instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Monday, April 30, 2007

I'm not positive

Zippy Catholic is burning up the blogosphere -- five posts in eleven days! (start here and work forward) -- on what he calls "legal positivism." (I say "what he calls" because others insist his use of "positivism" is idiosyncratic (or at least idio-something).)

In brief, the question is what a judge can or must do when deciding a case in which the relevent positive (i.e., man-made) law contradicts the natural law.

My one thought on this is in the form of a question: How well does the Catholic tradition on law mesh with the American system of checks and balances? For example, St. Thomas writes that "it belongs to the same authority to interpret and to make a law;" by this, he means the public authority in general. But what happens when the public authority that makes a law is as purposefully distinguished from the public authority that interprets the law as it is under the U.S. Constitution? Does everything still follow as St. Thomas wrote it, since all the branches of government are at least formally one public authority? Or must some adaptation of the Catholic tradition be done to apply it to the circumstances here?

On a related note, Peter Sprigg writes on the First Things blog about Fr. Robert Drinan's blind spot on abortion, which sounds like a textbook example of "legal positivism" as defined by Zippy.


Once a priest, always a priest

We had a surprise principal celebrant at our parish's 10 a.m. Mass yesterday: Theodore Cardinal McCarrick, who was our Archbishop for five years until his retirement last May.

He was his usual friendly, self-deprecating, humorous self. Also as usual, his homily was a passionate invitation to take up Jesus' invitation to discipleship. In particular, from the readings he drew the thread of those who belong to Christ: in Antioch in Pisidia; before the throne and before the Lamb; in the sheepfold of Christ; and in the parish church of St. Andrew Apostle in Silver Spring, Maryland. If we in the parish church are not one with the Christians of Antioch, if we are not the same Church as it was then and as it will be forever, then what are we doing? But if we are the same Church, then what are we to do?

I was surprised he didn't mention that it was World Day for Vocations in his homily -- he's always been big on vocations, and one of his first acts as Archbishop was to require every parish to add a prayer for vocations to the Prayers of the Faithful -- but then he did give a brief exhortation after Communion, with an emphasis on families supporting the vocations of their children.

He also mentioned that, having waited for things to settle down after his retirement and Archbishop Wuerl's installation, he's resuming his custom of popping by parishes to celebrate Mass with them. (Our pastor had worked in the chancery with him, which I assume is why he came to our parish early on.) And I will say that whatever he's been doing for the last ten or eleven months agrees with him; he looked better and sounded stronger yesterday than he had the last time I saw him, eighteen months ago when he was still carrying a crozier.


Friday, April 27, 2007

I won't have what the gentleman on the floor is having

I had framed out the follow-up post to the one below; it was going to look at different attitudes toward a subject and the effects of mistaking one for another.

But the discussion on discussing liturgy has leapt ahead over on Catholic and Enjoying It!, and I now see that that discussion is pure poison.

I don't mean merely that the discussion as it happens to have been conducted at CAEI! over the past two days has turned sour. I mean that on-line discussion of liturgical choices, and even on-line discussion of on-line discussion of liturgical choices, is spiritually toxic. So I'm going to stay out of it until and unless I figure out why (or I forget).


Thursday, April 26, 2007

Quod est veritas

Now I want all of you to stop being so completely ridiculous right this very minute. It really doesn't bother me one tiny little bit that, when Mark Shea quotes me, a dozen commenters reply, "You've said better than I could've what I think, Mark." Why would a silly little thing like that bother me? Don't be absurd. What matters is the truth itself, not who rightly deserves the accolades for expressing it so well.

In this case, the truth involves
  • the liturgy as it is described in Church writing (including the prescriptions of the GIRM);
  • the liturgy as it actually occurs in churches;
  • the liturgy as it might be reformed or changed in the (possibly very near) future;
  • how the above relate to each other; and
  • how individual Catholics relate to the above.
There are a number of ways, or dimensions along which, an individual Catholic can relate to these things. There's level of interest, for example, and strength of opinion, and personal competence, and official authority, and perceived importance.

So what do I mean when I say, "Just tell me my lines and my blocking"?

Literally, I mean only that I have a very low level of interest in how the liturgy as it might be reformed or changed in the (possibly very near) future relates to the liturgy as it is described in Church writing (including the prescriptions of the GIRM).

I do not mean that I have no opinions on the liturgy (as described, as practiced, or as reformed). I have plenty of opinions -- at least, I have plenty of druthers, but I recognize that my druthers are merely personal preferences.

Since I lack both the competence to judge soundly and the authority to command action, I don't much value the act of taking counsel (of either myself or others) in these matters. (Did you catch the allusion to the three acts of reason I mentioned the other day?) Not valuing the act of taking counsel means that I don't choose to do much about my natural disinterest in liturgical choices.

I most certainly do not mean that, because I have a low level of interest, I perceive a low level of importance. There are all sorts of things I think are important but don't find interesting. Fiscal policy comes to mind, as does airplane maintenance. If I said, "I don't care about debates over how much power to apply during engine maintenance run-ups," I trust no one would think I was saying it doesn't matter how much power is applied.

It's true that I have not mentioned my lack of interest in run-up power, while I have mentioned, without being asked, my lack of interest in the pending motu proprio. The reason is that the ubiquity of the interest in the latter in St. Blog's tends toward an "all true Catholics" impression that everyone is keyed up over it. I think it's worthwhile occasionally counteracting that impression. As it is, St. Blog's is an ... unusual enough selection, statistically speaking, from the Church Universal; we shouldn't start thinking it's a uniform selection, too.

There are a couple of points about whether, "Just give me my lines and my blocking," is a prescription for others, but I'll save them for a subsequent post.


Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Roll your own

In what must make sound business sense to someone, Beliefnet pays a PR firm to send me occasional emails announcing new Beliefnet content. Mostly I delete the emails unread; sometimes I read them; rarely, I mention them here.

This is one of those rare times I mention an email ad for Beliefnet. I got one today that reads in part:
How 'The Secret' Helped You

Beliefnet readers say that the best-selling book and DVD "The Secret" has worked miracles in their lives--from money for college to a new swingset. Read their inspiring stories.
I'm not sure what to say about this snippet, except that it would never have occurred to me to link the terms "miracles," "a new swingset," and "inspiring stories" quite so ... unselfconsciously.

Let me propose my own law of attraction: Religious indifferentism attracts idiocy.


Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Dali's Biblia Sacra and Divine Comedy sells (among other things) lithographs of Salvadore Dali's Biblia Sacra series and handsigned woodcuts of scenes from the Divine Comedy.

Okay, maybe you don't have $12,000 for "Departure for the Great Journey." But some of Dali's works are quite striking, such as "Vanitas Vanitatum" and "Ecce homo." (You can poke around in these two directories if you like surprises.)


How do you debunk wishful thinking?

People of the Book links to a Publishers Weekly article on the Christian book market's response to The Secret.

Come to think of it, it's a tricky problem to write a whole book debunking something as utterly ridiculous as the "law of attraction." My first thought is to leave it to the experts at CSICOP, but I doubt many Christian booksellers stock titles by professional atheists.

Human brains are very good at detecting patterns, and at creating patterns where there are none. Telling people, "Whatever pattern you think may be caused by a law of attraction doesn't really exist," probably won't work in a culture where lotteries are multi-billion dollar industries.

Better, I'd say, to give them the pattern of the Gospel, compared to which any other pattern that might fit a human life is as straw to gold.


Back to the future

On the subject of Commonweal and the politics of abortion, I think Dr. Cathleen Kaveny lands a few blows (as they say in circles where the politics of abortion is treated as a sporting event) on Archbishop Chaput and his published comments prior to the 2004 general election.

He could have been clearer -- and I don't just mean "it's not impossible to have been clearer," I mean, "it would have been very easy to have been clearer" -- in disentangling the moral principles of cooperation with evil from their application to the act of voting, and both from his personal judgment, and all three from the problem of politicians representing themselves as Catholic while freely embracing positions contrary to Catholic moral belief.

I'll even go so far as to say he misspoke in saying, "And if you know you are cooperating in evil, should you go to confession? The answer is yes." The answer is maybe, and I don't think even the full context of that statement supports the proper reading.

That said, in re-reading his comments three years later it seems to me that what was particularly up his nose was less the question of Catholics voting for pro-abortion candidates (though that was certainly part of it) and more the question of John Kerry selling himself as a good Catholic. (Ah, the memories.)

I also think there's little or nothing to Dr. Kaveny's supposition that, with his statement quoted in Melinda Henneberger's Commonweal column, Archbishop Chaput "is reinterpreting his past stance in light of changed political and ecclesiastical circumstances."

And by "there's little or nothing to [it]," I mean I think she's just making up a weaselly motive for someone she doesn't like very much. (Note also the tendentiousness of the only other explanation she considers possible: "He was tragically misunderstood at the time, due to hostile secular forces incorrectly presenting his views.")

I think, finally, that she misses the mark altogether with the complaint that in none of his recorded words on the subject does the Archbishop distinguish between "formal" and "material" cooperation with evil. She calls this "the key distinction in that concept."

It may be the key distinction when diagramming the concept, but immediate material cooperation is morally indistinguishable from implicit formal cooperation. If you're not trying to define and distinguish all five subclasses of cooperation with evil, there's not much to be gained by stressing the formal-material distinction. And, granting that you aren't voting in support of a candidate's evil positions, voting for him in any other circumstances is material, not formal, cooperation in his future acts.

Update: The last sentence has been rewritten to be less false.


Hold your nose

Peter Nixon collects the comments of several leading presidential candidates regarding last week's Supreme Court decision on partial birth abortion.

There is a good chance one of the Democrats quoted will be the Democratic candidate in the general election. There is an excellent chance the Democratic candidate in the general election, whoever it may be, has already said or will when the opportunity arises say something basically equivalent to what the Democrats Peter quotes said.

This is the level of evil Catholics who will vote for these candidates will be cooperating with.

Do not forget this.

When the sophists start with their glib campaigning -- when you hear "more to being pro-life than being anti-abortion," "concerned for babies after they're born," "policies that will do more to reduce the number of abortions" -- remember that this is the kind of person they want you to admire, this is the level of evil they want you to cooperate with.

And don't take this as an early campaign ad for the G.O.P. The quotations from the Republican candidates are no more a positive reason to vote for them than if they said, "I promise not to raise a zombie army to eat the brains of my political rivals."

What will happen is this: pro-life Catholic Democrats will argue strenuously for the moral right to "hold your nose and vote" for rabidly pro-abortion Democratic candidates like Clinton, Edwards, and Obama. Then, not all, but many of them will get used to the stench of these candidates, and some will grow to like it.

What will not happen is this: pro-life Catholics of all political parties (or of none) will pray and fast between now and the primaries that God grant the United States presidential candidates who are not evil -- in part because Catholics don't like others to point out that their preferred candidates are evil.


Monday, April 23, 2007

It's not just a good idea, it's the law

"Since law is a kind of rule and measure," writes St. Thomas, "it may be in something in two ways.
  • "First, as in that which measures and rules: and since this is proper to reason, it follows that, in this way, law is in the reason alone.
  • "Secondly, as in that which is measured and ruled. In this way, law is in all those things that are inclined to something by reason of some law: so that any inclination arising from a law, may be called a law, not essentially but by participation as it were."
I think nowadays we've largely lost this second sense of law. We speak of scientific laws in the same terms we speak of political laws; moving objects "obey" the former, good citizens "obey" the latter. We enumerate the laws of thermodynamics just as we enumerate the laws of traffic.

All that's fine, I suppose, until we come to moral laws governing the free actions of humans. No one (I trust) really thinks balls on a pool table "obey" the laws of mechanics in the same sense humans "obey" the laws of driving. But in what sense do humans "obey" the law, "You shall not commit adultery"? Put another way, in what sense is, "You shall not commit adultery," a law?

If our only choices are, "That which measures and rules physical actions," and, "That which measures and rules human conduct," we have to go with the latter. And if these measures and rules are seen as purely external -- if, so to say, there is nothing in us except our free will that participates in the law -- then the Divine Law becomes merely an external imposition, instead of, as St. Thomas saw it, the means to direct us to our end of eternal happiness with God.

It seems to me that if we've lost that second sense of law, we are headed for one of two places with respect to the moral law: either it's a set of more or less arbitrary rules against which we're measured to obtain temporal and eternal rewards; or it's a set of more or less arbitrary rules against which we're measured to no purpose at all. To accept the moral law would be to live according to rules that have no meaning in and of themselves; to reject the moral law would be to refuse to play along with a pointless game.

I think we should hold out for Door Number Three: That the moral law represents something that is true about ourselves whether we will it or not.


Friday, April 20, 2007

Unthinking prudence

In discussing the moral virtue of prudence -- i.e., right reason about a thing to be done -- St. Thomas identifies three acts of reason:
  1. Taking counsel.
  2. Judging of what has been discovered.
  3. Commanding action.
By taking counsel, he has in mind an inquiry or analysis conducted by the reason to determine the means to achieve some end.

The evidence presented in Blink suggests two important, and perhaps underappreciated, things about how our faculty of unconscious judgment plays in all this.

First, unconscious judgment is capable of doing some mighty fine analysis, even on matters we ordinarily think are more suited to discursive or logical analysis. Unconscious Judgment isn't just the ditzy blonde sidekick saying whatever pops into her head while our hero, Rational Intellect, solves the puzzle by careful deduction. They both operate on the same sense data, memory, and experience.*

It's because we usually don't, and often can't, know how or why our snap judgments are made that we might ordinarily think of them as random guesses (if we devalue them) or quasi-mystical intuition (if we value them). It's also because we usually don't, and often can't, know how or why our snap judgments are made that it's very difficult to know how much to value them -- how to judge our judgments in that second of three acts of reason I began the post with -- in any particular case.

Which brings me to the second underappreciated aspect of unconscious judgment: It can be trained. Our memory and experience affect how we unconsciously respond to new sense data, and we can consciously add to our memory and experience in ways that improve our unconscious response. This is basically what happens when we master a subject, when we reach the point where we don't need to analyze a problem step-by-step but can just leap to the solution.

Now, as St. Thomas famously admits in the very first article of his Summa Theologiae, even the best of human reason can involve "the admixture of many errors." A trained unconscious is no more infallible than a trained conscious. But memory and experience can improve both, and by that I mean memory and experience of correct analysis and judgment.

Which is to say, the person of virtue, who habitually chooses good and avoids evil, who has mastered the subject of right moral action, will have a relatively reliable unconscious judgment. He will be prepared, consciously and unconsciously, to do the right thing.

On the other hand, the person who lacks virtue will be unprepared unconsciously, even in cases where he consciously desires to do the right thing. His discursive counsel will have to work against who knows what sorts of unconscious impediments to produce a sound analysis. In short, he's up the creek.

The take-away, then, would be something like this: We should do all we can to train our unconscious judgment to operate correctly, both over time, by showing it what's correct (in churchy terms, by being virtuous); and from moment to moment, by priming it to incline toward the good (in churchy terms, by praying always).

* If I can be forgiven a computer analogy, unconscious judgment might be compared to a neural network, which produces an output by combining the input data according to rules that don't have any real meaning outside the network. A weight vector in a neural network doesn't correspond to anything in the real world; it's just an artifact used by the network to come up with an answer.

Discursive judgment, on the other hand, is more like -- oh, say, artificial intelligence or formal methods. You perform a sequence of analytical steps, at each of which you can explain what you're doing and what it means.


Thursday, April 19, 2007

Of bellyaching and bruised oaks

I've been kicking around a few related thoughts for a while. Let me see if I can put them in some sort of order. I'll start with the last piece that came to me:
  1. Complaining signifies weakness. To complain is to express the desire for a thing to be otherwise than it is. The complainer himself may or may not possess the power to make the thing the way he wants it. If he lacks the power, his complaint signifies weakness directly; if he has the power, it signifies weakness indirectly, in that he either lacks or did not properly apply the power to prevent the thing from becoming what he didn't want in the first place.
  2. Strength is for succoring the weak. By Divine will, we're all in this together. As St. Catherine of Siena saw, the way we do good to God is by doing good to our neighbors. And we do good to our neighbors by making up from our strengths what they lack in their weaknesses. The parable of the sheep and the goats makes this clear: if we don't do what is within our power to do for the powerless, we go to hell.
  3. If you aren't weak, don't complain. If complaining signifies weakness, and strength is for succoring the weak, then to complain is to impose an obligation under charity upon those who hear the complaint. In fulfilling that obligation, they may be unable to respond to other instances of weakness. Complaining, then, is not something that should be done lightly; in particular, it shouldn't be done by someone who doesn't want some sort of help from those who hear the complaint.
  4. Complaining does have a social component. Complaining can signify more than weakness; it's often used to strengthen social bonds within a group of similarly-weak peers. In this case, the help sought is precisely the strengthening of those bonds.
  5. It can be hard to tell the weak from the strong.
This last point is the subject of most of my thought on all this. I see a lot of strong people trampling on weak people. Bruised reeds are there for the breaking, it seems, particularly among those who view tensions within the Church in militaristic terms. If you're fighting a war -- of culture, of liturgy, of ideas -- then it only makes sense to strike where the enemy is weak.

But what if the enemy isn't the ones with a particular weakness? What if the enemy is the weakness itself?

Then, I'd say, two things follow. First, people who are weak should not be treated as enemies. Second, we'd better make sure the people we do treat as enemies aren't people who are weak.

My impulse is to assume that anyone I perceive as trampling on a weak person is himself strong, and so I may treat him as a strong person. To a strong person, I can say, "Hey, you! Stop trampling on that weak person!"

But my impulsive assumption is, in general, false. Someone trampling on someone else may well be weak -- his very habit of trampling may be his weakness. In that case, for me to treat him as a strong person could be for me to trample on his weakness, to treat this bruised reed as though he were an oak tree.

So I'm in a bit of a fix. On the one hand, I firmly support a "No Bellyaching" rule; I think there are too many complainers who can, and therefore ought to, shut their pie hole and suck it up.

On the other hand, I have no way of knowing who, in particular, is breaking that rule. Well, other than me; in the words of the poet, "I can't complain, but sometimes I still do."

What's left for me to do, then, is to propose the rule:
Don't bellyache.
Don't complain just for pleasure.
Then leave the enforcing of it to each person individually.


Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Instinct as a bona fide source of judgment

Thanks to weather-related travel delays, I had the opportunity last night to read Malcom Gladwell's book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. One of those books read by everyone who reads the books everyone reads, Blink is, to quote the introduction, about "those instantaneous impression and conclusions that spontaneously arise whenever we meet a new person or confront a complex situation or have to make a decision under conditions of stress."

Gladwell writes anecdotally* about the two very different ways humans have of reaching decisions: the discursive or logical; and the intuitive or unconscious, the snap judgments we make in the blink of an eye. He makes a compelling case that the following are all true:
  • Discursive judgment and unconscious judgment are good at solving different kinds of problems.
  • For many complex problems, unconscious judgment using minimal information ("thin-slicing") can be better than discursive judgment using maximal information.
  • Discursive judgment and unconscious judgment mess with each other.**
  • All sorts of things mess with unconscious judgment.
Some of the things that mess with unconscious judgment are generally known to us -- tall, thin, attractive, and white people are on average judged to be better than short, fat, ugly, and black people, respectively, even when the judgers aren't conscious of any prejudice. (You may have seen this website, with lots of tests that reveal -- well, statistically significant differences in the times it takes to perform certain mental tasks. Interpreting the differences is a different question.)

Others effects on the unconscious are more surprising. People act older when they're exposed (without consciously noticing it) to words related to old people; they're more rude when exposed to words related to rudeness. What's surprising, I suppose, isn't that such priming can happen, but how subtle and successful the priming can be.

Regular readers of this blog won't be surprised to learn that I've put these ideas into the context of St. Thomas's theory of virtue.

*. Many of Gladwell's anecdotes are about scientific studies, but the book itself is not, and doesn't try to be, scientific.

**. One example from the book: College students and tasting experts were asked to rate different brands of strawberry jam. The experts, of course, used their expertise. One group of students was simply asked to rank the jams by taste; their answers correlated with the experts'. Another group of students was asked to explain why they ranked the jams as they did; their answers did not correlate with the experts'. Gladwell explains the effect this way: "we come up with a plausible-sounding reason for why we might like or dislike something, and then we adjust our true preferences to be in line with that plausible-sounding reason." The key point, I think, is that the students in the second group weren't "wrong," much less untruthful, in their answers; but the answers the students gave were different than they would have been if the students hadn't tried to reason about them first.


Monday, April 16, 2007

What is presumed is not redeemed

Some people are just naturally better at something than other people. This is an utterly unremarkable remark when it comes to things like athletic and musical talent.

But there are also such things as "religious talents." Aren't some people just naturally better believers, hopers, and lovers than other people? Aren't some people simply inept when it comes to praying, or even just sitting through Mass?

Just as there are some people who aren't natural athletes, there are some who aren't natural saints. And --

Hold on.

Christianity isn't about "natural saints." In fact, it teaches that natural saints are nothing but clashing cymbals. Christianity is about supernatural saints, saints sanctified not as God made them but as Christ's blood makes them.

The fact that someone finds it naturally easy to say, "I believe everything the Church proposes as true," does not in itself guarantee that this is a person of great faith. This may be a person who would, in other circumstances, just as readily say, "I believe everything the Party proposes as true." Faith, salvific faith, is a supernaturally infused virtue, not a natural temperament to accept things on authority.

Grace perfects nature, as we all know, and I wonder whether there's an 80-20 rule that makes it harder for grace to perfect a more talented nature.

Let's say there are three people -- A, B, and C -- with different natural amounts of some talent useful to the Christian disciple. Docility, maybe, or recollectedness. Person A has hardly any of it, Person B has a decent amount, and Person C has, as far as anyone can tell, all he needs and then some.

It may never occur to Person C that his nature is lacking perfection. He may even go so far as to criticize Person A for lacking his own natural talent ("I dunno, I always get a lot out of that devotion.").

There are lots of possibilities open to Person A in this situation, too. He may recognize how far short he falls of perfection, and so pray all the more for the grace to achieve it. Or he may say, "What's wrong with me?," and despair. Clumsy people generally get used to the fact that they will never be professional dancers, but when you lack a talent that seems necessary to love God, you may well conclude that you aren't supposed to love God -- which can only mean that God doesn't love you.

(Person B, meanwhile, can feel complacent looking at A, zealous looking at C, and anywhere in between.)

Since they aren't salvific, those with natural religious talents must not be presumptuous -- of either their own perfection or of the imperfections of others -- and those without them must not be despairing.


Friday, April 13, 2007

Springtime for Scotists

In a comment below, Fr. Maximiliam Mary Dean, F.I., mentions that he has recently begun a series of vlog posts on the doctrine of the Absolute Primacy of Christ; he has also written a book, A Primer on the Absolute Primacy of Christ.

The Absolute Primacy of Christ is the name of the thesis that God willed the Incarnation as His greatest work from all eternity, for its own sake. Bl. Duns Scotus was its great advocate, and Danny Garland has outlined his thought in a post on Irish-Catholic and Dangerous.

Finally, Mark Shea and several commenters at Catholic and Enjoying It! have taken up the discussion; in particular, Scott P. Reichert suggests:
this division is at the basis of many of the differences in Eastern and Western theology--and I'm speaking here of differences that were evident before the Schism.
So while I'm not altogether sure the counterfactual question, "What would have happened?" is well-posed to begin with, the larger question of why what did happen happened is by no means a trivial or dusty point of scholastic method.


Thursday, April 12, 2007

It's not the truth/Ain't actual/Everything is counterfactual

Having linked to this article of the Summa Theologia in a recent post, I was struck by how -- well, Geoff used "pretty mealy-mouthed," but I'll go with "tempered in his support" St. Thomas is regarding the opinion that the Son would not have become man had man never fallen. He writes:
There are different opinions about this question. For some say that even if man had not sinned, the Son of God would have become incarnate. Others assert the contrary, and seemingly our assent ought rather to be given to this opinion.
Here, "seemingly" translates the Latin "videtur," which is the first word of the first objection in every article in the Summa. "It would seem that...," St. Thomas writes again and again, only to go on to argue that what seemingly is, is not.

Seemingly, his opinion on whether, if man had not sinned, God would have become incarnate was more doubtful than his opinion on -- to choose the next article -- whether God became incarnate in order to take away actual sin, rather than to take away original sin:
It is certain that [certum est] Christ came into this world not only to take away that sin which is handed on originally to posterity, but also in order to take away all sins subsequently added to it....
To try to figure out why St. Thomas hedges his bet on the question of the Incarantion, look at the reason he gives for why "seemingly our assent ought rather to be given to" the opinion that the Son would not have become incarnate:
For such things as spring from God's will, and beyond the creature's due, can be made known to us only through being revealed in the Sacred Scripture, in which the Divine Will is made known to us. Hence, since everywhere in the Sacred Scripture the sin of the first man is assigned as the reason of Incarnation, it is more in accordance with this to say that the work of Incarnation was ordained by God as a remedy for sin; so that, had sin not existed, Incarnation would not have been.
Notice how modest St. Thomas's concept of theology is. As he says way back in the beginning of the Summa, "sacred science [sacra doctrina] is established on principles revealed by God." God revealed that His Son became man because of Adam's sin; God did not reveal that His Son would have become man regardless; therefore "it is more in accordance with" God's revelation that His Son would not have become man if man hadn't sinned.

You could say that St. Thomas advocates using a "minimum speculation" measure in choosing between uncertain opinions. Might we even consider it a version of Ockham's Razor?

Now, there are two things to keep in mind in applying such principles of parsimony. One is that the proper measure -- of "speculation," as I called it here, or of "plurality," as in Ockham's formula -- is not always evident. I have to think one reason St. Thomas saw the No Incarnation Without Original Sin opinion as "more in accordance" with Scripture is that it was the opinion of St. Augustine, and St. Thomas did not lightly disagree with him. Others may find St. Augustine less compelling on this point.

The other thing to keep in mind is that God is not bound by parsimony, which is why Ockham's Razor is properly understood as a guide for constructing theories, not proving facts. It's also why St. Thomas is careful to say "seemingly" and "more in accordance with," not simply "is."

And if he doesn't think it can be known for certain what God would have done, there's no question in his mind about what He could have done:
And yet the power of God is not limited to this; even had sin not existed, God could have become incarnate.
And if you think this whole question of a counterfactual Incarnation is utterly irrelevant, Irish Catholic and Dangerous sketches some of the theological implications of the different opinions.


Prayer, feasting, and almsgiving
Whenever you sing "Alleluia," give your bread to the hungry, clothe the naked, take in the stranger. Then not only does your voice sound, but your hand sounds in harmony with it, for your deeds agree with your words.
-- St. Augustine, Commentary on Psalm 149


Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Seeing isn't believing

As the NAB notes, the Gospel According to St. Matthew uses the same verb ( δισταζω) to refer to Peter's doubt as he walked across the water to Jesus and to the doubt of [some of] the Apostles who saw Jesus after His resurrection.

In both cases, there was available all the evidence a skeptic could want. Peter even proposed and conducted a scientific test to collect further evidence. Unfortunately, his hypothesis failed to account for a hidden variable: Faith.

Jesus' original disciples may have found Him to be too incredible to believe in. His disciples today may find Him too believable to be incredible. If I have always known by faith that Jesus rose from the dead, then what would I find remarkable about Jesus rising from the dead? That would be like finding it remarkable that clouds float in the sky.

And if I don't find Jesus' resurrection remarkable, then I won't remark on it. If I don't find Easter remarkable, then (if you'll pardon the rhetorical over-reach) Easter will leave no mark on me.

I worship, certainly. But do I doubt?


Sunday, April 08, 2007

Christ is risen!

But you already know that. It's the people who don't already know that who need to be told.

Tell them!


Thursday, April 05, 2007

Why is this night different from any other night?

The NAB's note on Mark 14:26 -- "Then, after singing a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives." -- reads, "Psalm 114-118, thanksgiving songs concluding the Passover meal."

Christians have always read the Psalms as prefiguring Jesus, but what must it have been like for Jesus Himself to sing these psalms of deliverance with His disciples mere hours before they were to be fulfilled? Did the disciples have any idea that the words they sang were not mere recollections of the past events but prophesy of the present?

How did the words of Psalm 116 sound in that upper room?
I was caught by the cords of death;
the snares of Sheol had seized me;
I felt agony and dread.
Then I called on the name of the LORD,
"O LORD, save my life!"
And what about Psalm 115's taunt of Israel's enemies, that describes their idols this way:
They have mouths but do not speak,
eyes but do not see.
They have ears but do not hear,
noses but do not smell.
They have hands but do not feel,
feet but do not walk,
and no sound rises from their throats.
Here singing these words is Jesus, Israel's God, Who has a mouth that speaks, eyes that see, ears that hear, a nose that smells, hands that feel, feet that walk, a throat from which sound comes. Before the sun sets again, His mouth will speak of betrayal, His eyes will see abandonment, His ears hear blasphemy, His nose smell His own blood, His hands feel the nails, His feet walk under the cross, and from His throat will come a loud cry and His final breath.

Afterwards, His body will be as the idols of the nations.

And, for all that, it will be the source of life for us all.


The man carrying a jar of water who came in from the cold

Of all the things I would like to know about how Jesus spent the days leading up to His death, the details of how the location for the Last Supper was settled on are pretty far down the list. Yet each of the synoptic Gospels takes the time to explain it; Mark even (and uncharacteristically) gives a more detailed version than Matthew.

On the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread,On the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread,When the day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread arrived,
when they sacrificed the Passover lamb,the day for sacrificing the Passover lamb,
he sent out Peter and John, instructing them, "Go and make preparations for us to eat the Passover."
the disciples approached Jesus and said, "Where do you want us to prepare for you to eat the Passover?
"He said, "Go into the city
when his disciples said to him, "Where do you want us to go and prepare for you to eat the Passover?"
He sent two of his disciples and said to them, "Go into the city
They asked him, "Where do you want us to make the preparations?"
And he answered them, "When you go into the city,
and a man will meet you, carrying a jar of water. Follow him. Wherever he enters,a man will meet you carrying a jar of water. Follow him into the house that he enters and
to a certain man and
tell him, 'The teacher says,say to the master of the house, 'The Teacher says,say to the master of the house, 'The teacher says to you,
"My appointed time draws near;
in your house I shall celebrate the Passover with my disciples."'""Where is my guest room where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?"'"Where is the guest room where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?"'
Then he will show you a large upper room furnished and ready. Make the preparations for us there."He will show you a large upper room that is furnished. Make the preparations there."
The disciples then did as Jesus had ordered,The disciples then went off, entered the city,Then they went off
and found it just as he had told them;and found everything exactly as he had told them,
and prepared the Passover.and they prepared the Passover.and there they prepared the Passover.

In particular, that cloak-and-dagger business with the man and the jug of water strikes me as a most unlikely thing to have been recorded in the Gospels. We can construct various plausible scenarios which explain why it happened that way -- to keep Judas from being able to betray Jesus before the Last Supper, for example. But why it was written down, what it meant to the Evangelists and to the early Christians for whom they were writing, that's a slipperier question.

As usual, the Church Fathers were able to derive spiritual lessons from this incident:
Pseudo-Jerome: And in a mystical sense the city is The Church, surrounded by the wall of faith, the man who meets them is the primitive people, the pitcher of water is the law of the letter.

Bede: Or else, the water is the laver of grace, the pitcher points out the weakness of those who were to shew that grace to the world... it is designedly that the names both of the bearer of the water, and of the lord of the house, are omitted, to imply that power is given to all who wish to celebrate the true Passover, that is, to be embued with the Sacraments of Christ, and to receive Him in the dwelling-place of their mind.

Theophylact: He who is baptized carries the pitcher of water, and he who bears baptism upon him comes to his rest, if he lives according to his reason; and he obtains rest, as being in the house.
These three go on to propose the upper room as a sign of "the wide-spread Church" (Pseudo-Jerome), "the Law, which comes forth from the narrowness of the letter" (Bede), or "the loftiness of intelligences, and which... is prepared and made level by humility" (Theophylact).

Perhaps the literal sense of the man with the jar of water (the NAB notes that "only women ordinarily carried water in jars," though the Greek word "implies simply a person and not necessarily a male"), the point about that day in Jerusalem the Evangelists were trying to make by recording the fact, lies less in the specific details and more in the overall effect of careful and elaborate planning on Jesus' part, in a way that depends for its success entirely on the free choices of others (the disciples, the water carrier, the owner of the house), of the Last Supper. It is a proof in action of Jesus' words, "I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer."


Tuesday, April 03, 2007

"Weep not for Me"

One way of praying the Rosary involves meditating first on how the mystery relates to Mary's love for Jesus, and then on what Mary's love teaches about our own love for Him.

Obviously, this requires a certain amount of imagination. We project onto our meditations our own ideas of what Mary may (or "would have" or "must have") thought, felt, and done.

But it may also involve some psychological projection onto our own thoughts and feelings. With the finding of Jesus in the Temple, for example, whatever reflection I have has to work around the facts that a) I am not nor have I ever been Jesus' mother; and b) I knew all along how the three-day search would turn out.

Similarly, the sight of Jesus carrying His cross "must have" related to Mary's love for Him in a way that it cannot relate to mine. I do the pop Ignatian thing of imagining myself in the scene -- especially this week -- and am sometimes given the grace of being profoundly affected.

But it can't stop there. I am not living in First Century Palestine. I am not, in fact, standing next to the Blessed Mother as she reaches out to her condemned Son. I am actually driving in a car, or kneeling in a church, or sitting in a comfortable chair in a quiet room.

If I get my emotions and my reason properly attuned to the sorrow of Jesus' passion, if I tell Him, "I have placed myself along the Way of Sorrows, and I offer to You as You pass my grief and my support," ... what good does that do Him?

Yes, I've heard people say that they feel, or at least like to think, that their own prayers today in some way helped support Jesus in His suffering. But what did Jesus say to those people who actually did express their grief to Him as He passed?
"Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep instead for yourselves and for your children."
What Mary's love for her suffering Son teaches us is love for her suffering Son, not as He suffered in Jerusalem in the days of Caiaphas the high priest, but as He suffers today.

When the Son of Man returns in glory and says,
I was hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, ill, in prison... Whatever you did for the least of My brothers, you did for Me.
He will not be speaking in a merely juridical sense. If an ordinary king said this, he would mean that, for purposes of reward and punishment, actions toward his brothers shall be treated as if they were actions toward himself. I don't think Jesus is proposing such a legal fiction here; I think that what is done for His brothers is done, really and for true, for Him.

The hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the ill, the imprisoned: these are the people whom we must love as Mary loved Jesus. If we try to love Jesus now the same way Mary did then, we'll only be fooling ourselves -- blinding ourselves, even, to the mission He has given us. "Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky?"

This is even true of Mary herself. We think of Jesus' word, "Woman, behold thy son," as proof of His loving care for His mother, who would otherwise be alone in the world, and it is that. But I'd suggest that it is also an instruction to her, that she must now reach out to others with that very love she had for Jesus; given at a moment when all she "would have" wanted to do is look to her Son, it may even have caused her some pain.

But no one, not even the Blessed Virgin, gets to set their own terms as a disciple of Christ. We may wish to remain at the foot of the Cross, our eyes never leaving Jesus. But that grace was not even given to those who physically were at the foot of the Cross. We must take all that we gain from the Cross to others; that's the only way for us to love Him now as Mary did then.



Monday, April 02, 2007

The Boast

A triolet:
Someone will betray You, Lord?
Surely, Master, it's not I.
I would sooner die by sword.
Someone will betray You, Lord?
Though for You my blood be poured,
You I never shall deny.
Someone will betray You, Lord?
Surely, Master, it's not I.


We are Church

In his homily for today's Gospel, in which Judas complains about the oil Mary of Bethany pours on Jesus' feet, Fr. Philip Powell, O.P., says:
Look again at who's gathered in the house with Jesus: Lazarus, Martha, Mary, Judas... Here Jesus has with him a living miracle, a selfless good work, an indulgent act of devotion, and a heart hardened by avarice and scorn. A week or so before his death he has with him the Church....
The Church has always been a mixed bag. Golden ages, such as they are, are defined more by the number of individual saints who appeared than by the average holiness of all of her members. (See Culbreath's Equilibrium, as quoted by O'Rama: "Protestantism, historically, is better at elevating the morals and behavior of the masses. Catholicism, on the other hand, is better at making saints.")

And to some extent each of our own hearts is that house in Bethany; we are by turns and by degree miraculous signs and selfless works and indulgent devotions and greedy lies. The world plots with the Judas in our hearts, to kill not only Christ but also Lazarus. But in three days, Christ will rise again. Will He find the Judas strengthened or weakened?


The Action and Death of Our Lord

I have a way of praying the Divine Mercy Chaplet that I'm inordinately proud of. Each decade, I meditate on how Jesus was betrayed or abandoned, first by Judas, then by Peter, then the Sanhedrin, then Pilate, and finally the whole world. It emphasizes the mental and spiritual suffering Jesus endured, and tends to leave me feeling like the disciples in Gethsemane who have no answer to His question, "Could you not watch one hour with Me?"

But the other night, quite unintentionally, I prayed the Chaplet the other way around. Instead of looking at Jesus' encounters with Judas et al. from the perspective of His passion -- that is, of what happened to Him -- I looked at those encounters from the perspective of His action, of the Father's love Jesus brought to everyone he met on that last day.

To Judas and to Peter, He brought a question and a look, respectively, both invitations to repentance and to rejoining Him in His glory. To the Sanhedrin and to Pilate, He brought the witness of Himself, of the Just One Who spoke the word and did the will of the Father. To those who crucified Him, He brought prayers for mercy, and to the good thief, He brought the promise of Paradise.

And, in His last moment before death, Jesus brings back to the Father His Spirit.

While Jesus' suffering, what He received from the world as punishment for loving it so much, plays no little part in the liturgies and traditions of Holy Week, we should not mistake Him for a purely passive figure, even as He stands silent before those who condemn Him. We misread the Passion Narratives if we lose sight of the love with which Jesus acts throughout.

St. Paul wasn't exaggerating when he wrote, "If I hand my body over so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing." When Jesus says, "Take up your cross and follow Me," He doesn't mean to follow him only in the way of suffering. We must not only bear our crosses, we must do it with love, as He did.