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

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

There he goes again

While some of the poor (especially poor women of childbearing age) suffer from iron deficiency, a far worse affliction is irony-deficiency. One of the most egregious examples of that outside the Episcopal Church is Bishop William Skylstad, President of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. I've remarked on this problem before regarding the issue of homosexual priests, but now he's offered up an even funnier example.

In a letter to the Speaker of the House criticizing the recent House-Senate conference-committee budget cuts in social programs—the bulk of which merely reduce their funding's rate of increase—he says: "... we urge you to reject the conference agreement and work for policies that put poor children and families first." Geez. I can understand a rational, cost-benefit argument that such programs are good investments and should thus be better funded. Since I am not qualified to judge the details about the programs at issue, I keep an open mind. But Skylstad's advice is just knee-jerking, the sort that once got the USCCB dubbed "the Democratic Party at prayer." What makes it worse now is that he expects it to be taken seriously.

Skylstad's diocese operates under federal bankruptcy protection because of civil-damage awards made in virtue of its failure for many years to protect minors, mostly teenage boys, from traumatic sexual abuse at the hands of mostly homosexual priests. Vocations in the diocese hover near zero and some parish churches are being closed for consolidation. Admittedly, Skylstad did not cause such problems originally, but neither has he done much to ameliorate them. Given the dire situation on his home turf, only a serious irony-deficiency, coupled with a blithe assumption of Congressional ignorance, can explain how he expects his budgetary advice on behalf of the victimized poor to be taken seriously. Once again, it's clear that the leadership of the American episcopate just doesn't get it.

Of course, neither did Senator Kerry, the rabidly pro-abortion Presidential candidate whose bishop, struggling with the worst scandal-related problems in the American Church, refused to excommunicate him for that. Too many of these guys live in a twilight zone of their own making. It's time for archbishops with realism and backbone, such as Burke of St. Louis and Chaput of Denver, to set these guys straight.

Nominate me!

The 2006 Catholic blog award nominations are underway. If you enjoy this blog, please consider entering it into the polling. Thanks!

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Development and Negation VI: Contraception

This is a very slightly revised version of the sixth and final article of my series on Pontifications on teachings of the Catholic Church that some say have changed to such an extent as to contradict, rather than refine, her allegedly irreformable teaching of the past—thus fatally undermining the Magisterium’s claims for itself. The purpose of the series has been to rebut that claim in each instance; the other articles have been: Doctrine: Development and Negation; Extra ecclesiam nulla salus; Limbo; Abortion, usury, and religious freedom; and Marriage.

Perhaps no single doctrine taught by the Catholic Church is more widely rejected within the Church—in both theory and practice—than that the following is "intrinsically evil": every action which, whether in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible (CCC 2370, citing §14 of the best-known papal document on the subject, Pope Paul VI's Humanae Vitae [1968]; 'HV' for short). I am just old enough to remember, and to have understood at the time, the enormous uproar generated by Pope Paul's ruling. By issuing it, he had rejected the majority recommendation of the commission he had appointed to study an issue so sensitive that he had withdrawn it from consideration by the Second Vatican Council; many Catholics, who had already begun using the anovulant pill introduced in the late 1950s, had eagerly expected the Church's teaching to follow suit. Of course it didn't, and I believe an excellent case has been made that Paul could not have done otherwise.1

But as is well known, many theologians and some bishops demurred, thus doing much to rationalize and deepen the "culture of dissent" among the laity; and since then the majority of married Catholics have violated the teaching without even bothering to produce an argument for doing so. That is because, following the explicit or implicit policy of their pastors, they take for granted that the matter is one of "conscience." To them, that means the teaching may be ignored with spiritual impunity; hence the question how to regulate the size of their families seems entirely up to them, without calling forth any need to justify their actions to representatives of the Church. Indeed, given that the formal statements of the US bishops (and other national bishops' conferences) made in response to HV have not condemned such a pastoral policy and its effect, the attitude of such laity is understandable even if, as I believe, it is objectively unjustifiable.

Now when one reads those episcopal statements, it becomes clear that they question not the truth of the teaching but rather whether, and if so under what circumstances, a Catholic can be presumed culpable for rejecting it. Yet important as that issue is, it is not my immediate concern; for it cannot be usefully addressed unless the question of the teaching's truth is itself addressed. At the same time, I see little need to deal with most of the actual arguments against the teaching's truth, which I find to be uninformed, sophistical, or both. My concern is with the one argument that seems to me by far the most plausible: that the teaching as developed and presented in HV is incoherent. On that argument, HV's grounds for condemning contraception—i.e. intentional, physical actions taken to prevent conception when it could otherwise occur—apply just as well to the form of birth control that HV allows under certain conditions: intentionally limiting sexual intercourse to the woman's infertile periods. If that argument were correct, then not only would it be easy to argue that Catholics cannot be presumed culpable for rejecting the ban on contraception; given the risks that pregnancy poses for some women and/or their families, one could make a good case that they are bound in conscience to reject it.

The argument has been developed in many ways over the last fifty years. The best versions I've encountered to date are, unlike most, contained in book-length treatments: John Noonan's Contraception (1965), which is now unfortunately out of print; and James Arraj's Is There a Solution to the Catholic Debate on Contraception? (1989), which is fortunately available free online as well as in inexpensive printed form. It is noteworthy that Noonan's book, which is primarily a historical study of Church teaching and the best of that kind, does not claim that Church teaching has so changed as to contradict earlier teaching. And the historical claim of Arraj's book, which is primarily a work of theology, is only that there have been two strands of pertinent Church teaching—the "essentialist" and the "existentialist"—which cannot be successfully integrated. Each book puts paid to the popular claim that the Church's permitting any form of birth control in any circumstances is, just by itself, an abandonment of her original, pre-20th-century teaching. Accordingly, the only historical argument I find worth considering is that the teaching's development in magisterial documents of the 20th century had yielded a result that is incoherent, unlike what is mistakenly thought to be the Church's earlier teaching, which is merely false. So, if the conceptual argument against current Church teaching is sound, the historical argument is of scholarly rather than pastoral interest; and in any case, one can only grasp what is historically at stake if one first understands the conceptual issue. So it is to the latter I now turn, reserving the rest of the historical argument to brief consideration at the end.

When all is said and done, the key claim that careful opponents of Church teaching argue for is this: there is no morally significant feature of an act of contraceptive intercourse that is not equally to be found in a similar act that is only intentionally restricted to the infertile period rather than intentionally changed by some form of physical intervention in the reproductive process. Ironically, that argument gains strength from the development, in the last several decades, of "natural family planning" techniques that are far more reliable, both for avoiding and for achieving pregnancy, than the old calendar-rhythm method that many Catholics recall, under the derisive name "Vatican roulette," as an especially nasty feature of the "bad old days." (For an accurate and sympathetic treatment of NFP, see non-Catholic James B. Stanford, MD's First Things article, which also argues, with many Catholic enthusiasts for NFP, that contemporary methods thereof have beneficial spiritual effects on marriages too.) But rather than analyze and criticize any particular version of the argument for that claim—which would only invite quibbles about interpretation and alternatives—I shall focus on the claim that I have found all such arguments to have in common: since couples using contraception and couples using NFP have precisely the same intention, nothing about the objective features of the acts themselves can be said to make the moral quality of the respective acts different. In short: if the end is the same, the means (assuming, of course, that they are not abortifacient) don't matter.

What makes that claim so plausible is that, given the mentality of some couples using birth control, there really is nothing morally significant about the difference of means. If, e.g., a possibly fertile couple intend their marriage to be childless, then according to the Catholic doctrine of marriage, they are just as much in the wrong by excluding children with NFP as they would be if they were using some form of contraceptive technology. The larger intention-with-which they avoid conception suffices to render their marriage morally unacceptable regardless of the means they use to do so.2 But in such a case, of course, their overall intention is not really the same as that of couples seeking just to space births and/or limit the size of their families. So, some of the evidence that makes the claim in question plausible is actually irrelevant given the hypothesis we've granted arguendo.

It does, however, bring to light an important point that many people, including poorly catechized Catholics, don't seem to notice. The Church's objection to contraception is not that it is "artificial" as opposed to "natural," as if the mere use of technology makes the whole business worse. (There is some medical evidence that using progesterone pills as a means of contraception has undesirable side effects for many women; but as that is both controversial and irrelevant to the main point, I shall leave the issue aside.) The Church equally condemns any form of non-contraceptive sexual intercourse that involves male ejaculation in an orifice other the vagina or in none at all (acts that I shall refrain from enumerating out of respect for the family orientation of this site!) precisely because such acts are of an inherently non-procreative kind. And that teaching has been remarkably consistent for as long as we have records on the subject. What makes contraceptive sex a violation of "the natural law" and thus "unnatural" is not the artifice of technology—which might or might not be present—but the intent to block procreation that might otherwise occur. That is why coitus interruptus (sorry, I had to name one) is also condemned. On Church teaching, such acts are morally no different from, or at least no better than, acts that are inherently non-procreative to begin with. Whether or not one agrees, it is important to be clear about what is being asserted.

Let us remain, then, only with couples seeking to limit the number and/or spacing of their children; obviously, there is more similarity of intention here than in the previous case. According to Catholic teaching, however, even here the couple using NFP must meet certain criteria. Thus HV §10 says that "responsible parenthood is exercised" not only by "those who prudently and generously decide to have more children" but also by "those who, for serious reasons and with due respect to moral precepts, decide not to have additional children for either a certain or an indefinite period of time " (emphasis added). Some reasons clearly are serious in the relevant sense, such as the likelihood that pregnancy would endanger the mother's health or life; some are clearly not serious in the relevant sense, such as the couple's desire to devote resources to the acquisition of luxuries rather than to more children; some don't fall clearly on one side of the line or the other, so that conscience shaped by prayer and spiritual direction as well as by Church teaching must arbitrate. Now when a couple's reasons are not sufficiently serious according to the relevant criteria, there is no morally significant difference between contraception and NFP—or at least none that makes a difference. But let us assume arguendo that the NFP-using couple and the contracepting couple have equally and sufficiently "serious" reasons to avoid conception. What, according to the Catholic Church, is supposed to be the problem in the latter case?

Pope Paul says:

Men rightly observe that a conjugal act imposed on one's partner without regard to his or her condition or personal and reasonable wishes in the matter, is no true act of love, and therefore offends the moral order in its particular application to the intimate relationship of husband and wife. If they further reflect, they must also recognize that an act of mutual love which impairs the capacity to transmit life which God the Creator, through specific laws, has built into it, frustrates His design which constitutes the norm of marriage, and contradicts the will of the Author of life. Hence to use this divine gift while depriving it, even if only partially, of its meaning and purpose, is equally repugnant to the nature of man and of woman, and is consequently in opposition to the plan of God and His holy will. But to experience the gift of married love while respecting the laws of conception is to acknowledge that one is not the master of the sources of life but rather the minister of the design established by the Creator. Just as man does not have unlimited dominion over his body in general, so also, and with more particular reason, he has no such dominion over his specifically sexual faculties, for these are concerned by their very nature with the generation of life, of which God is the source (HV §13; emphasis added).
There we have it: contraception, unlike NFP, makes man not God the "master of the sources of life." I shall call that the "arrogation" thesis inasmuch as, presumably, to make ourselves master of the sources of life is to arrogate to ourselves something we ought not to. Now Pope Paul did little to clarify why we ought not to; indeed, I am far from the first Catholic to accept the arrogation thesis but note that the argument for it in HV is, at best, unclear. (See, e.g., J. Budziszewski, who considers that to have been quite a serious pastoral defect of the encyclical.) But John Paul the Great, who as an archbishop had had a large hand in HV's composition , did provide such an argument through his audiences on the "theology of the body" begun soon after he became pope. (See especially audiences 113-121.)

The key point for us in those rich, even profound meditations is that one cannot do what is condemned by the arrogation thesis without objectively violating the norms of mutual love. Pope Paul had famously said that the purpose of the conjugal act is both "unitive" and "procreative," noting that each, rightly pursued, facilitates the other. Thus the procreative significance of marital sex— even when one or both parties are involuntarily and/or permanently sterile—forms part and parcel of its sacramentality, which consists in love as mutual self-gift. That much I hinted at in my previous article on marriage. John Paul took that for granted and went a step further: to do what the arrogation thesis condemns is to render the mutual self-gift incomplete and thus fail in love. To make oneself "the master" rather than "the minister" of God's designs for life, thus rejecting the gift of life from God when it might otherwise be given, is to fail to make a full gift of one's fertility to one's spouse, thus failing to make a full gift of oneself to one's spouse. On such an account, contraception is necessarily and thus intrinsically incompatible with the true nature of marriage, whereas NFP is not. The latter can be when practiced for evil or insufficiently serious motives; but unlike contraception, it need not be.

Now I am not at present concerned with producing further argument for the truth of that subsidiary claim. Such an argument would have to establish, as a quite general thesis, that one cannot make a complete gift of oneself to another if one refuses a major gift from God. I lack the mystical insight to do so; even if I had it, it is not pertinent to my main point, which is this: regardless of how the argument for it should go, on the arrogation thesis there is a morally significant difference between contraception and NFP. And whether one agrees with that or not, it does change the nature of the debate. No longer can the opponent of Church teaching say that there is no difference in intention; for in fact, there is an irreducibly objective difference of "intention-with-which" between the two, regardless of what the couple may subjectively experience. The only issue is whether the difference is morally significant. If John Paul II is right, it most definitely is; and I don't think even he produced as thorough and wide-ranging an argument as is possible and necessary. Further development is called for; but that is for another time.

Of course the main argument I've encountered against JP II's claim is the argument from "experience." Far from experiencing the lack of love implied by the theology of the body's argument for the arrogation thesis, some contracepting couples would say they express all the greater mutual love by taking steps to block and thus spare themselves a pregnancy, instead of just hoping they have accurately determined when sperm would fail to reach egg. On the other hand, as Stanford, Kimberly Hahn, and others have written, it is not exceptional to find couples who have drawn the opposite conclusion after having switched from contraception to NFP. Experience, in any event, is quite subjective and shaped by many variables that can obscure rather than clarify the central issue. Not much, I believe, can be settled one way or the other just by appeal to private experience—though if one considers collective experience, I consider Pope Paul's stunningly accurate predictions about the social effects of widespread contraception to be far better evidence for the truth of his teaching than the reported experience of any particular subset of couples. Regardless of how one evaluates arguments from experience, however, the fact remains that the critics' main conceptual point no longer holds. It can no longer be plausibly argued that Church teaching on contraception is simply incoherent; the argument now, in effect, is that what the arrogation thesis says is wrong is not wrong, inasmuch as JP 2's argument for it is invalid. Oddly, Arraj's otherwise fine book takes no direct account of the theology of the body and thus fails to engage the argument at the level necessary.

Now I cannot here establish the truth of the Church's teaching or even advance the real argument any further. My sole remaining task is to rebut the phony argument that the Church has contradicted her past teaching merely by allowing some kind of birth control.

It must first of all be granted that, until the 20th century, the Church's pastoral attitude toward any form of birth control was almost entirely negative. The reasons for that were partly theological and largely sociological. The theological aspect was that, given the traditional approach to marriage that I discussed in my previous article, the procreation and education of offspring was generally considered to be the primary vocation of the lay Catholic, sometimes called "providing souls for God." To limit the number of such souls for the sake of reducing suffering—one's own or even theirs—instead of accepting as many as possible as gifts, seemed incompatible with Christian love and life. Sometimes, of course, it was grudgingly conceded that the largest possible family was not necessarily the best. But given the sitz-im-leben of most married Catholics, that was usually considered an abstract hypothesis. Nor was it broadly resented by the laity themselves.

That is because, until the 20th century, a substantial majority of Catholics were peasants or equally uneducated folk who valued and needed children, and infant mortality was high. It has not escaped the notice of sociologists that, even today throughout the world, birth rates tend to vary inversely with family income, the most important variable being the mother's level of education. Until quite recently even in the West, people who are basically poor and have few prospects for major advancement tend, rightly, to see children as their most important asset and a large family as a great blessing. Given that children often die young among such populations, there has been little incentive for birth control among them. The old attitude of the Church hierarchy was similar and was only reinforced by the theology I have described.

What began to change people's attitudes, of course, was the spread of the Industrial Revolution throughout the West. The rural way of life steadily crumbled; children became an economic burden to many, not the broad asset they had been; and by the end of World War I, medical technology was both reducing infant mortality and expanding the means of contraception. It was not coincidental that the Church of England, at the Lambeth Conference of 1930, was the first church in the entire history of Christendom to deem contraception morally acceptable (for "serious" reasons, of course). Yet even in his fierce and wide-ranging reply to that action, the encyclical Casti Connubii, Pope Pius XI took account of the same historic developments by explicitly allowing that "virtuous continence" may be used to limit family size (§53). Pius spoke as if that had been uncontroversial even in the Catholic Church; and though St. Augustine had opposed even that kind of birth control, Noonan shows that his view had never been the official teaching or even the consensus view of theologians; by modern times, it had been thoroughly rejected.

Pius XI did not do much to explain that development. Paul VI did more, but not enough; John Paul II went further along that road; yet more work is needed. And I believe such further development to be absolutely vital, not merely to the credibility of the Magisterium but to the future of the Catholic Church; and not just to that of the Church, but that of much of the world itself.

Population has already begun declining in Russia and Japan; it will soon begin to do so throughout the native populations of Western Europe; even in the United States, the birth rate for those not counted as "minorities" is now below replacement level. The depopulation of most of the nominally Christian world is an impending reality. If nothing else, that shows how important the issue of contraception is. But there is something else: as sex becomes steadily unmoored from procreation, social constraints on both the degree and the expressions of lust are steadily evaporating. On a site such as this, I need not elaborate on that point. It is yet another sign that society as a whole is becoming spiritually unmoored from the Author of Life.

One of the first things the Catholic Church can and must do to combat the trend is make clear to her members that the teaching on contraception is not optional. Pope Benedict could, and I believe should, rule in that regard in the same way and form as Pope John Paul did in the case of women's ordination. He would be on very firm ground.

1John Ford, SJ and Germain Grisez, “Contraception and the Infallibility of the Ordinary Magisterium,” Theological Studies 39, No. 2 (June 1978), pp. 258-312; for rebuttal, see Francis Sullivan, SJ, Magisterium: Teaching Authority in the Catholic Church, (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 1983), pp. 143ff; for Grisez's rejoinder, see "Infallibility and Specific Norms: a Review Discussion," The Thomist 49, No. 2 (April 1985), pp. 248-287.

2For an excellent introduction to how the whole question of "intention-with-which" should be broached in moral philosophy, see Elizabeth Anscombe's classic little book Intention; for how it applies in the contraception debate, see her oft-quoted paper "Contraception and Chastity."

Richard Dawkins: one can only gawk

As a small penance for my sins, I have now finished viewing atheistic scientist Richard Dawkins' two-part PBS television series on religion: The Root of All Evil? Not all the negative reviews have come from people whose religion I share or even from religious people. But outside the choir to which the show preached, the reviews have been decidedly and deservedly negative.

Perhaps the deftest is that of Keith Ward, Regius Professor of Divinity Emeritus, University of Oxford and currently lecturing at Gresham College, London. Mind you, I'm not crazy about Ward's theology; for a variety of reasons, I consider him a heretic. But I could have written Ward's review myself and wish I had.

It concludes as follows, having made the observations necessary to support the conclusion:

So why can Professor Dawkins only see the bad in religion? Why is he incapable of making an objective, “scientific”, study of it, in all its diversity? Why is he unable to make distinctions between the many different forms of religious belief? I do not know the answer to these questions, but I do know this apostle of reason, when confronted with the word “faith”, suddenly becomes irrational, careless of truth, incapable of scholarly analysis. I really think it must be some sort of virus, and I wish my colleague a speedy recovery.

That's what the show is: "irrational, careless of truth," and utterly lacking in "scholarly analysis." So why does a reputable intellectual like Dawkins think he can indulge himself in such an exercise with his reputation intact? As I've already implied, he's preaching to a choir, one that consists mostly of people with an education like his, who are largely clueless about the alternatives. He reminds me of the late film critic Pauline Kael who, upon Richard Nixon's election as President in 1972, said: "I can't understand how he was elected. I don't know anybody who voted for him." Well, there is no argument against fact.

The fact that Dawkins seems too well-insulated to grasp is that many very intelligent and humane people espouse forms of religion that do not fall prey to his criticisms. Regarding my own religion, a quotation from the late Archbishop Fulton Sheen would be apt: "Millions of people hate what they believe the Catholic Church to be. Hardly anyone hates what the Catholic Church actually is."

Saturday, January 28, 2006

The real Cindy Sheehan

No, this is not a bit of scandal-mongering to help discredit an anti-war activist who had no qualms about embarassing herself in an effort to embarass the President. I don't know that Sheehan, a Catholic and ex-lay-minister, has anything to hide like, say, an affair with somebody else's husband, or with a monkey for that matter. And I wouldn't care if she did. What I find truly revealing is why she's threatening to run against the incumbent Dianne Feinstein for a seat in the U.S. Senate from California. Apparently Feinstein, who opposed even the partial-birth-abortion ban that passed the Senate in 1996 only to be vetoed by "safe-legal-and-rare" Bill Clinton, isn't pro-abortion enough.

That's right. For reasons known to herself—which probably have to do with the refreshingly prudent desire not to waste time and energy—Feinstein had decided not to filibuster the nomination of conservative Catholic Samuel Alito to the U.S. Supreme Court. Given how raw the abortion issue still is in American politics, the only possible reason for such a filibuster is the well-founded fear that Alito cannot be counted on to let Roe v Wade stand when push comes to shove. That fact about Alito has so enraged Sheehan, a self-described believer in Catholic social teaching, that she is willing to spend millions of other peoples' dollars for the publicity she'd get in the course of losing to the secular-minded liberal Dianne Feinstein in the Democratic primary. This dire threat has apparently put the fear of the Berkeley ultra-Left into Feinstein, who's now willing to reconsider joining those two paragons of principle and virtue, the junior and senior senators from Massachusetts, in trying to filibuster Alito to death.

Mind you, I couldn't care less about the nuts-and-bolts politics of this. Alito is going to take his seat on the bench and participate in the eventual, and inevitable, day of reckoning about Roe. What sets me to hurl is what this whole sorry episode tells us about the state of Catholicism in this country. I was going to say that one can't sink much lower than the Catholic senators from Massachusetts, whose very names I dislike typing; they are so enthusiastic about the right to kill the unborn as to be a disgrace to their Church, which has just as disgracefully refused to excommunicate them for their trouble. But it takes a Cindy Sheehan to show just how bad things have gotten on the Catholic Left. One must now positively fall on one's sword for the right to kill the unborn, even as one denounces George Bush as Hitleresque for the inevitable costs of freeing the Iraqi people from the butcher Saddam and giving them a chance to clean up the messes he created. In the prog catechism, it's just as mandatory to expose the most defenseless human beings to mass slaughter as it is to denounce as mass slaughter a war launched by the United States for the purpose of preventing it.

There's something I can only call diabolical about this. Which reminds me: see my brief article Refuting Satan over at Pontifications. I doubt Cindy would like it.

Why John Paul II didn't resign

The word from the man closest to him.

I thought so. Especially in this day and age.

The Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas

I could go on and on about the intellectual virtues of this great saint. But on this day I consider it more useful to more people to convey something of the flavor of his sanctity. To that end, I can do no better than quote a better writer, the late, great G. K. Chesterton:

There are moments when the most orthodox reader is tempted to hate the hagiographer as much as he loves the holy man. The holy man always conceals his holiness; that is the one invariable rule. And the hagiographer sometimes seems like a persecutor trying to frustrate the holy man; a spy or eavesdropper hardly more respectful than an American interviewer. I admit that these sentiments are fastidious and one-sided, and I will now proceed to prove my penitence by mentioning one or two of the incidents that could only have come to common knowledge in this deplorable way.

It seems certain that he did live a sort of secondary and mysterious life; the divine double of what is called a double life. Somebody seems to have caught a glimpse of the sort of solitary miracle which modern psychic people call Levitation; and he must surely have either been a liar or a literal witness, for there could have been no doubts or degrees about such a prodigy happening to such a person: it must have been like seeing one of the huge pillars of the church suspended like a cloud. Nobody knows, I imagine, what spiritual storm of exaltation or agony produces this convulsion in matter or space; but the thing does almost certainly occur. Even in the case of ordinary Spiritualist mediums, for whatever reason, the evidence is very difficult to refute. But probably the most representative revelation of this side of his life may be found in the celebrated story of the miracle of the crucifix; when in the stillness of the church of St. Dominic in Naples, a voice spoke from the carven Christ, and told the kneeling Friar that he had written rightly, and offered him the choice of a reward among all the things of the world.

Not all, I think, have appreciated the point of this particular story as applied to this particular saint. It is an old story, in so far as it is simply the offer made to a devotee of solitude or simplicity, of the pick of all the prizes of life. The hermit, true or false, the fakir, the fanatic or the cynic, Stylites on his column or Diogenes in his tub, can all be pictured as tempted by the powers of the earth, of the air or of the heavens, with the offer of the best of everything; and replying that they want nothing. In the Greek cynic or stoic it really meant the mere negative; that he wanted nothing. In the Oriental mystic or fanatic, it sometimes meant a sort of positive negative; that he wanted Nothing; that Nothing was really what he wanted. Sometimes it expressed a noble independence, and the twin virtues of antiquity, the love of liberty and the hatred of luxury. Sometimes it only expressed a self-sufficiency that is the very opposite of sanctity. But even the stories of real saints, of this sort, do not quite cover the case of St. Thomas. He was not a person who wanted nothing; and he was a person who was enormously interested in everything. His answer is not so inevitable or simple as some may suppose.

As compared with many other saints, and many other philosophers, he was avid in his acceptance of Things; in his hunger and thirst for Things. It was his special spiritual thesis that there really are things; and not only the Thing; that the Many existed as well as the One. I do not mean things to eat or drink or wear, though he never denied to these their place in the noble hierarchy of Being; but rather things to think about, and especially things to prove, to experience and to know. Nobody supposes that Thomas Aquinas, when offered by God his choice among all the gifts of God, would ask for a thousand pounds, or the Crown of Sicily, or a present of rare Greek wine. But he might have asked for things that he really wanted: and he was a man who could want things; as he wanted the lost manuscript of St. Chrysostom. He might have asked for the solution of an old difficulty; or the secret of a new science; or a flash of the inconceivable intuitive mind of the angels, or any one of a thousand things that would really have satisfied his broad and virile appetite for the very vastness and variety of the universe. The point is that for him, when the voice spoke from between the outstretched arms of the Crucified, those arms were truly opened wide, and opening most gloriously the gates of all the worlds; they were arms pointing to the east and to the west, to the ends of the earth and the very extremes of existence. They were truly spread out with a gesture of omnipotent generosity; the Creator himself offering Creation itself; with all its millionfold mystery of separate beings, and the triumphal chorus of the creatures. That is the blazing background of multitudinous Being that gives the particular strength, and even a sort of surprise, to the answer of St. Thomas, when he lifted at last his head and spoke with, and for, that almost blasphemous audacity which is one with the humility of his religion; "I will have Thyself."

Friday, January 27, 2006

Deus Caritas Est

Fresh from reading the Pope's first encyclical, officially released a few days ago, I must say that it strikes me as more an extended homily than the lecture I had expected. Too long for a Mass, it is nonetheless very much the sort of homily I used to love hearing at Masses celebrated by intellectual priests, such as Raymond Brown and George Maloney, when I was a college student. As such it contains some of what might be considered arguments, especially in the first part, and is obviously the product of an academic mind. Yet the main thoughts do not develop in linear fashion but radiate outward from the central theme as in a meditation. In that way and others, it illustrates its author's very personal way of answering his own invitation (§36) to prayer. In that lies both its strength and its weakness as the sounding of what Benedict apparently wants his pontificate's theme to be.

Given by the title, the theme is worked out first conceptually and then more concretely. Erotic love is an "ascending" intimation of the divine; but it must be leavened and matured by the sort of love that "descends" to us from God lest it spoil its promise. Benedict is especially good on how divine revelation, as evidenced in both Old and New Testaments, challenges us with a radical, liberating vision of love that transcends the dualisms and distortions of the ancient world, which are still very much with us under other forms and names. The Christian understanding of God as love, and of how we are to live accordingly, is the only understanding that does full justice to the human person as an intimate unity of body and soul corresponding to eros and agape: "ascending" and "descending" love. Passionately in love with us, God empties himself to fill us and thus draw us into his life. His eros is his agape. And the former is pure because it does not arise from need but overflows gratuitously from fullness. It is according to the same pattern that our love for one another must grow if we are not to become fractured, exploitive, and despairing.

That insight is applied, albeit not in detail and without naming any names, to the two most obvious spheres of human life in which Christian love must manifest itself: marriage and the social order generally. The former illustrates, in the clearest and most primordial form, that true love is unity-in-difference and difference-in-unity, integrating eros and agape and thus facilitating the relationship God wants to have with us. As Bride of Christ the Bridegroom, the Church exists to make such love concrete and thus bring it into the world. That arises from her faith and hope, nourished by her liturgy and prayer and manifest most clearly and directly in her charitable work, which struck even the unfortunate emperor Julian the Apostate (perhaps the "patron saint" of "recovering" Catholics) as a model to be emulated in his own religious project.

Here again, however, Benedict observes a finely tuned balance. Thus:

The Church cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible. She cannot and must not replace the State. Yet at the same time she cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice. She has to play her part through rational argument and she has to reawaken the spiritual energy without which justice, which always demands sacrifice, cannot prevail and prosper. A just society must be the achievement of politics, not of the Church. Yet the promotion of justice through efforts to bring about openness of mind and will to the demands of the common good is something which concerns the Church deeply.

Love—caritas—will always prove necessary, even in the most just society. There is no ordering of the State so just that it can eliminate the need for a service of love. Whoever wants to eliminate love is preparing to eliminate man as such. There will always be suffering which cries out for consolation and help. There will always be loneliness. There will always be situations of material need where help in the form of concrete love of neighbour is indispensable.[20] The State which would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself, would ultimately become a mere bureaucracy incapable of guaranteeing the very thing which the suffering person—every person—needs: namely, loving personal concern. We do not need a State which regulates and controls everything, but a State which, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, generously acknowledges and supports initiatives arising from the different social forces and combines spontaneity with closeness to those in need. The Church is one of those living forces: she is alive with the love enkindled by the Spirit of Christ. This love does not simply offer people material help, but refreshment and care for their souls, something which often is even more necessary than material support. In the end, the claim that just social structures would make works of charity superfluous masks a materialist conception of man: the mistaken notion that man can live “by bread alone” (Mt 4:4; cf. Dt 8:3)—a conviction that demeans man and ultimately disregards all that is specifically human.
That will probably be the most controversial aspect of the encyclical among those who care what popes think. It has something to please everybody and something to offend everybody. The Church must not control or replace the State, but neither can she "remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice." Her social teaching plays a valid political role with its "rational arguments" yet, at the same time, she "purifies reason" with insights made possible only by faith. And whatever the political situation, her vast charitable works will always witness to Christ in civil society. They can never be replaced by just "structures" of the kind that government can create and regulate.

The encyclical ends with an paean to saints of outstanding charity and to Mary, Mother of God, in particular. Her intimate union with God is presented as the paradigm of all that the Christian is called to do and be. Formulaic, but fitting and needful.

I'm somewhat disappointed that the encyclical is not more specific and therefore more offensive. There's much talk of eros but no direct talk of sexual morality. There's much talk of the social embodiment of charity, but no efforts are actually named and singled out for either praise or criticism. It's all true, but all too general. To be sure, the generality is explicable by the Pope's evident desire to use this occasion to establish a theme for his pontificate. But I would have preferred a mission statement. At 79, he seems unlikely to have much time to proceed to specifics at his current leisurely pace.

Even so, this may be the disarming appearance of the velvet glove before the iron fist. If Benedict does get specific about controversial matters, he will be able to present that as simply the working out through his Petrine ministry of what he's been talking about in Deus Caritas Est: love, but tough love. I sure hope so. Much of the Catholic Church in the developed countries lives in a state of de facto internal schism with Rome. The constant, irreformable moral teaching of the Church is accepted only selectively; in the case of contraception, it is mostly ignored. I'm not talking about mere sinners; we are all sinners. I'm talking about people who don't even listen anymore to the voice of Christ spoken through Peter and who therefore don't even consider themselves sinners in the relevant respects. If Catholicism is to remain a distinctive voice in the world, such people must be forced to choose between the real thing and the comfortably ersatz Catholicism they now profess. When Ratzinger was elected pope, I hoped he would be the one to impose that choice. I'm still waiting.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Has the Church gone soft on marriage?

Yes and no. See my current article at Pontifications. Why should we care? I'll explain tomorrow.