instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The faith of the Gentiles

The story of the Canaanite woman and the story of the centurion make for an interesting comparison.

They start out similarly:
  • Then Jesus went from that place and withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman of that district came and called out, "Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon."
  • When he entered Capernaum, a centurion approached him and appealed to him, saying, "Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, suffering dreadfully."
But then they veer off in completely different directions:
  • But he did not say a word in answer to her.
  • He said to him, "I will come and cure him."
Or... maybe they aren't so different.

St. Matthew writes of "a Canaanite woman" and "a centurion," but of course they were actual, individual human beings, not stock characters in a fable. Jesus doesn't treat them as objects with which to teach His disciples a moral. He treats them as actual individuals, and from his treatment of them as actual individuals His disciples are to draw the general lesson. From the particular, we arrive at the general -- but we can't skip over the particular when we're dealing with other persons.

Maybe the way to put it, then, is that the stories don't really start out all that similarly. "A Canaanite woman with a possessed daughter" and "a Roman centurion with a paralyzed servant" are not identical and interchangeable circumstances, and that's even before we get into the differences between this Canaanite woman and this Roman centurion.

Our wonder shouldn't be that Jesus responded differently to two very different people in different circumstances. More might we have wondered if He had responded identically, like the Divine Vending Machine we're always telling non-believers God is not.

Making no claim to originality, let me propose that Jesus' responses are actually similar, in an important way. They are both ways of testing the faith of the person who has come to ask Jesus for healing. They are, so to speak, both ways of asking, "You call me 'Lord,' but do you truly regard me as Lord, or am I just the closest miracle dispenser to hand?"

That the tests for two very different individuals weren't identical shouldn't be cause for scandal, and the similarities in the responses should reassure us that Jesus knew what He was doing in responding to each:
  • She said, "Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters."
  • The centurion said in reply, "Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof; only say the word and my servant will be healed."
Not being children of Israel, they could not prove their faith with filial trust. But a humble admission that they have no claim on Jesus, that they ask not for His justice but for His mercy: that is the faith of the Gentiles which Jesus desires and which He blesses:
  • Then Jesus said to her in reply, "O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish." And her daughter was healed from that hour.
  • And Jesus said to the centurion, "You may go; as you have believed, let it be done for you." And at that very hour his servant was healed.


Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Nominal language

Here's the opening of an AP article published today:
Americans are wary of granting refugee status to children crossing the U.S. border to flee strife-torn countries in Central America....
What struck me is that this could be written as:
Americans are wary of granting refugee status to children who are refugees....
Granted, admitting that someone is a refugee and granting that person refugee status are two different things.

But in a land where we can transubstantiate things into other things by calling them the other things -- like marriage, or healthcare -- maybe we can also transubstantiate them into other things by not calling them what they are.


Monday, July 28, 2014

Why indeed?

Archbishop Chaput puts it well:
Why should anyone believe that the Gospel is good news when we live as if it weren’t?


What did you find?

A passing line from the homily I heard yesterday (on the Parable of the Buried Treasure):
Some of you will leave here today without your treasure.
That, I think, could make for a profitable sermon in itself.


Sunday, June 08, 2014

I guess I kind of thought a synod would be at least somewhat interesting

The Statues of the First Synod of the Archdiocese of Washington is a stultifying document, but I kind of like that the first entry in the Policy Index is "Bartending Certification Courses."


Saturday, June 07, 2014

A just question

If the Church is right in teaching that excess wealth belongs to those who do not have what they need -- in St. Ambrose's words,
It is the bread of the hungry you cling to, it is the clothing of the naked you lock up; the money you bury is the redemption of the poor.
-- then by the definition of justice (giving to others what is due them), giving excess wealth to the poor is a matter of justice.

That much is well known, but Daniel Schwindt draws an unnerving conclusion:
Charity... has little place in secular law.

Justice is a different story: human law has every business enforcing justice to the best of its ability. Justice does not have to be left to work itself out in the heart of each individual.
If someone owes me a thousand dollars, has it to spare, but refuses to pay it, I sure would want there to be a judge who will force him to pay me. And, strictly speaking, I don't even need a thousand dollars right now (though I could certainly use it).

How then can I object to the principle of a judge who would force someone, who has the means but does not act on them, to give clean drinking water to those who don't have it?

Granted, figuring out who is owed what is a lot more straightforward with written contracts and the like than with the rich, collectively, and the poor, collectively (though it's not always just to enforce a written contract). Any particular attempt to enforce the justice of a rich man meeting a poor man's needs -- I might as well call it what it is: redistrubution -- may itself fall short of justice, in all sorts of ways. It might even be the case that, given the condition of a particular society, attempting to make or enforce redistrubution laws would be contrary to the public good.

Still, it seems that one of the following must be true:
  • The Church is wrong to teach that excess wealth belongs in justice to the poor.
  • A concern that justice be done by and to the members of a society is outside the legitimate scope of human law.
  • Laws governing the redistribution of wealth are, in principle, within the legitimate scope of human law.
(Link to David Schwindt's article via Catholic and Enjoying It!)


Sunday, June 01, 2014

Wisdom and counsel

A while back I wrote about how the charism of wisdom relates to the gift of wisdom, which in turn presupposes the virtue of charity.

Now I'm going to write about how the charism of wisdom relates to the gift of counsel, which in turn presupposes the virtue of prudence.

As it happens, St. Thomas mentions both a charism of wisdom and a charism of counsel, considered as extensions of the respective gifts, in the Summa Theologiae's Treatise on Virtues. (His (somewhat inelegant) term for "charism" is "gratuitous grace," which is distinct from the sanctifying grace that makes the recipient holy.**)

In the article, "Whether wisdom is in all who have grace?", after explaining that yes, the gift of wisdom "is wanting to none who is without mortal sin through having sanctifying grace," St. Thomas adds:

Some, however, receive a higher degree of the gift of wisdom, both as to the contemplation of Divine things (by both knowing more exalted mysteries and being able to impart this knowledge to others) and as to the direction of human affairs according to Divine rules (by being able to direct not only themselves but also others according to those rules). This degree of wisdom is not common to all that have sanctifying grace, but belongs rather to the gratuitous graces, which the Holy Ghost dispenses as He will, according to 1 Corinthians 12:8: "To one indeed by the Spirit is given the word of wisdom," etc.

In considering "Whether counsel should be reckoned among the gifts of the Holy Ghost? " he counters the objection that "counsel seems to be one of those things which are given by the Holy Ghost specially to certain persons":
That a man be of such good counsel as to counsel others, may be due to a gratuitous grace; but that a man be counselled by God as to what he ought to do in matters necessary for salvation is common to all holy persons.
In both cases, then, the charism given only to some extends the gift given to all by enabling the one who has received the charism to benefit others. (Perhaps if everyone fully developed their gifts of wisdom and counsel, there'd be no need for the charisms.)

Okay, so for St. Thomas the charism of wisdom consists of:
  • knowing particularly exalted mysteries
  • being able to impart knowledge of particularly exalted mysteries to others
  • being able to direct others according to Divine rules
And the charism of counsel consists of
  • being able to counsel others
But how is "being able to direct others according to Divine riles" different than "being able to counsel others"? Wouldn't you counsel them according to Divine rules, if you're counseling them as directed by God?

I think the distinction is suggested by St. Thomas's explanation of how wisdom, which is about Divine things that are eternal and necessary, can nevertheless be practical, even though practicality is about contingent things (i.e., things that don't have to be as they are):
Divine things are indeed necessary and eternal in themselves, yet they are the rules of the contingent things which are the subject-matter of human actions.
Wisdom, then, gives you the rules by which you judge contingent things.

Counsel, on the other hand, helps you decide among contingent things:
Since, however, human reason is unable to grasp the singular and contingent things which may occur, the result is that "the thoughts of mortal men are fearful, and our counsels uncertain" (Wisdom 9:14). Hence in the research of counsel, man requires to be directed by God who comprehends all things: and this is done through the gift of counsel --
 -- or the charism of counsel, if one person is counseling another.

Wisdom provides the higher level direction -- "Go this way. Don't go that way." Counsel gets down into the details, "Go ahead and take the job. Don't be afraid to trust her."

** "[T]here is a twofold grace: one whereby man himself is united to God, and this is called 'sanctifying grace'; the other is that whereby one man cooperates with another in leading him to God, and this gift is called 'gratuitous grace,' since it is bestowed on a man beyond the capability of nature, and beyond the merit of the person. But whereas it is bestowed on a man, not to justify him, but rather that he may cooperate in the justification of another, it is not called sanctifying grace. And it is of this that the Apostle says (1 Corinthians 12:7): 'And the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man unto utility,' i.e. of others."



Inspired writing

T.S. O'Rama quotes Shelby Foote from a 1997 interview:
Good writing doesn’t come from inspiration. It may spark you, set you off, but if you write under the influence of inspiration, you will write very badly—probably sentimentally, which is even worse.
This caught my attention for a couple of reasons.

First, as an anti-sentimentalist myself, I am all for preventing sentimental writing, and I applaud Foote for striking this blow. I take him to mean, more or less, that someone writing under the influence of inspiration, in trying to inspire readers in much the same way, is likely to fall into sentimentalism as the easiest way to get a response.

Foote's concern is the quality of writing itself; as he says earlier in the interview:
As I get older, I care less and less what happens in a book. What I care about is the writing—how it’s told. I read words and I don’t see a scene going on as if I were at a movie; I want to see how these words are shaped and how they intertwine and what the sounds are next to each other, how they rub up against each other, along with the distribution of commas and semicolons.
To the extent writing under the influence of inspiration is hasty writing -- inspiration is fleeting, so you need to write quickly -- the way the words are shaped and intertwine is haphazard. Apart from the rare genius, good hasty writing is likely to be derivative, since the writer will be using whatever words come most quickly to mind. And someone who cares about writing isn't likely to think derivative is good.

All sentimental writing is derivative, at least in the sense that it follows well-worn paths to well known emotional responses. It's manipulative, so if it fails to manipulate -- as it will, if the reader cares about the writing and not what happens -- it fails as writing. Sentimental writing that fails to evoke sentiment is like the illogical logic puzzle detective novel Raymond Chandler criticized in his essay "The Simple Art of Murder": "If it is not that, it is nothing at all. There is nothing else for it to be."

Having said all that, I'm also interested in Foote's comment because I'm interested in the idea of writing as a charism. I can dress that up as a special docility toward the movement of the Holy Spirit in building up Christ's Church through the written word, but it comes down to writing under the influence of inspiration.

Granted, Foote wasn't talking about that kind of inspiration. But the idea of a writing charism does make me think about Foote's distinction quoted above, between "what happens" and "how it's told." Art is right reasoning about a thing to be made, and you have to think the Holy Spirit reasons rightly about the writing He inspires, which suggests that it will be artful writing. Both what happens and how it's told ought to be exceptional.

And yet, the purpose of a charism is to have an effect on others, and I'd bet there aren't a lot of readers as discriminating as the elderly Shelby Foote. For that matter, a lot of readers might well be put off by writing that's too well written. So we might think the Holy Spirit isn't too concerned with words being artfully arranged as long as the meaning He intends is conveyed. But does that really make sense? We wouldn't say that someone with the charism of painting might paint ugly pictures as long as you could tell what they were paintings of.

We could distinguish between writing and writing down. Writing is a creative act, the art of making a piece of writing intended to be read. Writing down is an act of recording spoken or thought words, to convey the intelligible ideas written down to others who weren't there to hear them spoken. The Holy Spirit can inspire either act, right? The writing down of words, so that others can know what the writer-down wants them to know, need not be particularly artistic.

If the Holy Spirit inspires a writer, though, then surely the work that gets written gets written well. And that should make it easy for a writer to know whether he has the charism of writing, since writing well without God as your co-author is hard work.



Thursday, May 29, 2014

None so blind

In the least-self-aware comment I've read all morning -- possibly all decade -- Marcus Borg tells Publisher Weekly that "it's a special treat to write fiction because I can make everything up."


Felix typo alert

Someone praised an online journalist for breaking stories instead of just commenting on them, calling him a writer "who tells readers thinks they don't already know."