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

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Checking in after the Pope

It's tough to keep blogging while caught in the throes of moving and job-hunting. But as things evolve, I'll get a bit more time to keep up next month. This is my brief reflection on Pope Benedict XVI's visit to the U.S. this past month.

Three things struck me: President Bush's obvious admiration for His Holiness; the prominence of the theme of pederasty in the Pope's talk; and the focus of the MSM on the shortage of priests. Each offers more than meets the eye.

Think and feel what you will about the President. His words to and about the Pope were not only true but sincerely meant—so much so that I permit myself to wonder whether Bush, like Tony Blair, will become Catholic. No doubt others have more informed things to say about that than I do.

It was evident that the Pope decided to confront the pain of the clerical sex scandal head-on rather than skirt it with platitudes. Though insufficient to heal the wounds, that was certainly necessary. I'm delighted he had the courage to see that and act accordingly. Praise be to God.

The priest shortage is news so old as to be almost outdated. Some dioceses, such as Omaha, St. Louis, and Denver, are doing quite well with recruiting and retaining seminarians. Yet others are in a world of trouble. Until the Pope's visit, the Archdiocese of New York was looking at having no entrants into next year's freshman seminary class. The vocations director nows says he's receiving a "tsunami" of inquiries from prospective candidates. Let's hope a few end up actually going to Dunwoodie.

There is no shortage of vocations. There is only, in some quarters, a shortage of willingness to recognize, encourage, and foster them. That the needed encouragement comes from this pope is a sign of the Spirit at work.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Is the Catholic Left in this much trouble?

Perusing a site I visit often, I was led to this article from last week by Fr. Andrew Greeley. (I admit not being hooked into the 24/7 news cycle, but for my purposes that doesn't matter.) Its headline is: Obama has become target of sick minds. Having investigated the substance of that assertion, my concern is more about Greeley's mind than about Obama's critics or even the Senator himself, whom I would never support anyhow. And my question is how representative that mind is of Obama's Catholic support.

It goes without saying that some sick minds have attacked Obama. In a country as big and diverse as ours, it would be shocking if a viable presidential candidate were not a target of a few sick minds. Anybody who reads Internet comboxes can easily spot them. But the minds Greeley alleges to be "sick" with "hate" are those of Thomas Sowell, a prominent conservative academic who happens to be black, and Naomi Schaefer Riley, "assistant taste editor" at the Wall Street Journal. You can find their cited articles here and here. Having read those, I find no evidence of mental illness or even of that kind of "hate" which is an evil thing indeed. What I do find is a rather transparent attempt on Greeley's part to turn Obama's "pastor problem" back on the Senator's critics. What causes my concern is the cynicism and ham-handedness of the attempt. Since I don't have time for a detailed presentation, I'll just state my reaction and leave the analysis to those who care to read all three articles at issue.

Greeley would have us believe that Rev. Jeremiah Wright's anti-American and racist words were taken out of context and weren't really hate speech, which rather emanates from Sowell and Riley. But when you read what the latter two wrote, you don't have to agree with everything they say to see that it's not hate speech. Riley's article in particular is moderate, well-researched, and carefully argued. Nor can any contextualizing turn Wright's words into something other than hate speech--which is why Obama repudiated them even as he tried to excuse them. But Greeley won't even admit that they were hate speech; supposedly, the "hate" comes from people who think the Wright scandal says something troubling about Obama. Of course that scandal has receded for now, and I'm not really interested in it for its own sake. But I can't help wondering how representative of Obama's Catholic support we may see Greeley's attitude as being.

Consider, for example, that Obama is the only member of the Senate who has refused to vote for protecting infants born alive during attempts to abort them. On that basis alone, it is simply inconceivable to me how an informed Catholic could actively support such a candidate without mental gymnastics of the degree one observes in Greeley's article. The gymnastics are certainly far less plausible than the arguments his article condemns as "sick." That worries me.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

New sins and other fictions

Strictly speaking, there aren't any new kinds of sin, at least not of the "deadly" sort. There are only various ways, some newer than others, of manifesting the "seven capital vices" or "deadly sins" in action. A "sin" is simply a kind of action that manifests at least one of those capital vices. The possibilities afforded by technology alone expand apace; and for those entertained by evils as imaginary as they are egregious, there's always the 1995 movie Seven. What I find more entertaining than the movie, though, is the hash so many people keep making of an interview last month with Archbishop Gianfranco Girotti of the Apostolic Penitentiary (!). His words were as highly publicized as they were misunderstood, and were highly publicized largely because they were misunderstood. When it comes to the Church, fiction sells well when packaged as fact—just as theory, such as The DaVinci Code, sells well when packaged as fiction. They'll sell whatever makes the Church look silly or sinister—preferably both, for those with the wit to manage it.

I was first alerted to the hash last month by reading this article from the Torygraph, which was so confused that nobody who really knows moral theology could take it seriously. The notion that new sins, mostly against our planet's ecology, could somehow replace or even augment the seven deadly sins is just the sort of freshman error that Ethics 101 corrects, or could correct if students were tested on it. I doubt such a silly thought, let alone the words, had even occurred to Archbishop Girotti. In fairness, I brushed the story off because, of course, one cannot expect any better from the secular British press when it comes to Catholicism. Yet now we've got this piece of OpEd tripe from the New York Times.

Its author is Eduardo Porter, a Mexican economics journalist who now belongs to the Good Grey Lady's editorial board. I suppose it's too much to expect the American newspaper of record to get somebody with a substantive background in Catholic theology to write about this topic, but maybe that's only because they couldn't find any such person willing enough to embarrass themselves. But there is a passage in Porter's piece that merits close attention, if only because it contains the giveaway about what's really going on:

Norms encoded hundreds of years ago to guide human behavior in a small-scale agrarian society could not account for a globalized postindustrial information economy. Polluting the environment, drug trafficking, performing genetic manipulations or causing social inequities, new sinful behaviors mentioned by Msgr. Gianfranco Girotti, regent of the Vatican Penitentiary, are arguably more relevant to many contemporary Catholics than contraception.

As Professor Scott Carson observes:

Ah, yes, of course, contraception. What a surprise to find that the sin of contraception is so very old fashioned as to be no longer relevant to modern Catholics. I don't suppose the prevalence of, say, lust, in contemporary culture could have anything to do with the contemporary Catholic (and, well, let's face it, everyone else's, too) attitude towards the teaching on contraception. It also comes as no surprise that the "new" mortal sins amount to a typical listing of leftist Shibboleths (which is not to deny that some of them probably really are sins, at least when engaged in by individuals).

What Scott says is true, but I don't think he's quite got the problem nailed here. It's worse than he suggests in his post, though I suspect he would agree with what I shall now say.

People like Porter, who is presumably from a Catholic background, are given to depicting the Church as struggling with irresolvable tensions between ancient dogma and modern truths. There are several reasons for that, not all of which motivate all the Porters. But one reason this particular song-and-dance sells is not hard to grasp. If the Church is really engaged in such a hopeless struggle, then of course those ancient teachings of hers which are also unpopular not only can but should treated by Catholics as bygone relics with no spiritual relevance for today. That holds especially in the moral sphere, and in the moral sphere it holds especially with regard to sex. Hence Porter's reference to contraception. If the Church's well-known but poorly understood teaching on that topic is just a bygone relic, then Catholics can plausibly claim the right as Catholics to sexual activity intentionally shorn of its primary biological purpose, thus sparing themselves the likelihood of great trouble and expense. After all, it's just too hard to have a jolly good sex life if you take Catholic sexual morality straight up. So we needn't and don't.

But Porter is a bit more sophisticated than that. Quoting a fellow economist, he holds that “[r]eligions are in the unusual situation in which it pays to make gratuitously costly demands. When they weaken their demands they make on members, they undermine their credibility.” So then the question becomes how the Church can strengthen her moral credibility in an era when her old teachings about sex are widely ignored and often ridiculed even by Catholics. And the answer is now ready to hand: create a list of new sins to feel guilty about and repent of! Hence Msgr. Girotti's pronouncements. Or so goes the theory.

But the theory doesn't hold up. The idea behind Catholic moral teaching, whether old or new, is not to enhance the Church's marketing appeal by making "gratuitously costly demands." If that were the idea, then the old gratuitously costly demands would do just as well as the new ones; indeed, in some quarters the old ones are doing quite nicely. Nor is the idea to increase market share by making new demands that reflect "leftist shibboleths" (to use Scott's phrase) and are thus, presumably, less likely to be ignored. If you think about it even for a moment, it becomes obvious that the people most likely to buy leftist shibboleths are least likely to be motivated to become (or remain) Catholic by virtue of the Church's adopting them. If your world-view is formed primarily by the secular left and only secondarily by the Church, you're not going to find anything in a fashionably leftist Church that you haven't already got elsewhere.

My hunch is that the Eduardo Porters of the world know that perfectly well.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Thoughts on the road, especially about atheism

I've often heard it said that if you want God to laugh, tell him your plans. Indeed: which is why it is even more often said that life is what happens when things don't go according to plan. I've given up even trying to figure out what the ancient pagans called fortuna, and what we moderns instinctively call "luck" whether we are religious believers or not. But if we are Christians, we must call the mystery "providence" for those who believe. Luck becomes meaningful as providence to the extent that it becomes a narrative of God's love for us and, through us, for all. And it becomes that to the extent we offer it as such, to him, in faith. Coincidence becomes luck; bad luck becomes good luck; good luck becomes providence. "And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose" (Romans 8:28).

I've been thinking about all this because of why I've been travelling again. Over the Easter weekend, I had to interrupt not just my blogging, but also what I thought was my search for meaningful work, in order to deal with a family emergency. Having played my due role in the latter chiefly by my presence, which I've never thought of before as a healing factor for anybody, I found that an even better opportunity for the former was presenting itself. I am now in the process of exploring that opportunity. I wish I could say more and say it publicly; but as usual in my life, whatever it is that's supposed to happen is not happening with the speed and clarity I would prefer. Much depends on the choices I freely make, especially on my choices about the seemingly smallest of practical matters. It is a sore trial for a philosopher who prefers thought and talk to action—thought and talk about Big Things as opposed to little things, which really aren't little when you see them aright, as the youngest Doctor of the Church taught us.

Such is the insight in light of which I've been pondering a combox dialogue between two bloggers who know each other in real life from their time at UC-Berkeley. They do not hide their real names, which are "Arturo" (a Catholic) and "Patrick" (an ex-Catholic atheist). Now I shamelessly admit that I read those guys periodically because they have said nice things about my writings. Arturo often comments here, and Patrick has written favorably about my take on the problem of evil. I also note that the views Arturo expresses in the post heading the combox I've linked to do not surprise or disturb me in the least. I could quibble with him, certainly, in the way professors whose worldviews are very similar quibble with each other in the faculty lounge as a way to avoid real duties for a bit. But Patrick's brief adumbrations of his loss of faith astonished me. I believe they are worth addressing for a wider public.

In the aforesaid combox, he wrote:

...I have seen holiness as a transformative and inspiring power, both first-hand and second-hand; but my knowledge of human nature has expanded to the point where even this holiness seems better explained in natural psychological terms. The most radical avatars of this kenosis (Mother Teresa, Therese of Lisieux, and the examples in my own life) seem to be driven by interior anguish, doubt, guilt and darkness even (and especially) in their most luminous moments to others. Suffering molds character, self-inflicted inner suffering most of all; and the particular nature of the “bad conscience” keeps its bearer on the path of humility we marvel at most in our saints. Catholic theology has explanations for this as well, but I’ve come to find a psychological explanation more and more probable.

Prima facie, what's curious here is the insouciance of the juxtaposition. Patrick fully acknowledges the state of holiness, and understands what it often involves in the souls of the saints; yet he calmly states that he finds "psychological" explanations for the interior struggles of the saints "more and more probable" than those of theology. In a post of his own, Patrick expounds further what he takes to be the relevant concept of probability, and does so as part of a "A Prolegomenon of Prodigious Length to the Further Explanation of my Apostasy."

Reflecting on Patrick's thoughts, though, I find myself astonished by the assumption that "psychological" explanations somehow compete with "theological," which seems to be a particular case of the more general assumption that scientific explanation competes with theological explanation. I find that general assumption simply incomprehensible. I suppose one could assign a Bayesian probability to somebody's coming to believe, or disbelieve, that there is such a God as classical theism holds, given their experience and reasoning ability. This is why Patrick can and does say this:

Thus there is an implicit notion of subjective probability in all the claims we make, even the firmest ones; and the reason that I count myself an atheist today is not because of one knock-down argument against the existence of God, but because the total scope of my human experience leads me to assign the existence of the Christian God a very small probability.

What Patrick is doing in that sentence is stating an undeniable empirical fact about himself. But that is biography, not metaphysics. What I find so astonishing is that Patrick is confusing explanation with justification in a rather elementary way. Given the concepts and experiences Patrick cites, it makes perfect sense that he would be an atheist. But he has said nothing to rule out the live possibility that both scientific and theological explanations of reality could both be true, at different levels of explanation where calculations of probability cannot be univocally made. For a brief take on what that might look like, I suggest this. But that which I and other theists have to say about explanation is less interesting to me at the moment than what Patrick himself is doing.

His aim seems to be to avoid the cardinal sin of "self-deception" and face up to reality with an unflinching concern for objective truth. I applaud that. I have always believed that what really matters is not what matters to any of us as individuals, but what matters period, if there is such a thing and whatever it may be. And I read Nietzsche in college too; I took him seriously enough to write my first philosophy paper about him. But it does not seem to have occurred to Patrick, yet, that being an atheist can be just as much a result of self-deception as being a theist. When discussing the relative rationality of belief and disbelief in God, what matters is not such motives for belief as are peculiar to this-or-that person, which are indeed subjective. What matters is whether both sides can agree on a set of objectively applicable norms for rational assent in such matters, and what those norms are thus taken to be. Much of the difficulty in debates between atheists and theists arises because neither side is as clear about this as they need to be. I don't think Patrick has achieved the requisite clarity yet. But I won't put him down by speculating as to why.