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

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

I want to be Mark Shea's war buddy

I've been accused of being too "liberal" by some traditionalist Catholics and some politically conservative Catholics. Well, I offer Mark Shea's reply to that, even though he seems to me to define and contemn "torture" with more severity than the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
So a conservative Catholic who opposes abortion, euthanasia, and gay “marriage”, hates Communism, regards Obama as a tyrant, voted for Reagan and Bush twice, supports just war, supports capitalism (within just limits), says that all that the Holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims is revealed by God, stands for monogamy and rejects artificial contraception, and thinks Benedict XVI is the bees knees? Yes, I am a “liberal” because I oppose torture and pre-emptive war and think it obscene that the strong prey on the weak in this country with increasing impunity, while middle class incomes flatline and vast amounts of wealth accumulate in fewer and fewer hands. That makes me a socialist, doncha know.
Source: National Review vs. Caelum et Terra re: Me

Monday, February 13, 2012

Pinning "liberalism" down

My title has the word 'liberalism' in scare quotes because I want to discuss the sort of liberalism that has grown scarier and scarier over the last several decades. I'm not talking about the liberalism of Locke and the American founding fathers, which stressed respect for natural rights and the consent of the governed as necessary conditions for a legitimate polity. I'm not talking about "classical" liberalism, which called for individual liberty, private property, and a free market as the best conditions for promoting the common weal. I'm not even talking about the liberalism of the early-20th-century "progressive" movement, of which New Deal liberalism was the direct heir and whose achievements, like those of prior liberalisms, have the overwhelming support of the American people. As Walter Russell Mead has argued, such liberalisms, while not reducible to each other, intersected in ways that together explain why each unfolded historically within something recognizable as an American moral consensus. That consensus was strong enough to constitute, in Robert Bellah's felicitous phrase, a kind of "civil religion." Requiring both the free exercise and the non-establishment of religion strictly speaking, the old consensus could itself be called 'liberal' in a broad and now-hoary sense. But since the 1970s, it's been unravelling along with the mainline Protestantism that had been its traditional custodian. The result is what I call The Thing that Used to Be Liberalism ('TUBL' for short; with thanks to Mark Shea, who likes referring to "The Thing that Used to Be Conservatism."). As I shall illustrate, TUBL is now out of control.

For that reason, the label 'liberalism', like 'feminism', has become a net political negative. Contemporary liberals and feminists accordingly prefer to eschew those labels in favor of 'progressive', sounding such rhetorically effective themes as "equal rights" and "fairness." And by its very nature, TUBL is hard to pin down philosophically. The main purpose of this post is to show how and explain why.

It is not news to conservatives that, on matters of domestic policy, today's "liberals" are actually authoritarian about everything except sex. On that score, they are as laissez-faire as can be. (E.g., it's become all but impossible to get them to see what's intrinsically wrong with incest and bestiality, apart from the "ick-factor" and the health risks involved. But hey, childbirth can be messy and dangerous too...) It's that discrepancy that's got out of control, and it's not so much liberal as hedonistic. Today's "liberals" want Nanny State to regulate every aspect of life except what goes on in our bedrooms, so that life is safe for the pursuit of a "happiness" understood as maximizing one's preferences consistently with others' maximizing theirs.

In such a scheme, complete sexual autonomy (within the bounds of a vaguely defined "mutual consent") is so important that marriage and family themselves are to be defined simply as what enough people want them to be. They can no longer be seen as having a form or nature prior to what civil law, as the expression of popular will, specifies. And now that all means of birth prevention are available to everybody, nobody should be expected to incur the natural consequence of ordinary intercourse or even cover the full cost of preventing it--unless, of course, one brings a child into the world anyhow, in which case one should be made to pay dearly, especially if one is the father, who might otherwise get off scot-free. But really, there's no reason why things should reach such a pass; if you're poor, they positively should not. Contraception, sterilization, and abortion are much cheaper than children, and if you're poor you'd better have recourse to them, because there's every reason to expect that you and your children, if any, will be net burdens to society (and to yourselves, for that matter). That expectation is not the only reason why "the right to choose" abortion is central to TUBL, but it is why the Obama Administration has decided to require, in the name of "women's health," religiously-sponsored institutions who object to contraception, sterilization, and abortifacient drugs to utilize health-insurance policies covering such things at no charge to the user. Planned Parenthood--which, needless to say, does not help people plan how they will actually parent--is the very embodiment of this mentality. In the bedroom we should all pursue our own vision of happiness, if need be at others' expense; outside the bedroom a de facto utilitarian calculus, enforced by state policy, should govern moral decision-making quite generally.

Except when it shouldn't. I'm always amused when I hear Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton cite "universal values" against this-or-that foreign dictator. What makes them think that everybody ought to assign the same weight to certain values as they? The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights? Why is that more than a piece of paper whose appeal today is understandably weaker than when it was composed? The dignity of the human person? But where are we supposed to find a coherent and reasonable account of human dignity? In philosophy, a discipline whose practitioners cannot agree on whether it affords us knowledge of anything at all? In science, which is morally indifferent in itself? And if in religion, why should we find the deracinated, social-gospel Protestantism of Obama and Clinton more rationally cogent than other forms of religion?

Even John Rawls, whose work has dogged philosophy graduate students for several generations now, admitted late in life that his vision of the ideal polity logically depended on a "comprehensive world view" he could not justify by reason alone. Many writers have indeed argued that secular liberalism is just living off the moral capital of the Judaeo-Christian tradition it's largely repudiated. As a more honest and radical sort of liberal, the late Richard Rorty knew that and admitted it, while rejecting not only Christianity but the very notion of what he called "Truth-capital-T." All that the acolytes of TUBL seem sure of, beyond the paramount importance of sexual autonomy, is that being an accredited "victim" gives one a special moral claim on one's "oppressors," who in most narratives are white, male, and Christian--a class which, by definition, cannot be victimized, because it represents everything about the past that victims are, and the rest of us should be, rebelling against. But that stance is just self-deconstructed Judaeo-Christianity. I postpone exploration of how the sense of sexual entitlement relates to that of victim-entitlement.

In any case, lust and sentimentality are not enough to explain what's going on here. Consider the following two, rather typical examples of TUBL thought.

Last fall, when the HHS contraception mandate for health insurers was drafted, Francis Beckwith argued that President Obama had thereby abandoned the liberalism he had embraced in speeches given in 2006 and 2009. Thus:
What one finds in these speeches are prescriptions for public discourse derived from a widely held understanding of liberalism that is often and correctly attributed to the late Harvard philosopher John Rawls. What the president is saying is that if you want to restrict another’s fundamental liberty based on reasons that those coerced would be reasonable in rejecting, your coercion is unjustified, even if it is not unreasonable for you to embrace those reasons for yourself.
That sounded reasonable enough at Notre Dame, when the President accepted his honorary JD by gamely defending the "pro-choice" position in essentially Rawlsian terms. But the new mandate abandons Rawlsian liberalism by defining 'religious organization', for purposes of granting "religious exemptions" from the rule, as follows:
(1) The inculcation of religious values is the purpose of the organization.
(2) The organization primarily employs persons who share the religious tenets of the organization.
(3) The organization serves primarily persons who share the religious tenets of the organization.

So, according to the U. S. government, a Catholic hospital, university, or charitable organization that believes its purpose is to actualize the moral commandments of Christ, to love its pre- and post-natal Catholic and non-Catholic neighbors as it loves itself, and to do so by welcoming with open arms all in need of its services, has ceased to be Catholic. The absurdity of this is palpable.
But here's the kicker. Not only does that absurdity, just by being absurd, abandon Obama's earlier espousal of Rawlsian liberalism; it contradicts his own current, stated understanding of the mission of religion in society! Recounting Obama's message at the National Prayer Breakfast not ten days ago, Charles Krauthammer points out: "To flatter his faith-breakfast guests and justify his tax policies, Obama declares good works to be the essence of religiosity. Yet he turns around and, through [HHS Secretary Kathleen] Sebelius, tells the faithful who engage in good works that what they’re doing is not religion at all."

Is such obvious inconsistency a sign of insincerity? Many would presume as much. But I think it more likely that Obama just doesn't see the inconsistency. Why not? Because he's "in the grip of a theory": TUBL. Thus one should not impose on people what they could reasonably reject, unless what's at issue is sexual autonomy, which is not just eminently reasonable but also, on utilitarian grounds, important enough to warrant full subsidy. If the religiously retrograde don't see that, then their "conscience" is so irrational as to be unworthy of consideration, save when giving lip service to it is politically unavoidable. Those in the grip of TUBL see nothing untoward about pretending to be Rawlsian when it suits them and dropping the pretense when it no longer suits them. Nothing must be allowed to get in the way of sexual autonomy.

Among so many I could pick, another example of TUBL run amok was brought to my attention by Paul Cella.

In his new book Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960 - 2010, Charles Murray makes the following observation:
Data can bear on policy issues, but many of our opinions about policy are grounded on premises about the nature of human life and human society that are beyond the reach of data. Try to think of any new data that would change your position on abortion, the death penalty, legalization of marijuana, same-sex marriage or the inheritance tax. If you cannot, you are not necessarily being unreasonable.
To be sure, Murray is not in the grip of TUBL. And by 'data', he seems to mean the results of scientific research. If so, I should think that new data could be quite relevant to the questions whether marijuana should be legalized and when the death penalty could be justified. But no amount of new data would change my mind about abortion and same-sex marriage. New data cannot affect the questions whether the fetus qualifies as a person and whether same-sex "marriage" qualifies as marriage. Both are essentially philosophical and theological questions for which the pertinent empirical data are already to hand.

But last week, a correspondent for The Economist who signs him- or herself as 'W.W.' blogged thus about the Murray passage:
I found this exceedingly odd. I can easily imagine what evidence would cause me to change my position on any of these issues....Abortion is far and away the hardest one. I favour legal abortion. I don't think embryos or fetuses are persons, and I don't think it's wrong to kill them. I also don't think infants are persons, but I do think laws that prohibit infanticide are wise. Birth is a metaphysically arbitrary line, but it's a supremely salient socio-psychological one. A general abhorrence of the taking of human life is something any healthy culture will inculcate in its members. It's easier to cultivate the appropriate moral sentiments within a society that has adopted the convention of conferring robust moral rights on infants upon birth than it would be in a society that had adopted the convention of conferring the same rights on children only after they've reached some significant developmental milestone, such as the onset of intelligible speech. The latter society, I suspect, would tend to be more generally cruel and less humane. This is just an empirical hunch, though I feel fairly confident about it. But I could be wrong. And I could be wrong in the other direction as well. If it were shown that societies which ban abortion, or which ban abortion beyond a certain point, exceed societies which don't ban abortion in cultivating a "culture of life", which pays off in terms of greater general humanity and diminished cruelty, I would seriously weigh this moral benefit against the moral cost of reducing women's control over their bodies. Also, if it were shown that abortion tended to damage women's mental and physical health more than forcing women to carry unwanted pregnancies to term, I would tend to look more favourably on restrictions on abortion, especially for minors. [Emphasis added]
Now at first I found that passage as "exceedingly odd" as WW finds Murray's. WW never tells us why he doesn't think either fetuses or infants are "persons," but there's nothing to suggest that he finds the very concept of personhood open to revision by new scientific research. Whatever his concept--and I have a fairly good suspicion as to what it is--it's a philosophical one that's "underdetermined" by the data, which only matter for helping determine which entities actually fall under the concept. (I wouldn't be surprised if WW thinks, with Peter Singer, that adult dolphins make it while human babies don't.)

But even odder than such inadvertence is how WW simply takes for granted a particular view about the nature and basis of moral obligation. He thinks, e.g., that "society" can and should have essentially utilitarian reasons for having "adopted the convention of conferring robust moral rights on infants," who cannot be thought merit such rights by nature. But on WW's own showing, such reasons could conceivably be overturned by new data suggesting, somehow, that we'd all be better off for dropping that convention. And the question what counts as "better" cannot be answered, even in principle, by citing anything we should value as distinct from what we actually do value. What's better is simply what's apt to yield what "society" wants. But there's no transcendent criterion for assessing what society--ours or any other--wants. Ultimately, moral reasoning consists in discovering and prescribing the policies likeliest to yield what we want. "Ought" is always hypothetical, never categorical. And so, as Hume put it, reason is and ought to be "the slave of the passions."

The question for the WWs of the world is this: Are there, or are there not, "data" that could determine whether that's the correct view of moral obligation? WW doesn't seem to have considered the question, but those in the grip of TUBL would reject it. It's supposed to be self-evident that freely pursuing the maximization of preferences--whatever they are--is the best we can do, and there can be no obligation higher than, or inconsistent with, the best we can do. Such is the ideal of the radical autonomy of the imperial self. The only admissible limits on such autonomy are those which are necessary in practice for collective preference-maximization. Those turn out to be considerable, of course, which is why TUBL is rather authoritarian. Except about sex.

What makes TUBL so hard to pin down is that it combines sexual libertinism, which is distinctly not Judaeo-Christian, with a statism that's supposedly required for helping the unfortunate. As deconstructed Judaeo-Christianity, the latter requires a discipline and moral earnestness that are otherwise undermined by sexual libertinism and the calculus of preference-maximization generally. Since that combination is ultimately unsustainable, both theoretically and practically, the most fervent prescription of TUBL is to help the poor and the otherwise disadvantaged get rid of themselves by every means of birth prevention. Any amount of philosophical incoherence is accepted for the sake of implementing that prescription. We're only seeing the earliest stages.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

It's simple, really

Even some liberals wonder what Obama's been thinking with this HHS contraception mandate. So I'll lay it out simply.

When a church-sponsored organization provides "social services," that's good religion. When the church in question forbids abortion, contraception, and sterilization, that's bad religion. But we don't want to discriminate between types of religiosity. So we just say that church-sponsored organizations that do both good religion and bad religion aren't religious.

Simple, isn't it? But if you want to understand the contradiction thus resolved, go here.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

A non-trivial way to infer 'ought' from 'is'?

A shibboleth of modern Anglo-American philosophy is a belief to the effect that "one cannot infer an ought-statement from an is-statement." The first explicit formulation of and argument for that occurs in Hume's Treatise on Human Nature, but there's much controversy about how to interpret the relevant passages. So it's not always clear what the statement is supposed to mean, whether it's true on this-or-that construal, or even what the argument for it should be. "No ought from is" just seems to be one of those slogans that entrenches itself in the mind of philosophers when they're young, so that the corresponding, deceptively clear dogma rarely suffers critical scrutiny. Taken seriously, it runs counter to moral philosophies that are both cognitivist and non-utilitarian.

But the matter does get critical scrutiny from time to time, such as in a post I've just come across from Catholic philosopher Alexander Pruss of Baylor University. Pruss uses his blog to germinate and sketch philosophical ideas, with which he positively teems. Here, the general thesis is that "We have prima facie reason to conclude from the fact that something ought to be so that it is so." If that thesis can be further developed, disseminated, and defended, it would go a long way to removing what I consider a major obstacle to doing sound moral philosophy.

It seems to me that Pruss' argument is valid, or can be made so on suitable restatement. What interests me is what his thesis, if true, says about philosophical argumentation generally. To say that one has "prima facie reason" to infer such-and-such is, I take it, to say that one is within one's epistemic rights to infer such-and-such unless a clear defeater is known. I'm uneasy about non-demonstrative arguments of that sort, for their conclusions are of interest less for learning what is the case than in learning what we have justification for believing is the case. It is possible to be justified in believing something that is not actually so, if one lacks grounds for inferring that it isn't so. But the interest of that lies more in its utility for defending one's intellectual virtue than in its utility for discovering facts.

And yet, Pruss' ambitions for this thesis are apparently bigger than that. Thus he muses: "It is an interesting question whether the is-from-ought inference is at all plausible apart from a view like theism or Plato's Platonism on which the world is ultimately explanatorily governed by values. There may be an argument for theism (or Plato's Platonism!) here." If that musing turns out to be true, then the truth of the original thesis would itself serve as a premise in an argument for the existence of God, as well as removing a major de facto obstacle to natural-law and virtue theory in ethics.

I need to think about this more. Do any readers have thoughts in the meantime?

Monday, February 06, 2012

How divorce ruins childrens' lives

The conclusion of new mega-meta-study, cited at the blog of Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse's Ruth Institute, is summed up by William West:

A new study on divorce, looking at the complete spectrum of research on the subject, confirms what most people already know – even if they are not willing to admit it: divorce causes “irreparable harm” to the whole family, but  particularly to the children. 
There have been plenty of individual studies exposing one or more effects of divorce, but rarely do researchers give an overview of the findings to date – and it makes disturbing reading.

Read the rest here.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Divine simplicity and divine freedom, Part xn

The topic named in my title is one that I've written about before, for an academic journal, on this blog, and in the course of combox defenses of Catholic doctrine. At his blog Just Thomism, philosopher James Chastek offers a new insight and a new mistake about the relationship between divine simplicity and divine freedom.

The insight is that God's freedom is not that of "indetermination," which is the sort we have in via and, to a lesser extent, even in patria. That's because
If we consider the indetermination of the freedom so far as it does not possess some determinate good, then freedom is not a perfection or a good. The lack of good is not a good. So far as we take freedom in this way, we don’t call God free; and so far as freedom is taken as a perfection, and therefore said of God, we throw out the idea of indetermination-in-the-sense-of lacking-good and keep only the more central perfection (say, self- possession, or being the Lord of ones action.) We might even keep the idea of indetermination so far as we mean that God’s action is not forced by another, or so far as he is responsible for it.
Quite so. But orthodox theology affirms that God is free in some sense. So Chastek says:
Again, the divine freedom, so far as there is a thing, cannot be defined without bringing in the notion of creation. The Son, for example, does not proceed from the Father’s will, but if this is the case, the divine freedom cannot be defined without relation to the imperfection of creation, and divine freedom is not taken as an absolute perfection, as though the possibility of freedom would remain if the imperfect (that is, creation) were not possible.
Now God needn't have created, yet would have been fully free if he had not. Chastek knows that, which why he says that divine freedom entails only the "possibility" of "imperfection,"—a possibility which, given God's absolute perfection, is logically equivalent to the possibility of creation. So God is free just in case he can produce something imperfect, i.e., not fully determined, whether or not he actually does so. And of course, the fact that he has actually done so doesn't make him any more, or less, free.

From the standpoint of natural theology alone, that argument seems attractive. But even at that level, there's a Thomistic worry: since God cannot stand in a "real relation" to actual creation, it isn't even meaningful to say that he stands in a real relation to the possibility of creation, such that one of his essential attributes depends on that relation. That difficulty might be overcome with felicitous distinctions; but from the standpoint of Christian revelation, Chastek's argument surely contains a false premise, namely that God in se, being fully perfect and thus fully determinate, would lack freedom unless he were able to bring about imperfection ad extra.

Although the coming-forth of the Son and the Holy Spirit from the Father is by natural necessity, not by a choice that could have been otherwise, the love shared by the Persons with each other must in some sense arise from free choice, else it would not be love. One might say that such freedom is only the absence of coercion; but then it would be very hard to explain why natural necessity relevantly differs from absence of coercion.

To make such a criticism stick, I needn't give an account of just how the Persons love each other with free choice. I claim no special insight into the inner life of the Trinity, and neither should anybody else reading this. But I do know that our capacities are but faint analogies of God's, and that for us, love entails freedom of the will. It must entail at least that within the Godhead, prescinding from the question of creation.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Communion by degree, revisited

Given recent events, I thought it worthwhile to re-issue this three-year-old post and ask for opinions from thoughtful Catholics.

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.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Scylla and Charybdis in theology

For the ever-growing majority without a classical education, my allusion to Scylla and Charybdis can be understood well enough with the Wikipedia background. Suffice it to say that, although those twin dangers often loom in theology, they can and should be avoided. They often appear under different pairs of names. One such is "fundamentalism and modernism," about which I've written before and will again. We must and can steer between the Scylla of fundamentalism and the Charybdis of modernism. Another S/C pair is common, for pretty much the same reasons: rationalism and fideism. Adherence to either only runs faith aground.

How rationalism runs faith aground is easy enough to understand. If the only admissible religious beliefs are those which can be established or otherwise secured by human reason, then there is no room for the unmerited, freely accepted gift of divine faith. Nor is there any room for the object of such faith: divine revelation. For such revelation supplies us, among other things, with truths that cannot be established or otherwise secured by natural reason; but ruling out divine faith entails ruling out recognizing, and trusting, any religious authority as the conveyor of divine revelation. Religion thus reduces to a matter of opinion—for there are no methods of proof that even religionists agree on. That was pretty much the view of Thomas Jefferson and of many others influenced by the Enlightenment. It is still the view of many philosophers today.

At the same time, fideism has undergone something of a renaissance among unbelievers as well as believers. Fideism is the view that religion, and with it divine faith, has nothing to do with reason, in the sense that "reasons" for having faith are as unnecessary as they are insufficient. The most common reason some believers end up as fideists is their conviction that the ultimate object of divine faith, God, so far transcends our reasoning capacities that rational criteria cannot be used to assess beliefs about God. Such beliefs are thus seen as insulated from rational criticism, which in its turn is seen as either ignorance or blasphemy. Most Sunni Muslims, and not a few Protestant and Orthodox Christians, are fideists in such a way. But to those of a scientific or otherwise critical bent, fideism can itself count as a reason against religious belief. For if religion is held to have nothing to do with reason, so that no particular religious belief can or should be subjected to rational scrutiny, then religion itself appears as positively irrational. And a cognitive stance that's irrational is not worthy of rational credence. Thus can rationalism and fideism, like so many pairs of extreme ideas, converge in similar attitudes.

To me, it seems almost self-evident that fideism, every bit as much as rationalism, is incompatible with divine faith. If rational criteria are not applicable to religious beliefs, then the fideist can only see the content of such beliefs as established arbitrarily by the absolute will of God. But such radical voluntarism empties the transcendental concepts of truth and goodness of all intrinsic content, and thus of all intrinsic meaning. It reduces religion to the blind worship of power. Some may find that prudent, but it hardly even makes sense to call it admirable.

The only way to steer between Scylla and Charybdis here is to insist, like such thinkers as Thomas Aquinas, both that divine faith cannot be established by human reason and that such faith must all the same be a reasonable choice. "Reasons", called "motives of credibility" in traditional apologetics, thus render divine faith rationally intelligible but not rationally necessitated. Such faith matches creation, for creation itself is rationally intelligible yet not rationally necessitated. Both faith and creation are thus mysteries in a positive sense—mysteries that will never be entirely dissipated when we see God face to face.

This time, they came first for the Catholics

Only an outrage combining religion and politics has managed to rouse me from a self-imposed silence over the past several months. I am furious. As an RPG-toting Chuck Norris announced in the closing scene of one of his classically bad movies: "It's time."

Most of my erstwhile readers know by now that the Obama Administration has issued an "interim final rule" requiring employers to cover all forms of contraception and sterilization in their health-care plans at no cost to the user. In an access of generosity, expressed by President Obama in a phone call to Archbishop Timothy Dolan, faith-based employers not classified as "religious" have been given one year to comply. Now according to the Administration's unprecedentedly narrow definition of "religious," only organizations that exclusively serve believers, and are staffed exclusively by believers, count as religious. The implications of such a definition are by far the greatest for Catholic charities, hospitals, and schools, most of which serve and/or employ many non-Catholics. Those Catholic organizations must soon pay to violate the teaching of the Church. And so, those who lead and work for such organizations will soon be forced to pay for the privilege of violating their consciences.

This naked, cynical attack on religious liberty has of course been approved by the "liberal" establishment, including the New York  Times.  Worst of all, it was announced and enthusiastically endorsed by HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, a former governor of Kansas accustomed to wearing her Catholicism proudly. Such as it is. The worst enemy is the one within.

One is reminded of another power grab many decades ago. Not long after World War II, a German Lutheran pastor composed a poem about how Nazi oppression proceeded once Hitler took power:
First they came for the communists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist.
 Then they came for the Jewsand I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew.
Then they came for the Catholicsand I didn't speak out because I was Protestant.
Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak out for me.
 Democrats who prefer to call themselves "progressive" aren't Nazis, of course, but they resemble the Nazis in one respect: now in power, they are moving from toleration to persecution of faith-based opposition. And this time they've come for the Catholics first. Why the Catholics? Because among faith-based organizations which serve people not of the pertinent faith, only Catholic ones are sponsored by a church that officially opposes contraception and sterilization. "Progressives" these days are authoritarian about everything except sexuality, in which the individual is to be accorded total autonomy within the bounds of mutual "consent." But of course, the legal protection and promotion of sexual autonomy eventually entails intolerance of those who oppose contraception and sterilization, both of which are necessary for the exercise of such autonomy. And that's what's started to happen.

Within the Church, even some "Obama Catholics" have protested the new regulation: e.g., Michael Sean Winters and E.J. Dionne. If the U.S. bishops have their way, the matter will almost certainly reach the Supreme Court in due course. And some Republicans fondly speculate that this regulation will cost Obama something called "the Catholic vote." But that's dubious at best. Catholics who care deeply about this issue aren't the sort who voted, or would vote, for Obama anyway. They're a distinct minority of self-designated Catholics to begin with. Among nominal Catholics, liberal Catholics will fall into line behind the Democrats this fall, as they always do at election time.

Our defense against the erosion of religious liberty, then, will have to count not on the bulk of Catholics but on the bishops, the clergy, and the committed minority of faithful laity. We now have the advantage of clarity where before there was ambiguity and wiggle room. To join the battle, I urge all such laity to go here, sign the petition, and keep the ball rolling. And all faithful Catholic bloggers should keep on this matter.