Ancient Faith, has weighed in quite usefully on the interminable debate over Cardinal Schönborn's New York Times Op-Ed piece on evolution, which I have of course discussed before myself. Barr writes:
I personally am not at all sure that the neo-Darwinian framework is a sufficient one for biology. But if it turns out to be so, it would in no way invalidate what Pope Benedict has said: “We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary.” In his New York Times article, Cardinal Schönborn understandably wanted to counter those neo-Darwinian advocates who claim that the theory of evolution precludes a Creator’s providential guidance of creation. Regrettably, he ended up giving credibility to their claim and obscuring the clear teaching of the Church that no truth of science can contradict the truth of revelation.
That seems about right—not because the substance of His Eminence's position was incorrect, but because his language did not explicitly observe the necessary distinctions. In my anxiety to defend Schönborn, I didn't take due account of that and thus treated his approach too charitably. But his error is the sort of made by people who address philosophically quite subtle issues in journalistic fashion. Read Barr's article instead. I shall use it to address the larger topic again.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

One fight I hope "we" lose

OK, I can't stand it anymore. On the principle that one shouldn't encourage the others, I wasn't going to comment on the Harriet Miers nomination to the Supreme Court. There's already way more political blogging than we need, and the row about Miers in particular has brought the worst out of everybody, including my fellow social conservatives. (Of course my liberalism about health care has also gotten some of the latter afroth, but one doesn't always have to take the delicious opportunity of offending everybody.) All that granted, however, something needs to be said to set this thing in perspective.

Apart from the question of Miers' professional qualifications—about which I have nothing useful to say—the firestorm on both the right and the left is probably the best evidence the White House has "outstealthed" itself, in Rich Lowry's words. But short-term political miscalculations, if that's what this nomination is indeed an example of, don't much interest me. What really interests me are the long-term implications. And on that score, Ann Coulter is uncomfortably correct. The real problem with Miers is not that she's unqualified, or Christian, or whatever other epithet one throws and recoils from; it's that she's too comfortable with what the Supreme Court has evolved into over the past half-century: a monarchy with theocratic power. That means President Bush is too.

The question how she might vote on Roe v Wade—should the occasion for that arise—is, as always, the basic one driving the pugilists. If anwerable at all, it can be answered by citing a fact that few outside the legal profession care about. Miers supports the majority decision in the case where metaphysical "privacy" jurisprudence first reared its hydra-head: Griswold v Connecticut (1965). That was the key precedent for Roe even though most legal scholars consider the majority's argument in Griswold something of an embarassment. (I posted on that topic a few weeks ago.) As Justice Hugo Black wrote in his dissent:
One of the most effective ways of diluting or expanding a constitutionally guaranteed right is to substitute for the crucial word or words of a constitutional guarantee another word or words, more or less flexible and more or less restricted in meaning. This fact is well illustrated by the use of the term "right of privacy" as a comprehensive substitute for the Fourth Amendment's guarantee against "unreasonable searches and seizures." "Privacy" is a broad, abstract and ambiguous concept which can easily be shrunken in meaning but which can also, on the other hand, easily be interpreted as a constitutional ban against many things other than searches and seizures. I have expressed the view many times that First Amendment freedoms, for example, have suffered from a failure of the courts to stick to the simple language of the First Amendment in construing it, instead of invoking multitudes of words substituted for those the Framers used... For these reasons I get nowhere in this case by talk about a constitutional "right of privacy" as an "emanation" from one or more constitutional provisions. I like my privacy as well as the next one, but I am nevertheless compelled to admit that government has a right to invade it unless prohibited by some specific constitutional provision. For these reasons I cannot agree with the Court's judgment and the reasons it gives for holding this Connecticut law unconstitutional.

Actually, Griswold was only the most poorly reasoned of a series of Court decisions that had substituted verbal legerdemain in service of social policy by fiat for constitutional interpretation as traditionally understood. That's what set the stage for Roe; so if the original precedent stands, then by stare decisis the derivative ones do too. Whatever her personal feelings about abortion, Harriet Miers is logically committed to supporting Roe. Unless her heart, with the gentle stroking of Messrs. Justices Scalia and Thomas, rules otherwise.

That's why I dislike this nomination. It will probably fail for the wrong reasons. But in politics that's often the best one can hope for.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Why I won't podcast...yet

I remember when the Sony Walkman first came out in 1979. It was the height of the disco era and I was living in New York. Thus I was fortunate enough to inhabit the only city (or borough, anyhow) in America where you can walk to most of your destinations in the course of a typical day. But the Walkman made that a problem. Young women in exiguous jogging outfits and young men in $100 rocket sneakers—their laces often loose—pranced down Broadway with their Walkman earphones blasting Donna Summer's pseudo-orgasmic wails through their heads, oblivious to us more pedestrian pedestrians. The Big Apple suddenly got even more dangerous to take a bite of. We survived that, barely; but now it's dejà vu, even if not quite all over again.

The white earbuds of the Apple iPod are becoming ubiquitous, not just in the streets but just about everywhere else. Just ask any parent of a teenager in a halfway-affluent family. Even though only about 1% of Americans own an iPod, it's become not merely an instantly- recognized mark of coolness but a veritable talisman of membership in a paradoxically atomistic subculture. The easier it gets to take your music with you wherever you go, the more fragmented the audience for music becomes. Thus, and in most cases unwittingly, the iPod's proliferation has come to represent the worst trends of American society (and no, I don't mean crime, which has been trending downward for a decade). The more we can customize what we listen to, the less and less we have to listen to anything we'd rather not listen to—especially each other. That encourages us to inhabit a reality of our own making rather than deal with the unexpected and sometimes unpleasant vagaries of honest-to-goodness life.

The trend toward solipsistic atomism may have started with suburbanization and urban blight, but it has only been accelerating with our entertainment technology: cable TV, the Walkman, VCR and DVD players, TiVo, downloading songs from the Internet, and above all the MP3 player that utilizes such downloads, of which the iPod is the best. Worse, the trend is starting to extend beyond mere entertainment. Over the past year or so, "podcasting" has started to catch on. That consists in recording something on one's computer, usually in MP3 format, and then making it available on a Web site for anybody to download and hear on their own computers or their iPods. Sigh. Welcome to the brave new world of egocasting.

I could easily do that myself; some who know my ego would find it peculiarly appropriate. Having a good voice, I find myself tempted. Heck, people who have known me for decades might even like it, in small-enough doses. But the rest of the world? What would I podcast that I do not write here and elsewhere? Karaoke? Even my family would beg to be spared if they didn't have the option of not clicking on the filename. The homilies that I wish my priest would give but doesn't? If people wanted to listen to that, they would have me ordained. (Another fond, youthful fantasy I have outgrown; you're reading the blog of the only man you'll probably ever read, or meet, who has taught in a seminary that had refused to accept him as a student.) I can't think of a good reason to podcast and have already adduced a good reason not to: it would contribute to that collectivization of private egos which, given the decline of civic spirit, is what our society is threatening to become on many levels.

Now if somebody wants to pay me to do it, that's a different matter. I'm not that far above American materialism!

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Healthy paganism

Diogenes over at CWN: Off the Record presents an interesting observation from Msgr. Ronald Knox, the Catholic author who had received my first father-in-law into the Catholic Church:

There is, I think, a healthy kind of paganism lying very near to the roots of this odd compost, human nature, which we shall certainly never get rid of, however much the rationalists try to argue with us, however much the moralists denounce us; a kind of paganism which insists that mute and material things have the power to carry spiritual influences. If I should be invited to go and stay at a country house in which a baronet shot himself, to sleep in the same room in which he shot himself, on the very anniversary of the day on which he shot himself, wearing the same pyjamas which the baronet was wearing when he shot himself, it is an odd circumstance, but I shall not find it easy to get to sleep. The rationalist assures me that the room to-night is the same rooms as it was last night, that it is no different, considered in itself, from any other room in the house; and that the pyjamas are still in good condition. That is all quite true. And the moralist assures me that it is very wrong of me not to go to sleep; it argues that I have a superstitious nature, and that it is a very degraded thing to have a superstitious nature. But all their well meant efforts are unavailing, once they have put the light out. At any other time the confidences of the rationalist and the moralist would have the power to send me to sleep immediately. But they cannot send me to sleep in the baronet's bed, on the anniversary of the baronet's death, in the baronet's pyjamas. [R.A. Knox, "The Charge of Religious Intolerance," in The Fame of Blessed Thomas More, London, 1929]
I believe the sort of fear in question to have an adequate, objective basis in human experience. It is the flip side of venerating such things as healing relics and incorrupt bodies of saints long dead. It's just that the objective basis for such things is not verifiable by modern scientific methods. To suppose that the lack of the latter entails the lack of the former is mere ideology.

That a certain kind of Christian, as well as scientists, would dismiss the above as mere superstition betrays the intimate connection between modern religiosity, even of a certain fundamentalist variety, and modern science. Neither quarter "gets" something that most people in the past, and many in the present, do get. What the scoffers dismiss broad-brush as "superstition" is only the recognition of the fact that material things can focus spiritual realities by signifying them. That is the sacramental principle which must be true in some sense if God created the world and became incarnate in it. What's rightly dismissed as "superstition" is magical thinking: the idea that we can somehow control God with objects and formulas, or that such things have power that God does not choose to give them. But we had better not lose sight of the truth that superstition distorts.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

God and government

I've treated this theme before, but I believe Noah Feldman is really onto something I hadn't thought of. If, as Americans, we want some reasonable accommodation between secularists and believers about the role of religion in public life, we should be constitutional "originalists" and thus revert to a few clear principles of the Framers. Thus:

If we were serious about getting back to the Framers' way of doing things, we would adopt their two principles: no money and no coercion. This compromise would allow plenty of public religious symbolism, but it would also put an end to vouchers for religious schools. God could stay in the Pledge, but the faith-based initiative would be over, and state funds could reach religious charities only if they were separately incorporated to provide secular social services.

The public could logically embrace this modest proposal, and the zealots on both sides should think it over. Secularists want all Americans to feel included as citizens, but right now, many evangelicals feel excluded by the limits on their religious expression. Meanwhile, values evangelicals should recognize that state funding of religion means their own tax dollars are going to support radical religious teachings that they abhor

The Supreme Court's inability, over the last 50 years, to reach some sensible theoretical balance between the establishment and free-exercise clauses of the First Amendment, suggests that Feldman's moderate originalism is really the only coherent alternative. Not everybody would be happy—they never are—but everybody would have less reason to complain. In our incredibly diverse country, that's the best we can hope for.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

The Material Girl does a 180

In theory anyhow. Madonna, now a middle-aged if still-glamorous matron, has taken to breathing fire and brimstone. She warns her fans that "people are going to go to hell if they don't turn from their wicked behavior.'' The behavior she has in mind is the heedless pursuit of material things. Indeed. But I wonder what this ex-Catholic, baptized as Louise Ciccone, would say about priests who say similar things—the ones who still dare to do so, that is. After all, Louise also claims that "most priests are gay," which now seems to be the conventional wisdom among people who take her seriously. Not that she would know by experience, of course.

Still, I take her more seriously now that she's a mom with spiritual interests. They aren't all phony. Her marriage to Guy Ritchie initially struck as one more material acquisition of hers, this time of a boy toy; after all, she had made no secret of her penchant for picking up attractive young men almost at random and giving them the night of their lives at her own considerable expense. But now Guy seems quite the real man, raising their children and making the new category of "übersexual." A man doesn't improve like that if he's married to a slut and a harridan.

So, in a way it's good that somebody like Louise is preachin' up a storm. (I won't use the name 'Madonna' unless I have to; I consider it borderline blasphemy, like her wearing rosaries while singing odes to fornication half-naked in front of bedazzled audiences.) Some people who won't heed priests will heed her. And at any rate, we may be thankful that the fashionable version of Kabbalism now favored by this icon of materialism has caused her to see through materialism when her Catholicism apparently did not. Now if only she moves forward to see through herself, her message would gain even more credibility.

I mean that I'd find her fully credible as a preacher against materialism if she gave up her millions and her celebrity lifestyle herself, instead of just urging us poor slobs to stop pursuing what most of us will never have. It's just too easy to preach against materialism when you're fabulously wealthy. Maybe the needed prod would come if she also started railing against lust, which is just as deadly to the soul as greed. Now that she no longer indulges her own lusts and approaches the age when the sex-symbol act gets equally old, we may hope that her spiritual growth will become all-encompassing. I actually found myself praying for that.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Children and divorce

I've sometimes heard it said that the only thing worse than a bad marriage is a nasty divorce. When young, I was not convinced of that. But I am now—especially when children are involved, because conflict over them often makes a divorce so bitter and vindictive that they rarely if ever benefit from the fallout. (The tragicomically counterproductive jousts about property aren't usually so, but they can be. Recently I read about one guy who did three years in the cooler for the "civil contempt" of refusing to fess up to the "hidden assets" his wife claimed. What assets he did have were chewed up by legal fees he was forced to pay for "discovery" that of course discovered nothing. There are killers and rapists who do less time than that—when they're caught, that is. And even the ones who do more at least get cab fare and real clothes when they get out; in this case, nobody got anything but bills. At least his grown kids visited him while he was getting "three hots and a cot"—and health care to boot—at taxpayer expense. But I digress.) Even so, I've also heard it claimed that ending a bad marriage when children are involved is better for the children. Perhaps it is—except when it isn't, which is more often than we've been led to believe.

Elizabeth Marquardt, a Catholic author I respect all the more because she actually leads a healthy life, has recently completed a book entitled Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce and talked about it in a Zenit interview. A few lines, backed not just by research but by trenchant criticism of countervailing research, are instructive:
  • ...children in high-conflict marriages, or in situations where there is violence, benefit from divorce. Such cases, however, involve only around one-third of divorces, and the children of the other low-conflict marriages fare worse after divorce.
  • Even if a divorce is amicable, and the couple maintains a good relationship after separating, and even if they continue to love and care for the children, this does not eliminate "the radical restructuring of the child's universe"...
  • ...children require strong, lasting marriages in order to have the secure home they need while growing up. They are not like property that can be divided, but need love, stability and moral guidance. This means making changes to our thinking about marriages. Parents...must not just love their children but must also love and forgive each other, to sustain families that last a lifetime.

The first point is the most controversial, but an increasing body of research seems to sustain it. The second is just common sense. So the third would seem too—but alas, the last prescription about love and forgiveness is much easier to state than to follow. And there's the rub.

I am increasingly convinced that the vast majority of problems that persist (as distinct from originate) between people are due to unforgiveness. Whatever the reasons for unforgiveness—pride, defensiveness, rationalization, a mistaken notion that forgiving wrongs means condoning them—it is probably the most common spiritual poison there is, perhaps save for lust and greed. The poison is all the more subtly effective when we cloak unforgiveness as something mandatory: realistic concern for one's own or others' welfare. That is why Jesus made very clear we will only be forgiven to the extent we forgive. To the extent we refuse to forgive, we become the sort of people who cannot be forgiven. And that, I have observed, is what happens to some people in divorce. Way more marriages would stay intact and improve if more people wanted to be happy than to be right; when they don't, the dynamic only gains momentum in and by the process of divorce. Thus custody battles, ostensibly waged for the welfare of the kids, typically ensure that the kids lose—whichever parent "wins."

I suppose it's too much to expect the Church in this country—embroiled in a huge and costly sex scandal whose rise paralleled the increase in divorce among Catholics—to do much about all this right now. It does seem a most appropriate field for concerted pastoral efforts; yet as of now, most pastors don't want to "get caught in the middle" of marital disputes and don't feel competent to step in anyhow. That is understandable; the trick is to avoid getting enmeshed in the couples' mushrooming debate and make clear to them the spiritual costs involved, whoever may be "right." As of now, pastors tend to pass estranged couples off to therapists who usually don't have a distinctive, theologically informed spiritual perspective. That can and must change. And it is laity such as Marquardt who will have to cut the key to changing it.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

When is "the act" not an act?

In the comment box to my post The pelvicists are at it again, I was asked whether I favored something called "emergency contraception." While I reject RU-486 and similar means as abortifacient, I do think that contraception in advance of involuntary sex, when there's a danger of such intercourse, is sometimes permissible. Thus I wrote: "Contraception in such circumstances does not violate divine and natural law because rape by definition is involuntary on the victim's part and, therefore, there is no unitive dimension of sexual intercourse to be violated by contraception, as there is when the deed is consensual." I didn't think that was controversial even in the Catholic Church; it is not unheard of, for example, that nuns in violent missionary territory be pre-armed with pessaries. But apparently I have taken too much for granted.

Thus dilexitprior, a lover of the theology of the body, replied:
I'm going to have to disagree on this one. Humanae Vitae makes it clar that "there must be a rejection of all acts that attempt to impede procreation, both those chosen as means to an end and those chosen as ends. This includes acts that precede intercourse, acts that accompany intercourse, and acts that are directed to the natural consequences of intercourse. Nor is it possible to justify deliberately depriving conjugal acts of their fertility by claiming that one is choosing the lesser evil." (article 14.) This seems fairly explicit to me that under no circumstances is the use of contraception valid. This being said, under no circumstances should a woman be used as a mere means to an end (whether it be procreation or sexual gratification or any other reasoning). Abuse is NEVER justified and the Church has never taught that a woman must remain in an abusive situation. Although it takes great courage the only way a woman can see her dignity restored is to remove herself from the abusive situation.

On that view, the only permissible way to prevent conception in case of rape is removing oneself from the danger to begin with. Thus women with husbands who would force themselves on them should leave their marriages, and single women facing a similar danger as missionaries should just leave the territory. Well, I don't buy that—at least not as a general and apodictic prescription. Here's why.

In HV, Pope Paul VI spoke of "the conjugal act" as the only permissible form of sexual intercourse. Imposed on one's spouse's in face of her (or his) serious reluctance, it is not a true act of love; therefore, it lacks the "unitive" dimension that must be present if it is to be morally acceptable. The late pope also said that what's wrong with direct, voluntary interruption of the generative process—i.e., with contraception—is that it suppresses the procreative dimension in favor of the unitive. Actively and intentionally depriving the conjugal act of its intrinsic relationship to procreation, even if the act occurs when procreation is unlikely, thus damages the unitive dimension of the act. It is another way of not loving each other as God intended. But what if there is no unitive dimension to begin with? What, in other words, if "the act" a form of rape? In that case, it's not an act on the part of the raped partner at all, and so contraception on their part is not wrong for the reason HV gives. If it's wrong, that has to be for some other reason.

Yet I don't know what that reason could be, and HV doesn't give it. Damage control is not the same as wanting, selfishly, to eat one's cake and have it; the latter only is what I understand contraception in consensual, marital sex to be. It's not a form of mutual use; it's a way for women to prevent themselves from being used in a particular way against their will. While I am very critical of priests who think it's perfectly OK to let married couples ignore the teaching of HV, I don't think that the sort of case in question violates the teaching of HV and I don't know any moral theologian who would say it does. At any rate, I think the Church would look pretty silly if she ruled otherwise.

Apologies to my Orthodox friends

In my post yesterday, I explained why I find Orthodoxy as well as Protestantism deficient in a certain respect: I wrote that the former's general attitude toward doctrinal development strikes me as "fundamentalist, for want of a better word," even though broader and more realistic than other alternatives to Catholicism. But the responses I've received, both public and private, have been uniformly negative. I should have known they would be. "Fundamentalist" has become such a hot-button word in these days of jihad and embittered domestic politics that its mere use wounds feelings and deflects attention from the truly substantive issues. Thus offense was taken where none was intended. I plead guilty to imprudence and apologize.

Alas, what's been said cannot be unsaid. I just wish there were a short-and-snappy way to characterize the relevant difference without a dry, tedious, potentially exhaustive academic disquisition.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

The embryo and the deposit of faith

Recall that you are spatio-temporally continuous with a blastocyst. Within that microscopic you, there were and remain all the DNA instructions for what you physically became. Your body was once "virtually"—in the classical sense of that term derived from the Latin virtus: "power"—what it is now. Indeed, your body now is the same body as that blastocyst; the difference is that what "it" contained were mostly the codes for producing what you now see (and a lot of what you don't see). The difference is one of development not identity.

The Catholic Faith is like that. That the authoritative documents of the Catholic Church, such as the Catechism of the Catholic Church, are collectively much, much longer than the New Testament is not a sign of undue human elaboration of the Word of God. The primordial Word of God is God the Son and thus God himself: "In the beginning was the Word." What's more often called the "Word", embodied in the preaching of the Apostles, the Bible, Sacred Tradition, and dogma, is but the transmission of truths from and about the primordial Word. Such media of transmission and elaboration are but the making explicit of much that was implicit in the primitive kerygma. That entails development fueled by explanation. Thus the Apostles would not have known what the Council of Nicaea meant by saying that the Son is homoousios with the Father, yet that phrase signified an authentic, organic development of what they did preach. The basic deposit of faith was indeed "delivered once for all to the saints" from the start; but it took centuries of meditation, heresy, and definition to bring forth to maturity much that was inchoate. The right codes were always there, but what contained them needed time and nourishment for the growth they have regulated.

The analogy of articulation by growth from a small beginning derives of course from the great John Henry Newman's Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (revised edition: 1878). What Newman lacked was the DNA analogy. He didn't know that the seed, his favorite simile for the deposit of faith, contained the actual instructions for developing the mature plant, just as the embryo does for the mature person. Yet perhaps the plant analogy is better for what happened to the Church.

Christianity started as a Jewish movement, and its first-generation leadership was entirely Jewish. But around AD 50, that began to change radically. The first major controversy in the young Church was whether Gentile converts had to be circumcised and observe other requirements of Jewish law in order to belong to the Church. St. Paul had never thought so, but the mother Church in Jerusalem wasn't always so sure. Even so, the "Council of Jerusalem" (see Acts 15), with the Apostle Peter and James "the brother of the Lord" presiding, ended up essentially agreeing with Paul and endorsing his ministry accordingly. That had two immediate effects. It facilitated an explosion of adult Gentile converts, which would probably never have occurred if penile mutiliation had been made a condition of Church membership; and it cemented permanently the enmity of the non-Christian Jewish leadership. Over the next decade, Christians were decisively expelled from synagogues everywhere. By the mid-sixties, Peter, Paul, and James had been martyred, the first two at Rome and the last at Jerusalem; the Gospel according to Mark, the first of the four, was written from Rome; and the Jews in Palestine launched a war of rebellion againt the Romans which, though successful at first, ended in the destruction of the Second Temple and the slaughter of much of the population. Early in the war, the Jerusalem Church had fled to the desert; after the war, it became a rural backwater, eventually dividing into Nazarenes and Ebionites. Within a generation of the Council of Jerusalem, the Church had morphed into a primarily Gentile thing that everybody sharply distinguished from an increasingly beleaguered Judaism. The seedling church had been transplanted, seeding still other churches, away from its original ground. And that is where it was destined to grow into a universal religion, to be articulated as much in terms of Greek metaphysics as Jewish messianism.

I have come to suspect that the division within Christendom into Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Protestantism can be explained largely in terms of where people stand about ecclesial and doctrinal development. Most Protestants, invoking sola scriptura, don't think doctrinal development beyond the Bible necessary and seek a primitive, more "authentic" church order. Most Orthodox, invoking the Fathers and the Seven Ecumenical Councils as well, don't think development beyond the eighth or ninth century necessary; only the Catholic Church keeps on developing doctrine and molting her disciplinary structures while retaining her distinctive cohesion. Perhaps I remain Catholic, despite all the Church's problems, because I don't believe substantive doctrinal and disciplinary development can be frozen any more than it ought to be—so long as it follows the model I've analogized and is thus neither negation of nor addition to the deposit of faith. The two other main branches of Christianity thus strike me as too "fundamentalist," for want of a better word. They just disagree about the size and age of the fundament. I agree there's a fundament: it includes everything other Christians say it does. But it is also the basis of further, authentic development. Physical growth may stop after late adolescence, but spiritual and intellectual growth should never stop. Only by continued maturation does the Church remain forever young.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Abortion, usury, and religious freedom

What do those issues have in common? Check out my article at Pontifications.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

On disputing with the great-souled

Tom Kreitzberg over at Disputations posted an acidly witty commentary on dealing with people who seem to have no problem with contradicting themselves. He quotes a famous passage from Ralph Waldo Emerson that I'm sure at least a few of you know:

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. — "Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood." — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.

When I first read that in college, I smelled something bad but couldn't quite name the reek. But Tom has, perfectly:

Th[e] "memorize this" impression is only exacerbated by the fact that Emerson is writing categorically about greatness of soul. It's hard to do that without implying that one is oneself a Great Soul, or at least greater than the majority of one's readers are likely to be, and that one's greatness is proved by the fact that one lives according to one's aphorisms. If he stuck to the alleged foibles of little statesmen, well, who but little statesmen would begrudge him his bit of grandstanding on that theme?

Of course, it isn't just that one is a Great Soul, as tiresome as that is, but that one's very greatness inevitably causes suffering. Poor dear! The one source of consolation in this, apart from one's own greatness, is that Jesus knows just how one feels

That last paragraph had me rolling on the floor, its mordantly devastating sarcasm recognizable at once as the only apposite response to the relevantly "great-souled." Then I kicked myself for failing to realize that all these years.

You see, disputation is almost my lifeblood. I grew up with it, my father being a lawyer; I was steered into and excelled at debate in high school; I majored in philosophy at Columbia, where my archeologically Catholic views elicited derisive "logical" attack from those disappointed at such neanderthality in a young man who should be "going places"; and since then, wherever I've found myself, I've had to function as an apologist. One of my greatest frustrations in any such setting has been showing somebody that her stated views logically imply something that she surely doesn't hold, only to be told, in effect, one of two things: (a) I'm putting words in her mouth; or (b) What's so bad about contradicting oneself? Isn't it mature to adjust oneself to the paradoxes of reality? Now I've learned to deal with (a) both diplomatically and effectively (well, at least I've learned not to spoil dates by how I deal with it); but (b) has always left me stumped. It leaves me feeling, um, immature, like a dog barking mere logic to a poet.

Until now, thanks to Tom: henceforth I shall know when I'm in the presence of a Great Soul, and act accordingly!

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

I'm always apprehensive when movie versions of books I love are announced. They are never entirely faithful to the original and often substitute a degenerate sensibility. So I was pleasantly surprised upon viewing The Lord of the Ring trilogy on the big screen. The imagery was almost exactly what my mind envisioned when I read the books in the 1970s and re-read them a dozen times over the subsequent decades. True, some important things were omitted and undue liberty was taken with the subplot about the love of Arwen and Aragon. But the true spirit of "the Tolkien thing" remained mostly intact. For that reason, I kept my mind open when the upcoming Disney film version of C.S. Lewis' best-known Narnia story was first publicized. I'm glad I did.

Willy-nilly, Catholic filmscript maven Barbara Nicolosi has provided us with the best possible review of the pre-screening she was privileged to view:

...this movie may have a little of The Passion problem. Madeleine L'Engle says in her book on writing, Walking on Water, that we Christians should live in such a way that our lives wouldn't make sense if our Faith wasn't true. We tell our Act One students that they should write that way too. Their stories shouldn't make sense unless they begin from Christian presuppositions. C.S. Lewis' Narnia books are very much like that.

So, this adaptation of his books on the big screen - in being true to their source material - will be tremendously, heart-fillingly comprehensible to those of us who love Jesus. And probably a bit strange to those who don't. But whereas The Passion was disturbingly incomprehensible to non-believers, this film will be fascinatingly so. I want to be clear: there is plenty of stuff to love and enjoy here for non-Christians. But they aren't going to get why we Christians are going to be in ecstasy here , any more than the pagans got why we cried copious tears at The Passion. What I am saying is, be prepared for this new Narnia film to be foolishness to the New York Times, and a stumbling block to Daily Variety.

What a stirring line: "foolishness to the New York Times, a stumbing block to Daily Variety"! If somebody like Nicolosi says that, I believe it and happily prepare as she advises. I suggest my readers do the same. It will heighten your pleasure all the more.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

The embarassment of privacy jurisprudence

I had meant to comment on this topic when John Roberts was confirmed as Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court . But somehow I got sidetracked into a less short-term theological debate. So I thought I'd post now before I dash off to work.

Most literate Americans know that the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v Wade decision struck down remaining state anti-abortion laws by appealing to a constitutional right to "privacy." Having been tutored on the issue by fellow Catholic Prof. Robert George of Princeton, for whom I once TA'd, I came to realize that the legal genesis of that appeal is not only bunkum but also known to be such by the most of those whose business is to study such matters. Thus on the occasion of Justice Roberts' confirmation, Robbie George wrote that
The Supreme Court's "privacy jurisprudence" began in 1965, in Griswold v. Connecticut. By a vote of 7 to 2, the justices invalidated a state law forbidding the use of contraceptives by married couples. (Laws of this sort had been on the books for decades, though they were rarely if ever enforced and most had been repealed by legislatures.) Lacking a textual or historical warrant for invalidating the law, Justice William O. Douglas, writing for the majority, claimed to find a "right of marital privacy" in "penumbras, formed by emanations" from a range of constitutional guarantees, none of which had anything to do with sexual conduct.

Douglas's quasi-metaphysical language elicited derision, and to this day remains an embarrassment to liberal constitutional jurisprudence. The justices would have done better to take the dissenting advice of Hugo Black, the court's leading civil libertarian. Black said that although he didn't like the law, the court was usurping the constitutional authority of legislatures by simply inventing a right that the nation's founders had not seen fit to enshrine.

Griswold was controversial in legal academic circles, where some worried about where the court would go once it liberated itself from text and history. (Earlier forays of this sort - as when the court in 1905 struck down state worker-protection statutes - had not produced happy results.) But with anti-contraception laws unpopular, the ruling produced no public outcry, and the court relished its expanded role. In 1972 it extended what began as a right of marital privacy to unmarried people. And in 1973 the justices handed down Roe v. Wade, striking down state abortion laws nationwide.

The Roe decision met not only with academic criticism - some of the sharpest coming from liberal scholars like Archibald Cox and John Hart Ely - but also with resistance from people who opposed abortion as a form of prenatal homicide. Although Justice Harry Blackmun, in the majority opinion, dispensed with the metaphysics of penumbras and emanations, he could not identify a compelling constitutional grounding for the right to abortion. He simply declared that the words "nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law," in the Fourteenth Amendment, were "broad enough to encompass a woman's decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy."

What Blackmun never told us, and couldn't tell us, is why the due process clause— which on its face is concerned with procedural matters—should be interpreted in this sweeping way. On what constitutional basis can we say that abortion is protected by "due process" but a right to assisted suicide - unanimously rejected by the court in 1997 - is not? Why is sodomy protected and prostitution unprotected? Why does the right to privacy not extend to polygamy or the use of recreational drugs?

Clearly, it is not the Constitution that accounts for the outcomes in the court's "privacy" cases; it is simply the moral and political opinions of the justices. The nation will be fortunate if Judge Roberts understands that the result of the court's invention of a generalized right to privacy has been 40 years of unprincipled—and unpredictable—constitutional law.

Indeed. "Penumbras and emanations" are only intellectual figleaves for raw will-to-power. The victims are conceived children who are never given the chance to be born. Let's hope John Roberts understands that well enough not to let stare decisis reign supreme—just as the Supreme Court, in 1954, did not invoke stare decisis to permit continued school segregation.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Why we needed to hear from Emily Rose

I shall not discuss The Exorcism of Emily Rose's quality as art, which has been amply evaluated elsewhere and on which my opinion would be just one among countless others. I want to discuss its significance, which I believe to be considerable and, naturally, so far overlooked in the media.

The significance I have in mind assumes that the film was realistic in essentials. Inasmuch as a veteran Catholic exorcist has said it was, I believe I'm justified in making that assumption. Given as much, the chief questions raised by the film are two: whether Fr. Moore, the exorcist, was culpable for Emily's death and, if so, what that says about the whole topic of demonology and exorcism.

Now I do believe that Moore broke the law by taking Emily off her psychotropic medications. He was overriding a medical prescription duly recognized by the state as important for the girl's welfare and thus taking risks in a field beyond his competence. The judge agreed; that alone was enough to convict Moore of negligent homicide; so we may say that Moore was legally culpable. Of course the defense sought to argue that Moore's move was needed to allow Emily to exercise free will and thus cooperate in the exorcism. The interesting thing is that that assertion was also true. Hence Moore was not morally culpable, given the requirements of his profession.

Journalists should have no trouble understanding that. Her colleagues largely support reporter Judith Miller for going to jail rather than revealing an anonymous source in an important story involving a murder. That's a clear case of professional ethics overriding legal obligations, and she paid the price accordingly. Fr. Moore was willing to do the same, and did. The question, therefore, is not whether one can be justified in allowing professional ethics to override legal obligations, but when that is justified.

The same MSM who support Miller generally don't support Moore. And the explanation is simple enough: most media types are secular-minded, and thus either don't believe that the devil is real or, if he is, that he possesses people in a manner clearly distinct from mental illness. Because cases of full-blown possession are rather rare, cases such as Emily's don't elicit quite the visceral outrage elicited by the Church's stand on condoms for the promiscuous. But the problem is actually the same. Because the Church's view of reality is not widely shared in the media, her moral prescriptions often make no sense to them. What that shows is that morality is, in part, a question of metaphysics. One can be justified in letting moral obligations override legal ones just in case one's view of the grand scheme of things is true in a way that explains the value of doing so.

That conclusion gives, or would give, secular liberals the willies. It seems a grand prescription for the intolerance and violence of religious fundamentalists. And I for one agree that such intolerance and violence should not be given sway by the state. So, for that as well as other reasons, there probably will always be cases when legal and moral obligations conflict. When they do, the latter should take precedence. But human, positive law could minimize such conflicts if it were passed and enforced by people who believe, with most Muslims and Christians, that evil is embodied not merely in human sins but in a cosmic, personal force that has been around for as long as time itself.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Syndrome thinking

One of my pet peeves about political debate among Catholics is how it illustrates what the late philosopher G.E.M. Anscombe called "syndrome thinking." Such thinking is the juxtaposition, in the same person, of attitudes and arguments that don't have to go together logically but illustrate merely ideological prejudice. It's got to stop.

For example, those who work tirelessly—and in my view, rightly—to abolish the death penalty generally have no problem with abortion being legal. Why? If it's pro-life to seek to protect vicious murderers from a fate many of them arguably deserve, why does not the duty of being pro-life call for inducing the state to protect conceived children from an equally violent fate that nobody says they deserve? Frankly, I don't get it. Perhaps somebody somewhere has explained it, but I don't know who or where and I doubt I'd be impressed with their argument if in fact they have produced one. The whole attitude reeks of ideological syndrome-thinking: the thoughtless aping of knee-jerk leftism.

By the same token, however, many who rightly oppose keeping abortion legal, and who agree with John Paul the Great's statements to that effect in Evangelium Vitae, nonetheless vociferously dissent from his statement in that same encyclical:
It is clear that, for these purposes to be achieved, the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent.
Alongside the Church's traditional teaching on capital punishment, that last sentence was even inserted into the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2267) by way of revising its original edition. Now as a merely empirical judgment, that statement does not call for the assent of faith, only for religiousum obsequium. So I wouldn't call somebody a bad Catholic just for disagreeing with it. But why do so many right-wing Catholics treat it with such scorn? It seems to me pretty obviously true even if failure to accept it is compatible with Catholic orthodoxy. So whence comes the emotional energy of dissenters? I don't find their attitude on this point any more "pro-life" than the attitude of the Left about legal abortion. It's coming from a place other than Catholicism, and it's syndrome thinking of the sort well illustrated among American conservatives.

What this whole debate shows me is that many Catholics don't adopt Catholicism as their primary template of thought. Especially on matters of political significance, their thinking is formed elsewhere and brought to their Catholicism. That shows they aren't Catholic enough. Of course few of us are; if we were, we'd all be saints, and I'm certainly no saint. But granted I find it harder to behave than to believe, I can and do expect consistency of belief and strive constantly to attain it. I don't understand why more Catholics don't do the same.