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

Sunday, November 27, 2005

My Advent rant

Today is the First Sunday of Advent and thus the first day of the new liturgical year. For explanation and resources, I recommend CatholicCulture.org's page on the subject. But here I want to say something I've been wanting to say in public for a long time.

American Christians, most Catholics included, don't know how to celebrate Advent anymore. They don't even know what it is. For them, it's "the Christmas season," that time of mandatory jollity and expense that the unfortunate dread as much as the fortunate welcome. What used to be called "insane asylums," and are now called "behavioral-health units," get very busy this time of year.

The kickoff is Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, when the malls open during the wee hours to accommodate the biggest shopping day of the year. Yet, for residually spiritual reasons, this is also supposed to be a time when families get closer and good will more actively expressed to all. The gift-buying and parties were once meant to subserve that; now, they just as often spoil it. I couldn't believe it when the local oldies radio station, to which I sometimes listen out of nostalgia for my youth, went to an all-holiday-music format the week before Thanksgiving. Of course I can't listen to that: it only reminds me that the merchants have taken over with our full connivance. For most people, this Sunday is now just one more shopping day. The pressure is on, after all.

In 1991, the year I actually owned a house, I enjoyed annoying my neighbors by refusing to mount Christmas decorations until Christmas Eve and then refusing to take them down until Epiphany. That is because the Christmas season consists of twelve days, starting on...uh, Christmas. But "the twelve days of Christmas"—remembered by most only in the form of a song first composed as underground catechesis-in-code—are now mostly a time of winding down, in which people process the detritus of what they take to be the Christmas now past: the dead evergreen trees, the packaging and wrappings, the credit-card bills they would rather not view. It's a depressing time relieved only by the socially-sanctioned opportunity to get drunk on New Year's Eve and sleep in on New Year's Day. But then there's that hangover on New Year's Day: a great day to make resolutions one won't keep....

It's better to treat Advent as a time of contemplation and fasting, heightening our sense that God first visibly entered our lives as a baby, sharing our vulnerability, just as he later did on the Cross. God does not make life better by zapping all the bad stuff; he makes it better by being fully present to us amidst the bad stuff. If we spent more time praying and thinking about that, and less time buying and drinking, perhaps this wouldn't be called "the crazy season."

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Law's Quandary and Justice Scalia

Stephen D. Smith's Law's Quandary (LQ) is the sort of costly, scholarly book I used to read when I was in academia but is now a luxury I cannot afford. If I read it at all, I'll have to wait for some university library in central North Carolina to acquire it, and then drive to it. That would be a day in my life, which I don't often have open; I've done that only three times in the last ten years. In many such cases as this, I hope instead to encounter a reliable review in lieu of the book so that I can at least get acquainted with the most substantive issues. That hope is too often vain; but not this time. I am as relieved as delighted to engage with Justice Antonin Scalia's trenchant review of LQ in the November issue of First Things. That my favorite jurist is reviewing such an important book in my favorite journal is a rare treat indeed.

As quoted by Scalia, Smith frames law's quandary thus:

Since at least the time of Holmes, lawyers and legal thinkers have scoffed at the notion that “the law” exists in any substantial sense or that it is not reducible into our discourse and practices. Law is not a “brooding omnipresence in the sky.” We have rejected any such conception of law . . . because we perceive, correctly, that our ontological inventories (or at least those that prevail in most public and academic settings) could not provide any intelligible account of . . . this “preexisting thing called ‘The Law.’” At the same time . . . [there is] cogent evidence suggesting that we still do believe in “the law.” . . . Our actual practices seem pervasively to presuppose some such law: our practices at least potentially might make sense on the assumption that such a law exists, and they look puzzling or awkward or embarrassing without the assumption.
Like Scalia, I shall assume that such a description is true. "We," meaning contemporary Americans who think seriously about the philosophy of law, believe implicitly in something called "The Law." That belief is what drives all forms of judicial activism. But the prevailing legal positivism cannot give an adequate account of what "The Law" is and indeed rules out even trying. Since both Scalia and Smith well explain why that is so, I shall take for granted the existence of such a quandary. The interesting question is whether we must live with it rather than think as necessary to resolve it.

Scalia argues, in effect, that the only alternatives to the quandary are complete "textualism" on the one hand and the sort of ethical monotheism that forms the historical context for natural-law theory on the other. In other words, we can either be really, really strict "originalists" or we can be natural lawyers in the classical sense alluded to in the Declaration of Independence ("the laws of nature and of nature's God"). Refusing both alternatives—which is now the norm on faculties of law—leaves us unable to explain a belief that the profession is as unwilling to abandon in practice as to acknowledge in theory. Our choices thus are three: (a) originalism; (b) religion; (c) incoherent arbitrariness.

Most American jurists embrace (c), the core of the quandary, not because they like it but because they dislike (a) and (b) more. In that respect, they are hardly unique or even disturbing: for example, most Americans rightly find our health-care system too costly, unwieldy, and exclusionary; but it stays pretty much as is because just as many people dislike the alternatives even more. So we keep paying and paying: health-care costs consistently rise at a rate well above that of general inflation even as more and more Americans become unable to afford the care they need. In the long run, that is politically as well as economically unsustainable; and the same goes for the spiritual cost of the jurists' incoherent arbitrariness. The very people who ought to be most keenly aware and solicitous of the philosophical basis of the Republic refuse on principle to acknowledge it. How long can the Republic last amid such a quandary?

The evidence of breakdown is becoming ever clearer. Freedom of religion has come increasingly to mean what it never used to mean: the exclusion of religious values and expressions from public life, even as most Americans believe in a Higher Power and most of them in the God of ethical monotheism. Similarly for the right to privacy: freedom from government intrusion into the home without due process has come to mean the right to determine for oneself whether to count unborn children as persons with a right to live or not. Yet nowadays nobody would find it acceptable to let rich people decide whether their black employees are human beings, and thus have a right to be paid, or not. Remember slavery? The Supreme Court upheld it, asserting that, constitutionally, a slave counted only as three-fifths of a person; whereupon Americans fought a hugely bloody war over slavery whose result made Dred Scott a dead letter. Today, the main casualties of being defined into non-personhood are too small and voiceless to vote. Those who strive to defend them are dismissed as "religious extremists." Somehow it's forgotten that the abolitionists were too.

Want more examples? Civil marriage now consists in a an open-ended contract severable by the will of one party, regardless of the other's will. When children are involved, that party is usually the woman; so now, in most states, family law has come to consist more and more in a set of rules for replacing fathers with money. For you uninitiates, that money is called "child support." It is extracted on pain of jail; as a result, not a few honest men can and do serve jail time if they are unfortunate enough to lose their jobs. Thanks to the legal fiction of "no-fault" divorce, debtor's prison, which many of our forefathers came to these shores to escape, has returned with enthusiastic public backing.

Indeed, many men without any history of criminal behavior now live literally under the gun—and I'm not even going to get going on domestic-violence restraining orders, whose legitimate purpose as originally conceived is now routinely abused to preordain custody decisions when no evidence of physical violence has been presented. Only a few father's-rights activists, dismissed of course as "extremists," seem to think all this unconstitutional—never mind the staggering social costs, which go hand in hand with the cost of all the other things I've cited, and more things I haven't. Needless to say, the people most directly responsible for maintaining such a regime either cannot or will not come to grips with the true costs. It is now fashionable to lament the psychological and economic costs of "father absence;" but many who do so continue, knees jerking, to support policies that facilitate it and sometimes even mandate it. Family life in this country has become increasing fragile and chaotic with the full support of people who ought to know better.

I am astounded that people who are nowadays brave and honest enough to call themselves "feminists" believe that laws severely restricting abortion would be unconstitutional infringements of privacy but that, at the same time, dragging a man from his home and off to jail on the basis of an unsusubstantiated accusation, only to be informed at a hearing that he no longer has the right to associate with or even contact his wife and children, is not such an infringement. That is what happened to two men of my acquaintance during the last two years. Neither had any criminal record, and neither was ever charged with a crime. They just served the 48 hours in jail mandated by state law in these cases. Cognitive dissonance, anyone? That such Kafkaesque, ideological absurdity is now enshrined in our laws is possible because we are forgetting The Law to which laws must conform.

So what is to be done? Originalism—at least in the non-threatening "texualist" form entertained by Smith—is pretty much out. Hardly anybody—left or right, secular or religious—wants judges to limit themselves at all times to "the intent of the framers." A good reason for that is that it's unclear whether such a thing is even relevantly ascertainable in the most interesting cases. Smith gamely argues that it is, claiming that the meaning of a given form of words consists merely in what its author or speaker intends. But philosophically that view is untenable, and Scalia has great fun demolishing it. So that leaves us with (b): religion.

Thus Scalia concludes:
As one reaches the end of the book, after reading Vining’s just-short-of-theological imaginings followed by Smith’s acknowledgment of “richer realities and greater powers in the universe,” he (she?) is sorely tempted to leap up and cry out, “Say it, man! Say it! Say the G-word! G-G-G-G-God!” Surely even academics can accept, as a hypothetical author, a hypothetical God! Textualists, being content with a “modest” judicial role, do not have to call in the Almighty to eliminate their philosophical confusion. But Smith may be right that a more ambitious judicial approach demands what might be called a deus ex hypothesi.
Will jurists have the courage and honesty to embrace the hypothesis of God? I doubt it: not even with four Catholics now on the Supreme Court and one awaiting confirmation. Most American Catholics are more reflexively American than Catholic; when the two conflict, the former usually wins. If I were a lawyer, that's what I'd want to spend my time trying to change. But then I'd be as poor as I was while a graduate student—after deducting for child support, of course.

Why relativism is a dictatorship

As Dean of the College of Cardinals a few days before his election as Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger gave a homily to his assembled colleagues in which he asserted:

Having a clear faith, based on the Creed of the Church, is often labeled today as a fundamentalism. Whereas, relativism, which is letting oneself be tossed and “swept along by every wind of teaching”, looks like the only attitude acceptable to today’s standards. We are moving towards a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires.
As an American with two Ivy League degrees and experience in quite varied settings, I find that prognosis pretty obviously true. And I have been pleasantly surprised by the extent to which Church leaders have accepted it. But of course there is dissent. The most interesting I've come across to date is from the Italian Catholic philosopher Dario Antiseri (pictured), whose orthodoxy and resumé both seem unimpeachable. His argument is worth rebutting.

His thesis is that relativism, properly understood, is the antidote to idolatry. As such, it is a vital service to God's people rather than an attack on their faith: "a spy in the service of the Most High," in the words of the article's title. Now as I read the article, which I urge you the reader to do too, I quickly saw that once the premise be granted, the conclusion does indeed follow. So I want to focus on the premise: what does Antiseri define as relativism?

What's mostly at issue is moral or ethical relativism. Antiseri rejects Ratzinger's characterization of that stance as quoted above. Of course nobody disputes the fact of pluralism in ethics and all other philosophical matters; the question is what conclusion is to be drawn from it. Here is the kernel of Antiseri's answer:

But once we have established that ethical conceptions are different, the next, inevitable question is the following: do we have available to us a rational criterion, one that is valid for all, according to which we can decide which ethics is best in that it is rationally founded? A question of that kind, the nucleus of every ethical theory, cannot find a positive response if "Hume's law" holds true. Hume's law tells us that prescriptions cannot logically be derived from descriptions, with the consequence that the basic values of an ethical system, the fundamental ethical principles, are in the final analysis founded upon each person's choices of conscience, and not on arguments of a rational nature.
If that argument is correct, then from the fact that one cannot derive an "ought-statement" from an "is-statement," it follows that our "fundamental ethical principles" cannot be based on rational arguments but rather on "choices of conscience." Relativism, then, is merely the acknowledgment of the logical force of Hume's law and the conclusion Antiseri thinks follows from that law.

Moreover, if relativism so defined were true, then it would have exactly the further consequences that Antiseri so eloquently describes. It would be the indispensable basis not only of democratic government and religious toleration, but also and especially of our ability to receive divine revelation as something from outside and above us, binding us willy-nilly, rather than as a product of our own limited, fallible reason. So understood, relativism is win-win all around: it allays the secularist fear of fundamentalism even as it prevents believers from confusing their own ideas with God's and thus falling into idolatry.

The problem with Antiseri's approach is that his central inference is subtly invalid. From the fact, if it is a fact, that one cannot derive 'ought' from 'is', it does indeed follow that one cannot fashion one's "fundamental ethical principles" by reason alone. The notion that man, by reason or any other means, can set up such principles for himself is the basic error of all forms of secular totalitarianism as well as of easy, undergraduate relativism. But it does not follow that our "choices in conscience" of such principles are non-rational. The very widespread belief that such does follow is indeed the premise of today's "dictatorship of relativism." But it is not true. Given the subject matter, one can find reasons for acknowledging what one's reason does not establish. What's fitting, indeed indispensable, as a precondition of sound moral reasoning is not thereby either established by reason or outside the realm of reason. It's a given. And it is supremely rational to acknowledge it as a given.

Now the question: "A given of what?"—God, nature, both, or something else—is indeed worth debating. I believe that, as expounded by Thomas Aquinas, theistic natural-law theory is the best way to answer that question philosophically. And I'm sure the Pope would agree. But that, though my rational preference, is not my main point against Antiseri, which is that such a given is neither irrationally given nor irrationally chosen. It cannot, to be sure, be rationally demonstrated. But that doesn't make it arbitrary or in any other sense non-rational. What cannot be demonstrated as a matter of deductive necessity is not thereby illogical. It may itself be necessary as a set of premises for sound reasoning.

Of course there remains the matter of ethical "pluralism." The question how to account for ethical pluralism, both across cultures and among thinkers within a given culture, is well worth discussing and has been amply discussed. If anybody thinks that giving such an account is a problem for Ratzinger and his defenders, I'm willing to adumbrate one in response to specific objections. All I'll say here is that the values Antiseri wishes to preserve—popular self-government, religous toleration, approprate humility before God and each other in face of our various differences and blindnesses—can and ought to be preserved on the kind of "absolutist" morality Ratzinger defends.

For further reading, I recommend Aquinas' Treatise on Law (Summa Theologiae I-II, Q. 90-106) and CS Lewis' The Abolition of Man.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Giving thanks

It is said that the colors assumed by leaves in the fall, before they die and fall off the tree, are their real, underlying colors. Green is the color they assume while doing their natural work of producing cholorophyll. Such facts of nature serve as a good reminder of what today's feast is about.

The origins of Thanksgiving lie in the harvest. God-fearing people gave thanks to God for it as they enjoyed its fruits and settled in for the winter. Having exhausted themselves by "doing" in cooperation with God, thus showing their "green," they were now forced into the mode of just "being," thus showing who they really are. In such a process, action gives way to contemplation. That is a kind of death, but it is also a prelude to new life. The approach of winter is the time of Advent, when we await God's coming as a little child and the cycle of life is heralded anew. For all of that, gratitude was surely in order.

In the days when most people worked the land, it was easier to appreciate the coincidence of Nature's rhythms with those of the Spirit. The former were sacramental: a sign and instrument of the latter. But for most of us today, in America, the message needs to become more spiritually explicit so that it can be more voluntarily heeded.

The "attitude of gratitude" is vital for spiritual health. The hard part is cultivating it in bad times as well as good. Farmers are often forced to do that for the sake of mental as well as spiritual heath. But of course none of us are naturally inclined to do it. I find I can do it only when I trust completely that "blessed are the poor in spirit," that the resurrection will follow the cross if we bear the cross as God himself did for us.

As Advent approaches, let us be mindful of the need to become like little children, as God the Son did at Christmas, trusting our heavenly Father even when our suffering is undeserved and we don't at all see how it's "good" for us. And let us not forget the many blessings that we don't deserve either. This life is not about justice, which will only be done fully in the next. It is about the exchange of gifts. At the end of the day, especially today, it is about giving ourselves completely to each other and to God in response to his having given himself to us.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

THAT document has been leaked!

Of course. Somebody in the Vatican has slipped to the news agency Adista (the Italian counterpart of the National Catholic Reporter, so not quite as decorous) the text of the new Instruction on THE CRITERIA OF VOCATIONAL DISCERNMENT REGARDING PERSONS WITH HOMOSEXUAL TENDENCIES IN VIEW OF THEIR ADMISSION TO SEMINARIES AND HOLY ORDERS. (Click here for the PDF in Italian.) The explosive topic of homosexuality in the priesthood, on which I've written several times before, invites this classic case of Romanità: testing the waters by leaking the truth prematurely while maintaining plausible deniability. Nonetheless, the text and the unofficial translation by Robert Mickens seem authentic. (Biretta tip to Rocco at Whispers in the Loggia for posting the latter.)

On that supposition, I must say I am pleased. Issued with the Pope's formal approval by the Congregation for Catholic Education, the instruction sets forth a most salient and needed pastoral rule. Having reiterated the CCC's distinction between homosexual acts, which are "intrinsically" disordered, and homosexual inclinations, which are "objectively" disordered, the instruction continues (emphasis added).

In the light of such teaching, this Dicastery, together with the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, deems it necessary to clearly affirm that the Church, even while deeply respecting the persons in question, cannot admit to seminary or Holy Orders those who are actively homosexual, have deep-seated homosexual tendencies, or support the so-called gay culture.

That, in essence, is what's been expected for months. I myself have hammered away at the theme—which ought to be obvious, given Church teaching—that those who support the homosexual subculture should not be ordained even if they are perfectly continent themselves. But two evident qualifiers will allow the Church's defenders to rebut the usual charges of homophobia and unjust discrimination.

One is that not every man who has experienced same-sex attraction in the past, or even acted on it sexually in the past, is ipso facto excluded. Thus: When dealing, instead, with homosexual tendencies that might only be a manifestation of a transitory problem, as, for example, delayed adolescence, these must be clearly overcome at least three years before diaconal Ordination. That is most important. It shows that the Vatican's concern is not to punish people who have had a problem in their pasts but to keep out of priestly ministry those who still have the problem or, worse, don't think it really is a problem.

The other qualifier is implicit in the phrase who support the so-called gay culture. It should be noted that such a category includes some straights as well as many gays. Straights who support the gay culture—one whose premises, after all, are incompatible with the teaching of the Church—should no more be ordained than gays who support the gay culture. And the same holds, or should hold, across the board: men who do not accept the constant and irreformable teaching of the Church on whatever topic should not be ordained to the priesthood.

None of this is going to be popular with the secular media or the wider world whose values are shaped and reflected by the secular media. Nor, I'm afraid, will it be much more popular in many chanceries, where passive resistance to Roman directives is habitual and, in some cases, the Lavender Mafia still actually rules. But if bishops and religious superiors actually follow this Instruction's norms, there will be much improvement.

If, if, if... As I have repeated in many contexts before this one, the main problem with reforming the clergy is that reforming the clergy is mostly up to the clergy. As a layman I understand the difficulty of getting ordinary Catholics to believe what the Church teaches and at least strive to act accordingly. But the problem is soluble with a clergy that actually believes what the Church teaches about the truly controversial topics. The difficulty of getting enough clergy like that is one that I have a very hard time understanding and, as a layman, can do rather little about. Perhaps the Pope and his men can do more with messages like that of this new instruction.

What it comes down to is that the Chaputs must prevail over the Mahonys.

Monday, November 21, 2005

My meme confession

OK, it's starting. My fellow Catholic bloggers Barbara Nicolosi and Amy Welborn are now "confessing" the sorts of things one can get away with confessing for all and sundry to read. I want to get on this train before it pulls completely out of the station.

I confess:

I find confession more attractive when celebrities go in for it. (See, e.g., above.)

Almost any image of Catherine Zeta-Jones gives me more pleasure than almost any image of the Blessed Virgin.

It's best to admit it: I envy Michael Douglas. He's a neighbor whose wife and goods, both, I covet.

No matter what I read or tell myself, I can't get through more than two decades of the Rosary without counting how many Hail Mary's are left to recite for that session.

I don't handle money well because I'd rather not think about it.

I'd rather not think about money because doing so reminds me how little of it I have.

I dislike being reminded of my poverty not so much because I can't help feeling that some people are right to suggest that I am culpable for it, but more that their reasons for so thinking make me angry with them.

I allow myself to joke that I earn money at jobs for which qualifications don't matter only because I'm overqualified for almost any job for which qualifications do matter.

I don't lead a healthy lifestyle because I am confident that God will keep my health all-but-perfect until I no longer have to pay child support. Really.

I can't help thinking ill of lawyers, even and especially if they're Catholic.

Thinking of fasting as weight control (the latter as an added bonus, of course) makes it easier for me to fast.

I am discouraged by the fact that many of the people I pray and fast for don't know it and wouldn't care if they did.

I believe I'd be a better president of the United States than the President; worse, I believe it lessens my pride and stupidity to note that many people feel the same about themselves.

I get a jolt of joy when I hear that our troops have killed an al-Qaeda commander.

I'm convinced that my intelligence, ethnicity, and religious background are similar enough to Madonna's to enable me to influence her if I could just talk to her. Yes, that is a thought to confess and repent of.

I once thought I'd make a good priest.

I still daydream about being pope.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Back for Christ the King

Apologies to my vast readership for the two-week hiatus. My work schedule has changed so that I've had to reverse my body clock. I was left a zombie for about ten days, which was fine for a job that doesn't even require a high-school diploma but won't do for serious mental work. Then my wireless-network card died. But now that the old bod and the new card are in good working order, I'm back with another homilette.

Today's feast marks the end of the liturgical year. It is fitting that Pope Pius XI established this feast for that purpose at a time in history when the rule of God over humanity was being so radically rejected by totalitarianism and other forms of secularism. That struggle is murkier today with Nazism dead, Communism in retreat, and radical Islam ascendant. But in the West, especially in Western Europe, the pretense remains widespread that man can successfully define the good for himself, both collectively and individually, without reference to the Creator. Today's feast and readings remind us that, at the end of the age if not of the day, that pretense will be utterly shattered along with all temporal regimes.

Whether one fears or welcomes that is a good measure of what one's fate will be.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Spiritual oil supplies

Today's Gospel (Matthew 25:1-13) struck a deep chord with me, and the frustrated clergyman in me wants it to do the same with others. Here's why I think it should.

According to the Jerusalem Talmud (Yoma 43:3), the perpetually oil-lit lamps of the Menorah in the Temple all went out of their own accord about forty years before the Temple's destruction by the Roman in 70 CE, with the death of one "Simeon the Righteous." That makes it contemporaneous with the earthly life of Jesus if not with his ministry itself. It may well be that said Simeon is the man described in Luke 2 as the one who felt free to die now that God's promise to him had been fulfilled by his seeing the (then-infant) Messiah. But even if they aren't the same man, the theme of oil and lamps is the same as that of the parable Jesus tells in today's Gospel and reminds us of his message's urgency.

The English metaphor: "keeping a candle lit" is used as a way of saying that a person keeps alive in their heart the hope that their beloved will return (even when, as is often the case in foiled romance, the hope is unrealistic). Jesus uses the metaphor of the virgins' oil lamps for essentially the same purpose, with himself as Bridegroom being the one eagerly awaited and the virgins being the bridesmaids at his wedding with his Bride, the Church. But the lamps are supposed to be lit, not tossed aside, when the Bridegroom comes. Why? Because the oil, a sign of the Holy Spirit's anointing of the chosen, thus and also signifies grace: one's participation in the divine life. Only if one has the oil, the grace, which is life in the Spirit, can one be adequately prepared to receive and celebrate the consummation of God's love for his people. If, like the foolish virgins, one runs out of oil while awaiting the Bridegroom, one might well find that he arrives while one has run off to obtain more. In other words, only if one takes care to persevere in the divine life Jesus wins for us by his death and resurrection can one expect to join that eternal wedding known as heaven. (Better than sex, which is only a foretaste.) One cannot wander off into sin and be confident of fixing things before one meets one's Maker.

Now Matthew was writing for an essentially Jewish-Christian audience after the Temple's destruction. His inclusion of this parable thus intimates to his audience that the Menorah went out because the Jews were not ready to receive their Messiah. But such a conclusion, inevitable as it is, should not tell us that the Jews as a whole are any worse than Christians as a whole. They are not.

The history of the Jewish people, from Day One of God's covenant with them, has always seemed to me a living metaphor for that of humanity's relationship with God, both individually and collectively. It helps to make real what it thus signifies. One thing thus signified is that, in our lives as individual believers, we can make an idol of religion that closes us to the purpose of religion: i.e., our becoming by adoption what God is by nature. But we don't get it; we think mostly in worldly categories. Since Jesus was not the military and political Messiah the Jews expected, most rejected him; unfortunately, the same holds in each of our lives as Christians. We often ignore the Spirit's gentle promptings and become more like the rest of the world than like the one we ritually call "Lord." We let our oil run out and thus run the risk of appearing before our Maker clutching at nothing to celebrate with.

I know I've done that many times in my life. We all do, for we are sinners in constant need of repentance and renewal. That's why church is such a scandal for so many, so chock full of "hypocrites," as it surely is. But it shouldn't be a scandal: if you find a perfect church, join it and it won't be perfect anymore. The work should begin with ourselves. We need to pay whatever we must for our oil and keep our lamps perpetually lit.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Anthropology, not anthropologists

Leave aside all the sneering about ivory towers. It seems fair to say that, in the West at least, the most contentious moral issues are really metaphysical: what is the human person and their place in the scheme of things? Among educated Europeans, exploration of that question is called philosophical anthropology, to be distinguished from the social science of the same name, which latter is how the term is typically understood in English-speaking countries. Again from a Western perspective, only two basic sets of answers are really in play: the theistic and the secular. The former is in eclipse in Western Europe even as it is still the default position among Americans. But the supervenient moral questions are still controversial. Indeed, they define the clash between what John Paul the Great called "the culture of life" and "the culture of death."

Consider this passage from The Conservative Philosopher:

There is a tendency in recent philosophy to assume that moral reasoning can be carried on more or less in isolation from controversial issues in metaphysics. The assumption is that questions about justice, rights, virtue, and vice can largely be settled independently of questions about, say, the nature of the mind and its relationship to the body, personal identity, or even the existence of God. Liberalism encourages this attitude, since it seeks a conception of justice that is “neutral” between competing religious and philosophical worldviews, and thus assumes that such a conception is out there waiting to be found. The motive for such a view is obvious: metaphysical questions are often so contentious and difficult to settle that it would be nice if we could get on in our practical affairs without having to settle them. It would be nice, that is to say, if we could decide what to believe about matters of right and wrong without having to decide what to believe about questions concerning the nature of ultimate reality.

There is one problem with the view, however: it is manifestly false. Indeed, it is so blindingly obvious that it is false that it is a marvel that anyone takes it seriously.

Consider the controversies over abortion and euthanasia. If you take a broadly Lockean view of personal identity, you are likely to hold that what is essential to being a person is the having of a fairly rich stream of conscious experiences linked by memory and other psychological factors; and if you follow most contemporary philosophers in the ways in which they would amend Locke's own account, you are likely to add that the having of various desires, preferences, and the like, and the capacity to make rational plans on the basis of those desires and preferences, are also crucial. In that case, though, you are likely at least to take seriously the suggestion that fetuses and people like Terri Schiavo do not count as "persons" and thus lack a right to life.

On the other hand, if you take a broadly Aristotelian-Thomistic view of personal identity, you are going to regard a human person as a composite of soul and body, where 'soul' means, not the mysterious gassy, ghostly sort of thing most secularists assume religious people mean when they talk about the soul, but rather the form of a living body, in Aristotle's technical sense of the term 'form'. The soul-body relationship, that is to say, is on this view just an instance of the general form-matter relationship common throughout the natural world. Now, since on this sort of view—which is, incidentally, based entirely on philosophical arguments, and not on an appeal to "faith" or revelation—anything that counts as a living human individual must, as a matter of metaphysical necessity, have a human soul (that is, the form of a living human body), it follows that there is no mystery about when the soul enters the body: it is present from the moment the body itself comes into existence. And if you add to this considerations drawn from modern biology, it is at the very least plausible (indeed, many contemporary Thomists would argue, certain) that that body comes into being at conception. It would follow, then, that the human person comes into being at conception and thus has the right to life from conception—and continues to have that right (at least if he or she is innocent of any grave offense that would constitute a forfeiture of that right) until natural death, since while the body is alive the soul is necessarily present, and thus a person is necessarily present. On this sort of view, it is an error to say that fetuses are only potentially persons; rather, they are persons who have not realized their potentials. It is also an error to say that Terri Schiavo, people in comas, and the like have lost their status as persons; rather, they are persons who have lost their ability to carry out their normal functions.

Now the point isn't to try to settle here the dispute between such competing views. It is rather to point out that it is obvious that this difference in metaphysical views entails a radical difference in attitudes about fundamental moral and political questions. The difference runs so deep that there is no way that adherents of the rival views could possibly come to any agreement about how to deal with the contentious moral and political issues in question without one of them abandoning his metaphysical position.

I said the same thing when I taught ethics years ago and usually convinced my students of it. The same goes for embryonic stem-cell research and the cloning of human beings, when the latter becomes truly feasible. I called the account of personhood militating against abortion and euthanasia the substantialist account, and the opposite the functionalist account.

That distinction explains something that I observed a generation ago and used to puzzle me: animal-rights activists often favor abortion-on-demand. They are functionalists, which means that what they consider morally significant is not what something or somebody is but rather what level of functioning the entity in question exhibits. A well-functioning adult lemur monkey is thus of greater moral worth than even a fairly well-developed human fetus. That is why a philosopher such as Peter Singer of Princeton has no qualms about infanticide but would be outraged if anybody suggested his dog be sold to the Chinese for meat.

But of course the issues are much wider than that. Indeed the future of our civilization depends on how we deal with them collectively. Theists generally maintain that morality depends on what we are as creatures of God; secularists, on the relative value of this or that sort of life from a human viewpoint. Indeed, secularists are generally moral relativists: what's right and wrong is a function not of the divine will as expressed in the nature of the human person and their place in God's scheme, but of a given life's relative fitness or lack thereof for attaining such ends as this or that collectivity of people happen to have. Scientific anthropologists, like most academicians, are typically secularist and relativistic. Philosophical anthropologists, by contrast, toe no party line; but they all see that the question of man is philosophical and religious, so that it cannot be effectively answered by natural science. The debate between the culture of death and the culture of life is really about such questions. Epigramatically, it's a debate between those who do, and those who do not, think there's a vital distinction between what's worthwhile period and immutably and what's worthwhile to us at some places and times but not others. Only our comfortable and already relativistic élites can pretend that the debate is ultimately about anything else.

I sometimes think it's natural for them to so pretend. Predicating social and political arrangements on answers to metaphysical and even theological questions would upset too many applecarts. That's why they prefer to deal with the most contentious issues without such answers. But that, at bottom, is the same problem I described on Halloween. The culture of death may end up killing us out of the sheer sloth of our best and brightest.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

The burka and the bikini

Not coincidentally, the theme of this post explains why I've chosen not to display images of those notorious female garments. I had thought about doing so until I realized that, by depicting the sins involved, I'd be encouraging them. And what are those sins?

As Old Oligarch points out (hat tip to Jeff Miller for citing it on his own better-known blog):
The burqa and the bikini are polar extremes of the same fundamental error. Both styles of clothing deny the human dignity of the wearer. Virtue is a mean between the extremes. The modest woman, the woman with self-respect, wears neither the ostentatious bikini nor the humiliating burqa. Both the bikini and the burqa deny our Christian belief in the equal spiritual dignity of man and woman. Both manners of dress encourage onlookers to view the woman as subordinate to men in one way or another.

The burqa denies the Christian belief in the equal spiritual dignity of a woman because it obscures her face, which is the gateway to the heart and to the mind. A woman in a burqa is not permitted to publicly manifest the visible features most proper to her nature as a rational and emotive being -- features which are the most proper to her as a human being. (Aristotle, for example, says that no animal has a prosopon, lit., a countenance, but only a man or a woman.) The bikini likewise denies her equal spiritual dignity because it places primary emphasis on her body, and in such a way that it encourages others to objectify her body as a sexual plaything, not as a temple of Holy Spirit or as a magnificent creature of goodly design.

Yes, I really mean a plaything. How so? Everyone who wants to, gets to enjoy it, regardless of their number, often in public, with no more personal involvement than the private satisfaction of one's own frivolous desire. That's a plaything. Indeed, some playthings are more jealously guarded.

That is not merely a measured moral insight well worth spreading. The fashion facts so sagely lamented symbolize, and reinforce by symbolizing, the two poles in the current war of the West with violent, Wahhabist Islam.

The latter's soldiers despise the loose sexual mores of the secular West, rightly sensing that the libertinism flows inevitably—if not logically—from the secularism. We in the West despise the puritanical intolerance of the Wahhabists, whose worldview motivates most of the "terrorism" against which America claims to be fighting a war. (The war is not so much against terrorism, of course, as against Muslim extremists who are simply using terror as a weapon.) They hate the bikini and enforce the burka when and where they can; we hate the burka and, while not exactly legislating the bikini, thrust it everybody's faces through advertising and the media. (The Western Europeans now seem to regard even that figleaf as purely optional: topless bathing is now the norm at many beaches, and nude bathing is rarely prosecuted even if not actively encouraged.) As indicated above, both sides are precisely wrong about the true nature and dignity of woman. To me, though, what's interesting about that is how it illustrates by contrast the fundamental truth of mere Christianity, which the Wahhabists reject as polytheistic and the secularists reject as fundamentalist.

No sensible account of the true nature and dignity of woman is available except that of Christianity as developed down to our day in Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and those branches of Protestantism that manage to retain most of what the former two traditions retain. If women are the equals of men in worth and dignity—which we in the West rightly take for granted—that is not because they are the same as men. Androgyny, like all spiritual errors, distorts the truth—in this case, the truth that the personhood of women and men is more fundamental any of their differences. But despite the fantasies of the seventies feminists and those nurtured on that ideology, the differences are ineradicable: the sexes together constitute the image of God, inasmuch as the division of the human race into them is a call to life-giving personal intercommunion. That is why the majority of people marry and the majority of the married bear children. The nuptial meaning of the human body, male and female, can be ignored or suppressed only at the cost of doing the same to what our personhood is ultimately for: union with the triune God, who is a communion of persons.

The bikini, and the attitudes it betrays, obscure that by arousing lust, i.e., the desire for sexual union with somebody one is not committed to love and has no intention of marrying. The burka, and the attitudes it betrays, obscure it by treating women as property to be protected, not as persons to interact with. Both objectify women and thus reinforce male domination. That is why women should not wear either one. Of course, in many sectors of Dar al-Islam, a woman may be raped, beaten, disowned, or killed for refusing to wear the burka; whereas no woman is similarly treated in the West for refusing to wear the bikini. We have the freedom to be right.

In this vale of tears, that also entails the freedom to be wrong. The wrongness of Islamic extremism we know about. But not enough of us realize what our problem is: as a society, we are no longer sure there's any objective good to be wrong about. Secular Westerners think the challenge of freedom is to invent rather than discover the values we are to live by. The Wahhabists are a lot nastier than that, to be sure; but they are not quite as wrong as that.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

The holy souls

When I was a child in Catholic school, the nuns made much of praying for "the holy souls in purgatory." On this, their feastday, it was a ritual duty whose premises seemed terribly abstract even to me, young master of the catechism. We were being enjoined to do something for dead half-people we could not see; and even taking on faith that our prayers did them some good, we couldn't see that either. Indeed, it wasn't until I reached college age that I could see the point of purgatory at all. Now I don't know what I'd do without the hope of it. I'm rather dubious about my chances of making it straight to heaven, unless I die heroically as a martyr or saving lives— which of course would be too gratifying, which is why it probably won't happen. It's a lot harder to live for Christ, which we all must do, than to die for him, which relatively few are granted the privilege of doing.

Non-Catholics who think it important to be catholic—chiefly, the Orthodox and the Anglo-Catholics—object not so much to the idea of purgatory as to the fact that Rome has defined it as dogma (cf CCC 1031). In that respect it is like several other Catholic dogmas, not least of which is the dogma that the pope can define dogma unilaterally and infallibly. Protestants tend to shy away from it as unbiblical (which it isn't) and as an excuse for corruptions that Luther rightly castigated in the late-medieval Catholic Church (which indeed it once was). But I am more and more convinced that it's just—well, if not obvious, then at least quite congruent with Christian experience. In 1769 James Boswell had this exchange with Samuel Johnson:

"What do you think, Sir, of purgatory, as believed by the Roman Catholicks?"

"Why, Sir, it is a very harmless doctrine. They are of the opinion that the generality of mankind are neither so obstinately wicked as to deserve everlasting punishment, nor so good as to merit being admitted into the society of blessed spirits; and therefore that God is graciously pleased to allow a middle state, where they may be purified by certain degrees of suffering. You see, Sir, there is nothing unreasonable in this."

"But then, Sir, their Masses for the dead?"

"Why, Sir, if it be at once established that there are souls in purgatory, it is as proper to pray for them, as for our brethren of mankind who are yet in this life."

Indeed. Even if it does not occupy one's daily thoughts, purgatory reminds us that many of us halfway-decent folk die without having completed the spiritual growth for which we are meant. If one believes in an afterlife at all, the only real alternative to purgatory is reincarnation, which seems to me philosophically untenable inasmuch as it assumes that the soul is the person, not just the most important part of the person. Even so, the element of truth in the Hindu and Buddhist doctrine of reincarnation is the same as that in purgatory: we do not attain complete bliss until we have been purified for it. Obversely, I find it comforting to be assured by the authority of the Church that I can enter the next life definitively saved without yet being fit for the company of heaven. I also find it comforting to know that the dying to self I should be doing as part of living for Christ will be consummated later if it isn't sooner. But for that reason I don't think I'll be comfortable in purgatory. I'd want to be prayed out of it. And so I offer my prayers accordingly for those already there.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

The Feast of All Saints

Why should our praise and glorification, or even the celebration of this feast day mean anything to the saints? What do they care about earthly honours when their heavenly Father honours them by fulfilling the faithful promise of the Son? What does our commendation mean to them? The saints have no need of honour from us; neither does our devotion add the slightest thing to what is theirs. Clearly, if we venerate their memory, it serves us, not them. But I tell you, when I think of them, I feel myself inflamed by a tremendous yearning.

Calling the saints to mind inspires, or rather arouses in us, above all else, a longing to enjoy their company, so desirable in itself. We long to share in the citizenship of heaven, to dwell with the spirits of the blessed, to join the assembly of patriarchs, the ranks of the prophets, the council of apostles, the great host of martyrs, the noble company of confessors and the choir of virgins. In short, we long to be united in happiness with all the saints. But our dispositions change. The Church of all the first followers of Christ awaits us, but we do nothing about it. The saints want us to be with them, and we are indifferent. The souls of the just await us, and we ignore them.

Come, brethren, let us at length spur ourselves on. We must rise again with Christ, we must seek the world which is above and set our mind on the things of heaven. Let us long for those who are longing for us, hasten to those who are waiting for us, and ask those who look for our coming to intercede for us. We should not only want to be with the saints, we should also hope to possess their happiness. While we desire to be in their company, we must also earnestly seek to share in their glory. Do not imagine that there is anything harmful in such an ambition as this; there is no danger in setting our hearts on such glory.

When we commemorate the saints we are inflamed with another yearning: that Christ our life may also appear to us as he appeared to them and that we may one day share in his glory. Until then we see him, not as he is, but as he became for our sake. He is our head, crowned, not with glory, but with the thorns of our sins. As members of that head, crowned with thorns, we should be ashamed to live in luxury; his purple robes are a mockery rather than an honour. When Christ comes again, his death shall no longer be proclaimed, and we shall know that we also have died, and that our life is hidden with him. The glorious head of the Church will appear and his glorified members will shine in splendour with him, when he forms this lowly body anew into such glory as belongs to himself, its head.

Therefore, we should aim at attaining this glory with a wholehearted and prudent desire. That we may rightly hope and strive for such blessedness, we must above all seek the prayers of the saints. Thus, what is beyond our own powers to obtain will be granted through their intercession.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux