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

Monday, December 31, 2007

Chaos or kairos?

What does the calendar year, and thus the change of it, really mean? By American convention, today is a socially acceptable opportunity to make a fool of oneself by drinking too much, watching a big bright ball drop on countdown, and making resolutions everybody knows one won't keep. But that's not what I mean by 'meaning'. By that term I mean something that animates and enriches life by giving it a worthwhile point. New Year's Eve does nothing of the kind for me; so far, all that this day has really meant to me is that it ends an income-tax year. That means something to me only because it means something to the IRS, which can easily make my life miserable and has done so before. That's not meaning as I mean 'meaning'. But I think there is meaning to be found in the calendar year, and therefore to its end. The meaning comes through the relation of the calendar year to the meaning of other, overlapping years.

As a kid, I did not understand why there were so many different "years" that did not begin at the same time as each other. The school year began in September; the liturgical year began in early December; the fiscal year for the organizations my father worked for usually began in July. And then there was the calendar year, which people pretended was the "real" year but which bore little relation to the actual rhythms of their lives. Why couldn't people agree on when "the year" really started? When I was twelve—one of the relatively few years in my life when I've actually felt pretty pleased with myself—I conceived the vague idea that there was some ideal "time" in the mind of God that we weren't following but should. Such was the thought of a budding young philosopher; the whole "year" thing, indeed the human organization of time itself, seemed like chaos to me. The few adults with whom I raised the issue suggested, gently and in so many words, that I concern myself less with such unprofitable mysteries and more with learning things that could help me make money when I grew up. But as I grew through adolescence and young adulthood, I began to understand a few things.

For one, I learned that there were good reasons for so many "years." The school year began and ended when it did because summer was inhospitable for study but rather necessary for farm work. The liturgical year began roughly when, harvest time having ended, food was put away for the winter and the shortening of days caused people to look forward to their lengthening again. The downtime corresponded nicely with Advent; the hope for longer days looked forward to the celebration of Christ's birth on a day when the lengthening of days after the winter solstice began to be noticeable. The start of the "new" calendar year a week thereafter, during the twelve days of Christmas, was one more celebration of light and hope. Epiphany wound up the celebration and signaled it was time to return to ordinary business. Of course I still can't figure out the whole "fiscal year" thing; but it seems to have a lot to do with politics, accountancy, and other games I don't like to play. It is purely human time: neither of nature nor of God.

It was meditation on such facts that prepared me to appreciate the essentially religious notion of kairos, that of a specially significant or appointed time, as distinct from chronos, that of clock and calendar time. I was enabled to understand that God's time, sacred time, was not the same as either natural time or human time, but overlapped and interpenetrated both. The temporal rhythms of nature, those of the seasons and agriculture, signify the deaths and rebirths we must undergo so as to grow spiritually; and each highlight of the liturgical year bears an obvious relationship to the seasons. But the plasticity of time in human hands, though limited, also signified to me that we are not limited to nature in how we appropriate spirit. We are of nature, but destined beyond nature. What seems like the chaos of the "years" thus tells of both the striving and the groaning of creation awaiting its redemption. Kairos embraces chaos, but in the end overcomes it.

Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Feast of the Holy Family

Today's Gospel relates:

When Herod had died, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.”

He rose, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go back there. And because he had been warned in a dream, he departed for the region of Galilee.

That great practitioner of the spiritual via moderna, Johann Tauler, observed by means of commentary:

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

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

Yep, there's that "inner Archelaus" I'm so in touch with. I can say that I've "fled the world," if by flight from the world is meant refusing to let one's exterior course of life be motivated by those idolatrous lusts which so clearly motivate "the world." Those are unashamedly on display in the media: in the news of politics, in the pornography developed to sell things, in entertainment, and especially in those forms of entertainment which pass for news. All that glorification and pursuit of money, sex, power, fame, or some combination thereof is about trying to become as god by glutting rather than emptying oneself. It's always at others' expense, especially that of the most vulnerable; and it's all vainglory. Yet it would be absurd to take pride in fleeing all that exteriorly; flight is only the beginning, not the end, of one's itinerarium in mentis Christi. The hard work commences within. The interior enemies whom Tauler knows and names are those whom I fight daily in my spiritual combat. They are closer to me than my best human friends: I see their leering faces all the time. When they gain ground on me, thanks to my own sloth and pusillanimity, I lose touch with "the child"—my true "inner child"—and so cannot show Him to others. Perhaps there is some connection between that and where I stand in relation to my own children. The outer life cannot be righted until the inner life is.

Of course the Holy Family is not about me to any greater extent than it's about anybody else. It's about you too. But I try to be honest about myself, publicly, so as to encourage you to be that with yourself, privately and today. If you take up the invitation with the Spirit's help, you will be able to see your way to Galilee a bit better. Perhaps you can then be more a help than a hindrance to making your own family—whatever form family may have in your life—a bit more like the Holy Family. At least that is my prayer for today, for me and for each of us in that family of God known as the Church.

Truth: forward or backwards?

HT to Fr. Gregory Jensen for this video. To "get it," you must watch it to the end.

Perhaps it could be more appropriately entitled: God or Satan: Which will it be? Given what I hear people saying these days, the answer is not automatic.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

An imaginary pope, the ladies, and Free Republic

I direct your attention to a very interesting little article about the authority of Rome's teaching on women's ordination by traditional Anglican priest John Hunwicke who, I note, has a credible scholarly background. It supports the argument of my own published article on "The Infallibility of the Ordinary Magisterium" (see the sidebar under the heading "Articles of Mine"). I welcome your comments.

Hat tip to Fr. Robert Hart for alerting me to Hunwicke's piece. Several more hat tips are indicated. Even though the blog to which Fr. Hart posts, The Continuum, is on my roll and this blog is on their roll, I first learned of his post by perusing the religion forum at Free Republic. I was there in turn because I had been alerted by John of Ad Orientem, in the combox to my post on "The Concept of the Intrinsically Evil," to a long discussion of that post of mine at Free Republic—a reputedly "conservative" site, even though I find the main thing I have in common with most self-described "conservatives" is an aversion to what is now called "liberalism" in America, which itself isn't very liberal...but that's another story. The FR discussion took place because a fellow with the handle 'Huber', whom I know to be one of my more-or-less regular readers, posted my post there. (Thanks!) Although few of the comments were positive, I can only wish for the same amount of discussion here when I post on moral philosophy or theology, on the principle that all publicity is good publicity. Usually, the posts of mine that draw the most discussion are those on ecclesiology, and much of that discussion is of the why-my-church-is-better-than-your-church variety. For that, I have mostly myself to blame.

That said, it's time for another "Development and Negation" piece. Fr. Al Kimel has reminded me that, since the Pope published Spe Salvi a month ago, there's been a lot of discusson of Church teaching on purgatory, purification, punishment, and indulgences, sparked mainly by his intriguing observations thereon in §44-§48. In certain quarters of the blogosphere, it is claimed that the CCC's explanation of the doctrine on indulgences contradicts the traditional teaching of the Church. I have even heard it said that the Pope himself does so in SS. It's all bosh, of course. Stay tuned for why.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Contemplating the Holy Innocents

The following homily for today's feast is by one of my favorite preachers, Fr. Robert Altier:

Today as we celebrate this feast of the Holy Innocents, we certainly commemorate one of the most heinous events in human history, the fact that someone, because of his own insecurity as well as his own arrogance, would command the destruction of innocent human life. He was afraid that a little baby was going to take his throne, therefore, he wanted to get rid of this Child and was willing to destroy all the children just to make sure that the one Child he was after would certainly be among them.

In our own time, we have seen far worse things. We can look at what Stalin did to over 20 million people. We can look at what Hitler did to nearly 10 million people. We can look at what goes on every single day as 4,000 babies in this country are destroyed daily because people do not want them, and how many others throughout the world, as millions upon millions of babies are destroyed over and over again each year because of the selfishness of our society. So we see that human nature does not change. We have the same kind of pride, we have the same kind of selfishness, we have the same insecurities as Herod himself did. Therefore, we rush around trying to get rid of our “problem”, as we would say, trying to make it like it is not real, and thinking that if somehow we can do this that that will solve the difficulty. Of course, all it does is cause more problems.

As we heard in the first reading, as well as in the Gospel, there is an awful lot of deception. Herod realized that he was deceived by the Magi. The Magi realized that they were deceived by Herod. Saint John talks about how if we claim we are without sin that we deceive ourselves. There is an awful lot of deception that goes on, and that is exactly what Satan does to us. In our fear, in our confusion, in our selfishness, he causes a huge amount of deception. We listen to his lies and we do some of the most unfortunate things. All of us, if we look over the course of our lives, would have to admit that we have fallen into his deception many, many, many times.

But in the midst of all of this, there is great hope. God, Who brings good out of evil, certainly brought about a great good through the slaughter of the innocents two thousand years ago, and He is going to bring about a great good out of the slaughter of the innocents in our day, as well as throughout the centuries. The innocent blood that has been shed is a powerful witness before the throne of God, and it is all going to be addressed, it is all going to be made up for. But we have, as Saint John tells us, an intercessor who is just, one who is before the throne of God, another Holy Innocent who was spared at the time of Bethlehem only to be slaughtered 33 years later to unite His blood with the blood of all those innocent people which had been shed so that innocent people throughout the generations would be able to unite their blood with His.

In a way which seems to be exactly the opposite of what one would think, it is in this way that sin is forgiven. It is a strange thing that in order for sin to be forgiven we would commit the worst possible sin, that we would put God to death, that we would destroy innocent life. Yet it is through this means that God has chosen to bring innocence back to the guilty, to forgive the sinner. It is a mystery that we do not fully understand. Yet this is the way God has chosen to work.

So each one of us, as we look at our own sinfulness, needs to look at the Cross. We need to look at what the cost of our sins truly is. And rather than despairing in the face of our sins – no matter what they are, no matter how horrible they are, it does not matter – we have only one place where we can go to be forgiven, and that is to come before the Lord with all of our guilt, with all of our sinfulness. We need to come to the One Who is perfectly innocent. We need to beg Him for His mercy, for His forgiveness, for the innocent blood that He shed for us so that our sins could be forgiven. It is the only way. It would seem to make no sense. But for anyone who recognizes their own sinfulness, it makes perfect sense. The guilty can only be forgiven by the innocent. We can only be forgiven by the One Who prayed on the Cross because we knew not what we were doing.

In all of our sinfulness and in all of our foolishness, we have on the Cross, we have in the Blessed Sacrament, we have in the confessional, and we have before the throne of God the Father an intercessor who is just, One Who united His innocent blood with all the blood of the innocents that would be shed, One Who was willing to take on the guilt of those of us who are not innocent so that our sins would be forgiven and He Himself would become the expiation for our sins.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The concept of the "intrinsically evil"

In both of my careers as a Catholic thinker—my former one as a professor, and my current one as a blogger—I have found it a real challenge to get across to people what is meant by saying that some acts are "intrinsically evil." The phrase from traditional moral theology so translated is intrinsece malum, which is often used in magisterial documents. As we contemplate the Holy Family this Christmas season, it occurs to me that misunderstanding about the concept of the intrinsically evil (IE) is especially rampant in the area of sexual morality. Today I want to contribute to a correct understanding by excluding two equal and opposite misapplications of the concept to the specific question of contraception.

But first, the concept itself. In his landmark encyclical Veritatis Splendor, Pope John Paul the Great explicated IE thus:

Reason attests that there are objects of the human act which are by their nature "incapable of being ordered" to God, because they radically contradict the good of the person made in his image. These are the acts which, in the Church's moral tradition, have been termed "intrinsically evil" (intrinsece malum): they are such always and per se, in other words, on account of their very object, and quite apart from the ulterior intentions of the one acting and the circumstances.

Now, VS was the first document of its level of authority to actually give a magisterial explication, as distinct from application, of the concept of IE. A short time before that, CCC §1761 had made a start: "...there are certain specific kinds of behaviour that are always wrong to choose, because choosing them involves a disorder of the will, that is, a moral evil." That was important because it made clearer to people that intrinsically evil acts are those of kinds that it's "always wrong to choose," irrespective of any further feature of the particular act or of any further consideration about the act. In that respect, VS was an advance. Yet perforce, its explication of intrinsice malum comes after a quite interesting explication of various associated concepts that must be understood if that of IE itself is to be understood. I highly recommend them to the reader. But further interpretation and clarification is obviously needed and ongoing.

One important clarification must begin with stressing that distinctively "moral evil" is a "disorder" precisely of "the will." Hence, to will something that is intrinsically evil is a moral evil because so willing disorders precisely the will of the agent itself. But given as much, one cannot specify what, if anything, is intrinsically evil about a physical act merely by describing its physical features. And that's because one cannot say what makes the act distinctively human, an actus humanus, merely by describing what happens when somebody initiates a chain of physical events. Rather, the "object of the human act" that makes the act intrinsically evil has to be something done intentionally by the agent, in such a way that the physical feature of the act that makes the act morally significant is precisely that which "embodies the agent's intention"—a phrase first coined by Catholic philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe in her now-classic book Intention. That is the sense in which JP2 speaks of "objects of the human act" as subject to moral evaluation. Such an object is not so much what occurs in virtue of a freely chosen act; if it were, then there could be no morally significant distinction between the foreseen and the intended consequences of acts. That in turn would rule out any principle of double effect (PDE); but PDE is regularly invoked and applied in orthodox moral theology, as it should be, even though it's not yet fully clear how to formulate PDE in such a way as to minimize its misapplication. No, the "object of the human act" is what embodies the intention of the agent, even if some of what the agent foresees as flowing from what he does is not what he intends. If and when such an object is intrinsically evil, that is because what is willed and intended is an act of a kind that disorders the will of the agent. Why is that so important?

Consider the Church's teaching that contraception is "intrinsically evil." What does that mean? Citing Humanae Vitae §14, CCC §2370 says: "every action which, whether in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible" is intrinsically evil. The Vademecum for Confessors even says that "[t]his teaching is to be held as definitive and irreformable," which leaves confessors with no excuse for excusing contraception. Now the phrase 'whether as an end or as a means' tips us off that what's subject to moral evaluation here is what one "proposes" and thus intends to do regarding something very specific. If one has sexual intercourse that one has intentionally acted so to make sterile, then whether or not the act of intercourse (a) is or would have been sterile in fact and regardless, or (b) is wrong for some other reason, the act embodying the intention to make it sterile it is itself intrinsically evil. In that sense, contraception is the "object" of that sort of "human act," and it is that object the willing of which is a disorder of the will, regardless of what otherwise ends up happening. On the other hand, periodic continence for the purpose of avoiding conception, although can sometimes be wrong for a number of reasons, is not said to be intrinsically wrong, because it is not the sort of act which, just in itself, embodies an intention to do something which it is a disorder of the will to do intentionally. Hence, under certain conditions discussed in magisterial documents, "natural family planning" (NFP) for purposes of avoiding conception can be morally acceptable. Since one is not doing anything to make procreation impossible when it might otherwise be possible, there is no "object of the human act" that is intrinsically evil as contraception is said to be.

Nonetheless, there are two equal and opposite errors about this teaching among Catholics. The more common one,
which is common for all-too-obvious reasons, is an objection to the teaching itself: it is held that given the ultimate intention involved, there is no morally significant difference between contraception and NFP. That objection is registered by progs and trads for very different reasons; if it were sound, then the Church's developed teaching would be incoherent and thus not a fit object for assent.

But the objection simply misses what is meant by saying that contraception, or indeed any other sort of act, is "intrinsically evil." To call a given sort of act intrinsically evil is not to say that the further intention with which one does it, beyond the intention it actually embodies, is unacceptable. There can be all sorts of laudable further intentions with which one does something intrinsically evil. One can, for instance, intentionally kill innocent human beings with the purpose of preventing even more deaths; that, indeed, was the precise rationale for the atom-bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But that didn't make the tactic morally acceptable according to Church teaching; quite the contrary. In Evangelium Vitae §57, the same pope who wrote VS condemned any and all "direct, voluntary killing of an innocent human being" as "gravely immoral" regardless of any further intention one might have for doing such a thing. Similarly, what's intrinsically evil about contraception is not the further intention to avoid conception—which can, according to the 20th-century popes, be morally responsible—but rather the intention actually embodied in the act of contraception itself, i.e., to "render procreation impossible." Now, just why that is supposed to be intrinsically evil, apart from any further intention-with-which it is done, is unclear to a great many Catholics; and that lacuna in understanding is what accounts for the inability of some to see the moral difference between contraception and NFP. I've addressed that issue before, citing mostly JP2's "theology of the body," and shall not dilate on it here; the immediate point is that the issue is separate from that of just what sort of intentional act is said to be intrinsically evil in the first place. Only when one is clear on just what is being so condemned can one then go on to learn why it is condemned, and also why a different pattern of action with the same further intention as contraception is not intrinsically evil, even though it can sometimes be evil all the same.

The opposite error is not an objection to the teaching itself, but rather an over-rigorous interpretation of one of its premises. On this showing, the relevant "object" of the human act can be characterized as intrinsically evil not only apart from the agent's further intention in doing what he does, but apart from his immediate intention as well. For instance, if a married couple one of whose members is HIV-positive use a condom purely for prophylactic purposes, their sexual act is of a sort that is known to anti-procreative in effect even if not by intent. That's because what condoms do, when they are non-defective and used as directed, is prevent semen from being deposited in the vagina. From that, it is thought to follow that the object of the couple's sexual act, for purposes of moral evaluation, is morally unacceptable for the same sort of reason that, say, anal intercourse is unacceptable. The pattern of action is thought to be such that the sexual act in question cannot be said to have procreative significance, because it cannot bear the intrinsic relationship to procreation that HV says the conjugal act must bear. Accordingly, condomistic sex even for purely prophylactic purposes cannot qualify as a conjugal act at all, and is intrinsically evil for the same reason that sodomy is: it's an inherently non-procreative sort of act. That is held to be so even supposing that the couple would be happy to conceive if they could block HIV transmission without blocking sperm too, and even supposing that the blocking of sperm is not a means to the blocking of HIV transmission. A good example of such reasoning is this paper from Luke Gormally, a man I know personally, and one with whom I've debated this very question before on this blog.

The difficulty with that view is rather similar to one that prog theologians have often raised against what they considered the standard neo-scholastic explanation for the wrongfulness of both contraception and sodomy. That standard explanation, according to some prog apologists and theologians, was that contraception and sodomy are immoral because "unnatural," meaning that they run counter to the "natural" purpose of sexual activity: procreation. Sex that is unnatural in that sort of way was held, or thought to have been held, to be an evil object of action, irrespective of any subjective disposition of the agent, and hence irrespective of intention. Unnatural acts were thus accounted intrinsically evil. Now if that really had been the explanation, I would agree with the prog critique. What's wrong with the explanation, such as it is, is that it doesn't tell us why it is unacceptable to interrupt or depart from the course of nature in this sort of case but perfectly acceptable to do so in many others, such medicine, animal husbandry, or even cosmetology. In order to tell us that, it would have to specify how interrupting or departing from the course of nature in the case of sex embodies an intention that makes the act an intrinsically evil sort of act, i.e. an act of a sort that disorders the will when intended.

Of course I'm not at all convinced that the ancient and medieval understanding about the wrongfulness of contraception and sodomy was as ill-informed as the prog critique often makes out. It was understood better among them than among us that lust, with all its attendant disorders, increases in direct proportion to the deliberate unmooring of sex from procreation. And that should tell us something. For my immediate purpose, it tells us something that both Paul VI and John Paul II were keen to stress. What makes contraception and sodomy wrong is that they sunder a connection which is essential to our inner spiritual health, to the proper "order" of the will, thus causing us to a greater or lesser extent to treat our sexual partners as objects with which to satisfy ourselves. I've had enough experience with both licit and illicit sex to verify that for myself. But if the VS account of the objects of the "human act," is correct, then there is an intrinsically evil act here only if and when one actually intends the sundering, such that the sexual act in question embodies one's intention to break the intrinsic relationship between sex and procreation. I am not in the least convinced that condom use by married couples for the purpose of preventing infection by a lethal virus, and only for that purpose, embodies such an intention. Such activity might be wrong for other reasons, and I believe it is wrong for at least one other reason. But it is not wrong just because it is foreseeably non-procreative in effect, just as a given war is not wrong because, like all wars, it foreseeably results in the death of innocents.

To say that an action of a certain sort, such as contraception, is "intrinsically evil" is to say that it embodies an intention which it is a disorder of the will to have. Just how to identify embodied intentions and disorders of the will is the subject-matter of moral psychology. We have more than enough psychologists and moralists, but we don't have enough moral psychologists. That's because we don't have enough saints, enough lovers of God and neighbor, in the here and now. John Paul the Great was one of them. Let us learn from him.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Night lights

Since I was old enough to care about things like the liturgical year, I've often wondered why Christmas gets so much more play among Western Christians than Easter. The Triduum, after all, commemorates the central event of our redemption; if attestations are to be believed, the light shining forth through the risen Christ is even more brilliant than the Christ Child's. As I sit in the darkness of the evening of Christmas Day, which always seems greater than that of other evenings, I believe I have been given the answer. It also explains why people also seem to think that Christmas ends on this evening. Nonetheless, the answer is one of hope.

In his Christmas message, the Pope reminded me of the following:

"God is light", says Saint John, "and in him is no darkness at all" (1 Jn 1:5). In the Book of Genesis we read that when the universe was created, "the earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep." "God said, ‘Let there be light'; and there was light." (Gen 1:2-3). The creative Word of God is Light, the source of life. All things were made through the Logos, not one thing had its being but through him (cf. Jn 1:3). That is why all creatures are fundamentally good and bear within themselves the stamp of God, a spark of his light. Nevertheless, when Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary, the Light himself came into the world: in the words of the Creed, "God from God, Light from Light". In Jesus, God assumed what he was not, while remaining what he was: "omnipotence entered an infant's body and did not cease to govern the universe" (cf. Saint Augustine, Sermo 184, No. 1 on Christmas).

The paradox of which Augustine speaks is a pure delight as well as a great light. In that respect, it is unlike the paradox of God's saving us by letting us torture and execute him before he rises from the tomb. The latter is indeed a great light, perhaps one greater still; yet it reminds us that we ourselves are very much at the heart of the gaping, cosmic wound whose healing was irrevocably begun by the Passover of the Lord. We are threatened and challenged by that, as we should be; and our rejoicing is preceded by mourning. But in the Christ Child, we can perceive the goodness of God in a way that is both totally unthreatening and totally familiar to most of us. For most of us are parents.

Often, when I looked into each of my children's infant faces, I marvelled at the power of their innocence, curiosity, and trust. The soft light thereof almost forced me to praise God as the origin of their life and as the loving Father who had placed that life in my hands. For those children, I was indeed called to be an icon of God the Father. Although I knew how miserably inadequate to the task I was, I felt just a little of what St. Joseph must have felt that first Christmas night in the stable. And so, when I look at a créche—even one of the countless kitschy ones that bombard us—I know why Christmas songs are greater in number, and more known and sung, than Easter hymns. Although that disparity irritates some theological purists, it is inevitable and not to be despised. The light of God quite often dispels our darkness most insistently when we bring a baby home.

But until New Year's Day, which is more a calendar change than a liturgical event, the ensuing week is a work week. Even those who don't have to go to work have to clean up. What we think of as reality, the kind that some prefer drugs to, reasserts itself. The jollity of Christmas, which people seem ever more determined to enforce ever earlier, peters out even before December 25 is over. To me, there is no evening of the year that seems longer and darker than the evening of Christmas Day. I suspect the same is true for many; and even those for whom it isn't true can understand, without benefit of explanation, why the rest of us would find it so. It is as if that darkness in face of which God once said: "Let there be light" is reminding us that it was never quite eliminated. The new big-screen HDTV, for those who can afford such things, can't dispel the darkness. The new halo-helmet for the boy's video game sure can't dispel it. Even babies can't dispel it.

What to do? Well, tonight I shall move my flex-neck desk lamp to my dresser and train its light on the little straw-and-ceramic créche one of my brothers gave me for Christmas. I shall do that for each of the twelve days of Christmas. I shall also irritate my neighbors by not taking down my tree until the evening of Epiphany. Maybe I'm just getting old, but I need my night lights again.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Back to the heart

At heart, most everybody wants to be "home for Christmas, if only in my dreams." But along with much else about Christmas, that song has been cheapened by sentimentality and consumerism. And of course there are all those of us who can go home for Christmas only in a spiritual sense of "home." Some have no family; others are estranged from their families, with blame enough to go round; still others, such as soldiers in war zones, just can't get there. And even for those who do go home for Christmas, nothing can truly assuage the ache of a joy once intimated yet so very elusive. As Richard John Neuhaus writes:

It is not a matter of revving ourselves up to experience again the wonder of the Christ Mass. There is no point in trying to recapitulate Christmas as you knew it when you were, say, seven years old. That way lies sentimentalities unbounded.

The alternative is the way of contemplation, of demanding of oneself the disciplined quiet to explore, and be explored by, the astonishment of God become one of us that we may become one with God. He embraced the whole of our experience, beginning as an embryo, as we began as an embryo. In his abject helplessness is our only help.

This what I pray for as I prepare for Midnight Mass: that meditating on the true nature of "our only help," I can become for others, especially those closest to my heart, a little more like what we truly need to find at home for Christmas. The infant Jesus reminds us that it lies in all our hearts, if we have the courage to travel there.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Quotation of the day

In response to the announcement by the angel, Mary, the mother of Our Lord, and Zechariah, the father of John the Baptizer, asked the same question: “How can this be?” Zechariah asked in disbelief. Mary asked in wonder. Zechariah doubted, while Mary exemplified the maxim of John Henry Newman that a thousand difficulties do not add up to a doubt.

Richard John Neuhaus

The names of Christ

Something about today's set of Bible readings, for the Fourth Sunday of Advent in the normative Roman calendar, first puzzled me when I was twelve. Not that I got far raising the issue with the nun who taught me that year: she saw my theological questions mostly as clever attempts to avoid the disciplines I really needed, such as those of penmanship, punctuality, and personal appearance. That factoid well prophesied the course of much of my later spiritual life. Even so, I suspect others have been similarly puzzled, though I've never met anybody who let on that they were, and since then I've never formally researched the issue. Herein I shall approach it fresh from the recent debate in these quarters about "the plain sense" of Scripture.

We know that 'Christ' is not Jesus' surname, any more than 'H' is his middle initial. 'Christ' is Anglicized Greek for a Hebrew term meaning 'anointed one', which in turn is usually transliterated as 'Messiah'. It is a title, not a name of the kind given by parents to their children at birth or thereabouts. But what of 'Emmanuel', a name we seem to hear about only during this season? It is not an ordinary given name and has not taken root, like 'Christ', as a title; yet according to Matthew, alluding to Isaiah 7:14, "they shall name him Emmanuel, which means 'God is with us'." Well, who is this "they"? As far as I can see across time as well as space, "they" are mostly carol-singers. Now for all I know, this or that sector of Eastern Christianity might have a tradition of calling Jesus 'Emmanuel'; if so, that would certainly answer the question. But in the last analysis, I doubt it matters much who "they" are so long as there's somebody taking a cue from the infancy narratives in the New Testament. What matters instead are two other things.

First, the interrelation of meaning between the names 'Jesus' and 'Emmanuel' is theologically significant. 'Jesus' means 'he who saves', specifically from our sins. Given that the two names 'Jesus' and 'Emmanuel' are somehow names for the same person, the significant point is that the one who "saves" us from our sins is the one who is "with us." Conceptually, that equivalence is not at all obvious. God has not saved us from our sins by decree: remotely, impalpably, and at some time in the past. Many nominal Christians carry on as though he did; but if he did, we could only acknowledge the fact in the abstract and wonder how it has do with our actual lives. In Jesus Christ, God become a man, God saves us from our sins by having pitched his tent among us with the Incarnation, by having suffered with us on the Cross, and by continuing to suffer precisely in us, as he extends the presence of his risen Body into the world through the Church. God thus saves precisely by being with us. For me, that was a breakthrough insight about the Atonement. The well-known juridical metaphor for salvation, by which Jesus' death saved us by paying an infinitely great debt to an infinite creditor, is destructive when taken too literally. What Jesus really did, and does, is invite us to re-integrate into divinity by being intimately present to us in every moment of life—no matter how small or large, no matter how nasty or glorious—and soliciting our 'yes'. If and when forthcoming, that response is punctualized and fortified in the sacraments, above all in the Eucharist.

The other point which matters is that biblical literalism is dangerous. In the past I've made much of the fact that Matthew's use of Isaiah 7:14's reference to "a virgin"(Septuagint: parthenos) is not warranted as a strict deduction from the original Hebrew text but only as an inspired abduction. You can't get from there to here by being merely literal. Similarly, 'they shall call him Emmanuel' is not true if taken as a prediction about what Jesus would be normally called by name, or even by title. Its truth consists in its being a proleptic summation of what Jesus is for us. It is the Gospel-in-germ. That of course is not the "plain sense" of the term for the ignorant and the literal-minded. But it is the plain sense for those who read today's gospel in the context of Tradition and the teaching authority of the Church.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Two ab-fab Web sites

Thanks to a couple of my readers with their own blogs, I've come upon two sites that make me drool. They are must-bookmarks.

With hat tip to Dr. Phil Blosser, I first note Biblia Clerus, courtesy of the Vatican's Congregation for the Clergy. With uncharacteristic hyperbole, Jonathan Prejean calls it the "Best. Website. Ever." What's so great about it is that it brings together many resources that Catholic controversialists on the Web need to have at their fingertips. That includes Denzinger, which I haven't found anywhere else online. (If you have to ask what that is, you probably don't need it; if you don't have to ask, you'll be like a kid in a candy store). The Bible section too is worth paying for, but don't tell that to the Vatican.

The other is the main site for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. Brandon Watson of Siris calls it "hands down, the best religious website I've ever come across." From an aesthetic standpoint, I must agree. Whoever they engaged to build and maintain that site deserves more than they're probably getting. It has plenty of resources for non-Orthodox too.

Christmas thanks to two special bloggers

Before all gets lost in the Christmas rush, I want to take this opportunity to thank Mark Shea and Scott Carson for their public fundraising appeals on my behalf. I did not ask them to do that, and as I've said before, I never even intended such an appeal myself. But I was spontaneously given a much-needed birthday and Christmas present all the same by my friends in the blogosphere. Some I have already thanked, in that earlier post and/or by e-mail. But those guys deserve special mention. Merry Christmas, gentlemen.

With God's gifts comes the responsibility to use them to the full. Such is my pledge of gratitude to my cyber-colleagues. Please pray that the scope God grants me for using his gifts continues to increase. If I can earn a living again teaching the most important truths of all, I won't get desperate enough to cause others to pass the hat.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

A different kind of hope

Having finished it yesterday, I much enjoyed reading the Pope's new encyclical Spe Salvi. From a personal perspective, it seems to have come at just the right time in my life. Over the next few days, I shall comment on a few points that struck me as characteristically fruitful applications of academic theology to concrete matters of spirituality. But for now, I want to bask with my readers in one of those passing ironies which give cause to hope that some Catholics who are out of step with the Pope on certain vital matters can be brought round.

Joe Cecil of "In Today's News" (a blog whose orientation is better revealed by its URL: liberalcatholicnews.blogspot.com) asks: Is Pope Benedict XVI a Heretic?. Now I've had a few encounters with Joe since I began blogging two-and-a-half years ago. Specifically, we have debated women's ordination and the theology of the body; and many of my posts on other topics are written partly with people like him in mind. He is what I call a "prog": a progressive Catholic, as distinct from a "trad" or traditionalist Catholic. As I use those terms, progs and trads have something theologically significant in common: they both believe that the Church after Vatican II is, in some radical ways, discontinuous with the Church of the past. Both also diverge sharply from Rome on matters dear to their hearts. As I put it last year: "Both sets of malcontents believe that the Second Vatican Council constituted a decisive break with the Church of the past; the main difference is that the trads, decrying the break, want the Council to become a dead letter while the progs, celebrating it as the spirit of Vatican II, are impatient for the Church to complete what they take to be the Council's revolutionary work." So, when a prog like Joe reacts to a papal encyclical by asking whether the pope is a heretic, one can safely expect that he's likely to approve of whichever statement prompted the question—just as one can safely expect that trads raising the same question, which they not infrequently do on this or that topic, are likely to disapprove. In many ways, progs and trads are each other's obverse: heads and tails of the same discontinuant coin. If you see what's on one side of that coin, you can safely predict what's on the other. And that supplies a hermeneut of continuity like me with a sure compass for navigating theological questions which most directly affect Church unity.

The specific issue Joe raises under the heading of his post's title is not hard to sum up. The relevant passage from SS, which he quotes with his added emphasis, is this from §26:

The human being needs unconditional love. He needs the certainty which makes him say: "neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom 8:38- 39 ). If this absolute love exists, with its absolute certainty, then — only then — is man "redeemed", whatever should happen to him in his particular circumstances. This is what it means to say: Jesus Christ has "redeemed" us. Through him we have become certain of God, a God who is not a remote "first cause" of the world, because his only-begotten Son has become man and of him everyone can say: "I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me" (Gal 2:20).

Unsurprisingly, Joe professes to like and agree with that. With B16's phrase 'absolute certainty' in mind, Joe then compares that passage with Chapter 13 of the Council of Trent's Decree on Justification, which begins thus:

So also as regards the gift of perseverance, of which it is written, He that shall persevere to the end, he shall be saved:-which gift cannot be derived from any other but Him, who is able to establish him who standeth that he stand perseveringly, and to restore him who falleth: - let no one herein promise himself any thing as certain with an absolute certainty; though all ought to place and repose a most firm hope in God's help.

Joe actually quotes the full chapter, culminating in the dogmatic canon:

If any one saith, that it is necessary for every one, for the obtaining the remission of sins, that he believe for certain, and without any wavering arising from his own infirmity and disposition, that his sins are forgiven him; let him be anathema.

So, when he asks whether the Pope is a heretic, what Joe is asking is whether B16's use of the phrase 'absolute certainty' in the above-quoted passage from SS is logically compatible with Trent's canon. If it isn't, then B16 is indeed a heretic.

Well, of course the two are mutually compatible and of course B16 is not a heretic. In context, the Pope is speaking of God's love for us. If that love is absolute, which it is, then we can be certain it is always on offer, ready to transform us even as it always envelops us. It is our fundament of hope, and that no matter how great our sins. Any Christian who considers herself beyond such redemption is committing the sin of despair. By means of the assent of faith, therefore, we can be absolutely certain that God loves us, even unto what might be considered folly. But God's love can heal and transform us only if we would have it so. Just as healing involves reversing the course of a disease, forgiveness involves free, sincere repentance. That is as it must be. By his wisdom as well as his love, God respects our freedom; yet given that we are sinners even when forgiven, we always retain in this life the freedom to go wrong, and to deceive ourselves about going wrong. That's because we are wounded by the effects of original sin even when freed from it by baptism. In via, we always retain a measure of what Trent calls "infirmity." If so, then as Trent implied, it cannot be a necessary condition for being forgiven that one "believe for certain, without any wavering" that one is forgiven. As B16 implied, we can indeed be absolutely certain that God's forgiveness and love is always on offer, ever pursuing us; at certain times in our lives, it is possible and even salutary to be morally certain that we are being healed by divine forgiveness and love; but given human weakness, such certainty about the fact cannot, itself, be necessary for the fact. Just as regarding oneself as beyond the reach of God's love would be to commit the sin of despair, so professing absolute certainty about one's forgiveness would be to commit the sin of presumption.

Now Joe, I believe, knows all this perfectly well. Or so much of his post would indicate. Why, then, does he ask at the end whether B16's choice of words "cross a line" into heresy? I suggest it's because Joe is confused about the referent of the words. The Pope is saying we can be "absolutely certain" that God loves us. He does not say, and does not believe, that being forgiven requires being certain one is forgiven. For one can never be "absolutely certain" that one has repented and thus done all that is necessary to receive the forgiveness always on offer.

But why would an intelligent, well-informed Catholic like Joe get confused like that? My first thought was that, being of the prog persuasion, Joe doesn't give as much weight to repentance as he should. Over the years, I've known progs who seem to believe that being forgiven does not require repentance, so that being certain God loves us entails, for them, being certain that their sins are forgiven, full stop. But Joe is too smart for that. On reflection, the only explanation for his question that I find plausible is that the hermeneutic of discontinuity just makes it too tempting to find incompatibilities that aren't there. I've seen that sort of thing too often on both ends of the spectrum—especially in the area of ecclesiology—not to suspect its presence here. But there's always hope for a prog capable of wondering aloud whether the pope is a heretic.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Death by qualification

On August 1, the CDF issued a responsum about the use of "artificial nutrition and hydration" (ANH) for patients in a "permanent vegetative state" (PVS). Given the controversy surrounding the case of Terry Schiavo in 2005, and Pope John Paul II's controversial 2004 allocution on the broader topic, I was surprised that the responsum went largely unnoticed outside the Catholic professional circles most closely concerned with such matters. In my own post on the document, where I revealed my personal as well as intellectual interest, I argued that the teaching conveyed by the responsum is not a matter of opinion but a logical corollary of the settled, ordinary teaching of the Church. It should be received as such by all Catholics. But I am not at all surprised that what is not a matter of opinion in principle is becoming one in fact. The document's reception seems to be killing the teaching with qualifications—the kind of qualifications that can be and are used to justify killing the most vulnerable of patients.

A very good example of what I'm referring to is an article in the December 7 issue of Commonweal by a Franciscan brother, Daniel P. Sulmasy, who "holds the Sisters of Charity Chair in Ethics at St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York City" and is "also professor of medicine and director of the Bioethics Institute of New York Medical College." This man is well-placed to influence Catholic clergy as well as health-care professionals, and I have no doubt he does so. He is concerned, at least prima facie, to uphold orthodox Catholic teaching. Yet whether by design or merely in effect—I don't know, and it hardly matters—Sulmasy's article reduces the responsum's utility to next-to-nothing. It does so by how he interprets the Vatican's motives and how he reduces the teaching's scope of application.

First we are told that the responsum must be read in its cultural and political "context." That seems fair enough; after all, even the dogmatic definitions of the Church can be adequately interpreted only by taking their original contexts into account. Thus:

The Vatican’s interest in PVS is also driven by its reaction to utilitarianism-especially in English-speaking nations and particularly in Australia, where philosophical utilitarian ethics is perhaps most radical. Utilitarian philosophers have argued in scholarly journals that it would be more morally appropriate to conduct painful experiments on human beings in PVS than on dogs or porpoises, since those in PVS cannot feel pain and have ceased to be persons. This is not a view that is congenial to Catholic thinking and a group of very influential prelates has pressed for doctrinal responses to such utilitarian claims.

That is true and important. To understand the teaching's value, it's important to know what sort of prevalent moral philosophy the teaching's premises oppose. But Sulmasy goes on to observe, at some length, that the Vatican's stance is motivated partly by both "pro-life extremists" within the Church and by a European culture of health care that is supposedly more "paternalistic" than the American. Now even supposing for argument's sake that such motives were at work, their relevance to the question of the responsum's truth and value is at best dubious; for in general, the truth of a rationally argued-for proposition is independent of the motives one might have for asserting the proposition. Yet Sulmasy actually adduces such motives as part of a critique, as though they somehow undermined the value, if not actually the truth, of the responsum's teaching. And by lumping the latter two motives—if in fact they are among the motives—together with the first as part of the document's "context," the first is conditioned by rhetorical association with them. Hence the difficulty: Sulmasy insinuates, without actually claiming, that the CDF stance is just a matter of opinion—one that might well have been left unexpressed by Vatican officials, and might even have been different from what it is, if the motives he cites had not been present. While that might not be the message Sulmasy wants to convey, he ought to know that it's the message many will readily hear. That's both because it is what they're disposed to hear and because there's nothing to discourage such a disposition in Sulmasy's discussion of "context." So this kind of writing is irresponsible on the part of a man in his position.

Sulmasy also reduces the teaching's scope of application not by denying what it says, but by giving such weight to exceptional cases as to make it seem purely a matter of judgment, on the part of those responsible for a PVS patient's care, whether or not ANH could constitute unduly burdensome and thus "extraordinary" or "disproportionate" treatment. To see the difficulty, contrast the last two paragraphs of the CDF's own nota (commentary) on the responsum with Sulmasy's conclusion.

The nota says (emphasis added):

When stating that the administration of food and water is morally obligatory in principle, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith does not exclude the possibility that, in very remote places or in situations of extreme poverty, the artificial provision of food and water may be physically impossible, and then ad impossibilia nemo tenetur. However, the obligation to offer the minimal treatments that are available remains in place, as well as that of obtaining, if possible, the means necessary for an adequate support of life. Nor is the possibility excluded that, due to emerging complications, a patient may be unable to assimilate food and liquids, so that their provision becomes altogether useless. Finally, the possibility is not absolutely excluded that, in some rare cases, artificial nourishment and hydration may be excessively burdensome for the patient or may cause significant physical discomfort, for example resulting from complications in the use of the means employed.

These exceptional cases, however, take nothing away from the general ethical criterion, according to which the provision of water and food, even by artificial means, always represents a natural means for preserving life, and is not a therapeutic treatment. Its use should therefore be considered ordinary and proportionate, even when the "vegetative state" is prolonged.

Not much wiggle room there. Now, zeroing in on the used of the phrase "in principle" by both the responsum and the nota, Sulmasy begins thus:

...the CDF statement ratifies the views of an international group of Catholic bioethicists who in July 2004 argued that the words “in principle” in the papal allocution did not mean “exceptionless,” but rather the opposite. This is crucial because in the ordinary/extraordinary-means tradition, one cannot make an a priori exceptionless declaration that a particular treatment is ordinary. A treatment that is ordinary in one set of circumstances may be extraordinary in another. The CDF’s response and accompanying commentary declare that its teaching about feeding tubes in PVS must be located squarely within this tradition.

Again, that is true. But in response to concerns about whether Church teaching about using ANH in PVS patients has "changed" to a confusing extent, Sulmasy says (I have added the bullets and accompanying syntactical changes—ML):

What, then, has changed? It seems to me that the proper way for clinicians, hospitals, and families to interpret the CDF statement is to understand it as saying that IF
  • a patient is in the rare state known as PVS
  • has not left any advance directive
  • is otherwise young and healthy
  • the government or an insurance carrier is paying or one is independently wealthy
  • it is not reasonable to construe that the patient is suffering
  • and if there are no apparent complications
then, other things being equal, one cannot justify the removal of the feeding tube merely because one is morally certain that the patient cannot recover. In such a “thick” description of the circumstances, the believing community’s authoritative voice has judged that this treatment should be considered ordinary. I suspect that previously many of us would have taken a good-faith determination by the family that the patient would not want to live if unable to recover as sufficient to judge the feeding tube extraordinary. The Vatican has now declared that more justification is required.

The irony here is exquisite. In the very course of affirming that the Vatican has clarified the full rigor of the teaching, Sulmasy so qualifies the teaching's scope that, if his analysis is broadly accepted, the teaching will make virtually no practical difference to current clinical practice in Catholic or any other institutions. Other paragraphs, especially his closing ones, continue in the same vein. Thus, a CDF document meant as a reaffirmation of the strongly-worded doctrinal clarification issued by the previous pope is reduced to a wan reminder that a bit more justification than some have found enough is required for dehydrating and starving a PVS patient to death.

This is how the Enemy uses theologians despite their best intentions. Cynicism and subtlety choke off the Spirit of life. Intelligent Catholics, beware.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Advent discipline: the right atheism

It has often been observed, in various words, that heresy is just truth distorted. If one is formed by the truth, one sees that things could hardly be otherwise. In fact, the same seems to go for the very process of being formed by the truth. Atheism is often just spiritual growth stuck at the death of the seed: having come to disbelieve in a God who does not exist, some atheists are too disappointed to hear and submit to the One who does. It's as if the Christmas spirit cannot pass through Good Friday to be reborn in the Easter. But if we do pass through and submit, we are formed into disciples who can persevere to the end. Advent is a good time to meditate on that theme, so that we may adopt a Christmas spirit that will live.

We are equipped for the meditation by the most welcome occasion of a post from the Pontificator, Fr. Al Kimel, entitled Disbelieving the Predestinarian God. As he indicates, one of the most common killers of faith and joy in the West has been the notion of absolute predestination: the notion that God "has eternally decreed, before prevision of irrevocable rejection of divine love and forgiveness, the eternal salvation of some and the eternal reprobation of the rest." In such a God, Fr. Kimel passionately disbelieves. Of course he is right to do so. Such a monstrous idol is not the God of the Gospels, of the "good news." To be atheistic about that "God" is a sign of spiritual health. And there are many other "Gods" whom atheists are right to disbelieve in. For example, there is the "God" who rewards "the saved" and punishes "the reprobate" just because the former have, on the whole, done a better job of obeying "the rules" than the latter. A lot of people who recoil from absolute predestinationism seem to believe in such a God—perhaps because he is not arbitrary like the predestinarian, but more closely matches our natural ideas about justice. But that God does not exist either. For "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God"; what saves us, if and when we are saved, is faith in the One whose offer of eternal life is in no way based on whatever puny merits we might think are our own. What is entailed by that kind of faith is made clear in both the Letter of James and the Letter to the Romans, which must be balanced in tension. Having encountered many atheistic arguments and reviewed my own journey of faith, I could multiply examples of a God not to believe in. The God who truly exists is subtler than any of the idols.

As we approach Christmas, it is especially important to be clear about the character of the real God, who is neither arbitrary nor bound by our conceptions of justice. Let us begin by quoting Fr. Kimel's quotation from Hans Urs von Balthasar:

Love alone is credible; nothing else can be believed, and nothing else ought to be believed. This is the achievement, the “work” of faith: to recognize this absolute prius, which nothing else can surpass; to believe that there is such a thing as love, absolute love, and that there is nothing higher or greater than it; to believe against all the evidence of experience (”credere contra fidem” like “sperare contra spem“), against every “rational” concept of God, which things of him in terms of impassibility or, at best, totally pure goodness, but not in terms of this inconceivable and senseless act of love.

Now that is much, much closer to the truth than the idols. The truth it gets at is to be embraced and celebrated more than any other truth: at the heart of reality is a great Love into which we, and with us all else, are destined to be drawn. The dance of such love is forever, world without end, Amen. Nonetheless, von Balthasar's words too can be used to fashion an idol: a God who, as Love itself, has nothing to do with reason. I have found it vital to stress that belief in such a Love is supra-rational, not irrational. It transcends reason without negating reason, and thus invites the well-intentioned atheist to reconsider. How?

There need be no dichotomy between "totally pure goodness" and the God who, according to the Apostle John, is Love. It is of course quite possible to think of such goodness as a sterile perfection sublimely indifferent to our failures, our sufferings, our despair of ever being quite "right." With respect to deity, that kind of goodness is Aristotle's Prime Mover: "self-thinking thought" that moves all else only as a model for imitation. As a depiction of God, the Prime Mover is only a sliver of the truth; to think of it simply as the truth is to fashion an idol. The Enlightenment deists posited a God like that, their main theological difference with Aristotle being over the precise nature of the remote causality such a deity was believed to exercise. Openly or covertly disappointed by life as it is, some intelligent people see no alternative to belief in such a God. They admit that the world's existence calls for and has an explanation beyond the world; but if they see real love at work in the world, it is only the sort for which there are (or could be) perfectly good natural, this-worldly explanations. They find no evidence that what accounts for the world's existence is a sublime and infinite Love which destines us to something radically beyond what evolution has bequeathed. They are closed to the miraculous: not only to the reality of individual miracles, but to the Great Miracle of the world's existence itself. Theirs is not the God of Christmas either. He too is an idol, about which atheism is justifiable if not altogether justified. Such is the god not only of some philosophers, but also of many people who would rather not admit it to young children at Christmas.

In order to see evidence for the Great Miracle, one must somehow recognize that the Love of which von Balthasar speaks is neither arbitrary nor necessitated. It is indeed gratuitous: it cannot be predicted on the basis of the so-called "laws of nature," which prima facie do not reveal it at all. It does not originate in Nature at all. But it makes a certain sort of sense. It is what I called, in my doctoral thesis, "positively mysterious." For Absolute Goodness is not sterile: it is personal and it is free, for those qualities are greater goods than any mere mechanism or abstraction. Thus, the goodness of God is at once what the medieval doctors called "self-diffusive" and yet not pre-determined in its manifestations. God did not have to create at all; given that he creates this world, he did not have to create this world rather than any other he might have created; given that he creates rational creatures, he did not have to destine them to be "divinized," to share forever in his very life. But if the Gospel is true, he has done all that out of the same Love that constitutes him. He has revealed himself as a community of persons who love one another so radically, so infinitely, that they together constitute one God, and thus are each the same God. That is what Absolute Goodness is. It makes sense for such a God to create the world and to unite it with Himself in and through us. But such a God could not have been necessitated by nature to act ad extra, beyond Himself. If he had been, he would not be personal, would not be free, would not even be sovereign. So, at the heart of reality is a Love which makes sense on its own terms and is even complete in those terms, so that it did not have to be manifest at all ad extra. What makes the Great Miracle a miracle—an ever-astonishing, never-ending story of which we are all a part and in which we can all find bliss—is that it didn't have to be at all. What makes it intelligible is that, given who and what its Author is, it makes sense that he would write it. Both poles must be affirmed: the radical contingency of what God has wrought, and its radical intelligibility.

Indeed, the very "impassibility" of the God who does that is what reassures us that the effects of the Incarnation, Passion, and Resurrection of the divine person who became and is a man cannot be negated, that the Kingdom of Love is "an everlasting kingdom." As we prepare to adore anew the Christ Child, who is that Kingdom's first visible manifestation for the world, let us remember that God's vulnerability, his willingness to submit for a time not only to his creation but to the worst we can do to him, is our true strength. Let us remember what Victor Hugo, echoing St. Paul, reminded us of: "Love is the foolishness of men and the wisdom of God." Such is the God who is not an idol. About any other God, atheism is a salutary discipline.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Freedom, evolution, and original sin

Jesus said: "Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin" (John 8:34). Therefore, using one's freedom so as to commit sin entails a loss of freedom. Conversely, the most free are those who, able to exercise free choice, are yet entirely untainted by sin. But the only humans we know of who are like that are the blessed in heaven—and all but one of those people were once sinners. According to the Church, the only human person who has never been tainted by sin is Mary, the Mother of God. She is and always was "full of grace," kecharitomene. Unlike the rest of us, she was not conceived in a state of alienation from God, but rather in one of unity with God. And she never "fell" from grace like her ancestor and ours, whom the Bible calls "Eve." She is Panagia, the "All-Holy." No other human person is, or should be, given such a title. It stands to reason, then, that Mary is the only human person always to have had something necessary for complete freedom: freedom from sin. That, I propose, is the temporally first great "mutation" in human evolution since our species first appeared. It could not have emerged from the operation of natural forces, which by evolution have provided much of what we think of as the capacity for freedom. It is sola gratia: a direct product of divine power divinizing. And it is itself but the most proximate effect of the most fundamental "mutation" of all: the Incarnation, Passion, and Resurrection of that divine person who is Mary's Son, a process in which we are all destined to participate, thus becoming "partakers of the divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4). Such a picture allows us to see original sin and evolution in a more illuminating way than the polemics of the past century-and-a-half have led people to see.

What started me thinking about this was an NPR "Science Friday" interview I heard last week with mathematician and pop-science writer Amir Aczel, author of a recent book about Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ entitled The Jesuit and the Skull. Although the reviews have been rather mixed, one thing the reviewers seem agreed on was Aczel's depiction of the Church as obscurantist and benighted about science—despite Pius XII's 1950 encyclical Humani Generis, which permitted the "hypothesis" of the origin of the human body by evolution, but which doesn't seem to be on the radar screens of these people. That especially irritated me. True, Teilhard's Jesuit superiors exiled him from his beloved France and refused to let him publish during his lifetime (he died in New York in 1955). That's not how I would have handled him; I would have let him hang his rope himself, as became the Church's normal practice after Vatican II. True, in 1962 the Holy Office (soon to be renamed the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) issued a monitum (warning) against his recently published writings. But that was reiterated by the CDF in 1981, just before then-Cardinal Ratzinger took over, and has never been rescinded. Having read Teilhard extensively in college, I agree with the monitum, which explicitly prescinds from "questions of the positive sciences" and focuses strictly on theology. On that score, Aczel got it half-right when he repeated, in the interview, that what most concerned ecclesiastical authorities was Teilhard's frank disbelief in the doctrine of original sin. But neither Aczel nor the interviewer, Ira Flatow, showed the slightest understanding of the doctrine. They took for granted that what upset the Church was Teilhard's disbelief in a literal Garden of Eden and expulsion therefrom. By way of developing my proposal, I shall first correct that error.

From a Catholic standpoint, there is no obligation to believe that the truth in the first two chapters of Genesis is expressed literally as opposed to mythically. On both literary and scientific grounds, I myself disbelieve that, just as Teilhard did. But the reality of original sin must all the same be affirmed as de fide, which is indeed part of the truth conveyed by the theologically reworked myths recorded in Genesis 1 and 2. (On this entire topic, I highly recommend Ratzinger's In the Beginning.) The reality is that each of us (with one exception, already noted) is conceived in a state of alienation from God in virtue of our common descent from the first people to disobey God and thus fall from his grace. As the main effect of the first sin, original sin is essentially a negative state and is called 'sin' only by analogy. It is the deprivation of a supernatural state to which we were destined by God and which therefore ought to obtain. That deprivation has effects in turn: death, concupiscence, the darkening of the intellect, and all the suffering normally attendant on animal life. All those things make actual sins inevitable, in a certain way, in the lives of each person who attains the use of reason and freedom. Even though no particular actual sin is inevitable—else it would not be freely committed, and thus would not be actual sin—some-or-other actual sin is inevitable at some-or-other point for each of us who develop enough to exercise freedom of the will. Thus sin becomes a self-sustaining, self-reinforcing system both individually and socially. It's why we become slaves to sin and need a Redeemer. That's why our only hope is Jesus Christ who, as the Truth, makes us free.

But that fact should occasion deeper, contemporary reflection on the idea of the "effects" of original sin. Having read enough about evolution over the years to have an informed layman's opinion—most recently, I have benefited from Francis Collins' The Language of God (2006)it has always seemed to me that said effects, as a syndrome, are just what one would expect if humans had never been elevated by grace in the first place, but instead had been left with what evolution had bequeathed. Animals get suffer, get sick, and die. For good and ill, they largely governed by instinct. Monogamy is preferred only by a minority; males often fight over territory and females; predators eat prey, who in turn prey on others; and so on. Over time, only the relatively strong and clever survive; the weak and the dull die out. Such is "nature red in tooth and claw." It's "a jungle out there," even when the jungle is asphalt. Despite our special qualities, is there any reason short of divine revelation to believe that we should be, could be, or ever were exempt from all that? Dr. Collins, who once headed the Human Genome Project, reminds us that the difference between our DNA and that of chimpanzees is less than 2%. If we're all that different, it's not because we're all that different animals. And so our evolutionary heritage is, simultaneously, the "base level" from which God elevated our progenitors, and the ambit within which our freedom is circumscribed by original sin as deprivation. Our race as a whole has never got much beyond that because our progenitors, who had indeed been elevated beyond it by grace alone, sunk back into it by their choice to grab at divinity rather than receive it in humility and obedience. They could do that because, though ideally equipped to develop real virtue freely, under divine guidance, they had barely begun the process. And of course it is only the Redemption, promised obliquely by God as recorded in Genesis 3:15, that enables us to do it once anew.

That is why even the baptized have a lot of work to do. There is nothing automatic about "salvation," a word whose root meaning is "healed" or made whole. Once grace justifies us, our free cooperation is necessary to continue the process of our "sanctification"—our being "set apart" for God—and thus the process of our divinization. But any one of us can, if we choose, blow the whole thing. The freedom we have now, which we enjoy by both nature and grace, is immature because it still entails the freedom to go wrong and thus diminish freedom itself—even eliminate it, if we give ourselves over definitively to Satan. In a world at once fallen and redeemed, such immature freedom is a necessary condition for developing into the gloriously free children of his that God means for us to be. But another such condition is that a man who is a divine person, Jesus Christ, has always been both perfectly free and perfectly incapable of sin. And the first manifestation of his person and work in history is this: that one strictly human person, the one by whom Christ entered the world, is the pre-eminent beneficiary and facilitator among us of that mature freedom.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Elemental powers

Today during Vespers at Belmont Abbey, one of the readings I heard was from St. Paul's Letter to the Colossians. He asks: "If you died with Christ to the elemental powers of the world, why do you submit to regulations as if you were still living in the world?" (Col 2:20). As the Pope's new encyclical Spe Salvi shows us,
that question remains quite pertinent today.

In context, of course, Paul was upbraiding the Colossian Christians for their tendency to observe pagan rituals as though the original religious myths motivating such things were legitimate. They didn't quite "get" that Christ had liberated them from all that. But if the pagan gods were and are false, then just what were these "elemental powers" to which the baptized had supposedly died with their incorporation into Christ? And I mean the real ones, whatever they were—not the gods of mere imagination, if that's what some of "the gods" were. Given the gravity of the issue, the answer has to be perennial, not just local, and therefore one of contemporary relevance.

One part of the answer is clear enough: fallen angels, or "devils." Jesus talked a lot about those, especially about their chief, who was his chief adversary. It is to such as those that Paul, in the same passage from Colossians, referred when he said of Christ that "despoiling the principalities and the powers, he made a public spectacle of them, leading them away in triumph by [the Cross]" (Col 2:15). That there are such beings is the experience of the saints, of the possessed, and therefore of true exorcists, as well as the irreformable teaching of the Church. But devils are not the whole story; and for good reason, it's not the part the Pope speaks of in SS. Today, the most obvious referent of the term 'elemental powers' is to the blind forces of Nature itself, most specifically to what is now called "evolution." Yet that referent too has its roots in the ancient world of which Paul spoke. The continuity is instructive.

Until a century or two before Christ, little or no distinction had generally been made between unseen personal beings, among whom were devils, and what we would now call "the laws of nature." Skeptical philosophers aside, the masses of people seemed to believe that the seasons unfolded, the stars stayed in their courses, the sun rose and set, and so on, because there were living spirits, "gods," making sure that such things kept happening. That is why the earliest known Western philosopher, Thales, had said: "All things are full of gods." Some of those "gods" were accounted good, others not so good, and some oscillated between the two. So when one paid obeisance to "the gods," one was merely trying to stay on the good side of the unseen personal powers of the universe. There was no hope of escaping their power: the best one could do was limit one's exposure to their caprice, or at least avoid exciting their malice. Such led to a certain fatalism among the ancient pagans, even the Romans. And such fatalism persisted as the skeptical rationalism of the philosophers began to affect the general sensibility. Whether "the gods" literally existed or not, most people saw little or no hope of getting beyond the world, even those who believed there was some sort of afterlife. Their horizons were limited to this world, or to what was taken to be this world. That is why Paul also says to the Ephesians that, before their encounter with Christ, they were "without hope and without God in the world" (Eph 2:12). The Pope puts it thus:

Myth had lost its credibility; the Roman State religion had become fossilized into simple ceremony which was scrupulously carried out, but by then it was merely “political religion”. Philosophical rationalism had confined the gods within the realm of unreality. The Divine was seen in various ways in cosmic forces, but a God to whom one could pray did not exist. Paul illustrates the essential problem of the religion of that time quite accurately when he contrasts life “according to Christ” with life under the dominion of the “elemental spirits of the universe” (Col 2:8).

That's what St. Paul indicated Christ had freed believers from. And so it was. But today in the "developed" world, we live in a public reality that is largely post-Christian, even as in some less developed corners of the world people still live under the spiritual thralldom of an essentially pre-Christian paganism. The philosophy of secular materialism, which can take either agnostic or atheistic forms, is the new fatalism. As such, it is ultimately a counsel of despair. And it is to just that despair that the Christian message addresses itself as much now as it did then, when greed, lust for power, and sexual perversions were as open as they are now. Once again, SS (footnotes omitted):

In this regard a text by Saint Gregory Nazianzen is enlightening. He says that at the very moment when the Magi, guided by the star, adored Christ the new king, astrology came to an end, because the stars were now moving in the orbit determined by Christ. This scene, in fact, overturns the world-view of that time, which in a different way has become fashionable once again today. It is not the elemental spirits of the universe, the laws of matter, which ultimately govern the world and mankind, but a personal God governs the stars, that is, the universe; it is not the laws of matter and of evolution that have the final say, but reason, will, love—a Person. And if we know this Person and he knows us, then truly the inexorable power of material elements no longer has the last word; we are not slaves of the universe and of its laws, we are free. In ancient times, honest enquiring minds were aware of this. Heaven is not empty. Life is not a simple product of laws and the randomness of matter, but within everything and at the same time above everything, there is a personal will, there is a Spirit who in Jesus has revealed himself as Love.

The contrast now is as stark as it was back then. Intellectually the counsel of despair might seem more persuasive, because we know so much more about how the universe in general and life on earth in particular have developed. But existentially, the choice remains exactly the same now as it was when the Church was new: despair, or hope.