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

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Chaput and Nietzsche Bars

Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver is my favorite U.S. bishop, next to my own of course. On April 21, Chaput delivered himself of a very trenchant speech at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary near Philadelphia, called "Religion and the Common Good," meaning religion and politics. I commend it to you for three reasons.

The sentimental reason is that I once taught a course at "Wynnewood" and was very impressed with many of the people who retain influence or position there. Any notable figure they invite to speak is likely to say something worth listening to. But that was only why I chose to read the speech.

The second reason is the substance of it. Having read it, I must say that its thesis is not only correct and vitally important but delivered in brisk, memorable style. If I were teaching religion at a Catholic high school, I'd make it required reading for my I-Pod-and-hormone-addled students. The smarter ones might even enjoy the podcast.

But the biggest reason is that he understands how it is for us philosophers and gives us hope. He gets it. Here are the first several paragraphs of the speech:

The dad asks, "Son, what are you going to do with that goofy degree?" And the son says, "I'm going to open a philosophy shop and make big money selling ideas." I smile every time I hear it, because nobody yet has figured out how to get rich off the Sartre or Kierkegaard or Friedrich Nietzsche franchise. Or that's what I thought until a couple of weeks ago, when a friend of mine came back from a local bookstore with a bag full of Nietzsche's Will to Power Bars.

You'll remember that Nietzsche first claimed that God was dead. Then he went insane. Then he argued that he was God himself. Now he has his own candy bar. In fact, the wrapper not only claims to be filled with "chocolaty goodness," but also to be "the official nutritional supplement of the superman." Unfortunately, the wrapper also urges us to "think beyond good and evil," so I'm not sure it's telling the truth.

The company that makes these candy bars is the Unemployed Philosophers Guild. It was started by a couple of academics who couldn't get a job. The guild also makes a Franz Kafka finger puppet and a "Here's Looking at Euclid" T-shirt. It also makes the Karl Marx Little Thinker beanie doll, and Impeachmints, the anti-George Bush breath sweetener. In the words of the company founders, "It turned out that making smart, funny things proved to be almost as satisfying as probing eternal questions.... [And] although we still contemplate truth and justice, it is our enduring goal to fulfill the materialistic desires of the funny and sophisticated everywhere."

I don't know if Nietzsche himself would endorse these bars. Given his mental state at the end of his life, I'm not sure he'd care. But he did have a ruthless sense of humor. Nietzsche might enjoy the fact that he's exactly the kind of thinker young college men now quote to impress young college women. He has some of the same rebel appeal that Milton gave to Lucifer and Goethe gave to Mephistopheles. He's bold. He's radical. And the fact that he also went mad adds just the right touch of drama. In other words, he makes a great cultural icon for Americans to eat as a candy bar, because most Americans will never read a word of what he actually said.

I think I've finally understood how to earn some real money. Thanks, Archbishop. But in case I can't wangle a loan from the bank, I'm always available to teach in your seminary!

Saturday, April 28, 2007

The filioque IV: the issue narrowed further

The main conclusion of my two previous filioque articles, "Triadological diagram, anyone?" and "The filioque issue narrowed," is that the Father originates the Son and the Holy Spirit only in relation to each other. That does not undermine the doctrine of the monarchy of the Father ('DMF' for short) because the posited senses in which the Son and the Holy Spirit have to do with each others' origination is not that of ekporeusis, which belongs exclusively to the Father as the only unoriginated person. Yet it is uncontroversial that the Holy Spirit is originated by the Father only as Father of the Son; moreover, the perichoretic relationship of love between Father and Son is not accidental; the Father doesn't just happen to love the Son, but the two necessarily love each other. And the Spirit is traditionally said to be the Spirit of the Father and the Son. Given those three premises, it is reasonable to conclude that the Holy Spirit is originated by the Father only as the Spirit in whom the Father begets and loves the Son. That, I submit, is the sense in which it can be said, without undermining DMF, that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. That is why it can also be said that the Son is begotten ex Patri spirituque. In both cases, the origination is "as from one principle" (cf Lyons 1274; Florence 1441). And that is what preserves DMF.

On such an account,
there can be no spiration without generation and no generation without spiration. One can deny that necessary connection only if one argues that the Father just happened to originate two other persons, when he might as well have originated more, less, or none. I don't believe anybody is prepared to make such an argument. Yet there remains a sense in which the Spirit is "of" the Father and Son which is not the same as that in which the Son is "of" the Father and the Spirit: the Son is the perfect self-expression of the Father, which is not said of the Spirit too. Thus the Son is logically but not ontically prior to the Spirit. That accounts for the traditional taxis of the divine persons; but on my account, it does so without subordinating the Holy Spirit.

The chief objection to such an account, as far as I can tell, is to cite the Cappadocian principle ('CP' for short) that every divine property must be either individual, and thus unique to a particular hypostasis, or common to all three and thus "of the nature." I
f CP, then origination ad intra, in any sense of 'origination', must belong to the Father alone. And I have observed CP repeatedly invoked by Orthodox commenters against the filioque on any construal of that doctrine. Hence there is no originating within the Trinity that is not ekporeusis, and the filioque is incompatible with DMF. From that, it follows further that the Son and the Spirit each have no role in each other's origination as persons; their interrelation is thus purely "energetic," having nothing at all to do with their "hypostatic" origination from the Father; hence the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Son only energetically not hypostatically. Now as I've said before, I've never found that result plausible. We do not say merely "God is loving" but also, with the Apostle John, "God is love." So, granted that the divine persons are necessarily as well as mutually perichoretic, it hardly seems plausible that the hypostatic origination of each originated person has nothing to do with that of the other. But that's what follows if CP is true. So then the question becomes: why believe CP?

The most common argument for CP I've seen is the sort of reductio deployed by Patriarch Photius in the Mystagogia: on the supposition that CP is false, there could be infinitely many divine hypostases, which is absurd as well as heterodox. But that argument is entirely question-begging. As Jonathan Prejean points out, St. Anselm's argument in the
De Processione Spiritus Sancti "can quickly be used to demonstrate that, if there is more than one Person, there can be exactly and only three based on the bipolarity of the relations, and Photius's reductio doesn't work on it." It is highly unlikely that Anselm knew of the Mystagogia, but the point stands anyhow: the only way to block Anselm's argument is to premise that the only sort of origination within the Godhead is ekporeusis, which by common agreement belongs only to the Father. But that kind of monopatrism, of course, is precisely what is at issue. To be sure, the assertion that the Holy Spirit comes forth "from the Father" was made by Christ himself as quoted in the Gospel of John and repeated verbatim in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381, accepted decades later by Rome as ecumenical. But the assertion that the Holy Spirit's origination from the Father in no way depends on that of the Son is a feature of one theological grid, the Cappadocian, among others. It is not itself dogma.

The issue, at bottom, is whether DMF logically depends on CP. I agree that Anselm's argument shows it does not. For a fuller exposition, see Prof. Scott Carson's paper "And the Son" given at an ACPA meeting last fall.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Hurrah! I'm a "Thinking Blogger"

The latest interesting meme going around is the "Thinking Blogger Award." Ahistoricality
has really been the one to get it going, having named five recipients and inviting them to spread the compliment. One of the five he named is philosopher and belletrist Brandon Watson of Siris who, declining to use the delightfully ego-stroking graphic offered to us, has in turned memed me. Brandon's compliment for this blog reads: "Sober, balanced, and informed posts on issues in Catholic theology and philosophy."

Eh? "Sober?" "Balanced?" I've never thought of myself that way, but it now looks as though I'm certifiably middle-aged. Although that's not a feature of mine I incline to advertise, neither will I fail in gratitude for any compliment I can get: enough of them, and a suitable potential employer might be impressed. Thank you, Brandon!

Having accepted the compliment, I should now continue the meme. I hope my list is not entirely predictable; with many worthies out there to choose from, these are just the ones I happen to read regularly.

1. Siris, of course. What Ahistoricality said is true, but what most impresses me about Brandon's blog is how he manages to combine depth and clarity of argument with breadth of literary sensibility. That combination is rare even, perhaps especially, among philosophers. Just as important, he's a Christian who appears to be theologically orthodox—though I am unable to discover his ecclesial affiliation, or even his rationale for being quiet about it.

2. Pontifications. I would nominate Fr. Al Kimel's blog even if I had never contributed any articles to it, which I have occasionally done by his gracious invitation. I am by no means the only blogger who finds Pontifications, comboxes as well as posts, to be the most theologically absorbing of them all—even when I'm too tired to enter the jousting lists myself. And it did, after all, win the 2006 Catholic Blogs Award for Most Intellectual as well as Most Theological Blog.

3. One Cosmos. This blog was originally founded by its author, Dr. Robert "Gagdad Bob" Godwin, to flog his book of the same title. It's gone well beyond that, of course, and probably would have even if it hadn't helped sell the book. I don't always agree with Bob, but to me he seems to have the most sensitive spiritual antennae, and certainly the most reliable crap detector, in the blogosphere. He's enormously creative while being decidedly unPC—a combination you gotta love even if you're a liberal. And his writing, which makes liberal use of overstatement and downright tomfoolery, is unfailingly entertaining.

4. Maverick Philosopher. Authored and hosted by another honest-to-goodness philosopher, William Vallicella, in the broadly "analytical" tradition. What they say about MP at Fides Quaerens Intellectum is worth repeating: "I think it was Bill’s blog that showed me that it was possible to do serious philosophy on the blogosphere. His blog also has some of the best discussions in the threads of his evocative posts." (Full disclosure: he's complimented my stuff occasionally.)

5. Zippy Catholic. Fresh, provocative, sophisticated, orthodox, and uncompromising: to me, an irresistible combination. Of course he finds reason to disagree with me as often as not, but I am by no means his only or most important target. Indeed, Zippy used to advertise himself with a blog-title description that started as a half-serious insult offered by a commenter at another blog: "You can't really have a torture party until Zippy arrives."

Each of the above should consider themselves memed.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Development and Negation VII: Original Sin as Inherited "Guilt"

Whenever I think I'm done with this series, there arises another important issue calling for the same sort of treatment. Now that the Vatican's advisory theological commission has called the idea of limbo into question, the issue has become original sin as inherited "guilt." (My reasons for the scare quotes will become clear below.)

Thus, it has been suggested that even allowing for the possibility of salvation for infants who die unbaptized entails tacitly abandoning the Council of Trent's teaching that we inherit the "guilt" of original sin from our first parents. Said council did after all define: “If anyone denies, that, by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, which is conferred in baptism, the guilt of original sin is remitted … let him be anathema” (Decree on Original Sin, canon 5); such a definition would be idle without the assumption that there is such a thing as the guilt of original sin; and Trent clearly made such an assumption. It has even been suggested that CCC §405, which denies that original sin is "a personal fault in any of Adam's descendants," openly rejects that assumption. Accordingly, my aim here is to construct, and then rebut, a fair and plausible version of the argument that current doctrinal development negates past definitive teaching.

Prima facie, the argument is the legitimate sort of ad hominem, in which the arguer tries to demonstrate a contradiction in his opponent's position. It goes roughly like this:
1. Every human inherits the guilt of original sin. (Trent)

2. It is baptism that remits the guilt of original sin. (Trent)

3. Ergo , the guilt of original sin remains in the unbaptized. [from 1, 2]

4. Those who die "in original sin alone" go to "hell." [ad infernum; from the Council of Florence ]

5. Ergo, if there is a limbo in the sense often held by Catholics since the Middle Ages, then those who die in original sin alone, such as unbaptized infants, go to a form of hell in which they do not suffer, and thus do not experience their punishment as such. [from 3, 4]

6. If there is no limbo, then those who die in original sin alone suffer the eternal torment of hell. [from 4, 5]

7. But "God...by no means allows anyone to be punished with eternal punishments who does not have the guilt of voluntary fault.” [Pope Pius IX, Quanto conficiamur moerore, 1863]

8. Ergo, either there is a limbo and (4) is still held to be true, or there is no limbo and (4) is now held to be false. [from 6,7]

9. If (4) is now held to be false, then for consistency's sake, so must (1) and (2).

10. Ergo, to allow that there might be no limbo is to negate Trent. [from 1, 3, 8, and 9]
Arguments to more or less that effect are not found just in the blogosphere—e.g. here and here, and doubtless elsewhere I haven't taken the time to uncover. No less prominent a figure than theologian Richard P. McBrien has argued, in effect, that "if there’s no limbo and we’re not going to revert to St. Augustine’s teaching that unbaptized infants go to hell, we’re left with only one option, namely, that everyone is born in the state of grace. … Baptism does not exist to wipe away the “stain” of original sin, but to initiate one into the Church." Since the Pontificator has already dealt with McBrien, however, I shall not discuss the latter's take in further detail; and what I shall say here will, I believe, adequately address the bloggers' objections.

Of course, as I've framed it so far the argument is fallaciously ambiguous: without clarifying qualification, (3) does not follow from (1) and (2). The Church has never taught that only formal, sacramental baptism remits the guilt of original sin; magisterial teaching has always allowed for the possibility that incorporation into Christ, and thus saving membership in the Church, can be attained by means other than formal, sacramental baptism, such as baptism of "blood" or explicit desire. The only question is whether doctrinal development can admit further means consistently with past definitive teaching. Regarding the dogma of extra ecclesiam nulla salus, for example, the Church has come to allow there might be such a thing as baptism by "implicit" desire; my first topical article in this series was about precisely that point. And the point must be taken as well as made, since the question how membership in the Church can be attained is logically independent of the dogma that membership in the Church is necessary for salvation. So, one might for fairness' sake want to frame (2) to read:
(2*) The Church does not know of any means by which the guilt of original sin can be remitted in those who have died without formal, sacramental baptism.
But of course (2*) won't do either. For, from the fact that the Church does not know of any such means, it does not follow that she teaches that there are no such means. And in fact she never has definitively taught such a thing; see my previous Pontifications article on limbo; and, of course, the Pontificator's excellent treatment of the topic. That is why CCC §1261 is framed as it is: we may "hope" that there are such means, but we have no way of knowing what they are if there are.

In fact, I'm not sure how to frame an argument that would plausibly do the work its advocates want it to do. That, I suspect, is because the problem is primarily semantic: specifically, the hangup seems to be over the term 'guilt'. Thus, what could it mean to say that people are conceived and born "guilty" (cf. Psalm 51: 7) just in virtue of inheriting original sin, when it is conceded all around that infants can commit no actual sin and thus can do nothing to incur guilt? Correspondingly, what could it mean to say that people who die unbaptized go to "hell" if God "by no means allows anyone to be punished with eternal punishments who does not have the guilt of voluntary fault”?

It is essential here to focus on the dogmatic term being translated as 'guilt': the Latin reatus. Its meaning in what is now a long-dead language is primarily legal, and is weaker than that of the English term 'guilt'. As the classicist and philosopher Scott Carson has pointed out:
In Roman law to be reatus means to be liable to or actually under an indictment or a sentence; culpa refers to actual guilt for wrongdoing. (In some contexts, culpa refers to the actual act of wrongdoing, while reatus refers to the state of the wrongdoer that accrues as a consequence of the culpa.) The CIC [Codex Iuris Canonici, the Church's codification of canon law—ML] adopted these same standards straight out of Justinian. The two words are sometimes used together in theological contexts in such a way as to suggest that reatus is used to mean guilt in the sense of having incurred a guilt-debt as a consequence of wrongdoing. Two significant usages are: reatus poena and reatus culpa. The former refers to our guilt-debt of punishment for sin, the latter our guilt-debt of moral culpability or fault for sin. It is our reatus culpa that is removed by absolution; our reatus poenaremains, hence we perform some penance...
Now when the dogmatic texts speak of the reatus of original sin, they are speaking of a kind of reatus poena, which means "liability to punishment" without presupposing personal fault (i.e., culpa) on the part of the one thus liable. So, the descendants of our first parents are made liable to punishment, i.e. reatus, for what was really only the culpa of our first parents, i.e. the Fall.

The objection to that, naturally enough, is that it makes God seem like an ogre, as indeed he seems to be in Augustine's theory of massa damnata. How is it not grossly unfair that people start their lives reatus when they have no culpa? The question is fair; but to imagine it can't be answered adequately in fully orthodox terms is simply to forget what the dogma of original sin means.

For purposes of the present issue, it is undisputed that the effects of the first sin, which we also suffer by inheriting original sin, are forms of corruption: death, concupiscence, and the disruption of relationships entailed by being born into a sinful world. That affects human nature, which we have in common with our first parents; and for that very reason, it makes the human person inclined to sin. What was literally a punishment of our first parents for their culpa thus becomes only analogously a punishment for us—just as what was literally sin in them, i.e. the Fall, becomes sin only analogously, i.e. fallenness, in us. (Cf. CCC §404.) Such fallenness both results from and, in us, helps to constitute a state of alienation from God, a deprivation of the justice and holiness that God originally meant for humanity to have. Thus, it is inevitable that each person (Jesus and Mary aside) who matures to the point of attaining personal moral responsibility is going to commit sin. That is why Paul says "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God," and that is why even the saints are sinners.

But human freedom remains; for the inevitability is statistical not deterministic. Thus, from the fact that it's inevitable that each member of the relevant population will commit some-or-other sin, it does not follow that any such member will commit any particular sin. That is why it can be said that we are each born reatus without having committed any actual sin. We are reatus, i.e. "liable to punishment," because given original sin we begin our existence corrupted in various ways, and thus as the sort of beings who just will commit actual sin in the normal course. Just as original sin is a state we contract rather than an act we commit, so too is the state of being reatus inherited in virtue of original sin; indeed original sin can be said, from a certain point of view, to consist in precisely that. So it's rather misleading to translate reatum, as used in the dogmatic texts, as "guilt" with its normal meaning in English.

As is universally admitted, we each start out having done nothing to incur such "guilt." But of course, neither do we start out doing anything to merit salvation. Just as the former is an undeserved liability, so the latter is an undeserved gift. Our first parents implicated us in a bad situation we did not bring about; without our initiative or deserts, Jesus Christ freed us from the inevitable consequence of that situation, i.e., perdition. Maybe that isn't fair, by human standards of fairness. But as the parable of the day-laborers shows, life isn't about fairness; it's about mercy—specifically God's mercy, which is always on offer, and which has never permitted sin to reign in the world without the possibility, and eventually the actuality, of redemption. Perhaps the ITC's new report will help us appreciate that better. It should. It is a refinement made out of love, not a negation made through inadvertance, of what the Church has definitively taught.

From the plus ça change department...

In 1984, the then-governor of New York, Mario Cuomo, gave a now-famous speech at Notre Dame arguing that American Catholics not only may, but should, support legal abortion. Soon thereafter, the then-chair of the theology department, Fr. Richard McBrien, took up and expanded on that argument in book that is still in print: Caesar's Coin: Religion and Politics in America. (For a sense of what McBrien is all about, go here). I undertook to rebut said argument in my review of that book for National Review. I now learn that last year, Cuomo refined the argument in a speech before the Forum for Politics and Faith in America, expanding it to cover embryonic-stem-cell research and other matters too. It seems once again that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Since the text of Cuomo's latest is not yet available online, I rely on the refutation offered by Prof. Robert P. George of Princeton, one of America's premier Catholic intellectuals. I highly recommed his whole speech, entitled "Freedom is a Two-Way Street" and given at the Vatican last fall. It is a tour-de-force covering the fundamental questions confronting Catholics in public life. But for now, the refutation.

Here's the key passage; the words within quotation marks are Cuomo's:

Cuomo asserted that holders of public office -- including Catholic office-holders -- have a responsibility "to create conditions under which all citizens are reasonably free to act according to their own religious beliefs, even when those acts conflict with Roman Catholic dogma regarding divorce, birth control, abortion, stem cell research, and even the existence of God."

According to Cuomo, Catholics should support legalized abortion and embryo-destructive research, as he himself does, because in guaranteeing these rights to others, they guarantee their own right "to reject abortions, and to refuse to participate in or contribute to removing stem cells from embryos."

This is the same argument—albeit blessed with greater intellectual heft and charm—as that made by the Nancy Pelosis and John Kerrys of today. George's reply is spot on. I quote only the portion immediately following the above:

But Cuomo's idea that the right "to reject" abortion and embryo-destructive experimentation entails a right of others, as a matter of religious liberty, to engage in these practices is simply, if spectacularly, fallacious. The fallacy comes into focus immediately if one considers whether the right of a Catholic (or Baptist, or Jew, or member of any other faith) to reject infanticide, slavery, and the exploitation of labor entails a right of others who happen not to share these "religious" convictions to kill, enslave, and exploit.

By the expedient of classifying pro-life convictions about abortion and embryo-destructive experimentation as "Roman Catholic dogmas," Cuomo smuggles into the premises of his argument the controversial conclusion he is trying to prove. If pro-life principles were indeed merely dogmatic teachings -- such as the teaching that Jesus of Nazareth is the only begotten Son of God -- then according to the Church herself (not to mention American constitutional law and the law of many other republics) they could not legitimately be enforced by the coercive power of the state.

The trouble for Cuomo is that pro-life principles are not mere matters of "dogma," nor are they understood as such by the Catholic Church, whose beliefs Cuomo claims to affirm, or by pro-life citizens, whether they happen to be Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, agnostics or atheists. Rather, pro-life citizens understand these principles and propose them to their fellow citizens as fundamental norms of justice and human rights that can be understood and affirmed even apart from claims of revelation and religious authority.

It will not do to suggest, as Cuomo seems to suggest, that the sheer fact that the Catholic Church (or some other religious body) has a teaching against these practices, and that some or even many people reject this teaching, means that laws prohibiting the killing of human beings in the embryonic and fetal stages violate the right to freedom of religion of those who do not accept the teaching.

If that were anything other than a fallacy, then laws against killing infants, owning slaves, exploiting workers, and many other grave forms of injustice really would be violations of religious freedom. Surely Cuomo would not wish to endorse that conclusion.

Yet he provides no reason to distinguish those acts and practices putatively falling within the category of religious freedom from those falling outside it. So we must ask: If abortion is immunized against legal restriction on the ground that it is a matter of religious belief, how can it be that slavery is not similarly immunized?

The liberal-Catholic answer, of course, is that there is a social consensus against slavery, worker exploitation, etc., whereas there is no such consensus in the matters under dispute. Hence laws against former are not impositions of religious dogma, whereas laws against abortion and ESCR would be. But that defense is a non-starter.

In a democracy, one gets laws passed by persuading enough legislators to vote for them. That is why, e.g., we have the 13th Amendment prohibiting slavery, even though the religious convictions of most Southerners at the time favored slavery; that is why, in every state, we have laws against polygamy, a practice which some religions allow but which is opposed for religious reasons by Christians. Now a legislative process is all that pro-lifers advocate as a way of outlawing abortion. That would entail overturning Roe v Wade and returning the issue to the states. Of course that would hardly mean the end of abortion; one would have to persuade people on the ground, state-by-state, which would in turn involve the long, arduous process of strengthening the "culture of life" in various ways. But that's exactly what the Cuomos reject. They insist that Roe not be overturned, and thus that abortion remain a constitutional "right" insulated from legislative change. But which is it? If was OK to outlaw some practices that some religions allow and others forbid, why is not OK to do that now in the case of abortion? As George points out, the lib-Dem Catholics offer "no reason to distinguish those acts and practices putatively falling within the category of religious freedom from those falling outside it." This exposes their position as purely one of expediency: vital to their party base, the alleged right to abortion must be supported if they are to gain and keep power. But let's not confuse a motive with an argument.

Such a sense of expediency is only to be expected from unbelievers; but in a Catholic, it is objectively hypocritical. I say "objectively" because the lib-Dem political stance on "life issues" is objectively inconsistent with their faith. But they have rationalized their way into believing the opposite. As I age, I notice that much sin is like that. How much room that allows for divine mercy, I cannot say; only God can say how subjectively culpable the rationalizations are. But in the meantime, the Church can alert people to the objective gravity of the situation by doing what my own bishop has done, what then-Cardinal Ratzinger called for in principle, and that George advocates: denying the Eucharist to such politicians.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

That limbo thing again

I heard the preacher say last Sunday that there are two types of believers in the world: those who wake up and say "Good morning, Lord" and those who wake up and say "Good Lord, it's morning." That goes with the two types of theological controversialists in the world: those who greet a new Vatican document with "Ah, a question answered" and those who greet it with "Ah, more questions raised." The new, long-awaited report on limbo from the Vatican's advisory International Theological Commission is starting to elicit both reactions. The Catholic world being what it is, we will hear more of the latter than of the former. Some of the latter will be, nay already is, silly. The Pontificator has already exposed the silliness of Fr. Richard McBrien's reaction for what it is. (I also highly recommend his series on limbo.)

For what are presumably legal reasons, all the more obscure to me for that, the document itself has only been published in Origins, "the documentary service of Catholic News Service." It is available online only to subscribers. When I last worked for the Church I had a hard-copy subscription as a perk, but these days that's a luxury I cannot afford. As soon as it's available, I shall read the whole report at the Belmont Abbey library and comment again. In the meantime, the CNS story I've linked above contains numerous quotes you can read for yourself, and says enough to highlight the principal theological points.

Essentially, the report gives reasons explaining CCC §1261:

As regards children who have died without Baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them. Indeed, the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus' tenderness toward children which caused him to say: "Let the children come to me, do not hinder them," allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism. All the more urgent is the Church's call not to prevent little children coming to Christ through the gift of holy Baptism.

Two fundamental points must be stressed. First, we are "allowed to hope" that infants (and any others incapable of exercising moral responsibility) who die unbaptized will be saved; second, if there is a way of salvation for such persons, we do not know what it is. The latter is obvious; the former entails theological developments of a kind that generates controversy.

Specifically, the document says, the dogmas of the necessity of baptism and extra ecclesiam nulla salus need to be "nuanced." The two are closely interrelated inasmuch as sacramental baptism is understood by Tradition as the ordinary means of incorporation into the Church. Now the necessity of formal, sacramental baptism has always been relativized, at least implicitly, by the Church's recognition of baptism by blood and explicit desire; the question is whether it can or ought to be relativized further. The key development in such relativization has been the insistence by the Church, over the last couple of centuries, that God does not condemn anybody who dies without having seriously sinned. Those who thus die, but also without baptism, must therefore avoid damnation in some way other than by formal, sacramental baptism.

Limbo was a medieval theory developed to explain how such people, mostly infants, could avoid the suffering of hell without being incorporated into the Church by formal, sacramental baptism. What the new ITC report does is allow that such people might be incorporated into the Church by means other than formal, sacramental baptism. Such an allowance obviates the need to posit a permanent limbo for such people. It is a development, one that does not negate previously defined doctrines but continues the process of refining their scope. In defense of the Church, I have written about that process before.

Knowing the world of Internet theological controversy as I do, I'll probably have to do it again about original sin as inherited "guilt."

Monday, April 23, 2007

One of those periodic apologies

Sorry for the inactivity the last several days. I am facing my now-classic dilemma.

My job, which holds close-to-zero intrinsic interest for me, is consuming my life. I am on call 24/7; some days are almost 24, and the last few weeks have been 7. I've acquiesced in these hours partly because, in the short term, the money is what it takes to recover from my finally-successful battle with the IRS. But even if that were not a factor, I dare not quit to find a better job because I dare not fall behind on child support. Yet as long as I work at this pace, I have no time and energy even to look for another job. I am almost beside myself with frustration and fatigue.

All I can do right now with this blog is ask for your prayers and patience. The situation is no doubt temporary, but I am anxious to get on with my life. It looks like I'll be teaching at least one philosophy course in Belmont Abbey's adult division this summer. Let's hope that's a harbinger of things to come.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Killing partial-birth abortion

It was just what we pro-lifers were hoping for when Samuel Alito was confirmed for SCOTUS. By a 5-4 decision, the Court has upheld the federal ban on what medical textbooks euphemistically term "intact dilation and extraction."

Speaking for the minority, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg objected that the court "deprives women of the right to make an autonomous choice. . . . This way of thinking reflects ancient notions about women's place in the family and under the Constitution -- ideas that have long since been discredited."

Well, here's what the result of such an "autonomous choice" looks like:

I don't think one need favor keeping women pregnant and in the kitchen to ban that. Let's hope this is but the first step in returning the abortion issue to the people. They still have more sense than feminist lawyers, who know it. That's why the latter, and their Democratic allies, don't want to let them decide.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

New perspectives from the gender front

  • From a column by Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse, Catholic sociologist:

The struggle feminism created is not now, nor has it ever been, solely between women and men. The struggle is between women who want their babies, and women who want something else more.

Read it all.

Here's what one Amazon reviewer, Bernard Chapin, said:

I am intimately, in every sense of the word, familiar with most of the men's rights literature, and I have to say that looking back on all the magnificent, avant-garde (and frankly heroic) publications assaulting radical feminism and political correctness in general, this work by Nathanson and Young was, and is, the finest moment. Spreading Misandry is meticulous in its research and analysis. It is also ambitious and deep in its coverage of popular culture. Wading through the often offensive and boring television shows, articles, commercials, and opinion which comprise an unmistakable misandric bias is not an easy task, but the authors did it and through their own "deconstructions" present the most compelling case imaginable. I'm writing my own work on this subject and I doubt that I can limit myself to 20 endnotes from these pages. This work is highbrow, sophisticated, and absolutely magnificent. Nathanson and Young are our elite and I personally thank them for their efforts. Furthermore, I am saddened that their follow up book can only be obtained after a four to six week wait which showcases just how little society is concerned about pervasive misandry. As for me, I just placed a used copy on order and will report back my opinion just in case anyone is hedging on their own purchase.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Deaths in contrast

Today at Belmont Abbey, we offered prayers for the victims of the tragedy at Virginia Tech. Let us also pray for the killer who, naturally, killed himself before the police could oblige him.

People will shake their heads about this, muttering "crazy" and wondering why the killer hadn't "got help" before it was too late. He probably had no intention of coming out alive; his goal seemed to have been to take as many as possible with him. But whether he was mentally ill or just twisted by rage out of all conscience, I cannot help seeing this sort of thing, which happens periodically in our country, as a sad reminder of the reality of sin in what has increasingly become a culture of death. To me, the only surprising thing is that it doesn't happen more often.

Amid the headlines and the talk, what will go unnoticed in all but the most Catholic circles is another death, two days ago: that of Audrey Santo. The funeral will take place in Worcester, MA, this Wednesday. Many "paranormal" phenomena occurred around Audrey during her ten years in a coma after nearly drowning in a pool accident. Most will be familiar to the pious: oil suddenly and inexplicably appearing on objects, especially blessed ones; the strong scent of roses without roses in the vicinity; etc. The skeptics have of course taken note, e.g. here and here. Their skepticism is understandable, and they might even be right. But nobody questions the enormous love and devotion of the Santo family for their stricken daughter. It is that, more than anything else, which suggests something supernatural was manifest in this case.

Let us meditate on the contrast.

The (relative) importance of apparitions

One of the countless ironies of contemporary Catholic life is that people who pride themselves on "listening to the people of God" and on new developments rarely celebrate Divine Mercy Sunday, which was yesterday, the Second Sunday of Easter. It is based on the apparitions of and dialogues with Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ by St. Faustina Kowalska, a Polish nun canonized in 2000 by Pope John Paul II. In that year, he also made Divine Mercy Sunday a "universal feast" of the Church; you can read his homily for the first celebration thereof here. But apparently this feast is considered undue innovation by the progressives, and an obscuration of Easter by liturgical purists who otherwise pride themselves on updated sensibilities that abhor various ancient liturgical traditions, such as celebration of Mass ad orientem. Too bad.

The same attitude seems to go for today's feast: that of St. Bernadette Soubirous, the visionary of Lourdes. Now mystical apparitions fall under the category of "private revelations," which add nothing to the faith once-for-all delivered to the saints. Indeed, and given as much, the Church does not even present the ones she formally approves as requiring the assent of faith. However, we ignore the approved ones only at our peril. If the sensus fidelium and the teaching authority of the Church have the relationship that the Church says and history bears out, then it's far safer to accept the approved ones as genuine, and act accordingly, than not. Perhaps unsurprisingly, though, these things are dimly viewed almost everywhere save among orthodox and traditional Catholics: not merely by progressive Catholics and liberal Protestants, but by traditional Orthodox and conservative Protestants as well.

As far as I'm concerned, such a sign of contradiction only increases the credibility of these things. They have all the greater prophetic significance in our apocalyptic times, when humanity has achieved the capacity for destroying the planet and even remaking itself. Unless God intervenes, the former will coincide with the latter. It's time we listened humbly to the voice of these humble visionaries.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

The Pontificator on original sin East and West

Fr. Al Kimel has posted an interesting article which questions how much daylight there really is between the Catholic and Orthodox accounts of original sin. Given my own study of this issue, I have to agree with Fr. Al's tentative conclusion that there really isn't much daylight between them. There are differences of emphasis, to be sure; but as far as I can tell, there's no difference of substance, or at least none that would make the Eastern and Western approaches incompatible rather than complementary.

Needless to say, a few Orthodox demur. Perry Robinson, e.g., asks a series of questions that would require a treatise to answer fully. I answer here, in brief, the ones clear enough to admit a clear answer.

1. What is the authoritative teaching regarding Original Justice? The same with Original Holiness. How are they acquired?

Such questions are pertinent because original sin must be understood in contrast with what the CCC terms "original justice and holiness" ('OJH' for short; in this context, the terms 'justice' and 'holiness' have a different sense but the same reference.) OJH is simply that unmerited state of unity with God which was bestowed on our first parents (and on Mary) by divine grace. It is incipient beatitude, but not developed because there is as yet no exercise of moral virtue to develop it.

2. What would the mere lack of original justice or holiness imply in the Catholic evaluation?

The catechism passages quoted by Fr. Kimel make clear that original sin is the "deprivation" of OJH; accordingly, there is no "mere lack" of OJH. Original sin is the lack of something that God meant for humanity to have, namely a state of graced unity with him. Hence, by losing OJH through their choice, our first parents caused corruption in their own nature, which is also our nature; hence we inherit not merely the absence of OJH, which is original sin, but also the effects of its voluntary loss through the first sin. We are deprived, not merely lacking.

3. What is the “sin” that was transmitted? Is it something natural or personal? If the former, why didn’t Jesus have it since he is consubstantial with humanity? If personal how is this possible?

As already indicated, the "sin" in question is really a state of deprivation; that in turn has certain effects, such as death, weakness of will, and darkness of intellect.

Inherited, original sin is not personal, if by 'personal' is meant 'brought about by the personal activity of the one inheriting it'. But it is personal in the sense that we can and do become complicit in it by our choices. Although original sin does not of itself make any particular, actual sin inevitable, inheriting it does make inevitable that anybody who is able to exercise moral responsibility will each commit some-or-other actual sin at some time. And when we actually sin, we become personally complicit in original sin understood as deprivation of OJH; it is as if we joined Adam and Eve in their first sin.

Similarly, original sin is not "natural" in the way our having bodies is natural. Without at least having come to be as a bodily creature, you can't be a human being; but all sides take for granted that at least two humans, our first parents, began their existence without sin of any kind. Yet original sin is "natural" in that, once they freely committed the first (human) sin, human nature was partially corrupted for themselves and all their descendants willy-nilly.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Secular news I can't resist commenting on

Item #1: The complete exoneration of the Duke lacrosse players and the concomitant haling of Durham DA Michael Nifong before the state bar assocation on ethics charges.

I wrote about this case last January and, with these latest developments, have a major qualification to offer. I said the case was more about gender than about race and class. That wasn't quite right. The case was about how all three factors are so ideologized in our society that they can still be exploited easily for real or imagined political gain. Aside from the disgusting way in which Nifong demagogued the issue—with the eager cooperation of the local newspaper, be it noted—what most disgusted me was how the Duke administration and faculty handled it. Three of their own students, without any prior criminal record, were presumed guilty until proven innocent. That shows how virulent the disease of ideology—usually, secular-liberal ideology—is in academia.

The cure is to revive concern for Truth (yes, that's a capital 'T') among our intellectual and cultural élites, which is a very different thing from ideological commitment. Naturally knowable truth about God as lawgiver will play a central role in such a revival, if it occurs at all; yet it would still need to be leavened by the witness of those who accept the revelation in Jesus Christ. Until then, young men (I emphasize 'men') falsely accused of felonies, especially against women, will have only two options: the best lawyers money can buy, or jail. The three Duke lacrosse players came from the fortunate few families who can afford the former. We know where the rest end up.

Item #2: The fall (no doubt temporary) of Don Imus.

I first listened to Imus when I lived in New York a generation ago, before he went national. When too sick and bored to do anything else, I've listened occasionally since. His act has changed hardly at all: he says aloud, in terms sometimes inappropriate but usually entertaining, things that a great many white males think but are afraid to say. This week, he found out why they're afraid. Once again, a privileged white male has run smack up against the triple-whammy of race, gender, and class other than his own. Reid Seligman, meet Don Imus.

Mind you, calling the Rutgers women's basketball team "nappy-headed ho's" has nothing to commend it whether or not it's true. Indeed, its truth or falsity is irrelevant. It's just not the sort of thing that's worth saying, because it needlessly offends a lot of people who can't be blamed for finding it offensive. It's not just an offense against charity; worse, it's an imprudent offense against charity. (As Cardinal Merry del Val once said: "Faith, hope, and charity; and the greatest of these is prudence.") That's why, when a student, I didn't call my professors "pointy-headed peddlers of putrid nonsense," even though in many cases that was pretty close to the truth. I didn't want to earn a reputation as uncouth, or even to get a bad grade. But in his pride and relative impunity, Imus made a mistake of the kind most of us are, rightly, unwilling to risk. And when you run up against the triple whammy, even the advertisers start abandoning you, so you don't even have the excuse that you make money for the network. That's why Imus was fired.

He deserved it. But his penance will almost certainly be short. Geez, if Howard Stern can get on satellite radio, why can't Imus?

Item #3: The row about the sacked U.S. attorneys.

This has got to be the among the silliest episodes of political kerfuffle that I've seen in my four decades of following the DC follies. Backed by the White House, the Attorney General has tried to hide the fact, obvious to everybody, that the firings were politically motivated. The Democrat-controlled Congress is well on the road to provoking a constitutional crisis in its effort to get the Administration to admit its real motives by means of sworn testimony from high officials. But isn't that Congressional effort just as politically motivated as what the Administration did? And isn't the Congress's self-righteous effort to divert attention from that fact just as deceptive in intent, but transparent in practice, as the inept Administriation coverup has been from the start?

They like to say inside the Beltway: "It's not the crime, it's the coverup." In this case, there was no crime other than politics as usual. So, playing politics as usual, they're trying to turn the coverup into the crime. And they wonder why most Americans think life is more real outside the Beltway. Only a political junkie could take this thing seriously. Get a religion other than politics, guys. It would give you a bit of perspective.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

After asceticism

Given that I should have posted this during Lent, I've decided to recoup a bit by making my title a pun.

In 2004 The Linacre Centre, a research institute for moral theology sponsored by the UK bishops, and which normally focuses on biomedical issues, issued a study explaining the roots of the sex-abuse scandal rocking the Catholic clergy. It's called After Asceticism: Sex, Prayer and Deviant Priests; you can buy it in either paperback or e-book form. It's well done, making inferences to the best explanations from the best empirical research then available, including the John Jay Report. The publisher's blurb does it justice without hype; here's the blurb's conclusion, with emphasis added:

After Asceticism draws the connection between the ancient ideas about sex, prayer, and spiritual friendship with modern scientific research on the biology of fasting and the psychology of hope. It warns, however, that as society becomes more deeply immersed in pagan sexuality, the Catholic Church will remain mired in sexual crisis absent a return to its ascetical tradition.

I could not agree more, and I speak from personal experience as well as from the wisdom of the saints.

Alas, it's not in the least surprising that the book has garnered so little attention. 'Unpopular' is an imprecise word for its message; 'incomprehensible' would be closer to the truth. Most Catholics in the developed countries today have little or no conception of what real asceticism means; all that survives in most quarters is a token, ritualistic 'giving up' of chocolate or alcohol for Lent. Young people preparing for confirmation might also be encouraged to deposit change they would otherwise spend on fripperies into a makeshift poorbox. I blame the clergy for this wretched state of affairs, including Paul VI; I remember from my childhood the first, almost ecstatic Friday evening steak-grillings in my Catholic neighborhood when he made the no-meat rule optional outside Lent and a few other special days. And so neither is it surprising that the gutting of our ascetical tradition affected the clergy disastrously. Neither can the laity escape blame: there's no point in complaining about priestly sodomites if we fornicate, contracept, and divorce as much as the general population.

Next Sunday is The Feast of Divine Mercy. A great way to observe the feast would be to use the prescribed prayers to seek the Lord's pardon for our collective failure to heed the Apostle's advice to "make no provision for the desires of the flesh." Perhaps such a prayer might be better heard if we resume serious ascesis when "ordinary" time resumes after the Easter season.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Back from hell

In his homily for the Easter Vigil, Pope Benedict addressed the catechumens about to be baptized, connecting the themes of death in baptism with resurrection into Christ. The death of Christ was his descent, out of love, into the depths of our condition; in dying with him sacramentally and in daily life, we rise with him to new and eternal life. That descent was not limited to his physical death on the cross. Thus:

In the Creed we say about Christ's journey that he "descended into hell." What happened then? Since we have no knowledge of the world of death, we can only imagine his triumph over death with the help of images which remain very inadequate. Yet, inadequate as they are, they can help us to understand something of the mystery.

The liturgy applies to Jesus' descent into the night of death the words of Psalm 23[24]: "Lift up your heads, O gates; be lifted up, O ancient doors!" The gates of death are closed, no one can return from there. There is no key for those iron doors. But Christ has the key. His Cross opens wide the gates of death, the stern doors. They are barred no longer. His Cross, his radical love, is the key that opens them. The love of the One who, though God, became man in order to die -- this love has the power to open those doors. This love is stronger than death. The Easter icons of the Oriental Church show how Christ enters the world of the dead. He is clothed with light, for God is light. "The night is bright as the day, the darkness is as light" (cf. Psalm 138[139]12). Entering the world of the dead, Jesus bears the stigmata, the signs of his passion: his wounds, his suffering, have become power: they are love that conquers death. He meets Adam and all the men and women waiting in the night of death. As we look at them, we can hear an echo of the prayer of Jonah: "Out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice" (John 2:2). In the incarnation, the Son of God became one with human beings -- with Adam. But only at this moment, when he accomplishes the supreme act of love by descending into the night of death, does he bring the journey of the incarnation to its completion. By his death he now clasps the hand of Adam, of every man and woman who awaits him, and brings them to the light.

But we may ask: what is the meaning of all this imagery? What was truly new in what happened on account of Christ? The human soul was created immortal -- what exactly did Christ bring that was new? The soul is indeed immortal, because man in a unique way remains in God's memory and love, even after his fall. But his own powers are insufficient to lift him up to God. We lack the wings needed to carry us to those heights. And yet, nothing else can satisfy man eternally, except being with God. An eternity without this union with God would be a punishment. Man cannot attain those heights on his own, yet he yearns for them. "Out of the depths I cry to you." Only the Risen Christ can bring us to complete union with God, to the place where our own powers are unable to bring us. Truly Christ puts the lost sheep upon his shoulders and carries it home. Clinging to his Body we have life, and in communion with his Body we reach the very heart of God. Only thus is death conquered, we are set free and our life is hope.

Christ's descent "into hell" (ad infernum; "into the underworld", called Sheol by the Jews and Hades by the Greeks) was the far point of a cycle of exitus and reditus. Beginning with the Incarnation and culminating in the Ascension, the cycle marks out the parameters of divine revelation and, at the same time, of the life into which we are drawn as Christians. Between its beginning and end, Christ's going forth from the light and glory of God reached to the depths of darkness, and his return to the Father brought to heaven, in light and glory, all those who had awaited him in those depths. What he thus brought which was "new" was not eternal life in the sense of the continuation of mere existence; the just in Sheol or Hades already had that in virtue of the natural immortality of the soul, and of course it could not satisfy. It was merely a shadow of the natural life survived by the soul; it did not include the body, and therefore not the whole person; more importantly, it did not of itself entail that union with God to which, it has been revealed, we are destined from all eternity. As the Pope says, an eternity in such a state would be a punishment; this is why the Church has defined that all who die "in original sin alone" go ad infernum. It was a punishment even for those who had not died in actual, mortal sin, which is why Christ is said to have "liberated" them in his descent there. But that liberation was the first instance of what we are all offered as believers.

As I've already impled in Waiting in the Shadows, much of our lives as believers is like Sheol. Although Christ has accomplished our redemption objectively and in principle, subjectively and in practice it needs our cooperation, which is rarely what it should be; as a result, we live in the grey, the shadows, growing only fitfully if at all toward the light. Here I point out that much of the modern world is like Sheol too. While much good persists and is done, so is much evil, and in itself the world can give no hope to the good who must live in it. That is why the Pope issues this invitation:

In union with his love, borne aloft on the wings of love, as persons of love, let us descend with him into the world's darkness, knowing that in this way we will also rise up with him. On this night, then, let us pray: Lord, show us that love is stronger than hatred, that love is stronger than death. Descend into the darkness and the abyss of our modern age, and take by the hand those who await you. Bring them to the light!

We cannot avoid "hell." With Christ, we can only return from it, and thus lead others from it too. That is vital to remember when darkness and hell seem stronger than light and heaven.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Pontifications hacked!

Many readers of this blog also follow Fr. Al Kimel's Pontifications, where I used to post articles myself regularly. Don't go there right now. It seems dead, but it's been hacked; further fascinating details would not be prudent to reveal. Let's just say that the main database appears to be intact and that none of Fr. Al's well-known theological antagonists are to blame for the front-page problems.

While CANN's supergeeks work on the problem, we can always pray. And debate here. I'll have something up shortly.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

The true face of God

Fr. Cantalamessa reminds us that "Christ's death is the supreme witness of his charity, but not of his truth. This truth is adequately testified to only by the Resurrection." When the Psalmist says that "the stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone," it is Christ that the Holy Spirit is speaking of; but the cornerstone is the Risen Christ. The fully divine and fully human cornerstone of that living temple which is the Church is eo ipso the cornerstone of our faith. "The faith of Christians," says St. Augustine, "is the resurrection of Christ. It is no great thing to believe that Jesus died; even the pagans believe this, everyone believes it. The truly great thing is to believe that he is risen." Of course, Augustine lived before Islam, which denies that Jesus truly died; but then, the human religious imagination can always find a premise with which to quibble. The fact remains that the death of Christ is as historically well attested as any death in the ancient world. He bears its marks even now: the same marks that doubting Thomas touched. The risen and wounded Christ is the supreme revelation of Truth.

Thus, what God himself now looks like is God's answer to the so-called "problem of evil." As the Pope said today:

We may all be tempted by the disbelief of Thomas. Suffering, evil, injustice, death, especially when it strikes the innocent such as children who are victims of war and terrorism, of sickness and hunger, does not all of this put our faith to the test? Paradoxically the disbelief of Thomas is most valuable to us in these cases because it helps to purify all false concepts of God and leads us to discover his true face: the face of a God who, in Christ, has taken upon himself the wounds of injured humanity.

When we notice how the innocent suffer even as the guilty prosper, we tend to discount the wounds of Christ. We assume, with some reason, that God could wipe away all injustice, all disproportionate suffering, merely by willing it so. With as much reason, we assume that God is not as discomfited by such evils as we are. Many Christians think, and a few have even said: "He's God, after all; he can take it; what is it to us if he took it?" But that misses the point. If Christianity is true, he chooses to undergo all such evils himself rather than eliminate them, and precisely in so doing, empowers us to transcend ourselves amid and through the evils we cannot escape. That is shown in the true face of God which we see in the crucified and risen Christ.

Skeptics and cynics suspect that a God who would set things up that way is too perverse to be worth worshipping, if indeed he exists at all. Why would the allegedly Omnipotent suffer, and bear the marks thereof even in triumph, rather than just set things right in a stroke? Why, for that matter, did he not create us so that we could not sin, having only "good" alternatives available for choice? No answer we have, or could have, can prove that things had to be as they are rather than otherwise. Nature does give us hints, to be sure. E.g., we survive by eating, which means killing and absorbing other living things that become part of our substance. Does not life grind us up too? And might not the point be that we are meant to become part of something greater, something personal, that we do not understand? But reason does not suffice to assure; the only clear answer we have been given is by divine revelation: God considers the whole thing worth it, abiding with us in the darkest corners of our existence even as he abides in paradise, so that we may join him there if we conform ourselves to the pattern he has shown us.

This side of paradise, that's something we must hold by faith rather than sight. But the gift of faith makes it as certain for the recipient as any fact can be. That is why the bodily resurrection must be insisted upon. St. Athanasius famously said: "Whatever is not assumed is not redeemed." The contrapositive of that is that whatever is assumed is redeemed. All has been redeemed, because all has been assumed, and thus transmuted. Unlike Thomas and the other Apostles, we cannot usually see that; in this life, the vision of the Uncreated Light is for the few. But it is our sure hope as we wait and toil in the shadows. This Easter season, let us keep our gaze fixed on the Risen One. We will find him in surprising places.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Waiting in the shadows

The day or so after Jesus' death was one of near-despair for the eleven disciples who had not committed suicide. They did not yet understand his prediction of the Resurrection; they understood only what they saw, which was their dreams brought to nothing in horror, mockery, and shame, along with the person of their master. They did not yet understand that such was how it had to be—at first. So, they assumed, it was time to hide from the powers that be, mourn, and resume earning a real living; perhaps the ugliness and shame of the disappointment would wear off if they went back to being sensible adults living in an ever-promised land reduced to an outer province of the Roman Empire. The feeling was only temporary, of course; they saw the Risen Lord and, nine days later, would be filled with the power of the Holy Spirit. But we are not so fortunate. Much of our lives as believers is lived in the shadows between death and resurrection.

The death in question is the death-in-Christ that our old selves undergo in baptism. The resurrection in question is the real point of such death: the gift of what we shall be if and when "we see him as he is." But in between are the shadows: the countless little deaths of ordinary life which could be, but so often are not, joined to the Lord's Passion in order to to acclerate our remaking in his image. If unflinching, reflection calls forth a cascade of them: the pains and negations involved in growing up, some of which are needed for growing up in a fallen world; the psychological and spiritual wounds we carry from then, and often intensify by our own ignorance or fault as we mature; the random distribution of misfortune, which few escape without further wounds; the enervating disappointment of that "certain age" when we learn, with inescapable certainty, that we will never be all that we wanted to be or even could have been; finally, the years when our bodies begin to fail us regularly and when, if we are wise, we count ourselves lucky that our minds don't fail us too. How much of it could serve, in prayer, as that self-emptying whose purpose is to let ourselves be filled with the Lord, to let him live in us! And yet so few even among believers get beyond the disappointment, the questioning, the dull ache; in the less sanguine, they readily entrench depression, even despair. So much suffering remains senseless, thus breeding that "quiet desperation" of which Thoreau so truly spoke.

He immediately added, however, that even the quietly desperate die "with the song still in them." If we have not let our sufferings become senseless enough to make us bitter and cynical—inclined, like Ivan Karamazov, to "return God the ticket"—the eternal song which accompanies the Risen Christ is not dead within us. Instead of desparing in the shadows, we can offer them, wait, and hope. This Triduum, my prayer is to learn anew, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life, how to suffer well enough to hear the song clearly once again.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Kenosis and unity

Most of the themes of Holy Thursday are familiar to Catholics: the institution of the Eucharist, the washing of feet, the betrayal by Judas, and so on. Many homilies also stress the theme of humility: the humility Jesus showed by washing the disciples' feet, and by instituting a sacrament in which his sacred body and blood could be handled by the unworthy, often to be received unworthily and thus sacriligeously. We are of course enjoined to love with similar humility. But what I've rarely heard stressed is the obvious but often overlooked fact that such love and humility is the basis of true unity with one another, not merely as church but in all our relationships. I want to expand on that a bit.

In my experience of various living arrangements, you can always tell the people who love each other from those who don't. The people who don't love each other are those for whom everything is a negotiation. They are chiefly concerned with "fairness," understood as the mutual recognition and satisfaction of obligations. The key to harmony is to work out a common understanding of what is due to whom, and to ensure that, on the whole, what's due is duly rendered. Everybody carries around an inner scorecard for the purpose of seeing how closely getting matches up with giving. If imbalances arise and are perceived as too great, resentment and friction ensue; if and when imbalances fail to be addressed to general approval, the living arrangement becomes intolerable. When people truly love each other, however, their chief concern is the welfare of their beloved. They do not ordinarily measure whether they're getting as much as they give; or if one of them notices an imbalance unfavorable to themselves, they do not automatically cry "unfair." They consider whether it could be rectified, and if so whether rectifying it would do the relationship, and hence the parties, true good. The greater the love, the less the willingness to count the costs and the more the willingness to pour oneself out for the beloved. In technical theological language, such love is called agape, and the self-emptying that characterizes it is called kenosis.

As the incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ was and is the paradigm instance of such love, especially as shown on the Cross. Our love for and service to him is a participation in that love he has for us, which of course entails such love for one another. The most apparently clear instance of such love seems to be that of parents, especially mothers, for their children; but such love is to a great extent natural, explicable in terms of evolutionary biology. Where it becomes supernatural is precisely where it isn't natural. To an extent, the sacrament of marriage is an instance of that; while marriages often start out with couples being "in love" in a naturally explicable sense, and the fortunate few remain thus in love, the best marriages are those in which agape grows out of and transcends eros, so that the couple love one another all the more when they are no longer in love. But even the best marriages are often explicable in purely secular terms. The clearest instance of the kind of love we celebrate in the Eucharist is that of saints who devote their lives either to the poor and outcast or, even more strikingly, to those who don't appreciate them or even persecute them. Most of us aren't called to such a life, of course; but there's plenty of opportunity to develop and exhibit such love in all our relationships.

One way to motivate ourselves to that end is to recognize that, whatever the walk of life, true harmony and unity depend on it. Since life is never perfectly fair, relationships based on mutual utility and perceptions of fairness will sooner or later break down, or at least fail to satisfy. What we really need to be redeemed is to get beyond that, to kenotic love. And we as church are called to be the most visible instance of such love. This Triduum, let us pray and strive for that sort of unity in our relationships with each other as believers. Only that will make Christianity credible to the rest of the world.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

The spirituality of health-care financing

Today I was meditating on the line from the Prayer of St. Francis: "In dying we are born to eternal life." Like much else in Christianity, that is true spiritually and physically, the latter being a sign and instrument of the former. We must die to the old, corrupted self in order to be a new creation in Christ, destined to eternal and blissful communion with God; if we're moving in that direction when we die physically, that destiny is just what we achieve. But there's no guarantee: only those who have their priorities straight in life die a good death. In one of life's many ironies, the lesson applies to health-care politics too.

I had a conversation with my roommates today about the various proposals for health-care reform coming from candidates for the Presidency. Any such discussion must begin with an undeniable premise: no system of health care will provide every American with the level of care most want at a price most are willing to pay. It's a question of tradeoffs: how much subsidized care are we willing to forgo, collectively, in order to get the care we believe we can, collectively, afford? It matters not whether the subsidies come from "government"—i.e., tax revenues—or from subscribers to private health-insurance plans. The question remains the same, and the system we have now doesn't answer that question in a way that satisfies most people. Yet it remains as is because we can't agree, politically, on how to change it. Why is that?

One problem is that we cannot seem to decide whether health care is a right to be rendered unto all or a commodity that should be paid for on an as-needed basis by those who can afford it. Right now, it seems we agree that health care is a right for children, the elderly, and the disabled but a commodity for everybody else. Sounds reasonable; but given the costs involved, what that means in practice is that a great many able-bodied, working people cannot afford adequate health care. We're not happy with that either. But how to change it?

By every account I've read, a very substantial percentage of our health-care dollar is spent on people in their last few weeks of life. That is a very substantial drain on resources that could be devoted to care for people who, like me, are not at death's door but cannot afford health insurance at current and future premium levels. If we expect a health-care system that's equitable for all, the imbalance must be rectified. But there's no sign of that happening, because the beneficiaries of the imbalance are mostly elderly, and the elderly as a bloc are politically quite influential. But why do the elderly expect such measures?

In my observation, it's basically because dying patients (and/or their families) and physicians cannot accept the fact that death is not only inevitable but near. Everything possible must be thrown at the last enemy in order to postpone facing reality, salve consciences, and avoid lawsuits. Such an illusory view of life and death, though natural in a highly technological society, motivates an allocation of resources that is not only futile but also, given the needs of others, objectively unjust. But given current incentives and attitudes, we seem to be collectively trapped in it, like addicts. It's time for it to stop.

In order for the necessary shift in attitudes and allocation to occur, we need to accept the fact that death is part of life. People will only do that if they truly believe that there are things objectively more important for individuals and their loved ones than the earthly life of any particular individual. By divine revelation, Christians have the information necessary for embracing that belief. Yet too many ostensible Christians in this country are part of the problem, not of the solution. We must learn to view our physical as well as our spiritual dying as part of our life with and in God. If we do, the health-care problem will become politically soluble. This Triduum, let us come to realize that our choice to "put on the new man" in Christ has political implications too, from which all could benefit,.

Monday, April 02, 2007

St. John Paul

Pope John Paul II fell asleep two years ago today. In his case, Pope Benedict, his long-time Number Two, waived the usual five-year waiting period for opening the "cause" for canonization. The first phase of the process is now over: we have the miracle. See this widely-circulated story about Sister Marie-Simon-Pierre, a French nun cured of Parkinson's disease by the intercession of the late pope who, in the present pope's words, had been gradually "stripped of everything" by that very disease.

I have no doubt that John Paul the Great is in heaven aiding the Church by his prayers. And I thought so before I heard of the good sister's naturally inexplicable cure. Here's why.

A week or so after the Pope died, my then-parish conducted a "memorial Mass" for him. I walked into the church for that about twenty minutes before it started. On the altar rail they had mounted a fairly large portrait of the late pope and decked it with picked flowers. It was clearly a copy, either of an original oil or a photograph, but I had never seen it before anywhere, and have not seen either copy or original since. Technically it seemed unremarkable. But I was immediately riveted by the eyes—far more so than I had been when I looked into them in person at Yankee Stadium in November 1979, and more so than by those of any other representation of his face.

In fact, I felt the way a cat might feel that had been grabbed by the scruff of the neck and was about to be given a good talking-to, face to face. But he didn't have to say anything. I did.

I said: "I'm sorry, Holiness. Help me to be what you know I ought to be." I said it sotto voce, without deliberation or forethought. I was certain, serenely, that it came from the Holy Spirit. Accordingly, I became certain that the great man knew what I meant and had somehow been expecting to hear it from me. From then on, despite some truly awful days, I have not come nearly as close to despair as I had done a few years earlier, sunk deep in depression. I gained the confidence that I would eventually fulfill my mission, sustained by the prayers not only of those on earth who love me, but by the great "cloud of witnesses" who already behold the Lord's glory. Of course I felt that way. Didn't he, fearless before the Soviet Empire he helped to bring down, always say "Be not afraid?" And had he not suffered even more than I?

He, more than anyone, made be proud to be Catholic. And it looks like Rome won't take so long to catch up with the cult of this saint.

Holy Week

Palm Sunday is one of my favorite days for prayer and meditation. If I had been able to do more than eat and sleep after Mass yesterday, it would have been prayer. Yeah, right. Even so, my sorry fleshliness was strangely apt for a day which reminds us of who we are before God. Both encourage that humility which is the sine qua non of spiritual growth.

In the aggregate, the people who cheered Jesus as he entered Jerusalem on a donkey were no better than the people who, several days later, shouted Crucify him! They might as well be the same people, and I wouldn't be surprised if some of them actually were. They represent what lies within each of us "believers" all the time. With our lips and sometimes even in our hearts, we praise Jesus, acknowledge him as the Christ, our King, and put our hope in him; with every sin we commit, with every opportunity for growth that we spurn, with every blessing we withhold in our selfishness and every curse we bestow in our anger, we crucify him. It's amazing how quickly we can oscillate between love and hate for him. That's because most of us would rather coast than stay engaged in the spiritual warfare. Insensate, we are cast about by the ebb and flow of the (usually) unseen battle between very personal forces far bigger and stronger than ourselves. As soldiers of the crucified Christ, our only hope of winning depends on recognizing how hopeless, how ridiculous we are without habitual effort to take up the standard of the Cross and follow him.

This Easter, somewhere between one hundred and two hundred thousand Americans will be formally received, by their own choice, into the Catholic Church. When I was an RCIA director, this week was a time of great excitement and frenetic work for me; once I no longer had that role, I became detached enough to be realistic. In some cases, being received into the Church actually represents conversion to Christ: a decisive step on the convert's journey of discipleship. That's definitely worth celebrating. In others, it is mostly expediency: pleasing a spouse, perhaps, or fleeing a church one dislikes for a church one dislikes somewhat less. Sometimes even that is to be approved; but in any case I noticed that, before very long, the converts as a whole looked pretty much like "the cradles" as a whole. Some were pious and continued caring, some were not and didn't; among the pious, some knew what the spiritual life was, some did not; even among those who knew, not all cared nearly enough. In due course, the proportion of wheat to tares settles around what seems to be an historical constant.

I also learned, by bitter experience, that I was no better. Sure, I knew more than most of them and cared more than some; but that only made my responsibility all the greater. Eventually I failed: if not so much them, then others who had been entrusted to me. Life has been the RCIA I needed to awaken me to who I am before Christ. And I'm sure the same is true of many others. Let us pray, and offer this Holy Week, for the intention that we make our ordinary lives ever more of an initiation into the Paschal Mystery.