instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Friday, July 29, 2005

A thing of beauty

There are lots of interesting bits in the talk "Morality and Culture: Beyond Kant and Jansenius," by Tracy Rowland. Among them:
  • Kantian and Jansenist morality, though very different (and in some ways opposite) in detail, "share the property of making duty and obedience to the will of a legislator... the driving force behind moral action." This as opposed to love. (A key question: Do we obey out of love, or love out of obedience?)
  • "Jansenism is notoriously difficult to define." I, however, have found it's quite easy to use. This, however, gives me pause: "Cardinal Giovanni Bona (1609-74) suggested that a Jansenist is a Catholic who did not like Jesuits."
  • There are "experiences which mediate to the person an insight or vision of the glory of God and the beauty or splendor of creation. In the absence of such experiences the person lacks an understanding of the form or forms of goodness and is left with, at best, a coherent framework of laws whose credibility is based on its logical consistency for those who have the patience and inclination to study them; or more commonly, a collection of principles mutually inconsistent, tacitly cobbled together from rival moral traditions, whose credibility is based on their common acceptability within the dominant institutions of any given culture."
    This notion would explain Catholics who hold to "moralism" -- "described by David Schindler as the position whereby moral truth is either a matter of arbitrariness or (mechanical) imposition from without, or both" -- as people who have not experienced the glory of God or the beauty of creation. Which, in turn, indicates moralism's antidote.
    Well, in fact Rowland gives eight requirements to overcome moralism, though I wasn't convinced they're all requirements strictly speaking.
  • According to Michael Hanby, "In the [Trinitarian account of the will], voluntas is the site of our erotic participation in an anterior gift, and it is at once self-moved and moved by the beauty of that gift."
    The idea of being moved by beauty contains, I hypothesize, the seed to resolving the predestination-free will paradox. We think of God's actions as analogous to a chess game played against a predictable opponent: "If I move my pawn here, there's no way he'll resist taking it."
    But God as Mover is preceded by God as Being, which is to say God as Beauty. His will might in some ways be better thought of simply as His presence, which being beautiful draws the human will to Him.


The Few. The Proud. The Joyous.

This image comes from Dom Bettinelli's gallery of late-Nineteenth Century anti-Catholic propaganda:

Now, I ask you: Viewed today, does this strike you as better suited for anti-Catholic propaganda, or for diocesan vocation literature?

Well, okay, maybe a Pious and Overly-Devotional diocese. But I don't think many people today will be scandalized at the idea of Catholic priests getting together for a drink and a laugh. (Though the thought of them wearing cassocks while doing so may make many self-styled "progressive Catholics" about as cheery as these late-Nineteenth Century pillars of Protestant rectitude.)


Thursday, July 28, 2005

Is "nearly" "not" or nothing?

Stop me if you've heard this one:
Once there was a demure young woman. So demure was she, in fact, that when a suitor first came to call, she sat on one end of the couch and made him sit on the other end. Each day he called on her, he could sit half as far from her as he had the last time.

A young mathematician called on her one day. When she explained the seating arrangements, he thought to himself, "It will take an infinite number of visits before our hands will meet," and did not return a second time.

He was surprised, then, to read in the paper a few months later that the woman was engaged to one of his acquaintances. He called the man up and said, "Didn't she make you start at the far end of the couch, then sit half the distance of your previous visit each time?"

"Yes, she did."

"But that series requires an infinite number of visits before it converges to zero. You can't have even held her hand yet!"

"Look, you're a mathematician, and your reasoning is flawless. But I'm an engineer. I only had to get close enough."
Life is not as formal as mathematics. As an educator and an intellectual, John Henry Cardinal Newman found this problematic:
Boys are always more or less inaccurate, and too many, or rather the majority, remain boys all their lives. When, for instance, I hear speakers at public meetings declaiming about "large and enlightened views," or about "freedom of conscience," or about "the Gospel," or any other popular subject of the day, I am far from denying that some among them know what they are talking about; but it would be satisfactory, in a particular case, to be sure of the fact....
There's no getting around the fact that we use language in a vague way. At the same time, there's no denying that, as a rule, we get close enough to each other's meanings in the ordinary exchanges of daily life.

One of the ways we do this is by being able to recognize how formally others are speaking, and adjusting our interpretations accordingly. "I'll call around 3" is a lot more vague than, "I'll call around 3:05." The precision of "3:05" implies a greater precision in the imprecise "around."

If we're going to successfully adjust our interpretations, though, we need to be able to adjust them properly; less tautologically, we need to be aware of the correct interpretation from among all possible interpretations.

Consider the statement, "We're almost there." I'd guess that most times, for most purposes, the correct interpretation of "almost" is "very nearly but not exactly or entirely."

Sometimes, though, the interpretation that needs to be given to "almost" is simply "not." If you're ready to jump out of an airplane, and they're almost done with the safety check, your take-away is that they aren't done with the safety check. If the new software database is almost compatible with the old software database, then it's not compatible.

People aren't always prepared to recognize this. We talk of "glass half empty" vs. "glass half full;" what happened to "glass not empty" and "glass not full"?

To understand the "first order meaning" of a statement like "we're almost there" as "we're not there" is something that may not occur to some people. It's a concept related to analogy, in which to say something is like another is to say it is also unlike another, and sometimes it's more important to understand how two analogous things are unlike.


Wednesday, July 27, 2005

The topic I was going to write about today

Since bloggers choose what to write about, we are basically free to choose our own antagonists. Which means we're also free to choose not to have antagonists. So why do we choose to have antagonists?


Everything in its place

In a comment below, TSO writes:
Did [St. Thomas's] gift of great intellect (surely predisposing him to appreciate reason) color his doctrine? Or did his doctrine color his behavior and nurture his intellect (i.e. give him the desire and industriousness necessary to write something like the Summa)? Maybe some of both though it's probably unfair to speculate.
The way I'd put it -- and I put it in a post rather than a comment both to increase the chance of correction and because this beats the topic I was going to write about today -- is that St. Thomas's great intellect certainly colored the way he expressed his doctrine. A reader can be excused if he gets the incorrect impression that the intellect is the be-all and end-all of St. Thomas's doctrine. The Angelic Doctor gave a lot of theological avenues only the briefest of sketches. If you were to say there are whole boulevards of which the best that can be said is that his intellect-centric perspective didn't brick them off entirely, I wouldn't dismiss you without a hearing.

At the same time, it was his intellectual vision that allowed St. Thomas to see where the human intellect fits in relation to God and creation. And if a thing fits in relation to other things, if it has a place, then it necessarily has boundaries, and there are places where it is not.


Tuesday, July 26, 2005

An exercise for the reader

I had a discussion about Catholic intellectuals with someone, and as sometimes happens I wound up more confused than I started. I blame grammar, as "Catholic" and "intellectual" function as both adjectives and nouns.

We could say that an intellectual is a person who traffics in ideas, as compared with a grocer, who traffics in groceries.

A "Catholic grocer," then, would be a person who traffics in groceries and who is Catholic. In other words, "Catholic grocers" is the intersection of "Catholics" and "grocers."

More strictly, "Catholic grocer" could mean a person who traffics in groceries in a manner consistent with the Catholic faith; in this case, "Catholic" modifies the way in which the traffic in groceries is conducted.

Similarly for "Catholic intellectual," there is a broad meaning ("Catholics who traffic in ideas") and a narrow meaning ("Catholics who traffic in ideas in a Catholic manner").

There seems to be plenty of stuff in being a grocer that can't really be modified by being Catholic. A grocer order his goods, stocks his shelves, prices his merchandise, receives payments, keeps his books, and so on. These can be done in accord with the Catholic faith, but they are essentially natural, material acts.

What is the stuff in being an intellectual that can't really be modified by being Catholic? An intellectual marshals facts, weighs evidence, pronounces judgment, scribbles hastily on napkins, and looks around for someone to buy the next round.

But the measure of an intellectual is the content of his ideas. Can a Catholic intellectual have an idea, immaterial as it is, that is not thoroughly permeated with the Catholic faith in a way at all analogous to the way a Catholic grocer can have a loaf of bread that is not thoroughly permeated with the Catholic faith? I mean, a loaf of bread justly baked is the same in a Catholic store as in a Buddhist store. Can an idea that is the same in a Catholic mind as in a Buddhist mind be said to be Catholic?

And if it's the case that the content of the ideas of Catholic intellectuals are thoroughly Catholic, then might it even be the case, somehow, that the content of the stores of Catholic grocers are thoroughly Catholic? Does that actually mean anything, and if so, what?

On another tack: The term "Catholic intellectual" suggests that being an intellectual is more fundamental than being Catholic. (Cf. "intellectual Catholic.") Is the risk that a Catholic intellectual would put being an intellectual ahead of being Catholic in the event of a perceived conflict qualitatively different than the risk that a Catholic grocer would put being a grocer ahead of being Catholic?

Oh, and finally: Who do you think of as Catholic intellectuals? When I started to write down a list, I couldn't much distinguish it from a list of "well-known Catholics who write in complete sentences."


Monday, July 25, 2005

There are worse things than being wrong

Being uncharitable, for one.

As St. Thomas puts it:
He who interprets doubtful matters for the best, may happen to be deceived more often than not; yet it is better to err frequently through thinking well of a wicked man, than to err less frequently through having an evil opinion of a good man, because in the latter case an injury is inflicted, but not in the former.
St. Thomas goes on to distinguish being wrong about things and being wrong about people. The former is worse for you than the latter, since being wrong about an evil person reflects more on the person than on your own intellect.


A word of understanding

I love Matthew 13:51:
[Jesus asked His disciples,] "Do you understand all these things?" They answered, "Yes."
Finally, the disciples managed the correct answer.

Chapter 13 begins with the parable of the sower, which Jesus tells the crowd then explains to the disciples. Next is the parable of the weeds, which, once behind closed doors, the disciples ask to be explained. After His explanation, Jesus tells them the parables of the buried treasure, the pearl of great price, and the net thrown into the sea.

So, after having to have explained two longer parables to them, the disciples are told three short ones and asked if they understand them.


Jesus takes them at their word (an uncomfortable thought, perhaps, for Christians who pray liturgically; "Didn't you say you wanted My Father's will done on earth as it is in heaven?") instead of pressing the point. I wonder, though, how deep their understanding -- an echo of Solomon's request for "an understanding heart" -- at that time went. A pearl of great price? Understandable. A pearl beyond price, bought at a price beyond price? Not so much.

We can think in terms of a treasure worth a bajillion dollars, obtained at the cost of a thousand dollars. But if we truly understand the kingdom of heaven, we understand that it is not worth a bajillion dollars; it's worth more than everything.

Being a disciple of Christ isn't simply worth more than what must be given up. If that were the case, the economics could in principle shift around and something else wind up worth more than the kingdom of heaven. Pearls have no intrinsic value; if the market collapses after the merchant buys the pearl of great price, he's out of luck. And if someone just doesn't care for pearls, he won't be convinced to buy it, no matter what it's worth.

This is what we need to understand about the kingdom of heaven. It isn't simply the greatest good according to some accidental ordering of goods; it isn't the good you get to by moving from lesser good to greater good until you reach a global maximum; it's not the limit of all created goods. The kingdom of heaven is the sharing in the Divine Life of the Trinity, and that is a good beyond all goods, a good so good calling it "good" is almost a lie.

Do we understand this? "Yes," we say. But how do we live?


Trick questions

If the LORD appeared to me in a dream at night and said, "Ask something of Me and I will give it to you," I'm not sure what I would say. A hundred million dollars, maybe, or telekinesis.

If I were feeling particularly pious, though, I'd probably say something like, "Whatever is Your will to give me," and feel mighty proud at my humility.

Solomon, as you know, didn't ask for superpowers, or even the life of his enemies. But neither did he try to pull an Ahaz and say, "I will not ask. I will not tempt the LORD." He succumbed to neither false modesty nor false ignorance; he knew he needed an understanding heart to judge God's people and to distinguish right from wrong, and he asked for it.

Notice how Solomon begins his request: "O LORD, my God, you have made me, your servant, king to succeed my father David." Solomon has enough understanding to know that it was God Who made him, "a mere youth," king. God wants him to be king, so it follows that asking for something to help him be a good king is not presumption, but a cooperation in God's plan. Faith and reason come together to make Solomon a co-creator of the history of God's people.

It's a pattern repeated again and again in Scripture, and throughout the history of the Church. We are God's servants, but not His inert and passive tools. There is no virtue in refusing to will anything on our own out of a misguided fear of willing something contrary to God's will. His designs are deeper than ours, but they are not wholly opaque. God has revealed more to us than that He cannot be fully known.

We might compare Solomon's answer to that of St. Thomas, who, according to legend, responded to Jesus' question of, "What should be your reward?," with, "Nothing but You, Lord." Such nonisity would seem to be in contradiction to Solomon's request for a particular useful good. In Solomon's case, though, he was just beginning to serve as king of God's people. St. Thomas, on the other hand, was a few months from death; he was asked, not what gift he wanted, but what reward.

The example of Solomon suggests that we aren't necessarily wholly blind about God's will for us personally, and that we shouldn't be reluctant to ask for what we need to carry it out. At the same time, the example of St. Thomas reminds us of the final end God wills for us, an end which we ought to prefer over all the useful goods we might use on the way.


Friday, July 22, 2005

Not to be dogmatic or anything

But it remains true that "Holy Mother Church holds and teaches that God, the source and end of all things, can be known with certainty from the consideration of created things, by the natural power of human reason; ever since the creation of the world, his invisible nature has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made."

I suppose you could argue that the consideration of created things can lead to certain knowledge of God as source and end of all things without discerning any design in creation. I don't think I'd want to have to argue that, but it beats arguing that Holy Mother Church is wrong.


Argument by design

For two weeks, I've been trying to figure out what all the fuss is about. The closest I can come is this Q&A:
When Cardinal Schönborn says that purpose and design can be clearly discerned in the natural world, would you agree?

Not scientifically. As a scientist, I cannot draw this conclusion.
But Cardinal Schönborn isn't a scientist; he's a theologian. And I think the lesson to be drawn from this fact is, not that he doesn't know what he's talking about, but that he's probably not talking scientifically.

Talking non-scientifically is not per se bad.

And to me, Cardinal Schönborn seems to be saying that purpose and design can be clearly discerned in the natural world, and that to deny this is ideology, not science.

What he does not seem to me to be saying is that purpose and design can be clearly demonstrated scientifically. But the distinction between clear discernment and scientific demonstration is only irrelevant if science is the only means of discernment, and the claim that science is the only means of discernment is ideology, not science.

So to me, the question becomes, can purpose and design be clearly discerned in the natural world? The only way I can understand the terms "purpose," "design," "clearly," and "discerned" leads me to agree with the Cardinal that the answer is yes.


The Illustrated Life

This is one picture that absolutely requires a caption. And, along with the rest of them, it gets a bookmark. A gift to the Web from the Estimabilissime Cyntra.


Home-grown politicians

From the Maryland Catholic Conference:
In the fall, The Maryland Catholic Conference will sponsor a series of candidate-training workshops for Maryland Catholics considering involvement in electoral politics. We're looking for women and men who might consider elective office as a kind of ministry, an opportunity to merge an interest in politics with Gospel-driven, faith-illuminated values. We're also looking for Catholics who'd like to work for candidates who exhibit those values. Please consider joining us at one of the workshops.

In the past several years, Catholics who've been involved in our Legislative Advocacy Network have shared with us their interest in running for office. While many of them appear eminently qualified for elective public service, scarce few have campaign experience. Happily for us, persons with extensive, high-level experience in the two major parities offered their training services.

Training will be strictly non-partisan -- party affiliation doesn't matter. What does matter is that workshop participants abide Church teaching and see the connection between that teaching and the issues being considered in the debate of public-policy issues.

As I expect you know, we do not (we cannot) directly or indirectly endorse candidates for public office. And so we will insist that prospective candidates agree not to advertise their workshop involvement in any campaign materials.
This strikes me as a fabulous idea with the potential to go very, very wrong.


Thursday, July 21, 2005

The unnamed vice

I was poking about, trying to find hints for something constructive to say about Genesis 6:7 -- "So the LORD said: 'I will wipe out from the earth the men whom I have created... for I am sorry that I made them." -- when I came across this objection and reply to the Summa Theologica article, "Whether drunkenness is a sin":
Objection 1. It would seem that drunkenness is not a sin. For every sin has a corresponding contrary sin, thus timidity is opposed to daring, and presumption to pusillanimity. But no sin is opposed to drunkenness. Therefore drunkenness is not a sin.

Reply to Objection 1. As the Philosopher says (Ethic. iii, 11), insensibility which is opposed to temperance "is not very common," so that like its species which are opposed to the species of intemperance it has no name. Hence the vice opposed to drunkenness is unnamed; and yet if a man were knowingly to abstain from wine to the extent of molesting nature grievously, he would not be free from sin.
I mean, come on. Knowingly to abstain from wine to the extent of molesting nature grievously.

Would such a concept ever so much as cross the mind of a Carmelite? Doubtful. Is this what Legionnaires of Christ talk about amongst themselves? I don't think so. Do Sulpicians hash such matters over with Vincentians? Nuh-uh.

Now all I need is to come up with a name for this vice and a pretence for mentioning it at the next Dominican Third Order Chapter meeting. (Which is next Tuesday evening, by the way, if you're interested and within driving range of Silver Spring, MD.)



Since all I can say about this article's implication that private devotions are presumptively anti-Christian is that the author has a profoundly un-Catholic "either/or" perspective, I direct you to Fr. Tucker's reasoned response.

Of the many errors of the piece, the one I will correct here is this: When you see a Eucharistic procession, the proper response is not to wonder why people would want to return to a time when the Church was neatly divided between the ordained and the merely baptized, and whether they could possibly be as fully, consciously, and actively Christian as you are. The proper response is to kneel.


Wednesday, July 20, 2005

What did God flood, and when did He flood it?

I'm afraid I have a particularly squishy position on the historicity of the Great Flood of Genesis 6-8. I'm basically okay with most every proposal, from retroactive interpretation of a particular bad flood in a single valley as God's judgment upon the evils of men all the way up to the full fifteen cubits over the tallest mountain and the waters prevailing upon the earth a hundred and fifty days.

I mean, I wasn't there, was I?

To understand -- or even, astonishing thought, pray -- the Scriptural story, though, we need to take it on its own terms, apart from speculation about the historical basis and textual evolution through which is may have passed.

The question is, what are its own terms?

Answering the question literally, and using the NAB, the terms include (leaving out the engineering and meteorological details):
"no desire that [man's] heart conceived was ever anything but evil"

God said of man, "I am sorry that I made them"

"But Noah found favor with the LORD... Noah, a good man and blameless in that age,
... walked with God...."

the flood would "destroy everywhere all creatures in which there is the breath of life"

Noah "carried out all the commands that God gave him"; he "alone in this age" was "found to be truly just"
And, perhaps most importantly, God's covenant with Noah:
God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them: "... Every creature that is alive shall be yours to eat; I give them all to you as I did the green plants...
"For your own lifeblood, too, I will demand an accounting: from every animal I will demand it, and from man in regard to his fellow man I will demand an accounting for human life. If anyone sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; For in the image of God has man been made.
"Be fertile, then, and multiply; abound on earth and subdue it."
God said to Noah and to his sons with him: "See, I am now establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you and with every living creature that was with you: all the birds, and the various tame and wild animals that were with you and came out of the ark. I will establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all bodily creatures be destroyed by the waters of a flood; there shall not be another flood to devastate the earth."
At a minimum, I suppose, the Christian ought to affirm as a matter of objective fact that all humans have a share in the covenant recorded in Genesis 9, a "blessing of fruitfulness despite man's sin."


Tuesday, July 19, 2005

A Flood of questions

I recently scored a review copy of The Preservationist, a novel by David Maine. It's what you might call an imaginative retelling of the story of Noe and the Flood. Surprisingly, for a book not published via iUniverse's FastTrack option, it actually takes the Biblical account seriously.

Well, "seriously" may not be the mot juste; there's a lot of humor in the book. You might say "faithfully," but there's also a lot of irreverence. But it's irreverence from some of the characters, not the author. Maybe the way to put it is that the novel treats the story of as though it were actually true.

So there really is a Noe, who really is six hundred years old; he really does speak with God; he really does build an ark (his son Cham designs and maintains it); he (or rather, his daughters-in-law) really do get all the animals of the world on-board; there really is a world-wide flood, and a dove with an olive twig, and a rainbow, and a shameful incidence of drunkenness, and a plan to repopulate the world. And all along the way, coincidences and miracles occur that prove God is with Noe and his family in their work.

It's refreshing, really.

Of course, it's also a novel written in the early 21st Century, so what gets added to the Douay Rheims version (hence "Noe" rather than "Noah") is a certain male feminist sensibility. The daughters-in-law are all smarter and wiser than the men in the book; they philosophize and theologize in more or less modern ways, and so come off as more sympathetic characters than the what-you-see-is-what-you-get men. Even Noe, God's ever-faithful servant, is content to know and do God's will without going too far down the path of why.

Unless we bleach the story of the Flood of all meaning beyond the kindergarten Sunday School level, it raises a lot of questions I suspect most of us have never bothered to ask. Principally: why would God destroy His creation in this way? There's one passage in which Bera, Sem's wife, reports the answers of all those on the ark:
Father:-Because He wishes to cleanse the world of sin and punish the unbelievers.
Mother:-Because He can.
Sem:-Because He wants to encourage us to do better.
Cham:-Because He's got no respect for His own creation.
Ilya [Cham's wife]:- Because, like most males, He loves destruction for its own sake.
Japheth...:-Because He's the boss and don't you forget it.
Mirn [Japheth's wife]:-Because He wants to see what we'll do.
None of these answers is satisfactory, but my own (because there is no limit to the suffering He makes available to us, for reasons only He understands) is no more so.
I don't know why David Maine chose the story of the Flood, of all the mysteries of God proposed to man through the Douay Rheims Bible, as the basis for a novel. (I also don't know why he chose that translation, unless it was simply to use the archaic "Noe.") But I'm all for raising theological questions in entertaining ways, and I suppose the Flood Story is universal enough that it can ask the questions without being rejected up front. And if you read the answers the character give to, "Why did He do it?", you see that they are pretty much as relevant when the "it" is what happens on any given day as when it's the end of all flesh.

As it happens, the publisher has put together a reading group guide to the novel, which is basically a set of nine discussion questions. Most of them look at the literary aspects of the novel -- e.g., "How does the book's structure contribute to its pacing and emotional resonance?" -- which I'd bring up if this were a full-blown book review. But it does include this question, the answers to which in reading groups around the country (pardon my parochialism, but other countries would have other publishers) might be very interesting:
According to Father James Martin, a Catholic priest quoted in USA Today, the current trend of Bible-oriented books is "theology lite... some is nourishing, most of it isn't. But it's easily digested and makes few demands." Is that a fair criticism?



Friday, July 15, 2005

Springtime in the New Evangelization

When the Great Wheel of Online Discourse stopped once again on "Harry Potter," I thought to myself that this must be the least edifying debate St. Blogs conducts with itself. I soon realized, though, that we can distinguish between "least edifying" and "least fruitful to revisit."


Tuesday, July 12, 2005

If you are going to choose the bucket of water....

Here's a better way of expressing my point about us being no quicker on the uptake than the Apostles were about what Jesus means:
We had said "everything" and we had meant everything, but we had no idea that everything could possibly include so much.
That's said in the context of a Carmelite vocation, but it generalizes to all who hear their Master's call to be His disciple.

So, too, does the distinction between givers and getters:
To begin with, among a great many different motives for entering the monastery, most of them beside the point, there are two which can be roughly distinguished almost from the beginning. They separate the getters from the givers, if you understand what I mean. We are all of us either one or the other in life anyway, wherever we live.
The getters -- those content to live on the second stair of servile love -- may have an easier time of it outside the cloister, but will they pick up their cross in time?

In one of her prayers, St. Catherine of Siena speaks of Jesus held to the Cross, not by nails, but by love. If we don't understand that discipleship makes givers of us all, will we love enough to stay on our crosses?


Monday, July 11, 2005

The parable of the parable

In a homily yesterday, it was suggested that what is generally called the Parable of the Sower may also be called the Parable of the Soil, and the four kinds of soil can be said to represent closed minds, shallow minds, selfish minds, and sincere minds.

I think it can be easier, at times, to judge how closed, shallow, or selfish our minds are than to judge how sincere they are. This gives us three points of reference to move away from, and if we manage to do that it's a good bet we're moving toward the fourth point, where fruit is produced a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.

What if (as was also suggested yesterday) we call this the Parable of the Seed? In Luke's telling, Jesus says, "The seed is the word of God." We can say that the parable tells of four different kinds of men Jesus visits. The first refuse Him entrance; the second welcome Him, but then turn Him out when He begins to disquiet their lives; the third invite Him in, then forget He is there; the fourth receive Him as their honored guest, and give Him a place to do His Father's will.

And recall yesterday's first reading from Isaiah:
Thus says the LORD: Just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down and do not return there till they have watered the earth, making it fertile and fruitful, giving seed to the one who sows and bread to the one who eats, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; my word shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it.
The Father's will will be done. Good soil, sincere minds, dutiful hosts will accept Christ, and in them He will bring forth fruit abundantly.

One interesting thing about this parable is that, although Jesus goes to the trouble of explaining it to His disciples, He doesn't say just what this "word of God" is. I'm cheating by bringing in the opening verse of St. John's Gospel, but the synoptic Evangelists all leave this discernment as an exercise to the reader. Jesus says He uses parables so that those to whom "knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven... has not been granted" may "'hear but ... not listen or understand.'" But even His disciples do not yet realize that Jesus Himself is the seed Who must be sown in their hearts, sent by the Father to die for our sins.

Again and again, the Gospels show us that Jesus' disciples were not the quickest rabbits in the warren when it came to understanding what He was trying to tell them. But then, aren't we Jesus' disciples, too? Are we any quicker than that first batch of Galileans to truly listen to, to truly understand what we've heard since infancy?


Friday, July 08, 2005


Judging by the Catena Aurea, the consensus among the Church Fathers was that "the childlike" referred to in Matthew 11:25 are those who are humble:
Augustine: That the wise and understanding are to be taken as the proud, Himself opens to us when He says, "and hast revealed them unto babes;" for who are "babes" but the humble?
Gregory: He says not "to the foolish," but to babes, showing that He condemns pride, not understanding.
Chrysostom: Or when He says, "the wise," He does not speak of true wisdom, but of that which the Scribes and Pharisees seemed to have by their speech. Wherefore he said not, "and has revealed them to the foolish," but "to babes," that is, uneducated or simple; teaching us in all things to keep ourselves from pride and to seek humility.
Hilary: The hidden things of heavenly words and their power are hid from the wise, and revealed to the babes; babes, that is, in malice, not in understanding; hid from the wise because of their presumption of their own wisdom, not because of their wisdom... they who disdain to be made babes in God should become fools in their own wisdom....
Chrysostom: And wherefore were they hid from them? Hear Paul speaking, "Seeking to set up their own righteousness, they were not subject to the righteousness of God."
The Greek word is an inflected form of ne^pios; it is used when Jesus quotes Psalm 8, "Out of the mouths of infants and nurslings you have brought forth praise." St. Paul uses the word when referring to a "teacher of the simple," as well as to "infants in Christ," and repeatedly in the famous verse, "When I was a child, I used to talk as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I put aside childish things." (For completeness, he uses it in these verses as well, and Hebrews 5:13 says that the child "lacks experience of the word of righteousness.")

In the Epistles, childhood is primarily a matter of immaturity, of lacking what an adult disciple ought to possess. This is not to suggest an incompatibility between the Epistles and the Gospels; it is to suggest that if we want to understand why the thought that God has revealed things to the childlike that were hidden from the wise, we shouldn't go with the simple notion that childhood=good, adulthood=bad.

And, as always, whenever I write something like "the Greek word used in that verse," it's based entirely on what I find by poking about this site. I myself have less Greeke than a plate of lutefisk.


Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Such a gracious will

We all know (and most of us recently heard proclaimed) these words of Jesus from the Gospel according to St. Matthew:
"I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to the childlike. Yes, Father, such has been your gracious will."
It's a saying that, properly defanged, offers to everyone the comfort of knowing that they are better than the people who are wiser and more learned than they.

But what strikes me now is not the fact that such has been God's gracious will to have hidden things from the wise and the learned and revealed them to the childlike. Rather, it's the fact that Jesus makes this observation as a prayer of praise (or thanksgiving, or confession, or acknowledgement, depending on the translation) to the Father. The parallel in Luke even says Jesus spoke these words in a moment of rejoicing in the Holy Spirit.

What is it about this aspect of God's gracious will that caused Jesus to break into joyful prayer at the thought of it?

I don't know. But what do you think of this:

In hiding things from the wise and the learned -- understood in terms of human wisdom and learning -- the Father gives glory to His Son. No one can reason his way to the Father; as Jesus goes on to say, "no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal him." Thus, every name "written in heaven" is written because of Jesus.

Set aside for the moment all notions of an anthrocentric soteriology. ("Um, okay," you say.) There's a tendency to think that the Christian faith is entirely about us: Adam sinned; mankind has been foundering ever since; the Father came up with the idea of the Incarnation to save us; the Son became man, was crucified, and rose on the third day to save us.

That's all fine, as far as it goes, but can we try a more theocentric perspective? The Father gives everything to the Son, Who returns it to the Father. This includes those creatures chosen before creation to share in their Divine Life. How does the Father give the elect to the Son? By willing that the elect share in their Divine Life only through faith in the Son-made-man. From this point of view, the Incarnation is an expression of Trinitarian love; by assuming our humanity in fulfillment of the Father's will, the Son accepts the gift of the elect from, and returns it to, the Father.

So, when Jesus "began to reproach the towns where most of His mighty deeds had been done, since they had not repented," the train of thought led Him right to the Father's love for Him, and in true filial fashion, He was moved to glorify in speech the Father Who was glorifying Him in His mission to those whom the Father gave Him.


Tuesday, July 05, 2005

You can't handle the truth without handling the love

There's been plenty written about the dangers of knowledge without love and of love without knowledge; to pick two dangers, according to St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the former puffs up and the latter goes astray.

But I think we can say something stronger: That, when speaking of God and the things of God, knowledge without love and love without knowledge are essentially immoral. Thus the abyssmal evil of the demons, which have an angelic knowledge of God yet do not love Him.

Thus also, albeit on a much different scale, the wickedness of those who habitually use their knowledge of Catholicism -- the Faith itself, or canon law, or current or past discipline or custom -- not to build up the Body of Christ, or even to build up Christ within themselves, but to forge weapons with which to attack, belittle, ridicule, and otherwise effect their hatred of others.

There's a paradox of sorts here. The union of knowledge and love is so close and inseparable, since they both come from and return to the One God, that those who have knowledge of Catholicism but don't have love don't in truth have knowledge of Catholicism. They know facts, but they don't know the Faith.

Anyone who speaks the truth without love is not speaking the truth of God, just as anyone who speaks of love without truth is not speaking of the love of God.


Friday, July 01, 2005

A loving vision

In the first chapter of The Sources of Christian Ethics, Servais Pinckaers, OP, defines moral theology as
"the branch of theology
that studies human acts
so as to direct them to a loving vision of God
seen as our true complete happiness
and our final end.
This vision is attained by means of grace, the virtues, and the gifts,
in the light of revelation and reason."
Each of the above phrases has implications for what he sees as the work of moral theologians and teachers of moral theology. Right now, though, I just want to write a few words on the term "loving vision."

By "loving vision," Fr. Pinckaers intends to unite two historically distinct concepts of beatitude, that of vision or knowledge and that of love. The distinction arose only in the Thirteenth Century, when the Dominicans started emphasizing knowledge and the Franciscans love. The vision of God that Scripture states is the destiny of Christ's disciples -- "we shall see Him as He is" -- is not mere intellectual knowledge, but a profound interpenetration that necessarily entails love.

Well, that's good. An obscure theological debate will be resolved to all parties' satisfaction in the world to come.

But the loving vision of God isn't something to leave till Christ's return. We who are baptized are already participants in the life of the Trinity. We see through a glass darkly, but we do see. We love God imperfectly, with whatever we have left over from loving ourselves and our possessions, but we do love Him.

And, by Fr. Pinckaers's definition of moral theology, this loving vision of God is precisely the end to which our acts are to be directed. If we don't see this as our final end, then what are we using to guide our acts?


The language of the Church

Why is it that whenever anyone writes more than four words of Latin in a row, someone else points out that the ablative stultudidium should be the diminutive stultudidissimus, or the infinitive nominal isn't peccacavitativitimmus, but peccacavitativitimus?
With Latinists, observe that they
Hath smaller Latinists that on them prey;
And these have smaller Latinists to bite 'em,
And so proceed ad infinitum.
(Or ought one rather say,
Ad infinitiae?)