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

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Petitionary prayer and miracles

Today's Gospel reading in the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite is about miraculous healings Jesus did in response to faith-filled requests. Most people react to such stories by asking why the divine and risen Lord doesn't do the same for the countless others who ask, in apparent faith, for the same sort of thing on behalf of themselves or loved ones. And I know firsthand that many have lost faith precisely because, after fervent and persistent prayers for such miracles, what they request does not happen. Atheists beat us over the head with that often. The latest instance in the blogosphere is this post by Heather McDonald of the "Secular Right" (H/T to Andrew Sullivan).

She writes:

I take it that believers do not ascribe such inconsistent results to capriciousness on God’s part, but rather to their own limited capacities to understand God’s ways: “Thy Will be done.” But why continue directing any psychic energy to a being so lacking in sympathetic correspondence to human needs and values. It will not do to say: “God does respond to our prayers, but in ways that we cannot fathom.” Saving a child from cancer and letting a child die from cancer cannot both be a sympathetic response to prayer; if we had wanted a stricken child to die in order to secure an earlier entry to heaven, we would have said so. And if premature death from cancer is such a boon, why doesn’t a loving God provide it to one and all?

Now believers can answer those questions in a self-consistent way. Before they can address McDonald's first and quite common question, they should begin with acknowledging the obvious.

Almost by definition, miracles involving tangible exceptions to the natural order must be rare. The very term 'miracle' comes from the Latin miraculum, meaning 'a marvel', and we don't marvel when things happen as the natural order would lead us to expect. We marvel only at the favorable exceptions. Second and more substantively, we cannot expect regular exceptions to the natural order, whether favorable or unfavorable. If we could, the natural order would cease to be the natural order; and not even the most fervent religious believers claim that God will destroy the natural order before Kingdom Come. Hence, not even believers really expect God to answer most prayers for miracles in the way the petitioners explicitly ask. Of course, many unbelievers object: "So much the worse for the natural order." That's really a way of posing the so-called "problem of evil" as an objection to classical theism. But such an objection has force only if it be assumed that our utility calculations are better than God's. Believers need not take that assumption seriously.

Nevertheless, defenders of the faith are not done demonstrating their self-consistency. For the most common rebuttal to the argument I've offered so far is to cite biblical passages such as today's Gospel. Jesus not only did healing miracles in response to faith-filled requests; he is generally taken to have assured believers that if our own requests are faith-filled, we can expect marvels from God in response. But not even the most devout petitioners are usually answered with the marvels they're actually seeking. So, if we take Jesus at his word, then the fact that the vast majority of such requests go unfulfilled should be taken as evidence that they weren't filled enough with faith. Or so the argument goes—and it isn't an argument offered only by skeptics. In some Christian quarters, mostly evangelical and pentecostal, people really believe that if they just believed hard enough, they'd get what they're asking for. So if they don't get it, they conclude that they didn't believe hard enough. That may well be true in this or that case; but if my argument in the previous paragraph is correct, it could not be true in the generality of cases. To believe it's true in the generality of cases is, I think, silly and destructive. For the most part, we cannot "believe" God into doing such things for us. That would be magic, and Christians are not supposed to be magicians. It could hardly be otherwise. How, then, is a believer to show that her faith is at least consistent with what Jesus is recorded as having said and done?

Not a few Christians, mostly mainline or conservative Protestants, believe that "the age of miracles" pretty much ended with the death of the last of the Apostles. For the purpose of such miracles was to signify the occurrence and meaning of the central event of divine self-disclosure: what theologians often call "the Christ-event." Now that divine revelation is definitive and complete, there is no need for a proliferation of healing miracles. The "ordinary means" of faith and personal conversion are enough for appreciating what Jesus' miracles signified: the tangible presence of the God-Man and the meaning of his main message, which is God's merciful and healing love for us. Once that message was got across by the Christ-event as recorded in the New Testament, the natural order could and should be left undisturbed.

There is some element of truth in that view—which I shall call the "cessationist" view (CV)—but I don't think it will ultimately do. For one thing, it is not the traditional Christian answer. For 1,500 years before the Protestant Reformation, Christians took for granted that healing and other miracles occurred surprisingly often in response to prayer—usually, petitions for the intercession of the saints with God. Devout Catholics and Orthodox still take that for granted. Indeed, by no means all Protestants today accept CV: the fastest-growing segments of Protestantism are just those whose adherents seek and expect miracles. It's easy to chalk that up to wishful thinking; but the fact is that CV has never been the prevailing view among Christians. The relative dearth of miracles today can be explained by the same reasons which explain the relative dearth of miracles generally. Of course CV is not entirely without merit. If Christianity is true, then we would expect more miracles from Jesus and the Apostles then in latter times. But it doesn't follow that we can expect none; nor do Christians in general believe there are none.

The only way, I believe, to preserve the traditional view's self-consistency is to show why the relative and necessary rarity of healing miracles since the time of Christ should not be taken as evidence against what Jesus promised to those with "faith." And one can do that only by pointing out that, assuming that Jesus' promise applies to his latter-day followers, he cannot usually answer prayers made today, in the spirit of the centurion or the woman with the hemorrhage, in the way that the petitioners want—at least not with anything like the frequency with which he found it expedient to do them with while still on earth. To do so would be to destroy the natural order that he himself wills to continue, and thus to "immanentize the Eschaton" before he's ready. So, if he does answer them favorably, that must be in some way other than what the petitioners are explicitly seeking.

This is where McDonald's first question becomes not just directly pertinent, but also applicable to petitionary prayer generally. She asks: "[W]hy continue directing any psychic energy to a being so lacking in sympathetic correspondence to human needs and values[?]" The answer is that God is not lacking in "sympathetic correspondence" to our needs, but wills to re-orient our values to align more closely with our needs—the chief of which is redemption, which requires faith. After the Christ-event and before the Eschaton, redemption does not usually consist in miraculous physical healing and, for reasons I've already given, could not. But that doesn't mean it doesn't happen on occasion. It happens just often enough to constitute a ratio credendi for those already moved by grace to grasp the main point of such miracles. That point is, as Jesus said in response to a question raised about his restoring sight to the man blind from birth (John 9: 1-41): "to show forth God's mercy." But that is shown forth in other ways too: chiefly by the lives of those who have truly accepted divine mercy by means of repentance and faith.

Needless to say, that invites another objection implicit in McDonald's last question: if what God does, or fails to do, for one person is what's good for that person, why not for that other person too, who might well "need" it as much if not more? I shall call that the "arbitrariness" objection, or 'AO' for short.

The Christian answer to AO can only be that God's perspective is more unlike than like the one we naturally adopt. We cannot always or even often know how each of us as individuals will serve best as signs and instruments of God's redemption of the world. If we did, we would enjoy a perspective that we could not fully share even in heaven—even though the blessed in heaven presumably share more of it than anybody still in via. Accordingly, AO is a sign of lack of faith. But notice that miracles were never promised to those who lack faith. So, AO is not only misguided but self-defeating. By implicitly tasking God or believers with explaining God's methods, it precludes the very state of mind necessary for getting an answer that might otherwise be satisfactory. That is the lesson of Job.

Of course that leaves open a final, perennially vexing question: how do petitionary prayers influence God? According to classical theism, God's actions are eternal and unalterable, so that we cannot literally "change his mind." To that question, the only reasonable answer is this: God eternally and unalterably chooses, by lights infinitely greater than ours, how he will favorably answer prayer that he eternally and unalterably knows is offered in genuine faith. And in most cases since his appearance on earth, that will mean that people are "healed" in ways knowable only to the eyes of faith.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Archdiocese of Boston drops abortion-providing deal

That's the story the Catholic blogosphere is abuzz about. I wrote about the impending scandal two weeks ago. At that time, there was no evidence that Cardinal O'Malley was going to back out. Now he has. What a relief to see that he has stopped trying to square a circle.

Thanks to people like Carol McKinley and Julie Brown for holding his feet to the fire. McKinley complains that O'Malley was "outsourcing his conscience" by referring the matter to the National Catholic Bioethics Center. But I think it more likely that he knew the correct decision already, and was simply using the NCBC as political cover for what will surely be a firestorm from the Left within his ranks.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Why the arguments for atheism are moral arguments, and why that matters

At ST Ia Q2 A3, where Aquinas offers his well-known "five ways" of proving God's existence, he notes and replies to two objections. To paraphrase, the first is that "infinite goodness" is incompatible with the existence of "evil"; the second, that citing God is "superfluous" as an explanation for the world's existence. It's pretty evident that the problem of evil and the superfluity of God qua explanation are posed as the most common objections even today to classical theism. Aquinas presents them, in effect, as metaphysical objections and answers them accordingly. But I shall argue instead that they are, at bottom, moral objections. If I'm right, that has great significance for natural theology and apologetics.

My claim that people pose the problem of evil as a basically moral objection to classical theism ought to be uncontroversial. The most common way of pressing the objection is to argue that God's permitting some people to suffer horribly beyond their deserts, when he could prevent it, is immoral. That is taken to be incompatible with God's being perfectly good, a quality classical theists ascribe to God. Of course, another way to pose the problem of evil as an objection is to argue that, although a perfectly good God might well want to prevent such suffering, he is powerless to do so. That is taken to be incompatible with omnipotence, another attribute classical theists ascribe to God. But that way of pressing the objection is fairly easy to answer. Although an omnipotent God could well have created a world in which suffering does not far outstrip deserts, God has not done so; given the natural order God has willed, it is logically impossible to prevent such presumptively disproportionate suffering without divine intervention so regular as to destroy the natural order of things. And omnipotence neither need nor should be thought to include the ability to do the logically impossible. So much is, or ought to be, obvious. Of course, the standard reply to that defense is to argue that God is immoral for creating and sustaining such a natural order of things in the first place when, as granted, God could have done otherwise. But that's essentially the same as the first way of pressing the problem of evil as an objection to classical theism.

My claim that the superfluity objection is also, at bottom, a moral one is much more controversial. Most of what follows provides my argument for it.

Metaphysical (as distinct from methodological) naturalists typically hold that the sorts of explanation of the world's existence proffered by classical theists—chiefly, by means of a posteriori cosmological and teleological reasoning—cannot do the sort of work that explanations in general are supposed to do. If so, then citing God as creator and/or designer of the world fails to explain anything; therefore, there is no reason to hold that God as explicans exists. But what does it mean to say that theistic explanation of the world's existence doesn't do the sort of work that explanations are supposed to do?

Classical theists should not, and the most intelligent among them do not, argue that presenting God as creator and/or designer does better explanatory work than the natural sciences. Those sciences have their own explanatory aims and canons which, though not immune to revision, remain exactly as they are whether or not classical theism is true. The theistic argument is, rather, that citing God as explicans does a different sort of explanatory work than natural science. The naturalist reply is that no such alleged "explanation" should be counted as explanation. What is the argument for that reply?

To explain something is to account for why it thus and not otherwise. In order do that, one must show that the explicandum would have been different if the explicans had been different. But classical theism does not claim that the world would have been different if God did not exist; the claim is that the world would not exist at all if God did not exist. That requires holding, among other things, that the world can and should be conceived as a certain totality which counts as an explicandum, such that only the action of something not comprised by that totality could account, in some non-trivial way, for why just that totality exists. But it will not do to characterize said totality simply as the physical universe studied by natural science, even at some hypothetical state before the Big Bang. For all we know, the primordial universe might have been the product of something else which could not qualify as the God of classical theism, but which might turn out to be identifiable by means of natural science—if not our science, then somebody else's. No, the totality that divine activity supposedly explains must be the totality-of-things-that-happen. Call that 'T'. Granted we do not know its full extent, T certainly exists. But such a totality, the naturalist would say, cannot admit of non-trivial explanation. We can explain its existence simply by noting that each of its constituents exist; but that would be trivial, and certainly not what the classical theist is after. And the reason we cannot have what the theist is after is that the theist cannot say what would have been different about T if God did not exist. T remains just as it is, whatever it is, whether or not God exists. Hence, goes the argument, citing divine activity to explain T's existence does not and could not really explain anything. There is no non-trivial explanation of T's existence. As Laplace said, there is no need of the God-hypothesis. It is superfluous.

From this point of view, it will not do to cite some version of "the principle of sufficent reason" as a premise in an argument for the claim that something not comprised by T accounts for T's existence as a totality. There's already "reason enough" for T's existence as a totality: that of each of its constitutents. But that is hardly germane. What the theist must do instead is show that T is the sort of entity whose existence calls for another sort of explanation altogether. Yet how is the theist to do that? The only way he can do it is to show that, whatever the extent of T as a totality, its constituents cannot, either individually or collectively, account for the general causal regularities that must be cited in some explanation of how things happen as they do—i.e., the constituents of T cannot account for the "laws of nature." But that sort of explanation would have to show that such laws would have been different if God as creator and/or designer did not exist. And that in turn would have to cite some sort of causal regularity. But given that such regularities are supposed to be part of what's being explained, such an explanation cannot qualify as an explanation at all.

It might seem that the way for the theist to begin countering that line is to point out that it premises scientism: the thesis that only what can be known scientifically can be known at all. He can then go on to argue that there is no good reason to believe scientism. And he would be quite right. Humans have always known various things non-scientifically, and no scientific argument for scientism can be given. But that will not suffice by itself. For the naturalist can always argue that, even if scientism is false, his point about explanation remains untouched. Even if there are things natural science cannot explain, and thus cannot know, that's no reason to believe that T's existence can be explained in some other way. Unless and until the theist can show that his "explanation" of T's existence does what explanations do, he hasn't explained anything.

As I've suggested, the debate is really about the nature of explanation. It is evident that there are successful explanations in the contexts of ordinary life and natural science, but it is by no means evident that there can be a kind of explanation which doesn't tell us how things would have gone differently if the explicans did not exist. To be sure, the theist must say that, if God did not exist, then T would not either—a conditional statement which, if true, would be a non-trivial truth. But that doesn't tell us that things would have been different if God did not exist; it only tells us that there would have been no "things" to be either the same or different if God did not exist. Absent some account of explanation which shows that such a peculiar result can function as explanations do, the theist has not established that he's explained anything. Nor will it do for the theist to insist that T is the sort of thing whose existence is explicable; for the only "sorts" of things we are familiar with are the sorts of things already comprised by T.

The only honest way for the theist to proceed is to argue that the question "Why does T exist?" is meaningful in such a way that one could reasonably entertain a non-trivial answer to it. That would show that we cannot rule out T's existence being explicable in terms of something which T does not comprise. And the only way to develop such an argument is to show that (a) one cannot rule out that T's existence embodies an intention, because (b) intentional explanations need not be thought reducible to causal explanations, which perforce cite natural regularities. That kind of argument has been given from time to time. In my hoary PhD thesis, I developed along such lines a book-length argument that it's more reasonable to allow for a unitary explicans of T's existence than to rule out the possibility of such an explicans on epistemological grounds. I still would argue to that effect.

As I've discovered over the years, however, the naturalist objection to that move is an essentially moral one. In ordinary life, natural science, and especially in formal disciplines such as logic and mathematics, there are reliable, agreed-upon methods for evaluating explanations as successful or unsuccessful. Prima facie at least, there are no such methods in natural theology—a discipline that not even the majority of religious believers find helpful. Given as much, naturalists typically argue that one ought not to expect people to find any of the putative explanations of natural theology cogent as explanations. Expecting people to do so is, in fact, morally defective. For such "explanations" necessarily transcend the sorts of considerations that it's reasonable to count as evidence; expecting people to go beyond the evidence in forming their beliefs is expecting what's unreasonable; and expecting from people what's unreasonable is a sign of disreputable motives that are themselves all too evident in the history of religion.

To judge from the recent literature of the "new atheism," which is really the old atheism with shoddier arguments, that's the kind of objection, other than that from the problem of evil, which motivates people to be atheists. I have no doubt, of course, that some atheists are such because they very much don't want to consider the implications for their lives if Christianity or some other form of classical theism is true. But that only serves to supply theists with a moral argument against atheism that is too ad hominem to be worth pressing. The real interest of the moral arguments against theism is that they steer the debate into a channel where the theist is on firmer ground. What is that ground?

Regarding the problem of evil, the theist can and ought to argue that the atheist has no moral legs to stand on. If a given atheist is an emotivist or some other sort of non-cognitivist in moral philosophy, he has no reason to believe that there are objectively binding moral norms which God fails to satisfy. If a given atheist is a utilitarian or some other sort of consequentialist in moral philosophy, he has no reason to believe that God's utility calculations, if there is a God, are inferior to his own. If a given atheist is some sort of deontologist in moral philosophy, he must show several things: that the moral norms he believes bind humans absolutely do so even though there is no God; that even if there were a God, those norms would bind God in pretty much the same fashion as us; and that God, if there were a God, cannot be said to observe them. All that is, at the very least, a tall order.

Regarding explanation and evidence, the atheist needs to show more than merely that it's unreasonable to expect people in general to find classical-theist natural theology persuasive. That people in general do not find such theology persuasive is easily accounted for by factors other than the objective quality of its arguments. Most people lack the happy combination of time, talent, and education to study and evaluate such arguments, so that whatever the reasons this-or-that person might have for believing in God, they cannot be faulted for leaving natural theology alone. For that reason, classical-theist philosophers don't expect most people to follow and evaluate their arguments. So the debate is really among philosophers, and the question whether one ought to go beyond what's generally recognized as evidence is a debate in moral philosophy and psychology.

About that debate, I shall conclude by noting that the atheist has a lot more work to do than simply pointing out that something called "religion" violates his moral norms. There are many different forms of religion, and some are more capable of moral self-reformation than others. But what is such "moral self-reformation" supposed to amount to? Before a charge of immorality can be made to stick, there has to be antecedent and common agreement about what morality requires. A person who wants to press a moral argument against theism, but who believes that the universe is morally indifferent and that no transcendent lawgiver underwrites morality, is burdened with showing that the moral norms he upholds are objectively binding as such. For unless and until he can do that, his moral arguments against theism can do no more than beg the question.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Patching up the seamless garment

With the appointment of Alexia Kelley, until now executive director of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good (CACG) to a Department of Health and Human Services headed by the shameless Kathleen Sebelius, the Obama Administration is not merely paying off prominent Catholic supporters. It is seeking systematically to co-opt those Catholics who still buy into the "seamless-garment" approach to social issues named as such, and pioneered, by the late, widely loved Joseph Cardinal Bernardin of...ahem, Chicago. For the moment it's working politically; but intellectually, there has been regress not progress among Catholics.

Since the late 1990s, the US bishops have on the whole been abandoning the seamless-garment approach. With increasing clarity, they have insisted on assigning greater weight to combating certain practices called "intrinsic evils" by the Magisterium, such as abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem-cell research, and same-sex marriage, than on promoting certain social goods, such as universal health care and humane immigration policy, which reasonable Catholics can differ about how and how much to promote. That shift of emphasis is only logical given the clear content of Church teaching. But President Obama's having won the election with almost 54% of the Catholic vote has re-energized Catholic progressives to patch up a seamless garment that's become rather tattered. If only to vary my intellectual exercise routine, I had been hoping to hear fresh arguments from them. But the patching process exhibits precisely the same shoddy reasoning so long characteristic of the Catholic left. Herein I shall discuss two examples.

The first is the performance of Pepperdine University law professor Douglas Kmiec, a prominent Obama supporter, at a recent debate with Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton and founder of the American Principles Project. (You can watch the Windows Media video here; at about an hour and twenty minutes, it's long for those who don't enjoy this sort of thing, and too short for those who do.) For a Catholic intellectual who once sported conservative credentials, Kmiec's arguments are remarkably weak. The following account by attendee Michael J. New, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Alabama and a visiting fellow at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, sums up the debate accurately:

...the best word to describe Doug Kmiec would be evasive. He tried to argue that other issues trumped sanctity of life issues when voting. He tried to make the case that the new stem cell regulations were part of a reasonable compromise. He said that denying holy communion to Catholic politicians who support legal abortion was counterproductive. Finally, he argued that science has not come to a consensus about the sanctity of human life. He was all over the place and on no issue was he particularly persuasive.

Interestingly, Kmiec did not spend much time talking about abortion trends. He briefly claimed (wrongly) that abortions increased during the presidency of the first President Bush. He briefly cited the decline in the abortion rate that occurred during the Clinton administration. But he gave credit to the strong economy. While this is partly true, he did not mention state level pro-life laws. At least he did not claim welfare spending caused the 1990s abortion decline.

Professor George, on the other hand succeeded in describing vivid contrasts between President Obama and the pro-life movement. Professor George described in great detail Obama's refusal to support incremental pro-life laws and his administration's efforts to fund abortion both in DC and in other countries. He also found it telling that while the Obama administration wants to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies, they never express an interest in lowering the number of abortions. Overall the Obama administration does not think that fetal life is worthy of legal protection which makes finding common ground very difficult, if not impossible.

Overall, Professor George was concise, hard hiting and made his points well throughout the course of the debate.

Kmiec's position is the same I have heard from many Catholic progressives over the years: given political and scientific reality, the best Catholics can do in the public square by way of promoting the sanctity of life is to cease trying to prohibit the killing of embryos and fetuses, and instead back public policies which will presumably reduce people's motivation for violating the sanctity of life. Those policies turn out, of course, to be remarkably similar to those of the Democratic Party on the full range of relevant issues. But political opportunism is natural. What's unnatural is how many people are taken in by the rationalizations for it.

Much of the progressives' case consists in arguments from alleged empirical fact. It is constantly asserted, for example, that reducing poverty by means of social programs will reduce abortion, so that, given how entrenched the Roe regime is likely to remain, the most effective means of reducing abortion is to reduce poverty. Now it stands to reason that reducing poverty would reduce some women's motivation for having abortions; the abortion rate did go down during the Clinton years, when the economy was strong. But so did teenage pregnancy; and it might be that whatever explained that development also explained the abortion reduction. Moreover, there is no evidence that laws restricting or discouraging abortion, which many states have, would not reduce abortion at least as much if not more than poverty reduction. Kmiec failed to address such considerations. Moreover, he offered no defense of the Administration's desire to repeal the long-standing Hyde Amendment forbidding the use of federal funds for abortion. It stands to reason that subsidizing abortion only encourages abortion; so, even if reducing poverty reduces abortion, making abortion a standard feature of subsidized health care is all too liable to cancel out the reduction as well as violate the consciences of many health-care workers. Kmiec did not address that issue either. Indeed, he had no answer to George's amply documented charge that Obama, who has alluded on occasion to the worthiness of reducing the "need" (!) for abortion, lacks genuine interest in actually reducing abortions.

What Kmiec said about the lack of scientific consensus is trivially true and substantively false. Of course there is no scientific consensus about the sanctity of life; for science never has and never will have anything to say about such matters. But that doesn't affect what science can and does tell us: that human embryos are individuals genetically distinct from their parents. In conjunction with Prof. Patrick Lee, Prof. George has made abundantly clear how that fact is relevant to both the abortion and the embryonic-stem-cell debate; see here and here. The question is not whether the embryo is a human being; science establishes that it is. The question is whether human beings who have not yet developed a certain kind and degree of consciousness are persons, and thus subjects of rights, beginning with the right not to be killed for the convenience of others. That is an essentially philosophical question, which one needn't profess any particular religion in order to advocate answering in the affirmative. So, while the pro-life position cannot be deduced from scientific knowledge, such knowledge can and should be used as evidence to support it.

From a strictly Catholic standpoint, Kmiec's argument for allowing pro-Roe Catholic politicians to receive the Eucharist did not engage the actual canon-law argument for denying them the Eucharist. Given his profession, that is unconscionable. Before he became Prefect of the Apostolic Signatura, the Catholic Church's supreme court, Archbishop Raymond Burke made an airtight case that Canon 915 calls for bishops to do just what Kmiec says they should not do about this matter. That's probably a major reason why the Pope made him prefect. Unfortunately, only a minority of American bishops agree; but even the most influential representative of the majority, Cardinal Donald Weurl of Washington, doesn't really address Burke's argument. The position Wuerl defends is simply this: "the canonical approach" doesn't "change hearts," so canon law be damned. Now for one thing, that would serve just as well as an argument against excommunication for any offense whatsoever, thus undermining the very concept of worthiness to receive the Eucharist. And aside from the impropriety of such a position for an archbishop, Wuerl's is an empirically-based argument unsupported by evidence—for the perfectly obvious reason that the approach it rejects hasn't been widely adopted. Even if being denied communion didn't turn out to change many politicians' hearts, it could be a powerful witness to many others at a time when the bishops' moral credibility has not recovered from the sex-abuse scandal. Perhaps that's partly why support for the hard-line position has been slowly increasing; the latest to back Burke's stance is his newly-installed successor in the See of St. Louis.

The second example of seamless-garment patching I want to discuss is this post by Stephen Schneck on the CACG website, which criticizes more general arguments from Prof. George and Justice Antonin Scalia. It is a classic instance of political obfuscation.

During a speech at Villanova in the fall of 2007, Scalia remarked: “Just as there is no ‘Catholic’ way to cook a hamburger, I am hard pressed to tell you of a single opinion of mine that would come out differently if I were not Catholic.” In a speech given at CUA a few weeks ago, George "proposed that [the] institutional Church should refrain from promoting public policies except when the issue at hand is a matter of intrinsic evil." Schneck criticizes such remarks as instances of an attitude he sees in Catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, who concluded his widely-read 1984 book After Virtue with the following, even more widely quoted passage:

And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of the predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.

Schneck calls that conclusion "silly," an instance of arguing for a "retreat into sects of so-called pure Christianity." To hear him tell it, conservative Catholic intellectuals are now thinking in the same vein:

If progressives are in charge in America, the thinking goes, then the truly faithful should withdraw from everyday political life, so as to deny any legitimacy to “immoral” opponents. Instead of cooperating where there is common ground, we should rather hunker in faithful Catholic bastions, catapulting morality at barbarians beyond the gate and firing up the inquisition for apostates found within the walls. Let’s name this mood “After Virtue Retreatism..."

Such thinking, says Schneck, is opposed to the constant teaching of the Church about the need for political engagement, especially as developed in Gaudium et spes.

Now I can't speak with confidence about MacIntyre's interest, or lack thereof, in political engagement. Given his age and temperament, I doubt he's all that interested. But Schneck's criticism of Scalia and George is as silly as he believes MacIntyre's thoughtful conclusion to be.

Scalia's remark was never intended to suggest that the Catholic faith should not affect the values and priorities of Catholic politicians. If only as an ardent pro-lifer, Scalia does let his personal beliefs affect what he believes ought to be the law. We all let our personal moral beliefs do that. Rather, his remark was intended to suggest that the Catholic faith should not affect his understanding, as a SCOTUS justice, of what the Constitution actually says and means. Insofar as it presents universal values and norms which can be seen as such by human reason, the Catholic faith cannot but influence a thinking Catholic's view of what legislation and policy ought to be. But that is perfectly compatible with Scalia's view that constitutional jurisprudence should not consist in determining what the Constitution, and a fortiori legislation or policy, ought to be, as distinct from what the Constitution actually says and means. In effect, Scalia has bent over backwards not to adopt sectarian assumptions in his approach to jurisprudence. That is quintessentially American, not slyly Benedictine.

On the other hand, Catholic progressives insist that some tenets of Catholic social teaching ought to influence the interpretations of Catholic jurists. Some, but not of course others—such as those on procreation and marriage. What Schneck is doing, in effect, is depicting Scalia as a sectarian and a bad Catholic for being a constitutional strict-constructionist, when in fact Schneck is more sectarian than Scalia and at least as selective in the political weight he assigns to various tenets of Catholic social teaching. Such performative self-contradiction sells well in today's Washington, precisely because it is a classic case of political ideology displacing theology. But that is Schneck's problem, not Scalia's.

Schneck's treatment of Prof. George misconstrues the latter's point so thoroughly that one suspects disingenuousness. George holds that the political role of the Catholic hierarchy should be restricted to efforts to restrain what all Catholics are bound to believe are not only heinous but intrinsic social evils—for example, abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriage, and embryonic stem-cell research. That's because, according to Catholic teaching, there is no room for reasonable disagreement among Catholics that such practices are grave social evils in themselves, and should never be cooperated with regardless of any good consequences that might be thought to come from doing so. On the other hand, progressives want "the institutional Church" (i.e., the hierarchy) to push for laws and public policies that, while quite possibly promoting certain broad goods emphasized in Catholic social teaching, are really particular means of promoting those goods. And they want the hierarchy to do that while forgoing direct efforts to limit the grave social evils mentioned above. But Catholics can reasonably disagree about the wisdom of adopting this or that means of attaining what they should agree are social goods; as John Paul II made clear in Evangelium Vitae and Veritatis Splendor, there is no similar room for disagreement about the need to use all available political means to prevent what is intrinsically and heinously evil.

Schenk argues that George, in adopting such a position, is calling for a retreat into world-escaping sectarianism. But George's point is not that Catholics should refrain from political and personal action to help the poor, the sick, and the outcast, or to limit war and capital punishment (even though those latter two are not intrinsic evils). Many Catholics do engage in such action; many should; and George never suggested that they should not. His point is that the Catholic hierarchy should avoid pronouncing on policy questions on which it lacks special competence, and focus instead on doing what they can to limit practices whose intrinsic moral evil they are competent as clerics to know and proclaim. That leaves debatable questions of policy to competent laity while upholding moral norms which, from the standpoint of Catholic doctrine, are non-negotiable.

One argument for that position is strictly "in-house" and pastoral. If the bishops' political statements stayed within their true competence, political polarization among Catholics would not be as great as it is after several generations of the bishops' addressing what's truly debatable with as much emphasis as what isn't. But the other argument arises from understanding the objective importance of the non-negotiables for society at large.

Catholics can endlessly debate, for example, how reconcile the need to treat immigrants humanely with the need to control our borders and do justice to taxpayers. We can endlessly debate how much military expenditure is necessary for our security, whether this-or-that intervention meets just-war criteria, or whether there can be conditions under which the death penalty is justified. We can endlessly debate what are the most efficient and just means of ensuring access to adequate health-care for all citizens. But it's usually unclear how much our society's future hinges on the precise way in which such questions are resolved politically. By contrast, there can be no debate among Catholics about whether abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem-cell research, or same-sex "marriage" form striking features of the "culture of death." They do and we know it. As the impending demographic winter of the West indicates, it is the culture of death as a whole which poses the gravest threat to our civilization's future. Hence, George is right to stress their overriding political importance from the Church's viewpoint. Without prejudice to the need of bishops in some other countries to address different conditions, the American hierarchy best serves our polity, as well as the Church, by generally limiting its public-policy statements to combating the culture of death. That position is not a "retreat" into an enclave of purity. It casts no doubt on the need for Catholics to act as morally responsible citizens across the full range of issues. It simply recognizes the ecclesial and social desirability of the hierarchy's stressing only what it's best suited to stress.

There are only two possible explanations why a Catholic would call that stance "After-Virtue Retreatism." One would be that he simply disagrees with the Magisterium about the relative weight to assign various tenets of her social teaching. From that point of view, the problem with conservative Catholics is simply that they agree with the pope and the bishops about the social importance of the points in contention. But thinking with the pope and the bishops on such points is only sectarian if the doctrines themselves are sustainable only in light of divine revelation rather than of human reason. That's not a consistent position for a Catholic to take; for the pro-life and pro-marriage points in contention are presented as items of the natural law. Thus, unlike laws meant to apply to Catholics as such, they apply universally if at all and can be supported in non-Catholic terms. Moreover, if progressive Catholics insist they are free qua Catholics to dissent from the teaching of the Church on such matters, then they have deprived themselves of any logical basis for criticizing conservatives as bad Catholics for dissenting on other matters.

The other explanation would be that progressives, while agreeing with the Magisterium about the intrinsic evil of abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem-cell research, and same-sex "marriage," see such issues as lost causes in contemporary society and hence not worth the energy needed for the political opposition that the hierarchy and conservative Catholics present. That view is fairly common, and not just among progressives. If it's correct, then people like Prof. George are just tilting at windmills, which is more about self-satisfaction and group solidarity than genuine political engagement. But such a criticism calls, in effect, for retreating into a sectarian enclave about culture-of-death issues, and only engaging politically on other social issues about which the Church has no distinctive contribution to make anyhow. That would call for a bifurcation between faith and social action—which is precisely what is supposed to be wrong with "retreatism," and which is precisely what progressives see themselves as avoiding. So, such an explanation would be at best paradoxical.

Regardless of which explanation holds in Schenck's case, therefore, he has no effective argument that conservative Catholics such as Scalia and George are sectarian "retreatists." But I suspect that the first explanation is the operative one. Progressives such as Schenck just don't think they need to heed the hierarchy about the nature and importance of the culture-of-death issues. They see concern with such issues as sectarian because they regard the Church's position on them, unlike her position on their issues of choice, as justifiable only in theological terms they would reject. So the debate is not really about the desirability of Catholic political engagement in general; it's about which issues are worthy of political engagement. And that debate reflects a more fundamental one in moral theology about the truth of the Church's teaching on the culture-of-death issues. If progressive Catholics would simply admit that and proceed accordingly, we could avoid the sort of political posturing Schenck permits himself and address the real issue.

Without presuming to assess the late Cardinal Bernardin's original motives for the seamless-garment approach, which are no longer relevant anyhow, I have long suspected that said approach, as adopted by most progressive Catholics, is simply a cover for theological dissent and political ideology. When it comes to moral questions of political significance, most progressive Catholics are leftists first and Catholics second. The teaching of the Church is thus assessed in terms of a prior ideological agenda: when that teaching supports the agenda, it is believed; when it doesn't, it isn't. The Catholic right is sometimes guilty of that too, but not to quite the same extent. That's the reality American Catholics need to confront and purge; for that, we need fasting and prayer, which would foster the humility needed to put the Faith before ideology. Unfortunately, the ascent of Catholic progressives under the Obama Administration is already causing them to present a tattered, poorly patched garment as seamless. And so instead of a common pursuit of the truth, we will have more polarization and posturing.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

An archbishop in the abortion business

According to Carol McKinley, a Catholic blogger from Boston, Cardinal Seán O'Malley, the Archbishop of that city, is now in the abortion business. Her evidence consists mostly of extensive quotations from the website of Celticare, a new "joint venture" in which the Archdiocese's own health-care agency, Caritas Christi, is one of the two partners, the other being Centene Corporation. The facts seem pretty damning.

Since O'Malley must surely know of this, either he doesn't care or he does care and has some plausible defense to offer. Of course, that's assuming he cares enough to offer such a defense. I am willing to make that assumption because my impressions of him, from both news stories and Boston-area friends, have been positive until now. It's easy to think the worst of a man in charge of a diocese that was the epicenter of a decades-long scandal, has been hemorrhaging members and parishes, and belongs to what is arguably the most liberal state in the Union. I am not yet ready to think the worst. So I await the defense.

Carol, on the other hand, is awaiting a disciplinary response from the Vatican. I'm not sure that will come, at least not publicly, in a way that will have visible effect. Caritas' contract with Centene may be written in such a way that the Archdiocese cannot bow out without huge loss at a time when it's already reeling financially. If so, then the Vatican may just accept such defense as O'Malley is willing to offer. But maybe there is no defense. In that case, the Vatican may just end up forcing O'Malley's hand and making the Archdiocese bite the financial bullet. That would probably be O'Malley's downfall, paving the way for a successor to preside over the ensuing disaster. Boston's penance is far from over in any case.

This is going to be interesting. I'd appreciate any updates.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Living the Trinity and swimming the Tiber

Among Westerners these days, it has become commonplace to identify oneself as "spiritual but not religious." When people repeat that slogan, they generally mean to affirm some sort of relationship with a Higher Power apart from, and often in contradistinction to, institutionally embodied religion. Thus it is assumed that something called "the Church" obscures more than it transmits the most important truths about the scheme of things. But of course, if there is such a thing as divine revelation, as each of the Abrahamic religions claim, then its content cannot be merely a matter of personal opinion. Either it is reliably and publicly identifiable in authoritative terms, or it is not identifiable as divine revelation at all, but only as a set of data—legendary, historical, and speculative—about which various opinions can be entertained. Even Hindus recognize that much. After a long eclipse of dogma, many educated Christians are rediscovering it too. The latest to catch my attention is C of E priest Fr. Jeffrey Steel, who has just announced that he is "swimming the Tiber." I want to connect what he's done with my favorite dogma of the Faith: the Trinity.

The dogma of the Trinity expresses that infinite, bedrock Reality from which everything else, even the Incarnation, is derived: a communion of persons who are each the same God. To us, that can only seem paradoxical; we cannot expect ever to "comprehend" it, to "wrap our minds round" it, in terms of something else; like St. Patrick or St. Augustine, we can only approach it cognitively with analogies whose inadequacy quickly becomes apparent. That's because there is no more fundamental reality in terms of which the Trinity can be explained; rather, its activity explains everything else. But its life, timeless yet dynamic, is what we are called to live as, verily, "partakers of the divine nature." So the best path to the Trinity is to accept its reality by humble submission to the Church founded by Christ; to worship it in awe, which also requires humility; and to live as Christ the Lord would have us live: loving ourselves and one another as we are loved, which requires suffering. As the New Testament indicates, we are to do so as members of that communion of persons called the Church: the Mystical Body of Christ. And so the question becomes: what is "the" Church founded by Christ? Only when we have found the Church and joined her do the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit abide in us as fully as they will. It is thus that we are "saved," drawn out of darkness into God's marvelous light.

Yet for the reason already adumbrated, many would reject the question: What is "the" Church? They think of churches as essentially political associations of the like-minded; hence, there are only churches one might find, or fail to find, congenial as loci of opinion and mutual support. On the purely human level, such a view is all too plausible. But judging by what Fr. Jeffrey has said in his post, that's exactly the operative ecclesiology that he is fleeing. As I understand his journey, it had become apparent to him that there is such a thing as "the" Church and that the Anglican Communion, as an umbrella over conflicting views on fundamental points of doctrine, could not credibly claim to be a true, particular church within the larger communion of "the" Church. As as another Tiber-swimmer, Fr. Al Kimel, once wrote: "A church which does not claim to be the Church, outside of which there is no salvation, is not the Church founded by Jesus Christ." The Anglican Communion has, historically, understood itself to be at most a "branch" of the Church; but for Fr. Jeffrey and many others, the recent history of that communion calls even that claim into question. A church which recognizes no doctrinal authority other than a "consensus" identifiable by scholarship and subject to reversal by allegedly new things done by the Spirit cannot reliably transmit the "faith once given" to the saints—nor, indeed, eternal life. It cannot present divine revelation as anything more than a set of data about which various opinions can be entertained and should be tolerated. Such a church is not an authoritative vessel and teacher of truth, the Mystical Body of Christ which shares in his authority as her Head.

The Apostles understood Jesus to say: "All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth" (Matthew 28:18). That authority came from the Father. Before he ascended back to the Father, Jesus gave a share in that authority to the Church (John 20:22) by breathing the Holy Spirit on the Apostles. That is why he could say to them and their successors: "Whoever hears you, hears me" (Luke 10:16). The Trinity is thus what gives the Church her auctoritas and her potestas. The life of the Trinity is what the Church exists to insert us into. As we celebrate bedrock reality as loving communion, let us celebrate all who, like Fr. Jeffrey, come to recognize and celebrate the Church as that Body through which we are invited to share that communion.

Gloria Patri, per Filium, in Spiritu Sancto!

Monday, June 01, 2009

The suicide of the West: a proposition

That's the title of a book published by National Review co-founder James Burnham in 1964. I read it when I was in high school; and though it was primarily about the Cold War, the idea that anti-anti-Communism represented the hatred of left-wing intellectuals for their own, Western civilization stuck with me. Of course Communism eventually collapsed under the weight of its own irrationality; with my exquisite timing, I wrote a few modest pieces for NR just before that happened. But I now think Burnham was more prescient than even he realized.

With Communism all but gone as a viable system, the essence of hard-leftism has emerged as hatred of all that is necessary to foster and sustain a healthy, free society. The feminist branch of hard-leftism, with its disparagement of men in general and, in particular, of accomplished women who don't toe the leftist line, is all about destroying the family. If the statistics on divorce, single parenthood, and birth rates are any indication, it has had considerable success,. The economic branch of hard leftism is all about rewarding the feckless with money forced out of those who produce real wealth. The foreign-policy branch of hard leftism is all about appeasing our sworn enemies rather then fighting them implacably and defeating them. Such tendencies, if allowed to intensify, are incompatible with the survival of any civilization that harbors them, let alone Western civilization.

Why would the most politically and scientifically advanced civilization in history, one with Judaeo-Christian roots, do that to itself? The irrationality of it leads me to think that only a spiritual explanation will do. The spiritual vacuum left by secularism is being filled with Satan, who desires our destruction. It's that simple. He has his dupes on the hard right too, but they are thoroughly disreputable and hence aren't much cause for worry. The real problem is the hard-left dupes.

They oppose racism and sexism, all the while becoming reverse racists and sexists themselves. They champion "science" while ostracizing scientists who come to politically incorrect conclusions. They champion the little guy while insisting on leaving the littlest guys of all helpless before the violence of mothers who do not want them. They champion sexual autonomy, with "consent" the only moral criterion, while forging an ever-more intrusive nanny state in almost every other area. They uphold an abstract moral relativism while dogmatizing their own transient values as universal and self-evident. Such contradictions signify the confusion of hell itself, and they are becoming increasingly prevalent.

Barring forceful divine intervention, the suicide of the West is inevitable.