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

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The Catholic citizen's Lenten ascesis

That's on top of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, folks. The purpose of those things is to empty ourselves so that Christ can fill us and thereby give himself to others. Even in the blogosphere, it is still possible for him to do that. All of us are called.

A good manifesto about the call is from Robert P. George's NRO article "Families and First Principles," available in full only to digital or hard-copy subscribers. So I rely on Vivificat for the most pertinent passage:

Our task should be to understand the moral truth and speak it in season and out of season. We will be told by the pure pragmatists that the public is too far gone in moral relativism or even moral delinquency to be reached by a moral argument. We will be advised to make the moral arguments to the social-conservative "base" but to frame those arguments in coded language so as not scare off the soccer moms or whoever is playing their role in the next election cycle. All of this must be resisted.

We must, to be sure, practice the much-neglected and badly underrated virtue of prudence. But we must have faith that truth is luminously powerful: so that if we bear witness to the truth about, say marriage and the sanctity of human life—lovingly, civilly, but with passion and determination—and if we honor the truth in advancing our positions, then even many of our fellow citizen who now find themselves on the other side of these issues will—some sooner, some later—come around.

To speak of truth frightens many people today. At least they seem to be frightened when conservatives speak of truth. They evidently believe that people who claim to know the truth about anything—and especially about moral matters—are "fundamentalists" and potential totalitarians. But this is silly. As Hardley Arkes has patiently explained in the pages of NATIONAL REVIEW and elsewhere, those on the other side of the great debates over social issues such as abortion and marriage make truth claims—moral truth claims—all the time. They assert their positions with no less confidence and no more doubt than one finds in the advocacy of pro-lifers and defenders of conjugal marriage. They proclaim a woman's "fundamental right" to abortion. They insist with moral conviction that "love makes a family." They condemn "Bush's immoral war in Iraq." The question is not whether there are truths about the morality of abortion and the nature of marriage; the question in each case is: What is the truth?

That last question is not to be asked with the relativistic cynicism of Pontius Pilate, so common today. It is to be asked with the expectation that we have already been given enough of the answer to act upon. This Lent, let us empty ourselves of worldliness so as to be filled with the courage and hope to act accordingly.

New blog: The NeoChalcedonian

If you don't have to ask what means, this new blog is for you. Authored by William Ballow, an earnest ecclesiological enquirer who sometimes comments here, The NeoChalcedonian promises an absorbing ride along those routes of history that are relevant to the competing ecclesiological claims of the different Christian communions.

Thought for the day

The first human words quoted in Genesis are of a man's delight at his wife. The last human words quoted in Revelation are of a woman's delight at her husband. Christ's marriage with the Church restores the unity intended from the beginning.

HT to Disputations.

By contrast, this. It gets worse and worse.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Lost Tomb of Jesus

OK, I just had to say something about that film before it airs March 4 on the, ahem, Discovery Channel. Click the title for the article I'm going by.

If this is the best they can do, we're in good shape. By "they" I mean what Schliermacher called Christianity's "cultured despisers." He didn't handle them particularly well, but we can. Atheistic controversialists haven't come up with anything new or interesting lately. As for rewriting history, just see what's been done to The DaVinci Code. The present bit of pseudo-scholarly marketing will fare no better as anti-theology than the book has.

For a few withering reviews, go here and here. (HT to Pontifications.) Be forearmed.

My main worry is not about the Western enemies of the Church, but about what Christians do to themselves by their divisions and their contracepting in the face of militant Islam.

Vanity: the dilemma

I just came across this article suggesting that today's college students are more "narcissistic" than those of the past, perhaps as a result of the emphasis on "self-esteem" in education during the 1980s and 90s.


"We need to stop endlessly repeating 'You're special' and having children repeat that back," said the study's lead author, Professor Jean Twenge of San Diego State University. "Kids are self-centered enough already."

Twenge and her colleagues, in findings to be presented at a workshop Tuesday in San Diego on the generation gap, examined the responses of 16,475 college students nationwide who completed an evaluation called the Narcissistic Personality Inventory between 1982 and 2006.

The standardized inventory, known as the NPI, asks for responses to such statements as "If I ruled the world, it would be a better place," "I think I am a special person" and "I can live my life any way I want to."

I believe that such silly questions were asked, but I'm afraid I don't believe the conclusions drawn from what were presumably the answers.

Take the three statements quoted as having been offered on the "inventory" for a yes-or-no response. As for the first, it's one that most people would answer in the affirmative—at least if my experience is any guide. But that doesn't mean narcissism is on the rise. It's always been true that most people think things would be better if they were in charge. Next, the statement "I can live my life any way I want to" is true, but only trivially so. One "can" indeed live one's life exactly as one pleases—but only for a time, and only at a cost. When the cost becomes too great to bear, the time runs out. The question, then, should not have been whether one "can" live as one pleases. Beyond a certain age, one clearly can. The question should have been qualified: how long, and at what cost? Answers to that would have been interesting indeed.

Finally, the offering of "I am a special person" as a question is almost pricelessly idle. The article closes with a student's observation: "Besides, some of the responses on the narcissism test might not be worrisome," Dalane said. "It would be more depressing if people answered, 'No, I'm not special."' She is quite right. The students have been presented with a dilemma: if they think themselves special, that is taken as a sign of narcissism; but if they don't, that could with as much or as little justice be taken as evidence of a lack of healthy self-regard. Which is worse, I cannot say. That's the sort of thing that's depressing about the study.

Indeed, the idea that each person is special is just that double-edged. In one sense, everybody is special, for everybody has some God-given role and charism that nobody else has been given. That holds even for the "disabled." Perhaps that's all some students meant when affirming, on the inventory, that they are special. But of course, if everybody is special in that particular way, then nobody is special simpliciter. Nobody stands out just for having a role different from everybody else's. If not all college students realize that while they are of standard college age, they will learn it quite quickly when they fully enter the world of work. So saying one is special in the present sense isn't any cause to worry about proliferating narcissism.

What is more usually meant by saying that somebody is "special" is that they are special to somebody else. But most of us are special to somebody else—if only our mothers. So that doesn't get us very far either.

Of course, by affirming one is special, one might mean that one's individual role and charism really do make one stand out. Sometimes that is true; more often, it is not. But the inventory makes no such distinctions as I have been making. Largely for that reason, it is useless.

This is why I've always had a lot of difficulty with soft psychology masquerading as science. The standard methodologies do not capture the relevant subtleties. I doubt they could. Mind you, I don't doubt the value of a good psychotherapist for some people. But good therapy is more of an art than a science. And as for spiritual growth—well, how many reliable surveys have you seen of that?

Still, vanity or narcissism—the least dangerous form of pride—is just as much a dilemma in the spiritual life. Of certain things, it is sometimes said that "believing makes it so." Here, there's a sense in which believing makes it not so: if one believes oneself special in God's eyes, in the sense of being holier or more important than others, then one isn't. On the other hand, if one believes oneself to be the chief of sinners, that too can be vain posturing and thus threatens to become self-verifying. I know quite well that I am a sinner; but I also know it would be the height of pride for me to imagine myself the chief of sinners. I just don't have that kind of juice. Sometimes, to be sure, regarding oneself as the chief of sinners is mere overgeneralizing from one's narrow experience. But that too can lead to narcissism: in this case, that of regarding one's own experience as definitive.

I realize there is such a thing as "narcissistic personality disorder." But there aren't that many NPDers walking around, torturing those around them. Aside from them, I suggest we stop worrying. Reality has a way of curing garden-variety narcissism. We need to be more worried about how terrible so many people really feel about themselves.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Ooops, I did it again..

Two Orthodox bloggers have posted reactions to my recent series of posts reacting to the Ochlophobist's recent series of posts on pansexualism, Orthodoxy, and contraception. John of Ad Orientem and Fr. Gregory of Koinonia have both focused on the third and shortest of my series: "Does Orthodoxy allow contraception or not?" In a way I find that disappointing, since I was hoping more for reaction to my argument that allowing barrier-method contraception, as some Orthodox clergy and theologians do, is a mistake. What I've got instead is are instructions on ecclesiology from John and on pastoral economy from Fr. Gregory. But I suppose I asked for that, because I went and did again something I used to do as a teacher: I closed by raising a question. Whenever I do that, it's the question—not my position or arguments—that gets the attention.

John spends a fair amount of time explaining why I'm mistaken to expect a straightforward answer to the question, at least at this stage in history. Orthodoxy, you see, just does take a long time to settle controversial issues, if and when they are settled; it doesn't have things dictated from a single center like that church. It has bishops, after all—not just "one bishop" with an army of "mitred assistants." But once things are settled, that's it. So maybe I should ask again in a few generations, or centuries.

Such an approach, John suggests, is advantageous for ruling out a kind of "development of doctrine" that allows Rome to reverse previous doctrinal commitments swiftly and unilaterally, and thus confusingly, under the guise of "development of doctrine." So, once Orthodoxy does reach some sort of consensus on this issue, we can be confident it won't change its tune.

The digs at Rome are not only unnecessary in themselves but unhelpful from John's own viewpoint. He knows quite well that I've expended much effort showing that the Catholic Church has changed no teaching in such a way as to negate any teaching that meets her stated criteria for infallibility. To my knowledge, he has not criticized that effort. Of course, as his example he picks one of the specific issues I did not address, namely capital punishment: Rome used to approve it under certain circumstances as necessary for both the good of society and the satisfaction of justice; nowadays, says the CCC, it is "rarely if ever necessary." I didn't address that topic because I consider it obvious that what's changed is pastoral judgment in the light of changing social conditions, not any moral principle that had been taught from the beginning. That is a perfectly legitimate "development" for the better. On the specific issue of contraception, by contrast, the traditional ban has been reaffirmed with better reasons than had been given in the past. How is any of this a less trustworthy process than what Orthodoxy is undergoing regarding contraception?

Given the technological and intellectual options available today, I'm not so sure that Orthodoxy is going to reach on consensus on an issue it doesn't consider church-dividing enough to warrant a "great council." Indeed, it seems to me that Orthodoxy has been moving away from the old consensus about birth control. What was once unquestioned is now considered debatable. Unless John can predict with confidence that the outcome of the debate is also going to be a reaffirmation of the ancient doctrine, which Rome continues to uphold, he is in no position to compare Rome's handling of doctrinal development in morals unfavorably with Orthodoxy's. Any attempt to do that merely evades the interesting questions.

To his credit, Fr. Gregory does not evade and saves his dig at Catholicism for the end. Essentially, his argument is that while the traditional teaching against all forms of contraception is true, good pastoral sense calls for the spiritual father to take people's weakness and levels of spiritual development into account. What's wrong in itself is often the lesser of evils given where people are; the job is to apply economy while doing everything possible to encourage the kind of healing, ascetical regimen that Orthodox praxis embodies. Catholicism is then taken to task for failing to do the latter.

Well now. Given all the ignorance, weakness, and cultural poison out there, Fr. Gregory's application of economy is understandable; whether or not it is actually justified in Orthodox terms, I am unqualified to say. Although it leaves me unsatisfied, I can't pretend that Catholic priests do a better job. To the dig, however, I have no better reply than that of The Sarabite, Arturo Vazquez:

Give the blessing, Father.

These are very strong words, and I would hope that we would better reflect on them. It seems a bit of a broad generalization, does it not? After all, how many people in Orthodox countries actually keep the four fasts of the Church? How many actually go to church? Russia, I know, has very, very low church attendance, and I doubt that most people in Orthodox countries are practicing.

Among practicing Orthodox, what you say is the case. But you would be suprised how it is the case among serious, practicing Catholics as well. Broad generalizations do not help; our pious faithful are just as pious as your pious faithful. It is a matter of how seriously one takes one's faith. Maybe the Orthodox Church has the theoretical tools to better understand the question, but the result is always the same if genuine holiness is there.

And I think accepting the consequences of marital intercourse is very ascetical indeed. It probably takes a greater level of faith than weakening oneself from fasting.

Indeed. I would add that, if a couple is living as they ought, then the best form of birth control is children. Loving God's gifts of children as they ought leaves parents with too little energy for going at it like bunnies.

The next question I was going to ask is why so few Orthodox seem able even to field a serious question from a Catholic without getting in a dig or two at Catholicism. Don't they realize how unattractive that is? But I hereby unask the question—or at least disinvite answers. They would only reinforce what I already know the answer to be, which I wish were otherwise.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Being led into temptation

The Lord's Prayer petitions God: "Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil." That is why today's Gospel in the Latin-Rite Catholic calendar, Luke 4:1-13, has always puzzled me. The selection begins: "Filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days, to be tempted by the Devil." It would appear, then, that God did to the Son of God what the Son of God instructs us to ask God not to do to us. How can that be if the Church, as she has always done, presents Jesus' forty days alone in the desert as a model of asceticism and spiritual combat for us during Lent?

One explanation is that the KJV translation of the Lord's Prayer, which English-speaking Catholics still insist on using today, is misleading. The translation should really be: "Subject us not to the trial, but deliver us from the evil one," or something like that. Although I lack the specialized scholarly knowledge to know which translation is the best, the original does seem vague enough to admit more than one translation that would, inevitably, be interpretation. After all, the original Greek itself is a translation of Jesus' Aramaic. The alternative translation I've just cited is certainly one such interpretation. The idea seems to be that it's not just any old temptation we are to ask to be spared; it is obvious that none of us past the age of reason are, or are going to be, spared temptations. We are asking to be spared the sort of naked confrontation with Satan that nobody with the slightest idea of what that would mean would desire. I think that's true; but it can't be the whole story, and in fact it only heightens my puzzlement.

For such a confrontation is exactly what Jesus had in the desert; and he is our exemplar as well as our savior. Such confrontations were well-known to the desert fathers and mothers who were the progenitors of monastic spirituality. Indeed, the more serious one is about transformation in Christ and acts accordingly, the more likely one's ascesis is to occasion such a confrontation—or an experience enough like it as to make no difference. The lives of many saints confirm that. So, does the Lord's Prayer petition that we be spared something that is likely in almost direct proportion to our spiritual progress? I can't help thinking that unlikely.

Another explanation I know is the Thomistic one, which Tom Kreitzberg of Disputations expounds well today with appropriate references. St. Thomas distinguishes, rightly, between temptation in the sense of "testing," as in trials that test one's virtue, and temptation in the sense of "solicitation to evil." Clearly, God doesn't do the latter, because he cannot; so it would be unreasonable to interpret the petition in the Lord's Prayer as asking him not to do it. But does the petition really seek exemption from testing? Well, nobody beyond the age of reason is exempt from trials that test their virtue. I've had some; I've failed some. (Okay, most.) Being enjoined to ask for what one knows isn't going to be granted doesn't seem rational; and Jesus was, among many other things, rational. So, what does St. Thomas have to tell us that doesn't just reduce to the previous explanation?

According to Aquinas, "God is said to lead a person into evil by permitting him to the extent that, because of his many sins, He withdraws His grace from man, and as a result of this withdrawal man does fall into sin."

Tom glosses:

In other words, the petition amounts to, "Do not abandon us when we are tempted to sin." It is a way of praying for the promise St. Paul records in 1 Corinthians 10:13: "God is faithful and will not let you be tried beyond your strength; but with the trial he will also provide a way out, so that you may be able to bear it." By petitioning God to do what He has promised to do, we draw our own hearts, minds, and wills closer to His.

The difficulty I find here is not with the conclusion Tom draws, which is true, but with the premise Aquinas lays down. I do not believe that God "withdraws" his grace from anybody, for any reason. We are all, always, given grace sufficient for passing the really big tests. If God's grace abandons us, it is because we have already chosen to abandon it. When God chooses not to override that choice, that is respect not withdrawal.

Here's the explanation I prefer. Unlike us, Jesus was incapable of sin; hence, having nothing to fear from temptation himself, he was led to experience it so that his successful resistance would strengthen us to succeed too. Indeed the entire Paschal Mystery, of which Jesus' temptation in the wilderness was an important part, suffices to provide us with the necessary strength for the temptations (in both senses of 'temptation') we will inevitably face. But it would be presumptuous of us to assume we would abide in his grace manfully enough to be guaranteed success. So, when we pray that the Father not lead us where the Spirit led Jesus, we are not asking God spare us something which he manifestly does not spare us. If we are sincere, we are performing an act of humility by which we avail ourselves of Our Savior's infinite strength.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

The State of the Catholic Church in America: Diocese by Diocese

A very interesting summary bearing that title appears in the current issue of Crisis. The report will load as a PDF in your browser window, and you can print it out in a clear format for easy distribution to classes or friends.

Two conclusions stand out; one surprises me. The unsurprising conclusion is that bishops can and do significantly affect the spiritual vitality of their dioceses, and in certain particular ways that the authors describe. They reach that conclusion partly by a well-argued process of statistical elimination and partly by just talking to bishops and those who work with them.

The surprising conclusion is that the whole spectrum from vital to dismal can be found among the dioceses making up the Church in the United States. Most everybody who is not in denial is familiar with the problems; but in every region of the country, one can find dioceses that are bucking the negative trends. They provide clear, explicable examples of what works, which shows that it's possible to address the problems successfully.

Hence the mystery: why aren't the dioceses that are doing poorly addressing the problems by emulating those that are doing well? Is it primarily that there aren't enough priests who would make the right sort of bishop? Or are other factors, either on their own or in combination, more important?

I wish I had the answer. Not that any bishop would give me a job if I did....

Does Orthodoxy allow contraception or not?

I'd be interested in reactions, especially from Orthodox believers, to the online article of the above title. At the very least, there appears to have been some backtracking in Orthodoxy on the topic. And as usual, there is the problem that nobody seems to speak for Orthodoxy as such.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Anti-pansexualism: right for (some of) the wrong reasons

The Ochlophobist ('T.O.' for short) continues his series on "pansexualism" in our culture with Orthodoxy and Contraception, part II. I had already discussed Part I last Monday. I recommend the series to all.

Once again, I largely agree with T.O. about the state of sexuality in our culture and about the great need for Christians to resist and roll back what has occurred. My disagreement is with his view that non-abortifacient contraception, unlike sodomy, is not intrinsically wrong, which is only to be expected given that I am a neoCath who has blogged quite a bit about just this point, especially here. But my demurral is not merely academic. In my view, T.O.'s view on this matter is part of the problem and in no way contributes to the solution.

In my comments on Part I, I briefly explained why I believe that there is no sound theological basis for the distinction T.O. and, it seems, many other Christian thinkers want to draw. Rather than respond to that directly, T.O. gives us in a footnote (!) what he considers reasons grounded in Orthodox theology for refusing to condemn non-abortifacient contraception. Thus:

In Orthodoxy, the telos of a given act (if acts of the will can even be said to have a telos, as some moderns posit) is always to be subject to the telos of the person. Likewise, within Orthodoxy the telos of the person is not determined by the perceived telos of the acts appropriate to that person. Orthodoxy is not bottom up in its anthropology. Thus the logic: sex is meant, finally, for procreation; as a married man I am to have sex; thus my sexual activity is meant, finally, for procreation - does not work in Orthodoxy. Within Orthodoxy the "telos" of the given act is derivative of the telos of the person or persons involved. I am finally meant for salvation. My wife is finally meant for salvation. As two who have become one our marriage is to serve us as we are , finally, being saved. Sex within our marriage is to serve our telos. We are not meant to serve the "telos" of a given act. Thus God's soteriological personalism frees us from natural determinisms. This does not mean that we ignore or reject nature, quite the contrary. God intends to save me as a man, and to save my wife as a woman, and our salvation must be worked out in its proper course. But my sex and what is natural to it is meant to serve me, I am not meant to serve it. Thus, abortion always violates the telos of a person, whereas non-abortifacient birth control does not, if one accepts a modern biology with regard to then what must be the ontological status of sperm and egg (unless one can show that the use of any contraceptive necessarily involves a willful sin such as lust, greed, selfishness, etc. to such a degree that it perverts the goodness of the sexual act, in which case non-abortifacient birth control would violate the telos of the persons involved because it would involve a sinful state contrary to salvation). When someone who accepts modern biology says that non-abortifacient contraception is unnatural, they are referring to the telos of an action, primarily, and not a person, or they refer to a person only in the sense in which their telos is subject to the "telos" of the action.

In context, that seems meant as an alternative to the Catholic doctrine, which T.O. critiques as follows in the main body of the post:

I think that the best arguments against Rome's strict anti-contraception stance have to do with the manner in which Rome arrives at that conclusion. Rome uses a natural theology, via a "theology of the body" or some other such theological mechanism, to arrive at its theology of human sexuality. [I am inclined to think that most of what is called "theology of the body" today is so popular and theologically vague, even imprecise, as to be rendered useless by Orthodox. While JPII's theology of the body in the original texts is not popular (it might even be called esoteric, in the current sense of the word), it remains theologically vague, which is the curse of all personalist theologies which are derivative of Husserl and Scheler. The "theology of the body" is one of these many contemporary theological manifestations of the "Incarnational theology" fetish. If one takes issue with this or that point in such a theology, its proponent will normally suggest that one is "anti-Incarnational." When a Western "Incarnational theology" advocate suggests that an informed Eastern Orthodox believer is anti-Incarnational we have a situation which is rich in humor. Every dogmatic point concerning the Incarnation was made using Greek patristic theological language. The entire project of Eastern Orthodox theology is intended to answer the question, "Who is Jesus Christ?" Do not fret that Orthodox theology is not always in keeping with the latest philosophical/theological fads. In a few more decades it will be the "theology of something else."] In my opinion, these theologies of the body tend to lack a primacy of emphasis on the soteriology of the human person and the teleology of the human person. Theologies of the body do have a focus upon a sort of natural teleology of the body, but that is found to be lacking from an Orthodox perspective. From an Orthodox point of view, what a given act is naturally intended for is not the question. The question is, what is the person intended for? The answer is, theosis. Then with contraception the question becomes, in what way(s) might contraception help or hinder theosis? The answer to this question will not be couched in legal terms, as Orthodox frame it (given a modern biological framework). When it comes to how contraception affects the human spirit, things do tend to get legalistic and even deterministic when a theology of the body is employed. The intuition of this legalism on the part of some Orthodox causes them to reject Rome's teaching regarding contraception wholesale. Which, in the end, is fine and predictable, as Rome's teaching on contraception is not put forth in the theological language which the Orthodox Church speaks.

The "who's-more-incarnational-than-whom game"—no matter which side plays it—certainly does merit an ironic smile. Aside from that, it is idle. But I found the same kind of smile crossing my face when I compared the two passages just quoted. "Rome" is faulted for invoking something called "a theology of the body" that focuses too narrowly on the teleology of specific acts as opposed to persons, while at the same time, the one theology mentioned whose author actually called it a "theology of the body," that of Pope John Paul II, is faulted for being a "theologically vague" form of personalism! What we have here are two kinds of fallacy: false dichotomy and damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don't. I have found those particular patterns of argument depressingly common among Orthodox, on a variety of topics, when they criticize "Rome." A fertile ground for irony, indeed.

The false dichotomy is that between the moral teleology of acts and the moral teleology of persons. In the teaching of the Catholic Church, the moral significance of acts consists precisely in how they relate, either instrumentally or constitutively, to the good of the acting (and the affected) persons. That holds for "natural law" as well as moral theology; the latter integrates the former without being limited to it. And so the good of the person(s) must always be seen, either immediately or indirectly, in relation to the divine will for us. The biological processes that form part of some such acts, or in some cases naturally flow from them, have no moral significance apart from that context. But they are of course morally significant within said context. Thus Humanae Vitae, which was about birth control (§11-§13; emphasis added, footnotes omitted):

The sexual activity in which husband and wife are intimately and chastely united with one another, through which human life is transmitted, is, as the recent Council recalled, "noble and worthy.'' It does not, moreover, cease to be legitimate even when, for reasons independent of their will, it is foreseen to be infertile. For its natural adaptation to the expression and strengthening of the union of husband and wife is not thereby suppressed. The fact is, as experience shows, that new life is not the result of each and every act of sexual intercourse. God has wisely ordered laws of nature and the incidence of fertility in such a way that successive births are already naturally spaced through the inherent operation of these laws. The Church, nevertheless, in urging men to the observance of the precepts of the natural law, which it interprets by its constant doctrine, teaches that each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.

This particular doctrine, often expounded by the magisterium of the Church, is based on the inseparable connection, established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break, between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act. The reason is that the fundamental nature of the marriage act, while uniting husband and wife in the closest intimacy, also renders them capable of generating new life—and this as a result of laws written into the actual nature of man and of woman. And if each of these essential qualities, the unitive and the procreative, is preserved, the use of marriage fully retains its sense of true mutual love and its ordination to the supreme responsibility of parenthood to which man is called. We believe that our contemporaries are particularly capable of seeing that this teaching is in harmony with human reason.

Men rightly observe that a conjugal act imposed on one's partner without regard to his or her condition or personal and reasonable wishes in the matter, is no true act of love, and therefore offends the moral order in its particular application to the intimate relationship of husband and wife. If they further reflect, they must also recognize that an act of mutual love which impairs the capacity to transmit life which God the Creator, through specific laws, has built into it, frustrates His design which constitutes the norm of marriage, and contradicts the will of the Author of life. Hence to use this divine gift while depriving it, even if only partially, of its meaning and purpose, is equally repugnant to the nature of man and of woman, and is consequently in opposition to the plan of God and His holy will. But to experience the gift of married love while respecting the laws of conception is to acknowledge that one is not the master of the sources of life but rather the minister of the design established by the Creator. Just as man does not have unlimited dominion over his body in general, so also, and with more particular reason, he has no such dominion over his specifically sexual faculties, for these are concerned by their very nature with the generation of life, of which God is the source. "Human life is sacred—all men must recognize that fact," Our predecessor Pope John XXIII recalled. "From its very inception it reveals the creating hand of God."

The above does not invoke the "natural" in isolation from the "personal." It does not even invoke either apart from God, our creator and our ultimate end. It cites the former two in relation to each other, and both together to the third. There is no dichotomy here between the biological and the personal, or between both on the one hand and our relationship with God on the other. So much for the alleged dichotomy.

The "damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don't" argument is that Catholic teaching is criticized, in a single paragraph, for being both too narrowly naturalistic and too vaguely personalistic. What T.O. clearly doesn't realize is the key contribution made by John Paul II's theology of the body, which was propounded in a series of audiences consisting largely of a commentary on the original union of man and woman recounted in Genesis and spoke of Christocentrically in Ephesians. By invoking natural-law norms within a biblical personalism, the late pope integrated Catholic sexual teaching into a theology of communion, whereby sex and marriage are seen as the primordial way in which humans image the tri-personal, perichoretic God outwardly and in relation to each other. The whole is both-and, not either-or: both natural law and personalism, and both together in relation to our eternal destiny. I've provided the link for anybody who cares to verify what I've just said by immersing themselves in the "esoteric" text.

Once the fallacious criticisms of Catholic teaching are cleared away, it becomes clear that, on such teaching, contraceptive sex is seen as lustful sex in which people incline to treat each other more as objects than as persons. Precisely by suppressing the procreative in favor of the unitive aspect of conjugal intercourse, by whatever means, one corrupts the unitive. That makes people less and less able to make a gift of themselves sexually in marriage as it is meant by God to be: a mysterion of Christ's relationship with his Bride, the Church.

Paul VI predicted that would happen once the contraceptive mentality set in, and he was absolutely prescient. In the last forty or fifty years, we have all observed the steady coarsening of sexuality throughout our culture. The universal availability of cheap, effective contraception has allowed people to fornicate with less cost than ever, and the effect on women has been even worse than on men. In the course of my baby-boomer lifetime, I have seen women approach if not equal men in their rates of fornication and adultery: not only are men freer than ever to treat women as sexual objects to be used and, if the whim strikes, discarded; more and more women now do the same to men. Based on my personal experience, the anecdotal evidence I've heard, and even the statistical studies I've seen cited, there seems to be little or no difference between the sexual behavior of men and women anymore. As C.S. Lewis once said, traditional Christian morality held that men ought to be as chaste as honest women were always expected to be; but now it seems women are permitted, nay expected, to be as unchaste as men have always striven to be. Sexual equality, indeed. This is the kind of equality that the widespread availability and use of cheap, effective contraception inevitably causes. It is the equality of pansexualism.

The problem would probably not be quite so bad if the only available contraceptives were "barrier"—condoms, diaphragms, IUDs, and whatnot—rather than abortifacient. But it would still be more than bad enough. The problem less the technology than the principle. Thus John Paul II (Evangelium Vitae §13):

In order to facilitate the spread of abortion, enormous sums of money have been invested and continue to be invested in the production of pharmaceutical products which make it possible to kill the fetus in the mother's womb without recourse to medical assistance. On this point, scientific research itself seems to be almost exclusively preoccupied with developing products which are ever more simple and effective in suppressing life and which at the same time are capable of removing abortion from any kind of control or social responsibility.

It is frequently asserted that contraception, if made safe and available to all, is the most effective remedy against abortion. The Catholic Church is then accused of actually promoting abortion, because she obstinately continues to teach the moral unlawfulness of contraception. When looked at carefully, this objection is clearly unfounded. It may be that many people use contraception with a view to excluding the subsequent temptation of abortion. But the negative values inherent in the "contraceptive mentality"-which is very different from responsible parenthood, lived in respect for the full truth of the conjugal act-are such that they in fact strengthen this temptation when an unwanted life is conceived. Indeed, the pro- abortion culture is especially strong precisely where the Church's teaching on contraception is rejected. Certainly, from the moral point of view contraception and abortion arespecifically different evils: the former contradicts the full truth of the sexual act as the proper expression of conjugal love, while the latter destroys the life of a human being; the former is opposed to the virtue of chastity in marriage, the latter is opposed to the virtue of justice and directly violates the divine commandment "You shall not kill".

But despite their differences of nature and moral gravity, contraception and abortion are often closely connected, as fruits of the same tree. It is true that in many cases contraception and even abortion are practised under the pressure of real- life difficulties, which nonetheless can never exonerate from striving to observe God's law fully. Still, in very many other instances such practices are rooted in a hedonistic mentality unwilling to accept responsibility in matters of sexuality, and they imply a self-centered concept of freedom, which regards procreation as an obstacle to personal fulfilment. The life which could result from a sexual encounter thus becomes an enemy to be avoided at all costs, and abortion becomes the only possible decisive response to failed contraception.

Suppressing the procreative in favor of the unitive corrupts the latter and thus makes us readier to kill for our pleasures. That is why the much-loved distinction between abortifacient and non-abortifacient contraception is useless, and worse than useless, as a way of combatting pansexualism. Although the former is wrong for an additional reason, both are also wrong for the same reason.

For those who don't want to wade through papal writings any further, I close with a neat summation by Catholic philosopher J. Budziszewski:

The greatest obstacle to the communication of Paul VI’s message is that the spirit of the age has burdened most people with a false picture of nature. Their eyes dazzled by what technology can do, when they gaze upon human nature they see not a Design, but a canvass for their own designs. Because they can sever the causal link between sex and procreation, they suppose they have severed the link between sex and procreation. This helps to explain why, despite having been vindicated by the passage of time, the Pope’s warnings about the moral and social consequences of contraception have been so roundly ignored.

First the encyclical admonishes that artificial contraception will make it easier for people to rationalize sexual immorality. When modern people hear this they are dumbfounded. If there is artificial contraception, how could any sex be immoral? The pill changed human nature, don’t you see? For old nature the old rules were necessary; for new nature we have new ones. If the new ones too should prove confining, we’ll change our nature again, just as we did before. It is the same sort of reasoning that leads some people to propose making future astronauts like tadpoles because on long space journeys they won’t need legs.

The Pope’s second warning is that husbands who become accustomed to artificial contraception will "lose respect" for their wives; finding it unnecessary to heed the cadences of feminine fertility, they will disregard the cadences of feminine feelings too, finally demanding that their wives be ready for sex at all times. Of course the Pope was right, but this is turning out to be one of those cases where the new rules too prove confining and we must "change" human nature yet again. Why can’t a woman be more like a man? With the woman’s version of Viagra, maybe she can.

Paul VI’s third admonition was that once people view artificial contraception as morally indifferent, it will become an instrument of state policy; governments will interfere in the mission which God has given intimately and exclusively to spouses. And so, of course, they have. The difficulty is that in order to object to the interference, one must believe in the mission. Anyone who regards artificial contraception as morally indifferent has already rejected the mission. But not to worry: Once women become more like men, fertility rates will fall so rapidly that not even the most obtrusive commissar will think the growth of population a threat.

The nature of a thing, said Thomas Aquinas, is a purpose implanted in it by the Divine Art, that it be moved to a determinate end. Human nature is not an object to be manipulated, but a creation to be honored: not just a collection of processes, but an embodiment of purposes. The teleological link between sex and procreation persists even after the causal link is broken, for in the long run, to demand the gift of conjugal love without its accompanying fertility is to demand the impossible. The end of saying "I will give myself to spouse but not to children" is to say "I will give myself to no one; I belong to myself." Deliberate sterility insults the past and destroys the future; it makes us like the animals, who have neither history nor hope.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Liberalism, fundamentalism and Islamism

Having quoted me largely with approval about liberal attitudes toward Islam today, Dr. Bill Vallicella of Maverick Philosopher raises a fair criticism. I respond here.

Here's what I said that he quoted:

Shouldn't liberals be the most concerned about Islamic fundamentalism, given that the things they profess to value are the first things they would lose under Islamist pressure? It's hard to avoid the conclusion that this sort of liberal hates political conservatives and orthodox Christians more than he loves his own liberty. And he wishes to cling desperately to his own self-image as a defender of the poor, oppressed minorities, even when some of those poor, oppressed minorities would just as soon see him and his kind swinging from the gallows.

Substantially correct. But if I may quibble, 'Islamic fundamentalism' may not be the right term. A fundamentalist, as I understand the word, is one who interprets the scriptures of his religion literally, as God's own inerrant word. Thus Islam, if I am not mistaken, holds that the Koran was literally dictated by God to Muhammad in Arabic. Whatever one thinks of fundamentalists in this sense, it seems obvious that they should not be confused with militants or terrorists. Although fundamentalists and terrorists are sets with a non-null intersection, there are fundamentalists who are not terrorists and terrorists who are not fundamentalists.

Bill certainly has a point, but I believe he's missing one I was trying to make. That's not surprising since I didn't make it clear. That is what I shall now do.

I used 'fundamentalism' rather than 'terrorism' for two reasons. First, almost everybody except terrorists abhors terrorism, and terrorists are a quite small minority of Muslims. But Islam today, whether in its Saudi-backed, Sunni-inspired Wahabbi theocratism or in its Iranian-backed, Shi'a-inspired theocratism, is effectively more "fundamentalist" than it's been in centuries. That is what I mean by "Islamic fundamentalism," which is perhaps better termed "Islamism." The vast numbers of Muslim fundamentalists or Islamists, whatever they may feel as individuals about terrorism, seem unable or unwilling to close ranks against the terrorists from their own ranks who claim to act according to Islam. Indeed, throughout the Muslim world, hatred of the West and of Christianity—indeed of almost any way of life that is not Islamist—is commonly preached and believed. That is a breeding ground for terrorists, not a basis for resistance to them on their home turf. But liberals seem unwilling to face the significance of that fact even when they acknowledge the fact in the abstract. They think that if we would just distinguish between the nice majority of Muslims and the small minority of nasty terrorists, treating the former as brothers and the latter as criminals, we could make the problem of Islamist terrorism go away. But the main root of the problem is Islamic fundamentalism itself.

The term 'fundamentalism' in this context does not just mean acceptance of certain religious beliefs in their literal sense. To breed Islamism it is necessary, but not sufficient, that most Muslims believe the Qu'ran to have been literally dictated by God in Arabic. What I mean by 'Islamic fundamentalism' is still more specific: the belief that violent jihad against non-Muslims, and even against the wrong kinds of Muslims, is a duty of Muslims given today's geopolitical situation. The purpose of such jihad is nothing less than the conquest of the world for the strictest brands of Islam. Liberals, specifically secular liberals, seem incapable of taking such a threat seriously; indeed, they seem much more concerned with upholding a PC multiculturalism that would embrace Islam and everything else, except of course any form of traditional Christianity. That is the proximate reason why the Islamization of Europe is proceeding apace with only token resistance from the natives. This is why American liberals can call for withdrawal from Iraq, leaving Iraqis to an all-out sectarian war and bequeathing a playground for al-Qaeda, while at the same time believing that our enemies would be less mean to us if we did so.

So, I should say that liberals ought to be much more concerned about Islamic fundamentalism. But I agree that a different term would have clearer connotations. So, how about "Islamism"?

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Reveling in ashes

My thinking about Lent has been stimulated by a trenchant criticism of The Episcopal Church made by an Episcopalian, an old college roommate and debating partner of mine who now blogs as RatherNot. Apropos of the favored themes of its current presiding bishop—an ex-Catholic who, of course, is not a bishop—RatherNot writes:
In the end, a church that emphasises questions and not answers will be the same church that emphasises blessings without repentance. Its message will indeed be union with God, but union on our terms, not His.
Now the Catholic Church in this country has not quite got to the point where questions are emphasized more than answers. But to judge from how things are in most parishes and dioceses, we certainly do see a great deal of blessing without repentance. There is relatively little repentance by anybody, from the top on down. A great deal is wrong; but what's wrong is almost always "their" fault, whichever "they" happens to be in the crosshairs. And so the questions, though frequent enough, are less troublesome than the refusal to accept what the answers demand of us individually. The problem with American Catholics is that few seem to feel the need to repent in light of their faith and be converted to their own faith.
I myself am very bad at Lent, the season in which the Lord's call to repentance and conversion comes to the liturgical fore. It begins in mid-February, when I'm so sick of winter that I'm almost desperate for sensory consolations and seek them more than usual. Even the modest self-indulgence I can afford allows me at first to forget what a wretched sinner I am; but of course, once the knowledge returns, I feel myself to be all the more wretched a sinner for ignoring Lent. Then I decide that such scruples are unproductive; so I become less scrupulous than I need to be, and the cycle starts all over. But I've found a way to short-circuit such spiritual childishness. Perhaps some could benefit from hearing about it.

As I've hinted before, one of my favorite prayers is a paraphrase of Galatians 2:20. To our Lord Jesus Christ, I pray daily and more than daily: "Let it not be I who live, but you who live in me." I know of few formulae that serve as well to focus my mind on what the Christian attitude should be all the time. On our own, we are hopeless and useless: so warped by the effects of original sin, our own sins, the sins of others, and just plain misfortune that we have no power to become what God created us, in love, to be. It is with certainty that I know this of myself, but I am not unique. We all of us can only attain our destined glory if a new "subject" takes the place of what we are: one that is still "I," yet not I, because it is Christ living in and through me. That must be our goal, striven for by grace through the prayer, self-denial, and charity we are enjoined to show during Lent. The old, unviable "I" must be killed so that it may be resurrected in the new one destined for eternal life.
The ashes of Ash Wednesday serve, or are meant to serve, as a salutary reminder of that. It's easy to sniff at the "ashes-and-palms" crowd who only come to church for such freebies; but many, I'm sure, preserve a residual sense of the symbols' meaning. That's something to work with. Still, as we fall fall short of acting on that sense, we can and should seek strength from Jesus in the desert. His prayer at various times in the wilderness, as a facet of the great Mystery that is his Pasch, is what has made it possible for us both to recognize our poverty and primal solitude and to be enriched and befriended by God himself. Yet the latter is inseparable from the former, which must somehow precede it.
That's why I revel in the ashes most Catholics will receive today. They keep me from forgetting the order of spiritual priorities. But this Lent, I go further. I ask for the grace to revel in the ashes that are my life, as a reminder that the more I let myself be reduced and emptied for the sake of being filled by the Holy Spirit, the more of his love, power, and glory I will be able to exhibit for others.
Care to join me?

Monday, February 19, 2007

Progressing to ecclesiological debate

There's a Scylla and a Charybdis in interchurch discussions, as in so many other kinds of discussions. As always, we must steer between both if we are to progress to the level of debate.

The Scylla is starry-eyed but vacuous talk of impending unity. A good example of that is the article today by Ruth Gledhill, religion correspondent for the London Times, entitled "Churches back plan to unite under Pope," the churches in question being the Anglican and Catholic. Such vacuity has necessitated almost immediate "clarifications" from the principals. One hears the air seeping from the balloon; one has heard it all too often before. Wishful thinking never dies; it just gets pricked when it becomes too puffed up. This sort of ecumenism might just be, in the words of the redoubtable Dr. William Tighe, no more than a matter of "jobs for the ecumenical boys." The trial balloons collapse every time, but the industry keeps on floating them. How else to keep the gravy train going in the form of conferences and expense accounts?

By contrast, said Dr. Tighe has recently posted a very sagacious article at Pontifications about the Thirty-Nine Articles as a basis for intra-Anglican unity today. To make a long story short, not much basis there if there ever was. The article has justifiably attracted the attention of prominent English clerics, Catholic and Anglican. That is timely because today is also the day when the Anglican primates' powwow in Tanzania has issued its final communiqué. That document, while honestly facing up to the centrifugal forces within the Anglican Communion, concludes with a vague proposal to find another mechanism for preventing schism. No mention of the Thirty-Nine Articles or anything later—save the bureaucratic "Windsor Report"—that might serve the same purpose. Well, at least such world-weary temporizing is further from Scylla than vacuous unrealism.

But then there's Charybdis. I note that Perry Robinson has replied at length, as co-author at Energetic Procession, to my criticism of him in my post Ecclesiological Heckling. One of his many statements was to repeat an old Orthodox slogan: "Better to live under the Muslims than to wear the cardinal's hat." And this from a man who is outdone by no Christian blogger in opposing Western dhimmitude in face of today's jihadism—rightly, I might add. The rest of Perry's post is written in pretty much the same spirit. What can I say, save res ipsa loquitur and Kyrie, eleison?

In the combox to that post, however, there is a more calmly argued if no less uncompromising rejection of Catholicism also made in response to my prior post. It comes from somebody who calls himself "Fr. Patrick" and who is quite clearly Orthodox. Although he evidently desires partial anonymity, I would not be at all surprised if he turns out to be an American-Orthodox cleric and intellectual well-known in ecumenical circles. Both the style and the quality of argumentation are familiar to me as being of that level. Fr. Patrick's argument is as far from Charybdis as the Anglican primates' communiqué is from Scylla: not as far as we need to be, but further than we see all too often. It calls for a reply.

In support of my criticism of Perry's use of the Vincentian Canon, Brandon of Siris wrote in my combox that St. Vincent of Lerins
...put [the VC] forward as a guideline for how we individuals can interpret Scripture in conformity with the Church -- namely, by taking into account the confession of the whole Church (everywhere), respecting the interpretations of our holy predecessors in the Church (always), and sticking as much as possible to those truths that have achieved a consensus among bishops and teachers of the Church (by all). So it's a very odd thing to use as an ecclesiological criterion a guideline for interpreting Scripture that already presupposes the Church as its reference point.
In contrast, Fr. Patrick wrote:
...the rule is to determine what is heresy and what is not, so it still applicable today. It presupposes the Catholic Church but it doesn't require one to know which body that is at the present time as long as some such body can be identified in the past and possibly exists in the present. The point of the Canon is to determine which group is teaching the Catholic Faith. As a Protestant I used the rule intuitively to find the tradition of Scriptural understanding and then found the Catholic (Orthodox) Church with it. I also rejected both Protestantism and Roman Catholicism by it as not continuing in the Catholic Faith and Tradition as shown by the historical evidence just as the rule intended. I did effectively ascertain what is the Catholic Church by applying the rule logically independent of my then ecclesiological commitments.
The difference between my position and Brandon's on the one hand, and Fr. Patrick's on the other, is logically subtle but extremely important. According to the latter, successful application of the VC presupposes only that there is a Catholic Church, somewhere or sometime or other, which affords the rule's extension. The former, on the other hand, assumes also that one must know where and what said Church is in order to apply the rule successfully.
What's wrong, I believe, with Fr. Patrick's construal of the VC is its premise: that one can and should identify the content of the Catholic Faith apart from knowing what and where the Catholic Church is, in such a way as to enable one to identify what and where the Catholic Church is. On such a showing, the content of the Faith is epistemically independent of its embodied locus; otherwise, one could not learn the former without knowing, specifically, the latter. That is precisely the premise I have consistently rejected in my writings on ecclesiology, mostly here. I reject it because, if it is true, then both Catholicism and Orthodoxy are false.
Both Catholicism and Orthodoxy hold, as part of the deposit of faith, that "the" Church, whatever and wherever she is, is the Mystical Body of Christ which, as such, shares in the teaching authority of her divine Head. Accordingly, any theological investigation that purports to identify the full, unsullied deposit of faith while prescinding from the question what specific body is "the" Church is an exercise of private judgment in the end—not merely in the beginning, where we must all begin. As such, it reduces faith to opinion—in this case, one's opinion about which body most consistently upholds the Faith, whose content one presumes to identify reliably in advance of knowing just which body is "the" Church.
Fr. Patrick's judgment is that the Orthodox Church is that church. That, after all, is why he is Orthodox. In his eyes, his judgment carries the certainty of faith because the evidence as he sees it actually "disproves" Catholicism:
St Vincent's rule in its very existence and form disproves Roman Catholic doctrine by its very absence of mentioning Rome as an authority and test for Catholicity. If among all those, that he talked with to ascertain the rule, the rule, as always mentioned, did not mention the place of Rome, in Magisterium, as now taught in Rome, which is: "In order to preserve the Church in the purity of the faith handed on by the apostles, Christ who is the Truth willed to confer on her a share in his own infallibility. By a supernatural sense of faith the People of God, under the guidance of the Church's living Magisterium, unfailingly adheres to this faith." [The quotation is from Vatican II's Lumen Gentium. —ML] I conclude that such a doctrine did not then exist. The present doctrine is inconsistent with the rule because instead of universality, antiquity and consent one only needs to look at Rome as it is now. So Rome has introduced something new and different, hence it fails the test of catholicity. Its doctrine was not taught in, or consistently with, antiquity and hence Rome does not teach the Catholic Faith without addition or subtraction, so it cannot be the Catholic Church.
But Fr. Patrick's certainty is unjustified. He assumes that what is not explicitly and consensually clear across what all acknowledge to be normative sources would be an innovation if asserted, and thus would constitute addition to or substraction from the deposit of faith. His position is thus a kind of fundamentalism. It differs from Protestant biblical fundamentalism only by admitting a carefully calibrated selection from the Fathers to the fundament. As such, and like its cousin, it assumes that development of doctrine as the Catholic Church now understands it to be is something more than and different from what the Catholic Church now understands it to be, which is a process of making formally explicit what was always materially present in its fullness but not, formally, explicit. Fr. Patrick's assumption, which is common but by no means universal in Orthodoxy, is fundamentally question-begging because making it entails already rejecting the magisterial claims, and thus the authority, of the Catholic Church. But worse still, by applying the VC in a way that prescinds from the question which communion is the Church, it can yield only private judgment. That such judgment in this case maintains itself in a decision for Orthodoxy is irrelevant. It remains what it is.
I do not of course claim that Orthodox profession as such need be like that. In general, it is every bit as much a manifestation of divine faith as Catholic profession; in some individual cases, even more so. But the type of argument against Catholicism that Fr. Patrick and certain other Orthodox use only ends up hoisting them on their own petard. And so it's not as distant from the ecumenical Charybdis as it needs to be.

Pansexualism—and what to do about it

I'm pleased to note that one of the best Orthodox bloggers, The Ochlophobist, has lately been shifting his concern to the sexual front in the culture war. Last week he began a promised series about Orthodoxy and contraception, and quickly expanded that into a larger discussion about our "pansexual" time. So far, the latter could have been written just as well by a neoCath; I concur entirely with his assessment of both issues' importance, and mostly with his moral intuitions. But at the outset, I'd like to contribute to the discussion with an observation and a brief bibliography.

The observation is that there is a problem with the lack of consensus, both within and outside Orthodoxy, about the immorality of barrier as distinct from abortifacient methods of contraception. It seems to me that, once one allows the possible liceity of actively and deliberately suppressing the procreative aspect of conjugal intercourse, one undercuts the case against sodomy. One is reduced to saying that, while inherently non-procreative sorts of sexual act are intrinsically evil, making sterile an act that might otherwise be fertile can sometimes be OK. That's a distinction which has always left me scratching my head; ever since it was widely accepted among Christians, including Catholics, back in the 1960s, the effects on our culture have been inevitable. And they were predicted with chilling accuracy by Pope Paul VI in Humanae Vitae. One often encounters the distinction in conservative Protestant circles, of course; indeed it's no accident that I've never been able to find an argument for it that does not appeal, in the end, to sola Scriptura. But that option is not and should not be open to Orthodoxy. Catholicism has a magisterial understanding of natural law that, in John Paul II's "theology of the body," is effectively integrated with biblical personalism. But the Orthodox seems averse to those ideas too. And so I don't see an effective theological underpinning for the distinction in question.

The bibliography is two books written by Catholic women in response to the culture of casual sex, a culture referred to among young people as "hooking up." Since males are less victimized by said culture than females, it's both inevitable and important that the majority of authors directly critiquing it be women, and that such women offer positive alternatives.

One such book is by Catholic convert Dawn Eden: The Thrill of the Chaste: Finding Fulfillment While Keeping Your Clothes On. I've referred to it before on this blog, and it's gotten some modest attention in the secular MSM. Now, the book which has informed Och's most recent post is Laura Sessions Stepp's Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both, which is also worth reading; it's serendipitous that, at her own blog last Saturday, Eden notes how one college senior quoted by Stepp has apparently taken her cue from Eden's wisdom if not from Eden's book itself. Let's hope the serendipity is a sign of synergy.

My other book recommendation is Jennifer Roback Morse's Smart Sex: Finding Life-long Love In A Hook-up World. It's somewhat less personal and more academic than Eden's and, for that reason, will probably sell less. But it has the distinct advantage of utilizing unassailable research. Morse's site can be found here.

Even if you don't agree with my "observation," you must surely agree with The Ochlophobist and the authors cited that the pansexual culture, especially among young people, is hugely destructive. It erodes and, in many cases, destroys the capacity for the kind of self-giving love that cements lasting marriages. The cultural wreckage is all around us, and the secularists are absolutely clueless. Just as in Roman times, the impetus for repair must come from Christians united by an inspiring vision of sexuality that is also firmly grounded in Tradition.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

The objectivity of love

Like good poetry, the proverb "love is blind" is creatively ambiguous. Limerence, which only the young and foolish believe to be love, can make people quite remarkably blind; but the proverb ordinarily means that those who love each other tend to discount the depth of each other's flaws. For many people, marriage and especially parenthood cure that. The daily demands and gritty realities of family life dissipate the erotic haze in which most people marry and, by calling for sacrifice, expose and test their true character. Such is the objectivity that explains why the real work of love so often begins with falling out of love. Of course sound marriages—there are still some left—will integrate passion with sacrifice . And it helps that babies, our own flesh and blood, are cute. But all that is still, quite recognizably, natural. Today's readings at Mass remind us that the greatest love is unmistakably supernatural, and thus all the more objective in both its perspective and its scope.

David did not kill King Saul when he could easily have done so, even though Saul had been trying to kill him. For he asked, rhetorically, "who can lay hands on the LORD’s anointed and remain unpunished?” Here we see the primitive reverence for "the other" based on the "fear of the Lord," which is the "beginning of wisdom." But that is only the beginning. Jesus takes things a step beyond that:

Do to others as you would have them do to you. For if you love those who love you,what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them.And if you do good to those who do good to you,what credit is that to you? Even sinners do the same.I f you lend money to those from whom you expect repayment,what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners,and get back the same amount.

But rather, love your enemies and do good to them, and lend expecting nothing back; then your reward will be great and you will be children of the Most High, for he himself is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

Thus we are not merely to treat others fairly because we fear a just God; we are to treat others mercifully because we are called to be children of a merciful God. And God's mercy is utterly objective. It is on offer to all; it heals if we accept it, which starts with acknowledging our need for it; and in lawlike fashion, it remains with us if, having accepted it for ourselves, we show it to others. Of course the others don't deserve it. Neither do we. If we or they deserved it, it would not be mercy.

For many reasons, the mercy of which Jesus speaks has never been popular and seems less so than ever today. Indeed, the objectivity it requires is impossible for us on the natural level. We want justice, which we think of as objective and impartial; we nurse grudges and look for a chance to "get even" unless or until we get justice, or what we think of as justice. But of course, any kind of human justice is at best an imperfect facsimile thereof, and often isn't justice at all. We blame others and excuse ourselves too readily; when we blame, even when blaming ourselves, we are slow to forgive; even when we forgive, we are slow to forget. Ultimately, such attitudes are not true to reality and thus not objective. For this life is not about what we think of as justice; remember all the innocent who suffer and all the wicked who prosper. No, this life is about salvation, which is the mercy that transforms. The justice God will show to the wicked is what they do to themselves by neither accepting nor showing mercy. That will be manifest to all on the Last Day.

But what is this mercy which most of us want for ourselves and are called upon to show others? When Jesus says "Judge not, lest you be judged," does that mean we are to pretend that evil is not, objectively and undeniably, evil? So it is often thought in today's dictatorship of relativism, when being "judgmental" is one of the worse social faux pas one can commit—unless those being judged are the stock "oppressors" of a duly accredited group of victims, in which case failure to judge is one of the worst social faux pas one can commit. But Jesus' meaning is both sterner and gentler than that.

It is generally acknowledged among Christians that we are not to make any definitive judgment of a person's culpability for their sins. It is even grudgingly acknowledged that we must always be eager to forgive. And that's part of what Jesus means. What is not generally accepted, or realized, is how hard it is to be merciful despite such acknowledgements. In my observation, problems persist between people mostly because of unforgiveness. We say to ourselves: "He's done it before. If you cut him any slack, he'll do it again. And again." People being what they are, he probably will—at least for a time. So we seek to protect ourselves and our loved ones: we either don't forgive at all or, if we forgive after a fashion by letting go of the deadly sin of anger, will maintain a cool distance that precludes real reconciliation. But Jesus makes clear that, if that's how we treat others, that's how God will treat us. And we don't want that, of course: we want mercy for ourselves and justice for others. In other words, self-protection. But that is not objectivity; it is not the kind of love we are shown and are called to show; in the final analysis, it doesn't even protect us. What it's after cannot be had and can only be sought counterproductively.

To love God and each other as we are loved by God, which is our vocation, requires that objectivity which can only come when we turn a statement of St. Paul's into a prayer: "Let it not be I who live, but you who live in me." To the extent we pray that sincerely, the prayer will be answered. That in turn will bring us, inexorably, a joy which we otherwise become too cynical to expect.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Ecclesiological heckling

In a post I unfairly called "defensive" a few days ago in my own post Parasitic Catholicism, Fr. "WB" of Whitehall really gave eloquent and sensitive expression to the intellectual dilemma of educated Anglicans who want to be Catholic but find themselves unable to think of the Catholic Church as...well, as the Church. Having read enough of Newman and others to be familiar with the issues involved in that dilemma, I did not find any new theological arguments in Fr. WB's post; but I was deeply impressed with both the sincerity and the subtlety of his mind. That is why I was all the more struck by the speciousness of an argument, offered by one of the commenters, for rejecting the idea that the Catholic Church is the Church.

Orthodox philosopher Perry Robinson, who seems to be growing ever more radical in his dislike of natural theology, development of doctrine, and certain other ideas ordinarily associated with Catholicism, wrote in the combox as follows on our present topic: "The Vincentian Canon refers to all apostolic sees since in them the deposit of faith was made personally by the Apostles. Rome then isn’t Catholic any more than the Anglicans." Here is yet another argument that the Catholic Church is not the Church: she's not the Church because she isn't Catholic. In effect, her very name is deceptive.

This is the sort of thing I call "ecclesiological heckling." Admittedly, some Catholic apologists, wrongly, treat Orthodoxy in the same way. But two wrongs don't make a right; and in light of Vatican II's development of ecclesiology, the attitude in question has been steadily receding among Catholics in favor of recognizing Orthodoxy as a communion of true, particular churches. When arguing against Protestantism, for instance, I myself consistently stress that a Protestant, even one of the Anglican variety who thinks they're Catholic, should not merely supersede private judgment and make way for the virtue of faith, but can do so as well by becoming Orthodox as by becoming Catholic. The difference between the latter two branches of Christianity, it seems to me, is a difference of degree within the same kind; whereas both differ from Protestantism as faith differs from opinion, so that the difference really is one of kind. The gravamen of the arguments Fr. Al Kimel and I offer against Anglo-Catholicism—i.e., against the theological option well-represented by Fr. WB—is precisely that, lacking embodiment in a church that is historically and doctrinally continuous with the apostolic church, Anglo-Catholicism is a creation of private judgment and therefore a form of Protestantism. But Perry's argument implies pretty directly that Catholicism itself is in no better a position vis-à-vis private judgment than Anglo-Catholicism. The argument is so specious that it tells only as a heckle.

Perry premises a tendentious interpretation of the 5th-century Vincentian Canon, whose invocation in contemporary theological polemic I rejected a few months ago as "sloganizing." The present premise is an example of what I have in mind. The VC states: "Now in the Catholic Church itself we take the greatest care to hold that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all. That is truly and properly 'Catholic,' as is shown by the very force and meaning of the word, which comprehends everything almost universally." Now that is obviously untrue if taken fully literally; some qualifying interpretation of it has to be given if its original, contextual meaning is to be explained fairly, and I gave that interpretation in my earlier post. Specifically, one needs to know what counts as "the Catholic Church" in order to know what the relevant logical extension of "everywhere, always, and by all" actually is. According to Perry, what relevantly counts as the Catholic Church for VC purposes is the set of sees founded by the Apostles. Now, was it literally true in the 5th century that each and every such see was always orthodox according to the VC? Of course not. At that time, the apostolic sees of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem, as well as that of Constantinople, had been falling in and out of what even Orthodoxy considers heresy for at least a century. So if the VC is usefully applicable at all, it is applicable only to that communion of churches which, as "the" Church, had remained in the true Faith indefectibly. And which Church was that?

The question cannot be convincingly answered simply by an historical appeal to what this or that collection of sees, even apostolic sees, had "always" held. It can only be answered, if at all, by a theologically prior identification of what counts as "the" Church, so that the unfortunate heresies sometimes infecting this or that occupant of such sees do not weigh against identifying the relevant collectivity, the Church. But that identification, of course, is precisely what is at issue here. Accordingly, there is no convincing way to apply the VC while remaining ecclesiologically neutral. What counts as "the Catholic Church" for purposes of ascertaining how VC should be interpreted cannot be effectively addressed by interpreting and applying the VC in a manner logically independent of one's ecclesiological commitments. Use of the VC to call into question the catholicity of the Catholic Church, or of the Orthodox Church for that matter, is sheer question-begging. That's exactly why I do not spend time arguing that Orthodoxy is not catholic. There is no criterion of catholicity, in terms of which the respective ecclesiologies of Orthodoxy and Catholicism can be judged, that is neutral with respect to those ecclesiologies.

That fact is indeed one of the major reasons why some very intelligent, well-informed, and spiritually serious Anglo-Catholics are unimpressed with the claim of either the Roman or the Orthodox communions to be "the" Church. I believe such Anglo-Catholics to be mistaken, and I have elsewhere explained why. But they are not going to be helped beyond their Protestantism with arguments against Catholicism that very little effort is needed to expose as worthless.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Why I hate Valentine's Day

I can't think of a single good reason for the to-do. The main beneficiaries are florists and other retailers.

If you're a man with a wife or girlfriend, heaven help you if you don't get the holiday right. Gals, take my word for it: most men hate Valentine's Day. Many are politic enough not to admit it; some are even self-abnegating enough to provide a convincing display of liking it. Any way they look at it or get through it, though, it's still pressure.

If you're a person of either sex who doesn't have a "Valentine" and wish you did, the holiday rubs it in. Worse if if you don't really want the Valentine you have, or at least can no longer think of them in such terms.

The only people for whom today is neither pressure nor a bummer are those so in love that they don't need a special day set aside for that. But they get one anyway, and their enjoyment of it does more harm than good for the rest of us—save, of course, for those whose pleasures are primarily vicarious. But you wouldn't want to be one of those.

Andy, you're dandy

I admit to having had little use for Andrew Sullivan: an ostensible Catholic and conservative who favors gay marriage and occasionally gets hysterical when the Church reiterates this-or-that which has been taught ab initio. (That he's gay himself is irrelevant.) But I must also admit to being impressed by his ongoing joust with atheist apologist Sam Harris. The latest installment repays a full read.

I myself haven't bothered overmuch with the Harrises and the Dawkinses because their arguments are no better, no more original, and no more numerous than those which I had heard in various bars and dorm rooms by the time I was a sophomore at Columbia. But dealing with those guys is a dirty job that somebody has to do for the sake of protecting the gullible. I'm glad Andrew Sullivan is doing it. He may yet redeem himself.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Parasitic Catholicism

Fr. Al Kimel of Pontifications has posted an especially trenchant piece of that title. It's a response to the defensive reaction of Anglican priest "Fr WB" of Whitehall to a passage from 19th-century Orthodox theologian Alexei Khomiakov's critique of Anglicanism and private judgment. Khomiakov's critique was essentially the same as Newman's, and elicits from Fr WB the same sort of reaction that many of Newman's Anglican contemporaries had to the great convert's critique. Read Fr. Kimel's article. It sums up a great deal very economically.

I myself have written in the same vein for Pontifications, regarding both Anglicanism in particular and Protestantism in general. Since my primary interest is in nominal Catholics who think like Protestants, I invite Catholics and Protestants to check out those writings if you haven't already. Indeed, it is sometimes thought that the sort of argument given by Newman, Khomiakov, Kimel, and myself is distinctively Catholic. Fr WB seems to think that, if we're right, then Anglicans who really want to be Catholic—as distinct from privately imagining themselves to be Catholic—should immediately "pope." But I don't think that follows; they could "dox" and achieve essentially the same result, as evidenced by Khomiakov himself. Of course, as a Catholic I think they could achieve it more thoroughly by poping than by doxing; but the essential move away from Protestantism to the true Faith will have been made all the same.

The move is simple. It is one from having religious opinions that, for the most part or even entirely, happen to be true, to one in which one has supernatural faith by virtue of submission to an ecclesial body deriving its teaching authority from Christ himself. The former is parasitic on the Faith and the Church; the latter is the virtue by which one adheres to the Faith taught infallibly by the true churches.

Triadological diagram, anyone?

One reader of this blog has proposed, by e-mail, the above diagram for the "hypostatic" as distinct from "energetic" side of the triadology I've been trying to develop in aid of harmonizing Western dogma with the faith held in common during the first millennium. (The sketcher remains unnamed unless and until he seeks otherwise.) I have read in a few places—though how true it is I do not know—that back in the ninth century the great opponent of the filioque, Patriarch Photios of Constantinople, produced his own diagram, which consists of simply the top two lines above without the bottom two.

Even before I knew the history of the filioque issue or even what was meant by the phrase, I had always assumed that, within God, generation and spiration must have something to do with each other. It just couldn't be that the breathing forth of the Spirit had nothing to do with the generation of the Son. God is not compartmental like that. And indeed, I learned in college that such has been the Latin belief since the issue came up. But I've also and always assumed the converse: the generation of the Son must also have something to do with the breathing forth of the Spirit. Only a few years ago did I start coming upon theologians, Catholic of course, who had the same idea. Amazingly, none of the writings in question seem to predate the mid-20th century. Such is development of doctrine, I suppose.

Development of diagrams, at least for blackboard purposes, sometimes goes with development of doctrine. The above diagram one will do, even though adding the perichoresis would require color-coding and 3D. Thanks, dear reader.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

The empty tomb and the full womb

From today's second reading, 1 Corinthians 15: 12, 16-20:

"But if Christ is preached as raised from the dead, how can some among you say there is no resurrection of the dead? For if the dead are not raised, neither has Christ been raised, and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is vain; you are still in your sins. Then those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiable people of all. But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep."

Now, how can any Christian hear that and not believe in the bodily resurrection? Easy: redefine the Faith as a collection of religious opinions. Everybody's got some, and they can always change. In the West at least, that's what all too often passes for Christianity.

No wonder the Muslims reproduce and we don't. We have the content of the Faith but rarely the corresponding virtue; they have a greater measure of the virtue than of the Faith. As one Catholic blogger puts it, the next few centuries are going to be very interesting. I hope enough Christians are around to be interested.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

The "war on terror" and "the culture of death"

I concluded my previous post by deploring the relative inattention Catholic bloggers pay to the war with militant Islam, or "Islamism" for short, which is still misnamed in many circles as "the war on terror." The Vatican still seems more concerned with interreligious "dialogue" than about the prospect of Western defeat, even as NATO fights a resurgent Taliban and the Islamization of Western Europe proceeds almost inexorably. It's a systemic problem meriting further analysis and discussion.

Intelligent Catholics were not so torpid during the millennium that started with Muslim armies conquering much of the Christian world and ended with the Ottoman defeat at the gates of Vienna in 1683. That's because the fate of Western Europe sometimes hung by a thread during those ages. That the thread never snapped depended as much on hard-eyed realism, and the natural virtues of courage and fortitude, as on divine intervention. Near Tours in 711, Charles the Hammer put to flight a larger, better-organized Muslim army marauding beyond Spain through France; had the invaders conquered, the return of civilization to Western Europe would not have been Christian. The tenacity of the Spaniards and Portuguese never went unnoticed, or unsupported, as they fought to drive from the Iberian peninsula a Muslim occupation that would otherwise have engulfed them; they fully succeeded only after seven centuries, in 1492, after even the Crusades had been turned back. In 1565, the "Great Siege" of Malta by the Sultan's forces ended in their disastrous retreat, but only after truly astonishing heroism by the vastly outnumbered defenders, most of whom were knights from throughout Europe, nearly all of whom were killed; had Malta fallen, the Catholic navy at the equally important Battle of Lepanto six years later would never have had the opportunity to confront their Muslim enemy, much less to win as miraculously as they did. Indeed, what is now called "modernity," as well as that aspect of it which is known as the Counter-Reformation, would otherwise have been swiftly derailed. So why, after all that history, are so many smart Catholics so complacent about resurgently militant Islam?

In a comment on my previous post, "Dim Bulb" wrote:

[T]hat those who pimp for the culture of death would align themselves in some way with a "religion" of death and destruction disguising itself as Islam should shock no one. The former kill children in the womb, while the latter blow them up on buses. Both do it on the pretext of freedom from oppression. Both present themselves as victims to justify their atrocities. And are we not now seeing in this country, under the influence of Jim Wallis and with the support of people like Hillary Clinton, the rise of the "religious left?" One group has perverted a religion to justify its death-pedaling, the other is attempting to do the same.

Now most of the Catholic bloggers I have in mind do not belong to "the religious left," and therefore to the Western culture of death that DB has so eloquently described. But said bloggers overlook that the Western culture of death is the secular version of the Muslim culture of death. Both cry "freedom from oppression" while citing the wrong people as victims in order to "justify the atrocities." That, at a deep level, explains why the religious left seems relatively tolerant of, if not actively sympathetic to, jihad just as it once was regarding Communism. I intuit such parallelism as the work of one and the same staff office in hell. Authentically Catholic bloggers, I fear, don't see this because they are not attuned to the strategic picture of spiritual combat. Even the best Catholics are no longer trained to interpret events in terms of the cosmic if residual struggle between Christ and Satan. So, like the FBI and CIA prior to 9/11, they don't connect the dots.

Unless more of us start connecting them, the West will lose that two-front war whose aim is the complete destruction of what's left of Christian civilization. After the 20th century's culture of death known as totalitarianism, in which the Nazis, Fascists, and other nationalists on the Right were evil in the same ways as the Communists and other nationalists on the Left, we have no excuse. Each contemporary wing of the culture of death must be opposed with equal resoluteness. Onward, Christian soliders! And if the Left, whether religious or secular, wants to reject that idea as "theocracy" even as they counsel retreat from the real theocrats, so be it.