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

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The tonic of unpleasant truths

As the new calendar year approaches and the Christmas season continues, I want to address the general exhaustion by recommending meditation on a pair of truths that most people find too unpleasant to contemplate.

The first is that there are people who are actually attracted to Catholicism by the Church's teachings on contraception and homosex. Consider convert David Mills' latest article at Inside Catholic, "Contraception and Conversion." This is the sort of thing I'd find way cool at a New Year's Eve party; or, if hung over from the party, way cool as an accompaniment to chicken soup and ibuprofen on New Year's Day. Savor this passage:

The regularly attending, basic-believing Catholic is usually pleased as punch to meet a convert. He rarely asks why -- and, when he does, wants only the most general of answers. Becoming a Catholic for him is just an obvious thing to do, and he is glad to have you around.

The sporadically attending, selectively believing Catholic is slightly bemused, because (if I understand him right) he seems to think of the Church as a heritage and a home and doesn't see why anyone else would be interested in it. He seems to feel as he would if you showed up to the Wisniewski family reunion or dropped into the Aquilina's for Sunday dinner or starting putting ornaments on the Rothfus's Christmas tree. Yet he is usually rather pleased that we did join, being a patriot.

The "progressive" is not so patriotic, if he isn't actually a traitor. So I will often say, in as cheery, boosterish, and cheerleading a voice as I can manage, "My wife and I discovered the truth of the Church's teaching on contraception, and after a while we just had to join the one body in the world that was telling the truth about it."

That usually shuts down the conversation. I am now familiar with the sequence of facial expressions that begins with incredulity and then, after a period ranging from half a second to four or five, moves to either annoyance, disgust, or fear. People have, when they realized exactly what I'd just said, edged away while keeping their eyes on me as if I might hit them from behind. (I am not making that up.)

I know that David is not making that up, because I've seen worse things myself.

I once found myself at a New Year's Eve party attended mostly by Catholics whom I'd call "full-time religionists": people who make the business of the Church their main business, even when they aren't ordained and/or don't get paid for it. (I wasn't a full-time religionist just yet; I was merely in via; and that's a "way" that God has since knocked me off.) But of course there were clerics galore too. With one of them, a Benedictine monk and priest, I was discussing what biblical scholars call "the infancy narratives" in Matthew and Luke. He mused that, though of course he did not believe that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, he would continue to preach that Jesus was born in Bethlehem so as not to upset the faithful. I promptly asked: "So Father, are we to have one truth for the hoi polloi and another for the intelligenstia?" He responded by tossing the contents of his cocktail in my face, muttering "you little shit" (I was much younger than he) as his face twisted with rage. Our gracious host gave me a big cloth napkin, ushered the offender into the hallway, and gave him an extra shot of bourbon.

"Progressives," in my experience, can't handle the truth. Apparently, they don't in David's experience either. But that's a feature of all ideologues.

Of general interest, then, is this bluntly brilliant analysis by Michael Ledeen of the current Middle-Eastern situation, which is going through a little nastier-than-usual spell. Ledeen is spot on: the main problem is Iran, and there is no solution as long as its mullahs can do mischief. But not many people recognize that, and fewer are willing to say so out loud. Once Iran has the bomb, we will have reached the point of no return. Is President Obama willing to do what it takes to prevent reaching that point? Even to raise the question is usually considered bad form.

Happy New Year.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Brief meditation on the Holy Family

The 14th-century Dominican Johann Tauler wrote as follows on the Gospel for today's feast in the Roman calendar for the ordinary form of the Mass:

Herod, the one who pursued the child and wanted to kill him, represents the world which clearly kills off the child, the world that we must by all means flee if we want to save the child. Yet no sooner have we fled the world exteriorly… than Archelaus rises up and reigns: there is still a world within you, a world over which you will not triumph without a great deal of effort and by God’s help.

For there are three strong and bitter enemies that you have to overcome in you and it is with difficulty that we ever win the victory. You will be attacked by spiritual pride: you would like to be seen, taken note of, listened to… The second enemy is your own flesh, assailing you through bodily and spiritual impurity… The third enemy is the one that attacks by arousing malice in you, bitter thoughts, suspiciousness, ill will, hatred and the desire for revenge… Would you become ever more dear to God? You must completely forsake all such behaviour, for all this is the wicked Archelaus in person. Fear and be on your guard; he wants to kill the child indeed…

The worst thing about today's world is how evidently it wants to "kill the child." It does not want God to be its Father, begetting each of us in love; it does not want the Christ Child to be its brother, born shivering in a barnyard stall; it does not want the Holy Spirit to be its comforter and guide, filling it with a life to be poured out in maturity for God and neighbor. It wants to be "grown up," independent, a law unto itself, bending things ever more to its own pleasure and devising. The result is misery, even for those who have many of the world's most cherished goods. The prevalence of abortion, the greatest holocaust in history and set only to expand, is a gruesome sacrament of this evil. The killing of children in the womb signifies the spiritual disorder within; and in signifying that, reliably helps to bring it about.

As Tauler indicates, this "world" is in each of us, if only because of original sin. Even the redeemed must struggle against "the world," within and without, so as to recover their real "inner child" and thus become what God created them to be. I do so daily, often without apparent success. Life for the disciple, if one really wishes to be a disciple, is a spiritual combat. And this, I believe, is the true message of the story of the Holy Family, commemmorated so peacefully in our beloved crèches.

Things have got so bad that I shall deliver myself of another Yogi-ism: in America today, an overtly healthy, intact family is assumed to be covertly dysfunctional. Normalcy, according to the norm of bygone days, is suspect. But consider what the family is for. It is the incubator of human beings, not so much in the physical sense, in which it is dispensable, but in the spiritual sense. It is where we are equipped to become what God created us to be; parents are merely the stewards of that process. But in a world determined to kill the child, the family cannot achieve its purpose well. In a world determined to be "autonomous," the divine and natural law is steadily supplanted by human law. It is we who now decide, by mores and statutes, what marriage consists in; it is we who now decide whether we shall reproduce naturally or technologically; it is we who decide when conceived children will be allowed to see the light of day; it is we who reserve the right to break up a family, ostensibly for the good of its members. In the so-called developed world, the family is increasingly an artifact of convenience at best.

That "kills the child" because we can no longer accept the family as a gift, the way Mary and Joseph accepted Jesus as a gift, and the way all children are gifts. We have done this to ourselves.

Kyrie, eleison.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Ecology and Autonomy

Yesterday, the Pope spoke of the need to recognize and defend something called the "ecology of man." Significantly, the occasion was the "traditional exchange of Christmas greetings with prelates and members of the Roman Curia." What attracted media attention was, of course, not so much explanation of our duty to be responsible stewards of the rest of the planet; apparently that's taken as platitudinous, which it isn't. The antennae went up for his remarks on gender theory.


"It is not outmoded metaphysics," Benedict XVI affirmed, "when Church speaks of the nature of the human being as man and woman, and demands that this order of creation be respected." He said it has more to do with "faith in the Creator and listening to the language of creation, the contempt of which will lead to the self destruction of humanity." The Pope warned against the manipulation that takes place in national and international forums when the term "gender" is altered. "What is often expressed and understood by the term 'gender,' is definitively resolved in the self-emancipation of the human being from creation and the Creator," he warned. "Man wants to create himself, and to decide always and exclusively on his own about what concerns him." The Pontiff said this is man living "against truth, against the creating Spirit." "The rain forests certainly deserve our protection, but man as creature indeed deserves no less," he added.

The immediate expressions of outrage at that were predictable. What's remarkable about them all the same is their unintended irony.

Most people who consider themselves environmentalists are also left-wing politically and, as such, favor "homosexual rights." Like the Pope, they want to protect the natural ecology; but unlike him, they don't seem to think that there is a human ecology, distinct but not separate from the natural, which entails a normative human sexuality. Indeed, there's a strong movement at the UN to "de-criminalize" homosexual activity, which the Obama Administration will doubtless sign onto. Now as a Catholic and a conservative, I too favor the decriminalization of homosexual acts between consenting adults, as well as of prostitution involving consenting adults, because I believe that such laws cannot be enforced fairly. To that extent, I actually disagree with the Pope. But the decriminalization of homosexual acts is only one item, and not the most important one, on the LGBT agenda. As the reaction to Proposition 8's victory in California indicates, that agenda is less interested in privacy, democracy, and due process than in establishing an ever-widening range of sexual deviancy (i.e., what the phrase "Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender" is really referring to) as equal in moral value to marriage, and in some cases even as marriage. If incoveniences such as the will of the people in a sovereign state get in the way, then recourse to other authorities (the courts, the UN, the Episcopal Church) must be had to eliminate them.

That kind of determination signifies a radical philosophical anthropology, not merely a desire to be free of oppression and hate. The idea is that the freedom of the human person is not so much freedom within the limitations of human nature as freedom to define what human nature is to encompass. Thus if I experience, as a given prior to choice, a desire for genital intercourse with members of the same sex, then respecting my freedom means affirming me when I define my personal identity in those terms. If I experience myself as being of one gender-identity when my overt bodily features would suggest that I'm of the opposite gender-identity, then respecting my freedom means affirming me in my choice to alter my body, surgically and chemically, so as to bring my physical reality more into line with what I take to be my spiritual reality. If all that is so, then the Pope's call for respecting a sexual "ecology of man" on pain of collective self-destruction is a rejection of human freedom at a very basic level, akin to medieval Christendom's physical punishment of those who publicly professed heresy. The Church has outgrown the latter; so why not the former?

The reason is that the latter was a historical distortion of the divine and natural law, whereas the former is a rejection of the very idea of the divine and natural law. Once we claim the right to treat heterosexuality as only an empirical norm, rejecting any suggestion that it is also the moral norm, then we have re-committed the sin of our first parents: aspiring to be as gods, "knowing good and evil" apart from what God has told us. By transgressing the limits God has set for us, we have claimed a moral autonomy that leads only to our spiritual self-destruction. "Original" sin is that state of spiritual destruction which we inherit from our first parents. Carried as far as we've carried that today—e.g., with atomic weaponry, human cloning, and now the idea that marriage need not be between men and women—it could lead to our physical self-destruction too.

Of course the "progressive" response to all this is to insist that religion needs more updating, more "enlightenment," not that humanity needs more humility and self-abnegation before God. But once again, that betrays the assumption that religion as well as morality is a purely human cultural product. The idea that an all-powerful, perfectly holy God might actually have told us that sodomy is an abomination must be "outmoded metaphysics," so that sticking to such an idea is naïve, or a mere defense mechanism, or downright evil. I've heard it all before, and I've heard it many times. But I don't buy it. Like many other human tendencies, homosexuality is objectively disordered at the psychic level—which ought to be evident just by knowing what human genitalia are for. It is incompatible with the ecology of man.

I find it funny that left-wing environmentalists and Gaia-worshippers don't get that. But this Christmas season, when we contemplate God's assuming human nature in the form of an infant, it is perhaps one of the most serious truths we can contemplate.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Cardinal Dulles and the hermeneutic of continuity

I was both saddened and encouraged to learn last week of the death of Avery Dulles, SJ, prince of the Church and de facto dean of America's Catholic theologians for quite some time. Requiescat in pace. He was the sort of man both the Church and our country needed, and left behind a substantial body of useful work. Now we no longer have his gentle, sage, and moderate voice, which he lost even before the end, which is sad. But we will have his intercession before the Throne—which I'm sure will have greater effect than his opponents realize.

Perhaps his most signal contribution to the contentious world of post-Vatican-II Catholic theology was his suave advocacy of what the present pope has termed "the hermeneutic of continuity," about which I've written more than once before. To a considerable extent, the Church in the developed world has become ideologically polarized:

Thus, while trads resent Rome for spoiling the oldie-goldie days of full pews and sound teaching, the progs resent Rome for failing to commit the Church to the liberal-Protestant agenda that their mythos still peddles as the wave of the future. Both sets of malcontents believe that the Second Vatican Council constituted a decisive break with the Church of the past; the main difference is that the trads, decrying the break, want the Council to become a dead letter while the progs, celebrating it as "the spirit of Vatican II," are impatient for the Church to complete what they take to be the Council's revolutionary work.

Such polarization is, in other words, facilitated by the hermeneutic of discontinuity. It has been the work of such churchmen as Wojtyla, Ratzinger, and Avery Dulles to offer a hermeneutic of continuity that is intellectually more challenging than ideology but, ultimately, the only one capable of upholding the catholicity of the Church over time as well as space.

A good example of how that works on concrete issues is this book edited by Scott Hahn. One of Dulles' last books, Magisterium: Teacher and Guardian of the Faith, an indispensable summary of the topic for non-specialists, is another example. Of course the objections raised to that book are motivated mostly by the hermeneutic of discontinuity. It is claimed that the Church's course of doctrinal development, by dropping or even reversing certain teachings, belies the Magisterium's claims to being infallible under certain conditions. Dulles did much in his earlier work to rebut that charge, but much remains to be done.

My "Development and Negation" (see sidebar link) series was a start. I'm trying to turn that into a pamphlet. I invite suggestions; I'm thinking "Catholic Truth Society."

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Back to the grindstone

Thanks to all who've expressed concern about me. I've been spending the last few months looking for full-time work and doing occasional day labor. For reasons well known to those who know me well, I do not have the luxury of time; if I did, I'd be off to DC or Rome to earn a papal licentiate in theology, which would take about a year-and-a-half. So I suspended blogging for the duration, on the assumption that I would not have too much difficulty landing the sort of job I held for the last several years. For reasons understandable to anybody who follows the news, that assumption has proven incorrect; despite a number of interviews and promising leads, nothing has so far materialized. Yet I've decided to resume blogging anyway, on the principle that the Lord expects my abilities to be used in his service.

Spiritually, the break has been fruitful. I have not succumbed to depression, my congenital danger; indeed, I've come to realize that it had become too close and old a friend. I'm done with that because I believe God dismissed her. Instead, I have received a greater outpouring of love and support, from true old friends as well as new acquaintances, than I ever thought possible. I cannot and do not want to sing for my own pity party, because people do care and help. The Spirit is at work. Amid and often through my daily struggles, the Lord has been making clear to me that it's time to trust him completely and just do the things he created me to do. That's why I'm back. The rest will take care of itself. "Seek ye first..."

There's been much to ponder in what's termed "current events." Often, the mega-event unfolding through them does so without being noticed as such. I get the sense in prayer that what's happening in the world today is a clearing of the field for a truly decisive struggle between good and evil. The clearing process is most evident in the worldwide economic recession, which is a deserved crisis of trust, and in bioethics.

I do not believe that the election of Barack Obama to the Presidency will arrest the process; indeed, his ascendancy is part of it. Like the complicity of the German people in the Holocaust, his stand on abortion is atrocious because it does not, will not, recognize the atrocity. To hear him tell it, the moral question is beyond his pay grade. The atrocity will be held in check, if at all, only because the Democrats have failed to gain a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. But whether Obama gets FOCA through Congress or not, this country stands under judgment. His election showed that the majority of the American people, including the majority of Catholics, cared more about their money and about getting past Bush than about the ongoing holocaust that their false conception of liberty has licensed.

The economic crisis is simply the unravelling of illusions that were sustained by the same sort of greed. As usual when a financial panic has set in, the new fear is as irrational as the old greed; so now we have a downward spiral rather than an inflating bubble. Eons ago, paper money was backed by gold that the government was presumed to have; now it is backed only by trust that people, and above all the government, will pay their debts with the same selfsame paper, or even with just computer bytes representing that paper. When that trust is diminished by real events such as the foreclosure fiasco, money is not lent, capital does not move, jobs are lost instead of created. I believe that the trust will not be fully regained. And I believe so not because I am ignorant of business cycles, in which booms alternate with busts; I believe so because I believe that God will no longer permit business as usual.

Humanity is killing its children and poisoning the planet at an unprecedented rate. The West, with its moral and spiritual decadence, faces a fanatical enemy dedicated to destroying it---not just in two active theaters of war, but in as many ways and places as they can. Above all, however, we are proceeding with the "abolition of man" himself. 

Britain and other countries now see nothing wrong with creating human beings for the express purpose of harvesting their cells for the benefit of others. Legally, such human beings can be altered and killed at will. The rot hasn't set in quite as far here; but it's only a matter of time, especially with the Democrats in charge. And it's only the latest symptom of the underlying disease.

First it was eugenics, which got a bad name because the Nazis practiced it; now it's back, in the form of "pre-natal screening," which will be ubiquitous within the lifetime of baby-boomers. And the ball's been rollin' for a while. Widespread contraception created the general impression that sex and procreation need have nothing to do with each other. That has been gradually destroying not only sexual morality in general but marriage in particular, which is why homosexual liaisons can be regarded as marriage, which they aren't. Then, artificial reproduction not only reinforced that separation but made it possible to treat children as commodities. With IVF, embryonic stem-cell research, and now pre-natal screening, that's exactly what we have. When sexuality becomes a commodity for the mainstream culture, our children are not far behind. And when that happens, it's a sign that we have surrendered completely to our own appetites.

One term for this is 'moral relativism'. Hving reduced morality to prejudice, policy, and will-to-power, we are left with nothing by which to evaluate our appetites. In that case, we are ruled simply by the appetites of the most powerful among us, and have no appeal against them other than our own. It's the law of the jungle all over again. C.S. Lewis termed that terminus "the abolition of man"---the title of one of the most prophetic books of modern times.

But I do not believe that God will let things reach that terminus. Humanity is not a mere evolutionary experiment doomed to self-destruct. Each of us, rather, is conceived by God in love, even when our human parents did not conceive us in love; each of us is destined to eternal life, bodily as well as spiritual, in fellowship with the Triune Love. That is why one of those Persons was sent to die and rise for us: to reach into the very depths of our wretched sinfulness, and of the suffering brought on by sin, so as to lift us into a share in the divine nature itself.  A God who wants that for us, and can do his own will, won't let us completely ruin the earth, and re-bestialize ourselves in the process, before the Great Restoration.

In the meantime, please pray that I soon get the job God wants me to have.