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

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Is the truth too dangerous?

One of my favorite movie lines is Jack Nicholson's, in the person of his character Colonel Jessup in A Few Good Men: "You can't handle the truth!" That's true of most of us at one time or another. It might even be true of most of us most of the time. There's only so much truth we can handle, and it's not close to all the truth—at least when the topic is ourselves. I suspect that that fact underlies a theological misconception which, in turn, motivates a pastoral error more common than is generally realized.

Following St. Alfonso Liguori, most priests have been taught that three conditions on a given act must obtain in order for the act to count as a "mortal sin": grave matter, full knowledge, and full consent. 'Grave matter' refers to the objective moral quality of the act: a wrongful act counts as grave matter just in case it is intrinsically and thus objectively wrong, whether or not the sinner knows that. What counts as grave matter is typically easy to identify given the teaching of the Church and the wisdom of the race. Full knowledge is clear knowledge that the matter is grave; full consent is the uncoerced choice to perform the act in light of full knowledge. Sounds reasonable; and rightly understood, it is. But there is a difficulty.

Some theologians have held that full consent is rarely given to acts known by the agent to constitute grave matter. The argument goes roughly like this. If and when one knows the matter to be grave, then one knows the best reason not to do the corresponding deed; people do not desire what they know to be evil, but only what they believe, rightly or wrongly, to be good; so it seems likely that, when they do something of a sort they know to be objectively wrong, they are doing so in virtue of some influence on the will which diminishes their freedom and thus precludes full consent. Hence mortal sin is rare. Arguments like that motivate such theories as that of the "fundamental option," according to which mortal sin occurs not so much with the commission of this or that objectively wrong act, but only with a clear and explicit choice against God—a choice that might manifest itself in such acts, but not itself be constituted by the sorts of act they are in themselves.

The philosophical difficulty with the fundamental-option theory (FOT) is fairly obvious and decisive. If the more traditional view is correct, then any act which is intrinsically and thus objectively wrong just is a sort of act which, if done with full knowledge and consent, entails the exercise of a fundamental option against God. That is precisely why, in order to avoid begging the question, FOT advocates need the premise that full consent to such acts is rarely given. But if full consent is rarely given, inasmuch as people do not desire what they know to be evil, then a fundamental option against God is probably the least likely candidate for an option freely undertaken. Nothing could be more irrational than standing before God, knowing him and his will according to classical theism, and saying "No" to him. So if the moral psychology on which FOT relies were correct, then the fundamental option against God seems too irrational to elicit full consent, and hence cannot be said to be exercised at all. This is why, in my experience, most FO theorists end up as universalists. Perhaps many were so from the start. They just can't believe that, at the end of the day, there are people who defy God freely and knowingly. Hell is too irrational a choice for anybody to be held accountable for making it. There must be some exculpating factor that would allow escape.

Since, as John Paul II pointed out, FOT is incompatible with the definitive teaching of the Church, we need not linger over it further. My concern is with the premise that full consent to what is known to be grave matter is rarely given. One logical consequence of such a premise is that, the better one knows the correct moral theology, the less capable one is of mortal sin. That consequence is manifestly untrue, and I trust I don't need to cite examples. Sound moral theology can help arm one against sin, and sometimes does help; but it's by no means enough; what counts for more is prayer and character, which can be facilitated by moral theology but can also develop without it. That's a logical reductio of the premise that full consent is rarely given to what's known to be grave matter. And then there's experience to cite.

There's a crucial fact usually overlooked by those who uncritically apply the Liguorian conditions: people can be and sometimes are culpable for lacking full knowledge of the wrongfulness of what they do, or propose to do. Countless are the cases when people can and ought to know better than they do, but they don't because at some level they have chosen not to. Whole societies can be swept up in that: e.g., Germany in the late 1930s, or Rwanda in the mid-90s. Thus, even when the Liguorian conditions for full knowledge and consent are lacking, there can be and are cases where full consent has been culpably withheld from the task of acquiring, or maintaining, full knowledge. Thus the sinner can be just as guilty as they would be if the conditions were clearly met at the time the obvious sin is actually committed. Rationalizations abound, and by no means are they all involuntary.

In my observation, however, many confessors and moral theologians fail to notice or give credence to that fact. They don't believe it worth asking whether the sinner can be guilty at some operative level below the one on which the sinner consciously operates at the time the sin is committed. Or, if it does occur to them to ask such a thing, they are reluctant to bring it up with the sinner. This phenomenon is very common in the area of sexual sin. A lot of Catholics fornicate and contracept without believing such things are wrong; some do so while having had every opportunity to learn the objective truth, which they prefer to rationalize away as a matter of private opinion. Faced with that, some confessors see nothing to be gained by insisting on the truth, even by presenting arguments for it. For in many such cases, the process by which lust commands the will, and with it the intellect, seems too far advanced to allow for true repentance in light of full knowledge. That is why, as I said in a post earlier this week, some priests fear raising people to a level of knowledge that would make them more culpable for rejecting the truth than they would be otherwise. Better to leave such folks ignorant while hoping that they learn something in the school of hard knocks. For the time being, they just can't handle the truth.

Of course there are many other reasons for soft-pedaling, if not altogether ignoring, the full truth. Truth that can't be handled is unpopular; those who press such truths usually get into trouble. Priests like that often get into trouble with their local chancery, and soon find their hopes for desirable assignments quashed. As for laymen, I can't tell you how many times I've been dismissed as a neurotic, or as one dead before his time, for choosing celibacy as a spiritual path after two divorces, even though I'm not required to make that choice. Most of the people I deal with day-to-day assume that I ought to fornicate, because I can—if only before I marry for a third time, cavalierly expecting hope to triumph over experience. Many of the people who make that assumption are, I'm ashamed to admit, Catholics. All I can say after rolling my eyes is that we live in a society that has lost its moorings about sex, and that there's more of society in the Church than one would like to see.

Personally, I'd feel much better about life if I had one-thousandth the opportunity for the seminary that I have for fornication. That the ratio is even less auspicious than that is a truth I can't quite handle yet.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

How much can one get away with disbelieving?

It's a relief to see that the one serious critique (so far) of my previous post on Luke 13: 24-30 comes from Scott Carson, a man I greatly respect as a Catholic and a philosopher, and whom I can thus engage as somebody with whom I share the same basic belief-commitments. With that understood, I don't think he'll mind my pointing out that his criticisms of my position are very similar to those I've encountered before—mostly from non-Catholics—and that my replies are accordingly similar to the ones I've made before.

First, Scott says [emphasis added]:

I think there's much to agree with in Mike's post--for example, I agree that some Catholics accepting or rejecting certain Church teachings appears to be more a matter of convenience than anything else, and it also seems to be true to say that religious belief has become something of a pro forma matter for some. But taking note of such social phenomena is, I think, a dangerous background for the interpretation of passages such as the one on offer, which was clearly aimed at Jews who assumed that adherence to the letter of the law was a sufficient condition for the virtue of piety.

It's worth noting that I had already conceded that "[o]n an obvious, historical level, Jesus seems to be speaking about certain Jews of his day...Not a few Jews of Jesus' day rejected him despite having eaten and drunk in his company and heard him teach in the streets. And Jesus duly warns them." But I know of no exegetical evidence that, in the passage at issue, Jesus was addressing primarily those Jews who thought "adherence to the letter of the Law" sufficed for "the virtue of piety." He was referring to those who, by how they lived, would be rejecting his message; the two classes overlapped, but were by no means coextensive; and it is at the very least possible that many members of the Church are to be found in that latter class. Indeed, when we read Scripture as addressed to the Church—which is what the four Gospels are, among other things—we must go beyond the obvious, historical level even as we acknowledge its meaning as the "literal" sense.

Second, Scott says:

It seems to me that there is often a danger, in attempting to explicate passages such as this Gospel or other passages having to do with "getting into heaven" or "avoiding hell", of treading too closely to what amounts to a kind of spiritual utilitarianism. It seems that analyses such as the one Mike offers make out heaven as a kind of reward for good behavior, hell a kind of punishment for bad, when in fact it seems to me that a more sophisticated analysis would see both in terms of standing in a certain sort of relationship with God, that is, a state in which a particular soul can be more or less in communion with God.

If I understand him rightly, I entirely concur with Scott that heaven and hell should be understood primarily as ways of speaking about how a person will ultimately stand in relation to God. Indeed, the passage of the Gospel on which I had been meditating, along with several related passages elsewhere in the Gospels, includes a number of extended metaphors on Jesus' part. In that vein I treat "getting to heaven" is a metaphor for finding oneself, after death, in a definitive state of loving communion with God; by the same token, I treat "going to hell" is a metaphor for finding oneself, after death, in a definitive state of rejection of God. Hell is for people who prefer it to living on God's terms; heaven is for those who prefer God's mercy and love to their own sins. But like the former, the latter preference is no mere velleity; it is a firm orientation of the will that requires, among other things, repentance. Yet it is not exactly easy to repent of actions, or attitudes, that one fails to see as wrong. Hence, knowing the relevant right from wrong is rather important for coming into and remaining in communion with God—or, if one prefers the metaphor, "getting to heaven." After all, "if you love me, you will keep my commandments"; we can't love well if we don't know what love requires and what love excludes. So the questions then become: what are the relevant commandments, and how important is knowing them?

If we read Luke 13: 24-30 as addressed to the Church, then believers know the relevant right from wrong in two ways: reason and revelation. Reason inclines us to know the natural and thus universal law inscribed in the hearts of all; revelation, as conveyed to us primarily through Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium of the Church, tells us all the rest we need to know of the eternal will of God for us. To the extent one knows the relevant precepts of reason and revelation, one is accountable for living by them. Since, as sinners, we cannot live by them on our own, we need the grace of God won for us by Jesus Christ. But in order to be duly empowered by grace to live as we are called to, we must admit not only the need for grace but also what grace is needed for. If a believer voluntarily rejects some precept of the natural law or divine revelation, then in that respect they are not admitting what grace is needed for, and hence are unlikely to be empowered to live well in that respect. It's not just that the more demanding the precept, the less able we are to observe it on our own power; people being what we are, the more demanding the precept the more likely we are to find reason to exempt ourselves from it. To the extent we exempt ourselves from it, we reject the divine authority with which it is given to us, and thus love God the less. That is why acceptance of the entire yoke of God's love is a necessary condition for finding it light. Conversely, the less we love God, the less in communion with him we are, and the more burdensome we find his yoke.

That, to my mind, is the most common spiritual danger today among believers. It has not always been so, of course: there have been some periods and quarters in the Church when overscrupulosity posed a greater danger than indifference or selectivity. And one can always find such individuals in any period. But I don't think it can be seriously suggested that overscrupulosity is the greater danger today. The greater dangers are indifference and, worse, a rationalizing selectivity. And that is what I felt the need to warn about.

Yet Scott says [emphasis added]:

I think it is also too common, at least in certain quarters, to use passages such as the narrow gate passage to frighten or even coerce those more-or-less believers into "accepting" things that they may not be quite ready to absorb fully into their hearts. I'm not sure what that kind of acceptance really amounts to in the end, and as long as we're approaching the matter in such a utilitarian way I'm not so sure I see the utility of scaring people into "belief" by threatening them with hellfire. For one thing, it reeks of a variety of fundamentalism that is particularly distasteful, the kind that walks around wearing placards that read "God hates fags".

I find that rather odd. St. Paul says [emphasis added]:

Do you not know that the unjust will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators nor idolaters nor adulterers nor boy prostitutes nor sodomites nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God.

Is this a "particularly distasteful" form of "fundamentalism," no better than that exhibited by people "wearing placards that read God hates fags?" Is it really incompatible with Jesus' message of love? St. Paul, after all, was the apostle keenest to stress that it is by grace alone, not by our own laughably puny merits, that we are saved; and he was always urging Christians to love one another. That much understood, I think Scott would agree that the message here is that those who voluntarily persist in serious sin will not be saved. And that is because such persistence is incompatible with bearing the light, easy yoke of Jesus: the yoke of true love of God and neighbor. Basing myself on that message, my point has been that people who refuse to recognize this or that kind of serious sin as serious sin are putting themselves in grave jeopardy. They cannot repent of what they don't recognize as sin, and hence they cannot receive the grace that is both required for and entailed by repentance. Thus, they could well be refusing the grace needed to enter by the narrow gate and putting themselves on the wide road to perdition. I know so because I have done so in my own life, and I do not predict that I never will again.

Scott's concern is for people who are "not quite ready to absorb" this or that difficult precept "into their hearts." He seems to think I'm being unduly harsh on them. But I believe he's failing to acknowledge a key distinction, and failure to observe it can be disastrous in a pastoral context. Since I can't talk about everybody in a "pastoral context," I shall speak only of Catholics.

Some Catholics who don't accept this or that definitive moral teaching of the Church—call it 'DMT' for short—are nonetheless sincere in their desire to follow Christ through his Church and to grow spiritually. In such a Catholic, failure to accept DMT can be due to any one or more involuntary factors. Perhaps nobody has ever explained it to them. Perhaps the spirituality of the person who did explain it to them was repulsively toxic. Or it might just be that they haven't yet learned to love enough to know, in their heart, just how T expresses and calls for the sort of love Jesus taught and exemplified. I agree with Scott that threatening such people with hellfire is typically useless and often counterproductive; the solution in such cases is more learning, both intellectual and spiritual. But that's not the kind of Catholic for whom my warning is meant. My warning is meant for two other kinds of Catholic.

One kind is the sophisticated cleric or theologian who produces finely wrought rationalizations for rejecting DMT despite having been given every tool and reason for knowing better. Such a person sets themselves up as part of a magisterium opposed to the Magisterium. It is just such people for whom the classic formula "let him be anathema" (Galatians 1:9) is meant. They are heretics; if unrepentant, they will be severely judged. And they need to hear that in one way or another.

The other kind is the Catholic who, though not a heretic in the above sense, is perfectly content with being deceived by heretics. Unlike the first, sincere sort of Catholic, they are not well disposed enough to learn what they need to in order to accept DMT. They think they'll get away with disbelieving DMT, and perhaps much else. They think they're perfectly fine as they are, thank you very much, and they don't need a bunch of sex-starved old men in the Vatican to tell them otherwise. Well, they aren't and they do. And sometimes they need a good jolt to learn that—the kind that Jesus delivered in the passage we've been discussing, and the kind that I've received more than once in my own life.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

The line between assurance and presumption

Today's Gospel passage in the normative rite of the Latin Church is what got me thinking about yesterday's topic, about heretics and "trusters of heretics." Specifically:

Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.

After the master of the house has arisen and locked the door, then will you stand outside knocking and saying, 'Lord, open the door for us.' He will say to you in reply, 'I do not know where you are from.' And you will say, 'We ate and drank in your company and you taught in our streets.' Then he will say to you, 'I do not know where (you) are from. Depart from me, all you evildoers!'

And there will be wailing and grinding of teeth when you see Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God and you yourselves cast out.

This and other passages pretty much rule out asserting universal salvation, i.e., that everybody will make it to heaven. To be sure, it is not formally heretical to allow for the possibility of universal salvation; in a relatively trivial sense, that possibility holds; for its holding is logically compatible with what has been irreformably taught by the Church. Since Christ's Passion is sufficient for all, everybody can make it to heaven. But I don't think Scripture and Tradition are hospitable to the idea that everybody actually does make it to heaven. It seems much more likely, given Jesus' language in particular, that some people will be damned. (For a good overview of this topic, see Cardinal Dulles' article "The Population of Hell.") But what's most interesting to me is the sub-population the Holy Spirit seems to have in mind in the present passage.

On an obvious, historical level, Jesus seems to be speaking about certain Jews of his day. Assuming he himself is the "master of the house," he has himself saying someday to certain people in the parable "I don't know where you come from," banishing them permanently from the household of God they want to enter. Not a few Jews of Jesus' day rejected him despite having eaten and drunk in his company and heard him teach in the streets. And Jesus duly warns them. But it's never that simple. The Lord's words apply as much to the future, to his Church, the new Israel, as to those present when he walked the earth. It is quite conceivable that some who are baptized, who are raised in the true Faith, who go to church and take communion often, will find themselves being told at the end "I don't know where you're from. Depart, evildoers!" Some people who are formally in the Church, the household of God, are not followers of Christ in their hearts, despite claiming to be and having a velleity, as distinct from a will, to do so. And they show that by how they live.

I think that phenonomenon is at least as common today as it's ever been. Legion is the number of people who claim to be Christian, of whatever variety, but who live lives indistinguishable from that of your average unbeliever. Legion are the Catholics who claim to believe what the Church teaches, and might actually do so up to a point, but only so long as it doesn't cost them much beyond a fin in the collection basket. For such Catholics, religion only goes so far; it becomes a different matter when following the Church's teachings on, say, social justice and/or birth control will cost us dearly. Then we come up with all the arguments we can—if we can be bothered with arguments—that such teachings are only matters of opinion, and therefore optional, and therefore safely ignored. Keeping religion out of the boardroom and the bedroom, after all, is so much more mature and realistic; it would be irresponsible, if not actually sick, to get too rigid about these things; and so on. We've all heard it before.

Such are the lives and attitudes of the people I think Jesus is advising to "strive to enter by the narrow gate." Actually, none of us are strong enough to do so; we should take that as a given. But if we don't even strive to do so, under the power of grace, then the grace that is always on offer won't "take." What's sufficient objectively for salvation, namely, what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, will not be enough subjectively. Many so-called believers fail to observe that distinction. When the failure is culpable, they cross the line between the assurance of salvation and the sin of presumption.

Those who sincerely put their faith and trust in Jesus Christ will indeed be saved. But there's a much misunderstanding of what that kind of assurance means. Among both Protestants and Catholics (I cannot speak knowledgeably about Orthodox), it is very common to assume that if you more-or-less believe and are a more-or-less tolerable human being, you will be saved in the end. As a result, many of us have little spiritual life to speak of; the effort and the self-abnegation hardly seem worth it if, without them, you can still make it through that door before the Master closes it. Yet Jesus' words supply no justification for that approach to life. The question we really need to ask ourselves is not so much where we are as what direction we're headed in. "Many of the first shall be last, and many of the last shall be first." If we think where we are is somehow good enough, then we're not headed in the right direction. And the longer we postpone a change in direction, the harder it gets to make the change. Some of us will probably find, in the end, that we have presumed too much for too long, and that it is now too late.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Heretics and Trusters of Heretics

Brandon at Siris has commented on a valid and important distinction made by St. Augustine. I want here to explain both why the distinction is important and at what point it ceases to matter.

Augustine says:

If....a heretic and a man trusting heretics seemed to me one and the same, I should judge it my duty to remain silent both in tongue and pen in this matter. But now, whereas there is a very great difference between these two: forasmuch as he, in my opinion, is an heretic, who, for the sake of some temporal advantage, and chiefly for the sake of his own glory and pre-eminence, either gives birth to, or follows, false and new opinions; but he, who trusts men of this kind, is a man deceived by a certain imagination of truth and piety.

It is safe to say that nowadays, and perhaps even back then, the majority of Catholics "trust" heretics, and pretty much for the reason Augustine gives: not because they recognize them to be heretics, but because they are "deceived." Hosts of ordinary Catholics uncritically glean opinions from people such as Marianne Williamson, Deepak Chopra, Dan Brown, Elaine Pagels, and even Joseph Girzone, to name just a few. With the possible exception of Brown, those people are plausible and, in their own several ways, attractive. Girzone is a retired priest whose novels give us a Jesus many of us prefer; that Jesus is plausible because he's enough like the One and Only to be reassuring but not so much as to be threatening. I've even seen Williamson up close: she's a knockout; as a healthy male, I want to believe her even when I can't. I understand the appeal of such people, most of whom have made a fortune peddling their ideas. But that's rather the point. To borrow a phrase from Rupert Murdoch, an unabashed man of the world whom I admire as such, what it's basically all about is "giving the people what they want." There's a huge market for this stuff, and many Catholics prefer it to what they get, or perceive they get, at church.

The problem thereby posed is that most Catholics, whether adolescent or adult, are hard to educate and form as Catholics. Ideas fundamentally incompatible with the authority of the Church, or with the content of what's proposed by such authority, are packaged and marketed much more appealingly than the truth and are aborbed almost by osmosis from the hyperactive media culture. Accordingly, a great many Catholics don't even understand what you're talking about when you talk about the Magisterium, orthodoxy, the Hypostatic Union, and so on almost ad infinitum. For them, all that sort of thing is an historical curiosity at best, an interesting academic exercise that might be worth taking seriously only if the clergy actually made a point of it. (Dorothy Sayers had some entertaining, and quite pointed, observations on this in Creed or Chaos?) This is why it's no good condemning such people as heretics. They don't know enough of the truth to be accounted morally culpable for rejecting it. And that, I suspect, is the reason so many clergy rationalize their failure to present the whole truth and challenge Catholics with it. They fear raising people to a level of knowledge that might actually render them morally culpable for rejecting what is irreformably taught by the Church. And so, hordes keep marching right up to communion without even believing—never mind living—even half of what the Church has thus taught.

Then there are people whom it is hard to believe are inculpable. I mean the aging, intellectual heretics who sort of stay in the Church and retain a strong following among their generation of Catholics: Hans Küng, Joan Chittister, Charles Curran, Rosemary Reuther, even Luke Timothy Johnson, to name just a few. The energy of such people and their followers is the passion with which they reject what was, in their youth, the recent past; they still speak with the voice of a Zeitgeist slightly beyond its sell-by date; yet the residual appeal and confidence stem from the sophistication, which masks the sophistry, of their arguments. Consequently, many Catholics in their 50s, 60s, and 70s trust such people far more than Rome; as Fr. Neuhaus says, dissent "is the tradition of which they are the traditionalists." Much of the difficulty even today in forming Catholics arises from the fact that many of the personnel who are, or would be, formators were formed by such intellectual leadership. Of course we needn't worry about that too much and too long. Young people are not inspired by "progressive" Catholicism, which by and large has become sterile and cynical. Progs certainly produce fewer babies and priests than their intellectual peers among the orthodox.

And so I don't think the problem is what to do with the real heretics. Both individually and demographically, they excommunicate themselves. The problem is what to do with the people who, remaining faithful to the Church by their best lights, trust heretics they are too ignorant to recognize as such. Telling such people they're ignorant won't win their ears; the only solution is to present the full, undiluted truth in ways that actually engage what most people hear and are subtly sold.

I hope you're game for that. I am, whether or not I get to earn a living at it. But I think I'd be more believable if I did!

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Objectivity, abortion, and vocations

Communion and Liberation's annual Rimini meeting opened on Monday with the theme: "Truth is the destiny for which we are made." This notion of a Truth-capital-T which is everybody's destiny is the notion of a great objective truth that is a Person; our relativistic age is sometimes willing to grant that as a hypothesis, but never as a certainty. Yet one of the things I love about CL is that such a wildly countercultural theme is actually celebrated: with unrestrained music, lots of food, and not a little joshing as well as with a keen, prayerful awareness of how hard it is for us to let Truth Himself take over our minds and hearts. Love of and from Christ is palpable at CL gatherings—the small ones as well as, apparently, the yearly big one. This year's theme brings some specifics to mind.

The Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, has got the meeting into the MSM with an opening speech containing yet another criticism of Amnesty International for supporting legal abortion for rape victims in war zones. Like her disapproval of condom use by married couples for AIDS prevention, this stance of the Church is virtually incomprehensible to non-believers and to not a few believers. People wonder how can anybody with a heart could possibly oppose the availability of the choice of abortion for women who have conceived by being raped. In response, Cardinal Bertone is absolutely right to point out that, while "the Church is absolutely opposed to all forms of violence against women," she "cannot accept violence against the innocent child. Violence and injustice, he said, cannot be overcome by more violence and injustice, but only by the conversion of hearts." But such a response falls on generally deaf ears because subjectivity, at least for women, reigns supreme today. In the case of conception by rape, the child is a desperately unwanted intruder making use of a woman's body against her will. Since there are few if any violations of a human person's autonomy greater than rape, a violation which is augmented when conception occurs, the natural repulsion a woman feels is thought to justify at least giving her the legal choice to kill the intruder. The suggestion that the intruder is also an innocent person whom it is objectively and intrinsically wrong to kill is treated, in comparison, as a mere opinion—an opinion which a woman has the right to hold, if she chooses, but just as much right to reject. What matters is how she thinks and, even more, how she feels—not any moral duty that she might conceivably owe the life within her regardless of how she thinks or feels.

Whether in this particular form or more generally, the abortion issue is currently the most salient example of how Truth has been brushed aside as our objective destiny and reduced to individual opinion and feeling. The result of such an attitude, for nearly a century, has been the biggest waves of mass homicide in human history, of which abortion is not the least. Yet even many Catholic politicians believe we are not supposed to lift a finger to prevent the abortion holocaust because, on the conventional wisdom, what really matters is what women believe and feel about what happens in their own bodies—not what's true, regardless, about the life within their bodies. Such politicians conveniently ignore the fact that there are good non-sectarian arguments against their position; but Bertone is right that only conversion of hearts to Christ can change the underlying attitude.

From a male perspective, I believe the same phenonomen of contemporary subjectivity helps to explain the decrease of interest in the priesthood since Vatican II. Ironically, a bit of subjective narrative serves to explain that in turn.

First, the two subjects that far and away interest me the most are God and the Church. I have never been interested for long in any secular profession. I do not reject such professions, at least the morally legitimate ones; after all, God calls most men to them. What makes me unusual, I suppose, is that God and the Church interest me the most precisely because, as a Catholic, I believe they are objectively the most important realities of life. God is Being Itself, which is thus and also a triune communion of persons; the Church is that visible reality across space and time, heaven and earth, which as the Mystical Body of God the Son is meant to incorporate us into said communion. If one believes such assertions, I've always felt, why wouldn't one find the designated subjects more interesting than anything else? I realize that most believers don't, even when they have the time and leisure to do so; and far be it from me to condemn that. But I must admit that I don't quite get it.

Another reason I don't get it is that the Church actually needs more people with attitudes like mine. Consider the priesthood. I believe that the objective power and importance of the ministerial priesthood makes it the greatest vocation a man can have. It's not the "robes and rituals" as such that attract me; those are the outward, aesthetic symbols, which have their small appeal but are purely ancillary. What attracts me is the essence of the sacraments: the fact that the sacraments administered by priests, chiefly the Eucharist and Reconciliation, transmit the presence and transforming power of God ex opere operato—i.e., through the very thing done—rather than ex opere operantis—i.e., through the doing of it by this or that man. When a priest confects the Eucharist, it is the risen Christ himself who replaces the bread and wine on that altar as a living sacrifice of praise to the Father for our salvation. When a priest pronounces absolution, it is that same Christ who is absolving us. The grace and power that only a priest, by God's mysterious design, can transmit by such means are there whether we believe or accept it or not; so long as the priest intends what the Church does in the sacraments, their power does not even depend on his own virtue. It is the utter objectivity of the inestimable gifts given us through the priesthood that I find so compelling and attractive. For that reason I've always wished I had the vocation, even though at this point I must admit I don't. But there don't seem to be many Catholic men out there today with a similar attitude. The very idea that the priesthood is something inestimably powerful and noble for its purely objective reality is lost on most Catholic men in our society precisely because it is lost on most people in our society. The values of most Catholics seem to be formed more by the surrounding secular culture, with its emphasis on subjective gratification, than by what the Church objectively embodies. Is it any wonder that the ratio of priests to laity continues to shrink?

Whether we're talking abortion, the priesthood, or the Christian life generally, the biggest step in the right direction is the first step. By how we think, live, and above all love, we must preach to the world that Truth Incarnate, Jesus Christ, is what life is all about—and that he is what he is regardless of what the world thinks and feels about him at any given time. What ails the Church is that is not often enough kept in view, in a world that hardly has it in view at all.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Why don't we care more about freedom?

As a young man, I was a Republican of the libertarian sort. I believed that the sole duties of government were to defend the borders, enforce contracts, and punish those who victimized others by force or fraud. Once government went beyond those duties, I believed, it would inevitably swallow up more and more of our liberties until freedom meant little or nothing. That is exactly the path that government in America has been following—with popular consent to be sure—since the New Deal. I shall say a bit at the end why I'm no longer a libertarian; but I still think one can and must protest against the steady erosion of freedom in our country. What really scares me is why more people don't do just that.

The latest example of what I decry is this set of subtle moves. They're part of a trend that is all the more insidious for being bipartisan. It's about forcing people to do what's right. Thus, another part of the trend is taxes: more and more of people's earned income goes to paying taxes, which are extracted by the not-so-implicit threat of force. All for the public good, right? The needs of "the people" are enormous, right? Yet in the form of income tax, sales tax, Social Security tax, gasoline tax, and car tax, at least a third of my own quite modest wages go to the government—not counting child support, of course, which is only slightly less. I'm supposed to believe that such a rate of taxation is for my own good, which I don't believe at all. Yet many people pay much more, and not a few of them think we should be paying out at this rate, if only because we can't think of a more creative and humane way to satisfy the apparently insatiable demand that things be made right. Meanwhile it's the little things that often rankle, and reveal, the most.

The sales tax is particularly noisome to me not because it exists—consumption taxes, in my view, should be government's main source of revenue, with income taxes reserved for the wealthy—but because of how it's collected. Nearly every day I have to fiddle with pennies, which cost more to produce than they're worth and are useful for no other purpose, just to pay the sales tax "to the penny," because merchants are forbidden by law to include said tax in the price of what's sold. The system is enormously inefficient, but it persists because it allows people to maintain the illusion that they're being ripped off less than they would be otherwise. Totally irrational—just like what's happened with family law, which I've discussed before but see fit to bring up again.

Because of the divorce culture, government is now in the business of regulating the family lives of countless people. Non-custodial parents, mostly fathers, are often reduced to peonage; single parents, mostly mothers, often and also need this or that government service to get by. Fatherless children are much more likely to become crime statistics than those from intact homes. What's astonishing and frightening to me is that most people don't seem to see enough wrong with such a state of affairs to want to take concrete steps to change it. Sure, most people say divorce is a Bad Thing, especially for children—but most also say that a bad marriage is worse. So, most of us want the freedom to replace our spouses but see nothing wrong with the ceding of family authority to government that this often entails. Apparently, such a loss of freedom is considered a worthwhile price for the preservation of freedom to pursue the often-receding prospect of sexual and emotional self-fulfillment. The irrationality of it ought to be, but apparently is not, widely perceived. Hope triumphs over experience, indeed; too bad it's the wrong sort of hope.

People seem to think they enhance their freedom if they "pursue happiness" unfettered in some private sphere while "the government" takes care of the rest. Yet the more we grasp at personal freedom so understood, the less of it we end up with. Such is the logic of sin. Starting with Eve, Satan has always made disobeying God seem like an exercise of godlike freedom; yet the more alienated we become from God in how we live, the greater slaves to sin, and thus to Satan, we become. That's why I'm no longer a libertarian: I now believe the government must uphold the entire natural law, else people will stop caring about it. The only way to preserve our freedom is to obey God. Then there will be less need to try to force each other to do what's right. But then we'd have to give up the illusion of control. Maybe that's why we don't care more about freedom.

Next time I fly, I'll wear my Crocs to the airport. For some reason, the TSA hates it when I doff those things.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Not a Nice Guy

I don't mean me; I've never been thought of as a "nice" guy. At least I've never been called one to my face. I mean Jesus. Many people prefer a nice-guy Jesus: a dreamy, effeminate idealist who can be safely consigned, if not to actual irrelevance, then at least to the realm of sentiment, where he serves to soften the hard edges of life without rudely interfering with the activities of the boardroom and the bedroom. Much popular religious art reinforces that image of Jesus. But today's Gospel is one of the passages that does not sanction it.


I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing! There is a baptism with which I must be baptized, and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished!

Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. From now on a household of five will be divided, three against two and two against three; a father will be divided against his son and a son against his father, a mother against her daughter and a daughter against her mother, a mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law."

I was once called "divisive" by a prog priest for saying that I loved this passage and explaining why. Had that fellow grasped the irony of what he said, he would not have said it. I hope he grasped it later, in prayer.

The reason I love this passage is its clear implication that those who follow Jesus must draw a sharp line in the sand that will not be erased with the soft passage of time. I don't mean the obvious line we draw against certain kinds of felonies; among Nice People Like Us, that is uncontroversial. I mean the line to be drawn between Truth and Untruth. That is controversial. For just as in the ancient Roman Empire, relativism is popular today as the default option for getting along with people who are different: what's "true for me" is not "true for you," as they say; I'm OK and you're OK. To be sure, that attitude is often appropriate when we're dealing with matters of taste. It is sometimes appropriate even when we're dealing with disagreements about the best means to attain agreed-upon ends, which is really what many political disagreements are about. For sometimes there is no single "right" resolution to such issues. But when it comes to ultimates, such an attitude will not do at all. If Jesus really is what Scripture, Tradition, and the teaching authority of the Church together present him to be, then the only appropriate attitude toward him is complete faith and surrender, which entails being baptized with suffering. That was the life, and death, of many of the early Christians. And if Jesus is not what they collectively present him to be, then the only appropriate attitude is to dismiss him as one more deluded would-be messiah, even crazier than the ones the Romans brutally crushed both before him and after him—though without, as in Jesus' case, the active collusion of the Jewish leadership.

There have been many attempts, mostly among modern, "scientific" biblical scholars, to evade that choice and thus to brush away the line in the sand. Thomas Jefferson, judicious editor of the Jefferson Bible, was a good example of how intelligent people can cut Jesus down to their own size. As an antidote to that sort of thing, I recommend the Pope's book Jesus of Nazareth. But evading the choice is not just an intellectual phenomenon. Because we are all sinners, we all do it sometimes in our own egregious ways and, more insidiously, our sneaky little ways. We make compromises all the time hoping, for example, to avoid trouble with that ol' mother-in-law Jesus alludes to. There are countless other compromises. Sometimes we compromise faith itself, because conformity to popular opinion, relativism, or just cynical skepticism wins us more points and costs us less than orthodox, undiluted belief. Always we compromise our virtue—or at least put off the development of virtue—because that's easier and more gratifying than dying to self so that He might live in us. And often we can't be honest with ourselves, or even with God, because we're afraid of paying the bill that fully facing the truth would present to us.

In anything pertaining to the spiritual life, we must prefer honesty to niceness. Of course we'd thereby create much division. But we'd be on the right side of that line in the sand.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Watch those trads

It is just as I thought.

In a recent interview, Bishop Bernard Fellay of the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X greeted Summorum Pontificum as "very significant historical event in the history of the Church and in post-Vatican II history." All well and good, that—as far as it goes. But that's not far at all. For it also becomes clear that this illicitly consecrated bishop, like his three colleagues, does not accept the ecclesiology of Vatican II and therefore rejects much of what Pope Benedict has in mind in liberalizing celebration of the Tridentine Rite.

Insofar as it addresses the question what bodies count as churches, that ecclesiology is crisply presented and summarized in a CDF document issued almost simultaneously with SP and obviously with the trad audience as much in mind as any other. As a hermeneut of continuity like the Pope, I've already expounded and defended that document. But here's the nub of what Fellay has to say about it:

In the declaration about the motu proprio, we insisted in saying that the confused excerpts of places in the letter show that the need to enter into theological discussions was reinforced very, very strongly by this document which is telling us that a circle is a quadrangle.

You have a perfect illustration of what we have said for 6 years. That is that Rome is continuing in a confusing way because they don't seem to give much care to contradiction and non-contradiction.This document seems to be a clarification of nothing but assuring once again that "Yes" means "No."

Q: Your Excellency, can you give us an example?

A: Sure. One example is precisely the question about subsistit...Why use the expression "subsistit in" and not "est"? [I've answered that. —ML] You read the answer and you conclude nothing. They say it is "est"and that there is an identity with the Church of Christ with the Catholic Church; and there is no change of doctrine. And then the next phrase is precisely a change in doctrine. So... It is a contradiction.

In his sermon in Ecône, Bishop Williamson said that in Rome they say something like two plus two makes four, but maybe it also makes five. And here you have a perfect illustration of that.The only positive thing [in the document] is about the Protestants which are now barred from the title of Church. Great! [Ed. Note: This doctrine on Protestant "ecclesial communities" has already been outlined previously by Dominus Jesus and other authoritative Church doctrinal clarifications.] Besides that, it is a confirmation of what we say. This text tries to tell us that there is no contradiction between the doctrine of the Church of the past and of Vatican II. And we insist by saying that Vatican II is in disharmony — is in contradiction — is even teaching error opposed to the traditional teaching, especially on ecumenism. And here [in this new document on ecclesiology] you have both sides put together; that is, the past and Vatican II.

As I said, it is just as I thought. The motu proprio will do little to bring the trad schismatics back into full communion with the Church because, for their leaders, the obstacle to full communion is not so much liturgical as doctrinal. Like the progressives they despise, such trads believe that the ecclesiological developments of Vatican II, taught and defended by the popes since, are fundamentally incompatible with what had long been presented as the settled and irreformable doctrine of the Church. The difference is that the progs like what they take to be that fact, and the trads dislike it. The progs think with the Church they still hope will evolve in the future; the trads think with the Church they still believe existed in the past. The more radical among both are thinking with chimeras. But that is always the way of schismatics.

As is evident from the text of SP, the Pope hopes that making the Tridentine liturgy—the one he first celebrated as a priest, and which is loved by not a few Catholics—more widely accessible to the faithful will lend momentum to a much-needed reform of that reform which was launched in the 1960s and 70s. Not content with making a theological case for continuity, he wants to foster a palpable sense of continuity. He is right. But that's not what the rad-trads have in mind. They want restoration, not continuity. They want to replace the Novus Ordo, not enrich it. They want to repudiate what is distinctive in the theology of Vatican II, not embrace it.

One must admit they're consistent, though.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Getting away with murder

Can anybody explain this in any terms other than the double standard?

I doubt that the victim's having been a minister had much to do with it. Then again...

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Feast of the Assumption

What I love about this feast is that it affords us a beacon of hope during the dog days, which have never been pleasant for most people in the so-called temperate zones and are worse than ever for students now that the academic year begins during them. As I worked in a 100+-degree warehouse this afternoon, it was that hope which buoyed me.

The hope is that we will be as the Mother of God now is: living forever in body, as well as soul, suffused by the glory of God. That is what the doctrine of the resurrection of the body holds out as the unimaginably blessed state of those who love their Savior in this life by keeping his commandments. ("If you love me, you will keep my commandments.") Thus the doctrine of the Assumption fleshes out the real point of Mariology, which is to "punctualize" in a real person what it is to be a disciple of Christ, and thus to facilitate our growth in that discipline. Mary was the first and foremost disciple of her divine Son; as such, the intercessions she makes to and through him are the most efficacious there are among those offered by mere humans. As even the Muslims recognize, truly she is the Mother of all as well as Mother of the Church.

I speak of the "point" of Mariology because it is so often missed even by those who, in their heart, really know it. By divine fiat Mary helps, more than any other member of the Mystical Body, to incorporate us into that Body, which began in her womb. Her "immaculate conception" in the womb of her own mother—i.e. her miraculous preservation from original sin—made her, in a unique way, what we all become at the moment of our baptism: a vessel filled with God's unmerited grace, which in the primary sense is nothing other than his divinizing love. The virginal conception of Jesus in her womb by the power of the Holy Spirit made her, in a unique way, what we are all called to be in virtue of our baptism: bearers of God in the flesh into the world. Her "assumption" into heaven at the end of her earthly life made her, in a unique way, what all the blessed will be on the Last Day. In every way her life anticipates what we are to be, and helps us get there by the very forms of the anticipation.

I have heard very few priests discuss or even note the fact that, in the only terms that ultimately matter, Mary is the most powerful of mere creatures. Unlike most powerful people, she is also readily accessible. You cannot go wrong if you seek her intercession, in faith and love and according to the teaching of the Church. You might not have an easy or gratifying life on earth; but to the extent you put yourself under her care and protection, you will stay on the path to your true destiny in God. I am convinced that, if and when I reach it, I will find that she had a great deal to do with it.

Salve Regina, mater misericordiae!

Sunday, August 12, 2007

The issues behind the issues

In an article on the First Things blog last week, Prof. Robert P. George wrote (emphasis added):

There are many profound respects in which our culture is in need of transformation. Work is needed in every sphere. There are two issues, however, that are so central to our future and, indeed, to the future of mankind that they must, surely, be given a certain priority. Both are on the table now and will be resolved—for better or for worse—in the next decade or so. Critical (possibly irreversible) decisions will be made in the next year or two. I speak of the issue of marriage and the complex set of issues sometimes referred to compendiously as “bioethics.” In respect of both matters, things will go one way or the other depending on the posture and actions of Catholics.

Having once briefly worked under Robby, and having continued to follow his work with stupefied admiration, I am obliged to agree with him that the political difference will be made by Catholics—if, that is, a difference is going to be made. But I am far from convinced that there is still time to make a difference. That is because the issues behind the ones he identifies as top-priority seem largely to have been decided—and decided wrongly.

In the case of marriage, the "developed" world as a whole has firmly adopted the premise that marriage is only what people collectively decide it is. That holds of the Anglosphere, which includes the United States, in particular. What is still understood to be "traditional" marriage—a lifelong union between a man and a woman, ordered to the transmission and maintenance of new life—is no longer assumed by our legal and cultural norms to be divinely instituted. To be sure, many tradition-minded believers of all major religions still maintain that assumption. Some even act accordingly. But in the public square, traditional marriage is now treated as just one option among others, just like one's choice of religion. Marriage as an institution is thus becoming something we may adapt at will, on the basis of ideas, preferences, and goals that make no necessary reference to a divine or even a natural law. That is the main reason why intentionally sterile marriages, no-fault divorce, serial divorce-and-remarriage, and even cohabitation without the formality of marriage are now more widespread than at any time since the pagan Roman Empire. That is why same-sex "marriage," currently opposed by the majority of Americans—who are, after all, still formed by the residual sentiments of tradition—is slowly spreading among nations and states. Ineluctably, it will gain well-nigh universal acceptance. So long as our legal and cultural norms assume that it is human choice, not "the laws of nature and of nature's God," that determines what marriage is to be, then what is called "marriage" will become more and more elastic, stretched to fit more and more forms of moral and spiritual absurdity defended by the buzzwords of "freedom" and "equal rights."

As for the array of bioethical issues that keep arising with the advance of science and technology, we can raise all the "ethical" objections we like to this-or-that practice made newly possible; but in the end, such objections cannot of themselves make much difference. I need not discuss specifics, such as pre-natal screening or human cloning; for the underlying problem is that there is no longer any common religious or philosophical framework in which to discuss such issues, and to which appeal could successfully be made to resolve them. The very terms of discussion reinforce the default impression that this array of issues is a matter of adjudicating democratically among competing ideas and beliefs—many of which have a certain plausibility, but none of which are ultimately more than just matters of opinion. So, amid the cacophony of competing opinions and Weltanschauungen, the irrefragable fact of what can be done ensures that all of it, eventually, will be done. And once such things are done, they develop too much of a constituency to make banning them politically realistic. Just look at what's happened with IVF.

All of this is the fruit of what I call "autonomism": the idea that human freedom entails the freedom to decide what the most fundamental norms of life are to be, a freedom constrained only by obvious considerations of physical reality and social utility. Now if autonomism could still be effectively reversed, Catholics would indeed be best placed to do the job. The pope and the bishops say all the right things, in theory; and they do have allies among the Orthodox, conservative Protestants, observant Jews, even Muslims. The Catholic Church is certainly pivotal here. But as Robby seems implicitly to recognize, the most the Catholic bishops can realistically do is "encourage, exhort, and cajole." That is not just because the political sphere is the province of the laity, which of course is true; it is because the bishops confront, among the Catholic laity themselves, the same autonomism that has gained purchase in the culture at large.

Among those Catholics who care enough to even understand Church teachings about marriage and bioethics—and such Catholics, in my observation, are not the majority—many regard such teachings as reformable, and thus as "take-it-or-leave-it." In other words, the teachings are treated as matters of opinion. That, I believe, is the most likely reason why why more American bishops do not withhold the Eucharist from Catholic politicians who support a so-called "right" to abortion. If they were to get tough about that particular matter, the ensuing storm of controversy would rightly raise the question why they don't get equally tough about other moral issues on which many Catholics, in theory or in practice, treat settled Church teaching as a matter of opinion and thus as optional. Marriage is quite high on that list of other moral issues: the divorce rate among Catholics roughly matches that of the general population, and many divorced-and-remarried Catholics receive the Eucharist without qualm or question. And of course there's contraception, a matter on which the vast majority of Catholics reject, in both theory and practice, a teaching of the Church which has not varied for as far back as we have records on the subject. I don't hear any bishops suggesting that loyalty to such teaching be made a litmus test of good standing with the Church. So, if they can't crack down on those issues, how are they going to energize Catholics who aren't already loyal to join forces with other religous believers about the issues Robby sees as so crucial? Even leaving aside the aftershocks of the sex-abuse scandal, the de facto moral authority—the street cred, if you will—just isn't there.

None of this is to say that I wouldn't want to join forces with people like Robby on such matters. I'd be on the side of light and truth, after all; in fact, this blog is my own small way of doing it. And if, in careerist fashion, I got a job out of the whole business, I'd have an interesting life to boot. But I believe that, in the end, only radical divine intervention will make much difference. Things have to happen that will shock people back into a sense of spiritual reality. I hope it won't have to be a combination of natural disasters, wars, and economic dislocations that would reduce us to a peasant-style existence; but I wouldn't be at all surprised if that's what it takes. In the meantime, let us keep saying what needs to be said; but above all, let us pray, do penance, and love one another. Drawing people back to God depends above all on his grace, light, and joy shining in our hearts and faces. In short: on our holiness.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

A voice from the cyber-wilderness

Apologies to my friends and the rest of my vast readership for not having posted in a few weeks. I keep meaning to, honest. But every night I tumble into bed before doing it. For one thing, I'm exhausted from working mostly outdoors in the heat. For another, my landlord cut off our Internet access, which had been in his name, when he moved to the West Coast to be with his girlfriend; and my roommates can't find a few extra dollars in their budgets to help me get it restored, even though I've offered them access to my computer for the purpose. On top of all that, I've been on a high-gear job search when not working my job. Perhaps I've just been on a divinely enforced vacation from the blogosphere.

But vacations end, almost by definition. I've got creative about getting Internet access; today I saved a draft of a post on the thesis of this article by Professor Robert George of Princeton, one of this country's most prominent intellectuals who is Catholic rather than CINO. You will get to read it tomorrow, after I've polished it up. Frustrated homilist that I am, I shall add a meditation on the Mass readings of the day. As and when I can, I shall also work through the backlog of material I've accumulated.

In the meantime, I ask my friends not to worry. Please pray that this latest chapter of my long job search, which I am certain is being fueled by the Spirit this time, ends with success.