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

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Secret disciples

The Gospels say that Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy and prominent Jew to whom Pilate gave Jesus' body for burial, was a disciple only "secretly, for fear of the Jews." It is quite conceivable that he was also a member of the Sanhedrin who had to maintain his cover by pretending to condemn Jesus along with the rest. We don't know, but it doesn't matter. The type appears today to teach us.

It turns out that that Mikhail Gorbachev, the last president of the Soviet Union, was only pretending to be an atheist, and did so for the sake of power. But despite Ronald Reagan's well-publicized suspicions, it still isn't clear that Gorbachev was actually a Christian by then. Years after the failed coup leading to the end of the Soviet Union, when he could freely have come out as a Christian, he seemed to come out only as a naturalistic pagan: "Nature is my god," he said at one point. The draw toward the truth since then appears to have been St. Francis of Assisi. Nobody who isn't close to Gorbachev can say just when that fascination set in, but again it doesn't matter. Nor does it much matter, really, whether he returns to the Russian Orthodox Church or becomes a Catholic instead. What matters is what Gorbachev's spiritual journey teaches us about grace.

If he really had been a Christian before now, then it would have been wrong for him to pretend otherwise. Christians under Roman persecution had faced this sort of issue, and we know how the Church handled it. I can well understand why Gorbachev would have found it useful to pretend, just as Joseph of Arimathea might have found it useful to do so. But having been baptized into an Orthodox church, and having had every opportunity to learn the fullness of the truth, Gorbachev would not have had Joseph's excuse. Consider a parallel. When asked why, given his views, he didn't become Catholic, the late popular philosopher Mortimer Adler, a Jew, replied to the effect that he wasn't ready to give up his favorite sins. That's honesty. Gorbachev may have been unready to give up the chance to make the Soviet Union a better place, but his position still implicated him in much evil. I wonder whether he was honest to himself about that. Yet given the available evidence, I doubt that Gorbachev was a true believer when he was president.

It seems more likely to me that he suspected that Christianity might be true, and also shared enough of its values to move his country toward respecting those values. He might not have wanted to go whole hog and actually make the assent of faith precisely because he wasn't prepared to pay the cost. If so, then in that respect he wasn't just like Mortimer Adler: he was like a lot of ostensible believers. A lot of us baptized fall into indifference or heresy because we don't want to pay the full cost of discipleship. A lot of us who are neither indifferent nor heretical still make major choices which constitute a refusal of discipleship. They can be sneaky sins, such as adultery, or they can be open lifestyle choices, such as materialism. Most Christians are like that and probably always have been. Proud of my knowledge of the faith and formal piety, I've been like that myself. What makes any of us better than Gorbachev was when he was one of the most powerful men on earth? Nothing. Nothing at all. The only question is whether we accept or refuse the invitation of grace when it is extended. Gorbachev may have accepted it more authentically, even as president, than many lifelong, orthodox, practicing Christians. After all, he did take grave risks and nearly ended up dead.

That's how grace works. One of Jesus' most devoted followers, who stood by him at the foot of the cross, was a woman named Mary who had been a great sinner. So had Matthew been, before he became a disciple and was elected to replace Judas as an apostle. The important question is not where you start from but where you're headed at the end. Sometimes, ending up in the right place involves starting by honoring God while he's dead.

Friday, March 21, 2008

The key to the riddles

It is certainly not surprising that the disciples were able to understand the meaning of the Cross only slowly, even after the Resurrection. The Lord himself gives a first catechetical instruction to the disciples at Emmaus by showing that this incomprehensible event is the fulfillment of what had been foretold and that the open question marks of the Old Testament find their solution only here (Lk 24:27).

Which riddles? Those of the Covenant between God and men in which the latter must necessarily fail again and again: who can be a match for God as a partner? Those of the many cultic sacrifices that in the end are still external to man while he himself cannot offer himself as a sacrifice. Those of the inscrutable meaning of suffering which can fall even, and especially, on the innocent, so that every proof that God rewards the good becomes void. Only at the outer periphery, as something that so far is completely sealed, appear the outlines of a figure in which the riddles might be solved.

This figure would be at once the completely kept and fulfilled Covenant, even far beyond Israel (Is 49:5-6), and the personified sacrifice in which at the same time the riddle of suffering, of being despised and rejected, becomes a light; for it happens as the vicarious suffering of the just for "the many" (Is 52:13-53:12). Nobody had understood the prophecy then, but in the light of the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus it became the most important key to the meaning of the apparently meaningless.

—from Hans urs von Balthasar, A Short Primer for Unsettled Laymen

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Blood and water

If we wish to understand the power of Christ’s blood, we should go back to the ancient account of its prefiguration in Egypt. “Sacrifice a lamb without blemish”, commanded Moses, “and sprinkle its blood on your doors”. If we were to ask him what he meant, and how the blood of an irrational beast could possibly save men endowed with reason, his answer would be that the saving power lies not in the blood itself, but in the fact that it is a sign of the Lord’s blood. In those days, when the destroying angel saw the blood on the doors he did not dare to enter, so how much less will the devil approach now when he sees, not that figurative blood on the doors, but the true blood on the lips of believers, the doors of the temple of Christ.

If you desire further proof of the power of this blood, remember where it came from, how it ran down from the cross, flowing from the Master’s side. The gospel records that when Christ was dead, but still hung on the cross, a soldier came and pierced his side with a lance and immediately there poured out water and blood. Now the water was a symbol of baptism and the blood, of the holy eucharist. The soldier pierced the Lord’s side, he breached the wall of the sacred temple, and I have found the treasure and made it my own. So also with the lamb: the Jews sacrificed the victim and I have been saved by it.

“There flowed from his side water and blood”. Beloved, do not pass over this mystery without thought; it has yet another hidden meaning, which I will explain to you. I said that water and blood symbolised baptism and the holy eucharist. From these two sacraments the Church is born: from baptism, “the cleansing water that gives rebirth and renewal through the Holy Spirit”, and from the holy eucharist. Since the symbols of baptism and the Eucharist flowed from his side, it was from his side that Christ fashioned the Church, as he had fashioned Eve from the side of Adam Moses gives a hint of this when he tells the story of the first man and makes him exclaim: “Bone from my bones and flesh from my flesh!” As God then took a rib from Adam’s side to fashion a woman, so Christ has given us blood and water from his side to fashion the Church. God took the rib when Adam was in a deep sleep, and in the same way Christ gave us the blood and the water after his own death.

Do you understand, then, how Christ has united his bride to himself and what food he gives us all to eat? By one and the same food we are both brought into being and nourished. As a woman nourishes her child with her own blood and milk, so does Christ unceasingly nourish with his own blood those to whom he himself has given life.

—from the Catecheses of St. John Chrysostom

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Theological boot camp

The few. The proud. The seminarians.

It's good to know who's training to defend our values. Enjoy.

HT to Francis Beckwith.

The Obamasaga

We all know by now what Senator Barack Obama's spiritual mentor is. Since I have nothing to lose, I'll say it: Jeremiah Wright is a racist hate-monger. Of course you won't hear the R-word in Obama's disavowal of Wright's views, or from Obama's savvier supporters. The candidate's way of finessing this problem is vintage Obama. If you haven't heard the speech already, you can hear it or read it here. It's a work of art. He's convinced me that he's not a racist hate-monger. It's also clear that he owes his mentor too much, personally and politically, to dump him altogether. Beyond Wright, that signifies the fundamental problem with Obama's candidacy. It is not about to go away. McCain should thank God on his knees.

When one listens to what Jeremiah and Michelle have said in unguarded moments, and have not retracted, only the most determined wallow in that river in Egypt can prevent one's concluding that the people closest to Barack do not love America. I shall charitably assume nonetheless that Barack does love America, deeply, and that he means everything he says about transcending the old polarizations and uniting Americans. The fact remains that, given both his base and his policy positions, he cannot transcend the old polarizations. His base consists of upscale liberals, blacks, and young people—a demographic coalition whose view of America is, on average, unquestionably dimmer than that of the country as a whole. They favor his policy positions precisely because those positions address what they dislike about America. So, in order to be the president he says he wants to be, Obama would have to stiff his base and triangulate his policy stances into unrecognizability. If he more-or-less keeps his base and sticks to his policy stances, then he cannot do and be what he tells Americans he wants to do and be for them. If he wants to be effective, in other words, he will either have to betray those who have gotten him where he is or make a mockery of how he has presented himself to the country as a whole. He cannot have it both ways.

But he keeps trying to. If people have any sense at all, they will not reward him for that. I used to think that was too big an 'if', but there are a lot of ex-liberals out there who can, and do, communicate good sense to their fellow citizens. Sample this and this delightful illustration of that. And pray.

That little black spot

Most literate folk are familiar with the Yin-Yang symbol. I don't want to get into a discussion of what Yin and Yang really are, or are supposed to be; that is a topic for comparative religion, and Gagdad Bob is better qualified to handle it in a way I would respect. By way of introduction to my real topic, however, I note that when I first saw the symbol, I thought that it was intended to represent the relationship of good and evil in human beings. Thus, there's a little bit of good even in bad people (the little white spot) and a little bit of bad even in good people (the little black spot). I am told that such is a common misimpression among undergraduates. I am reminded of it by a post I've just read by a man who calls himself "janotec" and seems to be an Orthodox cleric, even perhaps a theologian.

The post appears at the blog "Second Terrace" and is entitled Orthodox theologians do not speak in tongues. It is an impassioned yet reasonably well-argued plea for Orthodox theologians to expound dogma more and worry less about meeting the so-called "challenges of the age." With one qualification, I wish that I had written that post myself as a plea to Catholic theologians, whom I am better positioned to address. The qualification is that I object to the following two sentences, which unfortunately appear near the beginning:

A long time ago, when Orthodoxy got too conservative (or seemed that way), relevant philosophers who "responded" to "contemporary challenges" forged a nominalism that made Grace a far less frightening thing, and intellectualized it into something less than a phenomenon. Too, the West could now take its ethics in spoonfuls, in casuistic legerdemain.

For me, that kind of thing is like the little black spot: a stain on what would otherwise be dazzling white. I want to explain why so as to contribute, in my own small way, to an eminently desirable goal: getting Orthodox and Catholics to preach the Gospel effectively in today's world not only with the abiding resources of the Great Tradition, but with better mutual understanding.

The problem with the above-quoted little passage is not that it is altogether false. It contains an important element of truth. The problem is that it rhetorically lumps in something of the bad with something of the good which may be found within the theologies of something called "the West"—a term of art which, in Eastern-Orthodox parlance, means that part of Christendom which, for well over a millennium, worshiped and theologized in Latin rather than Greek. (To Christians in such places as Armenia, Iraq, and India, of course, "the West" included Constantinople too. And John Bekkos, a medieval patriarch of Constantinople with strong "Western" leanings, at least got a hearing in the city for a while. Yet for reasons it would be counterproductive to explain, I don't want to stress that very much.) The resentments, misunderstandings, and rivalries go back to at least the time when Pope Damasus I (366-384) substituted the vernacular Latin for Greek in the Roman Mass and didn't even take note of the First Council of Constantinople (381), which produced what was eventually accepted everywhere as the ecumenical Creed. And for various reasons, the negativity gradually worsened over time, eventually causing the schism that persists to this day. For my present purpose, the two most relevant problems are the Catholic-scholastic idea of "created grace" and the Western development of moral theology at the same time in terms drawn from legal theory.

I start with the concept of created grace. There certainly were Catholic theologians in the later Middle Ages who were "nominalists," and it is certainly true that many of those nominalists treated the question of grace in more or less the way janotec criticizes. But not all scholastics were nominalists by any means. The via moderna of that period in Catholic theology, in my opinion, did tend to go wrong as janotec says; and that was a key precursor to Protestantism's essentially forensic account of justification. But some Catholic theologians were Franciscans and Thomists who were anything but followers of that path. Indeed, in the hands of those more traditionally-minded theologians, the very concept of "created grace" was intended largely to explain how justification and sanctification consisted in what we'd now call an "ontological" change in the human soul, in such wise that the soul could become a "partaker of the divine nature" without becoming God-by-nature. In that respect, use of the concept of created grace had the same goal as that of St. Gregory Palamas when he expatiated on the distinction between the divine "essence," which cannot be shared, and the divine "energies" or actions ad extra, which can and indeed must be shared if we are to have the life God destines us for—the "life eternal" otherwise known as theosis or "divinization." As I see it, the chief difference between the older, more robust Catholic theology postulating "created" grace, and the Palamite view that the divine energies are "uncreated" and thus God, is that the Catholics used the term grace not merely for its primary referent, which is indeed the Uncreated himself insofar as he communicates his life to us, but also for the instruments he uses to communicate his life to the human person, and especially for some of the effects of that communication within the human person.1

The main problem arose when neo-scholasticism as a whole became preoccupied with classifying and analyzing the kinds of created grace so understood, in order to explain how our "correspondence" with grace causes "congruous merit" in the human soul. That went on to such an extent that people started forgetting about the primary referent of the term 'grace' and got into the habit of speaking of grace as though it could be located, divvied up, and distributed almost according to formula. That explains a way of speaking even today that has always grated on me. Catholics often speak of grace as if it were some sort of spiritual fuel, with differing levels of octane, that one can get more or less of depending on one's recourse to the "means"of grace, such as the sacraments and prayer. That's what accounts in part for why many Catholics seem to treat church as a spiritual gas station: a place where you pull up, pay up, tank up with grace, and pull out in time for brunch or the football game (depending on which scheduled Mass you got up in time for). When people receive the Eucharist with such an attitude, it does them a lot less good than it could and, in cases of unrepented serious sin, real harm. Catholicism really has needed to recover a more Eastern, relational sense of grace as God himself operative within the person, without thereby sacrificing use of the term 'grace' in the derivative senses already described, which are perfectly consistent with the primary referent of the term when properly contextualized and understood. That, in effect, is what various Catholic movements and theologians have been doing ever since the ressourcement that preceded and helped to guide Vatican II.

For a long time, though, the chief obstacle to bringing that to fruition in Catholic sacramental, ascetical, and mystical theology has been a tendency to legalism in moral theology. When one treats Christian morality primarily as a set of rules, one comes to think of progress in the Christian life primarily as progress in observing those rules. Salvation is then conceived primarily as a reward for such progress—i.e., for one's degree of merit—and the function of grace is seen primarily as that of enabling one to achieve such merit. The serious Christian will thus do what they can to get "all the graces" they can because, after all, one can never have enough fuel for a long journey in which one too often finds oneself traveling backwards. That is the grain of truth in the common Protestant view that Catholicism teaches salvation by "works" rather than by "grace." Many Catholics, and not just Catholics, have in fact run their spiritual lives as if that were so. It is a kind of spiritual immaturity that certain tendencies in late-medieval, neo-scholastic, and Counter-Reformation thought only encouraged. I have seen the results in many an older Catholic, even those in bitter rebellion against it. I've even seen it in some young "trad" Catholics.

But as a doctrinal matter, the common Protestant view is false. The Catholic Church does not teach that salvation can be earned, and many writers have taken great pains to show that. "Merit" is the fruit of grace, and when God crowns our merits he is crowning his own gifts. Theologically too, the Catholic tradition is much richer than legalism and much closer to the Orthodox. And many Catholics do get it. The reasons why also show that janotec's charge of "casuistic legerdemain," made from an Orthodox point of view, is mostly empty rhetoric.

The purpose of casuistry is to apply genuinely Christian norms to "hard cases" so that people have specific, well-thought-out helps to form their consciences for dealing with such cases. Casuistry need not be, and is not intended by the Church to be, a substitution of law for grace. It is not even intended as an exhaustive resolution of cases. The harder the case, the more its resolution is a matter of individual judgment—or, if you prefer, conscience. The norms governing casuistry are guideposts, not inspiration. To be sure, many people have ridden "the rules" too hard, as if external conformity to even the most technical of them were the primary measure of virtue. But that's not a problem with the rules in themselves. It's a problem with some people's own spiritual growth. And though I can't speak for all Catholics, I don't take my "ethics in spoonfuls." I have learned by hard experience that Christ often calls us to a level of discipleship beyond "the law," i.e. beyond that level of behavior which casuistry can often excuse. He never stops challenging us to reach greater spiritual maturity. And I have found plenty of room in Catholicism for that recognition. It is indeed Catholic saints who have helped me to attain that recognition. And that room is taken up every day by a myriad of saints-in-the-making who will never be canonized.

I just wish janotec and many other intelligent Orthodox could lay off the potshots at "the West" and join with Catholics in rediscovering the common ground that East and West have come to till differently. That little black spot would then get smaller and smaller, so that scandal would not be given to undergraduates and other innocents.

1. I have been influenced to adopt this view by, among other works, Cardinal Journet's The Meaning of Grace (1957), republished in 1997; and by Jeffrey D Finch, "Neo-Palamism, Divinizing Grace, and the Breach between East and West," in Partakers of the Divine Nature: The History and Development of Deification in the Christian Tradition, edited by Michael J. Christensen and Jeffery A. Wittung, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008).

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Moral theology, moralism, and spiritual growth

Lately I've noticed a style of moral theologizing in which moral uprightness, understood as external conformity with precepts that can sometimes be quite technical, is presented as a sine qua non not just of the Christian life itself but even of—well, basic credibility. I don't want to call that Pharisaism, exactly; the precepts involved are typically more important, objectively speaking, than many of those the Pharisees thought important. But we have here a kind of moralism particularly seductive for highly intelligent Catholics who, if they succumb to it, thereby become prone to impugn the character of those who disagree with them about one or more of the technical precepts at issue. Such moralism is a problem for both "the Right" and "the Left," i.e. for the rigorists and the laxists. It is important that moral theology not become moralism because, if and when it does, it becomes at least as much an obstacle as an aid to Christian spiritual growth. Besides the uncharity it encourages in those who practice it, it has the (often unintended) effect of presenting Christian morality as a set of rules that, in the harder cases at least, most people would be no more able to understand than to live up to. My purpose here is to illustrate what I mean by considering how a recent moral controversy has developed online.

Consider a well-known case of public moral disagreement. In 2005 Terri Schaivo, a still-young Florida woman who had been in a "persistent vegetative state" (PVS) for over a decade, was euthanized by the will of her husband Michael. She was killed by the legally authorized withdrawal of the tube providing her with "artifical nutrition and hydration" (ANH); it took her less than two weeks to die of dehydration. The Vatican and most pro-lifers, including yours truly, regarded that action as murder even while it was only being proposed; politically, an ultimately futile effort was made to override the local judge and secure federal intervention to delay or prevent Terri's death. Along with not a few other bishops, the local bishop had seemed unable to issue clear moral guidance on the matter, which was a problem because Terri and her family of origin were Catholic and, as such, her family had sought support from the Church in their effort to prevent Terri's death. Partly if not wholly because of that unclarity, the US bishops sent a dubium, a formal "question," to the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, about the sort of case that the Schaivo case was. You can read the CDF's responsum ('CDF-R' for short), which came last year, here.

If it isn't obvious to those capable of understanding the text of CDF-R, it ought to be obvious that the document warranted the judgment by Catholics that Terri's killing was, objectively speaking, murder. As I argued last year, the principles enunciated in CDF-R were a positive and authoritative development in Church teaching that had begun under John Paul II. Received and taught as intended, CDF-R would have the practical effect of making Catholic health-care professionals and families unwilling to see ANH as "extraordinary" care in cases like Terri's, and thus less willing to withhold or withdraw it in PVS cases generally than many Catholics had been in the past. But that's not what seems to have happened. Indeed, few minds seem to have changed one way or the other.

What seems to have happened instead is this. One side tries to spin CDF-R into practical irrelevance, consigning any better reception for the document than that to pro-life "extremism" (i.e., wingnuts); the other tries to depict as murderers, by formal if remote cooperation, anybody who had broadcasted the opinion that Terri Schaivo's killing was morally permissible. The former instances the moralism of the left; the latter, the moralism of the right. Each side impugns not only the arguments, but the personal credibility, of the other. I find that disturbing no matter which side it comes from.

To me at least, the moralism of the left is clear in how the slowly but steadily shrinking "progressive" Catholic intelligentsia has received CDF-R. Anybody who cares to learn what that reception has been has only to search the online archives of Commonweal and the National Catholic Reporter. But I shall save everybody time by focusing just on the article I've just linked above, the one that spins CDF-R into "practical irrelevance." I shall save myself time and space just by linking my detailed critique of that article here for you to read for yourselves. But it is necessary for me to add a couple of things in this post.

One is that the author of that article is Capuchin Brother Daniel Sulmasy, MD, PhD, one of the most influential, if not the most influential, Catholic bioethicists in the U.S. As such, he has a reputation for doctrinal orthodoxy that is not entirely undeserved. I have heard him speak myself, at a lecture he gave in a Catholic parish near Duke University a few weeks ago; to my surprise, the talk turned out to be a 45-minute crash course in bioethics for lay Catholics. As a former bioethics lecturer myself, and one who is thoroughly informed about magisterial teaching on bioethics, I could find nothing objectionable in principle in Sulmasy's talk. But during the Q & A, he cleverly sidestepped the Terri Schaivo case. He pointed out, rightly, that ANH can be extraordinary and thus optional care, which is why John Paul II permissibly refused it when he was nearing death. Sulmasy also pointed out that a number of conditions need to be fulfilled if we are not to count ANH as extraordinary. There was no time to discuss that claim with him further, but I for one had no need to. A reading of his article and my critique indicates that he frames the conditions in such a way that Terri Schaivo's murder might have been justified. I leave it to readers to find the loophole.

This is the sort of laxism that the Jesuits, e.g., were often charged with even in the days before their vow of obedience to the pope was honored more in the breach than in the observance. It was said that the Jesuits construed moral norms designed to cover difficult cases in such a fashion as to license behavior almost indistinguishable from what one could expect from the heathen. I don't think that was usually true in the past; but it has certainly become so today, at least in those areas of life where prevailing secular morality has itself grown more lax. Such laxism is moralism because it suggests, without ever actually saying, that external conformity to "the rules," construed in a plausibly minimalist way, suffices to make everything OK. My own life experience, with the present sort of case and others, indicates that that is often not the case. And Sulmasy's brand of left-wing moralism becomes a bludgeon when those who reject the laxism are accused, in effect, of being somehow beyond the pale. You can see how subtly Sulmasy does that himself in his article, but he's not even the most egregious example. I myself have been accused of "Jansenism" for holding that the now-standard "three conditions" on counting an act as a mortal sin should be tightened up to take account of culpably malformed conscience. Among Catholics who know and care what Jansenism is, or was, that sort of charge functions as mere ad hominem even when it is not so intended.

And that brings me round to the right-wing moralism I've observed—in this case about the Schaivo case, but there are many others. Let's assume what I've already conceded: that what brought about Terri Schaivo's death was an act of murder. Let's even assume, for argument's sake, that writers who influenced others to disagree with that judgment thereby "cooperated" in some remote fashion with Terri's death. Does this mean that any such person is actually guilty of murder by "formal cooperation?" Clearly not. It depends on the influence they intended to have, the influence they actually had, the degree of their own culpability for their rejecting the moral truth in this matter, and the degree of others' culpability in sharing that error without having themselves done the actual deed. Trying or even succeeding in getting others to agree with them about the moral status of Terri's death is as bad as murder only if they were actually trying to induce somebody to yank the tube or, failing that, were disposed to yank the tube themselves if given the chance to do so. Merely contributing to a climate of erroneous moral thinking about a proposed course of action is not the same thing as being guilty of the wrong action itself. It is to be guilty of leading others into error about the applicable moral precepts. Just how guilty one is for doing that will, in turn, depend on how guilty one is for holding the original error, which only God knows, and how important the matter is. There is no one-size-fits-all human judgment to make here. But you'd never know that from what some pro-lifers say.

The kind of moralism I'm lamenting is not the only kind. It is not even the only kind among laxists and rigorists. What I'm lamenting is an over-emphasis on external conformity to technical moral precepts that few people even understand well enough to apply reliably on their own. It is possible to interpret such a precept too rigorously without thereby joining the wingnuts. It is possible to interpret such a precept too loosely without thereby setting oneself on the slippery slope to hell. Often, people who err on either side are guilty of nothing worse than not yet having learned enough about the full implications of the Gospel. For them, overcoming that problem is simply a matter of becoming more Christlike—not of picking the right side of a technical debate among moral theologians. To suppose otherwise is to make one's own spiritual growth more difficult.

The Pope's blow against intolerance

Now that there's been time to reflect, you just gotta love it.

Monday, March 17, 2008

St. Patrick and the TSA

The Transportation Security Administration is supposed to protect air travelers from terrorism. Given the results of various tests since 2002, its utility probably lies less in keeping weapons off planes than in reassuring, by its clumsy intrusiveness, a public anxious to be reassured. My confirmation saint, St. Patrick, also reassures me. By most accounts, such as Thomas Cahill's, he composed his justly loved Breastplate prayer to ward off "the spells of women and smiths and druids" as well as of demons directly. Believing I faced no specific, unseen personal enemies, I used to use it less as self-defense and more as just a beautiful prayer. I was wrong. Now I use it for both purposes. On my spiritual journey, he's an important part of my own personal TSA.

I picked "Patrick" as my confirmation name when I was 10 because even then I had an inchoate sense that I had a vocation to teach people about the Trinity, specifically. As crude an image as it had to be for his illiterate, heathen audience, I could not get his three-leaf clover out of my mind. I still can't. Every time I see clover I am reminded of my vocation. I doubt I have fulfilled it as intended.

That's why I pray with the Breastplate and many similar aids. To fulfill my vocation as intended, which is doubtless a greater thing than I see, I must press on with my spiritual journey with as much protection as possible against whatever would terrorize me out of it. As the world grows ever more nihilistic, we all need to be doing that. You have many TSA agents to pick from. Let us thank God for the one we celebrate today.

Redeeming secularity

When I'm feeling more desperate than usual, I like to re-read Jean-Pierre de Caussade's Abandonment to Divine Providence, a spiritual classic available in a range of editions and translations. In one of them, the work is entitled The Sacrament of the Present Moment. I cannot recommend that volume highly enough; on me, a careful reading has the effect of calming my silly fears and inducing me to rest in God's love. Beyond circumstances, what's brought it to my mind again is a marvelous post of the same title by Fr. Steven Freeman. That post has also set me pondering anew a seemingly intractable problem I've always had with being a layman in the world. The problem has a simple solution, to be sure. But the simple solution is by no means easy.

Ever since I made a more-or-less adult commitment of faith, I haven't wanted in my heart to be a layman at all. As a high-school senior, I resolved internally to become a philosophy major in college as preparation for the seminary. Of course I didn't tell that to my parents or teachers, because I didn't think the resistance I could expect if I did would be a price worth paying. It was the Catholic Church in the 1970s, after all. I had been sexually abused by a priest a few years earlier; still more to the point, priests and religious had been bolting in droves, and the faithful remnant was openly indisposed to encourage the young to plunge themselves into the mess. It didn't get any better once I got to Columbia. Most of the priests I met were progs who didn't think me prog enough; the rest were either trads who didn't think me trad enough, or just plain didn't care. My disgust caused me to flirt seriously with Orthodoxy before I fell in with a crowd of older, lay Catholic intellectuals. As I neared graduation, the few vocation directors willing to hear me on the merits neither offered nor suggested spiritual direction to help me with the discipline of celibacy. They were rather keen, however, on reminding me that I had to repay my college debt before any of them would consider me. I ended up getting married. I had concluded that that was what God wanted for me, as distinct from what I had wanted for myself. And who was I to complain? I now had a wife who loved me; and I loved her back, in my own immature way.

The question for me then became: how could I do some sort of "ministry," my chief and indeed only abiding occupational interest, as a married Catholic man? I had committed myself to a state in life in which earning a certain level of income was likely to be far more important than how I earned that income. I did not relish that part of marriage and family. Still, I was fortunate in being married to a woman who understood me and facilitated, in every way, my arduous trek through the doctoral program in philosophy at Penn. And despite using NFP to conceive a child, we did not conceive, only adopting a baby privately after ten years of marriage. For that decade, I had had the luxury of avoiding the question how to earn a respectable living. I taught part-time as an adjunct and did some paid freelance writing. My scope for self-indulgence was such that I even got to run for Congress in 1988. The downside was that I also got to remain a superannuated adolescent. Some of that resolved itself naturally after I got my PhD and began teaching full-time in Catholic institutions. But soon enough, choices I made in response to stressful events destroyed all that. I'm now twice-divorced, tethered to paying child support. That has only raised the question of "ministry" anew for me. And I have yet to resolve that question. I still don't want a secular "career" any more than I ever did. I want a vocation focused on the only matters in which I have an abiding interest for their own sake: those having directly and explicitly to do with the truths about God derivable from both natural reason and his own self-revelation. Indeed, I'm such a Catholic nerd that I have a very hard time understanding why most intelligent, orthodox Catholics don't want the same for themselves.

When I've discussed this with people close to me, including the occasional spiritual director, the responses I've gotten are remarkably similar. They point out that most Christians, including most good and holy Christians, are neither clergy nor theologians. They point out what that entails: most of us can and ought to serve God well in the course of ordinary human life, without being clergy or theologians. They cite the biblical doctrine of the priesthood of all believers to remind me that I can be a "priest" in that generic sense in which all Christians are called to be priests. They gently remind me that I have no good reason to think myself too good or special for that. And of course they are right. I have no rebuttal to offer. But my heart does not change; my real interests and aspirations remain as they are, which is what they have always been. I pursue my real interests in my spare time; this blog is a part of that. I look on my unfulfilled aspirations as a sign from God that his work-in-progress known as Mike Liccione needs a lot more work in order to be credible again in something called "ministry."

But, the voices ask, what if I'm just still not "getting it?" Fr. Freeman's meditation poses the challenge starkly:

The Eucharist reveals Christ to us. But as Fr. Alexander Schmemann always noted, the Eucharist not only reveals Christ to us, it also reveals the true nature of creation to us. Bread can no longer be the same if Christ has taken it and made it His body. It is always possible, indeed it has already happened, that we build a fence around that sacred moment and confine it to the liturgy itself. Outside the service, everything returns to “normal and ordinary,” and the Orthodox become as secular as every Christian around them. This is a denial of the Orthodox faith. God is “everywhere present and filling all things,” thus there is no “normal and ordinary,” no “secular.” Everything is changed. There is no eating of bread that is not a communion with God. There is no encounter with a tree that is not an encounter with the hard wood of the cross, the “weapon of peace.” In Jeremiah (23:23-24) we read:

Am I a God at hand, saith the LORD, and not a God afar off? Can any hide himself in secret places that I shall not see him? saith the LORD. Do not I fill heaven and earth? saith the LORD.

We do not have a “neutral zone” where we live apart from God. Instead, we have zones of ignorance, where believing Christians live as unbelievers, awaiting their next attendance at a “God permitted” zone. No, the truth is that God has united Himself not only to humanity in the incarnation, but to matter itself. Man is the “microcosm” according to the Fathers, a “little cosmos” in himself. This is most fully and completely true in Christ, who has truly summed up the cosmos within Himself. Thus we look forward to the redemption and resurrection of the whole created order and not just man (Romans 8).

Thus we are never separated from God who is freely with us, but also giving Himself to us in everything around us. This is no profession of pantheism. God has not become everything else. But everything else holds the possibility of encounter with God as surely as the holy water within the Church or every sacrament He has given us. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.”

In the combox to another post, Fr. Steven tells one reader something that he could just as well tell me:

The church doesn’t miss out on having any of us as priests. If I die tomorrow the Kingdom of God will continue to exist. The only priesthood is that of Christ. My merely human talents add nothing to the Church whatsoever. The treasure within us is the gift of God. Seek God first, don’t worry about the priesthood. It is the priesthood of Christ you need to encounter.

Well, yes. There is no "neutral zone" for a Christian. For those who stay the course of sanctification, all is holy, all is redeemed. So, the challenge I confront is to encounter the "priesthood of Christ," and join myself to it, without being able to spend the bulk of my time dealing explicitly with the things that priests and theologians, as such, deal with. I really don't experience that encounter subjectively, but I acknowledge it happens whenever I offer myself, my actions, and my sufferings to the Lord in complete detachment from everything but him and his commandments of love. Perhaps that's all there is to becoming his priestlings once we leave the church building with the Body of Christ in our bellies. I suppose there isn't much alternative anyhow, if I am to be immersed in our world's secularity, spending the bulk of my time and energy pretty much as most people do.

But that's still not my heart. I still have to force myself to thank him for being put on such a path. Which means I'm not really grateful. Which means I'm not really offering my heart. And what does that do to my own priesthood as a believer? I'd rather not think about that. Of course the solution is simple: "Say yes, joyfully." Alas, easier said than done. My prayer this Triduum is to be shown a way out of the box I'm in. I can only hope that's the right prayer.

Quotation of the day

"I like to attend meetings of the Catholic Theological Society in order to keep up with the latest trends in liberal Protestantism."

—Protestant theologian Robert Jenson.

Theology and economy

“The cross and resurrection are the eternal dialogue of Father and Son as projected on to the screen of history, what it looks like in history. If you want to know what the Trinity looks like be filled with the Holy Spirit and look at the cross. The Trinity, when reflected in our history, like something reflected in rippling water, looks pretty strange, just as the human being in our history looks strange, being despised and crucified: Ecce homo."

Herbert McCabe, God Matters (New York: Continuum, 2005), 100.

HT to Inhabitatio Dei.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

The fans and the mob

For reasons I won't waste your time speculating about, my mind returns every Palm Sunday to the contrast between the crowd's adulation of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey with the venom of the mob calling for his crucifixion before Pilate a few days later. One thing I'm sure of is that both crowds are figurae, types, of own souls as they oscillate between grace and sin, between living, joyful faith and preference for the world's way of doing things. We welcome Jesus as our savior, yes; we also shout "Crucify him!" whenever we sin seriously, as most of us have done. I'd love to help do a movie in which a couple who had greeted Jesus with hosannas went on to join the crowd yelling for Barabbas' release instead of Jesus'. A plot premise would have them desperately poor, ripe to take a few shekels from the high priest's henchman for joining the mob. I have an old friend who could write a good script for such a movie. Of course there's always the matter of raising the money...

Which brings me to my main point. The Jews weren't ready to accept the idea that God could come to them in person as a man who, sans army, formal education, or even money, would challenge their religious leadership rather than the occupying power. You can hardly blame them; they thought as people normally would. The Anointed One they expected would be a political savior. He would eject the Romans by force and turn Israel into a glorious earthly kingdom where other nations would worship God just as they did. That's what the Apostles hoped for too, which is probably why Judas was disappointed enough to betray Jesus when it had become clear that wasn't going to be the script. They didn't start to get it until Jesus appeared to them after the Resurrection; they didn't even understand, until well after the fact, that he had actually prophesied the whole thing. My friends, the Apostles are us.

We instinctively assume that good fortune consists in our obtaining the blessings the rest of the world considers blessings too. That's the movie we want to see, or better, to make. When we don't see it or have the wherewithal to make it, then God's script for us can be a bitter disappointment indeed. In response, some of us betray him and are lost, temporarily or permanently; many abandon him when the path of fidelity seems likely to yield, at best, a cruel joke. We return only when some grace, foreseeable yet unforeseen, brings us back round. Rare are the Marys and Johns who stand steadfast by him at the foot of the Cross. And even they often don't get to see, until their own passing, much of the Great Light to follow.

This Palm Sunday, I pray for the wisdom and courage to follow the script God is writing for me. I don't want to be tempted, any more than I already am, to leave the fans for the mob.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Rewriting the book on excommunication

Among Catholics, the loudest school of thought about excommunicating people is the "progressive." The progs find the exercise presumptively neanderthal, typically useless, and often counterproductive. If done at all, it should only be done to people who are publicly and pertinaciously un-PC. Thus, I've heard occasional praise from progs for the 1962 excommunication of segregationists in New Orleans, and for the Italian hierarchy's excommunication of certain Mafia types. But that's about it. Heaven forfend that anybody should be excommunicated for pertinaciously denying some de fide doctrine—i.e., for heresy—or for brave public acts such as voting against a partial-birth abortion ban or doing a womyn's ordination. Since progs are still somewhat influential in chanceries and very influential in Catholic universities, they have most bishops pretty cowed about the whole thing. But that not only should change; it can change, given leadership that is competent and creative as well as courageous. Believe it or not, we've actually got that.

Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis has just formally decreed the excommunication of three women involved in that pseudo-ordination last year about which I wrote at the time. Of Burke's decree, Dr. Ed Peters, a top-notch canon lawyer from whom I learn often, writes:

I would like to say that Abp. Raymond Burke's excommunication of three women who recently participated in a pseudo-ordination in Saint Louis is a "text-book illustration" of how (non-judicial) excommunication is supposed to be applied in the Church today, but I can't say that. Why not? Because Abp. Burke's attention to juridic details and his provisions for the pastoral care of the people entrusted to his care so exceed what the textbooks teach, that it is the textbooks that must copy from him, not him from the textbooks.

That ought to lend some encouragement to those of us who think bishops have got awfully woolly about excommunication and need to do a bit more of it for the good of people's souls, including the souls of those excommunicated. Why should we all care about that?

As I've written before:

There certainly are quarters of the Church in this country where the virtue of faith, and the orthodoxy on which it depends, are understood and fostered. But such a witness is severely undermined by the degree to which the bishops allow dissent to go unpunished. E.g., even personally orthodox bishops such as Egan of New York and Wuerl of DC refuse to withhold the Eucharist from Catholic politicians who openly defy Church teaching on points that the Pope himself has indicated are non-negotiable. Other personally orthodox bishops, such as Flynn of the Twin Cities or O'Malley of Boston, refuse to discipline heterodox theologians on the faculties of universities over which they have at least nominal authority. And then there's the fact, so widely known as to be rarely mentioned, that on the literally vital matter of contraception, lay Catholics are allowed to do exactly as they please—which in most cases involves rejecting the constant, irreformable teaching of the Church. Even Catholic media are caught up in the corresponding ambiguity: we have the National Catholic Register, yes, but we also have the National Catholic Reporter. Of course it is well-known, among those who give thought to such matters, that the Catholic Church in America is polarized. But what is not so well understood is that the very persistence of that polarization strengthens the heterodox sides of the spectrum. Once again, it gives out the impression that orthodoxy is optional: not merely for American Catholics as Americans—which is and ought to be unexceptionable—but as Catholics. That makes it impossible for the virtue of faith to be widely fostered and understood among rank-and-file Catholics.

If we get more bishops doing the sort of thing Burke is doing, the virtue of faith can once again be fostered and understood wide-scale, not just here and there. To that end, I once again recommend his brilliant, peer-reviewed academic article about Catholic politicians who support abortion "rights."

New heresies to savor

Check out this priest's list, now making the rounds. Hilarious.

I can't resist offering a sample:

"OCTORBITISTS – Note the different spelling. This is not the Octoberfests, a little known cult that involves the drinking of great amounts of beer in October but the Octorbitists. Oct, meaning the number eight and orbits referring to path the earth makes around the sun. This sect only recognizes the Church for about eight years usually only stopping in the parking lot Monday through Friday to drop their children off for school. They do not recognize the spiritual role of the Church but submit to its authority in teaching math, science, and the making of collages."

McCain's best hope

Think two Democratic cats, and you get the idea:

"There once were two cats of Kilkenny
Each thought there was one cat too many
So they fought and they fit, and they scratched and they bit
Till excepting their nails and the tips of their tails
Instead of two cats there weren't any."

HT to Michael Hirsh.

Friday, March 14, 2008

From Durufle's Requiem: Agnus Dei

HT to Billy Ockham.

The miraculous and the explanatory

With his customary alacrity and grace, Scott Carson has replied to my critique of his critique of the Vatican's use of medical evidence in classifying certain events as miracles. I'm actually quite pleased that he chose to focus on the role of explanation in all this. That choice gives me an excuse to redeploy a concept I developed as the core of my doctoral thesis: the ontological category of the "positively mysterious."

A positive mystery P is something that is intelligible (an epistemological feature of it) but not necessitated—which is an ontological feature of P. That means that, in principle at least, P is explicable in a way that is complete for purposes of the appropriate sort of explanation but is not exhaustively explicable, as if P were explicable-in-principle in a way that would show that P had to be so rather than not. Obviously, what all that means in turn depends crucially on how the concept of explanation is itself deployed. I shall deploy it by way of arguing that miracles, properly so-called and if any, are cases of the positively mysterious. Having done that, I shall argue that Scott's critique misses the point of the Vatican's miracle-vetting process.

When discussing the miraculous, there are two main questions to answer at the outset, or at least to get as clear as we can get about them: (1) What does it mean to call some event a miracle? (2) When may we count some event as a miracle in that sense? Answering (1) leads us toward what analytical philosophers call the "intension," or the conceptual content, of the term 'miracle'; whereas (2) is about how to decide when to count some event as falling under the concept of miracle, as belonging to the "extension" of the concept. Now, since the occasion for this whole discussion is the Vatican's process of miracle-vetting, it must be stipulated that the relevant concept of the miraculous is craftbound. We're not using the term 'miracle' in just any old way in which it can be and has been intelligibly used; rather, we're following (or trying to follow) the Catholic Church's traditional use of it, which is an irreducibly theological one. It would be idle to criticize the Vatican for not answering (2) aright if we are not using the same concept of the miraculous that the Vatican is using for the purpose in question.

One part, but only one part, of the relevant concept of the miraculous is that miracles are "supernatural." Thus, calling a given event a miracle means, among other things, that it is "beyond the order of all created nature," to use one of Aquinas' definitions. To affirm that a miracle is a supernatural event in that sense entails, among other things, that no proposed scientific explanation of the event, if any, could be adequate as an explanation. In such a case, we do not merely happen to lack a scientific explanation in the present; rather, no such explanation would be appropriate to the subject matter and thus useful as an explanation. This is the sense in which I can agree with Scott that "empirical evidence is completely irrelevant to the question of the miraculous in general." If we're using the term 'empirical evidence' just to mean the sort of evidence that natural scientists as such can and do count as evidence, then no such evidence could suffice, even in principle, to establish that such-and-such an event is a miracle—for one cannot use the methods of natural science to establish that anything is actually supernatural. Nor can one legitimately infer just from the absence of a scientific explanation that some empirically observable phenomenon is miraculous. That's also why I don't like the Intelligent-Design movement any more than Scott does: from the fact that we cannot now explain certain features of living things without recourse to intelligent design by a (presumably) supernatural being, it does not follow that we could not do so even in principle. Where Scott and I differ is in the conclusions we draw about how to identify events as miraculous.

He concludes, in effect, that the sort of thing the Vatican does in vetting alleged miracles of healing is wrongheaded. If "empirical evidence is completely irrelevant to the question of the miraculous," then neither the presence nor the absence of associated, empirically observable phenomena is relevant to deciding whether some medically inexplicable cure is miraculous, and the Vatican must therefore be wrong to consult scientists when assessing reports of miracles of healing for their credibility. But that cannot be the right conclusion to draw.

For one thing, it does not because it cannot apply to any and all miracles, and thus to "the miraculous" merely as such. Consider, e.g., that miracle without which, St. Paul says, our "faith is in vain." If Jesus rose bodily from the dead, then the empty tomb could be observed as such and, according to New Testament, was in fact so observed. That is a very much an "empirical" phenomenon—which is why the Shroud of Turin could be the very burial cloth in which Jesus' body was wrapped when it underwent that miraculous transformation entailed by what we call "the Resurrection." But of course, natural science cannot establish that that's what the Shroud is; all natural science can do is rule out some natural explanations and entertain others as (possible) hypotheses. To see the empty tomb or the Shroud as miraculous, the eyes of faith are required. But it must not be said that any and all observable facts are irrelevant to deciding whether to count some event as a miracle. All that can be said is that, if there are miracles that manifest themselves in what's observable, then those observables cannot be adequately explained by the investigatory methods of natural science, and instead require the eyes of faith for adequate explanation. Hence even though, for reasons I've stated, the absence of scientific explanation for certain alleged cures is something to expect if those cures are miraculous, it neither follows nor is true that "empirical" facts, in the sense of "observable" facts, are simply "irrelevant" to identifying some events as miraculous.

All this suggests what I believe ought to be obvious: it is not enough, for purposes of identifying some observable event as a miracle in the relevant sense, to say that it is somehow beyond the order of nature. Things we can observe from within nature must be relevant, and relevant in a certain way. What's relevant here is not just the mere fact that we can observe the event from within nature. It's not even just that certain particular, observable features of the event itself are relevant. What's equally and crucially relevant is the spiritual context in which the event occurs.

Thus, in deciding whether a given medically unexplained cure is miraculous, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints does not merely note the absence of a medical explanation for what has been observed as fact. It verifies, by reasonable means, that the cure occurred some identifiable time after the proposed saint's intercession was invoked in faith for the purpose. In this sort of case, that is the spiritual context in which the event must have occurred in order to be counted as a miracle in the relevant sense. And so, in addition to being supernatural in the general, ontological sense I've already specified, the miracle must be supernatural in an epistemological sense: it must be seen as such by the eyes of faith. Since that is how miracles are presented in Scripture and Tradition, as well as by the experience of the faithful, I see no need to defend my claim beyond noting its status in those sources.

To answer the question I labeled above as (1), therefore, we should say that a miracle is a event "beyond the order" of nature that is seen as such by the eyes of faith, in such a way as to signify God's love and power to those with eyes to see. That's what it means to call an event a miracle in the relevant, craftbound sense; that's the intension of the relevant concept of the miraculous. To answer the question I labeled above as (2), therefore, we should say that we "may" count, and thus are justified in counting, an observable event E as a miracle in the relevant sense when it can be shown (a) that there is no scientific explanation for it, and (b) that it occurs in a spiritual context suggesting that no such explanation would be of the appropriate sort for E. That's what gives us the extension of the concept of the miraculous.

Now if all that is so, then regarding some event E as a miracle in the relevant sense is not merely to classify E. It is to classify E in such a way as to imply that only a certain sort of explanation would be appropriate to E and, at the same time, to actually adumbrate such an explanation. No such explanation, of course, could show that E had to occur given what is said to explain it. Miracles in the relevant sense are not mechanical or even stochastic outcomes of the laws of nature working on initial conditions; nor are such miracles magic, as if invoking God or the saints could automatically make them happen. They are extraordinary and gratuitous manifestations of divine love and power. But they don't just happen for no reason: they happen either in response to acts of faith or to elicit such acts. So, miracles are indeed explicable to a degree and to the eyes of faith. But the way they're explicable does not and, indeed, cannot show that they have to happen given what explains them. The explanations, at least in principle, are as complete as the nature of the explananda permits, but not exhaustive. Miracles in the relevant sense are thus intelligible but not necessitated. They are what I call "positive" mysteries.

Now if that's what miracles in general are, then Scott's critique of the Vatican's miracle-vetting process simply misses the point. If the concept of the miraculous as I've been limning it even roughly corresponds to the concept the Vatican is following, then we should expect the CCS to verify the absence of scientific explanations for certain cures as part of its vetting process. For miracles in the relevant sense just aren't the sort of thing, ontologically speaking, to which scientific explanation would be appropriate. Of course it does not follow, from the mere absence of a plausible scientific explanation for it, that a given cure is miraculous in the relevant sense. All that follows is that, if the cure is miraculous in the relevant sense, then no such explanation could be relevant even if offered. Thus the absence of such an explanation is, itself, one kind of evidence needed in order to be justified in claiming that some event proposed as a miracle in the relevant sense is, in fact, such a miracle. It is not sufficient evidence by itself, but it is necessary.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Why it's good that sin makes us stupider

I say 'stupider' only a bit tongue-in-cheek because, of course, we're all stupid enough to sin once we're old enough to be capable of it. But every day, smart, accomplished people throw away all that they've worked very hard for simply because they couldn't resist doing a wrong they rationalized as an entitlement, or at least as an ultimately victimless indulgence. I know because I did that myself, in particularly self-deceptive form, and gradually ruined both my career and my mental health in the process. But sometimes the mind has to cripple itself before one can do the smartest thing: letting God back in. That also happened to me. I hope it's what will happen to now-former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer.

Despite all the crowing in the conservative media, I cannot feel contempt for Spitzer, who was a Harvard-Law classmate of a couple of Catholics I know personally. That's not to deny that he was a rank hypocrite as well as an enthusiastic supporter of baby-killing. We hated his being governor. And I agree with his erstwhile professor, Susan Estrich—another liberal Democrat and Clintonite whom I cannot abide politically—when she argues that Spitzer's fall, and the reasons for it, merit the adjective she uses: "insane." But I strongly suspect that, for the sake of his immortal soul, his fall is probably the best thing that could have happened to him.

Why, Estrich rightly asks, would a highly successful and not-bad-looking man like Spitzer pay handsomely for sex and, at the same time, leave his tracks uncovered for the very sort of zealous prosecutor he once was? If it was just that he couldn't resist adultery, plenty of attractive women would gladly have obliged him for nothing; and he knew perfectly well how not to get caught cheating in any case. Estrich is probably right that the prostitution ring's name says it all: "The Emperor's Club." Once a man gets rich and/or powerful enough, he inhabits a world where he could, if he chooses, get away with a lot more than an ordinary schlump could. Spitzer thought of himself as an emperor and acted accordingly—even going so far as to do, and get caught doing, what he had once jailed others for doing. He should have been savvy enough to realize that, with all the enemies he had made, somebody powerful would be out for a "gotcha." But he wasn't. He had become an emperor, governor of "the Empire State," and in so thinking of himself made himself stupid. As they say, pride goeth before the fall.

This is why I have no trouble believing the teaching of the Church that even original sin, which we inherit but do not commit, "darkens the intellect." And actual sin reinforces that darkness. The whole cycle of sin makes us need special revelation to learn things that we ought to know by nature. That in turn is why we can be justly held guilty for acting according to a bad conscience. We can ruin our consciences by sinning inveterately, and thus make ourselves guilty no matter how sincerely we act according to conscience. And sometimes the only way that can change is to find ourselves completely humiliated by the consequences.

That's what gives Spitzer his chance for salvation, if he's willing to take it. It's not a good sign that he trotted his wife out to the podium to share the humiliation with him. But we shall see. I'd love to see where he's at five or ten years from now.

A truly nasty two-step

This article sums up my view of "the Palestinian problem" right now.

Things get nastier all the time. How long, O Lord?

Why do Europeans refuse to reproduce?

Watch this 8-minute video.

Is America that far behind?

Carson et al on the miraculous

In a New York Times Op-Ed piece on Sunday, March 3, Jesuit Father James Martin explained and defended the vetting process the Vatican follows in its investigations into causes for the canonization of saints. He also made some recommendations for improving its already-considerable credibility. Over at An Examined Life, my friend Professor Scott Carson responded with a sympathetic but rather critical piece questioning Fr. Martin's reasoning with regard to the vetting of specifically medical miracles. A combox discussion ensued between Scott, Fr. Martin, and Justin Catanoso, a business-journal editor and journalism professor who took the occasion of his cousin Gaetano's canonization to write a book, My Cousin the Saint, that will be published in May. (You can hear the recent NPR interview with Justin here.) While sympathetic to Scott's concerns, I want to respond to them in a way that will bring out the true utility of the Vatican's approach to miracles of healing.

Two things cause me to write about this particular topic now. One is personal. Several years ago, I made an effort to meet Justin Catanoso, who lives and works close to where I was living and working at the time. What had aroused my interest was an article he had published about St. Gaetano somewhere. I wanted to discuss religion with him, as well as get his help with job networking, since there were few people better acquainted with the local business world. He seemed like somebody who would be a good and interesting friend for another educated Italian-American guy to have. I called him and we arranged a meeting; but the next day, my car broke down. Since it would take me two weeks to come up with the dough for the needed repair, I called Justin to cancel. We haven't had any contact since; but now I have a hunch that that could and should change.

The other reason I have for writing about Scott's take on miracles now is that I've been thinking again lately about the relationship between having reason enough to believe and having faith. The two do not seem to be the same, yet it also seems obvious that they have something important to do with each other. As the late Dominican Herbert McCabe wrote:

Here people might take up one of two opposite positions, both of which I think are wrong. They might say (a) that having faith in a proposition has nothing whatever to do with having reasons for it, or else they might say (b) that it is exactly the same as having reasons for it.

McCabe goes on to show that "[t]he first extreme makes the notion of truth inapplicable" and "[t]he other makes the notion of faith inapplicable." Since both are applicable, the correct account lies somewhere between the extremes. But rather than explicate the middle way by discussing a text that few readers are likely to possess, I turn my attention to Scott's position on miracles. I suspect the truth can be brought out more conveniently that way.

Stimulated by the aforementioned combox discussion, Scott followed up with a post entitled The Miraculous: Explanans or Explanandum? (For those of you unfamiliar with analytical philosophy of science, I note that the term explanans means "something that explains," in the sense of something that can be cited in order to explain something else, and explanandum means "something to be explained.") Scott writes:

My central worry in the earlier post was principally a methodological one, because I certainly do not deny that miracles occur. Indeed, I gave examples, in that earlier entry, of miracles that I believe occur every day. My worry is rather over the quasi-empirical condition put on canonization in the new document from the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints. As the discussion with Justin and Fr. Martin unfolded, it became clear to me that there was a minor equivocation taking place on the notion of explanation, as well as on the relation between the miraculous as a phenomenon to be explained (i.e., the miraculous qua explanandum) and the miraculous as phenomenon invoked as explanation (i.e., the miraculous qua explanans). In this entry I'd like to sort some things out with respect to that relation.

OK, so what comes out of the sorting?

If I read him correctly, Scott is arguing that the lack of a scientific explanation for a given healing or recovery is not merely insufficient reason to call the event a miracle—which I do not dispute—but is actually irrelevant to deciding the question whether it's a miracle. That's because even

...the unanimous agreement of medical experts that there is no physicalist explanation for this cure is no more significant than the unanimous agreement of physicists that we don't know whether there is a black hole at the center of each and every galaxy in the universe. The lack of a scientific consensus on a given question does not entail that there never will be such a consensus, or that there could not be one in principle.

That, I believe, is going too far. The lack of a "physicalist explanation" for a given cure is certainly not sufficient for calling the cure a "miracle" in some theologically significant sense of that term; but equally certainly, such a lack is necessary for calling the cure miraculous in such a sense. Thus it is a reason to do so. It is just not reason enough in itself.

As Scott recognizes, though, there is a difficulty about the status of miracles in explanation. Are miracles explanantia, things that explain something, or are they explananda, things to be explained? If all we have to go on is the absence of naturalistic explanation for a given cure, that does not suffice to establish that the cure was miraculous in a theologically significant sense—typically, as the extraordinary and direct action of God, performed for some spiritual purpose. And if that's the case, then one is not yet in a position to cite the cure's being a miracle in that sense as an explanation for the lack of a naturalistic explanation. By the same token, if the cure really is a miracle in the relevant sense, pointing out as much does not so much explain the cure as classify it. So calling some event a miracle does not, just in itself, explain the event even if one is justified in calling it a miracle in the relevant sense. Miracles are not, just by themselves, explanantia.

Very well: in what sense could extraordinary events be explananda, events to be explained precisely as miracles? Believers, and those on the way to faith, often explain miracles as events God brings about to confirm or elicit faith. That much is right there in the Bible, and I believe that to be true. But the same could be said of other things that there is no compelling reason to call miraculous; so, observing miracles is not, in general, necessary as a way of confirming or eliciting faith. Nor is it sufficient; otherwise everybody who witnesses a miracle in the relevant sense would be confirmed in or brought to faith, which is manifestly not the case. So I think Scott is right when he writes that "To say that an event is a miracle is manifestly not to explain it..." But I don't think his next clause follows, either from what I have just quoted him as saying or from any considerations adduced by either of us. It does not follow that calling something a miracle, if indeed that is what it is, is "to declare it inexplicable."

If Christianity is true, then miracles not only occur, but can be and sometimes are helpful for getting people to see reality more clearly than before. It would seem that Scott recognizes that. He writes:

....what we ought to say depends upon how we interpret the world. If we are religious--in particular, if we are Catholics, for whom God's Incarnation is just one of infinitely many ways in which our world is shot through with God's literal presence among us--then there will be cases where it will be within the "rules of the language game", as it were, for us to declare that some phenomena are "miraculous", by which we mean not merely that we can find no "scientific" explanation for them, but that we believe that we can see the mind--and hand--of God at work in the event in a way that we do not always notice it in other events.

It's important to point out here that the following "rules of the language game" as Scott describes is cognitively quite significant. Seeing the hand of God at work in some extraordinary event, thus regarding it as a miracle in a theologically significant sense, is not just playing a language-game. It is a way of forming a belief that, in turn, either elicits assent to a wider and quite powerful set of beliefs or confirms one in holding that set. One thus maintains the particular belief about the miraculous event, and the set of beliefs thereby confirmed, as true. That's part of what it is to play the language-game being specified. Accordingly, coming to see some extraordinary event, inexplicable in purely naturalistic terms, as a miracle in the relevant sense is not to declare the event "inexplicable" full stop. It is to explain the event in terms of a wider, non-scientific set of beliefs within which regarding the event as a miracle makes sense. So miracles are certainly explananda within a cognitively significant language-game, even if the mere act of classifying an event as a miracle explains nothing in itself.

At the same time, miracles function to an extent as explanantia, as a kind of explanation, within that language-game. If one observes a given extraordinary event and comes to see it as a miracle in the relevant sense, then that constitutes a reason for one to assent to the Faith, so that such a reason in turn constitutes part of one's explanation why one assents to the Faith. This is not to deny that, in general and in themselves, such reasons are neither necessary or sufficient for the assent of faith. But they can help people make or maintain that assent, and in some cases they do just that. So miracles can be cited to explain faith, and in that sense they can function as explanantia. But I would go further.

If one comes to see and affirm a given event E as a miracle in the relevant sense, then one commits oneself to holding that there is a non-naturalistic explanation of E's occurrence. Thus, even if one can't actually give such an explanation, the very act of classifying E as a miracle in the relevant sense commits one to holding that, whatever the explanation may be, it is an explanation of a certain sort. I have my own theory about what that sort is. Miracles like those Scott has been discussing are among God's personal, unritualized sacraments: they are both signs and instruments of what divine grace does in general for us, and they help to bring about what they signify. But whether you like that theory or not, no believing Catholic can, as such, deny that miracles function as some sort of explanantia within the Catholic "language-game," just as they are explananda in another way I've described.

The larger lesson here is about the relationship between reason and faith. "Reason" alone, as a faculty, can never "prove" that any proposition belonging to the deposit of faith is true. It cannot even prove, in any given case, that an event lacking a natural explanation has a supernatural explanation instead. But some events, ideas, and people can constitute reasons, within a set of converging reasons, for making the assent of faith to the deposit as a whole, thus showing such an assent to be reasonable even though not intellectually compelled.

Naturalistically inexplicable healings, such as those discussed by Scott, Fr. Martin, and Justin, can certainly count as such reasons under certain conditions well-attested by Catholic (and Orthodox) tradition. In themselves, they are not probative; but for those who "get it," they confirm faith. And that's what the Vatican's miracle-vetting process is designed to help us do. By eliminating naturalistic explanations as far as possible, the process enables the Church to establish one necessary condition for seeing a dead person as so close to God that invoking their intercession can bring the hand of God down to us in an extraordinary way. That supports McCable's "middle position." Faith requires believing that certain extraordinary things have occurred and are the direct work of God; reason helps us to identify what those might be.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

On Evil and Omnipotence

Many moons ago my undergraduate philosophy-of-religion professor, Jonathan Malino (now at Guilford College), assigned as the course's main text an anthology that is still in print today. One of the essays in that anthology was J.L. Mackie's "Evil and Omnipotence" (Mind 64, No. 244 [1955])—a classic restatement of the problem of evil still so much in academic circulation that, fifty-three years after its initial publication and twenty-eight years after its author's death, there is no way even to see the text online without paying somebody for the privilege. (Check out this Google search page for it.) It is no exaggeration to say that nearly all subsequent work on the problem of evil by philosophers writing in English addresses the problem as Mackie formulated it. What is not yet widely known, however, is that the English Dominican Herbert McCabe, who died in 2001, came up with a reply that, in my opinion, is the best so far.

That essay, "On Evil and Omnipotence," is contained in a posthumous collection of previously unpublished work entitled Faith Within Reason, published a year ago. My aim here to is describe McCabe's argumentative strategy well enough to bring out its importance for readers interested in this sort of thing. You might even buy the anthologies.

Since I'm too lazy to type out Mackie's description of the problem, I shall content myself with that of (now ex-) atheist Antony Flew, who wrote in the same year as Mackie: "Either God cannot abolish evil or he will not; if he cannot, then he is not all-powerful; if he will not then he is not all-good." McCabe also quotes that, which is good enough for his own purposes. What is the theist to reply?

The most common reply is the so-called "Free Will Defense," whose main proponent among philosophers for the past generation has been Alvin Plantinga. The main thesis of the FWD is that it is logically impossible for God to create beings who make free choices while ensuring that such creatures make no evil choices; hence, God cannot be blamed for the evil that we freely do, or for its having the natural consequences it does. Now rather than review Plantinga's intricate version, or other versions of the FWD, I point out that, like Mackie and Flew, McCabe considers the whole idea "worthless." I agree. What's his argument?

As is its wont, one of the best theology blogs out there reviewed FWR as soon as it came out. The reviewer, Protestant pastor Kim Fabricius, is somebody with whose views I am often unsympathetic; but in this case, he's right on target. Thus:

McCabe says RIP to the theodicist’s free-will defence, agreeing with Antony Flew that it is “worthless”, but disagreeing why. It is not, as Flew argues, because freedom is not incompatible with determinism – it is, insists McCabe – but rather because there is a mistaken understanding of freedom at work here, namely that God’s activity and ours are in competition, as if (as I would put it) freedom were a zero-sum game. But as McCabe states: “The idea that God’s causality could interfere with my freedom can only arise from an idolatrous notion of God as a very large and powerful creature – a part of the world.”

Quite so. My freedom of action varies inversely with the causal influence other creatures have on me; but God is not a creature, and the relation between his causal activity and mine is not a zero-sum game. God's general causal activity does not consist in making creatures act thus and not otherwise in any particular instance; rather, he creates them both as beings of such-and-such sorts and in their actuality, which includes their activity. God actively and continuously bestows being-as-actuality on us, and in that sense causes even what we do freely. (From the standpoint of theology strictly so-called, a big advantage of McCabe's view, which is essentially that of Aquinas, is how it undergirds "synergism.") Accordingly, the question whether we exercise free will does not, in general, have anything to do with God's degree of causal influence on us, as if it made sense to measure such a thing like we do in the case of creatures. In his general governance of the world, God causes us and our actions in the same way and to the same extent, even granted that some of our actions are free. (Of course that claim depends on the assumption that, as a conceptual matter, causation need not always consist in necessitation—but I don't think such an idea is as controversial today as it was fifty years ago, when Elizabeth Anscombe re-introduced it.) And so it is just wrongheaded to say that it's impossible for God to create a world in which rational creatures always but freely choose what's good. It is perfectly compatible with human freedom that God create such a world, even though he has not in fact created most of us like that.

Such an account does not have freedom being compatible with
determinism—the thesis that whatever we do is necessitated, and thus determined, by factors outside our control. For to act freely is, among other things, to have determined for oneself at least one of one's motives for acting thus-and-such. But it does make human freedom compatible with our being predestined to do only what's good; for in such a scheme, free will is exercised only within the ambit of what's good, and not as a choice between doing good and doing evil. Such, after all, is the freedom of God, both in himself and as incarnate in Christ; and that's the kind of freedom in which the blessed in heaven participate. Such indeed is an indispensable component of the very goal of the Christian life, even if those of us in via haven't got there yet and enjoy only that immature freedom for which sin is still very much a possibility. Hence the FWD, which entails the claim that freedom is incompatible with predestination to the good alone, won't do.

What, then, is McCabe's defense against the problem of evil? It comes in three parts.

The first is to narrow down the problem. In discussing the problem of evil, it is common to distinguish between "natural" and "moral" evil. McCabe simplifies that by labeling it the distinction between "evil suffered" and "evil done." And he says that evil suffered does not pose a "problem" of evil at all. That's because it is in the very nature of physical reality that evil suffered be strictly relative: evil is suffered by some creatures as the good of others or of the whole. To use McCabe's examples: it's bad for the lamb to be eaten and thus die, but it sure is good for the lion doing the eating; getting sick from an infection, which is bad for us, is positive fulfillment for the little pathogens. That's how it is with Nature, including evolution. To suppose that the material world is evil just for being like that, inferring therefrom that the creator of such a world is evil, is to agree with the Manichees that biological life, merely as such, is evil. McCabe says that the Manichean thesis would be "very difficult to show." I would go further: St. Augustine showed why it's untenable.

For McCabe, the problem is not with evil suffered but with evil done. He poses the question thus (FWR, p. 82; I've added the bullets):

If we can reconcile human wickedness with the goodness of God, then the explanation will certainly cover pain as well. If it is true, as I have maintained, that my free acts are due to God, what about my sins? If God has planned and arranged everything, then it is unfair to make me sin and then send me to hell. I am now going to offer the following propositions:
  • Although God acts in all my activity, free and unfree, he does not make me sin
  • He does not send me to hell, although he does send people to heaven
  • He could prevent me from sinning, and hence prevent me from going to hell, but does not always do so; yet this does not make him guilty.

The second stage of McCabe's defense is his argument for those propositions. Therein he relies on the Augustinian idea of evil as privatio boni, as an absence of what ought to be there. As Rev. Fabricius notes:

McCabe is...excellent on evil as a privatio boni – and at his best with the funny example. Some people, he writes, assume that when we have described evil as a negation we are saying that evil isn’t real. “But we (or I anyway) do not mean this at all. If I have a hole in my sock, the badness of this consists in the absence of wool where there ought to be some. This does not mean that the badness is illusory or unreal. If I jump out of a plane and discover that I have not got a parachute, it is of no comfort at all to be told that the absence of the parachute is not a real thing at all.”

So evil as privation is quite real. But God does not cause the "absence" in an evil action, which absence McCabe calls the "failure" of something to be there that, for the sake of the rational agent's humanity, ought to be there. He goes on:

Now my sins may involve a great deal of activity, but it is never the activity that makes us call them sins. What makes them sins is that this activity amounts to a failure in human living...a failure to behave in the way that human beings ought to behave. Now we can certainly say that God is acting in all the activity that is involved in sinning, but he is equally certainly not acting in the failure which constitutes the sin itself.

McCabe recognizes, of course, that some people charge God with "neglect" in permitting such failures when he could prevent them. McCabe's reply to that charge is the third main stage of his argument, and the part of his paper that most interests me.

After a page or so of explanation and argument, which it's important to read, he says:

When, therefore, I act in a less-than-human way, this is a failure on my part because acting in a human way is what I am for. But the fact that God has not made me act in a human way is not a failure on his part because this is not what he is for. It needs a kind of cosmic megalomania to suppose that God has the job of saving my soul and is to be given bad marks if he does not do that. Whatever he does for us, like creating us in the first place, is an act of gratuitous love, not something that is demanded of him.

Now such a view of God naturally elicits the further question what it could mean that God is good, if that does not mean that he acts as he ought by doing what he is for. McCabe's answer seems unassailable to me. But as this post is too long already, you'll have to read that for yourself.

As Fabricius points out:

...McCabe concludes modestly. He hopes to have “disentangled a puzzle,” but “When all is said and done, we are left with an irrational but strong feeling that if we were God we would have acted differently. Perhaps one of his reasons for acting as he did is to warn us not to try to make him in our own image.”

I believe that the modesty of such a result is actually a virtue. As I argued in my own paper The Problems of Evil, the best the philosopher or theologian can and should do with the problem of evil is to come up with a "defense": to show that the problem is not a logical one of inconsistency among the propositions held by the classical theist. That's a defense against the Mackies of the world. But a theodicy, which would mean showing why God is actually justified in permitting most of us to do evil and all of us to suffer it, is neither possible from any standpoint nor desirable from the standpoint of divine revelation. All we can do is glory in the person and action of Christ as the greatest conceivable manifestation of divine love. No doubt many of us, including yours truly, are inclined to say that, if they were God, they would have acted differently. Yet the very oddity of such a statement is evidence, as if we needed it, that we are out of our depth before God.