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

Friday, February 29, 2008

Housekeeping notes

1. Blogger has just introduced changes to the XML code in the base template I use for this blog. As a result, the display in Firefox and Safari is very bad. But it's still fine in Internet Explorer. I urge Firefox and Safari users to open the blog in an IE tab until the problems can be worked out.

2. One new feature I've adopted myself: at the end of each post is a Haloscan link inviting people to rate the post. Please avail yourself of it. Feedback is always important.

3. There are many topics on my list that I want to and can write about. What prevents me from posting more these days is the absurd unpredictability of my job schedule. It throws off not only my outside activities but, even more importantly, my sleep. So, every day I apply for other jobs. Please pray that I get something soon with a regular schedule. Much hinges on it.

Thanks to all for hanging in there with me!

Thursday, February 28, 2008

William F. Buckley Jr., RIP

I wanted to write about this yesterday but couldn't. It was the end of an era for me, and I don't handle era-endings well, at least not without a bit of prayer and reflection. Having had that bit, today I can write.

Just about every literate American over a certain age knows who he was: the witty, aristocratic, and Catholic founder of "the conservative movement." Appropriate encomia can be found at NRO; there will doubtless be many more. But I want to make this one personal. Those are usually best.

Between the time, roughly, of my first communion and my first sexual encounter, I idolized Buckley. He was the closest thing to the man I wanted to be that I had encountered before my mid teens. My father had said the same for himself, which probably accounts for why I felt as I did. Viewing Buckley's PBS talk show Firing Line was as much an expected part of our Sundays as the Mass, and to me just as interesting. (Even its musical theme, from Bach's Brandenberg Concerto #2, sparked my interest in "early" music. Later, my music-humanities teacher at Columbia refused to believe that I, a non-musician, was capable of such a sophisticated discussion thereof. I almost got done up for plagiarism.) I dreamed of meeting WFB as he ran for mayor of New York on the Conservative Party ticket in 1965; but he never did visit Staten Island, where we lived, since in that borough he was assured of beating the Democratic candidate. Nonetheless my father worked for his campaign, and I assisted enthusiastically until hearing Buckley's reply when asked what he would do if elected: "Demand a recount." My ten-year-old mind didn't quite get it. Yet naturally enough, I said the same on my own account when I ran for Congress as a Conservative in Manhattan in 1988. By then nobody cared; what was good in me was not original.

Though I never met the man, I came close twice. Once was the same year I ran for Congress, when I received a personal thank-you note from him for a series of book reviews I had recently written for National Review, the rag he had founded and which I had read regularly since the age of nine. I asked an older friend of mine, with whom I had briefly shared an Upper-West-Side apartment in college and who had also written for NR, whether the note meant that the great man was intrigued enough by me to want to meet me. The reply was: "Not really. He does that for all his authors." I was less crushed by the news than stunned by the good manners of it. I had never thought of WFB as that well-mannered. I still haven't met a controversialist that well-mannered.

The second time I came close was soon after I had "tea" with another writer friend of mine and his then-pal, one Princess Elizabeth of Yugoslavia. We had met and noshed at the old Russian Tea Room; having got stuck with the rather hefty bill, I dropped a half-joking hint about getting something out of the occasion other than a lighter wallet. Apparently I was subtle enough: La Princessa suggested that I accompany her to Pat and Bill Buckley's Manhattan pied-à-terre the next evening, where she had been invited to a gathering of "intimates." Of course I was quite excited; of course it didn't actually happen. But least I got some plausible excuse over the royal phone a hour or so before the scheduled rendezvous.

That was 1990. Soon thereafter, my first wife and I left New York for Houston to take up job offers. I had accepted that a meeting between my childhood idol and me was not in the designs of providence. And in any event, I thought I'd outgrown him.

NR, over which he was surrendering day-to-day control, had ceased to interest me much, and conservatism as a political philosophy struck me as less intellectually coherent than the body of Catholic social teaching anyhow. I was troubled by the oft-quoted remark he had made decades before, by way of greeting Pope John XXIII's social-justice encyclical Mater et Magistra: "Mater sì, magistra no." I had even learned that he also dissented, sort of, from Paul VI's Humanae Vitae. To my mind, that made him one of those CINOs much reviled at the institution, the University of St. Thomas, where I was headed to teach. But my disillusionment was not permanent.

About a dozen years later—unemployed, homeless, and divorced from my second wife—I read for the first time two books of his with 'God' in the title: God and Man at Yale, which had launched his career in the 1950s; and Nearer, My God: An Autobiography of Faith (1997). Amazingly, the former is still in print as well as the latter. My awe returned.

Reading those books enabled me to see into and savor Bill Buckley himself at a much deeper level than I ever had. Once again, I wished I could have been much more like him. His various struggles with Catholicism and the Church became much more comprehensible to me as quarrels between lovers. For the first time, I was able to understand and empathize with intelligent Catholics who could not easily swallow all that the Church expected of them. I briefly made plans to get back to New York and find a way to meet him before he died. But I couldn't even scrape together enough money to see my own family of origin and old friends. Providence reasserted himself.

Still, I hope to meet him in the hereafter. Perhaps we can then have the discussion I always wanted to have with him. But then, perhaps it won't be necessary. And perhaps that will have been the point.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

How many husbands have we had?

In view of today's Gospel reading, I mean that question for every adult, human soul. For as the Bible's nuptial imagery and a good deal of mysticism suggest, men and women are collectively "female" in relation to God. God wants to marry us. That's why the Second Person of the Trinity called himself "Son," incarnated himself as a male, and also called himself the Bridegroom. All people are called to be members of his Bride, the Church. But we are unfaithful, as the ancient Hebrews often were by paying attention to other gods. They committed adultery against their husband, the only God. So do we, even when our language professes otherwise. It is a truism that every sin is an act of infidelity to the Lord; what believers often fail to recognize, however, is that while married to him in name, and meant to be married to him in reality, they often marry others.

To the Jewish members of John's audience for his Gospel, his ascription of five husbands to the Samaritan woman at the well would have been well understood as an historical allusion to the five pagan gods, baals (lords), that the Samaritans had worshiped. As the late Raymond Brown pointed out in his commentary on this gospel, and as the Ignatius Bible also recognizes, the Samaritans were a mixed breed both ethnically and religiously. After the northern kingdom—"Israel" as distinct from the southern, "Judah"—had been vanquished and exiled by the Assyrians in the late 8th century BC, foreigners from five different districts were forcibly resettled among the Hebrew remnant. Intermarriage and religious syncretism produced what came to be known as the Samaritans, from the district in Palestine where they eventually concentrated. Relations between Jews and Samaritans had been execrable ever since Nehemiah expelled them from common worship when the returned Jewish exiles began reconstituting Israel. But common elements remained, especially the expectation of an anointed prophet, what the Jews called the Messiah. Jesus' conversation with the woman at the well, the same well where Jacob had met one of his wives, indicated not only that he was claiming to be the Messiah but was also the true Bridegroom of unfaithful humanity. Yet few of us love him as such, at least most of the time.

Most of the time, we trust more in other things: money, power, prestige, sex, science and technology, institutions—or, most seductively of all, people who actually do love us, such as parents or spouses. People who lack all such things are deemed pitiable; the prospect of having none of the above terrifies most of us; that's why trusting false gods comes more easily to us than faith in the true God. But when we trust more in what is not God than in God, we worship another god and are thus married adulterously. Spiritually speaking, we are bound to end up like the Samaritan woman—not even married to the latest "man," returning to the well over and over for the water of life. Temporal goods fail to satisfy our deepest longings. None of us will take them to the grave, even those fortunate enough to take some of them to the threshold thereof. Only Jesus satisfies our thirst; only Jesus is our true husband.

Yet his first words to the woman were: "Give me a drink." The difference between the Son of God and the false gods is that he thirsts for us, who can find him in those who thirst and meet him in slaking that thirst. We must see others like that. To do so, we must start with seeing ourselves like that. Only then can we get our marital status straightened out.

Friday, February 22, 2008

The embryo debate continued

Most of my post last Saturday, entitled Struggling with incoherence II: who counts?, was a critical review of the debate between pro-life thinkers Robert P. George and Christopher Tollefsen on the one hand, and pro-choice thinker William Saletan on the other, about the ontic status of the human embryo. Here I note that their debate continues. Saletan replied to the RPG/CT piece here, posing the question slyly: "Are embryos morally equal to people? I say no." The latest RPG/CT rejoinder appears here.

I highly recommend following the whole debate. The discourse is both civil and of the highest level one is likely to find outside specialized journals. I will have more to say tomorrow.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Eternity: do we get only what we want?

Fr. Al Kimel has posted some fine thoughts on a perennial question that the Apostles themselves asked Jesus: "How many will be saved?" Of course I didn't need to be convinced of his conclusion, which alludes to Jesus' answer: "Foreswear the counting of the saved or the damned. Strive, rather, to enter through the narrow door!" I have long thought the question itself useless. We can't even predict the result of the next election, never mind the size of the elect, which latter God has chosen, in his infinite wisdom, not to tell us. But I have long been interested in a related question: do we get in the hereafter only what we ultimately want? Whatever the answer is, it is neither obvious nor unimportant. But unlike "how many are saved?", the question is well worth exploring.

We all want eternal bliss even when it's conceived, wrongly, as a superabundance of sex (or, for some women I know, chocolate). But it doesn't follow that we all want heaven. For heaven is a state of conscious and perpetual union with God whose prerequisite is a thoroughgoing purification and reconstitution of our being. In the real world, that in turn requires suffering and death, which we don't want. Yet, as St. Thomas Aquinas said, "to will the end is to will the means to the end." So, to get to heaven one must want it badly enough to die to self spiritually so that one can die physically in some sort of union with Christ. I rather doubt that everybody wants heaven that badly.

Indeed, many traditional Christians are wont to say that the default fate for humans is damnation. From this point of view, each of us is damned unless, with divine help, we choose to do whatever is necessary to be saved. That answer seems reasonable enough. After all, Christ came to save us from the thralldom of Satan because we were, and are, incapable of doing that for ourselves; so, what is necessary for avoiding damnation is to choose for Christ. But it doesn't take a lot of critical reflection to see that such an answer must, at the very least, be seriously qualified.

First there's the consideration, which follows ineluctably from the teaching of the Church, that baptized infants who die before becoming capable of morally significant choice go straight to heaven. Others have chosen for them; they had no spiritual battle to fight. Cool. And what of others who are in no position to make what is thought to be the necessary choice in this life: infants who die unbaptized; those adults who die never having heard the Gospel at all; those who have been more or less exposed to it, but only in some toxic or otherwise misleading form which they understandably reject—what of these? Are they to be damned just for the bad moral luck of having had neither a clear opportunity to choose for Christ nor the love of some believers who choose for them? I'm not going to speak for other Christians, but I speak with the Catholic Church in affirming that God damns nobody through no fault of their own. If damnation is default, it can't be for such people. There are quite a lot of them.

Of course, purebred Augustinians will insist that inheriting original sin, which we do just by belonging to the human race, means that every human being is conceived personally guilty before God. If that is so, then those who have never had the opportunity to choose for Christ in this life are actually in a worse position than those who have. Some are forever deprived of union with God even though they have died without having made a single free choice or even known anything relevant. Others who have grown up enough to commit serious actual sin will burn forever in hell even if they have never heard the Gospel at all or have only heard it distorted. All such people belong to the massa damnata from which it is the purpose of Christ to extract the fortunate, predestined elect.

Aside from the sheer ruthlessness thereby ascribed to God, the problem with that picture is its premise: original sin as personal guilt. While that's what Augustine held, and has thus influenced many in the West to hold, that idea has never been dogmatized and is now, in fact, the opposite of the ordinary teaching of the Catholic Church. Thus CCC §405:

Although it is proper to each individual, original sin does not have the character of a personal fault in any of Adam's descendants. It is a deprivation of original holiness and justice, but human nature has not been totally corrupted: it is wounded in the natural powers proper to it, subject to ignorance, suffering and the dominion of death, and inclined to sin - an inclination to evil that is called "concupiscence". Baptism, by imparting the life of Christ's grace, erases original sin and turns a man back towards God, but the consequences for nature, weakened and inclined to evil, persist in man and summon him to spiritual battle.

I have explained before how that development in Catholic teaching is compatible with the Council of Trent's dogmas on original sin. Unlike Augustine's view, it is also compatible with the Eastern-Christian understanding of "ancestral" sin. And so a Catholic cannot argue that it follows from the de fide doctrine of original sin that damnation is our human default fate. We are each conceived in a state of alienation from God; but it doesn't follow from that alone that such is what anybody ultimately wants, or even that anybody is just going to fall through the nets willy-nilly into hell.

What about the alternative: is salvation, rather than damnation, the default fate for humanity? That is what many Catholics today seem to believe, and it's hard to fault them for that. After all, "God wills that all be saved and come to knowledge of the truth" (1 Timothy 2:4), and God's will is in some sense unthwartable. Grace sufficient for salvation is given to all, even to unbelievers. Indeed, there has never been a time when humanity has been without grace. The purpose of our creation was to be elevated by God to partake in his own trinitarian life, and that elevation is the primary theological referent of the very term 'grace'. Creation is irrevocably suffused with grace, even when we don't experience it that way. Accordingly, among those Catholics who are Catholic enough to admit that damnation is a very real possibility for people, the most common opinion now is that only people who die wanting and choosing to be damned are, in fact, damned. They are bathed in a supernal light that they hate so much, it burns.

But I don't believe that's quite right either. Consider an example of such thinking from a saint, Leonard of Port Maurice, cited by one of Fr. Kimel's commenters:

When Saint Thomas Aquinas's sister asked him what she must do to go to heaven, he said, "You will be saved if you want to be." I say the same thing to you, and here is proof of my declaration. No one is damned unless he commits mortal sin: that is of faith. And no one commits mortal sin unless he wants to: that is an undeniable theological proposition. Therefore, no one goes to hell unless he wants to; the consequence is obvious. Does that not suffice to comfort you? Weep over past sins, make a good confession, sin no more in the future, and you will all be saved. Why torment yourself so? For it is certain that you have to commit mortal sin to go to hell, and that to commit mortal sin you must want to, and that consequently no one goes to hell unless he wants to. That is not just an opinion, it is an undeniable and very comforting truth; may God give you to understand it, and may He bless you. Amen."

I have added the emphasis. Unfortunately, the syllogism is invalid.

All that follows from the premises is that voluntarily committing what one knows to be mortal sin is necessary for damnation. From that, however, it doesn't at all follow that no one is damned unless they want to be. For it is quite possible to freely commit what one knows to be "mortal sin,"—i.e., an act of a sort objectively incompatible with abiding in God's grace—without at all wanting what would be its consequence for eternity if one dies unrepentant. I daresay that happens all the time. That is why compunction and repentance, under the influence of grace, remain possible in this life for those guilty of mortal sin. If and when the sinner comes to see mortal sin in all its ugliness, they can readily turn from it toward God. Some doubtless do. Of course there are those who choose not to see and repent. But can even they plausibly be said to want hell? In most cases, I should think not.

There may well be people who prefer actual, eternal hell to living on God's terms; if they have died, their souls are certainly in hell; but there's no evidence whatsoever that such people are abundant. At any rate, if I've ever met any I didn't know it. That shouldn't surprise: preferring eternal hell to life on God's terms is too irrational, even by our sorry human standards, to be common among us. For saying that, I expect to be told by somebody that I am not cynical (oops, "realistic") enough; but I think anybody inclined to make such a criticism would be saying more about themselves than about their brethren. Among those in hell, if any, there must be some who would have chosen to live differently had they known how things would turn out.

In fact, I know of no good arguments either that we are saved only if we want to be or that we are damned only if we want to be. But that doesn't mean that heaven is a merely extrinsic reward and hell a merely extrinsic punishment, bestowed by divine decree rather than produced by our choices themselves. For those capable of making relevant choices, where they end up for eternity is, at least in part, the natural outcome of those choices. But they needn't know that in order to make the relevant choices. Where they end up may well be the result of having done what they want, but it needn't thereby just be what they want.

To acknowledge that is to become aware that some of one's most humdrum or offhand choices can be momentous. We can cooperate with grace, and in the end be saved, without knowing that's what we've been doing. But we can also oppose grace, and in the end be damned, without knowing that either. Awareness of what is thus at stake accordingly induces both humility and vigilance. When cultivated further by a sincere search for truth, those can only aid us in our spiritual combat.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Being God's works of art

Among the many works written by my first philosophy professor, Arthur C. Danto, is one called The Transfiguration of the Commonplace. It's an instance of the philosophy of art, one of his specialties. Such interest as I developed in that branch of philosophy, as distinct from the arts themselves, was aroused by that book. That was mainly because, in one of God's many little ironies, the title could just well apply to the spiritual life itself—even though art was about the closest thing to a religion that Danto had. Since today's Gospel was about the Transfiguration, I thought I'd say a bit more about how the title applies.

Unlike what is implied by many priests and theologians, I do not believe that every good thing is also holy or sacred. "The sacred" is a realm of being distinct from "the profane." From the standpoint of man's search for God, the sacred is that which man "sets apart" from the profane for representation of and/or service to the divine. Thus, people and things become sacred in virtue of being lifted out of the profane. The rituals in which such people and things serve a sacred function are themselves sacred because they are not ordinary, profane activities but rather ones in which some form of contact with the divine is sought. In natural religion, all the "profane" activities of life are valorized by being somehow related and oriented to the sacred activities. Now in the true, "supernatural" religion, revealed by God and thus signifying God's search for man, we also have sacred people, things, and activities. Human culture and convention play a part in all that. But they are ultimately established and given their meaning by God, and thus valorized, through Christ in the Holy Spirit. Our purpose in participating in them is to extend the Incarnation through the profane world by making Christ "be all in all," starting of course with ourselves. We are to become sacred ourselves so as to "transfigure the commonplace." If you like, we are to turn the world into God's work of art by first being his works of art.

Most lay people seem to have a very hard time grasping that. The most important human relationships, which occur in the "commonplace" spheres of family and work, are not often seen as that which we are destined to transfigure and thus make sacred. They seem to take their primary meaning from our secular and thus profane reality, and the best we can do with them spiritually is to try to follow "the rules" of Christian morality as we navigate through them, so that we aren't derailed by them. They remain profane in our consciousness and in reality; the "sacred" is reserved for liturgy, prayer, and maybe some volunteer activities. Among the truly "devout," this is rationalized by assuming that all the world is God's and everybody is a child of God, so that everything good is taken in theory to be sacred even if we don't often feel that in the realm of the commonplace. Such an attitude of course ignores the very real need for transformation: first, that of metanoia or conversion, a turning of the mind and heart to God; then, that of transfiguring the commomplace to serve the same purpose. If everybody and everything good is somehow sacred to begin with, then creation needs no transfiguring. God has done it already, to the extent it needs to be done at all; all we need to do is be nice and prosper.

That is illusion. To transfigure the profane as we are called, we must each undertake the journey of faith as Abraham did. We much each persevere, despite the deserts, the setbacks, and the unfairness of life, in the belief that God will make of us and our world something incomparably greater than we can see if we but conform ourselves to Christ. It's not easy to be God's work of art, or even to see how one is such a work in progress. Yet such is the meaning of the sacred, as opposed to the profane. We are set apart and thus sacred by baptism; but that is only the start of transfiguring the commonplace.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Struggling with incoherence II: who counts?

In my previous post, I expressed amusement as a philosopher about the intellectual muddles people get themselves into and struggle with. That is no mere academic form of entertainment. On some issues very important to most of them, philosophical incoherence prevents Americans from collectively deciding what the law should be. All sides of the spectrum, for example, agree that the body of Supreme-Court jurisprudence on the "incorporated establishment clause,"—i.e., the First Amendment's religious-establishment clause as incorporated by the Fourteenth, and thus applied to the states—is an incoherent jumble. But the situation is unlikely to improve because there is no philosophical consensus about the origin, nature, and scope of religious freedom. On the matter of health care, we cannot decide whether basic health care should be a right for all, and funded by all who can help fund it, or a right only for some and a mere commodity for others. That is why the status quo, recognized for the ludicrously expensive and inequitable mess it is, stays pretty much the same. We can't agree on what, if anything, should replace it—because we can't agree on what duties we have to one another in this matter, and therefore on what should be funded and by whom. Now it may well be that history, as distinct from philosophical debate, will end up deciding such questions willy-nilly. At some point, de facto universal health care might evolve under pressure of economic necessity; at some point, local communities may end up deciding for themselves how much to facilitate religious expression, simply for want of a coherent alternative. That's what seems to be happening anyhow. But on the more specific matter of abortion, dissensus is at once more acute and more amenable to being reduced by argument. That is grounds for hope.

Under current law, women have the right to kill their children in the womb, at any stage of pregnancy and for almost any reason; but in most jurisdictions, if somebody kills her while she's pregnant, the killer can be and sometimes is charged with two homicides. Thus, an action protected as a right for the mother counts as a felony if anybody else does it. (I'm just waiting for a case in which the father of a child is charged with a form of homicide for having assaulted the mother, thus having inadvertently caused the death of their unborn child, while she happened to be on the way to getting an abortion. "News of the Weird," indeed.) Such legal incoherence persists, and is widely accepted, because there is no agreement about the moral status of the unborn child. Some hold, and others deny, that such a child is a person, entitled to that moral respect which persons owe to persons merely as such. That dissensus is why "choice"—for the mother, and only for the mother—is the mantra of those who defend the status quo. In the absence of consensus about the moral status of the unborn child, it is left up to the mother to decide what to do with "her own body"; for it's a lot easier to get political agreement about the extent of her moral autonomy than about her duties, if any, to her child. That doesn't make the resulting legal regime any more coherent, of course; but it does at least highlight a question that admits of an answer. The question is: how can it be rationally decided whether, and if so when, the unborn child is a person entitled to the respect owed to persons merely as such?

As a resource for answering that question, Robert P. George and Christopher Tollefsen have produced a splendid tome entitled Embryo: A Defense of Human Life (Doubleday, 2008). In it, they make a case for the personhood of the embryo that does not rely on any distinctively religious premises, but on the basis of reason alone. That has been done before, to be sure; but I've never seen it done as clearly and convincingly. One can rationally disagree with them, as does William Saletan; but their arguments show that one doesn't need revealed religion to make a reasonable case that the embryo is an individual human being and thus a person. That becomes all the clearer in their reply to Saletan. If such a case can be widely disseminated, it could have enormous political significance in fact as well as in theory.

Notice that I said "reason alone." I did not say "science alone." Science cannot tell us what, if anything, counts as a person or what the rights of persons as such are. The concept of personhood is irreducibly philosophical, even if our understanding of it relies crucially on intuitions and experiences which are pre-philosophical as well as pre-scientific. Science can only give us data that make it reasonable, or not, to count some biological entity as a person. But there is pretty broad agreement among ordinary folk that entities which count as individual human beings, as distinct from mere cells or organs of other human beings, are persons and thus, unlike sperm or egg cells, merit some sort of moral respect. Of course there's not such a clear consensus that innocent persons have an absolute right not to be killed, and that is more of a problem than many pro-lifers seem to realize. But the main intellectual focus appears to be still more basic; for there is as yet no public consensus even on the question whether human embryos are individual human beings. So even though the basic issues are philosophical, debate among the most rigorous protagonists typically hinges on how much scientific support can be mustered for the proposition that human embryos are individual human beings.

That's the question on which George and Tollefson focus much of their book, and their answer is "A lot." It is also on that question that Saletan focuses his critique. I've already provided the link to his review; you can read it for yourself. I believe that George and Tollefson successfully rebut the specifically scientific arguments that Saletan adduces. But I also believe they are making a tactical error. Ironically, their rebuttals of Saletan's arguments also show what the error is.

They show, convincingly enough, that the scientific facts Saletan cites fail to establish that the embryo is not an individual human being. The way they show it is to expose the philosophical problems Saletan gets himself into with his objections. They then provide a cogent argument that Saletan, and by the same token each of us, was once an embryo. If you were once an embryo, then there is spatial-temporal continuity between the embryo you were and the individual human being you are now. That makes it reasonable to hold that the embryo you were was an individual human being. And all that in turn makes it reasonable to hold that the embryo you were was the same person you are now—if you hold that spatio-temporal continuity between biological entities A and B suffices for identity between A and B; if you define 'person' roughly as Boethius did, as "an individual substance of a rational nature"; and if you hold that each and every individual member of the species Homo sapiens is a person in that sense. Now I share those premises with George and Tollefsen, who also summarize philosophical arguments for them. But people who, for philosophical reasons, don't share those premises, aren't going to find the "scientific" arguments of George and Tollefsen persuasive. They might, at the end of the day, be willing to concede that it is reasonable on scientific grounds to hold that human embryos are individual members of the species, but at the same time be unwilling to concede that all such entities are persons meriting the moral respect due to persons merely as such. That is the line long taken by George's Princeton colleague Peter Singer, who sees nothing wrong in principle with infanticide. He's operating with a different conception of personhood, and hence of the moral status of persons, from the classical one on which George and Tollefsen rely and which they defend. Hence, he hardly bothers debating the science of the matter. Admittedly, most "pro-choice" Americans are unwilling to go that far; but that only shows that many of them haven't thought through how far they're willing to go.

That's why it is hardly dispositive, even though true, to say as George and Tollefsen do:

Is the human embryo a whole living member of the species Homo sapiens—a human being—in the earliest stage of his or her natural development? We say yes, that is exactly what a human embryo is; he says no. The question is not metaphysical or religious, but rather scientific.

The science is important for defending a premise necessary for the philosophical argument. The premise is that embryos are individual human beings "in the earliest stage of natural development." One might quibble at the margins about whether science can demonstrate that as opposed to merely making it reasonable to hold it; but either way, the difficulty is that the nub of the argument is philosophical, and the science cannot settle such an issue one way or another. I see the same sort of problem with Intelligent-Design advocacy. The scientific facts cited by ID advocates make it reasonable to believe that the universe is designed to be roughly the way it is; but science can never establish any such belief just by itself, and there's always the lurking possibility that natural facts which are now scientifically inexplicable won't remain so. What then becomes of the argument? It's best to keep it philosophical to begin with.

That said, the strength of the George-Tollefsen approach is that it attends carefully to a question people are inclined to attend to, and shows that pro-lifers have more to gain than lose by that. I just wish they wouldn't give out the impression that that's where the main work lies. They actually do much else of the needed work; but that's not what you're likely to hear about unless you earn your living at this sort of thing.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Struggling with incoherence

As a philosopher, I am richly entertained by watching people struggle with their incoherence of thought in face of their clashing instincts. Occasionally, I'm even entertained by my own incoherence, for that brief moment before I strive to end it. Either way, it's more fun and much cheaper than cable television or movies. It's more worthwhile too. Today I offer two examples to entertain as well as educate.

The first is the struggle of American conservatives with the idea of John McCain as the Republican nominee. True, he's not a predictable ideologue; he seems to be more motivated by his ideals of honor and decency than by movement-style ideology. But considering the alternatives, what's wrong with that? Vain and prickly, he's not a perfect human being either. But who is? All this outrage, this doom and gloom, is completely unjustified. Yet Ann Coulter says she'd rather have Hillary Clinton than John McCain as President.

Of course that's the sort of thing she would say. Coulter has become rich by marketing her well-honed hyperbole to the angry Right, and it doesn't hurt that she's a slinky blonde who favors dressing in black. It's largely an act, even if not entirely an act. But sometimes people become their act. I'd love to have dinner with her, unnoticed, just to see what she's really like. (OK, and to see what she'd wear too.) Perhaps there's still a coherent core of authenticity there. But the notion that conservative ideals would be better served, even if only via backlash, by the return of the Clintons to the White House, is just plain adolescent. We might remain pure ourselves and gain more converts, but we would be letting our opponents do incalculable damage.

For one thing, as Sam Brownback has pointed out, the next president will almost certainly get to define the ideological direction of the Supreme Court for the next generation. Given McCain's record of supporting the Roberts and Alito nominations, the possibility of overturning Roe would be far greater with McCain in the White House than with either Clinton or Obama, with whom the possibility is nil. This issue is extremely important to social conservatives and ought to be important to any Catholic voter. As for the second leg of the three-legged conservative stool—strength on national security—both McCain's deserved persona as a war hero and his actual policy record are as strong as anybody's. Would conservatives really rather have a president who has competed with her (or his) primary opponents about who would pull our troops back faster? What really angers conservatives about McCain are his unwavering support for limiting the influence of money in politics and his willingness to be flexible about illegal immigrants. Frankly, I don't care about the former, and the latter actually brings him closer to Catholic social teaching than most conservatives are on the subject. What's the big deal?

We're dealing with syndrome thinking rather than with a coherent philosophy. Partisans of the Right and the Left have rarely thought out their political philosophy. Rather, their positions form a syndrome based even more on sentiment than on reason—and even when based on reason, the reasons are not always mutually compatible. E.g., Ronald Reagan is the conservative icon and fiscal conservatism is the third leg of their stool. But under him, federal budget deficits grew to a level unseen since World War II—for good reason, I would add. I could go on, but time is limited and the greater threat, at least in my view, lies on the other side and in the religious sphere.

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has called for "plural jurisdiction" in Britain, with Sharia law governing those Muslims who want it and British law everybody else. (What happens when a husband wants it and a wife doesn't is an interesting question.) Of course the outraged reaction of most Britons, well expressed here, is justified. But the amusing thing is that Williams is exhibiting the same incoherence on this political point that he has cultivated in theology as he presides over the slow implosion of the Anglican Communion itself. In a show of apparent realism, he suggests that Sharia courts may "unavoidable" anyhow. Yet he backtracks when it's pointed that Sharia law is incompatible with the notions of women's rights and gender equality that he has so vigorously defended. As John O'Sullivan asks: "[I]s sharia unavoidable or not? If it is, then women's rights will simply have to give way. But if women's rights can be protected against it, then sharia isn't unavoidable - and we need have none of it." So, which is it? Williams doesn't say.

Such incoherence is of a piece with the relative silence of Western feminists about the oppression of women in Islam. Leftists in general cannot decide whether the notions of human rights to which they appeal as though universal are nonetheless trumped by multiculturalism or not. If intolerance must be tolerated, even within our midst, when shown by people who are not otherwise "people like us," then are there universal human rights other than the right to define oneself over against others? Why or why not?

This is why I lost interest in politics as a college student and never went to law school. Questions of the sort I've just raised are necessary to raise, pursue, and answer if we are going to live sensibly together. It takes courage and honesty, as well as time and thought, to pursue them to conclusions. So that's why I did. But when I ran for Congress back in 1988, the year I earned my doctorate, I learned that such is rare in politics because unrewarded. Instead, adults who pursue them are shunted into reservations called "universities" where they can talk to each other without either bothering or being bothered by everybody else. Nowadays, if you can't get a teaching job, there's alway blogging. But you can't usually get good sound bites out of real thought. The really important questions do not entertain.

At least it's entertaining to watch the results of refusing to entertain them.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

There's temptation, and then there's temptation

The penance given me at my most recent confession was to pray the Lord's Prayer "slowly and meditatively." Of course, when I pray any traditional prayer in that way, it usually doesn't take me long to start mulling over its theological interpretation. In the present case, the issue was the closing two phrases. In the original Greek, that's καὶ μὴ εἰσενέγκῃς ἡμᾶς εἰς πειρασμόν, ἀλλὰ ῥῦσαι ἡμᾶς ἀπὸ τοῦ πονηροῦ; in Latin, ne nos inducas in tentationem, sed libera nos a malo; in the King-James translation that English-speaking Catholics still insist on using, it's "lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil." Given that today's Gospel was Jesus' temptation by Satan in the desert, I thought I'd bring my internal discussion out into the open.

It was the Holy Spirit who had led Jesus into the desert to fast and pray as preparation for his ministry. Being stuck out in the desert has a way of bringing things "right down to the real nitty-gritty," as the 60s pop-song refrain went. The ancient, newly liberated Hebrews wandering in the Sinai desert were sure brought there. As eremitic tradition indicates, it can bring one face to face with demons, both figuratively and literally. And sure enough, Satan challenged Jesus face to face at the end of the fast. Thus, as I observed last year around this time, by leading Jesus into the desert "God did to the Son of God what the Son of God instructs us," in the last two phrases of the Lord's Prayer, "to ask God not to do to us." Despite knowing all about the usual historical-critical exegesis on this point, I remain puzzled by that. I know we are confidently assured that the phrases in question, at least as understood by their original audience, were eschatological in significance. Jesus was telling his followers to pray that they be spared the supreme "time of testing" that Satan would be permitted to visit upon the elect in the very last days leading up to the Second Coming. And I do not doubt that that is at least how the phrases were meant and understood. But there's very little in the words and actions of Jesus that mean only what was first explicitly stated and understood. This is no exception.

For each of us can face our own, individual eschatological crisis. Many people do: some, at the very hour of death; others, at points in their lives where a momentous, life-defining choice between real good and merely apparent good—i.e., evil—must be made. They face a test, a "temptation" in the sense of "trial." That's the kind of thing the Lord's Prayer points to, beyond the historically well-attested. I myself once faced a test like that. Of course I flunked. It is only by the infinite mercy of God that I am still a candidate for final salvation at all, and I've been doing my penance since—even though my awareness of that fact is far too recent. All of that helps me understand more deeply what the last two petitions of the Lord's Prayer mean even to those of us who consider it highly unlikely that we'll be around for the Really Big Test just before the Lord comes again.

My experience convinces me, beyond any reasonable doubt, that we do well to pray not to be "led into" any eschatological crisis. Even those of us who've been given all we need to pass the test can, and readily do, flunk. And if we flunk at the hour of death, we won't get to take a makeup exam. We do well indeed to pray that we be not led into that "temptation." But the likelihood of finding ourselves in the thick of it rises with our presumption and sloth. That is why we are exhorted to "watch and pray," knowing full well we are sinners and ever seeking to become more like the one for whom we are watching, through whom all our prayers reach the Father.

Since Jesus was incapable of sin, he was sure to resist his "temptation" by Satan in the desert. Since we are sinners, he urges us to pray not be led into such temptation; yet his victory over Satan, culminating on the Cross, simultaneously shows us the pattern we must emulate if we are to reverse the effects of original sin in our lives, and gives us the power to do so. By refusing to turn stones into bread when he was famished, Jesus showed us that we must put fidelity to our mission as disciples above our personal needs and desires. By refusing to gain temporal power at the price of worshiping Satan, Jesus showed us that real power, the only kind that matters, consists in submission to God. That's what Adam and Eve forgot. By refusing to throw himself off the temple parapet in the expectation that he would be saved by angels, Jesus let God be sovereign rather than at his beck-and-call. And after all that, he was of course ministered to by angels.

Thus he gave us the power and the promise. Let us not forget that they are the fruit of a struggle that our first parents lost and that we often lose. It is by doing what we must but cannot do for ourselves that Jesus gave us our chance to do it at all. Thank God it's never by ourselves, like him in the desert. We always have him, and his spotless Mother, to rely on.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Viewing the skulls of bishops

Now that we're in Lent, I am not only reading but carefully pondering Fr. Al Kimel's fine series on purgatory. I recommend the same to all even as I look forward to defending it from the inevitable criticisms. But my Lenten meditation also includes, as it should, prophetic diagnosis of sin itself. Like each of us for ourselves, I must begin and end with my own sins; but those are of less general interest than the sins of Church leaders, which also point to the purification that American Catholics need to undertake collectively.

In the past I've been critical enough of the clergy, especially of the American bishops as a group. Having had my say, I figured that too few would notice or care if I said anything more. But now a few friends have drawn my attention to Fr. Richard John Neuhaus' pre-publication review, entitled "Paved with the Skulls of Bishops," of Philip Lawler's new book The Faithful Departed: The Collapse of Boston’s Catholic Culture (Encounter). I have not read the book or even had the opportunity to buy it; that will change ASAP. But to me, the most important thing is what the book prompts Neuhaus, a man far more influential than I or even Lawler himself, to say. The news is not good. But the right perspective on it, which Neuhaus provides, affords a certain kind of hope. It helps some of us see ourselves in the problem.

From the review:

“The thesis of this book,” writes Lawler, “is that the sex abuse scandal in American Catholicism was not only aggravated but actually caused by the willingness of church leaders to sacrifice the essential for the inessential; to build up the human institution even to the detriment of the divine mandate.” Bishops again and again responded to the crisis as institutional managers, employing public relations stratagems to evade, deceive, and distract attention from their own responsibility. Lawler several times invokes the terse observation of St. Augustine, “God does not need my lie.” The bishops lied, says Lawler, and many of them are still lying. This is offered not as an accusation but as a conclusion that he believes is compelled by the evidence.

The first aspect of the scandal, the sexual abuse of children, has been acknowledged and addressed,” Lawler writes. “The second aspect, the rampant homosexuality among Catholic priests, has been acknowledged but
not addressed, and later even denied. . . . The third aspect of the scandal has never even been acknowledged by American church leaders.” The third aspect, the malfeasance of bishops, “is today the most serious of all.”

Over 80 percent of reported cases of abuse were with teenage boys. That does not include, of course, uncounted instances of sex with men who are of age, since those cases, as several bishops have opined, constitute no problem for the Church, meaning no legal or financial problem. Spiritual and moral problems apparently do not enter the equation. The name for this is corruption.

Indeed. By way of explanation, Neuhaus quotes Lawler quoting a once-widely-discussed article by Jesuit priest Paul Shaughnessy that was written well before the Boston scandal broke in 2002. It is entitled "The Gay Priest Problem." I myself have read that article, quoted it before, and owe much to it. It explains a lot. By all means read it.

Why do I dredge this up again? Because, just as the Boston scandal was a "synecdoche" for the national sex-abuse-and-coverup scandal, so that national scandal is a synecdoche for the failings of American Catholics as a whole. With some laudable exceptions, the bishops as a whole are like American Catholics as a whole: they don't yet "get it." The bishops as a whole have yet to confront and address the fundamental, spiritual failings on their part that let the sex-abuse problem get out of hand; American Catholics as a whole have yet to confront and address the failings of theirs that have so gravely undermined the witness of the Church in this country. We do, after all, get the leadership we deserve. But just as it is too convenient for the bishops to focus attention and outrage on those under their authority who sexually abuse minors, so it's too convenient for American Catholics to focus attention and outrage on the failings of bishops and priests. When it comes to sin, the first finger we point must always be at ourselves. What we need is purification: of our faith itself, and of our personal practice of our faith.

We need to purify our faith because, among American Catholics as a whole, the theological virtue of faith is no longer fostered or even widely understood. Consider one important example.

If you're an active Catholic who is not a "progressive" Catholic, but who has belonged to a parish or institution not committed to maintaining orthodoxy, you have probably observed a phenomenon familiar to many of us. If you make a point of seeking fidelity to the Magisterium in such a setting, especially from clergy or vowed religious, you will find yourself labeled "divisive" and/or "intolerant." If you lack formal credentials in theology, you will also be labeled "ignorant"; if you have them, especially if they are impressive, you will merely be labeled "arrogant." In neither case will you be permitted to catechize. Of course none of this is to say that frank orthodoxy is actually verboten, though it occasionally is; most progs recognize that the cardinal virtue of tolerance requires recognizing that all of us, even the orthodox, have a right to our opinions. But in the nature of the case, such tolerance is—to adapt a phrase from Herbert Marcuse—"repressive tolerance."

That's because, in a Catholic setting, to regard fidelity to the Magisterium as just one tolerable option among others is to reject the very concept of fidelity to the Magisterium. To be Catholic means that one does not regard that which the Church teaches with her full authority as a matter of opinion. One regards it as that which God has revealed, and one so regards it on the authority of the Church, which one believes is the Mystical Body of Christ sharing in his authority as her Head. Understood as including without being limited to fidelity to the Magisterium, orthodoxy is therefore not opinion. It is necessary as a boundary condition for that assent of faith which, as such, carries with it the certainty that we are not deceived. This is not to rule out all theological opinions; those cannot be avoided, and some diversity thereof is healthy. It is not even to rule out all false theological opinions. What the assent of faith rules out is treating what the Church has taught with her full authority as itself a matter of opinion, as ideas which some might find useful but which could turn out to be false. It also rules out treating as irreducibly a matter of opinion the question what counts has having been taught with the full authority of the Church. When there is disagreement about that question, as inevitably happens in this or that case, it is ultimately for the Church herself to settle, either through the consensus fidelium over time and space or by a formal ruling from the Magisterium.

But that is exactly the stance which, in many quarters of the Church in America, is roundly rejected. Again, it is not always or even often rejected by formal denial. Many Catholic leaders are too prudent for that, if only because they don't want to jeopardize their platform and perks. But once orthodoxy is treated as mere opinion, it is effectively ruled out. It comes to be seen only as an irritating ideology that must be tolerated for the time being, but which cannot be allowed influence to match the authority on which it claims to be based. More or less quickly, a necessary condition for the assent of faith gets sidelined and silenced within what is, or ought to be, a community of faith. Heterodoxy then becomes the community's orthodoxy. At the extreme of such a process, this-or-that kind of orthodoxy opposed to Catholicism, often of the secular, left-wing variety, takes the place of mere heterodoxy.

Now it might be replied that this is only a problem in "progressive" settings and does not reflect on the American Church as a whole. There certainly are quarters of the Church in this country where the virtue of faith, and the orthodoxy on which it depends, are understood and fostered. But such a witness is severely undermined by the degree to which the bishops allow dissent to go unpunished. E.g., even personally orthodox bishops such as Egan of New York and Wuerl of DC refuse to withhold the Eucharist from Catholic politicians who openly defy Church teaching on points that the Pope himself has indicated are non-negotiable. Other personally orthodox bishops, such as Flynn of the Twin Cities or O'Malley of Boston, refuse to discipline heterodox theologians on the faculties of universities over which they have at least nominal authority. And then there's the fact, so widely known as to be rarely mentioned, that on the literally vital matter of contraception, lay Catholics are allowed to do exactly as they please—which in most cases involves rejecting the constant, irreformable teaching of the Church. Even Catholic media are caught up in the corresponding ambiguity: we have the National Catholic Register, yes, but we also have the National Catholic Reporter. Of course it is well-known, among those who give thought to such matters, that the Catholic Church in America is polarized. But what is not so well understood is that the very persistence of that polarization strengthens the heterodox sides of the spectrum. Once again, it gives out the impression that orthodoxy is optional: not merely for American Catholics as Americans—which is and ought to be unexceptionable—but as Catholics. That makes it impossible for the virtue of faith to be widely fostered and understood among rank-and-file Catholics.

For not only is it not obvious that orthodoxy is optional for Catholics as Catholics; it's downright false, and when it's believed, it's objectively incompatible with being Catholic. That's why it has often been observed, rightly, that American Catholics have come to think habitually like Protestants: the Church is one "denomination" among many; as a simple matter of conscience, one may pick and choose among her teachings; the only important things are to worship at the church of your choice and be a nice person. Such is the attitude that must be extirpated if we are to purify our faith. But it cannot be extirpated if constant, irreformable teachings of the Church are themselves treated as mere matters of opinion. Do the bishops have the courage to get us past that? Their record, at least as a body, is not encouraging.

The problem of optional orthodoxy is also important because, unless faith itself be purified, we cannot properly understand how to purify our practice of the faith.

Purgatory is a post-mortem process, for the already saved, of being "purged" of our sinfulness to as to be divinized as fully as God intends. We can avoid that if we complete our purification on earth by learning detachment from sin through suffering, both involuntary and voluntary. But that's a concept and a necessity which, for several reasons, we've largely lost sight of in the American Church. When thought of at all, purgatory is seen mostly as an eschatological escape valve for the lukewarm, an excuse for not answering the universal call to holiness. I still have a vivid childhood memory of the joy with which the men of my neighborhood started grilling hamburgers on Friday evenings when Pope Paul VI eased the traditional fasting rule. Ascesis across the board has pretty much gone south from there. I rarely even hear anymore about the old idea of "offering up" suffering joyfully as a way to participate in Christ's Passion and thus become more like him: holier. The idea and the reality are still very much out there, of course, especially among conservative younger priests and adult converts; but neither that form of ascesis or any other form plays a prominent role in collective Catholic life anymore. Aside from the relaxed fasting rules, which are unenforced and therefore effectively optional, ascesis is purely private and optional. That would be fine if clergy and vowed religious led the laity by preaching and example to greater ascesis all the same. But they don't, and nobody much cares.

Given that orthodoxy itself is effectively optional, it should come as no surprise that ascetic orthopraxis is too. But if everything is effectively optional (except smoking in church, which will get you ejected if not arrested), what becomes of collective witness? What we've become is a collection of individuals willy-nilly at variance with each other and often at variance, for good or ill, with our leaders. So much for being the Mystical Body "one in mind and heart" with her Head. So much for answering the universal call to holiness together.

The road to hell, as St. John Chrysostom once said, may well be "paved with the skulls of bishops." But we need to learn something about ourselves by viewing them. I think we can. As Barack Obama likes to say: "We can do this."

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Loving Lent: two stories

During the homily at Ash Wednesday Mass, I began thinking about why I love Lent and how I would explain that. I prayed that I might be given some light to cast for others that somebody somewhere hadn't already cast better. Of course I saw at once the silliness of such a prayer. Or so I thought. I was wrong again.

When I got home, I stumbled on a post from recent convert Jennifer F. of Et Tu? entitled "Why I Love Lent." I hadn't been looking for anything like that and can't remember how I came upon it. Of course it casts light. But it has also enabled me to cast still more by contrast, by chiaroscuro if you will. So first I shall present the second half of Jennifer's explanation, urge you to read the whole thing, and contrast it with my own.

She writes:

Christians used to ask in wonder about my life as an atheist, "Don't you feel like there's something missing?" To which I would respond by rolling my eyes. In my worldview, the only things humans could possibly need or want were the goals that our species had evolved to need and want, and as long as I had those things or felt certain that I could attain them (which I did), nothing could be missing from my life. I continued to pursue happiness from the possibilities given to me by the material world alone. At some point I came to the realization that the best the world has to offer was probably never going to be good enough; that achieving my wildest dreams , even my own personal version of a Super Bowl win, would make me happy to a certain extent...but not fully. It was a bitter realization.

This is why I love Lent.

For me, Lent is a reminder that what I once thought was the worst news in the world -- that there is nothing in the material universe that was going to bring me the deep happiness I craved -- is actually the best news in the world. To give up worldly pleasures during Lent, things that I once built my life around pursuing, is to put them in their proper place; to disentangle my hopes and dreams from things and fleeting accomplishments; to set my sights much higher.

Lent reminds me to have a healthy amount of awe for one of the greatest mysteries ever seen: that the human animal, who should know of nothing other than the material world at hand, has from the beginning held on to this perplexing notion that what he needs and wants cannot be found in the only world he's ever seen. Almost every culture throughout history, separated by time and space, has come up with this idea. I always wrote that off when I was an atheist, assuming that people just needed stories about fantasy worlds to make themselves feel better. But now that I have discovered God's existence, I get it. This idea won't die because the thirst we feel deep in our souls is real, and the material world offers us only saltwater to quench it. Looking outside the material world, finding God, is to finally find the pure water that fully satisfies the aching thirst.

Lent reminds me not that all the status and comforts and possessions I've pursued are necessarily bad, but that there is Something infinitely better. To quote C.S. Lewis: "All that we call human history -- money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery -- [is] the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy."

Jennifer's commenters were duly impressed, as am I. Would that more people came at things as she does. But I am also struck by the contrast of her perspective with my own. I think it might help some readers to explain that.

I have never been an atheist. There was a time in my adolescence, when I had been sexually abused and was living alone, when I was tempted to be an atheist. But I never supposed that I could find fulfillment or joy without God. For me, the temptation to atheism was of a piece with being depressed, and hence with the temptation to despair and suicide. I concluded that if there were no God, there would be no reason for me to persevere with life; it just didn't seem worth the trouble aplenty. But I did not succumb to that temptation because, on reflection, it made no sense to me. The world seemed too complex, too fraught with beauty as well as tragedy, be just brute fact with no meaning beyond itself. Reading Lewis, Tolkien, and the like began to stimulate my imagination about the real meaning even as religion classes had not. The rest is a history I've briefly recounted in my post Why I'm a Natural Theologian.

Being a natural theologian became for me the intellectual expression of a broader personal tendency. Ever since I confronted and got past my adolescent crisis of meaning, I've always wanted to spend my time on people, places, and activities that are explicit foci of spiritual meaning: the more explicit, the better. I go for the heavy stuff, even when it's served up in jest or by people who aren't good advertisements for it. I find the lightness of secular being unbearable. And so I've never been interested in any secular career. Even if I could feign interest convincingly enough to launch such a career, I wouldn't be able to do so long enough to succeed at one. That's meant, among other things, that I'm usually broke. And that in turn has been a great disappointment to some important people in my life, who believe that a real man is supposed to bring home as much bacon as he can, regardless of how he feels about the means by which he does so. Admittedly, some men are (or seem) able to do that. Some of them do it with a bit too much booze, of course; but nobody much cares unless the anodynes start cutting into the bottom line. Yet I can't be such a man—even though my life might have been a lot easier if I could, as my father and my more successful friends have not hesitated to inform me. Given as much, I've never suffered the temptation, faced by many believers as well as atheists, to find fulfillment in the material world. Of course I enjoy money, sex, and other temporal pleasures—but not so much that I want to immerse myself in other temporal pursuits so as to acquire a lot of them. You can't be tempted to do something that you know would bore you almost literally to death.

But I'm not suited for the priesthood or religious life either. Decades ago, when I was free to explore such things, my own and others' sexuality made the exploration rather hypocritical. Now that my own and others' sexuality present no such obstacle, the obligations I've incurred by my youthful choices make the exploration impossible.

So here's the deal: I'm a problem that I can't quite solve. I am unsuited for success in either a secular or a religious profession; but neither is there is any excuse for a man of my gifts to give up and rot away in the sort of dead-end job I have now. That's why I do not give up on the goal of returning to Catholic academia someday. But that's also why I love Lent as much as Jennifer does.

For me, Lent is an opportunity to deny that intractable, problematic self of mine which gets so tiresome. Or, to put it more precisely, Lent calls for me to empty myself so as to make room for God. Of course I cannot erase who and what I am. But I can let go of it to a degree and turn it over to Christ: by the prayer of listening and of praise, by fasting sometimes from small pleasures and vices, by giving more of myself to obligations and people that I find as tiresome as I sometimes find myself. The more I let go of and get out of myself, the more room God has to work. More than doing the work of God—which is not always what it seems—I can allow myself the inestimable luxury of being the work of God. I love Lent because its requirements won't let me forget that.

Thank you, Holy Spirit, for sending me Jennifer's post to help me explain on my own account what she so well explained on hers.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Super Tuesday thoughts

It is for good reason that I keep my posts about American politics, especially presidential politics, rather few and far between. Much like my theology, my political views tend to offend partisans on each main side equally. And since, in today's polarized environment, odium politicum gets much nastier than odium theologicum, I see little to gain by stirring up the former against myself. But after talking about the Super Bowl, I can't restrain myself from talking about the more serious "super" competition. Catholic social teaching is clear about the duties of citizenship, and I can best exercise mine by trying to get people thinking about politics from the standpoint I believe to be the most important.

First, the newsy part. On the Democratic side, the choice has come down to a woman and an African-American. Unless one is a racist or an old-fashioned sexist—as opposed to a new-fangled sexist who, like NOW, really wants more rights and privileges for women than for men—one has to see that as good news for the country. Last night's results have kept Clinton and Obama locked in a close race that could remain undecided all the way to the convention. That is also good for the country: it means that everybody who wants to have a say is more likely to have one than they would otherwise be. On the Republican side, things also remain far from decided, even though the pundits are already anointing John McCain, once broke and supine, as the presumptive nominee. As a "social conservative," I myself came out gingerly for Huckabee a few months ago; but despite his gamey performance last night, he now looks most unlikely to get the nomination. It's pretty much McCain vs. Romney, with the true-red conservatives favoring the latter and everybody else the former.

Now let me make clear that I am not a registered member of either major party. I am not a registered Republican because, even though my social conservatism often disposes me better to Republicans than to Democrats, I don't think the party as a whole deserves my allegiance or that of any rank-and-file voter. It harbors too much corruption and shows too little philosophical coherence. The only common denominator I see in the GOP is a tendency to favor wealth and power: the affluent at home, and throwing US weight around abroad. While that doesn't always produce policies I disagree with, I am unimpressed on the whole. And yet, like many Catholics, I cannot vote for any candidate who supports the Roe regime. For that reason and others, I cannot be a Democrat. While the Democrats are less taken with wealth and power than the Republicans, what I see in that party is a set of tendencies that would make sense only for a polity with a collective death-wish. Whatever some individuals within the party may profess, the Dems as a whole favor abortion and "gay rights" at home, and retreat in face of our enemies abroad. One might sum up the choice presented to Americans by the two major parties as that between Daddy without Mommy and Mommy without Daddy. It's like being forced to choose between one's divorced parents.

And that's what brings me to my main point. I make my voting decisions mainly as a "social conservative" because I believe the most important set of issues for this country's future are those concerning the integrity of the nuclear family: marriage, divorce, and abortion. That's the spiritual message I get from, among other things, our choice between the Mommy Party and the Daddy Party. But aside from Huckabee, none of the major-party candidates talk about such issues. I find that dispiriting. It is possible for reasonable people, even reasonable and orthodox Catholics, to disagree about the issues most often discussed, such as the war, the economy, immigration, and the best way to deliver health care to more Americans. And I don't deny that such standard issues are worth debating. I even agree with the Democrats that a certain level of health care for every American ought to be accounted as a right, not as a commodity, and paid for accordingly by the people as a whole. The health-care mess we have now—with its inequities and runaway costs—is just unconscionable. But the basis of civil society is the family, and the family in America today is in even bigger trouble than the health-care system. It is not possible for reasonable people to disagree that the American family needs to be strengthened.

Yet, despite a marginal increase in pro-life sentiment, especially among the young, there are still over one million abortions a year. Among women who choose not to kill their children in the womb, more and more choose to bear them while unmarried, which is a good predictor of poverty and crime. The divorce rate remains among the highest in the world, which has led to a vast expansion of the power of the state over the family and its individual members. Millions of men in particular get the shaft in our family-destruction courts: divorced against their will, they pay stiff support, on pain of debtor's prison, for children they either never get to see or relate to only within the confines of legally sanctioned "visitation." A huge industry, much of it funded as well as sanctioned by government, has grown up around that. And men have no "reproductive rights," only duties: if their wives want to abort, men have no legal say even if they want the child and can pay for the child; if their girlfriends get pregnant and choose to bear the child, men must pay accordingly, for 18 years, even if they don't want the child. Regarding the nature of marriage itself, the pressure for "civil unions" continues to grow and bear fruit, one state at a time, thus reinforcing a decades-old tendency to sever marriage and sexuality generally from procreation. Through media and the fashion industry, children are sexualized at ever-younger ages. Next to photos of mangled fetuses, that's the most visibly disgusting aspect of the decline of the American family.

If such trends continue indefinitely, this country will kill itself at the very root. The demographic collapse of Western Europe is only a harbinger of things to come here. Perhaps few politicians—other than clergymen such as Huckabee—talk about all that because things are pretty much the way "the people" want them to be. That's certainly the best explanation for the status quo I can come up with. If it's correct, then what this country needs is a leader to wake people up and lead on that set of issues. So far, though, what we're most likely to get is a follower.

I don't know whom I'll write in when November rolls around.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Super Bowl XLII: superstition or apologetics?

As a New Yorker by upbringing, one who wishes he could still afford to live there, I only get interested in pro football when the Giants make the playoffs. As a wild-card team this year, they made the most thrilling run through the playoffs in NFL history, culminating in their improbable 17-14 victory over the hitherto-invincible Patriots last Sunday. For me, that's made an otherwise tough winter bearable. But as one who is usually more interested in the theological significance of temporal things than in the things themselves, I can't help asking about the role of divine providence in the key offensive play that effectively won them the game: David Tyree's crucial pass catch with less than two minutes left.

You can watch the play here:

Now if you don't know the personal background, that play seems like nothing more than an outstanding play. Quarterback Eli Manning slipped what was shaping up as a clear sack and threw right down the middle of the field to a receiver who was well covered by more than one defender. Tyree leapt over the closest defender, snared the ball away from him, and secured it against his own helmet as he fell. The resulting first down in Patriots' territory is what set up the winning touchdown pass. So, Tyree's catch was the key play of a remarkable game. But is that all it was?

Consider that Tyree had caught very few passes all year and that his mother had recently died. Indeed, one teammate of his marvelled at the improbability of such a catch by a player who "had been dropping passes" all day Friday in practice. Now consider this:

Over the past six weeks, Tyree had experienced a near-univeral emotional low and a high that few will ever know. Until Sunday, Tyree was most often described in the New York papers as "a special teams standout." In the Super Bowl, he was Eli Manning's most important target, having not only made the crucial third down catch that gave the Giants an opportunity to score on that last drive, but also having scored a touchdown earlier in the quarter to put the Giants ahead. Just before Christmas, he missed a crucial game on December 16 against the Washington Redskins because his mother died.

Moments after he watched his son accept the Vince Lombardi Trophy as Super Bowl Champions and the individual honor of Super Bowl MVP, Archie Manning took a back elevator from a luxury suite to the locker room with his wife and eldest son, Cooper. The former NFL standout told his wife that he saw divine intervention in Tyree's remarkable reception. "I think his mother was looking out for him today," Manning said. She nodded her head in agreement.

It's easy to dismiss that sort of observation as superstitious, post-game hyperbole. That's pretty much always been my take on bringing God into sports to explain victories and defeats. And why not? We ought to hesitate to believe that God is on our side even in wartime, if that belief means he's not very much on the side of every human being, including our enemies. We should be all the more hesitant when it comes to sports—which, unlike real war, is basically entertainment.

But sports are not just entertainment. For nothing on earth, no matter how apparently trivial, is "just" what it appears to be. Everything good is both the product of divine creativity and a medium of his divinizing presence to us. Even evils are often occasions of grace: that's what follows from the Crucifixion, and that's what the Patriots and their fans would do well to remember. No human is invincible, and humility is a virtue. But as a Catholic, I can't help agreeing with Archie Manning, who isn't Catholic and might not even have subscribed hitherto to the dogma of the communion of saints. God himself might not care much about the scores, the ratings, and the salaries, but on occasion he does allow things that constitute special aids to faith even in the midst of such worldliness. In this case, David Tyree was the medium and Eli Manning the instrument.

For that, I congratulate them and their teammates more than for the play itself.

Monday, February 04, 2008

The world's (comedy) mission to the church

Once upon a time, it was fun to skewer liberal Christianity. In the 1930's, Reinhold Niebuhr famously observed that liberal Protestantism preached "a God without wrath who brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross." More recently, in one of my favorite lines, somebody whose name I cannot track down said that liberal Christians (among whom we should count Catholic progs) would rather be the world's missionaries to the Church than the Church's missionaries to the world. Witticisms like that were once widely understood, even appreciated, by those with a bit of perspective. They can and should be appreciated by people with a concern for objective truth about matters of universal human concern. You can still find people like that in the interstices of ordinary life as well as in conservative religious settings. A few even read this blog. But that's a blessed minority—even and especially in secular academia. The spiritual devolution of our society has proceeded so far that your typical student, even your typical professor, wouldn't get such witticisms. They're too far gone to appreciate the irony; instead, they provide the comedy themselves. The fun now is to watch them skewer themselves unwittingly. My purpose in this post is to explain both the fact and its importance.

In an "Opinion" column that appeared in last weekend's USA Today, Stephen Prothero, chairman of Boston University's religion department, worries that "religion", meaning traditional religion, "is losing the Millennial Generation." Why? Read on (I've added the boldface emphasis):

For the past two years, I have asked students in my introductory religion courses at Boston University to get together in groups and invent their own religions. They present their religious creations to their classmates, and then everyone votes (with fake money in a makeshift offering plate) for the new religions they like best. This assignment encourages students to reflect on what separates "winners" and "losers" in America's freewheeling spiritual marketplace. It also yields intriguing data regarding what sort of religious beliefs and practices young people love and hate.

The new religious concoctions my students stir up might seem to mirror the diversity of American religion itself. Students tantalize one another with a religion (Dessertism) that preaches the stomach as the way to the soul, another (The Congregation of Wisdom) that honors Jeopardy! phenom Ken Jennings as its patron saint, and yet another (Exetazo) dedicated to sorting out the pluses and minuses of all the other religions so you can find a faith tailored to your own unique personality.

What strikes me most about my students' religions, however, is how similar they are. Almost invariably, they mix fun with faith. (Facebookismianity anyone?) But they do not mix faith with dogma. My students are careful — exceedingly careful — not to tell one another what to believe, or even what to do. Above all, they want to be tolerant and non-judgmental. Most of the religions my students developed were fully compatible with other religions.

They made few demands, either intellectually or morally. Repeatedly, their founders stress that you can join their religion without leaving Catholicism or Judaism or Islam behind.

I doubt that the results of such a classroom assignment would surprise anybody. If they do surprise, they shouldn't. Yet they're worth noting: one might well say that such students are skewering themselves, all the more because they wouldn't recognize the fact. Admittedly, and even granted that they are, their attitude presents traditional religions with a problem. But the surprising thing is that Prothero, a man of the sort from whom one might expect at least a tad of spiritual gravitas, actually thinks the problem is with traditional religions rather than the students.

He makes quite clear his belief that traditional religions are endangering themselves by failing to accommodate such flaccid, frivolous relativism. Thus, if they don't want to lose the Millennial Generation (portentous-sounding, that), their approach had better be more to the tastes of said generation. Now for one thing, such an attitude betrays the sort of blindness that entails a complete loss of the sense of irony. Prothero, of all people, ought to know that the religions which are growing today are precisely those which make the greatest demands on the credence and practice of their adherents. Protestant denominations on the conservative side of the spectrum—especially the more conservative pentecostal churches—are growing at the expense of the mainstream denominations, which latter are precisely those which have made the greatest accommodations to contemporary, secular values. Both Catholicism and Orthodoxy gain more and more adult converts each year, and many of those converts are from liberal Protestant denominations. Orthodox Judaism waxes while more liberal strains of Judaism wane. The Mormon Church, with all its dogmas and "family values," is the fastest-growing church in America. And then there's the growing, global influence of the most traditional strains of Islam. Such facts simply cannot escape the knowledge of any professor of religious studies in a secular institution. But somehow Prothero sees fit to ignore them, at least for purposes of his little propaganda piece. Instead, he implies that the more "traditional" religions, if they want to survive and thrive, had better become more "tolerant" and inclusive. In other words, if they want to reach the young they had better become more like the Episcopal and Unitarian churches, which have been losing members for a long time now. Right.

It gets worse. Prothero not only knows, but clearly evinces that he knows, what the real problem is. He begins his article by citing, if not altogether appreciating, the Niebuhrian witticism with which I began this post. Later on, he quotes a student thus:

One of my students, Carrie-Anne Solana, told me that the religions her colleagues presented in class amounted to nothing more than "organized atheism." "They took normal human impulses," such as eating, drinking, sleeping, having sex and socializing, she said, "and justified them under the title of religion while not offering any form of explanation into why we are here, where we came from or where we go when we die."

Of course Carrie-Anne has it exactly right. She recognizes the basic frivolity and irreligiousness of what her fellow students were proposing. One might think that the task of leaders in more traditional religions would accordingly be to help students get more serious about the basic questions of life and actually "get religion" in response to such concern. But here's Prothero's reaction:

Even so, I can't help but think that priests, rabbis, imams and ministers would do well to engage in interfaith dialogue not only with one another but also with this "spiritual but not religious" generation. One of the biggest challenges to any ancient faith is to adapt to modern circumstances and then, as circumstances change, to adapt again. American religious institutions are, as a rule, doing a poor job of listening to and learning from this millennial generation. Far too often, religious services in the USA are of the adults, by the adults and for the adults. And don't think young people aren't noticing.

Perhaps Prothero hasn't taken note of what happens in megachurch services using praise bands or, for that matter, in your typical Catholic "youth Mass." (If he did take note of such services, he might not be so hard on the "adult" stuff.) But once again, I'm sure he knows all about such facts. He just prefers to ignore what he knows in favor of what he wants—or says he wants.

The disconnect here between reality and prescription is so great as to afford grist for the mill of those of us given to cynical, ironic humor. Like his students, Prothero is skewering himself so effectively that all the comedian needs to do, at least for those close to Prothero's level of education, is present the facts. Which is just as well, since no comedian's talent can come up with as good a parody as that which Prothero and his students unwittingly provide all by themselves. A consequent irony is that the world's missionaries to the church, such as Prothero, end up preaching only to their own choir, thus undermining what they profess to be their main purpose. Worldliness in the guise of spirituality makes otherwise intelligent people stupid. And that should be a great source of comfort for those who keep the flame of genuine divine revelation alive.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

The attitude of beatitude

Welcome back, dear readers. After Christmas I worked sick and tired for weeks, both at my main, paid job and at the unpaid job of looking for a better job. But I've never been sick and tired of this blog. Quite the contrary, given the generosity you showed me during Advent, I've felt guilty for neglecting what is currently my ministry and a bit too ashamed to admit it. Which brings me to today's topic.

The Gospel reading for the ordinary form of the Roman Rite was Matthew's version of the Beatitudes. The homilist at Belmont Abbey today, Fr. Christopher Kirchgessner, sounded a theme that anybody who's ever been afflicted with "Catholic guilt" can duly appreciate. "In all honesty," he said, "it is impossible for us" to live out the Beatitudes consistently, or even most of the time. Everybody knows that deep down, but it must be said anyhow because not all Christians are willing to admit it. Many Catholics still seem to believe, even if they don't say out loud, that admitting as much would be tantamount to giving people license to sin. Since that would be unacceptable, they embrace moralism as the way to forestall antinomianism. To be sure, they know that moralism is not enough either. They retain enough spiritual wisdom, indeed orthodoxy, to profess that divine grace is also necessary. Thus they suppose that something called "sanctifying grace," thought of as a kind of divine fuel always on tap at the sacraments, ready to be pumped into the soul, is there to propel us reliably toward the goal of becoming "good enough" to merit heaven. We can check our progress by honestly admitting how many "mortal sins" we commit, how many vices we retain, and by measuring just how mortal and how vicious those things are. Our degree of holiness varies inversely with the product of the relevant quantities of evil. On this picture, the best hope for most of us is to squeak into purgatory if we and others pray and work hard enough to have kept the level of evil below a certain threshold when we die.

Such is the operative spirituality that produces "Catholic guilt." The thing is very much with us, even in the writings of otherwise sound theologians. In an article with whose main thesis I heartily agree, for example, Cardinal Avery Dulles remarks: "Catholics can be saved if they believe the Word of God as taught by the Church and if they obey the commandments." Hmmm. This is from a man who is not only a prince of the Church but a theologian very much involved in the Lutheran-Catholic dialogue that produced the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. Now I'm sure there is a way to interpret said remark so that it comes out consistent with the Gospel. I don't think it would be right to accuse a man like Dulles, to whose work I owe much, of heresy. But what is the ordinary Catholic, be they lay or clerical, likely to hear in such a remark, which sums up the import of too much Catholic preaching and catechesis even today, even in "progressive" circles that focus on social sin rather than personal sin? They are likely to hear that we're supposed to be, or become, "good enough" to get into heaven and have been given all we need for just that. That's what they've heard all their lives, even when it was not exactly what their teachers meant to say. It raises Protestant hackles—and rightly so. For sooner or later we come to realize, if we're humble enough to be honest, that we will never be "good enough." People who realize that before they're equipped to deal with it often lapse from the practice of the Faith, or even from the Faith itself. It's hard to blame them for refusing to dwell in toxic guilt, especially when nobody has presented them with a healthier model of the spiritual life. Others never admit their human incapacity openly enough to avoid beating themselves up all their lives—or if they do admit the incapacity, can't permit themselves any excuse for it because every possible excuse seems hollow. Every adult, practicing Catholic knows at least one Catholic like that. I know many; for a long time, I was one of them. What is to be done?

One approach is, in effect, Martin Luther's: stop imagining that anything you can do can make you right with God. Respond to the Gospel simply by accepting God's unconditional love. When you sin, pecca fortiter; just remember to repent by throwing yourself on divine mercy, in faith alone. That is the attitude of many Protestants, especially those who today call themselves "evangelicals." It is why they not only admit they will never be "good enough" but aren't much bothered by the fact. They tend to see themselves as righteous only by imputation, in faith. Not only do they not see themselves as having "earned" salvation; they don't even see themselves as being transformed by it. Such is certainly one way, indeed a centuries-old way, to avoid scrupulosity and Catholic guilt. That's how Luther did it. And it makes a certain sort of sense. If you don't think it's either possible or desirable to seek inner transformation, to cooperate in a process of being remade in Christ and thus divinized, then you won't feel bad about failing to do so.

Yet one of the reasons I could never be Protestant is that such an attitude, though not wholly wrong, is not wholly right either. The Great Tradition of both Catholicism and Orthodoxy, from which the Reformation mostly departed to its detriment, indicates that we are made righteous not only by imputation but also by transformation. That occurs for those Christians who, having reached the age of reason, choose to cooperate with what the Scholastics called "prevenient" grace: the divine activity we need in our souls order to accept all other divine gifts. And that's because the baptismal vocation, the very goal of the Christian life, is to become "partakers of the divine nature." Divinization is not something that just gets zapped into us after we die, if we happen to have chosen to "believe" before we die. It begins with baptism and, if we would have it so, continues in the here and now. We don't deserve such a gift; we can do nothing to bestow it on ourselves; to that extent, Luther was right. But for those of us who can choose anything at all for ourselves, it doesn't bear fruit without our cooperation. To that extent, Trent was right—and was consistent with what was right in Luther.

The best way to think of the process is to compare it with a successful marriage. It is often said, rightly, that marriage is not a 50-50 but a 100-100 proposition. Couples in which both parties put their all into the marriage are sanctified by their marriages. The same goes for the roles of divine grace and human will in the ongoing process of salvation. The work of salvation is wholly God's; but it is also wholly ours, to the extent we let ourselves be empowered to contribute to it. Given that Christ is the Bridegroom of the Church, which is us, that could hardly be otherwise. To the extent we recognize and accept that, we will be enabled to have the attitude of beatitude. That doesn't mean we will always give our all or that the process will ever be complete in this life. Even the saints are wretched sinners. It means that God always gives us the chance, and the power, to resume going in the right direction. His mercy is what takes us the rest of the way.