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

Monday, May 31, 2010

Another trinity of days

The primary trinity of days in the Christian religion is the Easter Triduum: Holy Thursday evening, centered on the Mass of the Lord's Supper, through Holy Saturday evening, which centers on the Easter Vigil. That's three days in kairos time; it's really two-and-a-half days in chronos time. I now ponder another trinity of days that is of interest for American Catholics. Though it is is only two days in chronos time, it is a coincidental three days in kairos time.

In the Roman-Catholic calendar, yesterday was Trinity Sunday and today is the Feast of the Visitation. In the American civil calendar, today is Memorial Day. As soon as I realized that, the thought occurred to me that all the themes can be connected with one another. As always, we must start with God even as we will end with God.

The Divine trinity of persons, which is God, is a infinite community of love. That is why the Apostle John says "God is love," and that is why the life of God, which it is our destiny to share, is inexhaustible. What the Latin scholastics called "the Beatific Vision" will not be a Big Long Stare at an Undifferentiated One, but a participation in the life of a community whose members "indwell" one another in a dynamic, mutual self-giving. Thus do they enact by choice the unity they enjoy by nature; in fact, and ultimately, the enacting and the nature are the same. By analogy, the community of saints will do the same among themselves in the world to come, and do so in part even now in the Church Militant. Imagine being called to do that forever without having to worry about bills!

But in this vale of tears, such love starts small. In the run-up to the Cross, its primary expression, it buds with babies. The Feast of the Visitation (why can't they just call it 'The Visit'? I hate words only used in churchy contexts...) has a young woman miraculously pregnant with the Messiah making a trip through rough country to visit her cousin, an old woman miraculously pregnant with his herald. The fulfillment of a family duty becomes an important episode in salvation history: the Old and the New covenants join in the Spirit as they meet in the flesh for the first time. Mary's Magnificat, uttered on just this occasion, celebrates the magnificent love with which God makes use of the humble, and thus enters the world as a baby, in order to fulfill his promises to Israel. Thus began the decisive self-emptying of God for our salvation, whose eternal model is the inner life of the Trinity itself.

Those whom we commemorate today, Memorial Day, made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. Perhaps not all did so willingly or well, but that is no matter; even the best of us, the saints, are saved by grace alone. And grace is not some sort of spiritual fuel for which we pull up, pay up, and tank up before we pull out of the filling stations known as churches. Grace, in the primary sense of the term, is the life of God himself lived within us, transforming us to become partakers of his nature, which is self-emptying love. To live and die by grace is to attain glory, and the only glory worth acquiring is that of self-emptying love. Many women show that in bearing and raising their children. The Americans, mostly men, whom we commemorate today poured themselves out by dying in their country's wars. In so doing, most showed the sort of love to which we are all called, even when the policies of the men who sent them to their deaths were not wise, and even though their motives were never pure.

Courage and love are closely related. Mary showed courage by saying 'yes' to the conception of her Son by the Spirit, knowing what could befall her if she turned up pregnant from a source not her husband. She showed courage as a pregnant teenager doing her duty by making a trip over territory haunted by brigands. Any woman who gives birth willingly shows courage. Soldiers in combat show courage. And courage, for the most part, is an manifestation of love: the greater the courage, the greater the love. And "greater love has no man than this: to lay down his life for his friends..."

Then there are the people who don't get to love in the ways that mothers and soldiers do. I don't. I will never be a mother and have never been a soldier; though I volunteered for Iraq in 2003, I was told what I should have known already, that I was too old and slow. And so my prayer this day is not only for those who have made the ultimate sacrifice, but for those who don't quite know how they are supposed to do the same: how they are supposed to live for Christ, which is to say die for Christ. If they are faithful, and care more about God than themselves, they will be shown.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Bad arguments against the Magisterium: Part III

Before I suspended this blog last August, I posted the first two parts of this series, whose purpose was of course to rebut the arguments being cited. At the end of Part II, I issued no promise to do further installments, because I wasn't sure which of the many fallacies out there would interest my readers. But now I've found one: the ol' tu quoque (Latin for 'you too').

I often comment over at Called to Communion, a website managed by former Reformed guys, mostly philosophers and ex-clerics, who seek to present Catholic truth in a way that they hope would be persuasive to some of their erstwhile co-religionists. The project is impressive. Some of the longer articles are of peer-review quality and are developing what is, in effect, a Catholic ecclesiology framed to address directly the issues of most concern to "confessional" Protestants. Other articles are more polemical, usually rebutting some Protestant objection that was, or has become, standard. I once thought I'd heard them all in my time, but I soon learned at C2C that I haven't. The most interesting I've heard lately is framed, for purposes of rebuttal, by Bryan Cross in his article The Tu Quoque.

To present the issue fairly, I must quote the first three paragraphs of his post in full, but without the footnotes you can track at C2C:
In various places I have argued previously that without apostolic succession, creeds and confessions have no actual authority. They have no actual authority apart from apostolic succession because without apostolic succession the only available basis for a creed or confession’s authority is the individual’s agreement with the interpretation of Scripture found in that creed or confession. Each person picks the confession of faith that most closely represents his own interpretation of Scripture. If his interpretation of Scripture happens to change, he is not bound by his prior choice of confession; rather, he simply picks a different confession that more closely matches his present interpretation. I have described this as painting one’s magisterial target around one’s interpretive arrow, i.e. the practice of choosing and grounding magisterial authority based on its agreement with one’s own interpretation of Scripture.
But an important principle regarding authority is this: “When I submit only when I agree, the one to whom I submit is me.” In other words, agreement with oneself cannot be the basis for authority over oneself. Therefore a creed or confession’s agreement with one’s own interpretation of Scripture cannot be the basis for its authority. And this is why without apostolic succession, creeds or confessions have no actual authority. That is a simple overview of the authority argument.
The primary objection to this argument is the tu quoque [lit. you too] objection, namely, that the person who becomes Catholic upon determining that the Catholic Church is the Church that Christ founded is doing so because the Catholic Church most closely conforms to his own interpretation of Scripture, history and tradition. In other words, in choosing to become Catholic, he has simply chosen the ‘denomination’ that best conforms to his own interpretation of Scripture, tradition and history. Hence if Protestant confessions have no authority over the individual Protestant because Protestants select them on the basis of their conformity to their own interpretation of Scripture, then neither does the Catholic Church have any authority over the person who becomes Catholic, because Catholics select the Catholic Church on the basis of its agreement with their own interpretation of Scripture, history, and tradition. But if choosing the Catholic Church on the basis of one’s own interpretation of Scripture, history, and tradition does not undermine the authority of the Catholic Church, then neither does choosing a Protestant confession on the basis of one’s own interpretation of Scripture undermine that Protestant confession’s authority. In other words, just as the person becoming Catholic claims to have discovered that those in the magisterium of the Catholic Church are the successors of the Apostles, and thereby bearing divine authority, so the person adopting a Protestant confession believes he has discovered that this particular confession is in agreement with Scripture, and thus that this confession derives its authority from Scripture. But if picking a confession on the basis of its agreement with one’s own interpretation of Scripture entails that this confession has no authority over oneself, then picking the Catholic Church on the basis of its agreement with one’s own interpretation of history, tradition and Scripture entails that the Catholic Church has no authority over oneself. In short, the conclusion of the tu quoque objection is that either the Catholic Church likewise has no authority, or the Protestant confessions can truly have authority.
Bryan's formulation is fair, at least judging by how I've seen the objection pressed by Protestant apologists at various blogs and websites, including some Reformed commenters at C2C itself. It counts as an argument against the Magisterium because, if sound, it shows that assenting to the Magisterium's claim to infallibility is epistemically no different from subscribing to some Protestant confession.

Of course the objection is unsound, and Bryan's post goes on to do a good job of showing why. So his rebuttal is what I offer you as the remainder of this post.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Phoenix abortion/excommunication flap: a clarification

My post of last Friday, which was about the controversy over the Phoenix case, has itself sparked controversy both at First Things, where I first published it, and at What's Wrong with the World. But I think the majority of commenters have missed my point. I want to clarify things here.

The point is not whether Bishop Olmstead's or Sister McBride's judgment about the morality of her act is right or wrong. From a distance, it seems to me that the bishop is probably right. But I don't know that, and neither does anybody else who is not acquainted firsthand with the case.

For my information about Bishop Olmsted's decision, I'm going by this release from his office. It does not rebut Sr. McBride's contention that the abortion was indirect and thus justifiable under PDE. It simply assumes she was wrong, that the abortion was direct and thus unjustifiable by PDE or anything else. That's why I raised the questions I did. I find it curious that the grounds for such an assessment are not stated, and that the statement was issued without any discussion with Sr. McBride. If the moral status of her act were that obvious, why not state openly the medical facts that make it so? Perhaps the mother's confidentiality is being protected. But if that's the case, the Bishop's announcement is inappropriate. He has announced an excommunication whose grounds cannot be made public. As a Catholic, I'm embarrassed by the political ineptitude of such a move.

I have to say that I agree with canonist Ed Peters, who's just been appointed to the Apostolic Signatura, about latae sententiae excommunication. In the First Things combox, he wrote: "This case is becoming a textbook example of why we must abandon latae sententiae penalties in the West, as they already have done in Eastern canon law."

UPDATE as of 15:17: Luke Coppen of Editor's Briefing has added my original post to his list of "Morning Catholic Must-Reads" today. That is reassuring. Most of my friends think reading the post is optional, and I've even lost one over it.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Pentecost and metanoia

As individual Christians, including and especially as contemporary Catholics, we tend to forget that it's not about you. I was reminded of that truth, and the forgetting of it, by a fine homily of that title posted by Msgr. William Pope of the Archdiocese of Washington. "It," of course, is not just not about you. It's about nobody in particular but God.

If we're going to get "it," we have to care more about the Lord Jesus Christ than about any other human being or value. "It" is the whole "economy of salvation," all that God has done and continues to do for us. Of course that's paradoxical: if it's we who are being saved—God needs no salvation—why would the whole thing not be about us? But our redemption is itself paradoxical: God saved us from ourselves by becoming one of us and then letting people torture and execute him as a threat to public order. By rising from the dead into glory, he demonstrated that abundant life is attained by giving life away. At Pentecost, the disciples were empowered to overcome their fear and confusion and go on to proclaim that kerygma to the whole world. Following that model, indeed participating in it, we must realize that the conversion, the metanoia, needed for salvation is that we come to care far less about what God does for us as individuals than that God himself be glorified.

That is hard to understand and appreciate in our self-indulgent, narcissistic age. Many indeed think that, if it were true, then God himself would be a self-indulgent narcissist--which is only further proof of how spiritually degenerate our age is. But the truth was hard to understand even in harder ages, when people took the centrality of sacrifice for granted because most of them could expect no other sort of life.

St. Paul got it, of course. He said that "it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me." That's the attitude we must aspire to. Baptism is only the inauguration of that reality to which said attitude is our only rational response. Thus, the indicative statement should coordinate with a hortatory-subjunctive prayer: "Let it not be I who live, but you who live in me." I have made that one of my daily prayers. But I have only begun to learn its lesson.

For reasons a few of my readers know, and that most probably wouldn't care to know, my life was thoroughly deconstructed during the 1990s. By the end of 2000, I had to be hospitalized for really major depression. I got depressed partly for biochemical reasons, but mainly because I felt that God had been playing a long, cruel joke on me. Since my recovery, in which the objective circumstances of my life have actually been harder than they were in the 90s, I've been having a long debate with God. I've wanted him to show me that my life wasn't and isn't one long, cruel joke. Of course he has been showing me that. Many of his children have shown his love to me at some cost to themselves. In fact I sometimes get impatient with myself, and God, about the extent to which I find myself the object of their heartfelt charity. But recently I've begun to notice that I've avoided a relapse not because I have the right pills and people in my life—I can't afford the pills, and no adult can expect others to solve their problems for them—but because I've slowly, grudgingly come to recognize that it's not about me.

My life is not about what I want or would prefer. My life is a gift meant to bring others closer to God. For that, it's not necessary that my life be what I want or would prefer. It's only necessary that I find Christ in the circumstances he wills for me, love as he would have me love in those circumstances, and let myself be loved by him in those circumstances. Yet I often find that fact immensely frustrating. I still tend to feel that I deserve a "better" life, more of a domestic and professional niche, than I've managed to achieve since my exit from the psych ward nine years ago. I think of myself as a wandering pilgrim at this point. That partly results from my own sins and failings, but I have grown certain that it is the positive will of God. I don't know why it's that, but I don't think I'm just being "made to pay." And I certainly don't think anymore that it's all just a cruel joke. Maybe I'm just supposed to be a knight-errant of faith. If I'd seen myself that way earlier, I would have handled things very differently indeed.

But of course I don't and can't know exactly what God sees for me. None of us needs to know that; we'll find out soon enough at the judgment seat of Christ. We need only know that he wills only our good. That willing consists in the Trinity's striving, often gently and sometimes forcefully, to make its home within us. That is why "it" means turning our very lives into a prayer to the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit—my preferred form of the Doxology. For that, we need to look for the incarnate Son every day of our lives, and adhere to him who obeyed the Father.

Pentecost is a great day to recall that. For as the Pope has said in his homily, the "Son who speaks to the Father exists and they are both one in the Spirit, who constitutes, so to speak, the atmosphere of giving and loving which makes them one God." "It" is ultimately about participating forever in that.

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Phoenix abortion/excommunication flap

For approving an abortion at an Arizona hospital late last year, Sr. Margaret McBride has incurred excommunication latae sententiae—meaning that her actions have caused her to excommunicate herself. Or so, at least, her bishop, Thomas Olmstead of Phoenix, has announced. And the bishop’s announcement has ignited something of a firestorm among Catholic commentators.

Read the rest of my piece at First Things' "On the Square."

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The concept of "evidence" for divine miracles

Over at What's Wrong with the World, Lydia McGrew announces:
For a limited time only (get yours while supplies last) a draft is available on my personal web site of "History and Theism: Epistemology, Miracles, and the God Who Speaks." This article will eventually appear in a forthcoming Routledge Companion to Theism, edited by Charles Taliaferro and Victoria Harrison. The contributors' articles are due by November of this year, but the release date has not been specified, as far as I know.
I urge my philosophically educated readers to download and read this fine draft for themselves, while they can, before the final product is "entombed" (Lydia's word) in an academic anthology that only the better university libraries can afford. Perhaps my reflections on her thoughts will encourage such readers to do that.

What interests me about Lydia's paper is that it addresses a nest of issues that are practically important and that I've discussed before on blogs, here and there, with Lydia herself and with philosophy professor Scott Carson—who has his own blog too, though it's lain fallow for a while. I have good reason to consider both people friends: they have been immensely kind and generous to me in private correspondence even though, for annoyingly contingent reasons, I have never met either of them in person. Perhaps that's one way the Lord is being merciful to them. In any case, I have disagreed with them both on this topic before. (To be fair, I generally share Scott's skepticism about the value, either scientific or philosophical, of intelligent-design theory, even though Lydia does not.) But the three of us each disagree with one other about the extent to which miracles can be rationally identified as such. My last response to Scott on that issue is here; my discussions with Lydia on related issues are scattered throughout the comboxes at W4 and hence are not worth hunting down. I'm intrigued by the extent to which classical-theist philosophers who are also tradition-minded Christians manage to disagree so strongly with one another about this nest of issues.

This is not to say that I disagree with the main thrust of Lydia's article. I think she does a good job of showing, pace many liberal Protestants and Catholics, that once can reasonably identify some event as a miraculous revelation of God's nature and purposes without being fideistic, unhistorical, or anti-scientific. In my opinion, of course, neither historical nor scientific methods of investigation can ever suffice to demonstrate that some observed or observable event is a miraculous revelation. But in some cases at least, such methods can make it reasonable to believe that certain reports are in fact reports of miraculous events revelatory of God and his purposes. On this question, I stand midway between fideists and rationalists, which seems to satisfy neither Scott nor Lydia.

The most intriguing part of Lydia's paper consists in her reply to philosopher of science Elliot Sober, who argued that theists who want to present certain events are miraculous in the relevant sense face a dilemma. Although Sober's argument is directed explicitly only against intelligent-design theory, his argument can be generalized to miracles.
Sober presents his opponents, tacitly, with a dilemma--either the theistic hypothesis is completely uninformative about the evidence (and therefore cannot be the best explanation of the evidence) or it is ad hoc.

"The problem" [says Sober] "is that the design hypothesis confers a probability on the observation only when it is supplemented with further assumptions about what the designer’s goals and abilities would be if he existed....There are as many likelihoods as there are suppositions concerning the goals and abilities of the putative designer. Which of these, or which class of these, should we take seriously?"

"It is no good answering this question by assuming that the eye was built by an intelligent designer and then inferring that the designer must have wanted to give the eye features F1 ... Fn and must have had the ability to do so since, after all, these are the features we observe. For one thing, this pattern of argument is question-begging. One needs independent evidence as to what the designer’s plans and abilities would be if he existed...."

"This objection to the design argument is...continuous with the precepts of “negative theology,” which holds that God is so different from us and the world we already know about that it is impossible for us to have much of a grasp of what his characteristics are....We are invited...to imagine a designer who is radically different from the human craftsmen we know about. But if this designer is so different, why are we so sure that this being would build the vertebrate eye in the form in which we find it?" (Sober 2007, pp. 10-11)

Just before this passage, Sober merely says that we need to have “an argument that shows that this probability [that design gives to the observation] is indeed higher than the probability that Chance confers on the observation.” But elsewhere, his demands are less modest.

Sober’s approach involves making a clear separation between a “main hypothesis”--for example, that God exists--and “auxiliary assumptions,” which he says in theistic design inferences must be assumptions about what God’s goals and abilities would be if he existed. (Sober focuses most on the problem of knowing God’s goals, since he acknowledges [2007, p. 13] that the God of traditional theism is usually assumed to be omnipotent.) Repeatedly, Sober claims that one must have independent, solid support for these auxiliaries. Just a few pages after the more modest characterization of his requirement, he ups the ante, implying that we must be able to “justify [auxiliary assumptions] independently” (Sober 2007, p. 13). Elsewhere he endorses as normal scientific practice the use of auxiliary assumptions that scientists “already have good reason to think are true” (Sober 1999, p. 54). He also characterizes his position as “the demand that one have independent reason to think that one’s auxiliary assumptions are true” (Sober 1999, p. 57), he says that “testing the design hypothesis requires that we have information about the goals and abilities the designer would have, if he existed” (Sober 1999, p. 54), and, in his most recent work on the subject, he states that one hypothesis can be tested against another only if there exist true auxiliary assumptions which we are “now justified in believing” (Sober 2008, p. 152). These are very strong requirements for independently justified information about the Divine mind.
And Lydia goes on to show, convincingly, that Sober's requirements are unreasonably strong, so that the dilemma he poses is an artificial one which the theist need not take seriously.

So far, so good. But my question for Lydia has always been the same, and remains so here: granted that one can show it reasonable to believe in miracles, at least in the relevant sense, we should we regard some of the arguments for miracles as strong enough to make it unreasonable to deny one or more of them?

Lydia seems to think they should be, at least if her comments in the combox to her announcement are any indication.  But I have never found that convincing, at least as a general proposition, as distinct from a proposition about special experiences available only to very few people, such as Saul on the road to Damascus. Certainly, she and her husband Tim have gone to great lengths to show, using sophisticated probability theory, that the case for the Resurrection is very strong. And I have long granted that, if what they treat as their historical dataset should be treated as, itself, veridical, their inductive case for the Resurrection is powerful enough to make it unreasonable to deny the Resurrection. But that of course is a big 'if'. For the conceptions of scientific and historical methodology to which their opponents severally adhere would not justify taking the data as veridical to the degree the McGrews do. It is reasonable, of course, to reject such conceptions; but it is by no means evidently unreasonable to accept them. What goes for the central miracle of the Resurrection goes a fortiori for other reported miracles taken to confirm specifically Christian faith.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

A covenant prayer

I am no longer my own, but thine. 
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt. 
Put me to doing, put me to suffering. 
Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee, exalted for thee or brought low for thee. 
Let me be full, let me be empty. 
Let me have all things, let me have nothing. 
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal. 
And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, thou art mine, and I am thine. 
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.

--John Wesley, Covenant Service (1780)

Lars Vilks, "Gay Muhammad" and "Freedom of Expression"

This past week brings news of yet another fracas involving Swedish cartoon artist Lars Vilks (CNN.com):
When Vilks entered a classroom where he was to deliver a lecture to about 250 people -- all of whom had passed through a security checkpoint to gain admission -- about five people started protesting loudly, Eronen said.
After Uppsala uniformed and non-uniformed police calmed the protesters, the lecture got under way at about 5:15 p.m. (11:15 a.m. ET), Eronen said.
But as Vilks was showing audiovisual material, 15 to 20 audience members became loud and tried to attack Vilks, he said.

As police stepped in, a commotion started and Vilks was taken to a nearby room; police used pepper spray and batons to fend off the protesters, Eronen said. Vilks did not return to the lecture. [Video footage of the event].

Last March, an American woman who called herself "Jihad Jane," Colleen LaRose, was indicted in the United States for allegedly conspiring to support terrorists and kill Vilks.

In a 2007 interview with CNN he had drawn the cartoon of Mohammed with a dog's body in order to take a stand.
" "I don't think it should not be a problem to insult a religion, because it should be possible to insult all religions in a democratic way, " says Vilks from his home in rural Sweden.

"If you insult one, then you should insult the other ones."

His crude, sketched caricature shows the head of Prophet Mohammed on the body of a dog. Dogs are considered unclean by conservative Muslims, and any depiction of the prophet is strictly forbidden.

Vilks, who has been a controversial artist for more than three decades in Sweden, says his drawing was a calculated move, and he wanted it to elicit a reaction.

"That's a way of expressing things. If you don't like it, don't look at it. And if you look at it, don't take it too seriously. No harm done, really," he says.

When it's suggested that might prove an arrogant -- if not insulting -- way to engage Muslims, he is unrelenting, even defiant.

"No one actually loves the truth, but someone has to say it," he says.

Vilks, a self-described atheist, points out he's an equal opportunity offender who in the past sketched a depiction of Jesus as a pedophile.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Why can't God do his best?

The notion that this is the best of all possible worlds (BAPW) is like a pesky kid brother who thinks he belongs with your crowd: one of those aggravating philosophical conceits that just won't go away. Those who have studied some philosophy know that the phrase comes from Leibniz, a 17th-century Renaissance man as distinguished in mathematics and diplomacy as in philosophy. But the notion itself, in this-or-that form, is far older. Literati will readily recall Alexander Pope's line "Whatever is, is right," which may have been a bit tongue-in-cheek, but certainly manifests an attitude at least as old as the Stoics. It's the mirror opposite of the equally old notion that things could have been better if only God, or whatever errant demiurge made this mess, had known or cared more. If things are as good as they can possibly be, then neither God nor anything else can be blamed for reality's less attractive features. Unfortunately—not just for Leibniz, but for all who favor his brand of theodicy—there can be no such thing as BAPW.

One way it's been argued that ours is the best possible world is to argue that it is the only possible world. That there is only one possible world, i.e. the actual world, is the thesis I have called monomodalism. It means that nothing at all could be, or could ever have been, otherwise. There is only one real "modality," that of necessity. Of course, if monomodalism is true, then freedom of choice is an illusion. At most, freedom of choice could mean the absence of coercion by other people; but it could not mean that the past and the laws of nature ever permit us to choose other than as we do. In fact, if monomodalism were true, not even the laws of nature could have been otherwise. But natural science affords no evidence of that, and there is no other uncontroversial reason to believe it. Monomodalism, when it turns up in philosophy, is generally a logical excrescence of other pet theses, whose credibility is severely compromised just on that account. The best example of such a system of thought is Spinoza's, which gets a great deal of mileage from stipulative definitions of such terms as substance, mode, attribute, and cause. Einstein admired Spinoza, and he hasn't been the only one. But Einstein still believed in the freedom of the will, and most people who deny they do don't really mean it. If they did, who would be left to blame for anything?

Even so, another, more common reason for thinking ours is the best possible world is that it is created by the best possible being, i.e. God. Now of course it is misleading to talk about God in that way, as if he were just the best and most powerful being there is, rummaging through his immeasurably large file of world-possibilities to select the best one for actualizing. It is better to say, with Aquinas, that God is Being and that "beings" are mere derivatives, existing by a kind of participation in Being. Influenced by the Neoplatonists, especially the Christian Pseudo-Dionysius (5th-6th century AD), some theologians even go so far as to insist that God is "beyond being," so that nothing meaningful can be said about what God is in se. That, it seems to me, makes nonsense of a lot of what such theologians do go on to say about God, but that is a separate topic. The instinct behind their apophatic stricture is sound enough: it just won't do to talk about God as if God were a much bigger, better version of ourselves or any other beings in the world. But fans of the BAPW thesis don't have to talk in that way. They can, and often do, argue that a perfectly good creator can do nothing other than create BAPW. For a perfectly good creator, after all, would be less than perfectly good if he didn't create BAPW.

Over at Prosblogion, Mike Almeida has a nice answer to that. I quote only the formal part of the argument, which is a reductio ad absurdum:
1. Necessarily, a perfect being actualizes the best possible world. Assume for Reductio
2. W is the best possible world. Assumption
3. A perfect being exists. Assumption
4. W includes a great deal of natural and moral value. From def. of ‘best world’
5. W is the only possible world. From 1,2,3
6. Everything possible is actual in W. From 5
7. W is a fatalistic world. From 6
8. No moral agent is libertarian or compatibilist free in fatalistic worlds. Fact
9. No moral agent is free in W. From 7, 8
10. There is no moral value in W. From 9
11. W is not the best possible world. From 10, 4. Contradiction 11,2
∴ 12. It is not necessary that a perfect being actualizes the best possible world. From 11,2
The key move in that argument is that, if there were a BAPW, then monomodalism would be true, and hence there would be no freedom. Lacking freedom, BAPW would lack "moral value" and hence not be BAPW.

I think that pretty much hammers the last nail in the coffin of BAPW as a thesis. And that's important theologically inasmuch as, if there could be no BAPW, then God can't be blamed for failing to create it.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Why the new design of First Things matters

For a little while I worked full-time at First Things, and still contribute fairly regularly to its main blog. But even as a reader from Day One, I felt that the print edition's rather drab, no-nonsense design evinced a dogged unwillingness to face the challenges posed to print media in the age of the Internet. That of course was part of the magazine's appeal; its readership consists entirely of people who prefer steak to sizzle. I was quite content with the old look, and for that reason was skeptical when Fr. Neuhaus' successor as editor, Joseph Bottum, decided on a redesign. But now that it's here, I have to say I'm pleased. And I believe that the reason I'm pleased should matter to all who want to see FT survive and do what it's always done.

I shall explain that first by pointing readers to a favorable post by The Anchoress, another FT blogmeister, and quoting what she quotes from Bottum's post announcing the change:
…we have now undertaken the redesign that begins with this issue. In the public discussions of America, First Things works for several things. The fight, for example, with those who want to strip the world of its religious clothing and create the naked public square. The long struggle against the murderousness of abortion. The attempt to sort out the good of modern democracy and science from the horrors that have emerged through what we insist are wrong turns taken in the name of modernity. And, most of all, the effort to be physicians to this Iron Age in which we live—the effort to reinvest the world with the richness, thickness, and freshness that is found only in truly God-haunted nations and societies.

But, as a magazine, First Things also works to preserve the high culture of intellectual journals: a culture that is fading under pressure from the Internet, from the weak American financial situation, and, not to mince words, from the absurd decline of print standards in this country.

Many magazines have given up on poetry—and so we print poems. Many magazines have given up on the long-form reporting that was once the glory of American journalism—and so we want to showcase that kind of story. Many magazines have given up on intellectual essays—and so we continue to present them, as we have always done, to our readers. For that matter, many magazines have given up on superior and intellectually challenging crossword puzzles—and so (over some internal objections, I should note) I demanded that we pick up, as well, that fallen standard of journalism.

Most of all, American magazines these days seem to have given up on elegance—and so we decided to demand art covers, and interior photographs, and fine text layout.

In other words, First Things defiantly refuses to accept the diminished condition of American print today. The object in your hands must be a pleasure to hold and read—or what good is a printed journal, with the cacophony of the Web sounding all around us?
Much as my conservative instincts once resisted such thinking, I must agree. A serious magazine of ideas must give people a reason to buy it and carry it around with them at at time when they can get more interactive, if more ephemeral, content online. If you're like me, you often find yourself in situations where you're forced to wait for something, or just need a little quiet time, or, heaven forfend, can't get online. I usually carry a book around with me to deal with such situations. But my default print companion shall now be a sexier First Things.

I hope that the rest of the FT readership agrees. If the magazine can retain and expand its true substance while  appealing to a broader demographic, then that substance will be more widely disseminated. That is certainly needed more than ever. Bottum's move is admittedly a gamble; but in today's aversive environment for print periodicals, I don't see that he had much choice.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Why atheism can be respectable

First Things' web editor Joe Carter argues, pace David Hart, that we must "abandon the politically correct notion" that any form of "atheism is intellectually respectable." As St. Paul implies in Romans 1, atheism is a case of vincible ignorance. Even people who have never been vouchsafed special divine revelation have "no excuse" for failing to know God:
For what can be known about God is evident to them, because God made it evident to them. Ever since the creation of the world, his invisible attributes of eternal power and divinity have been able to be understood and perceived in what he has made. As a result, they have no excuse; for although they knew God they did not accord him glory as God or give him thanks. Instead, they became vain in their reasoning, and their senseless minds were darkened. (20-22)
Carter's argument, then, is roughly as follows. If Christianity is true, then the Bible is divinely inspired, and whatever assertion is divinely inspired is true. So St. Paul is correct in arguing that those who do not believe in the God there is are "without excuse." Hence atheism is vincible ignorance. And vincible ignorance is not intellectually respectable.

To be fair, Hart does not argue that all forms of atheism are respectable. He is particularly, and justifiably, contemptuous of the "new atheism," which never rises to the elegance of a Hume, the nobility of a Voltaire, or the clear-eyed radicalism of a Nietzsche. But his book Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies, a tour-de-force by almost any standard, does not depend on disparaging the motives of atheists as such. I'm reading it now. What Hart recognizes, and Carter does not, is that atheism is sometimes motivated by moral passion. That passion can be immature and anthropomorphic, but by no means is it always base. And even when it is base, it often arises from unreflective outrage about real wrongs people do in the name of God. We cannot simply assume that atheism is motivated by a desire to escape divine judgment or indulge in base sexual passions. Paul may well have been right about many pagans of his time, but I don't think we need or should read him as condemning all atheism as a moral failing.

For one thing, doing that would lower theists to the level of the new atheists, who can see theism as motivated only by stupidity or ill will. It would also abandon the progress made by most of the Christian world, which no longer sees heresy as explicable only by stupidity or ill will. Even when such claims are true, it is unhelpful to make them.

When the sort of moral passion motivating atheism is immature, anthropomorphic, or base, the best response is usually the example of believers who love as they ought: love primarily for real people, and secondarily for all that is obviously true, good, and beautiful. Evaluating motives is rarely helpful in intellectual debate, and sometimes not even helpful in ordinary life. In politics and private life as well as religion, all sides tend to overindulge in Bulverism. The antidote is the sort of rationality that sustains itself by a love for truth that is greater than one's hatred of enemies. That allows for due objectivity about competing arguments. And in the case of atheism, such an intellectual task must take the form of studying and evaluating the arguments strictly on their merits. The new atheists usually don't come out of that looking good. But intellectually respectable atheism can.

As Thomas Aquinas recognized, the two most common objections to theism are (a) the explanatory superfluity of the supernatural, and (b) the problem of evil. Those objections are worth taking seriously on the merits. As I argued over a year ago, however, even they arise from what are, at bottom, moral objections. The best of the atheists are best engaged when theists recognize that and proceed accordingly. At bottom, the debate is about what humans ought to value, and in what configuration. In turn, a debate like that arises from competing claims about what humanity itself is. Ultimately, then, the best way to combat atheism is to act, not just argue, as though God reveals man to man.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Pill at 50

Today, I'm told, is the 50th anniversary of the Pill. More precisely, the 50th anniversary of the FDA's announcement that it was going to approve the Pill for general use. Given all the news stories, editorializing, and blogging—Meghan Duke's post at First Thoughts is a good guide—I surmise that people can no more wait to talk about the birthday than the government could to talk about the birth. Which is good, since the Pill was and is that important.

I have long argued, and I'm far from the only one, that the Pill was the catalyst for one of the greatest social revolutions since the invention of agriculture. Along with antibiotics for STDs, the Pill reduced the costliest of the potential costs of fornication for enough people to make fornication socially respectable. It then took no more than a decade for fornication to become almost de rigeur. Nobody bats an eyelash anymore about people who are unmarried at 30, but the few singles who are virgins at 30 have very good reason not to be open about it. Of course, the social degeneration did not stop with fornication. As many Catholic writers have noted, all of the nasty things that Pope Paul VI predicted would result from the contraceptive mentality have come to pass. Mary Eberstadt is perhaps the pithiest chronicler of that; see her "The Vindication of Humanae Vitae" in the July 2008 First Things (the article is available online only to subscribers.) But she writes partly for effect, so that the scoffers can always dismiss her as an insufficiently careful sociologist, even though sociology tends to confirm her hardly original point.

Lest one think the insight limited to Catholic writers, the quintessential sex symbol of the sexual revolution, Raquel Welch, is now inclined to agree. She concludes:
Seriously, folks, if an aging sex symbol like me starts waving the red flag of caution over how low moral standards have plummeted, you know it's gotta be pretty bad. In fact, it's precisely because of the sexy image I've had that it's important for me to speak up and say: Come on girls! Time to pull up our socks! We're capable of so much better.
Are the girls going to pull up their socks? Not if the guys have anything to do with it.

The culture of contraception has been a godsend for tomcat males. But it's no bargain for women, whose sexuality is more commodotized than ever, and who feel they have no excuse not to "put out" in order to land a man. Sure, they can "have sex like a man," to use the famous injunction of Helen Gurley Brown, the founding editor of Cosmopolitan. A rather small minority of women like that, and a somewhat larger minority actually do it. But all it means is that more women become as crass as men than otherwise would have, while many more women blame themselves if they're not happy with the relatively new social reality. Anybody who says that the sexual revolution has contributed to greater happiness for the greater number must think that fornication is so transcendent an experience that its ready availability compensates for the explosion of things that nobody says are good. I don't believe many people think that. They just don't want to seem uncool.

There are of course worse things than not wanting to seem uncool. As birth rates continue falling around the world, it's tempting to imagine that the worst long-term effect of the Pill will be the end of the human race. But that would be apocalypticism, of which I'm generally skeptical. No, the worst thing about the Pill—worse than the culture it has catalyzed, worse even than its often abortifacient effect—is that people no longer assume that sex and procreation are supposed to go together. Besides making same-sex "marriage" inevitable, the loss of that natural assumption has lent great force to the basic illusion of secular liberalism: what I call "radical autonomism."

I mean the ideology that human beings can remake themselves into whatever they please, given enough technology and imagination. On that ideology, there is no "human nature" whose inherent telos defines the limits of what we can become without destroying ourselves. The problem with radical autonomism was prophetically detailed by C.S. Lewis in his 1947 classic The Abolition of Man. He discusses contraception as part of that unwitting project. But our society is perhaps too sex-crazed to listen. Ultimately we have hell, and ourselves, to blame for that. But the Pill really did grease the skids.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

What's exceptional about conservatism?

During the 2008 presidential campaign, I posted an essay called "Why I am a Conservative." Along with five or six other people, I found it quite relevant at the time. My reasons for calling myself a conservative remain the same, but I now doubt that they suffice. That's because it's beginning to seem that what mainstream American "conservatives" want to conserve amounts to little more than the rotten core of liberalism. That’s relevant to everybody now and for some time to come.
I am reacting in particular to an already much-discussed NRO essay by Rich Lowry and Ramesh Pannuru, published a few days ago and entitled "An Exceptional Debate: The Obama administration’s assault on American identity." To be sure, I agree with a good deal of what they wrote—mostly, the parts about the threat posed by the Obama Administration to what is distinctively American. But Paul Cella, editor of a blog I occasionally write for, has undertaken the first two parts of a four-part critique. I don't want to anticipate his overall argument, but I do agree with a good part of what he’s said so far. I want to explain here why all who want to preserve this republic—which is by no means everybody, whatever they may say—need to understand what is at stake.
This is not just one of those tiresome terminological tussles that only debaters enjoy. I am well aware that, for decades now, many American conservatives could rightly be called "liberals" in the old-fashioned sense of term: the sort of liberal who could say, with the late Senator Barry Goldwater, that "extremism in defense of liberty is no vice." In that sense, the deist revolutionary Thomas Paine was a liberal, but so was the theist, non-revolutionary Abraham Lincoln. He didn't seem that way to many at the time, of course. As a virtual dictator, at least in Southern eyes, he prosecuted a calamitous civil war that obliterated a beloved, established way of life in the South. And his purpose seemed conservative: to preserve the federal union of the states. One result of the war was that the phrase 'the United States' became a grammatical singular rather than a plural. In "liberal" terms, though, the utility of the reborn Union was its power to crush slavery, and thus to achieve something a bit closer to liberty for the oppressed. That was an advance of liberty which even today's "liberals" take for granted as a good. But a few decades later, another American president, William McKinley, exemplified liberalism in an less edifying sense: his laissez-faire economic policies ushered in the era of the Robber Barons and the trusts along with the exploitation of the poor, especially the waves of new European immigrants. Coming on the heels of the rather cynical “Reconstruction,” that sort of liberalism was highly selective, and was uncomfortably closer to what many in America today would call conservatism than to what is now called liberalism.
But when I speak of "the rotten core of liberalism," I do not refer to either Lincolnian nor McKinleyian liberalism. I speak of the chimera of "the open society," a term first coined by the utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill. The phrase became common currency among Western thinkers thanks to the philosopher of science Karl Popper, whose 1946 book The Open Society and its Enemies became a rallying point for classical-liberal thinkers against the blandishments of totalitarianism, especially during the Cold War with the Soviet Union and its Western fellow-travelers. There was considerable truth in Popper’s critique of the sort of “historicism” that motivated modern forms of totalitarianism. But like Mill’s liberalism, which suffered from the added disadvantage of an incalculable utility calculus, Popper’s was little more defensible philosophically than what it rejected.
At its core, their brand of liberalism—and its heir, that of Harvard’s John Rawls—maintained the pretense that the purpose of the state was not to embody any particular vision of the good for humanity, but merely to maintain the conditions under which individuals could pursue their own, several visions of the good without unduly interfering with each other. The purists of that blinkered vision are today called ‘libertarians,” but its appeal is by no means limited to them. It influences the thinking of many Americans who, like many of the tea-partyers, are more socially conservative than libertarians. Whether held explicitly or just bowed to implicitly, however, liberalism so understood is neither entirely coherent or entirely honest.
It is not entirely coherent because it cannot avoid propounding some vision of the good for humanity: in this case, the literal “autonomy” of the presumptively free individual. The word ‘autonomy’, as Kant recognized, comes from the Greek meaning “making oneself the law.” The idea is that the adult human individual, endowed with freedom of the will, can be truly self-legislating, and thus self-directing, according to self-evident principles of practical reasoning. Hence, the purpose of a polity should be ensure, by similarly objective reasoning, that the life-projects such individuals fashion can be pursued in peaceable, mutual cooperation. As has often been pointed out, that vision posits a good for humanity, and as such it is rather controversial in most of the world, at least outside the universities of the West. But as C.S. Lewis brilliantly showed in The Abolition of Man (written at the same time, and almost in the same place, as Popper’s book), the idea of the free, self-legislating individual is a chimera unless severely qualified. One can freely decide what’s worth pursuing only when one knows, through developed practical wisdom and other virtues, what is objectively valuable; and one can flourish only if one knows how objective values in tension can be ordered and balanced in the concrete conditions of life. That is the form of any real “pursuit of happiness.” But nobody can freely decide for themselves what is objectively valuable in itself. The only basis for such a “decision” would be subjective whims and preferences, which make the individual first the slave of his passions, and ultimately the slave of the passions of the stronger. An autonomy as radical as many of today’s so-called “liberal” advocates of an “open society” seem to want—e.g., advocates of abortion “rights” and of the “right” to same-sex “marriage”—is thus, and paradoxically, a radical enemy of authentic freedom. Perhaps that’s why people who call themselves liberals today tend to be authoritarian about everything except sex.
Now aside from the libertarians, hardly any so-called “conservatives” in America today subscribe to such radical autonomism. More generally, Paul Cella is right: America as a whole is not and never has been an “open society” in the sense in question. His argument is unassailable; read it. But neither Lowry and Ponnuru, nor other mainstream “conservative” and “neo-conservative” advocates for an open society, seem able to give an account of what a sustainably open society would have to be, if not a radical-autonomist society of the sort most Americans, and most conservatives, would abhor. And so a historically unrealistic and philosophically squishy “open society” forms no part of the “American exceptionalism” that conservatives supposedly want to defend from the social-democratic internationalism of the Obama Administration.
For the reasons already stated, today’s liberals, such as Obama and his supporters in our cultural and intellectual elites, are not fully honest about their radical autonomism. For they either can’t or won’t acknowledge its internal incoherence and its disastrous consequences, which we see all around us in the breakdown of the family and the erosion of individual liberty at the hands of the state. But conservatives aren’t being fully honest either. The conservative “movement” in America has long been an uneasy alliance of classical liberals and religious conservatives, and it has never tried to resolve that tension. It is united only in its opposition to what has come, since the New-Deal era, to be called liberalism. But without a way of at least addressing the tension creatively, conservatives are doomed to fighting a long retreat, a rear-guard action against liberalism that never really takes on that enemy at its core.
And that, in the last analysis, is why I’m uneasy about calling myself a conservative. Until conservatives can agree on the kind and meaning of the liberty that makes America exceptional, they won’t be able to agree on what’s worth conserving, and hence on an alternative to an ever-advancing but profoundly corrosive liberalism.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Comedy Central needs a sense of humor

In a First Thoughts post yesterday, Jody Bottum noted:

Comedy Central—the origin of the South Park program that had its references to Mohammad censored— has apparently announced that it is developing a new cartoon about Jesus Christ, the premise of which will be that God, preoccupied with playing video games, loses track of Jesus, who moves to New York and tries to “adjust to life in the big city.”
There is much that could be said about all this, but here are two quick predictions:

1) It will be far more blasphemous about Christianity than the Danish cartoons were about Islam.

2) There won’t be any riots over it.
Indeed. The explanation might be just cowardice, as Bottum suggests. That smoking car they found near Times Square last week was a reminder of what we're dealing with. But I'm afraid it's also that Comedy Central sees no irony in the disproportion.

After all, it's not just that Christianity is safer to mock, for reasons the mockers don't seem to appreciate. To the worldly mind, the claims of Christianity make it more mockable than its competitors. I am reminded of a song that came out some years ago: "What if God was One of Us?. The writer/singer, Joan Osborne, had obviously not got the message that he has long been one of us in the only way that matters. Why didn't she get it? Well, for a post-Christian culture, it isn't enough that God the Son was born in a stable to a poor couple and died violently at a rather young age, a failure by the world's standards. No, he would only be one of us if he turned up as some shlub on the city bus. If he did, we wouldn't have to feel bad about mocking and patronizing him like the Roman soldiers who tortured and executed him.

They say that the essence of humor is a sense of the discrepant. Comedy Central could live up to its title if they mocked the media elite, including themselves, for the very discrepancy they're all generating. But first they'd have to realize there is one. Apparently that requires a subtler sense of humor than they have.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

The necessity of scandal

We need to meditate more on Matthew 18:7. To loosen you up for that, I start with a real-life story of the sort I love.

In 1801, Pope Pius VII sent his secretary of state, Cardinal Consalvi, to treat with Napoleon. That was a grave necessity at the time: Bonaparte boasted that he could destroy the Church, and threatened Consalvi with just that. Consalvi's reply is said to have been to this effect: "Excellency, you cannot succeed where many generations of bishops have failed." A concordat was signed not long afterwards.

I believe both the story and what Consalvi is said by that story to have said. Almost everybody over the age of majority knows what Consalvi meant. I won't belabor that. Why should I, or you? My own Catholic faith has never depended on my opinion of the clergy. In my observation, most are no better and holier, as human beings, than other Christians. Many would say that such a fact, if it is a fact, is quite an indictment. In my callow youth, that's what I said. But I no longer think it's true.

I now think that that very fact is just what one can expect if salvation is God's doing not man's, and if the Church, the Body of Christ, is truly of divine origin. "Many of the last shall be first, and many of the first shall be last." People are already way too inclined to think that God needs them, so that he owes them something if they meet his needs. We'd rather not believe that "all is grace," and that our highest calling, as co-workers in the Lord's vineyard, is to get ourselves out of the way. If the clergy have a special failing, it is forgetting that. But given their office, that failing is also quite understandable. It's "human, all too human."

I got to pondering all this after a couple of things I read last night. One was a report of the result of a recent CBS News/New York Times poll, released a few days ago, indicating that
Most churchgoing Catholics say their feelings about the Church are unaffected by the Vatican’s handling of recent child sex abuse reports. Among all Catholics, more have a favorable opinion of Pope Benedict XVI now than they did in March. They tend to believe the media reports are blown out of proportion and harder on the Church than others.
Well of course. Most "churchgoing Catholics" know quite well that the secular world hates the Church. That is why they make allowances for the feeding-frenzy factor so evident in the recent attempts to implicate the Pope in the sex-abuse-coverup scandal. I wrote about those attempts myself a few weeks ago, but this is not the place to rehash all that. I'd rather focus on something that most churchgoing Catholic grownups also know, and that is still more pertinent.

When I read Jonathan Deane's post over at Called to Communion entitled "Drawn Closer by Scandal," I was struck by his opening quotation from Flannery O'Connor:
My cousin’s husband who also teaches at Auburn came into the Church last week. He had been going to Mass with them but never showed any interest. We asked how he got interested and his answer was that the sermons were so horrible, he knew there must be something else there to make the people come…

From The Habit of Being, Collected Letters; to “A”, August 22, 1959.
That was on the eve of Vatican II: the eve of all the roiling changes, of the sexual revolution, and well before the sex-abuse-and-coverup scandal. The same reaction as O'Connor's cousin's husband's is what got me through the cultural and spiritual wasteland of the post-Vatican-II Catholic Church in America: the intellectual vacuity, the painfully bad music, the liturgy alternating between the godawful and the plain silly, the horde of homosexual priests, the priests and nuns who weren't even Catholic, really...I could go on, but churchgoing Catholics who lived through that time know exactly what I'm talking about, even if they don't share the full range of my experience. I encountered much good as well as much bad. I learned that there was something in the Church that human sin and, worse, human fatuity could not destroy. That imperishable something was often obscured, mightily, of course; that is why so many Catholics had to leave the Church to develop a personal relationship with the Christ whose very body and blood were made present to them every Sunday. But that Body and Blood were and still are there every Sunday, indeed every day. And so is the Truth they are, because they are He who is Truth itself. I can't find that anywhere else but in the Orthodox Church—which, of course, has its own problems.

I recommend Jonathan's post in its entirety. It is that of a recent convert coming to grips with what ought to be obvious but which, like so much else in the world today, isn't obvious. It is necessary that there be scandals. That is not because we should do evil so that good may come, but because, being sinners, we are going to do great evil, and God permits it for the sake of respecting our freedom, but even more to make his power—i.e., his mercy as well as his justice—the more evident. We can learn to accept that, within the Church as well as out in the world, once we realize that the whole sorry and glorious panoply of human history is more about what he is about than about us.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Another "so Sixties" bit of progressivism

It's decades old now. You know the sort of thing I mean. Catholic grayheads swaying to 70s guitar music at dwindling Masses, trying to fill Call to Action conferences, and complaining bitterly about the conservative young fogies coming out of the seminaries. Or, just as pathetic, secular grayheads fretting that we could solve problems such as teenage pregnancy, STDs, and overpopulation if only we passed out enough condoms, solemnly reminding the bored recipients that "better safe than sorry." (I myself find condoms among the least sexy artifices of man; but hey, I'm well on the way to curmudgeonry anyway.) I mention overpopulation as an example because the aging progs haven't even caught on to the fact that it isn't a problem anymore—if indeed it ever was. The problem is the impending demographic winter that began in Europe, where the birth rate among the native stock is now well below replacement level. Russia and Japan are now in absolute population decline, and the problem of falling birth rates is now spreading inexorably around the world, including the US.

If you don't like reading stats, which are readily available, watch the film. But the stats from ideologically neutral sources are telling. A quick summary can be found here, where it says: "..more than 70 countries have (as of mid-2007) a total fertility rate of less than 2" births per woman. Most of those countries are developed countries, where replacement level is 2.1 births per woman. That was three years ago; it's only getting worse. Even China now has a birth rate of 1.75 due to its "one-child-per-family" (!) policy, which, given cultural prejudices, results in gendercide against girls, which feminists don't like to talk about, for reasons I leave to readers.

In all this, there is yet another lesson to be learned about the gulf between ideology and reality. When progs complain of overpopulation, urging that non-procreative sex, of whatever kind and between whatever partners, be the norm, we should ask ourselves whether they are aware of the trends but choose to deny them, or whether they are opposed to population increase only among poor people. For the countries with high birth rates are mostly the poorest countries. The explanatory choices, in other words, are denial and "classism."

One is tempted to prefer the former to the latter. For in general, stupidity is to be preferred to snobbery; and in this case, the former doesn't carry the added disadvantage of hypocrisy. And yet people like Margaret Sanger and Ruth Bader Ginsburg didn't bother concealing their wish that abortion be kept legal as a solution to poverty. When impoverished mothers can easily deny their children the right to live, we'll end up with fewer poor. Right? But that too is a form of denial wrought by ideology. There is no evidence whatsoever that an efficient way to reduce poverty is to try to reduce the number of babies born to poor mothers. But there is a lot of evidence that birth rates vary inversely with the mother's level of education. That is why in developed countries, where women markedly outnumber men among college students and have corresponding career prospects, we see almost catastrophically low birth rates.

Since I'm not a sociologist, I won't attempt a comprehensive explanation for the coming population implosion. What interests me more is why the religious and secular Left haven't caught on to this. I can think of only one explanation: for them, the right to sexual autonomy trumps any and all facts. E. Michael Jones, a classic intellectual crank, once argued that most modern thought can be explained by the desire to rationalize sexual license. I used to think he was just being cranky. Now I'm not so sure.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Back with new posts

For those who would notice, I hereby announce that this blog is back. I decided to suspend it during my 6-month research/writing contract with First Things in New York, which ended with the month of February. The experience was productive and, for the most part, gratifying. I'm particularly grateful to Jody Bottum, the editor-in-chief, for having given me the chance to help him out. Now I have many reasons to resume blogging under my own name. I do so with the help of Christopher Blosser, Catholic blogger extraordinaire, who will occasionally contribute and cross-post. He has my thanks for getting the new comment system and layout operational.

I still blog on occasion elsewhere. Recently, I posted at What's Wrong with the World on the recent media feeding-frenzy over the Pope's occasionally real and largely imaginary failure to be aggressive enough in removing abusers from the priesthood. Yesterday I posted about the doctrine of limbo over at First Thoughts. If any of my returning and new readers have comments about those two posts, please make them here, under this post. Since Sacramentum Vitae will once again become my primary blogging venue, I need to build traffic again. But expect to see much cross-posting too. Also, I comment frequently at Called to Communion, whose work and authors I greatly admire. To those interested in Protestant-Catholic dialogue, I cannot recommend C2C highly enough.

Grateful to God for the new friends and connections I've made, I remain in New York looking for new work and preparing for a new career in counseling. I'll have more to say, and ask, about that in the weeks and months ahead. In the meantime, though times are tough once again, I know that I am loved, watched over, and led by the One who is the beginning and end of all things. He sends people into my life often to show me how. That is why I cannot I resume blogging here without thanking the many readers who have supported me in every way possible over the past few years. I will continue doing what I can to justify your faith in me.