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

Friday, March 31, 2006

Where are the boys?

The latest piece (linked through the above title) about the increasing number of young men living with their parents, a phenomenon not limited to race, class, or country, is one more bit of evidence that young men are, on average, becoming less motivated and educated than young women. Nobody is quite sure why. But I believe that, in the West, it is a sign of the suicide of the West.

What tends to motivate people to grow up are marriage and work. For ordinary men who aren't creative, self-motivated professionals, marriage has ordinarily tended to motivate work when nothing else would. The same goes even for divorced men. I myself work at a job that doesn't interest me, and that is well beneath my abilities, because I must pay child support. The sort of job for which I'm best qualified has never been plentiful; I'm considered overqualified for nearly any other sort of job for which qualifications matter; so I have one for which qualifications don't matter. Until my luck changes—which will probably only happen after much more hard work to that end—the only alternative scenario is homelessness and jail. If I had a third way—living rent-free and otherwise low-cost with relatives so that I could pursue my writing and research—I would not hesitate to do so. But that's not the sort of attitude that's worrisome in itself and that one finds in the legion of young layabouts today. They just don't seem to care about doing anything constructive with their lives. They are not motivated by marriage and work. That is very worrisome indeed. But why aren't they?

Any answer is necessarily going to be speculative at this point, but I have a strong intuition about what it should contain. Clearly, young men are less and less motivated than previous generations by marriage and work because they are losing the conviction that either is worth the effort. One reason for that is that their parents, the government, or whomever are able to support them while they play their games—whatever the games may be in the particular case. Economic growth worldwide makes that possible to a degree unprecedented in prior generations. Why endure the unpleasantness of reporting to a job or doing the academic grind when one can lead a perfectly comfortable, carefee life without doing so? But of course, that doesn't explain why young women, who presumably have the same option open to them to the same extent, are not availing themselves more of it.

I believe I have the answer. I can't prove it and I doubt it will be popular. But I am certain of it.

The problem is that the kind of society we have in the West today, which is spreading gradually througout the world, does not give most young men any model or reason for being men. Athletic and military pursuits still retain their macho appeal, of course, but the majority of young men today will never be able to define who they are by such means. The same goes for other physically challenging pursuits. While the vast majority of risky, dangerous jobs are still done by men and probably always will be, they are only a small percentage of jobs. For the most part and for the vast majority of men, the reasons people can think of and give for motivating them have nothing to do with their being men. You work so that you can have what you need and want without being a burden to others; you marry because love and children are Good Things. All that is true, but it holds for both sexes indifferently. What does it mean to be a man as distinct from a woman, and how does one become that? I challenge you to come up with one person in ten nowadays who can give a serious answer. Many would even reject the question. But most men need to understand what it is to be a man in relation to women and work if they are going to be motivated to relate to either responsibly.

Women tend not to understand that because they are what they are without having to do anything specific beyond what they have always been uniquely equipped by nature to do. When they marry, bear children, and raise them, they are the "heart" of society. Most young women take that option for granted, and can function accordingly in a "womanly" manner, even when they choose not to exercise it. The answer to the question "What is it to be a woman?" is thus obvious even when not articulated. A woman is something one is. But a man is something one becomes. Maleness in the spiritual sense, as distinct from its rather minimal biological sense, is an achievement not a given. So when a young man hasn't been given any clear guidance about what that achievement would distinctively look like, he is not motivated to pursue it. How can you be motivated to pursue what you do not know and have been led, in many cases, to believe you shouldn't even ask about?

Actually, it's even worse than that. Maleness and fatherhood are unfashionable. It's socially acceptable now to make fun of masculinity but not of femininity. In the application of family law, fathers are often treated as little more than sperm donors and cash cows. Beyond that, fatherhood is no longer widely understood and valued because authority, of which fatherhood is perhaps the most basic form, is now understood in purely functional terms when it is not denigrated altogether.

Accordingly, we are witnessing the slow suicide of the West, expressed in family breakdown, rampant sexual irresponsibility, and birth rates below replacement level. Most people give little thought to that. They had better start before there's nothing left worth thinking about.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Where there can be no compromise

The Pope said something very interesting yesterday if not altogether new. He is said to have said, at a private audience with the European Popular Party (EPP), that

...from the perspective of the Catholic Church, certain fundamental principles of European civilization are not negotiable, involving "the protection and promotion of the dignity of the person." The Church, he said, cannot compromise in the defense of human life and of the natural family founded on marriage.

The moral principles at stake in those matters, the Pope continued, "are not truths of faith, even though they receive further light and confirmation from faith; they are inscribed in human nature itself and therefore they are common to all humanity." The principles of natural law, he said, apply "to all people, irrespective of any religious affiliation they may have."

The European Union must uphold the natural law, and defend its Christian heritage, the Pope said. Failing to do so, he said, "would be a sign of immaturity, if not weakness."

What's interesting about that is the appeal is to natural law rather than divine revelation. If valid, it undercuts the claim of secularists that the Church's moral input is sectarian and therefore unwelcome in a secular state.

Of course, secularists who bother exercising more than their knee reflexes argue that the appeal is not valid. They believe the principles in question are not "inscribed in the human heart" but are just one set of opinions among many, whose plausibility to some is sustained mostly by the residual authority of the Church. But that is to mistake a transient social condition for a philosophical necessity.

The American Declaration of Independence appeals to "the laws of nature and of nature's God" as the basis of the new nation. Such laws were understood to justify not only independence but also the form of government envisioned for the new nation. While fully understandable only within the context of Christian civilization, that appeal to what sociologists of religion call "ethical monotheism" was not sectarian. It was signed on to by deists as well as by the Protestant majority and the Catholic minority; and Jews have never had a problem with it. Muslims do, of course, but that is another story which proves nothing philosophically. So the Pope is on firm historical and philosophical ground here.

In fact, he is on firmer ground than the secularists. Once some sort of appeal to an objective set of norms based on the transcendent is eschewed as the moral basis of the state, then the only alternative is the will of those best able to get their way. In a democracy, that will mean the will of the majority more often than in non-democratic states. Now the will of the majority is not always right or even prudent. But one cannot question the will of the majority if what's right is only the will of the majority. Militant secularism, understood as entailing the rejection of any objective, binding source of morality beyond human decision, cannot even sustain the legitimacy of democracy. The only alternative on offer is natural law. Enter the Pope, Antonin Scalia, and I hope John Roberts.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Catching my breath

So much has been happening on the spiritual front this past week that I have hardly known where to begin. As a result, and in my usual procrastinating way, I haven't begun. Until now.

The Abdul Rahman thing in particular has left me almost speechless. For reasons of its own, the United States went to considerable trouble to overthrow the Taliban regime that sheltered Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and to establish democracy in that poor, ravaged country, which we also helped free from the bloody Soviet occupation during the 1980s. American soldiers still die there from the sporadic attacks of Islamist diehards. Yet now we learn that Afghanistan is an "Islamic" country not merely in the sense that its people are mostly Muslim, not merely in the sense that its laws may not contradict Islam, but also in the sense that Shari'a law applies to converts. Thus we learn it is the law in Afghanistan that a person who, like Abdul Rahman, converts from Islam to another religion has committed a capital crime. Rather than ignore or repeal such a law, the government in Kabul has let Rahman off on the technicality that he is not mentally competent to stand trial. Well, maybe he is and maybe he isn't. But he is now in hiding so that vigilantes do not carry out the Shari'a sentence in lieu of the Government's doing so. Is this what America has sacrificed for?

We must insist unconditionally that killing people for their religious beliefs is unacceptable. To put teeth in that, we must say that any government which enforces such a law is going to pay a price if we have any way of making them pay one. The Bush Administration does no such thing, of course, because it needs the cooperation of certain such governments in the so-called "war on terrorism," and the cooperation of Saudi Arabia especially to retain our access to sufficient oil supplies. What I say to that is this: it is not worth one ounce of American blood to support such regimes. We have two choices: insist on reciprocity, or gradually become dhimmi. Just as anybody in this country is free to convert to Islam without any legal penalty, and all Muslims are free here to profess their faith, so too must Christians and other non-Muslims have the same freedom in any country that expects and values our friendship. If we take that line, we will pay a big price economically. Bring it on. If we're going to be sacrificing anyway, at least let's make the sacrifice worthwhile.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

The Massachusetts gay-adoption ruckus

On March 10, Catholic Charities of Boston, under pressure from Archbishop (now Cardinal) Sean O'Malley, announed it would no longer place children for adoption by same-sex couples. Until the Boston Globe broke the story a few weeks earlier, nobody had seemed to care that CCB had previously been complying with the state's anti-discrimination law by so placing such children; Massachusetts, you will remember, has same-sex "marriage." Since state authorities are refusing to budge, the Church in Massachusetts is now in the position of having to get out of the adoption business. Now this is something of a game of chicken, since the role of CCB in adoption placements is of great value to the Commonwealth, which would have to find a way to make up the shortfall if CCB withdrew. And, as the howls of outrage from liberals reverberate, nobody has yet quite driven over the cliff. A mutually acceptable compromise could be in the works.

Father Roger Landry, pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Parish and executive editor of The Anchor, the weekly newspaper of the Diocese of Fall River, has explained the situation well. Yet two things strike me as odd and sad about all this. What's odd and sad about it is typical of AmChurch.

First, the board of CCB seems not to have cared, even after the newspaper story, that its policy had been in direct violation of the teaching of the Church. In 2003, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said:
As experience has shown, the absence of sexual complementarity in these unions
creates obstacles in the normal development of children who would be placed in the care of such persons. They would be deprived of the experience of either fatherhood or motherhood. Allowing children to be adopted by persons living in such unions would actually mean doing violence to these children, in the sense that their condition of dependency would be used to place them in an environment that is not conducive to their full human development. This is gravely immoral and in open contradiction to the principle, recognized also in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, that the best interests of the child, as the weaker and more vulnerable party, are to be the paramount consideration in every case
Once the Massachusetts bishops decided to act accordingly, most of the CCB board resigned in protest, leaving a rump to comply. Their general attitudes and statements, not just on this matter, reveal that they are Catholic in name only. So why were they on the board in the first place?

Second, the bishops of Massachusetts seem not to have cared either until the newspaper story broke. I find that astounding. They didn't even care that the CCB board never cared that its policy was in direct violation of the teaching of the Church. Couple such indifference with the sex scandals that broke in 2002 and led to Cardinal Law's resignation 18 months later, along with the parish closings that shortages of priests and money have necessitated, and you can understand why even the true Catholic faithful of Massachusetts have not arisen en masse in the bishops' defense during this latest ruckus. What a sorry spectacle.

The Church in Massachusetts has taken some severe beatings of late. I'm sure God has good reason for permitting that. Perhaps now that O'Malley has stiffened his backbone and donned the red hat, the church over which he presides will regain some respect. There's nowhere to go but up.

Oops, I forgot L.A.

The wrath of God is the grace of God

Today's Mass readings were a feast. Listening to them made me meditate once again on the theme that God's love burns: with light for those who love him in return, with pain for those who prefer other gods, which usually means themselves. The same divine action that is healing mercy for the humble and repentant is searing justice for the proud and self-righteous. The wrath of God is just the flip side of his grace, blowing away our houses of cards and calling us to rebuild our lives on the firm foundations of his truth in love. I have experienced both in my own person, and no doubt will continue to do so.

Alas, the homily given today at my parish by the deacon would have us think not of that. In keeping with his basketball metaphor, he called on us to celebrate God's redeeming love for us much as we would celebrate the undeserved victory of our team in a tournament. There was nothing about our persistent idolatries, nothing about the wrath of God in face of it, which led to the sack of Jerusalem many centuries ago by the Iraqis, and the enslavement in Babylon of the relatively few Jews who survived the destruction. Nothing about the hell we face, here-and-now as well as in eternity, if we do not repent. Nope. Jesus has done for us all that we need; what remains is for us to accept it and bask in it; admittedly that means being nice people, which is hard enough often enough, given what people are like. But why be solemn? Rejoice! God's favorite color, after all, is Carolina blue.

Now I'm sure the deacon's theology, were one to put him to it, is quite orthodox. In our diocese, he probably would not be allowed to function in the clergy if it weren't. But if the hard side of truth is not made clear to the people, then the people will do what they've always done: abide in their comfortable illusions until, for some, it's too late. That's what happened to me in the 1990s, and I'm still doing my penance.

Even more than the ordinarily execrable liturgical music, which is really just a symptom, this is the sort of thing that most bothers me about the overall tenor of contemporary American Catholicism. We don't get, presumably because we don't want, much of anything that would shake us out of our comfort zone. We don't hear that there's something not quite right about driving gas-guzzling luxury SUVs while some of our fellow parishioners get sicker and sicker for want of basic health insurance. We don't hear that Church teaching about birth control is not just an luxury option for organic, NFP enthusiasts; that, in fact, it's not optional at all. We don't hear that, unless we pray often, give up some really good things, and offer up the unavoidable sufferings of daily life as self-mortification, our souls will remain too disordered, too glutted, to become what we are called to be: partakers of the divine nature, filled with the light and love of Christ. This is why Catholic families are shrinking even as Catholics get richer; this is why we don't have enough sisters and priests; this is why, for a generation, so many clerics felt free to permit a sexual-predation zone within their own ranks. In point of fact, most Catholics are virtually indistinguishable from other Americans. And the worst part is that, while we know something is wrong, we rarely think it has much to do with us. It's always "them."

Catholic New Orleans, a sinkhole of iniquity both politically and morally, got a wakeup call that not all its residents deserved. I hope the same doesn't have to happen to the United States of America as a whole.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The Meaning of Marriage

The new book edited by Robert P. George and Jean Bethke Elshtain, The Meaning of Marriage: Family, State, Market and Morals, is well worth perusing. For the short-and-sweet version of the message, you might want to consult this week's two-part ZENIT interview with George, who is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University, and also serves on President Bush's Council on Bioethics. Click for Part I, Part II.

I TA'ed for Prof. George eighteen years ago, and knew even then he was a rising Catholic star in academia. It's heartening to have such people on your side.

A philosophical critique of the ID court decision

Alvin Plantinga, a prominent contemporary analytical philosopher and Christian whom every philosophy graduate student has had to read for the last thirty years, has intelligently criticized the recent court decision against presenting "intelligent-design" theory in public-school science courses. I agree with his criticism and I commend it to your reading. Nevertheless, I think both sides need more of a virtue I'm short on myself: humility.

For consistency’s sake, proponents of methodological naturalism need to say that natural science, as distinct from metaphysics, is best done while bracketing the question of supernatural causation. That is, they should say that the best approach for science is to come up with testable theories that require no reference to the supernatural. From that viewpoint, it could well turn out that one can’t explain all natural realities in purely naturalistic terms. But that issue cannot be settled one way or another just by natural science. Methodological naturalism is just that: methodological, not metaphysical.

ID proponents would similarly do well to confine themselves to a negative approach. That is, they could and should point out the ways in which natural science, merely as such, fails to explain certain things. Thus “irreducible complexity” would be complexity that natural science, merely as such, does not plausibly explain purely as the product of other, natural entities and forces. The question whether natural science ever could explain such complexity as such a product would then become a matter of philosophical opinion. Scientists such as Michael Ruse are convinced that the methodology of natural science is equipped in principle to explain everything naturalistically, and other scientists such as Michael Behe are convinced that it is not. Both positions are legitimate within the scientific community, but neither is dictated by the methodologies of natural science.

The problem with the ID debate is that neither side, by and large, is willing to be modest enough. Each seems convinced that “science” supports their own position, when in fact it could support either. That's primarily why Judge Jones is wrong. But it's not sexy to say that. If people did take that approach, everybody would win, which means nobody would lose, which means nobody's ego would be stomped on and humiliated. And what fun would that be?

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

More on the Pope and the usual murder charge

A few days ago, I quoted and ridiculed Garry Will's version of the charge that the Pope is guilty of mass murder by refusing to authorize the use of condoms to protect certain people from AIDS. But now a Catholic who lives in Africa, whom I'll call 'CW', has e-mailed me a criticism of my ridicule. I don't know whether CW is African or not; but I doubt that's important. The following consists of what he says and of my reply to it.

CW writes:

I’m surrounded by true AIDS believers, lots who are non-Christian, much less
Catholic. (I’m actually a quiet AIDS doubter.) I imagine one response they would make to your response to Wills is this: “lots of women are being infected by husbands who have sex with prostitutes and such. The Catholic women are getting infected by their husbands because they can’t/won’t/believe they shouldn’t make their husbands use condoms.” I don’t think your argument addresses this, and Wills may be referring to this kind of thing.

I reply:

I have no reason to doubt that many women who get AIDS get it from husbands who got it from prostitutes "and such," which latter presumably means adultery with women or sodomy with men. But let's ask ourselves this: how many married women in Africa (a) know that their husbands have AIDS, (b) believe they should not "make" their husbands wear condoms; and (c) believe that because the Pope says so? If the criticism you cite is correct, such women must be fairly common, granted all around that they are not the majority. But what research is there to support that claim? I haven't heard of any and you don't present the critics as citing any.

In any case, I find it quite difficult to believe that such women are common. If I knew that a wife of mine had AIDS, and knew that AIDS can be transmitted by ordinary marital sex, I would insist on protecting myself by whatever means are necessary. My preferred method would be abstinence because its physical risk is zero and its moral status not in doubt. I would use a condom only if forced to, and I can't imagine being forced to do something like that. But I recognize that I am not a poor African woman married to a man who thinks with the wrong organ. Many such women probably feel themselves to be in too vulnerable a position—physically, financially, or otherwise—to refuse sex to their AIDS-infected husbands, if indeed they know their husbands are infected. But when do they know, if they know? I suspect, though of course I cannot prove, that many Africans don't know that they or their family members are infected until some secondary disease manifests itself, by which time the question of having sex is fairly moot. But if somebody doesn't know her husband is infected, the question is also moot. What do the critics expect: that African women insist their husbands use use condoms until they're AIDS-tested? One can only imagine the effect that would have on many marriages. And in any case, what's all this got to do with the Pope?

No, CW, I still don't take the critics seriously, not at least if their aim is to sustain the charge that the Pope is a mass murderer for misleading some women into believing they have to let themselves be infected with AIDS. Wills is just a Rome-hater; and perhaps some of the "true AIDS believers" you cite are too.

Monday, March 20, 2006

The (belated) Feast of St. Joseph

Ordinarily it's March 19; but as that date fell on a Sunday this year, this important feast was kicked up to the next day.

To the secular mind, the foster father of Jesus is a loser. Thus if, as Christianity asserts, Jesus was conceived only by the Holy Spirit and if, as the Catholic and Orthodox churches teach, Mary remained ever-virgin, then Joseph was a cuckold and probably a rather frustrated one at that. Other than the early death some traditions ascribe to him, his consolation must have been that his rival was God. One isn't quite so much the loser if it's impossible to win. Yet the fact that many Catholics even these days will bury a statue of him in their back yard so that their houses will sell better doesn't exactly enhance the man's stature.

Superstition aside, the Church sees things very much otherwise. When I was a child, I learned that Joseph is patron saint of families, of fathers, and of the universal Church. Why indeed does the Church venerate him so much that he gets a liturgical "solemnity" of his own, or what used to be called a "first-class feast"? I note that there is no record of devotion to him in the early Church. In that period he is completely overshadowed: first by the divine Child who was given into his care for a time, and then by his sinless wife, who is also greater than he though not of course divine. His cult is an almost exclusively Western thing and becomes noticeable only in the Middle Ages. It reached its apogee so far during the 20th century. Yet very few Catholics know what I just learned myself today: that two papal encyclicals have been devoted to St. Joseph: one by Leo XIII and one by John Paul II! I don't know of any member of the communion of saints other than the Virgin herself who has enjoyed such press from the Servi Servorum Dei. What gives?

Well, I have no greater wisdom to add to those of the two aforementioned popes. I am not as great and wise as they and you can read their stuff—which I have thoughtfully linked—for yourself. But I do have an observation that I think timely and necessary.

We live in a time when fatherhood is in eclipse. Indeed it is now socially acceptable to ridicule the distinctively male, even as it is no longer socially acceptable to ridicule the distinctively female. Something is terribly wrong and needs to be righted. What St. John called "the world" is not going to do that. It needs to be done by the children of light. St. Joseph points the way.

Unlike English, Latin has two words for 'father': genitor, meaning 'begetter', and pater, meaning 'father' in a spiritually fuller sense. That is well. Begetting a child is easy and fun; any animal can do it, and some do it better than humans do. Actually being a father is hard, but ultimately more rewarding. Nowadays, however, fatherhood in both senses is widely questioned. We have artificial reproduction and someday will be able to have completely fatherless reproduction. There are many, many single-mother households: some by paternal choice, more by maternal. While some women ask whether men are necessary at all, the fact is that the social costs of fatherlessness are enormous and well-documented. If our civilization is to survive and thrive, true fatherhood needs to be strengthened. In order to do that, those who have joyfully accepted divine revelation in and through the person of Jesus Christ need to understand the spiritual significance of his maleness. His foster father shows that significance by his example. Men don't need to be Messiahs to be men; they need only recapitulate his love in their own small ways.

Joseph was pater to Jesus, not genitor. He performed that mission in exemplary fashion despite having no natural motive for doing so. He did his duty out of sheer obedience to God—and then he got out of the way. Total selflessness. Such sacrifice is no doubt what made him great among the saints in heaven who help us on earth: when the seed falls to the ground and dies, it bears much fruit. Ephesians 5 gives us that same model for marriage. The headship of husbands and fathers does not consist in being superior to their wives and children: Joseph was inferior to his wife and child. Indeed he served them—by providing and protecting. Only authority so earned is credible.

That is what so many men fail to understand and so many women despair of finding in men. That's what we so desperately need more of today. Let us men invoke St. Joseph's aid in becoming more like him.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

The polytheistic wing of Islam

I thought I'd borrow that oxymoronic title to focus your attention on the real nature of what the infamous "Gang of 55" House Catholic Democrats are advocating by means of last month's rather sad "Statement of Catholic Principles." Not surprisingly, they want the "big tent" of Catholicism to include the "right to choose" abortion. As is pointed out by Fr. Thomas Williams, dean of the theology school at Rome’s Regina Apostolorum University where he teaches Catholic social doctrine, and a Vatican Analyst for NBC News and MSNBC:
Just as you don’t have the polytheistic wing of Islam or the seal-clubbing wing of Greenpeace, you don’t have the pro-abortion wing of the Catholic Church. Certain non-negotiable moral standards define Catholicism just as surely as doctrinal beliefs do. We all advocate a big tent, but it can stretch only so far until it rips asunder.
Quite so, and he explains why. Especially telling is his dismissal of the politicians' appeal to the Catholic doctrine of "the primacy of conscience." There's a big ecclesiastical flap about that going on in Australia right now, with an array of ostensibly Catholic intellectuals and clerics protesting to Rome that Cardinal Pell, Archbishop of Sydney, rejects that doctrine by telling them they may not dissent from certain other doctrines. You can read my rebuttal of such fatuity at Pontifications. In the American context, Fr. Williams cuts through it even more succinctly.

Another argument they use has long since been rejected by the U.S. bishops as a whole, including some who once supported it: the "seamless-garment" approach to political questions—now called by a different name, "the consistent ethic of life", to hide the theological discrediting of that approach under its old name. The idea is that if you're Catholic and thus want things like abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriage, and embryonic stem-cell research to be illegal, then for consistency's sake you'd better also advocate for things like a higher minimum wage, the complete abolition of capital punishment, a more liberal immigration policy, withdrawal from Iraq, universal health care, and numerous other things that would implement Catholic social teaching politically. It was a clever move in its day, because it had just enough plausibility to convince many Catholics that you couldn't honestly be pro-life on abortion, etc. without also being pro-Democratic on many other issues. But the move came a cropper for two reasons.

One was that the Democratic Party as a whole didn't buy it. The party saw nothing inconsistent about being "pro-choice" while also leaning Catholic on a variety of other issues. So the Catholics could protest all they wanted: on abortion, they could either fall in or ship out. And the few who didn't fall in, such as Gov. Robert Casey of Pennsylvania in 1992, were shipped out. Nowadays, if you want to function politically as a Democrat—at least on a national scale—you have to be pro-choice, seamless garment or no seamless garment. Catholic Democrats in the House have fallen in accordingly. Why they continue to sing the seamless-garment song is beyond me. They don't really believe it themselves, else they wouldn't support abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriage, and embryonic stem-cell research. Perhaps their theology reading is so much a thing of the past that they don't realize it no longer applies to what they do. Or perhaps they're even more hypocritical than I thought.

The other reason is that what's now called "the consistent ethic of life" conflates a key distinction: that between evils which are intrinsically so and evils which are not. Things like abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriage, and the killing of embryos for research or any purposes are not just bad policy proposals. They are morally wrong irrespective of motive, circumstance, or larger outcome; the theological term for that is "intrinsically evil." Intrinsic evils are always and necessarily immoral. On the other hand, things like capital punishment, spotty provision for people's health, minimum wages that don't let you rent your own apartment, wars, and the like are not intrinsic evils. They might be wrong for the most part, but they are not always and necessarily so. Therefore, permitting them might sometimes be justified as policy measures or political compromises. But the same cannot be said for the intrinsic evils I mentioned.

To be sure, some intrinsic evils do not strike at the very heart of society. Some are so popular that it is at best pointless, and probably counterproductive, to criminalize them. Contraception and prostitution are good examples of that. But the intrinsic evils I mentioned are worse. They are mostly forms of violence against the most vulnerable; the only exception is same-sex marriage, which is almost as evil because it can't be introduced without introducing other evils, not least of which is the presumption that man not God defines marriage. So the kinds of intrinsic evils that the Catholic Church has drawn a political line in the sand about are so grevious, so inconsistent with the natural law, that laws authorizing them are not legitimate laws at all. Sincere advocates of the "seamless-garment" or "consistent-ethic" approach for Catholics in politics seems utterly oblivious to that.

The gap between theory and reality has arisen because Catholic Democratic politicians never really cared about the intellectual underpinnings. They just want to get elected and stay elected. So they said whatever they thought Catholics wanted to hear from Democrats. But as the voting patterns in the last few elections indicate, fewer and fewer Catholics are listening. Catholic Democrats who want to function in the party are in an intellectually untenable position: they can be pro-choice Democrats or faithful Catholics, but not both. They can issue as many statements of principles as they like; the principles aren't going to hang together unless they choose between being Catholic and being Democrat. Once they make the choice, no such statements will be necessary.

Another cliché bites the dust...

It is said, especially in Hollywood, that all publicity is good publicity. If one measures one's self-worth strictly in terms of fame and the fortune it can bring, I suppose that's true. And in the world of ideas there's an element of that. Even so, things are not quite the same there. If you want your ideas taken seriously by people who understand ideas, it's more important that yours be free of particularly patent nonsense. Notice I did not say they must be true. That would be going too far because, after all, even highly intelligent people often prefer pleasant falsehoods to unpleasant truths, especially if believing said falsehoods is fashionable in the academy and the gallery. But there comes a point when somebody says something so nonsensical, with such insouciant confidence, that not even its popularity in his own circle is enough to preserve his wider reputation for probity. Much to my relief, Garry Wills has now said just such a thing.

I say "to my relief" because up till now, the cradle-Catholic, ex-seminarian Wills' attacks on the teaching authority of the Church, and especially the papacy, have been so scholarly in appearance and savage in spirit as to help make the aging, shrinking corps of American progressives ('progs' for short) feel ever more secure in their dissent. I'm working on a book project that will, among other things, discredit some of his scholarship. But he's now doing my job well enough for me. Amy Welborn—bless her indefatigable heart—has offered us a podcast of recent interview with Wills in which he claimed, among other things, the following:

Wills: There is..a message of life and love in the New Testament. Little of that comes out of Rome now. People are dying of AIDS all around the world now especially in places like Africa and Indonesia now, …when the Pope refuses to allow people to have contraception, he’s killing them. He’s responsible for murder. This is hardly a gospel of life and love.

Interviewer: You say that Pope Benedict is responsible for murder?

Wills: Sure, sure. More people are more resentful and hateful toward the Catholic Church because of that than because of the sexual molestation problem…sexual molesters are terrible it’s..you know here in Boston, but for the most part, not always, but for the most part they didn’t kill people. This is killing people on a grand scale, and it’s a horrendous scandal, much greater than any sexual molestation scandal.
It is a measure of the difficulties Catholics face these days that such statements actually require refutation rather than instantly discrediting those who make them. The people writing in Amy's combox do a good job of the former, and I commend their comments to your attention. They cite facts galore. But one shouldn't have to. It's mere common sense to note that people who have sex of the kinds and under circumstances that transmit AIDS do not, by and large, give a rat's patootie whether the Pope approves of condoms or not. In many cases, they don't even care enough to know. They are not putting their own and others' lives at risk by heeding the Pope; if they thought the Pope worth heeding, they wouldn't be going around having such sex to begin with. Nobody save Catholic progs needs to be told that.

It says a lot that Wills, like so many of Catholics of his kind and generation, has deteriorated intellectually over the years. In college I took a course on the American Revolution in which my term paper consisted of a long review of his Inventing America—a book best described, for the uninitiated, as a long attempt to argue that the Declaration of Independence was really proto-socialist. While I didn't agree with the thesis, it was cleverly argued, and I really had to do my homework to learn about the alternative approaches that Wills didn't treat fairly or sometimes even engage seriously. But that was nearly thirty years ago. Since then his scholarship has been gradually sliding downhill. His Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit (2001) is a bitter polemic that, while flashing a superficially impressive array of footnotes, doesn't credibly maintain even the appearance of scholarly objectivity and balance. It's as if alternative narratives and interpretations don't even merit mention, much less rebuttal. He's lost the discipline that comes from having to preach to a choir other than one's own.

And that seems to be true of Catholic progs in general, such as Joan Chittister, Charles Curran, and so many others of the generation of American Catholics that came of age around the time of Vatican II. Whether clerical or lay, educated or ordinary, they've spent forty years spending themselves in spite against the Church, which they believe the Council sought to radically remake and John Paul II refused to remake at all. In that, ironically enough, they mirror the schismatic traditionalist movements, which have spent nearly as long proceeding on the assumption that the Church of Vatican II is discontinuous with that of the past, the only difference being that the trads believe it really exists and criticize Wojtyla and Ratzinger for failing to restore what was. While the progs celebrate the same imaginary Church, always of course maintaining loyalty to the next pope or maybe the one after that, the narrative of discontinuity is the same. The good guys and bad guys are just reversed.

All of these people will gradually peter out in spite. The progs will peter out first because, unlike the trads, they don't produce many babies and priests. Thank God.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

The liberal baby bust

"Suicide, however popular, cannot remain a growth industry." So says the redoubtable Diogenes, reacting favorably to Philip Longman's book The Empty Cradle (Basic, 2004), which has strongly shaped my thinking given that none of his negative reviewers gainsay his methodology. To me, Longman's most relevant point is the one Diogenes quotes:
It's a pattern found throughout the world, and it augurs a far more conservative future -- one in which patriarchy and other traditional values make a comeback, if only by default. Childlessness and small families are increasingly the norm today among progressive secularists. As a consequence, an increasing share of all children born into the world are descended from a share of the population whose conservative values have led them to raise large families. Today, fertility correlates strongly with a wide range of political, cultural and religious attitudes. In the USA, for example, 47% of people who attend church weekly say their ideal family size is three or more children. By contrast, 27% of those who seldom attend church want that many kids.
Though not yet conventional wisdom, such observations soon will be. What's so delicious about Longman's thesis is that it poses an insoluble dilemma for "progressive secularists": cease to be what they are, or cease to be at all. They cannot procreate enough to replace themselves without abandoning their ideology, but retaining it will ensure that the future falls largely into the hands of those whose views they abhor. At that point, their suicide will cease to be a growth industry because—well, suicide tends to eliminate its own market.

The delicacy is only enhanced when served up to an ecclesial audience. Even the progs are starting to worry. (Hat tip to Gerald Augustinus.) I've sometimes wondered why Rome doesn't just excommunicate the most prominent clerical progs, and sternly inform their mostly lay fellow-travelers that they receive the Eucharist to their own condemnation if they do so while proudly living lives contrary to the moral teaching of the Church. We could at least end the massive sham of "conscience" that has been erected on the clergy's refusal, from the top down, to require assent to Church teaching on birth control. But I think I know now why Rome doesn't end the sham that way: in due course, it will end itself regardless of what anybody thinks. Progs of post-Vatican-II vintage don't produce many babies or vocations. They will just recede, gradually but ineluctably, into memory. Why raise the huge ruckus that would ensue on excommunicating them when they will just quietly eliminate themselves?

The process of demographic suicide is already well advanced among liberal religious orders. It will take longer with the laity, who are of course far more numerous to start with. But it will happen with them too, and they will be replaced by real Catholics. All everybody has to do is be themselves.

I love it.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Doubt Sunday

In his homily at the first Mass this morning, the pastor of my parish jokingly alluded to a local Unitarian church's advertisement of its service today as that of "Doubt Sunday." In the real church, of course, today is more directly and accurately designatable as "Faith Sunday." We are told the story (Genesis 22: 1-18) of Abraham, our father in faith, preparing to make his "son of the promise" a human sacrifice by divine command, only to be held back by God at the last moment. Such was the faith of Abraham. God ordered him to eliminate the only visible means by which God's promises to him could have been fulfilled, yet he obeyed; and as he prepared to act accordingly, he had done all that God really expected of him.

Though the story doesn't say so, Abraham must have struggled with rendering such obedience. But his eventual choice to render it was rewarded: having passed the test, "his faith was credited to him as righteousness" and his descendants in faith are "as numerous as the stars"—at least as the number of stars was thought in biblical times to be. Yet how many of us can say the same for ourselves, consistently? Not many. Hence our unbelief is thrown into relief today. In a perverse but inescapable way, it is indeed Doubt Sunday.

At times we all deserve the dominical rebuke "O ye of little faith." But it is peculiarly appropriate for Catholics today in the developed world. To judge by what such Catholics write and read, by what they say in adult-education offerings and in the coffee hour after Mass, and above all by how they conduct themselves in the bedroom and the boardroom, many have lost the virtue of faith if they ever had it. They reserve to themselves the right, in the name of "conscience," to pick-and-choose what they shall believe and how they shall interpret those teachings of the Church that they elect to believe. The old Greek word for such choosing is haeresis. Transliterated, that word is "heresy." For many white Catholics today, heresy is their principle of faith.

As to why that stance is incoherent, see my Pontifications post "Faith, Private Judgment, Doubt, and Dissent." Yet I would be hard pressed to identify one Catholic in five anymore who even remembers that faith, as the Church understands it, is a "theological virtue." True faith is a gift infused by the Holy Spirit that orients our minds to belief, and hence our wills to trust, in Jesus Christ. For reasons I explained, faith in that sense depends on obedience to authority, the relevant authority being the Church. Without such authority, we are thrown back on our own experiences and opinions, which of course differ from those of others. We are no longer "of one mind and heart" in the Mystical Body of Christ. We are a collection of fractious individuals. Just like the Unitarians.

That said, the responsibility of those of us not prone to such an error is all the greater. Though not in my intellect, certainly in my life I have not always shown the faith of Abraham. In fact, I'd say I failed the greatest test of my faith so far; it had to do with marriage, as these things so often and inevitably do. Why inevitably?

Well, the Church constitutes one body with Christ as his Bride in a mystical marriage; human marriage is meant to be a sign and instrument of that salvific, deifying unity-in-love which is embodied in Christ's relationship with the Church. In other words, it's a sacrament. People who fail to live the sacrament of marriage as the Church requires and urges fail in what is perhaps their most important means of living the Christian vocation. I pray that I, and so many like me, learn to overcome such failures and conduct our lives henceforth with the faith of an Abraham.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

The figleaf of gender equality

The death a few weeks ago of Betty Friedan, one of the pioneers of contemporary feminism, reminded me of something I've been wanting to say for a long time. I'll assert the thesis right up front: in the sense in which the bulk of contemporary feminists mean the term, virtually nobody believes in "gender equality"—including most feminists themselves.

There is of course a very important sense in which gender equality is real and must be recognized: women and men are of equal worth and dignity in the sight of God, which means they are of equal worth and dignity just in virtue of what they are. But outside the Dar-al-Islam, nobody disputes that. The kind of gender equality that 60s- and 70s-style feminists wanted, and that some feminists still claim to want, not only doesn't exist; it couldn't exist and nobody in their right mind acts as though it could or even should exist. There's an important lesson here, which I want to highlight. But let's get the facts straight first.

The old-style feminists I'm talking about—such as Friedan, Germaine Greer, Gloria Steinem, and others—were quite keen on what I'll call "spiritual androgyny." They wanted society to be restructured so that the only significant difference in the social roles of the sexes had to do with their reproductive plumbing, and even the differences arising from that were to be minimized as much as possible by technology and social policy. Women and men were thus to operate under the same set of expectations and responsibilities both outside and inside the home. The idea was that everything possible should be done to ensure that child care and family life are no greater a burden on women than on men and no less a burden on men than on women. That would make it possible for women to assume, in full freedom and autonomy, their rightful place in the larger society. Widespread contraception, legal abortion, and no-fault divorce were absolutely critical planks in that platform. Those came to pass swiftly, as has much else since. Such is the sense of gender equality that the bulk of contemporary feminists claim to want. It gives a great figleaf of legitimacy to current laws about affirmative action, domestic violence, military roles, and other things pertaining to the differences between the sexes.

But in fact, people really don't want the sexes treated the same, and they aren't being treated the same. That's why the old, proposed Equal Rights Amendment never passed. Consider:

  • Men still do most of the really dangerous jobs; not surprisingly, then, the rate of on-the-job injury for men is much higher than for women. It is testimony to their rationality that women are not agitating for greater representation in highly dangerous occupations.
  • That men do most of the dangerous jobs also helps to explain why their average earnings continue to be somewhat higher than women's: those jobs pay more on average than safe ones. The other reason is that, when babies are born to couples, the mother is more likely to sacrifice career prospects for the children's sake than is the father. This has nothing to do with education: the majority of college students are now women. The real reason is ultimately biological: babies generally bond with their mothers first, and mothers bond more closely with their progeny at first than fathers do. Duh. That is why househusbands will never be as common as housewives. And despite an inevitable minority, most women don't want to indefinitely support husbands who would rather stay at home full-time. At any rate, I've yet to meet one in my 51 years, many of which have been spent in socially sophisticated locales.
  • While women now have limited combat roles in the military, with a commensurate casualty rate in Iraq, men still do most of the actual close combat with the enemy. The only women in the military who want to kill and die on the same terms as men are those whose career advancement depends on it. Most of them, thank God, don't have children.
  • While domestic-violence laws are written in a gender-neutral way, the fact is that men are not taken seriously as victims by the domestic-violence industry. As if there were no violent or abusive women. Whatever the explanation for such discrimination, there is no gender equality here and nobody beyond a few widely scorned men's-rights groups wants there to be. And the widespread use of domestic-violence restraining orders, even when no physical violence has been alleged, is one of the biggest factors explaining why it's so much easier for women than men to get sole custody of children in divorce cases, even when the mothers' fitness can be and is questioned.
  • Public lavatories are segregated by gender for women's sake, not men's. Nobody needs to be told why. It's a given.
  • When I was a student at Columbia three decades ago, I once had a room in a big apartment off campus with several other students, male and female. Our bathroom window faced out into an alleyway and had no shades or blinds. One day we got a visit from the police, who informed us that a woman living in the building across the alleyway had complained to them that she could see the male students in the nude as they stepped out of the shower and proceeded to the basin to shave and brush their teeth. With a straight face, they warned us guys that we would be charged with exhibitionism if we continued to be visible to this woman in that fashion. The girls faced no such threat, of course; indeed they agreed with us that, if a man had called to complain about the girls doing it, he would have been treated as a schizy peeping Tom, not as an upstanding citizen with a legitimate concern. So we guys just sighed and pitched in to put blinds on the window. Again, nobody needs to have this sort of disparity explained to them.
  • Despite the fact that single women earn at least as much, on average, as single men, the latter are still generally expected to foot most of the bill for dates most of the time. Men who refuse to do so rarely get a second date.
  • Most people, men as well as women, don't respect the rare man who brings a sexual-harassment grievance against a female boss. Most men actually consider such a man crazy. And as for a man bringing such a grievance against a female peer or subordinate—well, I've yet to hear of it. Most men would actually welcome a bit more of what is defined as "sexual harassment" when it goes the other way.
  • When a woman or girl wants an abortion, there is no legal requirement that she inform, let alone consult, the father even if he wants the child. But if she chooses to have the child, he is legally obligated to support that child even if he doesn't want it and hasn't been informed or consulted.

I could go on, but you get the picture. My concern is not to argue that things shouldn't be this way; a few of them should be different, perhaps, but more shouldn't be different. But regardless of what should and shouldn't be different, such is how things are and such is how people want them to be. There is no gender equality of the sort that old-style feminists claimed to want. And I don't think self-described feminists today want it either, if they ever did. What's called gender equality is a myth that acts as a figleaf over a reality that few really want to change.

What today's feminists really want, it seems to me, is greater rights and privileges for women. We live in a society in which men's life expectancy and general health is substantially lower than women's; in which female educational attainment is now outstripping male; in which, when families break up, men are presumed guilty until proven innocent and women are presumed innocent until proven guilty; in which women are encouraged to aspire to whatever men do, while the reverse is not nearly so encouraged; and so forth. Again, whether you think these things are good, bad, or indifferent is irrelevant. The point is that woman are no longer, generally speaking, worse off than men in most respects; in some respects, they are better off. There are only two ways in which women are worse off: they invest and risk much more by childbearing than men, because they do the childbearing; and for related reasons, they are more vulnerable to certain forms of violence and sexual exploitation than men. I agree that law and custom should protect women more than men from the latter. But what about the former?

That is the issue, it seems to me, on which all else hinges. Is motherhood to be seen primarily as a sacred trust, of greater dignity than any merely utilitarian occupation? Or is it to be seen primarily as a burden most women carry, one that of course is to be lightened by every possible means? I don't think most Americans, women as well as men, have thought this one through. But we're not going to have the kind of gender equality that matters until the answer to the first question is "yes" and the second "no." In the meantime, we have gender inequality that is taken for granted even by those who call themselves feminists.

"It's about oil"

With that easy cynicism which so often passes for sophistication, opponents of Operation Iraqi Freedom often assert that said U.S. venture is really all about oil. It isn't, of course—at least not in the sense such people imagine. There is no rational calculus by which our expenditure of blood, treasure, and prestige in Iraq is justified by any real or even imagined advantage to us in the oil markets. If and when it emerges from the current jockeying and wrangling, the fledgling Iraqi government will need every penny of oil revenue and lots more just to keep operating. But in a sense, our self-inflicted handicaps in the war with radical Islamism are about oil, and the battle against the Iraqi insurgency is mainly a theater in that war. We need to understand why in order to be prepared for what lies ahead.

There is no religious freedom in the most influential Muslim countries: Saudi Arabia and Iran. Both countries are enemies of religious freedom and therefore our enemies. The former subsidizes and exports Wahabbism, the "fundamentalist" version of Sunni Islam to which al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and many other non-terrorist Muslims subscribe. That al-Qaeda is bent on overthrowing the House of Saud and is engaged accordingly in violent conflict with it is merely an internal squabble within Wahabbism about relations with the West: the terrorists believe that the Saudis are whores by getting into bed with "the crusaders" for money and for protection from the many dangers they face. In other words, some Wahabbists believe that the Wahabbist custodians of the Muslim holy places aren't pure enough in their religion and therefore are no better than infidels. As for Iran, persecution of Christians has resumed with the advent of a president so radical in his theology that he wants to hasten the return of the Mahdi by violent action against Israel and the United States. And now that Hamas, an unrepentantly terrorist organization, is the freely elected government of the Palestinian territories, Iran will be an increasingly important source of funding for them as the U.S., Britain, and eventually the EU cut off funding. Iran has long been that for Hezbollah, the most established non-Palestinian terrorist organization confronting Israel, and is eager to control Hamas by doing the same for it. These groups are all coming together for a decisive showdown with Israel as the latter continues retrenching behind what it hopes will be its permanent borders.

Why don't our leaders acknowledge all this for what it is: a religious war? Why does the Bush Administration speak instead of the war on "terrorism" and the need to prevent Iran from acquiring "the bomb"? Why focus only on the weapons instead of on the issues feeding the conflict? Simple: they're terrified of seeming to be disrespectful of Islam and thus religiously intolerant. Apparently, such an appearance would be too politically costly. It probably would be. But why?

Well, our leaders can't afford to be frank about Wahabbism, because then the Saudis and their Persian-Gulf allies would take offense and make it much harder for us to get oil from them. That's why we allow their violent anti-Jewish filth free reign everywhere, including in the U.S. And we can't afford to point out, with frankness that would be justified, that the Shiite ideology which rules Iran has produced a regime run by a religious nut bent on kindling a conflagration for essentially religious reasons. Iran has lots of oil that our European friends need; saying such things would only inflame Muslim sentiment all the more and thus hurt all Western interests. In short, candor would be counterproductive. Or would it?

That's what our leaders think, and they are right. But only in the short run. In the longer term, their policy is itself counterproductive. By refusing to make the real issue clear to the general public, our leaders ensure that the real issue will not be understood and confronted. As long as the real issue is not understood and confronted, people will harbor the illusion that our enemies can be placated by negotiation and mutual economic self-interest. But all that such factors produce are temporary truces that are bound to break down eventually. There is no real peace between radical Islam and the West, nor can there be. The reasons why are clear in what the Islamists say and do. The longer people fail to understand that, the more tempted we'll be to become dhimmi instead of fighting for our freedom, as we have already begun to be obliged to do.

Friday, March 10, 2006

The kneeling "schism" updated

My post last Tuesday, March 7, announced a schism in the U.S. Church—over kneeling right after the Agnus Dei. My use of the terms 'excommunication' and 'schism' was tongue-in-cheek, of course; but only barely so. The offending parishoners were invited by the pastor, with the bishop's backing, to leave both the parish and the diocese. That is doing informally what would be adequately described by the above terms if it were done formally. But of course there are developments in what's coming to be known as "the Huntington Beach affair."

Some people, such as the esteemed Pontificator (see Tuesday's combox), have expressed incredulity that an alleged violation of a liturgical norm about posture would actually be what such a sad confrontation is about. Of course it's about a lot more than kneeling. But posture is as good an occasion as any for bringing the real issues to a head—and the Pontificator's extended quotation from then-Cardinal Ratzinger is a good start on explaining why. As further evidence, see the e-mail received by my fellow blogger Gerald Augustinus at The Cafeteria is Closed.

One of my own commenters here, Dilys, nailed it over at Pontifications:

When pondering lawuits against anodyne graduation invocations, I have long thought the hysterical hostility to any (Christian, at least) religion in the public sphere is a visceral hatred for the inner state of reverence (as opposed to the inner anthropologist who relishes “ethnic” religions). Now I have a name for it: “The Men Without Knees.”

The spirit that animates "men without knees" is the same spirit animating Father Tran, the pastor, and Bishop Brown, the ordinary. Let us hope and pray, for the good of all involved, that they have not actually become such men.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

An exchange on contraception

I've been having a interesting exchange with a Catholic woman on the topic of contraception. Her handle is 'Maggie', and the debate started over at Pontifications in the combox under my article "Development and Negation VI: Contraception." After that thread sunk into archive, I invited her to continue the debate via e-mail. In this post I shall include the main body of her latest along with my reply; as I promised her, the latter makes its first appearance here. Though rather long for a blog entry, I believe this is worthwhile for those who want to take the trouble to follow it. For as I said in yesterday's post, contraception is the first and most important issue on which many Catholics have gone into a state of internal schism with Rome. And Maggie's take is very common.

Maggie writes:

I would reiterate my belief that the Catholic Church has the right to teach anything, as does any other religion, and that the Church also has the right to demand obedience, period. At least in the Western world, people are free to join, or leave, any denomination or any faith. The fact that so many Catholics choose to dissent from the Church's teaching on contraception doesn't change the right of the Church to demand their obedience.

One of the things that engages me about this particular question is that, in my experience, those who support the Church's teaching generally start their defense not with a call to obedience, but with a call to the teaching's supposedly self-evident truth. It is only when that line of reasoning fails that the Church's authourity is brought up, almost, one might say, as a "trump card". And the "self-evident truth" part is what I question. If it really is self-evident, why should any appeal to authourity be required?

It's difficult to be brief, but I'll try to do so in outlining my thought processes.

1) The Catholic Church defines something known as "mortal sin". Most of these sins reference behaviours that have been condemned in pretty much every society of which we have records: killing, stealing, adultery are several that come to mind. One doesn't need to be Catholic, or Christian, to understand why these behaviours are problematic and harm society. Taking it to an extreme, one can be a complete atheist and still agree that these things are wrong, even if one doesn't accept the use of the actual word "sin".

2) At the same time, the Church also teaches that it is a mortal sin to miss Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation. This teaching is not rooted in universal behaviours - it is specific to the Church and members are expected to obey. I am sure there are theological underpinnings (I've never really investigated), but for my point it's not necessary to understand what they might be. Catholics are expected to attend Mass, period.

3) The Church recognises that individual circumstances sometimes mitigate the mortal sinfulness of a given action. Killing in self defense is not murder. Stealing from someone who hoards all available food is not necessarily stealing in a sinful sense. The obligation to attend Mass is suspended in circumstances of illness, age, dangerous weather conditions, general infirmity and probably some other conditions of which I am unaware. The main point is that the action taken, in and of itself, is not a mortal sin if mitigating circumstances apply.

And then I look at the teaching on contraception, and the argument that the use of any "artificial" means to avoid conception is "intrinsically evil" and a mortal sin, regardless of pretty much any mitigating circumstances one can think of, and I try to find the self-evident, underlying, universal reason why this is so. In other words, I try to find a reason that does not require a belief in God. Because, it seems to me, if something is that terrible ("intrinsically evil" is a pretty strong statement), the reasons why should be obvious across all belief systems and societal structures. They should be convincing to an atheist. And THAT is the argument that I have yet to find.

For example, contraception is often linked with abortion, as though they are two sides of a single evil coin. And yet there are many people who argue against abortion based on the simple belief that once an egg and sperm unite, a new life begins and abortion is murder. This argument is made with no reference to God or ensoulment or any other religious concept - it simply stands on the objective facts. Unlike, in my experience so far, the arguments against contraception.

So, ultimately I have a great deal of trouble fitting the Church's teaching on contraception into my understanding of the Catholic framework. The use of contraception is a mortal sin but there is no easily understood, universal, non-theistic rationale for why, as there is for most sins that deal with human behaviour. At the same time, if at heart the teaching is based on obedience, rather than on an objective truth, it's far more onerous than other teachings based on obedience.

Please note that to this point I am not actually arguing against the Church's teaching as much as noting where its general outline doesn't make sense to me. I'm not sure if that's at all "debate worthy".

However, personally, I have yet to hear an attempt to argue, objectively, against the use of contraception that doesn't ultimately break down and resort to obedience, and therefore remains unconvincing. Still less have I encountered good arguments to defend the Church's internal inconsistencies with respect to this teaching. Doubtless my own experiences colour my reactions. But I don't think it's appropriate to go into a detailed analysis of all that, or at least not right now. That would involve many pages for perhaps no good reason. Although I am open to further dialogue should you wish to reply.

I reply:

Maggie, I'm honored that you took up my invitation so of course I wish to reply.

First, I'm rather surprised you have found people who claim that the Church's teaching on contraception ('CTC' for short) is self-evidently true. Self-evident truths are those like '2 +2=4' and 'Good is to be done and evil avoided'; but if CTC is true, its truth is not evident in that sort of way, nor does the Church say it is. People who say otherwise either misunderstand what 'self-evident' means or are just plain wrong. On the whole question of reason and morality, I suggest you read J. Budziszewski's What We Can't Not Know.

Perhaps all such people mean is that the teaching is reasonable inasmuch as one can adduce rational grounds for it other than appeal to authority. In his encyclical Humanae Vitae (esp. §17 ff), Pope Paul VI himself does just that. His predictions about the social consequences of widespread contraception have proven to be chillingly accurate, which is as good evidence as any that CTC is true, if that's the sort of evidence one requires. But before we can fruitfully discuss the various grounds for CTC further, we need to be clear about what that teaching is and what the grounds for it could be in principle. I don't think you're quite there yet.

I say that because I think you're really mischaracterizing what is at issue. You say: "I look at the teaching on contraception, and the argument that the use of any "artificial" means to avoid conception is "intrinsically evil" and a mortal sin, regardless of pretty much any mitigating circumstances one can think of, and I try to find the self-evident, underlying, universal reason why this is so. In other words, I try to find a reason that does not require a belief in God. Because, it seems to me, if something is that terrible ("intrinsically evil" is a pretty strong statement), the reasons why should be obvious across all belief systems and societal structures. They should be convincing to an atheist. And THAT is the argument that I have yet to find." Well, you're not going to find any such argument, because the claim for which you think there needs to be such an argument is not CTC.

In moral theology, to say that such-and-such is "intrinsically evil" means that it's the sort of act that is objectively wrong irrespective of motive or circumstance. However, it does not follow that the agent is always subjectively culpable for doing it. There are factors that can and do diminish an agent's moral responsibility and thus their culpability. Given as much, an act is a "mortal sin" if, in addition to being intrinsically wrong, the agent knows it's wrong and does it freely, without inner or outer compulsion. (There's also the case where the agent is culpable even if they didn't "know" the act was wrong because there is no excuse for their having been ignorant. But that brings us to murky waters we need't navigate here.) But all that is different from what you seem to mean by 'mitigating circumstances'. By that you seem to mean 'non-standard circumstances', or something like that. But citing such circumstances only enables us to determine what sort of act in question; thus, two acts of killing that are physically identical can be morally different depending on the intentions of the agent and the victim. But all that tells us is that intent makes a difference to determining what sort of act is in question; it doesn't help us identify which sorts of act, if any, are always "intrinsically evil" and which are not. That depends on other considerations.

Now in the case of CTC, the Church says that contraception is intrinsically wrong. That does not mean that anybody who goes in for it commits a mortal sin; for many such people either don't know it's wrong or are party to it only involuntarily. It does mean, however, that if one directly interrupts the generative process at any stage, one is doing something objectively wrong.

For that claim, you seem to want an argument that makes no reference whatever to God. I don't think that's a reasonable requirement. Here's why.

First, and as a reading of Humanae Vitae shows, CTC is of a piece with, indeed logically depends on, Church teaching about marriage. The latter includes the claim that marriage and its nature were instituted by God. We did not invent it; rather, the institution of marriage is something given that we more or less conform ourselves to. Knowing as much doesn't necessarily require any appeal to divine revelation; it is discoverable by reason as a precept of the natural law. But that doesn't mean God should or even can be left out of the picture. The U.S. Declaration of Independence, for example, makes reference to "the laws of nature and of nature's God." Some signatories of that document were deists, not Christians; some of the Christians did not believe that the Bible is, in toto, a true record of divine revelation. But they all agreed that the moral law, whatever its content, requires a transcendent source, a Higher Power as lawgiver, in order to have the force of prescription rather than just that of description. Call that "theism" if you like; but it is wholly in keeping with what most people of every culture have believed and continue to believe. The notion that either the content or the practice of morality should be ultimately sustainable without God is just one philosophical view among others. It is not my view, it is not the consensus of the human race, and it is certainly not a teaching of the Church.

Second, the epistemic status of CTC is really no different from that of abortion. The Church's teaching against abortion is easier for some people to understand and accept than is CTC because, as you correctly note, one doesn't need theistic premises in order to establish that the embryo is a human person. And if one also assumes that it's intrinsically evil to kill innocent human persons directly and voluntarily, then one has got an argument that abortion is an instance of such killing and is therefore intrinsically evil. But whence comes the assumption? It isn't evident to everybody, let alone self-evident; some women will admit that fetus is a human being but still think the quality of the woman's life trumps continuation of the fetus's. And in World War II, most Christians thought it perfectly acceptable for the Allies to bomb civilian targets for strategic purposes, thus killing countless innocent people.

True, the Church condemns such actions; in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae (§57 ff), John Paul the Great even says:
[b]y the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors, and in
communion with the Bishops of the Catholic Church, I confirm that the direct and
voluntary killing of an innocent human being is always gravely immoral. This doctrine, based upon that unwritten law which man, in the light of reason, finds
in his own heart
(cf. Rom 2:14-15), is reaffirmed by Sacred Scripture, transmitted by the Tradition of the Church and taught by the ordinary and universal magisterium.
(Emphasis added.)

But what does that tell us? Let's face it: we live in a fallen world, in which human beings can too easily dull their consciences by rationalizations based on expediency. So, what's based on "the unwritten law" accessible to human reason just does need constant clarification and reinforcement by divinely instituted authority. And that's all that Paul VI did in Humanae Vitae with CTC.

You do make reference to the "internal inconsistencies" in CTC, but at this point I'm not sure what you think they are. I believe I already rebutted the most plausible version of that claim in my above-referenced Pontifications post. So if you wish to reply, please focus on that.


Tuesday, March 07, 2006

The schism has come....at last

I couldn't resist this one.

As Diogenes points out, the new schism is not about abortion, gay marriage, women's ordination, or even the Real Presence. Nope, it's worse than that: it's about kneeling after the Agnus Dei. That's right. A group of parishioners at a California Catholic parish have been kicked out of the parish and the diocese for doing something at Mass that is specifically allowed by the Vatican: kneeling after everybody says "Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world: grant us peace."

This is yet another actual, factual vignette from contemporary Church life that my talents as a parodist can't begin to match. Already the Church in the developed world lives in a state of internal schism with Rome about many things, the original and most important of which is contraception. As a result of the "Truce of 1968," in which Pope Paul VI made it known that nobody would be disciplined for rejecting his teaching that contraception is gravely immoral, many Catholics have acted as though that teaching and many others can be ignored with spiritual impunity. It's got to the point that a great many educated Catholics simply don't care what the Vatican says if it taking it to heart would seriously affect their lives. They take the duty to obey conscience to entail the right to believe and act as they like and still call themselves Catholics, which it doesn't and logically couldn't. And while people can still be excommunicated informally in some parishes for remarrying without annulment while their exes still live, the fact is that nobody is excommunicated for heresy anymore. For at least the past forty years in the Church—at least for the average Jane and Joe in the pews—it seems not to have mattered what one believes, as long as one doesn't marry without the blessing of the Church. Until now. Yup, they've really drawn the line in the sand on this kneeling business.

Paradoxically, of course, all that this stupidity on the bishop's part shows is that he no longer knows or cares what's really important. I have said the same about a few other bishops before—though admittedly the occasions were, unlike this one, objectively important. Yet this is just an extreme manifestation of the same sort of thing. One wonders what world these guys live in. Whatever it is, it contains too many liturgical fusspots. And we all know that, unlike with terrorists, you can't negotiate with liturgists. You just toe the line or you're excommunicated.

At least somebody has some backbone. Now if only it were put in the right places.

Monday, March 06, 2006

St. Pio and bishops who have coddled pederasts

Anybody who thinks the problem of sexual abuse of minors by priests is a recent thing should think again. To judge by the record, the Church has had to face this problem for at least a millennium and almost certainly more. In his marvelous, 11th-century Book of Gomorrah, for example, St. Peter Damiani denounced just that sort of filth among the clergy and even took the Pope to task for not dealing with it forcefully enough. Randy Engel's fine, two-part article on the subject draws chilling parallels to what happened in the latter part of the twentieth century. But I have known that for a long time. I also knew that in his early career, Padre Pio—"Saint" Pio since 2000—was persecuted by the bishop of his diocese, Archbishop Pasquale Gagliardi of Manfredonia. What I didn't know was that that bishop openly favored admitted pederasts among his clergy and was regularly accused of that crime himself. That's according to Michael Brown's article at Spirit Daily; I trust Brown because he was a responsible secular journalist even before he undertook his current ministries, and remains just as professionally responsible now. To me, that whole affair from the World-War-I era is quite significant for today.

Theologically orthodox seminarians and priests formed during the 1970s, 80s, and early 90s frequently complained of having to kowtow to a "Lavender Mafia" in order to be ordained and permitted to function. I know—repeat, know—that such complaints were justified because I experienced the problem both when discerning a vocation in youth and when I later taught in three different centers of priestly formation. If such dhimmitude did not always take the form of approving homosexuality, the actual Catholics in seminaries and religious houses were at least expected to keep quiet about their opposing sodomy—even and especially granted that they were only following the official teaching of the Church. If they didn't, they were slandered, marginalized, and in many cases shown the door. That is what Pasquale Gagliardi tried, with some success until he died, to do to Francesco Forgione, by that time universally known by his name-in-religion 'Pio'. Spreading various accusations, including sexual ones, Gagliardi induced the Vatican, through the holy and generally quite effective Cardinal Merry del Val, to restrict Pio's functions and ministry more and more severely until Pope Pius XI had a vision that put a halt to the persecution. It's as if Gagliardi smelled the odor of sanctity and couldn't stand it.

But what was Pio's reaction to the persecution, which kept a firm clamp on him for nearly twenty years and hardly ever ceased altogether until he was old? It was to obey the bishop. Pio never denounced Gagliardi despite his evident devastation. He just did as instructed through his superiors. His attitude was "the will of one's superiors is the will of God."

Catholics today generally find that attitude incomprehensible. Most seem to want bishops as bad as Gagliardi, of which there have been several in the US recently who were forced to resign, prosecuted and jailed. Perhaps some should be. But we cannot let our disgust with the sins of our legitimate superiors cause us to reject the God-given authority of the episcopate. Like St. Peter Damiani, we should denounce abuses and insist on measures to correct them. We should seek to punish the guilty. But abusus non tollit usum: a bishop is a successor of the Apostles, with the same authority that Jesus gave the Apostles as recounted in the Gospels. We should never forget that, even when a successor of the Apostles is headed down the path of perdition himself.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

When raising the question gives the answer

In today's Boston Globe, the paper that broke the Catholic clerical sex-abuse scandal in that diocese, columnist Joan Venocchi asks, sincerely, "Should Liberals Leave the Catholic Church?" Caveat emptor: Venocchi considers herself a "liberal" Catholic and uses that term to mean what I mean by "progressive" (or 'prog' for short). What's occasioned the column in question is the decision, by seven members of the board of directors of Boston Catholic Charities, to resign in protest over the effort of the Massachusetts bishops to prohibit homosexuals from adopting children through BCC's adoption agency. For Venocchi and her like-minded friends, this stand by the bishops is the straw that is breaking—if it has not altogether broken—the camel's back.

They have stuck around through the mass closing of parishes, the sex-abuse scandal that preceded and accelerated it, and even what they had previously considered the ultimate insult: the transfer of Cardinal Law, forced to resign over his handling of that scandal, to Rome as archpriest of the Basilica of St. Mary Major, where the conditions on his participation in the conclave that elected Pope Benedict XVI consisted in nothing more strenuous than a walk through a few piazzas. But none of these events have brought outrage to a head nearly so much as the prospect that the Catholic Church in Massachusetts will not be party to having children raised to think of homosexuality as perfectly normal and acceptable.

Given that the vast majority of sex-abuse cases were ones of homosexual priests on adolescent boys (see the official, widely praised John Jay Report in PDF), the occasion for Venocchi's climactic outrage alone suffices to answer the real question which which she entitles her column and the rhetorical question with which she ends it. One of the most important qualities they lack is irony. Indeed, given how many people like her I have known in my thirty-five-plus years as a very active Catholic, I think it safe to to predict that only a few will become Catholic enough to find remaining in the Church worthwhile in the long run. A few will not change but will stay in the Church, frozen in the adolescent pleasure of being permanently angry with Mother Church and Holy Father; a few others will keep their hopes alive by rolling the prog rock up the hill in the undying hope that the next pope, or maybe the one after that, will take it from them at the crest instead of letting it roll back down again. But slowly and one by one, most will come to realize that they are no longer Catholic and will act accordingly. While I say that with sadness rather than glee, I still think it's better, because more honest, than the alternative of remaining in a state of internal schism.

What's left of ECUSA by then will gladly welcome them with open arms. But not all will be happy to go down with that ship. There are plenty of ex-Catholic priests to staff fake-Catholic outfits such as the Ecumenical Catholic Communion or even that Old-Catholic offshoot, the Liberal Catholic Church International. As ECUSA shrinks, I expect such ersatzs to swell with ex-RCs. Of course, in the long run they are no more viable than what ECUSA has become. For many people, the painful realization of what they are and where they're headed just takes a little longer.

Find your desert

Today's Gospel, Mark 1:12-15, begins: The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days... Why? To prepare for his mission by emptying himself of all else. That is our Lenten paradigm as disciples.

As such, it is peculiarly appropriate for people in the developed countries today. We are glutted with all that appeals to the senses: images, food, various consumer goods, information, and noise. Especially noise. It's got to the point where I hate to shop or eat in restaurants because of the incessant music playing in the background: pop songs on the radio, jazz or classical at the classier places such as Panera Bread, or sometimes just canned Muzak. (I'm tempted to give up Chinese buffet for Lent because of the inescapable Chinese Muzak; but hey, I offer it up for the sake of the cheap, nutritious, and plentiful meals.) It's all so ubiquitous in the urban areas where most of us live that it sometimes seems to us that we cannot live without the surfeit. But sometimes we can and should. We must clear the spiritual clutter so as to make room for God to speak to us, maybe even change us. Otherwise we dissipate our spirit through it.

I learned yesterday from a co-worker that he hates silence. He always has to have the radio playing, no matter what he does—not anything soothing either, but hard rock or loud talk shows. Even when he sleeps, he says. It's awful, and it reminded of somebody with a similar problem: an old, homeless woman whom I took in temporarily several years ago and who turned out to be well-known to the police and social-services people in the county. She was quite mentally ill, living on illusions from the past; I knew that my feeble attempt at charity would eventually end poorly, and it did when she moved in a flea-ridden old poodle without my knowledge or consent and against the apartment complex's policy. But the worst thing about the affair was that she could not tolerate silence. She always had to be either talking or listening to the TV or the radio. She even slept with the TV on despite my protest that it disturbed my sleep. The terror of silence was apparently too much for her. And while the example of these two people may be extreme, I also think it's symptomatic of our culture. We glut ourselves with noise or other sensible distractions in order not to hear what's within—whether that's our own demons, the voice of God, or more likely both.

Most of the time, I love silence now. In it, I can hear what I need to. When I'm alone, the only time I dislike silence is when I'm doing a particularly boring task and need to keep stimulated. Then I turn on the radio or play an MP3 or CD. But maybe I should give even that up for Lent and just let myself be diminished by the boredom. It would be a way to do what Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher of the papal household, recommends in his homily for today: making a bit of desert within ourselves to repair to. I think I need to do that; for there are undoubtedly ways in which I'm not listening to God. If that were not so, I would not be a sinner.

But we are all sinners. So much more reason for everybody to find their own desert. Many don't even have to look, much less make one: for those in nursing homes, the bereaved, refugees, prisoners, the mentally ill, the involuntarily unemployed, and many others, the desert is already there. And I've been there before. If the desert is already there for you, ask the Spirit to pour the water of eternal life into you. I'm glad I did.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Another fine priest squelched

Having listened to many of his podcast homilies as well as to the ecclesiastical scuttlebutt about him, I believe that Fr. Robert Altier is one of the finest priests in America. That is why I am disgusted that his bishop, Archbishop Harry J. Flynn of Minneapolis-St. Paul, has reigned him in even further.

Still young (45) for a priest, Altier undertook "deliverance" as his first major priestly ministry years ago. A good way of describing that would be "informal exorcism." While the permission of the local ordinary is required for the exorcism of people who, after extensive testing, are found to be diabolically possessed, any baptized Christian can engage in deliverance ministry short of that. Sometimes without proper study and guidance, lay "charismatic" Catholic groups have been doing it on their own for decades; with proper study and guidance, they can be quite effective. And in a recent post at Pontifications, I explained how and why deliverance ministry in general and exorcism in particular are becoming more common among clerics with the full backing of the Vatican. But one of Flynn's earliest acts after becoming bishop was to shut down Altier's delieverance work; according to Altier, Flynn's stated reason was that "he didn't want any priest in his diocese doing this." Not, mind you, that Altier had been doing it badly; apparently the objection was to a priest doing it at all. I don't get it—unless Flynn doesn't take literally Jesus' talk of Satan as a real and active personal force. Unfortunately, it wouldn't surprise me to learn that he doesn't.

And now Altier is not permitted to broadcast his homilies. Why not? Well, in them he has sometimes been critical of the American bishops, indeed of the clergy as a whole. The criticisms I've encountered seem to me entirely justified. I should even say that a few, such as the one about the U.S. bishops' handling of the sex-abuse problem, weren't strong enough. But apparently it isn't enough for Altier to pull a few punches; he is not to throw any at all.

That's all very well from one standpoint. I can understand why an ordinary would not one of his presbyters, a direct subordinate, publicly criticizing the episcopate and, by implication, that ordinary himself. But as I so often find, there's a double standard at work here. Priests and theologians who publicly dissent from official Church teaching about certain controversial topics, mostly moral ones, are rarely disciplined in many dioceses, including Flynn's. But let a priest, in the name of theological orthodoxy and moral integrity, criticize the Church's leadership for failing to exercise that leadership well, and he's quickly muzzled. Why is that, I wonder? Can this be the reflex reaction of a guilty conscience?