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

Thursday, August 28, 2008

My new blogging venue

If all goes as planned and prayed, this will be my last post at this blog. I have launched a new blog at Wordpress called Philosophia Perennis. I shall be posting there from now on.

The new blog-in-the-making is a group blog with Catholic philosophers as the authors. Several of my friends, erstwhile colleagues, and would-be colleagues have already agreed to come on board and contribute. But as the idea for this blog originated with me, the chief responsibility for administering it has fallen to me.

I'm making the shift for three reasons. First, I don't have time to post here as often as I'd like to, and doing a group blog with like-minded friends and colleagues would enable me to intersperse the posts I can manage with those of others I trust. Second, the new blog will in due course expose my readers to a wider array of talent and personality than just my own. Finally, the focus of the new blog is likely to be more academic and less personal than this blog's, and that's exactly what I need for the sake of facilitating my eventual return to academia.

I thought it peculiarly appropriate to launch the new blog on the liturgical feast day of St. Augustine, who was a philosopher before he became a Catholic. Once he underwent his conversion, a process so eloquently documented in that classic of Western literature known as his Confessions, Augustine adopted a different set of priorities for his thought. He became a Catholic first, a theologian second, and a philosopher—well, he gradually abandoned philosophical inquiry for its own sake. He prayed, he preached, he meditated, he theologized; but philosophizing for its own sake, he came to suspect, was something only pagans did.

Some philosophers think that meant he ceased to be a philosopher; some believers think he didn't leave philosophy nearly far enough behind. On my own account as a Catholic, I'd say that I do philosophy for the sake of understanding myself, the world, even God better than I would if I didn't do philosophy. I know by long experience that studying philosophy in depth, and constructing serious philosophical arguments which do not require any divinely revealed truth as premises, is an excellent discipline even for committed believers.

That good philosophy is intrinsically valuable remains so even for those of us who believe that, in the final analysis, our response to divine revelation and grace, as manifest in how we are thereby transformed as persons, is far more important than philosophy as an academic discipline. Divine revelation is for everybody, after all—as is philosophy in the original sense of the Greek term, which means "love of wisdom." Everybody who comes to love God and neighbor comes to love wisdom too. But philosophizing in a systematic way is for the (relatively) few. I think most of my contributors at the new blog would agree with that. Of course they would have qualifications to add, and probably wouldn't say it the way I have, but that's a philosopher for you. We wouldn't have it any other way.

It's been a great three-year run, and I am grateful to all of you for making this blog as useful and interesting as it's been. See you all over there. Thanks especially to Jesus Christ, my Alpha and Omega, for heeding his Mother's intercession on my behalf.

Thomas More strikes again

The following is the main body of a press released e-mailed to me yesterday:

(Merrimack, New Hampshire)— The Thomas More College of Liberal Arts and Sophia Institute Press entered into a collaborative partnership last week that establishes the Press as the publishing division of the College.

This collaboration will immediately return to print over 50 works from Sophia Institute Press that are currently out-of-print, including How to Get More out of Holy Communion and Bishop Fulton J. Sheen’s God’s World and Our Place in It. With the help of the College, Sophia Institute Press will strengthen its marketing department, and extend its reach into bookstores, institutions, homeschool groups, parishes, and other Catholic markets.

Dr. Jeffrey O. Nelson, president of Thomas More College, has also become Chairman of the Sophia Institute and its internationally recognized press. Dr. John Barger, founder of Sophia Institute Press, will continue his work as publisher.

“Upon taking the helm as president of Thomas More College two years ago, I laid plans to establish a publishing program that further advances the College’s mission of evangelizing the culture by promoting the Catholic intellectual tradition. I have always admired the work of Sophia Institute Press, and had hoped to establish a Press that mirrored Sophia’s substantial work,” said Nelson. “All of us at Thomas More College are excited to have the opportunity to form a relationship with Sophia that reduces repetition and enables Thomas More College and the Institute to more fully realize their missions of serving both the Church and society.”

Barger is equally enthusiastic about this endeavor.

“We at Sophia Institute Press are excited to be closely associated with an orthodox Catholic college like Thomas More. I am delighted that Sophia’s 25-year tradition of publishing great Catholic spiritual works will continue well into the future as the publishing imprint of Thomas More College. I have full confidence in Jeff Nelson’s leadership and look forward to working closely with him for years to come,” stated Barger.

The Thomas More College of Liberal Arts is a four-year college that provides the rising generation with an education that forms them intellectually and spiritually within the Catholic intellectual tradition and with full fidelity to the Magisterium. Additionally, the College has launched entrepreneurial new centers that seek to advance the teachings of the Catholic Church beyond the confines of its campus. These centers include the Vatican Studies Center, the Center for New England Politics and Culture, the Caroline Gordon Program, and the Center for Faith and Culture in Oxford, England.

Sophia Institute Press was established to nurture the spiritual, moral, and cultural life of souls and to spread the Gospel of Christ in conformity with the teachings of the Magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church. Having published more than 200 titles over the past 25 years, including works by Catholic saints, scholars, novelists, biographers, and others, Sophia Institute Press has sold nearly 2.5 million books worldwide to hundreds of thousands of individuals, bookstores, and institutions. In a letter to Barger, the late Mother Teresa of Calcutta said, “I am convinced of the good your books can do in helping people grow closer to God.”

I love TMC and what they're doing. It's getting to be quite a place.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Philosophy bites...not

I've stumbled across a rather interesting and definitely useful site: Philosophy Bites. Unlike the occurrence of the word 'bites' in this post's title, which functions as a slang verb, the word's occurrence in that site's title functions as a slang noun. The QuickTime audio "bites" are clear, responsible, easily digestible introductions to how contemporary, English-speaking philosophers, in dialogue with the humble but well-educated hosts, approach the range of perennial issues in the discipline.

Most readers of this blog will not, of course, agree with a lot of the philosophers recorded at PB. I sure don't. For that matter, literate people in general would not agree either with or about a lot of the philosophers recorded at PB. That's good: if things were otherwise, we wouldn't be dealing with philosophy. But one bite that I particularly like is on free will.

Its main speaker is Dr. Thomas Pink, Reader in Philosophy at King's College, London. He's an active, committed, orthodox Catholic. And in good philosophical fashion, what he says about free will is perfectly compatible with Catholicism without ever relying on it for premises. To me as a Catholic, that's precisely the sort of thing that makes philosophy useful. Getting things right philosophically is what enables intelligent Catholics to communicate with intelligent people in the secular world about God and man without appeals that would, in the view of such people, just beg questions.

Rebutting the Pelosi anti-catechism

The Speaker of the House apparently has her own account of Catholic teaching on the subject of abortion. At least she is to be credited for tackling the philosophical and theological issues instead of dodging them like St. Barack, who professed it was "above my pay grade." She is to be credited for courage because she knew the rebuttals would come, in spades.

Kathleen Parker, one of my favorite columnists, offers a biting summary of the best rebuttals. Read it, enjoy it, follow it up. I've addressed the history of abortion teaching in my Development and Negation treatise thus:

"In the case of abortion, for example, the Church’s teaching has developed toward greater strictness and gravity. Somehow that seems objectionable to many people who nonetheless have no problem with greater moral strictness about warfare, capital punishment, and domestic violence now than in the past; but I shall leave that fact aside as one of more psychological and political than theological interest. To be sure, the Church has always considered abortion immoral; and many early Christian writers condemned it as murder (see, e.g., Didache 2:2 and this list). But that injunction appears to have applied only to women who are unmistakably pregnant, either by their appearance or by the detection of quickening. It was not clear on that account that procuring abortion at any stage of gestation is a form of homicide, which is what the Church teaches now.

St. Thomas Aquinas, for example, held that the process of conception required forty days for boys and eighty for girls before the conceptus was ready for the infusion of the rational soul (Commentary on the Fourth Book of Sentences, d. 31 exp. text.). And that was the common view through the eighteenth century. Abortion prior to said infusion was not held by the Church to be the killing of a human person; it was condemned only as a particularly nasty form of contraception. What changed that, of course, was the development of the modern disciplines of obstetrics, gynecology, and above all genetics.

As soon as it became clear to the Church that even the blastocyst, under normal conditions, was a genetically unique individual member of homo sapiens—twinning being a separate, still controversial case—Pope Pius IX included abortion at any stage of gestation as a form of homicide in his renewed list of offenses incurring excommunication (Apostolicae Sedis [1869]). And so the teaching and discipline remain today. The reasonable-enough assumption has been that whatever is a genetically unique individual member of the species is a human person, not just part of a person such as an organ or a gamete. Disputes about the time or process of ensoulment thus recede into obsolescence. A good defense of that development, for which pro-lifers of varying or no religious affiliation are rightly fond of citing natural science, may be found in Robert George and Patrick Lee, Acorns and Embryos. Granted that science just by itself has nothing to say about moral norms, its considerable relevance to this question is the chief basis for claiming that opposition to legal abortion needs no specifically religious premises. That of course is politically very important.

The change here, then, has not been in the precept that abortion is gravely immoral but in the explanation why: due to the advance of science, the Church now condemns all, or almost all, abortion as murder, not merely abortion after a certain stage of gestation. What’s changed is the understanding of the empirical conditions under which the Fifth Commandment is applicable."

Of course there's always the CCC itself for those who, unlike the "ardently Catholic" Speaker, actually believe it.

The case of Brother Roger

Long ago, St. Augustine remarked: “There are some whom God has, whom the Church has not. And there are some whom the Church has, whom God has not…When we speak of within and without in relation to the Church, it is the position of the heart that we must consider, not that of the body . . . All who are within the heart are saved in the unity of the ark” (On Baptism 5). For reasons doubtless known more to the Holy Spirit than to me, I've been thinking a lot lately about that anomaly in the economy of salvation. It just is true that some non-Catholics are in fuller communion with the Catholic Church than some Catholics. That fact calls for theological explanation which not everybody can appreciate—and that fact in turn that is troubling enough, at least to me. But my friend Dr. Phil Blosser has brought to my attention a particular ecclesiological anomaly whose official explanation is even more troubling than the anomaly itself.

Calvinist pastor Roger Schutz, the de facto leader of Taizé who was murdered in 2005 by a deranged woman at a public ecumenical service, had previously been given the Eucharist by then-Cardinal Ratzinger and by Cardinal Kasper, who now serves as President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. At long last, Kasper has explained that anomaly. Here's the gist of the explanation:

He denies that Fr. Schutz "formally" adhered to the Catholic Church. And much less did he abandon the Protestantism into which he was born. He affirms, instead, that he gradually "enriched" his faith with the pillars of the Catholic faith, particularly the role of Mary in salvation history, the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and the "the ministry of unity exercised by the bishop of Rome." In response to this, the Catholic Church allowed him to receive Eucharistic communion. According to Kasper, it is as if there had been an unwritten agreement between Schutz and the Church of Rome, "crossing certain confessional" and canonical limits.

That greatly puzzles me, Phil, and other orthodox Catholics who know and care about such things. If Brother Roger, without evincing any intention of becoming formally Catholic, could receive the Eucharist, then why not traditional Anglican clergy? Why not anybody who believes certain distinctively Catholic doctrines but who, for whatever reason, sees fit to remain formally non-Catholic? What happens to the RCIA? In what sense, beyond the merely empirical, does it remain a norm to reserve the Eucharist for those who are in full communion with the Church?

Since I often disagree with Cardinal Kasper, and certainly don't find him as good a theologian as the countryman of his who occupies the Chair of Peter, I'm not really interested in hearing his answers to such questions. I'm interested in hearing the Pope's. As Ratzinger he was, after all, directly implicated in the case of Brother Roger. Will we hear from the Pope about this? I don't know. Perhaps the answers are already latent in the Church's norms, and I just haven't thought hard enough to make them patent. But right now I can't think quite hard enough to manage that.

Can anybody offer something that isn't just a way of restating the problem?

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Communion by degree

Everybody knows—OK, almost everybody who reads this blog—that the American bishops lack a unitary policy about giving the Eucharist to Catholics who reject and/or disobey the definitive teaching of the Church. For even better-known reasons, that fact always comes to the fore in a general election. Now that Senator Joe Biden, a Catholic who is as pro-abortion-rights as he is anti-men's-rights, has "ascended to Barack Obama's right hand," the issue has resurfaced. As always, John Allen has instructive things to say. But the recurrence of this familiar issue in the news cycle has prompted me to connect it with another, broader one that tends to interest readers of this blog even more.

Like so many other such issues, the one I have in mind is ecclesiological: just what does being "in communion" with the Catholic Church consist in? What are the necessary and sufficient conditions? How and when are they met? And how, short of juridical excommunication, does a Catholic get herself out of communion with the Church? I once thought that debating such questions was just an arcane theological exercise, the sort that occupies people who don't have to worry about mere temporalities such as earning a living or changing diapers. But in fact it is anything but. The questions that arise here affect us all on the personal, pastoral, and political levels, which are intertwined in many ways. The issue is also very much an apologetical one. Since I can't do everything in one post, I shall focus on the issue mainly from that angle.

One thing that I've consistently observed since Vatican II is that many people, Catholics as much as non-Catholics, have the impression the Church's teaching on membership in the Church is, or rather has become, incoherent. It is widely believed that the Church once taught that you had to be what we'd now call a "card-carrying Catholic" to be saved—and even for those people, the prospects were pretty dicey. Being such a Catholic entailed being "in communion with" the Church of Rome. But having been exposed to Vatican II and ecumenism, many people now believe that the Church no longer teaches that. The general impression seems to be that the Church now teaches that you can squeak into heaven, perhaps by way of purgatory, just by avoiding the grossest and blackest forms of wickedness and being vaguely contrite, in the end, about one's preferred forms of wickedness—or at least about those which one has managed to recognize as such. From this point of view it hardly matters what religion you profess, or even whether you profess any at all.

Of course the above is a caricature I've devised for expository clarity. But it is not a terribly unfair caricature of how many people see these things. It is actually a reasonable summation of what I've been hearing for decades. And how such people see these things is not only wrong but terribly unfair to the Catholic Church, whose teaching on this subject is profound, nuanced, and still developing. Explaining why will help illustrate what being "in communion" with, and thus a member of, the Church actually means—and why that is important.

It is true that the Catholic Church has taught, with her full authority, the doctrine extra ecclesiam nulla salus: "outside the Church, there is no salvation" ('EENS' for short). For people who care about such facts, I don't even need to document that. It is also true that Vatican II did not repeat the words of EENS, at least as a pastoral matter. For what the Council did say, I always urge people to read the documents, especially Lumen Gentium and Unitatis Redintegratio. But for now, here are the three most pertinent statements (emphases added):

Basing itself upon Sacred Scripture and Tradition, [this sacred Council] teaches that the Church, now sojourning on earth as an exile, is necessary for salvation (LG §13).

Even in the beginnings of this one and only Church of God there arose certain rifts,(19) which the Apostle strongly condemned.(20) But in subsequent centuries much more serious dissensions made their appearance and quite large communities came to be separated from full communion with the Catholic Church-for which, often enough, men of both sides were to blame. The children who are born into these Communities and who grow up believing in Christ cannot be accused of the sin involved in the separation, and the Catholic Church embraces upon them as brothers, with respect and affection. For men who believe in Christ and have been truly baptized are in communion with the Catholic Church even though this communion is imperfect (UR §3).

Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience (LG §16).

The key development of doctrine here is this: those who are, for whatever reason, not culpable for failing to become formally members of the Catholic Church, can still be saved by responding positively to that grace, won by and coming from Christ, which is given to humanity in and through the Church, i.e. the Catholic Church. (The Catechism of the Catholic Church's explanation of EENS helps to make that clear.) The people so described are thus in "imperfect" communion with the Church. Being "in communion with" the Catholic Church thus is, or often can be, a matter of degree—just as the journey of the "pilgrim Church" herself toward eschatological fullness is a matter of degree. And if you are objectively inculpable for that degree's not being full, then you're "in," at least to a degree that can enable your salvation.

That matters a lot for ordinary pastoral practice, evangelization, and missionary activity—for only God can really know who is culpable and who isn't. But the idea of imperfect communion remains very controversial in some quarters, probably because it is so widely misunderstood.

It is often taken to mean that EENS has been, at least from the standpoint of logic, repudiated by the Catholic Magisterium. Of course I have vigorously argued that EENS has not been thus repudiated. My first formal argument to that effect was made in a 2006 post at the now-defunct version of Pontifications, where it evoked a combox running to well over 300 entries, many of which were scholarly. That post is preserved as the first dogma-specific entry in my long essay Development and Negation. The point the naysayers couldn't (or, in some cases, wouldn't) see was itself simple: it is one thing to say that there's no salvation outside the Church; it's another to say what being inside the Church can consist in. The former claim remains the teaching of the Church, now expressed by LG's formulation that she is "necessary for salvation." But the latter claim is that being in the Church, or at least being related to her in a salvific way, is often a matter of degree. That is a real development of insight into the fixed content of the deposit of faith.

What most interests me at the moment, however, is not how non-Catholics can be in some degree of communion with the Church, but how Catholics themselves can fail to in full communion—and why that matters.

The Eucharist is, among many other things, an expression of the intimate unity between God and his people, between Christ and the Church. As such and perforce, it is also an expression of the full unity of faith and graced fellowship among those who share it. So even American Catholics are taught, rightly and in considerable detail, that if they have sinned seriously in this-or-that way, they would be profaning the Eucharist by receiving it. That is because it is held, on the basis of Scripture and Tradition, that those who have abandoned their baptismal vocation by falling into mortal sin are no longer in full communion with the Church, and thus would be lying to the Church, and well as dishonoring the Body and Blood of the Lord, by receiving it into their bodies. Those who receive "unworthily" thus receive "unto their own condemnation" (cf. 1 Cor 11: 23-30). If they are thus and culpably not in full communion with the Church, they can be saved only if they repent. So much used to be taken for granted by Catholics in general, and still is in some quarters. Most Catholics know that, if they have committed sins such as adultery or grand larceny, they need to do something to reconcile with God and the Church.

Now even Catholics who only formally cooperate with grave and intrinsic evils, such as abortion, are committing what is, objectively speaking, serious sin. Hence and in particular, Catholic politicians who support laws giving wide scope to the practice of abortion are doing grave wrong. But it does not necessarily follow that they are guilty of that sin, so that they profane the Eucharist if and when they receive it. That follows only when (a) they are aware of how the teaching of the Church applies in this case, or (b) if they are unaware, they are culpable for being unaware. And the same holds for Catholics in general about any sort of serious sin, especially that of heresy. This is where the problem of pro-abort Catholic pols really arises from.

On a whole host of issues, mainly those having to do with sexuality, marriage, and procreation, many American Catholics do not actually believe the definitive teaching of the Church. And so, of course, they feel no obligation to live by it. The Catholic politicians they help elect are, by and large, no exception. The practical question which thus arises for the Church's pastors, especially the bishops, is whether such people should be presumed culpable for that or not, and thus whether they should be denied the Eucharist or not. In most cases, bishops and priests presume that people are not culpable for their infidelity to Church teaching. They presume either that people are approaching the Eucharist in good conscience or that it is not the role of pastors to judge the consciences of communicants when they march up to receive. And in the case of many ordinary Catholics, that presumption is correct. The depth of ignorance and deception among ordinary Catholics, which reached new lows in the decade or so after Vatican II, remains so great in many instances that such Catholics cannot be presumed culpable when, out of habit and sentiment, they receive the Eucharist. And so, even when such a Catholic is objectively culpable for not being in full communion with the Church, the appearance of full communion on their part is generally kept up.

Nevertheless, that poses a serious obstacle to evangelizing both ignorant Catholics and the culture at large. If, for what seem to be sound pastoral reasons, many Catholics who neither believe nor live by the moral teaching of the Church are receiving the Eucharist with apparent impunity, then how seriously are ordinary Catholics and the world at large to take such teaching? The general impression has become that such teaching is optional: a rather dismal section of the cafeteria line that one is free to bypass and that will, sooner or later, be tossed along with all the other food nobody buys. Thus the policy of keeping up appearances for the sake of pastoral economy has the effect of entrenching, on a wide scale, the very problem that occasioned the policy in the first place. And so, the preaching of the full Gospel has been largely buried under a collective rationalization. That, I am convinced, is the basis of most of the other problems in the American Catholic Church, including the sex-abuse-and-coverup scandal that peaked five years ago. I blame the bishops for the fundamental problem as much as for its most egregious manifestation.

It can be argued that, given the sorry lack of adult catechesis, there is no practical alternative to the present policy of keeping up the appearance of full communion in the case of Catholics who are objectively not in full communion. That's what many bishops do argue, and the argument is cogent. One cannot just pick out, and pick on, the ordinary Catholics who are implicated in this mess. Most of them are not morally responsible for it, nor is it their role to clean it up. But one can and ought to pick out and pick on erring Catholics who have the education to know better and the power to affect a great many lives by their actions. I mean, of course, the Nancy Pelosis and the Joe Bidens. Archbishop Chaput has had some especially trenchant things to say about such people. If they have excuses, they shouldn't be left with them. Too much is at stake.

But there is a still-more fundamental problem here. Having acknowledged and taken into account the reality of imperfect communion for many non-Catholics, Rome must do the same for many Catholics, if only for self-consistency's sake. If she does so, as she has done for decades, she only reinforces the Church's internal problem for the reason I've already stated. If she does not, she becomes pastorally inconsistent: ecumenism will apply only to those who were never formally Catholic, so that we'll end up with a much smaller, if purer, Church. The Pope seems headed, slowly, in the latter direction. How he and his successors will carry on with it remains, however, an open question. In the meantime, the American bishops continue to disagree about how to handle the Pelosis and the Bidens. Maybe that's inevitable.

Either way, they should be more concerned with the formation of ordinary Catholic adults. Almost a decade ago, the USCCB produced a bracing document which points the way. Little has been done to implement it. I'm waiting with my resumé in hand.

Monday, August 25, 2008


Kathryn Jean Lopez, editor of National Review Online, notes how clearly the Catholicism of Nancy Pelosi differs from that of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Prof. Scott Carson has some pointed observations about the Pelosi anti-catechism. Now that Joe Biden is the Democrat VP choice, we could just as well say the same of his Catholicism. Or that of John Kerry. The list goes on, and on. As Archbishop Charles Chaput implies in a homily quoted by KJL, such people are Catholic in name only. I call them 'CINOS' for short. So, why do they attain a measure of success with their appeals to "the Catholic vote"?

They manage it because their "Catholicism," such as it is, is pretty much that of a substantial segment, if not a plurality, of American Catholics. CINOs in the electorate help to elect CINOs to office. Over time, that has become the most visible obstacle to the Church's effort to evangelize the culture. How can there be a "Catholic" witness in the public square when so many powerful Catholics are CINOs, just like so many other Catholics who help to elect them?

Nothing will change unless the clear majority of American Catholics actually embrace Catholicism in reality, not just as an inheritance from which they can pick and choose to suit their inclinations. In other words, Catholicism for them will have to become faith rather than opinion. Then we'll get lots more Bobby Jindals—which is exactly what we need.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

The paradox of Peter

The Gospel reading for today in the ordinary form of the Roman Rite is Matthew 16:13-20. It contains one of the most famous passages from the New Testament: "You are Peter (Kepha), and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." I am not concerned here to explicate the sense in which that verse supports the Catholic doctrine of the papacy. That would only invite a debate that has and will continue to take place in countless forums, including this one. I am much more interested in the attitude the verse ought to encourage in every Christian.

Jesus' commissioning of Peter as the Church's "rock," as "Rocky," in response to Peter's inspired confession of faith, was deeply ironic. Peter was impulsive and inconsistent. At one point, Jesus addressed him as "Satan" for rejecting the idea of the Passion; as the Passion got underway, Peter thrice denied knowing Jesus. But all this is exactly what one should expect of a God who saved us by letting us put him to death in the most shameful way imaginable at the time. God meets us in our worst depths to elevate and transform us; in his humanity, he was raised up on the third day from the status of dead criminal to that of immortal King of the Universe. In his own small but indispensable way, Peter recapitulated that in his transformation, after Easter and Pentecost, from coward to rock of the Church.

The same should go for each of us in our individual journeys of conversion. I know what it is like, in my own little way, to be cast out, criminalized, and shamed to the depths; I know what it is like to be loved, elevated, and transformed by Our Lord precisely in and out of such circumstances. It is all part of the process of theosis, of being made into a god by participating in the eternal kenosis of God. The mold of the old self is broken and remade into something new and incomparably better, just as Peter was.

The Church herself is like that. She is a "perfect society" not because her members are perfect; far from it. She is the perfect society because, as the Mystical Body of Christ, she is the medium in which her members are taken in their brokenness and made whole on the model of the Passion and Resurrection. If people would come to see "church" in that way, rather than as just an institution whereby a bunch of people with similar religious opinions worship and do other things together, there would be a lot less disputing about the full meaning of Matthew 16:18.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Backward Christian soldiers

Although there are many movements in contemporary ecclesial life which could be labeled with my title, there's one particular, and particularly damaging, idea in fundamental theology that the Catholic Church condemned centuries ago (as a proposition of theologian Michel de Bay) but keeps rearing its ugly head. I mean the idea that it is strictly impossible for God to have created human beings without destining them to become "partakers of the divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4)—or, to use more Western and neo-scholastic language, without "ordering" us to "the Beatific Vision." Unless sharply qualified, that idea is simply incompatible with the gratuity of grace—a reality of central importance within the deposit of faith. Even the term 'grace' (from the Latin gratia, meaning 'free gift') means, among other things, what's given gratis and in no way as owed. But the contrary idea has just popped up again on an Orthodox blog with whose authors I have often interacted in the past. I can't resist making some points that need to be made.

In Catholic theology, that idea was taken up again by Henri de Lubac and Karl Rahner in the mid-20th century, and has germinated much lesser work since. Fortunately, the idea as most often formulated is, itself, ambiguous in such a way that it can and should be disambiguated into an orthodox and a heterodox version. When that much was pointed out to him, de Lubac dutifully forswore the heterodox version and embraced the orthodox one. But given his philosophical anthropology, so heavily influenced by Heidegger, Rahner could not do the same so readily. It isn't even clear to me that he wished to do so, which is one reason why I've never considered his work in fundamental theology reliable as assigned texts in seminary education. Rahner might be orthodox, but you have to work awfully hard to see how, and he wasn't about to make it easier. For the time being, however, it's easy to disambiguate the idea at issue.

The claim might be

(1) Given that, by eternal decree, God created humanity with the intent of elevating it to a share in his own nature, it is an unalterable fact that that humanity has never existed and never will exist in a state of pure nature apart from grace

or the claim might be

(2) Given what it is to be a created person, i.e. an individual substance of a rational nature, and given the divine goodness, it is logically impossible that God create persons, and thus human persons, without intending to elevate them to a share in his own nature.

My claim, and it is far from being just my claim, is that (1) is orthodox and (2) is heterodox. The reason (2) is heterodox is that it leaves no room whatsoever for the gratuity of grace vis-à-vis nature, and therefore eliminates the very idea of grace as a free gift which God does not owe to us. But (1) does not say that or even imply that. All (1) implies is that, given what God has eternally and freely chosen to do, he has not left himself the option of undoing it. Even though God might not have done it—given what God is and what it is to be human—in fact he has unalterably chosen to offer humanity the free, unmerited gift of becoming partakers in his nature.

Very well: de Lubac's passionate argument for (1) was a much-needed corrective to the medieval and Counter-Reformation theologoumenon of "pure nature." Over time, the idea of pure nature had become an important component of neo-scholastic theology—so much so that, between the two Vatican Councils, most orthodox Catholic theologians were taking it to be indispensable. It was, for example, logically necessary for the widely-accepted theory of limbo, and it seemed to make many points of traditional moral teaching far more persuasive to non-believers, at least potentially, than they would be otherwise. For reasons I won't detain you with, the de Lubacs won the day during Vatican II. Not surprisingly, after the Council the limbo theory withered on the vine and natural-law theory fell out of favor among many Catholic moral theologians. I still think there's a place for both, especially for the latter. But neither now retains the importance in Catholic theology that they once did, and I think that's fine as a needed corrective to the ossified Aristotelianism of post-Tridentine neo-scholasticism.

But people like Photios Jones, of the aforementioned blog, go further. Being Orthodox, of course, Photios cannot be expected to care much about the vagaries of Catholic theological historiography. Perhaps that is why, despite my past protestations, he continues to interpret the Tridentine dogma of original sin as ascribing personal guilt to people who have never done anything morally significant, and to interpret the dogma of the Immaculate Conception as ascribing moral virtue to the Theotokos before she could do anything morally significant. But on the immediate matter at hand, I believe the difficulty to be the same whether one is Catholic or Orthodox. Every responsible theologian has to be able to explain what's gratuitous about "grace" in a sense distinct from what's gratuitous about "nature." Photios doesn't do that and doesn't think he ought to do that. I find that unacceptable.

I think part of the problem is that some theologians, Catholic as well as Orthodox, just don't see what is to be gained by insisting that God's elevation of creation is gratuitous in a sense beyond that in which creation itself is gratuitous. Creation is gratuitous because, not needing anything ad extra for his being or perfection, God nonetheless freely brought forth creatures as an exuberant manifestation and communication of his goodness. That's almost what it means to say that creation was, or more properly is, an act of love on God's part. For some thinkers it's hard to see how God's elevation of rational creatures, angels as well as humans, to a share in his own nature is or even could be gratuitous in a sense beyond that. And in a way they're right: since grace on any responsible account is indeed an "exuberant manifestation and communication" of God himself, we have not distinguished it from creation just on that account. But that is hardly the last word, nor could it be if we are going to preserve the very idea of gratuity in grace at all.

If grace is to be received gratefully as a gift, rather than as payment on a debt God owes us just in virtue of what we are, then what we are, i.e. our nature, has to be capable of a good measure of fulfillment without grace, even though grace brings immeasurably more fufillment. This is not to say that, in the actual world, anybody is going to end up with a "good measure of fulfillment" that is somehow "purely natural" not of grace. That's not how God has set things up. We are all, each of us, called to be "gods" (cf. John 10: 34) who, if we respond to God's call on his terms, will forever enjoy more beatitude than we can possibly imagine while on earth. But the absolutely key point is that it didn't have to be that way. God could have created beings counting as homo sapiens without destining them to become gods and just allowing them all to grow into what a life-loving Aristotelian might think of as the good life. If God had done that, we would not have known what we were missing because we would never have been offered anything more and hence would not have been aware of anything more. Such was the kind of innocent happiness of "pure nature" that Aquinas thought infants in limbo would enjoy. I believe that, if there is such a state at all, it cannot be permanent; infants who have died unbaptized await divinization through the intercession of those who love them. But that is strictly a matter of opinion.

But there's a proposition afoot which is not a matter of opinion. To insist that nature could never have been enough, that not even God could bring about creation without elevation even in principle, is in my view a version of the idea that God must always do the best possible things given what he is and whatever it is he's already done. That idea has a certain philosophical pedigree and appeals to some theologians. But I don't think it's an authentically Christian idea. There is no "best possible world." Given how the world actually is, there isn't even a best possible way it could become. The orthodox doctrine of grace tells us nonetheless that the world, and what it will become, is far better than we deserve.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Contraception and "natural law"

Lately I've noticed that most of the comboxes to my posts turn into what I can only call online graduate seminars. Perhaps that is why the number of blogs linking to this one trends downward even as the comboxes tend to get more and more involved. I have only myself to blame, of course: I advertise myself as an academic, and the issues I most enjoy tackling can generally be explored only by people of like temperament and preoccupations. And so, I hereby surrender and invite another graduate seminar.

The Catholic blogger "John Cassian," who sometimes comments here, has written an interesting post about moral theologian Germain Grisez's 1964 book Contraception and Natural Law. What interests me about the post is not just that JC makes passing reference to my work. Of more general interest is that the post illustrates how even highly educated, orthodox Catholics like JC, who as such care deeply about moral theology, manage to misunderstand the "state of the question" about Church moral norms on human sexuality in general. Much good would be accomplished if that misunderstanding could be cleared up. I offer a modest contribution.

Grisez's book, which was to be followed by several bigger and more ambitious ones, was published during Vatican II fours years before Humanae Vitae (1968) was issued by Pope Paul VI. I read the book in the mid-70s while still a college student. Now in 1963, Pope Paul had removed the controversial question of contraception from the Council's purview and committed it to a study commission pending a final decision by himself. The general expectation was that the majority of the commission would recommend approving contraception, for married couples and for "serious" reasons, as the Anglican Communion had in 1930. That it did. But most people also expected the Pope to accept that recommendation. He did not. The ensuing outrage and damage in the Church remains very much with us today. I have written about the evolution of the contraception issue before: most recently here and here, but especially here.

At its time of writing, Grisez's account of the state of the question was largely accurate. Here's how JC presents what he learned on that score from Grisez:

The chief difficulty among said problems is my perception that, in the popular Catholic mind at least, the Church's teaching on the intrinsic immorality of contraception has split itself into a seemingly irresolvable dialectic. On the one hand, there are proponents of what I would call a "scientific" natural law theory, who oppose contraception on the grounds that "contraception is immoral because it frustrates the natural purpose of the act." Underlying this theory is a certain version of natural law which assumes that natural law is the "scientific" search within a construct called "human nature" for a set of categorical moral norms ,the violation of which defines the limits of human action. On the other hand, there are those who, rejecting the scientific-natural law theory for various reasons, would propose what I call the psychological-therapeutic model. In this view, contraception is forbidden because non-contraceptive sex leads to the fullest state of emotional and personal well-being. Underlying this argument is the notion that ethical norms are most properly founded upon psychological principles. The deficiencies of this dialectic have become more strongly apparent to me over the summer.

That is essentially the same diagnosis offered by theologian James Arraj in a 1989 book which I have cited before, and which itself cites Grisez. But Arraj's prognosis and prescription were not the same as Grisez's. Seeing no way to synthesize the two poles of the "dialectic," Arraj recommended a decisive theological shift to the "personal" side that would entail abandoning the traditional prohibition on contraception. That's pretty much been the majority view among American Catholic theologians since the 1950s. By contrast, Grisez's positive suggestions contributed to that deeper ecclesial meditation and doctrinal development which HV and, later, John Paul II's "theology of the body" ('TOB' for short) so well exemplified. While I do not agree with some of later arguments that Grisez offered in defense of the traditional teaching, he did the Church a great service by advancing the state of the question in a way that helped to spur the further development of magisterial teaching.

On that score, JC himself recognizes both the need and the real possibility of resolving the "dialectic." He even recognizes that TOB succeeds in doing so, at least in principle. I have no time here to expound TOB, which in any case I have done before; but that does not much matter. The problem is that JC doesn't get quite right just how TOB succeeds in doing so. He gets the problem right, but not the solution. Thus:

More interestingly, [sic] is the recent series of catechetical talks given by John Paul II, popularly referred to as the "Theology of the Body" (TOB), and which have enjoyed a popularity among the faithful, though typically in a more distilled and summarized form as exemplified by the work of Christopher West. I would argue that these talks have been misread in three fundamental ways: the first is by the theological academy, which is not so much of a mis-reading as a non-reading, whereby the content of JPII's message is dismissed as not consonant with the various structures of modern theology. The second misreading of TOB is by the traditionalist camp, whereby the persistent personalist language employed by JPII is taken as evidence that the content is nothing other than existentialist nattering, with the ghost of Heidegger given free reign over Church teaching. The third mis-reading tends to follow the psychological-therapeutic model I discussed above, and Christopher West's work is often the most prominent example of this mis-reading (though to his credit, West often shows a more perceptive reading of JPII, and the conflicts between this more perceptive reading and the popular therapeutic understanding are left unresolved.)

However, it is my belief that TOB can be read in a manner more closely tied to JPII's original intent. Such a reading would approach the talks on their own terms, namely as a catechesis explaining the true shape of the goods known through human relations. When seen in the light of a virtue ethics such as Macintyre's or Grisez's, where moral actions are the means by which human goods are freely realized within the community (i.e. Church), then the substance of TOB becomes yet another expression of that constant and unbroken ethic which the Church has proposed from Her founding. In such a reading, the constant reference to the origin of Creation found in TOB becomes a method for revealing the full and supernatural end towards which all human actions must be directed.

JC is right about how both progs and trads dislike TOB. Progs dislike it because it doesn't jettison either the natural-law tradition in general or the traditional prohibition on contraception in particular. Trads dislike it because, situating the natural-law tradition in the context of biblical personalism, TOB seems too new and woolly-minded to them; it just isn't, well, neo-scholastic enough for them. I have even encountered a few well-educated bloggers who criticize TOB for being both naturalistic and personalistic, a juxtaposition which I account as a virtue. But JC is wrong to imagine that TOB needs to be "seen in the light of a virtue ethics such as MacIntyre's and Grisez's." The specific developments of virtue ethics offered by MacIntyre and Grisez are controversial in themselves and differ in important respects even from each other. Having hashed out a lot of this stuff while a graduate student myself in the 1980s, I concluded that, as philosophical opinions which can in no way bind the Church, proposals in contemporary virtue ethics are altogether insufficient for contextualizing TOB and thus improving its reception among theologians.

That's not to say there's no place for virtue ethics in Catholic moral theology. Quite the contrary: St. Thomas Aquinas himself tied the Church's teaching about sexual morality to Aristotelian "virtue ethics," and sound, contemporary moral theologians such as Servais Pinckaers, OP do the same. On such an account, what's "unnatural" and thus morally objectionable about any form of intentionally sterile sex is that it's incompatible with the virtue of chastity—the virtue by which certain of our "concupiscible appetites" are ordered to interpersonal goods. Thus, like sodomy and other sexual sins, contraception is a sin of lust. That is why Paul VI's warning about the social effects of widespread contraception was and remains so relevant. Although said effects are not what make contraception intrinsically evil, they serve as irrefutable evidence of the sort of evil that contraception exemplifies: a vice that spreads and manifests itself more generally, like a bit of poison that spoils a whole pond.

That is not an instance of the sort of "scientific" natural-law theorizing to which Grisez, JC, and so many others have rightly objected. Such theory falls victim to the Humean objection that one cannot, logically, derive an "ought" from an "is"—unless of course the "is" statement is itself a moral truth of the sort one seeks to establish, in which case the argument is at best an enthymeme and at worst downright circular. Absent a fairly rich and personalistic theism, in which the union of man and woman is seen as instituted by God for cooperation with him in bringing forth life, one cannot demonstrate the intrinsic evil of contraception merely by pointing out that such an activity runs counter to the ordinary "course of nature." For the human race itself, as understood by the Church, is not the sort of thing one finds just in the course of nature; and unless informed by a true moral anthropology, one must admit that any behavior which a certain percentage of human beings can be counted on to exhibit—such as violence, overeating, or sodomy—belongs to "the course of nature." So, while "nature" in the sense of Mother Nature must obviously be involved in moral anthropology, a lot more than that must be taken into account to extract much of moral or spiritual significance.

TOB is a brilliant resource for understanding the positive spiritual and social goods of which the vice of lust is a perversion. Its author recognized that contraception, like most other sexual sins, objectifies the other when the real point of sexuality is personal intercommunion and new life through complete, mutual self-donation. From that point of view, it is sexual "virtue ethics" that need to be contextualized for Catholics by TOB, not vice-versa. I hope JC comes to see that. Once he and many like him do, TOB will get the full reception it deserves.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Clubs and vocations

There's an old joke about Washington society: at the University Club, you need money and no brains; at the Cosmos Club, you need brains and no money; and at the Metropolitan Club, you don't need either one. When I lived in DC I thought at first that I belonged in the Cosmos Club—until, like Groucho Marx, I concluded that any club that would have me was, for that very reason, not highbrow enough for my tastes. An analogous problem, I believe, helps to explain the so-called "vocations shortage" in the developed countries.

Giving secularism, materialism, hypereroticism, and heterodoxy their ample due, the fact remains that I've known many admirable Catholic laymen who either have or do exclude themselves from consideration for the priesthood because they consider themselves unworthy. In the abstract, to be sure, they would acknowledge that nobody is worthy, that a genuine "call" comes only with a power to answer and live it that no man possesses naturally. But that truth of pastoral theology is basically seen as irrelevant. For it is generally assumed by practicing cradle Catholics that a man has to be better than most of us, and better in a certain hard-to-define way, in order to be considered "worthy" in the sense meant by Eastern-Christian tradition when the newly ordained are hailed as Axios!

Being "better" in the relevant sense does not mean being somehow more pious, or knowing Catholic teaching better, or even believing it more fervently, than the average Catholic man. I've known some laymen who are both more "pious" and theologically better-formed even than some priests I've known, but who would neither consider themselves nor be considered suitable for the priesthood. Nor is the problem any presumptive lack of willingness on the part of such men to live a life of ascesis and loving service. In the concrete, the sacrament of marriage as the Church understands it often requires living such a life to a greater degree than some priests do, or are even expected to do. I had dinner at a Jesuit residence last weekend and was amazed by how commodious their domestic life is; if this is poverty, I thought, then I for one wouldn't miss wealth. (A couple of the Jesuits there were guys who had known me in high school, and I thought the same about their lives back then!) I've also been inside parish rectories of which much the same could be said. True, most celibate priests are overworked and put under a microscope; but that's only true when they're not at home. When I was married with children, what I did on family time was often harder work than my job and certainly put me under closer scrutiny. Hence an old Irish joke: "Why is marriage a sacrament? Because nobody can crucify themselves."

I think the blockage here comes from a sense that a priest, unlike a layman, should be a transparent icon of Christ. When one meets a genuinely holy priest, his natural virtues are unprepossessing even if they happen to be great. They are not what one keeps one's attention when one meets him. Supernaturalized by the grace of his vocation, the natural virtues of a holy priest point beyond himself to Christ. It becomes evident that it is not the man who lives, but Christ who lives in him. It's not that a layman can't be that; but truth be told, laymen aren't at all expected to be that; largely for that reason, they are not seen to be that save in very unusual situations. Hence and perforce, they are not that.

That is why, when I was younger, hardly anybody saw me as "worthy" of the priesthood and eventually convinced me that I wasn't worthy. Since what they noticed was my natural self, not Christ, they assumed I wouldn't be interested in the priesthood; those who found that I was, assumed that my motives were natural not supernatural and thus unworthy. So, e.g., being theologically better-educated and more orthodox than some priests only earned me the plaudit "smart," and we all know that "smart" guys need to get themselves into lucrative professions. Being more traditional and consistent in my piety than some priests earned me only the shopworn adjective "devout," but that didn't even put me up there with the ethnic grandmothers, who were presumed to be more devout than anybody except the priests, who were presumed to be the most devout of all, even when it took rather little insight to see that they weren't. And of course, nobody with a noticeable sexuality counted as priest or nun material; if they were seriously willing to consider taking a vow of celibacy, that meant they needed a hot date and a psychotherapist rather than the seminary or novitiate. And I think it safe to say that my sexuality was, at least, noticeable.

It took me a long time to realize that that is how I was seen and, by and large, continue to be seen by most good Catholics who have known me in "real" life. Once I did realize it, I quickly noticed that many good Catholic laymen do the same number on themselves without any explicit social encouragement. They have seen only their "natural" virtues and conclude that the best way for them to serve God is to put those virtues to use in pretty much the way other good men do, only with the addition of quietly sanctifying them through the practice of their Faith. Thus, it is thought, one can become holy not only without believing oneself to be holy but also without appearing to be and certainly without talking about it. Such seems to be the picture—again, among most "good" Catholics—of how the laity, i.e. 99% of Catholics, are to live their faith. Those in consecrated life, on the other hand, are supposed to be icons. Unlike the rest of us Catholics, they can and ought to get away with being visibly holy and spending a lot of time talking about as well as living the Faith—even if their theology and piety are virtually indistinguishable from those of Katherine Jefferts Schori. But laymen who carry on with the God-stuff are vaguely (and often not so vaguely) suspect, even if their theology and piety are virtually indistinguishable from the Pope's. Such men are presumed to be eccentrics, or worse. It doesn't help matters that some of them are.

It is this bit of (for want of a better turn of phrase) Catholic collective psychology that helps to explain today's vocation shortage. It is taken for granted that only a rather narrow range of personality-types, which have never been thick on the ground, are plausible candidates for the priesthood. I don't believe that was always the assumption. Perhaps the difference now is that the priesthood, for various extrinsic reasons, isn't the path to social status and respect that it once was, so that Catholic men who could or do succeed in a secular profession are now expected to do so. Whether the change is a good or a bad thing is hard for me to say. But it definitely means that many good Catholic men won't join a club that might have them.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Conservatives for moral relativism?

Never woulda thunk it. But thank God there's less here than meets the eye.

Jason Lee Steorts, managing editor of National Review, has found occasion in the latest Batman movie to wax philosophical. In the spirit of good pedagogy, he even goes so far as to offer "Lessons from the Joker." If he hasn't actually taught a college class in ethics, I'd bet my clunker—all $900 worth of it—that he's taken one. And I rather doubt he liked it. The lesson he peddles now is of the sort that undergraduates learn in such classes despite what the prof thought he was teaching.

JLS's main premise is, to be sure, indisputable. Appealing to reason, no matter how sound in the abstract, is useless for the purpose of motivating somebody who "chooses to be irrational." Similarly, appealing to beauty or love won't work with somebody who's too far gone to care for such values. Now in good Aristotelian fashion, JLS also assumes that moral philosophizing aims, inter alia, to motivate people to be good. So, confronted with somebody who doesn't care about what's reasonable, or at least what's rational to value, moral philosophy is powerless. Here's what JLS concludes:

My friends ask what makes me a conservative, and sometimes I wonder myself, but there is an answer, and it’s that I hate vandals. The problem with vandals is not that they are wrong about a conceptual matter. The problem is that they smash beautiful things. They couldn’t care less about your rules or your God or your conception of the good. You have to stop them with tools that work.

One of those tools is the very large group of souls hiding in the shadows, hearing things get smashed, maybe a little afraid, maybe a little amused, maybe wanting to smash up a few things themselves — but not quite knowing what to think or do. These are people we want on our side. And you know what? A lot of
them don’t believe in your rules, or your God, or your conception of the good. They’re not going to, either. They’re going to stop listening when you thunder against “moral relativism.” That’s the world we live in.

But they have preferences, and there are things they find beautiful. If you want them on your side, you need to trust that there is some overlap between your preferences and theirs — and then you need to give them a picture that is right for them. I don’t know what it is, but I know it’s neither a stone tablet nor a logical operator.

What it might be is a movie in which a lunatic does something dramatic with a knife and somebody’s mouth, while two groups of ordinary people independently choose to do, not the right thing, but “the right thing.”

JLS's strategy for combatting the Jokers, then, is direct the attention of the squishy middle, the not-quite-so-far gone among us, to the preferences they share with the more-or-less good, more-or-less reasonable people—viz., the Decent Folk Like Us.

Doubtless such a strategy can work—up to a point. So long as residual loathing of the evil and/or the ugly remains latent among people generally, exposure to the actes gratuités of the Jokers of this world can cause some of them to reject what's wicked and/or ugly about what otherwise seduces. In my student days, I used similar means to induce my share of colleagues to execrate certain artists, religious charlatans, politicians, even sexual partners. But is motivating the waverers to share the "preferences" of the DFLU all that moral philosophy is, or should be, about? Is the only sort of moral philosophizing worth bothering with really just an emotional strategem, as the ancient Sophists believed? If so, then all we can do is cause people to recoil from the brink before they start finding the abyss too attractive for our tastes. For in the end, it would all just be a contest of tastes.

In the state of contemporary culture, we have less time for that than many are wont to think. Relativism is not a strategy for combatting the effects of relativism. But JLS seems to believe it's all we've got left to work with. And he produces an actual, philosophical argument for that belief:

Moral absolutes are decision procedures or exclusion criteria applied to all possible cases of action. But no decision procedure or exclusion criterion justifies its own application (in contradistinction to the application of other possible decision procedures or exclusion criteria). A separate level of justification is required, if the application is to be justified; and this is just the level at which we assume that the will is unconstrained (i.e., that it may choose freely among logically incompatible decision procedures or exclusion criteria). Even if we offer it a reason to choose one decision procedure or exclusion criterion rather than another, it will be free to call that reason into question; and so on ad infinitum.

We had discussions like this when I took my first philosophy class. Of course it is possible, in principle, to call all possible n-order justifications into question. Hence it is similarly possible for "the will" not to be "constrained" by any of them—and therefore by any of the precepts they are meant to justify. We can choose to be irrational, which in ethics means choosing to be bad. But so what? It is similarly possible to call into question any attempt to adduce sense-experience as evidence of what physical objects are like, or even that there are such things. For that matter it is possible, in the present sense, to reject the logical principles of excluded middle and non-contradiction. I've known people who are proud of doing that. Some of them had enough intellectual conscience to offer such substitutes as "fuzzy logic" or "mystical experience"; but a few felt no need to offer any substitute other than their own pig-headedness. Bars, dorms, and lunatic asylums are full of people who will reject even elementary common sense so as to avoid conceding a point they dislike. Thus it is always possible to maintain a principled skepticism by "choosing" to reject what is generally taken to be obvious or even self-evident. To be sure, that can be quite reasonable in specific contexts—those contexts, that is, where one actually has good reason to question what people generally take to be obvious. But as a general policy, radical skepticism is not reasonable. It is nihilism. Nihilism is not an argument; it is a tantrum. Even Nietzsche recognized as much—which is why he produced a few actual arguments for favoring the imaginary übermensch over the real God, until too strong a dose of reality drove him into the lunatic asylum.

JLS knows that the purpose of arguments is to persuade the reasonable, not the unreasonable. His mistake is to conclude that, given why moral philosophy cannot persuade the unreasonable, it cannot persuade the reasonable either. Well, it can, and sometimes does. As for the nihilists, those who take unreason as far as they can, the job is to restrain them rather than argue with them—even as God restrains, for the most part, the Great Nihilist Down There. In the meantime reason remains reason, and works on the reasonable.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Humanae Vitae at 40: the joke's on them

When Pope Paul VI's courageous, landmark encyclical on birth control, Humanae Vitae, came out in late July 1968, I was thirteen years old. Providentially, I had just learned "the facts of life." Yet the reaction of most Catholic adults to said document, including those of my parents' circle, was that the exercise was a cruel joke. "We" had been led to believe that the Pill was OK and was going to be OKed, but we were snookered by that dried-up, out-of-touch old celibate in the Vatican. For reasons I needn't elaborate, the Church has not been the same since. Catholicism still lives, effectively, in a state of internal schism across the board--and the majority are not on the papacy's side. The defining moment was the general reaction to HV, just a few years after Vatican II closed.

Cardinal James Francis Stafford, now head of the Apostolic Penitentiary in Rome and then a parish priest in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, has just offered a hard-eyed, unblinking look at what happened. The story is so compelling that I shall let it speak mostly for itself. I shall say only that he is right to point out that the West, clergy as well as laity, did not want and therefore did not get the right response to the final petition of the Lord's Prayer on this topic. Thus we have paid a steep and wide-ranging price for ignoring, even ridiculing, the constant, irreformable teaching of the Church. We have let, in Paul VI's words, "the smoke of Satan" into the Church, and it is choking us.

Indeed, as Mary Eberstadt points out in the current issue of First Things, that pope's dire predictions about what would happen if the contraceptive mentality became widespread have been so thoroughly borne out that the joke is now on HV's opponents. That includes especially feminists, who complain bitterly about male disrespect for women at a time when women, in the West at least, are ostensibly more privileged than ever before. All one can say is that, when sterile sex is deliberately made the norm, then lust sooner or later wins out over love. We see that everywhere today; it's just Human Nature 101. But the funny thing is they still don't get it. As my first wife was fond of saying, illicit sex "fries the brains." Her mother was a Catholic philosopher from whose paper "Contraception and Chastity" (1972) Eberstadt sees fit to quote at length.

By all means read all three articles I've cited, starting with the last. All is not lost: it's a good sign that even a few Princeton undergraduates, in addition to a growing minority of educated young Catholics, now get it. That would have been inconceivable when I was in college. There is still hope. The hope will be justified by a Church that, perforce, will be smaller but purer.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

"Why did you doubt?"

Sorry for the hiatus: it's been quite a challenging and eventful two weeks on this end. Much interaction with family of origin (nuclear and extended) as well as family of choice; a new spiritual director with much to say; both accompanied by stirring in the subconscious, chiefly dreams. I rarely remember my dreams; the ones I do remember are the powerful and spiritually significant ones; and there have been two in the past two weeks I've remembered quite vividly. (I say 'subconscious' because I think that where these dreams have been coming from is not precisely coextensive with what Freud termed 'the unconscious', though the latter is clearly involved, as it always is.) I have come away from it all with a renewed sense of vocation. I know now what direction to walk in. I do not doubt any more.

I say so with painful but joyful awareness of the question Jesus asks Peter in today's Gospel as the latter succumbs to fear and sinks into the sea water, the primordial, double-sided symbol of ancient chaos and new life. The answer is so obvious that the question is almost rhetorical. It applies to each of us; for we are all, or almost all, people "of little faith." But it doesn't have to stay that way. Perhaps a little autobiography can explain why.

There are people who know from childhood what direction their walk toward the Lord is meant to take. I've known priests and nuns who knew from the age of reason that they were called thereto; I've known married people who knew when they were barely out of puberty whom they were meant to be with for the rest of their lives. People like that seem to me, spiritually, to walk on water as they walk toward the Lord. It's never been like that for me. From the time I was 15 I've wanted to be in consecrated life of some sort, but hardly anybody around me from that time onward took that aspiration at face value. They assumed it was a pathetic attempt to escape from something called "reality," which to them meant what it does for most men: getting married, begetting babies, and bringing home the bacon. I felt that God was calling me out and forth to something special, but the reaction I got was, in effect, "cut the narcissistic crap and be normal." So as I neared college graduation, I put aside my unconventional dream because nature as well as my milieu urged me to; I was after all dating a woman who truly loved me, and she became my first wife. But despite all that I've promised, done, and failed to do---and my sins have been many--the appeal of consecrated life has never left me. I have failed the test of marriage twice, and I am now morally certain it's because, lacking the faith, courage, and maturity to pursue my true vocation, I did what most around me expected as a matter of course. Having done what I let myself be convinced I ought to do, I blew it because, in spite of the pretense I took as reality, I was not wholehearted about it. And it is impossible to live out the baptismal vocation in the form of marriage if one isn't wholehearted about it, if it isn't what one wants to do without ifs, ands, and buts.

To be sure, there are people who can manage both marriage and consecrated life. For example, I have met Eastern-Catholic and other clergy who have made a good go of both. But as a cradle Latin-Rite Catholic, that option is not open to me; and my personal limitations preclude it in any case. For me it has to be one or the other. I know now which it is to be. My only regret, and it's a big one, is that along the way I failed and hurt the people closest to me. I have admitted that to them and apologized; I still retain obligations to them which I struggle to discharge; and that latter fact could well end up precluding the form of consecrated life I would prefer. That's OK. The way God brings good out of bad is not always the way we would prefer. I know only that I am to dedicate the rest of my life to the direct, explicit, and full-time service of the Lord. How that happens is up to him alone. I surrender accordingly, knowing that I will sink back into the water of chaos only if I foolishly believe that nature must remain stronger than supernature.