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

Friday, December 24, 2010

Taking Stock of our Inner Scrooge

The unregenerate Scrooge got and gets a bum rap. Of course he was cruel, selfish, cynical, and unbelieving. But so are all of us, to the extent we fail to internalize the message of Christmas. Scrooge is the old Adam (and Eve) within everybody past the age of reason, saying secretly or not so secretly "Bah, humbug" to the vulnerability of God in the Christ Child. It is not obvious that our inner Scrooge is wrong. If it were, divine revelation would have been unnecessary.

Nor is the truth of the revelation in Jesus Christ itself obvious. That a baby, sucking at a breast and needing diaper changes, was God, is not obvious. It is not obvious that, as an adult, he would save humanity from itself by letting himself be tortured and executed as a threat to the powers-that-be. It is by no means obvious that the vulnerability of God is the most important means by which he manifests his love and power to us. The Manger is as much a paradox as the Cross, and for the same reason. That must be recognized and acknowledged before we can internalize the message. Until we do, all we have are scapegoats for cleansing ourselves of evil. Scrooge unregenerate is a literary scapegoat; but not even creating real ones, which we do all the time, can effect transformation.

By the same token, however, it is not unreasonable to embrace the paradox. Our world teems with violence, exploitation, and filth that pose their own paradoxes. Wars are always breaking out, simmering, or threatening; most are the usual grabs at power and wealth, wasting countless lives in the process. But a certain class of monotheist still kills the innocent in the name of God "the Merciful, the Compassionate." Before they can see the light of day, when they would become even more inconvenient, children are regularly slaughtered in the name of freedom and life for women. Drug- and sex-trafficking entrench forms of slavery even worse than the buying and selling of human beings for their unpaid labor—itself a practice which it took humanity until the 19th century to begin to see as wrong. We degrade the ecosphere as a whole to support "economic growth," thus coming ever closer to killing the goose while we debate whether there is any problem at all.  We rack up unprecedented levels of debt, public and private, thus robbing our children and grandchildren—who, thanks to contraception and abortion, won't be numerous enough anyhow to support us in the style to which we have grown accustomed. We are now on the verge of recreating life through genetic manipulation when we can't even live life now with enough sense and compassion. Those who most loudly champion "science," a human discipline that has indeed increased knowledge and improved life, expect us to believe that life is from nothing, to nothing, for nothing. Does life not seen and appreciated through the paradox of the Manger and Cross make more sense than life seen through it? I for one cannot think so, and I have a lot of company.

Yet even I and that company often have a hard time seeing the urgency of living the message of Christmas. Even when we do, we have a hard time living it. That signifies the unregenerate nature which made redemption necessary. We are animals commanded to become gods (cf. John 10:34; 2 Peter 1:4). On the other hand, we can thank God that our nature is not wholly corrupted. That is why even unbelievers can appreciate Christmas. The challenge for believers as well as unbelievers is to move beyond sentimentality to celebration, beyond appreciation to transformation. Since we cannot meet that challenge ourselves, the first step is to get out of the Child's way. My prayer is that we have the courage to do so.

Friday, October 08, 2010

"Efficacious grace": why not everybody?

As I understand the concept, grace is "efficacious" when it ensures that there will be no "mortal" sin, i.e. when it ensures that the recipient will never lose the divine life within. St. Thomas Aquinas thought some people were granted efficacious grace, and some Catholic theologians argue that Mary Mother of God had it, perhaps from her conception and certainly from the Incarnation. That would explain the tradition of East and West that Mary was "sinless." She didn't just happen to have avoided serious sin; the way in which she was "full of grace" ensured she would be free of serious sin, and thus a fitting vessel to be Mother of what St. Augustine called "the whole Christ": Jesus plus the Church-over-time. Such grace was merited not by her, but only by the Passion of her Son. Yet I have found that, when non-Calvinist Christians hear the claim that anybody has been granted efficacious grace, they immediately ask: why didn't God do that for everybody? The question is asked as though the absence of a knockdown answer would be a reason to disbelieve in efficacious grace. I shall argue that it would not be.

Call the hypothesis that God grants everybody efficacious grace 'EEG' for short. The first thing I'd say is that the above question presupposes something we cannot know: ceteris paribus, God would have good reason to give everybody efficacious grace. Now one might object at once that we surely can know there is such a reason: it would just be "better" for people if God precluded the possibility of serious sin. If EEG is possible, then that supposition seems reasonable enough. And it must be conceded that EEG is logically possible, in that it would be compatible with God's goodness and power, prescinding from what's actually been created and redeemed. But that doesn't establish that EEG is really possible. Countless things are logically possible for God which, all the same, are not possible given what he's already done. That's part of what motivated the old and crucial distinction between God's potentia absoluta and God's potentia ordinata.  The former is a much broader category than the latter, and the mere fact that EEG falls within the former is no reason to believe that it also falls within the latter. So far, we have been given no reason to believe that EEG is possible given the general order of creation God has actually decreed—and that's aside from the question whether anybody's actually been given efficacious grace.

That "general order" of things is, I take it, the proximate reason why we all (with the few usual exceptions understood) inherit "original sin"—a state of alienation from God that only our first parents did a thing to bring about. Unless the general order of creation is such as to ensure the inheritance of original sin once the first sin was committed, there's no particular reason to believe that original sin is anything more than an arbitrary imposition on those who aren't responsible for it. Of course God is incomprehensible: we can't fully wrap our minds around God's essence or even his providence. But as the Pope argued well in his Regensburg address, that does not mean that any of God's actions are arbitrary. Even when God's "reasons" for doing certain things are opaque to us—which they often are—and even when they are not necessitating—in the sense that, if we knew them, they would not show that God had to do what he did rather than not—just their being God's reasons suffices to make his actions rational. For God is, among other things, Wisdom itself.

Now given that God has decreed a general order of things within which innocents inherit original sin, there's no reason to believe that EEG is possible without violating that order. Why? Well, as a matter of fact, God doesn't give efficacious grace to most people. If that choice is not arbitrary, that's almost certainly because everybody's getting it would undermine the integrity of said order, which would be tantamount to overthrowing it. At any rate, I can't think of any other reason, and I would never say as a Catholic that God arbitrarily decrees that some people are guaranteed heaven while most are not. It's more reasonable to suppose that he has his reasons for giving efficacious grace only to a few. Hence if, as is generally understood, God's decreeing the general order of things is eternal, then it's not possible for him to do anything to undermine that order's integrity. This is why, in general, miracles must be rare—at least relative to the sum total of events. But God can still do occasionally what he cannot do in the general course—such as grant efficacious grace.

It won't do to object that my defense is idle because the putative "general order of things" already entails the falsity of EEG. For the original question has force only on the supposition that EEG is possible given the rest of said general order—i.e. that EEG is really possible, not just logically possible. Only then could it be argued that it would have been "better" for God to have given everybody efficacious grace, ceteris paribus. But my argument is, precisely, that there is no reason to adopt the original supposition.

Even so, there is another objection worth considering. It can be posed by reframing the original question. The question is no longer, simply, why God doesn't grant efficacious to all if he grants it to some; the question rather, becomes why God decreed that order of things in the first place, when he could have decreed a different one in which EEG would have been the case, or at least possible. Although that question cannot be answered with doctrinal certainty, it is at least a fair question.

My answer, I believe, is traditional: God has good reason for decreeing an ordo salutis characterized by infinite, radical mercy rather than one in which that degree of mercy would be unneeded. An order in which nobody seriously sinned would be one in which either nobody is called to theosis at all or nobody is allowed to lose the divine life to which we are called. Theosis, assuming that's our vocation, would be a given and a guarantee, not a process which can fail by human choice. But the Incarnation, Passion, and Resurrection of the Son indicate that God had reason to manifest his love for us as infinite, radical mercy. The Passion would not have occurred if serious sin had not, and would not have manifested the degree of mercy it does if serious sin had not been virtually ubiquitous. The virtual ubiquity of such sin is incompatible with EEG. Yet it is not only compatible with, but apparently necessary for, the degree of mercy and love that God actually shows us. And that very degree of mercy is reason enough for Love itself to show it.

At this point, the only objection I hear is one that I've heard before: EEG is false because efficacious grace is per se incompatible with human freedom. Whatever would preclude human freedom is a fortiori incompatible with a free response to divine grace, which is what God beckons each of us to make. Hence there can be no efficacious grace for anybody, not just for everybody.

But there is a fairly obvious response to that objection. It is the belief of East and West that baptized infants who die before becoming psychically capable of serious sin go to "heaven," i.e. live forever in a state of blessed union with God. For them, theosis is a given not a process—at least not in this life. Is any Christian theologian prepared to say that such fortunate souls are mere automata who, as such, cannot love God? Of course not. If, as the present objection rightly assumes, love requires freedom, then such souls are free even though they've never had any opportunity to commit actual sin. By the same token, all the blessed in heaven are unaable to sin. Accordingly, there's no reason to suppose that some small minority of adults on earth can gain the privilege of incapacity to sin only at the cost of their own freedom or of God's justice to the rest of us.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Back, with evil

Apologies to my vast readership for the weeks of silence. At the beginning of September, I moved from NYC for a new full-time teaching job in Syracuse, which has turned out to be fairly demanding. At the same time, my father is terminally ill and my elder daughter is about to get married—in England. For reasons I won't explain further, my new job makes it much easier to deal with such family matters than staying in NYC would have. So I take this job to be providential. Even so, for the past six weeks I have been kept too busy for blogging. I probably shouldn't be blogging even now, but I can't help it. Another natural-theology issue keeps niggling at me.

I mean, of course, the so-called "problem of evil." I've written about that standard conundrum several times before, most notably here, and I'd love to write a book about it. My excuse for adding to the already staggering literature on the topic would be to show, rigorously, why most of said literature is irrelevant, and to tease out what is relevant. The main purpose of this post is to briefly explain why, and to state the appropriate lesson.

Last month, philosophers James Chastek and Alex Pruss made arguments that serve nicely as a point of departure. But only as a point of departure. First, Chastek's conclusion:
Christianity is utterly incoherent without the doctrine of original sin, which promises and insists upon the suffering and toil of the human race as a consequence of the divine goodness (namely, his justice). We can call this doctrine impossible or absurd, but we can’t very well say that we get the idea that God is omnibenevolent and omnipotent from Christianity and then turn around and say that we have no idea why the human race suffers. Omnipotence and omnibenevolence are a part of a package deal with original sin.
Next, Pruss' conclusion:
In the face of eternity, a finite amount of suffering is just a blip. But does it not beg the question to suppose eternal life in responding to the problem of evil? Not at all. The problem of evil is an argument against theism. Theism makes eternal life for any created persons very likely. Thus, if the problem of evil is to make a significant dent in the probability of theism, the problem of evil has to work even if there is eternal life, or else a good argument against eternal life is needed.
What's helpful about such arguments is their reminder that classical Christian theism, as distinct from a deracinated, generic philosophical theism, goes some way toward showing how an answer to the problem of evil is possible. Such an answer, I argued in the paper linked above, would be defense rather than theodicy. It would not explain how God is justified in presiding over all the unmerited suffering we find in the world, but it would show that his doing so is logically compatible with his being both all-powerful and perfectly good. And if my argument in that paper is sound, then defense is all anybody—theist and non-theist—has a right to expect.

But how, exactly, do Chastek and Pruss help? They invoke the Christian-theist doctrines of original sin and an everlasting afterlife, respectively. I want to argue that, in conjunction with certain other doctrines, that of original sin entails that God could not have prevented our first parents' sin from depriving their descendants of grace without trashing the created order of things. Now Chastek thinks the inheritance of original sin is required by God's "justice." But if that's so, it's only remotely, insofar as God's justice requires that he not trash the created order of things. For the descendants of our first parents did not deserve to inherit such a deprivation: none of us, prior to conception, did a thing to deserve anything, bad or good. But the inheritance of the deprivation is balanced out by the offer to all of an unmerited share in the divine nature. That entails everlasting life. None of us, of course, deserve everlasting life either. If we are all (with the usual few exceptions understood) conceived without grace, we are all called by grace to unmerited glory. That balance is itself just, even though neither end of the scale by itself is fair. This life isn't about fairness. It's about mercy.

Of course none of that shows that God had to set things up in such a way. Nothing could show that. Some would even argue that God is immoral for setting things up that way. Odd as that may sound, it's an argument worth taking seriously. But for the reasons Chastek and Pruss give, it cannot be plausibly argued that such a setup shows that divine omnipotence and omnibenevolence are mutually incompatible on a Christian account of those attributes. That takes the logical sting out of the problem of evil. Raising the problem is a lament and a question; its mere existence is not a logical demonstration of any anti-Christian conclusion.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Resisting the Gnostic impulse

Gnosticism is a perennial impulse. I don't mean all the mythic confabulations that the bewildering variety of Gnostic sects spun during the first three centuries C.E.  I mean a tendency they all had in common. Like the Devil himself, it is deadliest when unrecognized.

To expose that for what it is, however, we need to excavate the two notions that the ancient Gnostics all shared. The first was that the universe as we observe and experience it is evil. It is a prison from which only a few inmates, able to recognize and accept enlightenment about their true situation, have any chance of escape. Second, and on most of the ancient accounts, the world was created by an errant demiurge of some sort who keeps sparks of the divine, our true selves, imprisoned in our bodies. Accordingly, the task of those who want salvation is to escape the clutches of matter altogether and rejoin that ineffable, purely spiritual Pleroma ("fullness") from which the Demiurge had the ill grace to devolve. It all sounds like an elaborate fantasy to most of us today who have heard it at all. And ultimately, that's just what it is. But it actually sprang, and in some forms continues to spring, from a perennial tendency I recognize even in myself: cosmic cynicism.

By 'cosmic cynicism' I mean the attitude which naturally springs up when we disbelieve that the "cosmos," that vast, more-or-less ordered whole we experience, is the product of a Love and a Reason that are one. The cosmos or "universe," in the scientific sense of the term, doesn't care about what we tend to care about most—such as love, goodness, and beauty. Nowadays, of course, many of those who find the universe morally or spiritually wanting tend to be atheists or agnostics. Like most of us, they see much apparently pointless suffering and lament how "the innocent" suffer at least as much, if not more, than the villainous. That fortune and deserts do not seem to coincide is the hard truth motivating believer and unbeliever alike to raise "the problem of evil" as an objection to classical theism. And those who find that objection decisive conclude that, if the universe is created at all, its creator must be immoral, foolish, or both--certainly not the all-perfect God of classical theism. That's what the Gnostics concluded; yet, thanks to the historic monotheistic religions, most moderns don't buy the sort of metaphysics that allows for and requires an errant demiurge. So today's cosmic cynics generally conclude there is no creator in any sense at all. The universe is just a brute fact, brutal in its indifference to our most cherished, sentimental pieties. Humanity is just an evolutionary experiment, probably doomed, and certainly not worthwhile in any objective terms save those of Dawkins' "selfish gene." That is now considered the "enlightened" point of view by most of the culture's clerisies. It's the new Gnosis, sans the old myths and metaphysics.

Yet how much success would a man have if he tried to induce a woman to marry him by pointing out that their genes, together, have a real good shot at beating out many others in the struggle for survival? Not much; and we can't even imagine a woman proposing to a man in such terms. We need our sentimental pieties, if that's what they are, in order to find life worth affirming. But the Gnostic naturalists urge us not to imagine that Reality cares a whit, or is even capable of doing so. And even those of us, the majority, who aren't really naturalist in our philosophy can't help worrying that some version of naturalism might be true. After all, most scientists are naturalists, and science is the most successful form of intellectual inquiry we've ever come up with. Scientists are today's bearers of "enlightenment." So as we go on being human, indulging our sentimental pieties, many of us can't help being at least a tad cynical about it as we take our cues from the enlightened.

That kind of cosmic cynicism, which we might call "tough-minded despair," isn't just modern. In fact, it has always been with us. One finds it in such ancient philosophers as Democritus and Lucretius, and I suspect that their attitude was more widespread than the written record indicates. But the Gnostics had much larger followings than such thinkers. That's because most people have never been able to believe that the universe is just a brute fact which neither requires nor admits explanation in terms of something beyond it. There must be some sort of story behind it, even if the self-styled experts tell us otherwise. Or so most people have always thought. So we might see Gnosticism properly so-called as cosmic cynicism combined with a metaphysics that at least purports to explain why such an ultimately futile setup as the universe came to be.

But when we look at Gnosticism that way, it becomes clear almost at once that the impulse behind it isn't limited to either Gnosticism properly so-called or to secular, metaphysical naturalism. The largest Eastern religions—Hinduism and Buddhism—don't seem to value this life all that much either. For them, the goal is to attain nirvana by escaping the universe, understood as an endlessly cycling wheel of death and rebirth—and we do that, roughly, by accumulating good karma. "We gotta be good here so we can get outta here." That's the same impulse as the one behind Gnosticism. The Christian notion that creation is a positive good, freely created in love by a personal God, whose aim is to unite it to himself through the divinization of his rational creatures, is not really what we get in Hinduism, Buddhism, or in most other religions originating East of Iraq and west of Hawaii. The largest of them incorporate a cosmic cynicism. The Universe is something to be left behind, not elevated and transformed, when we reach whatever our goal is supposed to be. It's just maya, illusion: the Self's hiding from itself.

One even finds cosmic cynicism in the Bible, from the mouth of Qoheleth. Ecclesiastes got included in the canon largely because it's a kind of reverse preparatio evangelica for the Messiah. But it only works that way when messianism becomes apocalyptic and universal—which is just what we find in Judaism as it approached the time of Jesus of Nazareth. Ultimately, the only antidote to cosmic cynicism is the belief that the Universe is both rational and good, because the Reason that created it has a reason based in Love for doing so. That belief was the engine behind the development of modern science, which began in the Christian Middle Ages.

For most of us, though, belief in the goodness and rationality of the cosmos comes only by faith through an authority that transcends human reason. We're pretty cynical about authority these days. And that's the other main reason it's so hard to resist cosmic cynicism. We accept the authority of scientists, more or less, because science works, more or less, in a way that observation and common sense enable us to appreciate. But the things of the spirit? If there is such a thing as "spirit" at all, we seem to face only competing authorities about what it is and what, if anything, it's for.

That is why, I believe, Newman was right to argue that in the end, the only choices are Catholicism and atheism. That choice is not logically exhaustive, but I am convinced the future will show it to be existentially so. Among human beings, only the bishops of the Catholic Church, united with the pope as their chief, claim to be given authority by a God who can neither deceive nor be deceived to say what God has revealed. If there is no such authority, then we cannot know what God has specially revealed, and hence we can maintain no lively sense that God, even if he is Reason in some sense, is Love. We can have only opinions about what various people have said, written, and done about God, assuming there is one. And in the era of postmodernism, we are as cynical about opinions as we are about everything else.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Where's the joy?

Almost every American past puberty knows the old Wendy's hamburger slogan: "Where's the beef?" Used as a metaphor, it summarizes part of why I majored in philosophy and came to be still more interested in theology. The other half is summed up by "Where's the joy?" I started asking myself that question about life as a teenager after I had read as much Lewis, Tolkien, and Chesterton as I could. It's the question more people need to be asking themselves. We all want both, but fewer can articulate the longings expressed by the former than those expressed by the latter.

What I mean is illustrated by a contrasting pair of items from the blogosphere. Such items at least have the advantage of being easy to retrieve.

Consider theologian Rusty Reno's First Things "On the Square" piece Homosexuality and the Moral Failure of Higher Education.  Discussing why the affirmation of homosexuality has become a key benchmark of the rigorous orthodoxy enforced on secular campuses, he concludes:
Thus the need to use a kind of intellectual Agent Orange to destroy even the slightest judgments of immorality, because they reinforce what the voice of conscience keeps telling us, and what we would like to avoid hearing. Those who say that homosexual acts are immoral are oppressors, because their words—however dispassionate, however well-reasoned, however subtly expressed, however concerned for others—agitate consciences and block the free flow of desire.

Indeed, even those who are diffident are under suspicion, because that voice of conscience needs complete support to be suppressed. In the cause of sexual liberation nothing is acceptable short of full affirmation, or at least a scrupulous silence that expresses no reservations.

Sexual liberation is a Gucci freedom. Upper middle class Americans possess the resources to get a great deal of what they want, and part of what they want is sexual liberation. It’s not surprising, therefore, that the modern institution most closely associated with elite culture—higher education—should devote a great deal of energy to removing those who believe in moral limitations.
The well-known phenomenon Reno describes instances a larger phenomenon that philosopher J. Budziszewski calls "the revenge of conscience." Read both pieces in full. Now I am not primarily concerned to argue that peoples' consciences ought to tell them that sodomy, whether practiced by gays or straights, is immoral. I'm not even primarily concerned with the question how to tell the difference between the moral and the immoral. What I'm struck by today is the deep-seated joylessness of the new secular orthodoxy in general, and by that of complete sexual autonomy in particular. I've known plenty of people who live by that ideology. Such autonomy, when lived as though it can really be had, leads to many things—most of them bad. Yet even those who defend it passionately do not argue that it leads, in the long run, to what Lewis called "joy." Even old queens living together in a distant parody of marriage wouldn't tell you it does—at least not the ones I've known. Yet that joy, deep down, is what we all want—even though the self-styled best and brightest are ideologically committed to viewing it as "nothing but" one of the brain's evolutionary adaptations. Nothing-buttery is not tasty.

Now consider, by contrast, this story from Rod Dreher about how God gave him the woman he fell in love with and married. It's almost four years old now, and I wish I had seen it sooner. When I finished it today, I was in tears. What an affirmation of prayer in true faith, and the joy that it leads to!  The story of the Drehers' meeting, love, and marriage is an instance of how God wants things to be, at least for those called to Christian marriage. Whatever is natural, as opposed to what is anti-natural, can be a fit occasion for joy.

But the thing about joy is that you can't get it by striving for it directly. Doing that, in fact, loses it. You get it unbidden, and it leaves one with Sehnsucht, a poignant longing for the Reality toward which even the greatest of earthly beauty and joy only points. It is a law of spiritual nature that one only gains what joy is about by leaving joy aside to do what one must, while offering the resulting abnegation to God and remembering the joy. That's what Jesus did. That's what the ideologues of radical autonomism, sexual or otherwise, cannot do. If they remember joy at all, they think it can be had, or at least preserved, by doing what feels best. Sometimes, that is true—when what feels best coincides, like a husband and wife making love, with what we ought by nature to be doing. But only then. If we seek joy on our terms, we end up with ennui: the intimation of the nihil of evil, not of that Reality which is the source and goal of all.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Yes! A devotions meme...

The Anchoress has tagged me to follow her example and name my five favorite devotions. I am honored. They are:
  • The Jesus Prayer
  • Meditating on the Bible readings for the day
  • The Memorare
  • The Sacred Heart Novena
  • Meditating on the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary
I won't provide you with links. Those of you who don't know some or all of those devotions may Google them with profit.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Organizing apologetics

Perhaps I'm weird, but I must admit that, even when I was alienated from the Catholic Church in youth, I never had any principled difficulty with the faith/reason relation. I always took for granted that the two are compatible, even before I learned that the Church teaches as much. Of course, and like most other thoughtful people, I did have difficulties with certain specific issues. But the Catholic Church has shown, at least to me, that she has means to address such issues reasonably without compromising what she says is de fide.

As we all know, though, more than half the Christian world disagrees. I say "more than half" because, even though about half of all Christians were baptized in the Catholic Church, many educated Catholics reject what I've just said the Church has shown me. The two most common objections to Catholicism one hears from educated Christians, including some who are nominally Catholic, are: (1) Distinctively Catholic doctrines are not rationally necessitated by the early sources, and so shouldn't be thought to belong to divine revelation as distinct from human tradition, and (2) The course of Catholic doctrinal development yields internal inconsistency at the highest level, so that the Church's claim to infallibility--even under limited conditions--is not credible. It might be useful to others for me to state here, in baldest outline, what I offer as answers to such objections. Such a way of organizing the arguments, if sound and taken to heart, would save a lot of people a lot of wheel-spinning.

(1) misconceives the nature of divine revelation and the assent of faith thereto. Divine revelation does not consist primarily in a set of propositions to be inferred from writings and other evidence from the past. Such things, to be sure, are indispensable for preserving the Church's collective memory of what's been handed on by the Spirit through Sacred Tradition. Yet at bottom, what's handed on is the reality of the decisive encounter between God and man in Christ Jesus. Forms of words, archeological evidence, comparative religion, and so on merely help express that. Now if Christianity is true, then by God's design, the ongoing encounter between God and man takes place through something called "the Church" even though, as is the case with many who hear the call to faith in Christ, it needn't start in the Church. Yet without being in any way limited to the authority of the Church, said encounter always and necessarily depends on a visible, clearly identifiable ecclesial authority which exercises God's own authority as revealer and sanctifier. For without such an authority, the content and power of divine revelation would end up appearing only as a matter of opinion. That, for us, would be no revelation at all, and assent to it, such as it is, would be no faith at all. Despite how different they are in many respects, Aquinas and Newman made essentially that argument. Following them, it's one that I've long made myself.

What about (2)? As an argument, it begs the question either at the outset or in the end. In some formulations it premises, as the only reasonable ones to adopt, interpretations of Catholic doctrine that yield contradictions. But if the Magisterium's claims for itself are true, said premise is false. There must be other reasonable interpretations of Catholic doctrine that are collectively self-consistent, and those turn out to be just the ones the Magisterium itself, the author of the doctrines in dispute, has come to adopt. Given as much, the objector needs to show that interpretations yielding contradictions are ones that the Magisterium itself once adopted, and did so in such a way that its own criteria for infallibility were thereby satisfied. But those who press (2) usually don't try to show that. When they do, they end up begging the question all over again—by assuming a way of applying the criteria for infallibility that the Magisterium itself would reject.

Now it should go without saying, but often needs to be said, that successfully rebutting (1) and (2) does not prove Catholicism to be true. Indeed, given the Catholic understanding of how reason and faith are interrelated, nothing could "prove" Catholicism to be true. Faith is a divine gift that can only be accepted freely. If there were compelling arguments for Catholicism, then those who recognize as much would be compelled to believe, which is not faith. The role of reason in coming to faith is to show that faith is fully compatible with reason, not that reasoning compels it. That, of course, does not rule out the possibility that there are compelling arguments against Catholicism. But it is precisely the task of apologetics to show that there are no such arguments. In this post I've sketched two examples of how to carry out that task. I've elaborated those examples elsewhere, especially on this blog.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

A Rosary Meditation for Job-Seekers

A repost from The Anchoress.

Prayer has power. When everything is falling apart, prayer holds. Any one of us can suddenly find ourselves out of work, and looking at the job opportunities with failing hope and a growing sense of powerlessness that can truly affect both ego and spirit. Once again, we find that the Mysteries of the Rosary help us to identify with Christ, and join our sufferings to His, that all may be One.

Gallarus Oratory, Dingle Peninsula, Eire

A Rosary Meditation for Job-Seekers

First Mystery: Jesus in Gethsemane

Prayer: Lord, I feel stranded and abandoned. Although I am surrounded by well-wishers, there is a sense of isolation. Friends who had pledged support are falling away. No one can know precisely what I am feeling right now; I cannot show them how frightened I am of this uncertain path that lays before me. I know only that it is a path I would not choose for myself. Only you, Christ, understand how I vacillate between trust and heart-gripping fear, between “let this cup pass from me” and “Thy will be done.”

Meditation: As you pray the decade ponder Jesus’ desolation and fear; his humanity here eclipses his own divinity; fear is brought to the fore, acknowledged and lived through, before trust and surrender are able to take hold. Although you may be more frightened right now than you have ever been, you can bring this to Christ. He has been this frightened. He is the knowing companion who understands before you say a word.

Second Mystery: The Scourging

Prayer: When Pilate ordered your unjust scourging he was the authority figure who had no answers; to him you seemed like the minor, bothersome character in a larger drama of governance, bureaucracy and political expediency. From his perspective, your fate was tied to the zeitgeist. I too am perceived to be the minor cog in someone else’s great wheel; my humanity goes unconsidered as I endure a very public humiliation. Each day brings another reminder that I am not able to meet expenses, or to answer the needs of those around me. I fall into doubt and despair, and these tear into my spirit as the Roman’s terrible instruments tore into your flesh. I feel shredded, anonymous. Those watching my ordeal are silent; they contemplate my circumstance, and imagine themselves in my place, as they simply watch.

Meditation: The scourging of Christ was public knowledge; the crowd understood that Jesus was undergoing torture. The people who loved him were powerless to change anything for him; they could only be present. Informing others that you have lost your job and applying for assistance through various agencies are painful exposures. These can be moments of exquisite interior agony that feel like bleeding in public. Knowing your family is also watching, worried and helpless only adds to the sense of hopelessness. Mary had to watch and wait during Jesus’ ordeal, too, suffering for him. In a desperate moment, though neither of them could speak to the other of their grief and pain, each knew they were loved by the other. Though you feel unlovable right now, and there is tension and anxiety, trust that you are loved and being loved, even beyond all barriers.

Third Mystery: the Crown of Thorns:

Prayer: Jesus, we know that all crowns have metaphorical thorns, but upon your head was placed a crown of mockery, meant to further debase you in the cruel manner of bullies. For me, the mockery is not public; it is an interior jeering and snarling at myself. As I seek out jobs that do not exist, or will not be offered to me, my ego is taking a beating; my confidence in my abilities is being shaken. All of my skills, all of my knowledge and experience–these aspects of myself by which I have been defined for so long–are being weighed by strangers who find them unremarkable. The indifference of others is painful, and in that pain I find my own excesses of pride; I see that I have built my life around what I do, rather than who I am. Now, faced with less doing and more being, I feel like a stranger to myself, a false monarch in a castle built on sand. Help me to recollect that I am more than my Curriculum Vitae, that I was loved into be-ing. Remembering this, I beg you to help me see what I was born to be, and to pursue my be-ing, in you for whom there are no strangers.

Meditation: Confidence and pride, ego and attitude are all manifest themselves in how we present ourselves to the world, and how we understand ourselves in response to lifelong feedback. A painful stripping off of these protective psychological layers reveals our shared vulnerability. No matter how successful one is in the eyes of the world, or how humble, when stripped of our self-trappings, we are each of us exactly alike in our need to be loved, protected and valued. Pope Benedict has written, “If an individual is to accept himself, someone must say to him: “It is good that you exist” – must say it, not with words, but with that act of the entire being that we call love.” A prolonged experience of unemployment and refusal can make one feel unloved and irrelevant. But it is good that you exist. Others believe this. Christ knows this. You are meant to know it, too.

Fourth Mystery: Carrying the Cross

Prayer: Christ, when you carried the wood to which you would be nailed, it was a long walk no one else could make. Beaten, exhausted, hungry and thirsty, you trudged along, each step heavy with fatigue. In the heat and dust, your destination seemed to waver, its location uncertain. Weakened, you must have been tempted to give up and let them kill you where you dropped. When Simon of Cyrene was called upon to help you, your burden was lessened, but that only allowed the torturous walk to go on; it was a bittersweet assist. I know something of that. As I find myself depleting reserves I may never be able to rebuild, or having to accept help I would prefer not to need, it is bitter; it feels like a downcasting humiliation. Help me carry my cross as you carried yours, with humble dignity.

Meditation: Humility is a scorned virtue – a cultivated garden our society disdains. Humility is misunderstood as weakness when, in fact, is it the strong foundation upon which dignity and blessings are built. The Messiah washed the feet of his own disciples; he accepted unjust abuse when he could have unleashed retribution. His eventual victory began with acquiescence, with a willingness to become the most vulnerable of all creatures, a human infant. Humility embraced with dignity is a perspective-changer; it brings gratitude, without which there is no room for even the smallest of joys to penetrate, and eventually heal.

Fifth Mystery: Dying on the Cross

Prayer: To be honest, Jesus, remembering your death does not immediately fill me with hope. You died! Planted amid jeering onlookers and gamblers and weeping women, all of your energy spent, you died. That seems hopeless, but because you always invite me to look more closely, I will look at you, crucified, and here I comprehend that everything I am feeling, all of my experiences in this ordeal, have been nailed with you, to the cross. You too were terrified and anxious; you too were abandoned by your friends. You too were publicly shamed, and left to the mercies of weak authority, indifferent bureaucrats and bullies. You too groaned under the weight of your trouble; you were conscious of familial grief; you were stripped and exposed, and humiliated, too. In your crucifixion, you are with me. I join my suffering to yours. Help me to die to my fear, die to my doubt, die to my own narrow demands, so that through you, with you, in you, I may yet arise, again.

Meditation: Dying to self, to one’s own plans, to a worldly ambition, takes great trust. Trust now. Laying your cross upon the cross of Christ, empty your hands; allow your fearful heart to pour itself out before him. Be emptied that you may receive what Christ has for you. In this sort of death, there is only consummation, and therefore a promise of future glory; “I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord, “plans of fullness, not of harm, to give you a future, and a hope.” From Christ’s death on that awful Friday came, finally, the sweetest of Sundays. Time ended with the tearing of the veil, and the rolling back of the stone. The rest is illusion and catching up. There is nothing to be afraid of.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Manhattan Declaration and Christian Principles

See my post at the First Things blog "First Thoughts."   A lot more can and should be said, but as a response to Steve Hutchens of Touchstone, I believe the post is a good conversation starter.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Outside the Magic Circle

With his conservative confrères, British Catholic blogger Damien Thompson likes to call the British Catholic hierarchy "The Magic Circle." The phrase is meant pejoratively, of course. They see the bishops as a self-congratulatory cabal more interested in maintaining its élite status among "the great and good," including and especially the Anglican establishment, than in easing the path of traditional Anglicans into the Church or, more generally, in implementing the Pope's policies for the Church at large. If they're right—and I have independent reason to think they are—the fact itself is disturbing. Whatever the ideological coloration, if any, of a magic circle might be, just being part of a magic circle is usually bad for peoples' souls. It constitutes a culture of privilege that insulates them from the worst criticisms, causes them to think themselves better than others, and makes them resistant to reforms the need for which is obvious to many outsiders. That sort of problem fueled the Protestant Reformation centuries ago. In a sense, the Catholic hierarchy in Europe and the Americas has continued to be a magic circle for a long time. But is that about to end?

With occasional and egregious exceptions, the Church hierarchy has been part of the Establishment, thus enjoying a presumption of good will on the part of government, big business, and high society. Indeed the exceptions, such as in Mexico and Spain for the early part of the 20th century, can be seen largely as reactions against that status. But in an atmosphere of ever-encroaching secularism, the sex-abuse-and-coverup scandals are fast destroying the status and most of what goes with it. I believe that faithful Catholics should greet that development the way Lenin greeted the travails of Russia in World War I: "the worse, the better."

Over at First Things' "On the Square," theologian R.R. Reno has lately been commenting on the iteration of the global scandal in the Belgian Church. In his latest installment, he notes:
Police raids, computers impounded, and holes drilled into crypts so that spy cameras can be inserted. Perhaps the chief investigator’s office was as blindsided as the Vatican, suddenly waking up to the fact that the Church is now outside the magical circle of elite society, and that elite society, always attuned to changes in status, demanded the Church be treated differently. Scrambling to action, they overcompensated with heavy-handed tactics. [Emphasis added]
Generalizing, Reno observes that "after the scandals," the Church in Europe
...has become largely disestablished on the ground, with few going to church (a social reality the consequences of which were masked, perhaps, by the remarkable charisma of John Paul II), and therefore it can no longer retain the privileges of social establishment, one of the most important of which is protection from debilitating criticism.

If I’m right about the larger dynamics at work in the current round of scandals, the Church is in for a tough season. The expulsion from the elite makes her leaders supremely vulnerable.
Already true of the Church in Europe and Canada, I believe that will come true of the Church in the U.S. and the rest of the Western Hemisphere. The Church will be forced in the concrete to recall why cardinals' hats are red. That the trends in Africa and Asia are actually running in the opposite direction is a fact whose significance I shall explain at the end. For now, we must see the travails of the Church in the West as the beginning of a much-needed purification.

Two factors allowed the sex-abuse-and-coverup scandals across the globe to get out of hand: the strength of the old presumption of good will, which obtained as much among the laity as among the clergy, and the inability of the bishops in their magic circles to grasp that moral and legal rules applicable to ordinary people applied to them and their brother priests. Such is the consequence of belonging to a culture of privilege. Politicians, at least in relatively democratic countries, aren't insulated quite as well because their enemies often cannot resist using their peccadilloes against them. It takes more than mere peccadilloes, however, to destroy prominent clergymen. It takes being part of a systemic corruption that hits a moral nerve in the larger society. That's what's been happening. In the long run, that will have proven itself a good thing.

In the late sixth century, Pope Gregory the Great was the first Roman pontiff to describe himself as servus servorum Dei: "slave of the slaves of God." His failure to see anything wrong with the live institution of slavery itself—a blind spot he shared with the entire world of his time—enabled him to adopt slavery as a metaphor for the servant-leadership he exemplified so well. It is that model which so many bishops have forgotten. Indeed, they had started forgetting it in the fourth century, when the emperors Constantine and Theodosius privileged them as officers of the state. The collapse of the Western empire did force the bishops, especially those of Rome, to assume a degree of temporal authority that some of them exercised well. Yet what St. Athanasius said in the fourth century has been true of all too many bishops since, even in Rome: "the path to hell is paved with the skulls of bishops." Of course no earthly or demonic force can destroy the Church; as Cardinal Consalvi pointed out to Napoleon, even the best efforts of bishops have failed to do so. And that much will remain the case. But God is as interested in saving the souls of bishops as he in saving other souls. Hence he will often chastise the bishops by permitting the Church to be persecuted in their persons. Such events remind some bishops—the ones disposed to be so reminded—that they are servant leaders, and that they should expect no easier a fate on earth than that of the One they are called to serve through serving His people.

That's what's starting to happen to the leaders of the Church in what is broadly called "the West." I think the Pope sees it. But he is not in the majority among his brother bishops. The recently retired Archbishop of Brussels, Cardinal Danneels, doesn't see it. Cardinal Sodano, formerly Vatican secretary of state and now dean of the College of Cardinals, doesn't see it. And how many bishops in the U.S. have admitted that their reflexive interest in protecting their culture of privilege, which included protecting a lavender mafia, was the cause of their own complicity in the sex-abuse-and-coverup scandal? It seems that almost everybody gets it but them. Until they get it and change accordingly, things will only get worse for the Church. If and when they do get it, then and only then will things get better.

This is a spiritual law I've observed at work even in my own life. Once, for about a dozen years, I had an academic career. Thus I was part of a magic circle: I got to treat abstractions as realities; I interacted mostly with the cultured and like-minded; I had enough vacation time to actually think and write about what interested me. I didn't have to take work that bored and alienated me just to keep a roof over my family's head. I was very comfortable and began, subtly and insensibly, to think myself immune from the iron laws of ordinary life that the vast bulk of humanity groaned under daily. My fall was slow but sure; I hit bottom when I suffered a severe bout of clinical depression a decade ago. When I recovered, my life became harder than it had ever been. Although I had nobody but myself to blame, it took me another several years to realize that. Aside from a few brief and happy interludes, my life has continued being hard—but no harder than that of most of the world's people, and easier than some. So if my circumstances ever improve enough to let me earn a living in roughly the sort of way I once did, I will not take the privilege for granted. I will be grateful, for I will have been chastened enough to see that all is gift, and that the pleasant gifts are less deserved than the unpleasant ones.

That's what the leadership of the Church needs to learn by experience. A few have, but most have not.  Before there can be resurrection, there must be death. The increasing size and strength of the Church in the global South may be part of the resurrection; it is certainly where the Church's center of gravity is shifting and is likely to remain. But the lessons about to be learned by the Church in her historic base of influence will eventually have to be learned everywhere.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

How "choice" devours itself

Lydia McGrew has coined a chillingly apt metaphor for the culture of death: "choice devours itself." She has applied the metaphor to the specific issues of forced abortion, euthanasia, and "organ conscription," which are quite serious enough in themselves. But I believe her metaphor can be generalized to describe the entire direction that the societies of the secularizing West, and increasingly others too, are taking. The modern, secular, Western understanding of freedom sows the seeds of its own destruction.

In The Abolition of Man (1943)—a book I am not alone in seeing as one of the most prophetic of modern times—CS Lewis argued that "man's power over Nature" really means "the power of some men over others with Nature as its instrument." He predicted that scientific and technical progress in "eugenics," "psychological conditioning," and other areas will in due course give some people the power to remake others as they please. The question will then arise: What criteria will they use to determine how to remake humanity itself? Unless "the conditioners" acknowledge a rational, objectively binding set of moral norms governing themselves and everyone else, their only criteria will be subjective: their own desires, impulses, and preferences.  There would be no norms by which to evaluate, and choose accordingly among, those desires, impulses, and preferences themselves. Such a situation would recall Hume's dictum: "Reason is, and ought to be, the slave of the passions." The conditioned would be the slaves of the conditioners' passions, and the conditioners the slaves of their own. In that sense, might would indeed make right.

Now in one way, Lewis' scenario seems quite fanciful. There has never been a time when people, even those who profess moral relativism in principle, have acted without lip service to the belief that at least some of the moral norms they acknowledge have universal and objective binding force, irrespective of whether this or that set of people also acknowledge it.  Callow undergraduates and ugly drunks aside, hardly anybody is willing to come right out and say that might makes right, full stop. Even Hitler spoke as though the might of the Aryan race went hand-in-hand with its general moral superiority, according to a standard that obtained whether non-Aryans, or unreliable Aryans, recognized it or not.  Lenin, Stalin, and Mao held that their atrocities were justified by the direction of history: dialectical materialism assured us that everything would work out in the end for the benefit of the masses. Even the worst megalomaniacs try to rationalize their libido dominandi in objective terms. Or at least they have so far; for such is the tribute that sophistry pays to conscience, where "conscience" is understood, à la Ratzinger, as the human race's collective anamnesis of the most basic moral truths. So we might think it likely, as some of Lewis' critics have, that once scientific and technical progress give us the ability to remake ourselves, the values by which we do so will be those of most of today's scientific community: rational, liberal, humane. In other words: the values taken for granted by the faculties of secular universities. What would be so bad about that?

The problem is that what's happening along the march for ever-increasing "freedom" and "choice" virtually precludes such a result. For what secular liberalism regards as moral progress, which is indeed making its way throughout Western society, contains within itself a pair of performative self-contradictions too basic to be sustainable. That is what the slogan "choice devours itself" ultimately means.

For the secular liberal, moral progress is thought to consist in facilitating what I call "radical autonomy." From this point of view, what's most precious in the human person is the capacity for fully autonomous choice. Within the limits imposed by the laws of nature and others' "right to choose," what is chosen is considered less important for human well-being than that it be chosen autonomously. That idea has much appeal. In a now-famous opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy put it thus:
At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they formed under compulsion of the State.
To most Americans, that seems unexceptionable: Who, after all, wants the State to force our adopting beliefs on such matters? But that leaves us with two questions: What should those beliefs nonetheless be, and how would we know them to be justified?

As given by secular liberalism, the answer to the first question is that we ought to believe in radical autonomy. The whole tenor of modernity virtually impels us in the West to hold that moral progress consists in expanding the effective scope of such autonomy. The more "liberty," the better. And of course, if all adults are equal in virtue of possessing such autonomy, then it is an injustice to any of them to hold that some choices in the spheres Kennedy named should not be respected by law.  From thence derives much of the support for abortion, assisted suicide, court-imposed redefinition of marriage and family, and other practices thought to protect or expand people's autonomy.

In practice, though, it doesn't quite work that way. Allowing women to kill in their wombs the human lives they've generated, on the ground that respecting women's autonomy requires that, or allowing people to enlist others in their own demise, on the ground that they should be the judge of when their lives are no longer worth living, encourages a habit of thought which makes life more precarious for everybody. And allowing marriage to be redefined so that parenthood, if chosen at all, becomes a purely legal category rather than a primarily biological category just is going to undermine both the stability and the freedom of the family. Mind you, I am not here addressing the question whether abortion, suicide, or same-sex marriage are intrinsically wrong, or only wrong for the most part, or not wrong at all. My point is just this: a habit of thought in which the value of human life is seen primarily in terms of what we can freely choose to do with it, rather than as a gift from some transcendent source uniting reason and love, is a habit of thought which will lead to more and more people becoming victims of others' "choices."

At first that will be, indeed already is, the most vulnerable: children and the elderly. But no principled line, more secure than that drawn by raw power, can be drawn between lives exempt from such a fate and lives subject to it. It's all a matter of what "we" consider valuable, where "we" are the people with the votes and/or the guns. Once the value of life, and the reality of human nature, are no longer treated as givens but as measurable by some sort of calculus among "autonomous" human agents, no other result is possible. That is why, when the "might" in "might makes right" is that of politically institutionalized "choice," choice devours itself. Such is the first "performative self-contradiction" in the ideology of radical autonomism.

The other question I posed for secular liberalism is how we are to know what basic beliefs about the "mystery" of "existence" and "human life" are the ones we ought to adopt. That question is more difficult for secular liberals than most of them realize.

One might think that a thoroughgoing radical autonomist would simply reject the question, thus insisting that there are no such beliefs we "ought" to adopt, as though there were some philosophical standard other than autonomous "choice" for adopting one set over another. But such a stance is so plainly self-defeating that few proponents of "choice" are willing to defend it openly. For if what chiefly matters is the choosing, so that it doesn't matter what we choose unless we're insanely ignoring the laws of physics or inconsistently infringing others' "right to choose," then my freely choosing to reject radical autonomism must be respected as much as other's freely embracing it. But implausible as it may seem, that seems to be the rationale behind the sort of Western "multiculturalism" which cedes more and more ground to Muslim resident aliens claiming the right to be governed by Sharia law.

In almost every major city of Western Europe, we now have a de facto situation in which domestic violence, and the oppression of women generally, is legal on one side of a street and illegal on the other. Don't think it can't happen here. If such a situation be accepted as legitimate in principle, then radical autonomism is thereby giving up its claim to be objectively and universally binding. It can only be seen, even by itself, as just one more "choice" made without prejudice to any other sort of "choice." But if that judgment applies to Muslim fundamentalism, why not to any other brand of fundamentalism, or indeed to any comprehensive belief-system whatsoever? There is no principled basis for making a distinction.

Now to their credit, a few secular liberals, such as Christopher Hitchens, have seen the problem and addressed it. They attack multi-culti cravenness as just that, urging us to buck up and defend some version of secular liberalism as a universally, objectively binding morality incompatible with "religion." But that focuses attention on the second question I raised: how, without some version of what they call "religion," would we know which morality enjoys such status?

Most secular liberals point to the progress of science and democracy as evidence of the truth of their ideology. Our lives are just better, by a host of measures, for those products of modernity. We know more, we're more comfortable and longer-lived, and accordingly we have a wider array of "choices" befitting our personal dignity than did people before the Enlightenment and its effects took hold. What's cited as evidence here is indeed the case; but what, exactly, is it evidence for, other than the fact that it gives some of us more of what most of us find ourselves wanting? What ought people to value and therefore seek, irrespective of what some or most of them actually do value and seek?

Once again, secular liberals have no principled answer to that question. For answering it requires what John Rawls called some-or-other "comprehensive world-view" which, according to him and secular liberals generally, cannot be enshrined in the public sphere without infringing people's autonomy. We are to order our lives together only by investigating which public norms enable more autonomous human agents to get more of what they want by living together than the alternatives would. It's a purely empirical question of maximizing preferences and thus "choice." Aside from that, no vision of life imposing a universal scale of values on people should be embodied in our political institutions.

Now as we've already seen, such a position is self-defeating in its radical form. But let's suppose it can be suitably qualified to avoid that result. Rawls himself admitted that he too has a "comprehensive world-view" (CWV) in terms of which "political liberalism" is to be justified. So the only question becomes: which world-view?

The problem secular liberals have with answering that question is their naturalism, which can be either methodological or, more strongly, ontological. They're always telling us that people's CWVs are shaped by "culture," which in turn is shaped by the laws of biology generally and of evolution in particular. Now granted that is true to some extent, it leaves untouched the question to what extent various CWVs are themselves true, along with the question whether we can choose our CWVs freely, as Justice Kennedy assumes. If people's CWVs are wholly shaped by factors beyond the individual's control, then as Bertrand Russell once quipped, "some of us are determined to be right; others, to be wrong." Right or wrong, we would not be adopting our several CWVs for the reason that they are true, even if we think we are; for whatever our CWVs, our holding them as true is beyond our control, and hence we do not choose to believe them simply on the ground that they are true. Rather, we believe them to be true because we are causally determined to do so. But in that case, why should our CWVs be respected as those of autonomous agents?

A secular liberalism that avoids epistemological self-cannibalism must say not only that certain propositions and norms are those we ought to adopt as part of a CWV, but also that we can know them to be universally and objectively binding, and choose freely, for that very reason, to guide ourselves by them. Assuming there are such propositions and norms, it cannot be said that they bind on the ground that we choose them. That's because, for purposes of decision-making, we can only be said to choose them for reasons inherent in them—not arbitrarily or randomly, and not because were are causally determined to choose them by factors beyond our control.  If we chose them arbitrarily or randomly, then our choices would be no more worthy of respect than any others, and hence we would have no reason to make them as opposed to others. And if we were causally determined to choose them, then we could not be choosing them because they are true, but simply because we have no choice. That's not what secular liberals claim, or seek to claim, as the basis of personal autonomy.

Hence the second performative self-contradiction. Secular liberalism stands as much in need of self-justification as its competitors. It must explain why certain propositions and norms are those we ought to adopt as part of a CWV, how we can know them to be universally and objectively binding, and therefore why we ought to choose freely, for that reason, to guide ourselves by them. But that is precisely the kind of argument it cannot produce if all CWVs are equally products of culture and biology, with none admitting a justification that transcends both. And so if it is not to seek a justification simply in terms of the might of Western secular democracies, and the cultural preferences of their self-styled "enlightened" citizens, secular liberalism must produce an argument for claiming that "choice," within the limits already specified, trumps what is chosen. As I've argued, the only kind of argument that can do that will end up positing things beyond "choice" as universally and objectively binding criteria for choice. There can be no principled objection to including those as part of a CWV that undergirds the res publica. For excluding them in the name of choice deprives choice of the justification it needs to bind. So choice devours itself, unless something higher than choice must regulate choice without crushing it.

Now if there is an argument that is of the needed sort, elicits general assent among secular liberals, and does more than invoke their own preferences, I've yet to hear it. It is taken as almost self-evident that the sort of society in which secular Princeton philosophers are both possible and comfortable is the best kind. But as I've already argued, a CWV like that cannot explain why human life is intrinsically valuable or even why the values of science and personal autonomy trump all others. It cannot supply a sustainable rationale for itself. All it can do is justify a certain sort of "might" to itself, in its own terms, without reference to any transcendent source of reason and love.

For that reason, Lewis was essentially correct. In a society driven by "choice," the people who gain enough power over human nature will have nothing to prevent them from becoming as much the slaves of their own non-rational appetites as the rest of us. "Man's final conquest will be the abolition of man." Or: choice will have devoured itself. Unless, of course, the laws of "Nature's God" are acknowledged and respected as much as "the laws of Nature" themselves.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Toward a theology of vocation

Catholics need a sounder understanding of vocation. The old-fashioned, hard-bitten Catholics I know are comfortable thinking only of clergy and religious as having vocations, which makes a certain sort of sense, but really is too narrow. More up-to-date and optimistic Catholics love to speak of the "vocation" of marriage. On the whole, that way of speaking represents an advance, but it often exhibits muddled thinking. Some even speak of the "vocation" of the single life, which has always struck me as odd. Does God "call" people to lay singlehood out of something else, as though we weren't all born as lay singles?

What people who speak of three basic "vocations" really mean is three "states of life," which is not quite the same thing and shouldn't be spoken of as if it were. More clarity is needed, if only to aid people's discernment and sense of Christian identity. Now I'm sure there's good writing about this topic out there somewhere. I welcome readers' suggestions for that. In the meantime, I tentatively offer a few thoughts that have been stimulated by meditation and discussion, but not by any systematic reading on the topic.

All Christians have the same vocation: the baptismal vocation. In baptism, we die to the old man and rise to new life in Christ. Thus each Christian, even those baptized as infants, become part of
"a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may announce the praises" of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were "no people" but now you are God's people; you "had not received mercy" but now you have received mercy (1 Peter 2: 9-10; emphasis added).
Each of us shares in the priesthood of believers. For those who live to the age of reason, that is manifest when our faith is intentional enough to sustain personal prayer and sacrifice. Those are always necessary for answering "the universal call to holiness" (Lumen Gentium, Ch. V). The ministerial priesthood exists to facilitate and serve that priesthood of believers in certain prescribed ways. Thus the ministerial priesthood, like the life of the non-ordained "religious," is for the Church what the Church is for the world at large. But whether laity or clergy, we all are "called" out of the world to be what Peter says. We all have that vocation.

Marriage and consecrated life are distinct states of life, though they can be combined by married clergy. Yet I dislike speaking of them as two distinct vocations. Both are forms of living that love to which all Christians are called by virtue of the baptismal vocation.  They are two modes of living out the one, baptismal vocation.

But the latter is a clearer mode than the former. If my saying that seems strange, it shouldn't. Until the 20th century, Catholic theologians were reluctant to speak of marriage as a vocation at all. I don't know about the Orthodox, but I suspect the same is true for them. There was a very good reason for that. Most people marry and have children at some point, which is what God intended from the beginning. To speak of marriage as a "vocation" in the strict sense of the term, i.e. as a way of being "called" out of something, suggests that marriage is a special state distinguishing the married from the mass of humanity. But it isn't, really. It's just something most people do at some point, whether they're Christian or not. For those who marry with the right intentions and capacities, of course, marriage is sacramental. But that doesn't make it any more special than just being a good Christian.

Admittedly, given the general breakdown of marriage today, along with people's weakening sense of what sacramental marriage is, it's become more appropriate to speak of the "vocation" of marriage than in the past. To be faithfully married as the Church understands marriage is a noble thing indeed, considering what marriage is in the world today even among Catholics. So there is a sense in which marriage can be well spoken of as a vocation. At the same time, it should be remembered that marriage is not, objectively speaking, as clear a witness to the Gospel as consecrated life involving celibacy.

Marriage can be understood, appreciated, and contracted in purely secular terms. Though that approach to marriage is incomplete from the believer's standpoint, it cannot really be said that married unbelievers aren't married. But leaving aside physical and/or psychological impediments to marriage, a voluntary commitment to lifelong celibacy makes sense only in evangelical and eschatological terms. Hence, as most Catholics used to admit, it's not as appropriate to call marriage a "vocation" as it is to call the clerical state or religious life "vocations." Unlike the married, consecrated celibates really are "called" out of the normal human way of life. To be sure, the way some people live marriage is so exemplary that one can clearly see their marriages as beautiful expressions of the baptismal vocation. Some married folk just are better, holier witnesses to the Gospel than some clergy or religious. But that is more a matter of subjective intentionality than of the objective state itself. We don't expect the married to be holier than the average Catholic, the way we rightly expect clergy and religious to be, even when they aren't. Such an asymmetry of expectation is not a hangover from the bad old days of clericalism. It corresponds to the objective reality of the respective states of life.

What about singles? There are two extremes to avoid here. One I've already rejected: thinking of lay singlehood as a formal, ecclesially recognizable "vocation" like consecrated life or, in a secondary sense, marriage. It isn't. For one thing, we all start out as lay singles. For another, some singles really are called to marriage or consecrated life but don't seem to be attaining either, usually because of their own or others' failings. But let's avoid the other extreme of thinking that all singles are called to marriage or consecrated life and are just failing to answer. Some lay singles must remain such because of impediments to marriage and consecrated life. Others have no obvious impediments, but have been given a special mission by God that doesn't fit into the two usual modes of living out the baptismal vocation. Those two categories of singles are of great significance for a theology of vocation.

The singles with "impediments," including but not limited to the mentally ill and the developmentally disabled, are those in whom Christ lives in his vulnerability, in how he takes on the tragedy of the human condition. Through them, he beckons us to love him under that aspect. To the extent we treat such people, "the least of my brethren," as Christ himself, they will show us his love in a special way that is easily lost in the hurly-burly of "normal" human life. They tell us that God loves us primarily for who we are, not for what we do. So it is good that most such people cannot "justify their existence" in any other way. None of us can justify our existence by what we do, for all is gift, "all is grace." The usual classes of singles with impediments remind us of that, and they should evoke our love accordingly.

The singles without impediments, who nevertheless have been given special missions that don't "fit in" with the usual ways of living out the baptismal vocation, remind us that the transforming activity of the Holy Spirit—otherwise known as grace—is not limited to anything that can be institutionalized, including the visible Church herself. That is a reality which the conventionally pious often forget or fail to appreciate. I'm thinking of people like the spinster sister who never left home because she was the one who ended up caring for the aged parents. Or the dedicated scholar who doesn't seem to have time for much of anything except her subject. Or the career soldier who'd like to marry but ends up sacrificing himself on a vital mission. Or the man who doesn't mind celibacy, but was too straight and Catholic to get through his diocese's seminary and instead devotes his life to lay ministry, perhaps as a missionary. There are many people like such singles. They testify that the baptismal vocation can and ought to be lived in any and all circumstances, not just the usual states of life.

If we're going to speak of a vocation to singlehood, then, what we should mean is a vocation to live the baptismal vocation merely as such. But that is just to say that the baptismal vocation is what's fundamental, not the formal mode by which it is lived. Maybe God wills singlehood for some in the Church primarily to remind the rest of the Church that the mode in which we live said vocation is less important than the generosity with which we live it. That is a peculiar challenge for singles themselves, who often have no obvious human commitments to evoke their generosity. But it is, after all, is what the universal call to holiness assumes.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Ecclesial Consumerism

Over at Called to Communion, one of my favorite blogs, Bryan Cross has posted a rather amusing meditation on and critique of "ecclesial consumerism." If you read it, you will probably enjoy yourself as much as I did. But there's a serious theological point here. If there weren't, there'd be no point in making the criticism.

One thing worth stressing about Bryan's post is the implication that Protestantism as such is defenseless against ecclesial consumerism. That's because the essence of Protestantism, seen in its countless manifestations, is to make the individual the judge of ecclesial orthodoxy, rather than to acknowledge a visible communion as "the" Church Christ founded, which would then be understood as the judge of any given individual's or group's orthodoxy. Of course there are many ways for individuals and their friends to go about becoming the judge of ecclesial orthodoxy. One way is solo scriptura: openly taking one's favored interpretation of Scripture as normative while denying that any ecclesial creed or confession is binding. Another is sola scriptura: treating Scripture as the sole infallible rule of faith, but acknowledging some ecclesial creed or confession as an authoritative but fallible interpretation of Scripture. Or one could go beyond Scripture alone, taking the hermeneutically significant "sources" to include non-canonical documents of the early Church, liturgy, saints, mystical experience, and so forth. But in the end, it all comes down to the same thing.  Once one accepts the Protestant principle, no church is recognized as "the" Church, the judge of one's own orthodoxy, so that one ends up choosing a church based solely on one's personal opinions and preferences. Those can be weighty or light, serious or silly; but ultimately, they are not normative for anything recognizable as "the" Church. They have no more authority for Christians at large than one's grocery list has for one's fellow shoppers.

That said, contemporary Catholics exhibit their own styles of ecclesial consumerism. And that's amply pointed out in the combox discussion to Bryan's post, whose participants consist mostly of Catholics. To their observations, I shall add my own. I'm sure somebody could learn from them.

As a cradle Catholic who reverted to the Church in college, I've noticed that many Catholics who care enough about their faith to attend church regularly will pick a parish based mostly on what they're "comfortable" with. Most don't want to be challenged. Sometimes, that inertial resistance has to do with doctrine, but it needn't and often doesn't. For example, I've been a regular churchgoer for decades, but aside from the three years when I worked as a paid DRE, I've never been asked by any parish representative, clerical or lay, what I actually believe. People care a lot more about how well I sing, how much money I give or fail to give, and how close to the entrance I am when I light up one of my cigarillos outside before or after Mass. I also get asked a fair amount where my wife and kids are, which is rather embarrassing given that I've been a divorced, non-custodial parent for years. Once that info comes out, people assume I'm there looking for a cute single woman who's probably going to be half my age. As if I'm stupid enough to cause myself even more trouble.

Then there's the theological angle among certain committed minorities. Many of the "progressives" on the Left and "traditionalists" on the Right judge Rome by a hermeneutic of discontinuity or "rupture" (as the Pope once put it). The progs task Rome for betraying Vatican II by reactionary retrenchment, and the trads task Rome for failing to do just that. Thus we get, on the one hand, "progressive" parishes that emphasize "social justice" and "contemporary" hymnody but cast aside the doctrines pertaining to the pelvis. On the other hand, we see communities of "traditional" Catholics who not only celebrate the "Extraordinary Form" of the Roman Rite but want the Church at large to carry on as though Vatican II and all that nasty 60s stuff never happened. Of course, the right-wing discontinuants and the left-wing discontinuants will have no truck with each other. It's as if there were two different churches, not in communion with each other, yet still residing under the umbrella of the Great Church. Which is why the whole phenomenon is a particularly subtle instance of ecclesial consumerism.

Now the Catholic Church, being as big and as...well, catholic as she is, will always harbor considerable differences of culture, opinion, and praxis. But at least there's a vital center to say what is and is not beyond the pale. That center is not going away, as much as some Catholics want to see its authority reduced. And that is why it's possible for Catholics to transcend ecclesial consumerism. All they have to do is be less American about church. Easier said than done, you might say—and indeed it is. We need to think of ourselves as Catholics first and Americans second. If we did, we'd gain the needed critical distance on consumerism, ecclesial or otherwise.