instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Is a camel's nose slippery?

John McG offers a distinction between two arguments against a proposed action:
  • The Slippery Slope: Once a well-defined principle is set aside in order to permit a controversial policy, there will be no principled grounds to prevent another policy that is deemed unacceptable.
  • The Camel's Nose: If we allow the group proposing the current policy to have a victory in the current debate, it is inevitable that it will pursue and gain other victories that are currently deemed unacceptable.
I'd put the distinction this way: Being on a slippery slope is objectionable per se, requiring as it does the setting aside of a well-defined principle; allowing the camel's nose under the tent is objectionable per effectum, since it will [almost] certainly lead to welcoming the entire camel. In the former case, you have no intellectual grounds for stopping more bad things from happening; in the latter case, you have no practical means for stopping them.

I don't quite see the tribalism John sees in camel's nose arguments, but I think the distinction is worth keeping in mind, since it suggests distinct responses to the arguments. When you run into a slippery slope argument, you may want to ensure the arguer recognizes that the proposed action is bad even if nothing worse comes along, while to someone offering a camel's nose argument you might ask whether the immediate good is worth the effort to avoid the future bad.


Friday, August 21, 2009

Whose Church is it, anyway?

In a post last week on the Archdiocese of Washington's blog, Msgr. Charles Pope writes:
I remember talking to several Benedictine Sisters at a recent workshop. Their branch of the Benedictines has become very modernized and hasn't had a vocation in years. When I asked them why they hadn't consider changing their approach, they gave me a rather surprising answer. They indicated that maybe it was time for Religious Life to largely go away and to hand the Church back to its "rightful owners," the laity. Wow! They seemed to have lost any notion of the Charism of Religious Life.
"Maybe it's time to hand the Church back to its rightful owners" isn't how I'd put it, but there may be a nugget of truth to the sisters' answer.

On the one side, there's little point to Religious Life without a distinct purpose or mission. If a religious congregation effectively operates for the benefit of the individual members, rather than as a means to employ the charism given to the congregation by God for the good of the Church, then it's not acting as an institute of religious life so much as an association of lay faithful.

On the other side, where there is need to fulfill a distinct purpose or mission today, Plan A doesn't have to be, "Hey kids, let's found a religious congregation!" Secular layfolk -- individually or in a group, in spare hours or as a profession -- can do a lot of the work, within and at the borders of the Church, that once would have been done only by, or at least under the near direction of, vowed religious.

And I agree with Msgr. Pope. If you think your religious congregation isn't worth perpetuating into the next generation, then you think your religious congregation has no charism. It's a silly thing to think when your religious congregation is Benedictine, but there it is.


Treasures Old and New

Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP, of Domine, Da Mihi Hanc Aquam! (Latin for "Lord, I need a drink!"), has a brand new book out from Liguori Publications called Treasures Old and New: Traditional Prayers for Today's Catholics.

It's a collection of prayers, novenas, and litanies for various intentions. The table of contents and the first few pages can be viewed here.

For that matter, the table of contents can be viewed here:
Foreword vii

Preface ix

Introduction: A Theology of Prayer xiii

Part One: The Novenas 1
  Credo Novena 3
  Novena for Faith 14
  Novena for Hope 17
  Novena for Love 20
  Novena of the Lord's Prayer 23
  Psalm Novena for Growth in Holiness 30
  Novena of the Four Dominican Pillars 45
  Novena to the Sacred Heart of Jesus 57
  Novena for Detachment and Holy Obedience 59
  Novena for Discernment of a Priestly Vocation 64

Part Two: The Litanies 77
  Litany of God the Father 79
  Litany of Jesus, Priest and Sacrifi ce 83
  Litany of the Most Holy Trinity 87
  Litany to the Infant Jesus 90
  Litany to Mary, Co-Redemptrix 93
  Litany to the Unsayable God 99

Part Three: The Way-Truth-Life Rosary 103
  Praying the Rosary 105

Part Four: Prayers 111
  Prayer for an Examination of Conscience 113
  The ABC Prayer for Conversion 117
  Prayer Before Reconciliation 119
  Prayer After Reconciliation 120
  For a Dark Night of the Soul 121
  Daily Morning Prayer 123
  Daily Evening Prayer 125

Sources and Permissions 127
The idea of this book, as I ken it, is to explain and adapt these traditional forms of prayer, which have supported the Christian faithful for centuries, to Catholics of today. (Note, for example, that the portion of the Credo Novena included in the sample pages does adapt a sermon of St. Augustine but doesn't include a single "vouchsafe.")


Friday, August 07, 2009

Apostolic activity comes out of an abundance of contemplation

In the Rule of the Lay Fraternities of Saint Dominic, we read that the proper vocation of the lay members of Saint Dominic "combines at one and the same time the contemplative and the apostolic."

"Contemplata aliis tradere." In the felicitous phrase of St. Thomas, Dominicans are to "give to others the fruits of their contemplation." If you don't do both, the contemplating and the giving, you aren't following the way of Saint Dominic.

How do Dominicans, and Lay Dominicans in particular, contemplate?

Oh, I don't know, you know, don't you know. The only description I've heard of a specifically Dominican method of contemplation is given here. For all the theologizing Dominicans do, we seem to be a bit loosey goosey on the theology of contemplation, and when I have seen Dominican theologians discuss it, they're usually quoting St. John of the Cross.

Still, for the most part, when Dominicans speak of contemplation, they mean contemplation of the Truth Who is God. This is done by study, but chiefly by prayer. Explicitly called out in the Rule for Lay Dominicans are daily Mass ("as far as possible"), the Liturgy of the Hours, the Rosary, and periodic spiritual retreats.

None of these is distinctive to the Order of Preachers. Dominicans contemplate the way Catholic contemplate, and different Dominicans will contemplate in different ways.

But we must always balance the contemplative with the apostolic. We are an order of preachers. It's not enough to gather fruit, we must also go forth and give it to others.

This may be a bit controversial, but: Let me emphasize the "go forth." The word "apostle" means "one who is sent." Hospitality, the habit of sharing what you have with those who come to you, is a wonderful virtue, but it is in a sense a passive virtue. To preach is to share what you have with those to whom you come, to actively seek those who are in need of what you have been given to share.

Ordained friars, I've always felt, have it easy. They can preach daily at Mass. The Eucharist brings the crowd, and good manners keeps them there till the friar is finished.

For Lay Dominicans, apostolic activity has to take a different form. (And of course liturgical preaching isn't the only apostolic activity for ordained Dominicans, either.) The Rule calls on them to
bear witness above all to their own faith, listen to the needs of their contemporaries, and serve the truth
in a special way to show real compassion to all who are troubled, to defend liberty and to promote justice and peace.
The specific activities undertaken are determined by the individual Lay Dominican, coordinated as appropriate with other members of their chapter and other individuals and apostolic associations.

What these activities are, Lay Dominicans are free to decide. That such activities occur, Lay Dominicans are bound by their promises to ensure.


Thursday, August 06, 2009

Ongoing formation

The Rule of the Lay Fraternities of Saint Dominic states:
The purpose of Dominican formation is to provide for true adults in the Faith, so that they may be ready to welcome, celebrate and proclaim the Word of God. [n 11]
Now, what is the Word of God but His Only-Begotten Son? It can be said, then, that Dominicans are to be formed so that they may be ready to welcome, celebrate, and proclaim Jesus Christ.

The Rule goes on to identify "the principal sources to advance Dominican formation" as:
a. the Word of God and theological reflection;
b. liturgical prayer;
c. the history and tradition of the Order;
d. more recent documents of the Church and the Order;
e. awareness of the signs of our times. [n 13]
Here we pretty much have to understand "the Word of God" as referring to Holy Scripture (though of course Jesus has been known to speak directly to Dominicans on occasion, and was practically St. Catherine's formation director).

In short, the principal principal means by which Dominicans are made ready to welcome, celebrate, and proclaim Jesus is by reading the Bible. And I mean "reading" in a broad sense, to include both prayerful lectio divina and "assiduous study" (to use an expression found earlier in the Rule).

The "theological reflection" mentioned I take to mean, first, reflection on the Word of God as part of its assiduous study; second, reflection on the developed theology of the Church -- with St. Thomas as a primary touchstone -- which itself must always reflect revealed truth; and third, reflection on the created world as itself a reflection of God. This last aspect goes all the way back to St. Dominic's debates with the Albigensians, who regarded the created order as evil, but was cemented by St. Albert's scientific work and St. Thomas's insistence that truth could not contradict truth.

Liturgical prayer may seem like the odd one out in the list of sources for Dominican formation. We don't study liturgical prayer, as we do the other things on the list -- well, we could, of course, but that's not the intent of including it here. But if I say the Liturgy is the Church's participation in the prayer of the Son offered to the Father on our behalf, then its presence on a list of sources for making Lay Dominicans ready to welcome, celebrate, and proclaim Jesus is, not merely appropriate, but even essential.

Which brings us to the history and tradition of the Order of Preachers. If we don't know our history and tradition, we can't know if we're following in the footsteps of Saint Dominic. And that's important to know, not so much because St. Dominic's way is better than other ways, but because it is a good way, and the Church and the world would be worse off if no one were following it.

I'd say the last two principal sources -- recent documents and the signs of the times -- are directed mostly toward readying Lay Dominicans to proclaim Jesus (though I'd probably say "preach Jesus" if I didn't have the text of the Rule in front of me).

The old punchline about how successful the Dominicans have been in the mission for which they were established -- "Have you seen any Albigensians lately?" -- loses its punch when you realize that the Albigensian heresy is thriving today, in mutated but recognizable form. It's by studying recent documents and developing an awareness of the signs of the times that Lay Dominicans equip themselves to recognize, not just Twenty-First Century Manicheanism (though that would keep us fully occupied until the Twenty-Second Century), but many of the ills and errors of the world today.

And these ills and errors are not just doctrinal heresies. To quote the Rule again:
In today's world, the preaching of the Word of God must extend in a special way to defending the dignity of the human person, as well as life and the family. Promoting Christian unity and dialogue with non-Christians and non-believers is also part of the Dominican vocation.
To do this, we can't just know what happened in the past or within; we must also know what is happening now, around us.


Wednesday, August 05, 2009

An observation

Bayes' Law is a mathematical equation that can be used to revise an estimate of the probability that some unobserved event has or will occur, based on observing some other event that is correlated in some known way with the unobserved event.

For example, a Bayesian inference engine might increase it's estimate that you have been cursed by Mme deGuerre after being told you were awakened by a strangled cry in the dead of night.

It's a well-known property of Bayes' Law that how much the estimate changes depends on what the estimate was prior to the other event being observed.

This is also true, of course, of people who aren't explicitly using Bayesian inference. Two people can observe the same event and assign it different levels of significance.

A less-mentioned property (perhaps because it's less interesting mathematically) of Bayes' Law is that the prior estimate of the probability of observing the event is also a function of the prior estimate of the probability of the unobserved event. The greater the prior probability you've been cursed by Mme. deGuerre, the more the inference engine tells you to expect to be awakened by a strangled cry in the dead of night.

Psychologically speaking, if you're expecting something, then you're more likely to observe it -- whether it really happens or not.

Thus, even if two people agree on how things that can be seen are influenced by things that can't be seen, they can still disagree on how important what they see is, and even on what they see.


The life cycle of the L. dominicani

There are several stages of membership in the Lay Fraternities of Saint Dominic. The terms for the stages, and the duration of each stage, may vary somewhat from province to province; here I'll just use the terms and durations of my own province.

The first, informal stage is one of inquiry or postulancy, during which the inquirer or postulant participates in the life of a chapter for six to twelve months, long enough so that both the inquirer and the chapter are ready and willing to move on to the novitiate stage.

Becoming a novice involves being formally received into the Order of Preachers, and on the part of the novice a commitment to try living as a Lay Dominican for one year. It's a significant step -- once you're received, you're as much a Dominican as the Master of the Order. The novitiate is a time when you should be hoovering up knowledge of Dominican history, purpose, and way of life.*

If you're still on track (and both you and your chapter have to agree on that), then the next step is to make a temporary promise to "live according to the Rule of the Laity of Saint Dominic for three years."

Then, if three years later you and your chapter can still stand each other (I put this informally), you make your final or perpetual promise to "live according to the Rule of the Laity of Saint Dominic for my entire life." Once you've done that, watch out, because if you're not careful they'll elect you to the chapter council, or worse.

  1. Postulancy or inquiry: 1 year (give or take)
  2. Novitiate: 1 year
  3. Temporary promise: 3 years
  4. Perpetual promise: your entire [remaining] life
This doesn't mean, though, that after five years you're a fully formed Lay Dominican. No one is ever a fully formed Dominican.

For the friars, each province has a "promoter of permanent formation" and each priory has a "conventual lector" to make sure they're all always learning.**

Similarly, each chapter of Lay Dominicans is to offer ongoing formation to all of its members. This post was supposed to be about the nature of that formation, but I think it's gone on long enough already.

* Note how I switched from "the postulant" to "you," turning this didactic post into a subliminal recruiting tool.

** Or something like that. The friars have convents and priories and houses and who knows what all else, based on how many friars are there and such like, and there are different rules for each kind of domicile, and it seems like every time I try to make some categorical statement about what the friars do, one of them says, "Uh, yeah, we don't do that [here/any more]." If you want to take a stab at interpreting their Book of Constitutions and Ordinations, knock yourself out.


Sunday, August 02, 2009

All this about Lay Dominicans

Occasionally, someone will ask me, "What's all this about Lay Dominicans?"

The short answer is that Lay Dominicans are Dominicans who are lay and laity who are Dominicans:

Fig 1. Graphical representation of the nature of Lay Dominicans.

Granted, the short answer isn't sufficient for all purposes.* The slightly less short answer is that Lay Dominicans are those who are committed toward living in accord with the Rule of the Lay Fraternities of Saint Dominic.

When people read the Rule, though, the reaction is often along the lines of, "Er?"

To crack the nut somewhat more, between now and the Feast of Saint Dominic on August 8, I'll try to write a little more about the Four Pillars of Dominican Life, as lived by laity in the world, in the context of
  • ongoing formation (the pillar of Study)
  • the combination of the contemplative and the apostolic (the pillars of Prayer and Apostolate)
  • chapter life (the pillar of Community)
Just keep in mind that these sorts of questions don't have canonical answers, and that my own opinions and experiences don't necessarily match those of any other Lay Dominican.

* And that's without even getting into the fact that Dominican nuns and sisters are also laity.