instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Sunday, October 31, 2010

The best of the story

My own digest of the meatier bits in Cdl-Des Wuerl's speech -- if you'll pardon me, your to-be-Eminence -- is this [emboldening mine]:
  • "It's very easy to lock doors. We must always be pushing doors open, to allow the place of religious freedom, religious faith, religious experience, to be a part of our nation, our society, our culture.

    We take for granted our religious freedom, but today it is under substantive while subtle challenge. Freedom of religion, freedom of conscience, are gradually being reduced to the concept of freedom of worship within your church building, within your house of prayer."

  • "Little did we think that the content of something as familiar to all of us as the Catechism of the Catholic Church could be branded as hate speech."

  • "It's not enough that we recognize the problem and even lament the consequences of the problem. We have to be prepared to respond to the problem."

  • "The Knights of Malta have a proud history of defense of the Faith... Today, the new word for 'defense' is simply 'witness.' Witness, to bear witness to what we believe personally, individually. How important is personal witness to the Faith? Today, I think, it's extremely significant. What should guide our actions is the conviction that that ancient maxim, Magna est veritas et prævalebit, the truth is great and it will win out. But for the truth to prevail, it must first be heard."

  • "So much of what we and our neighbors in the nation know about our Catholic Church is mediated through the lens of others, many of whom simply don't know the story."

  • "My hope is that, at the end of this program, we will recognize three things: the nature of the problem, involving the erosion of religious liberty; the need for more effective dissemination of the rest of the story; and our own personal role in being a witness, a defender of the Faith, whenever those opportunities arise."

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Saturday, October 30, 2010

"The new word for 'defense' is simply 'witness'"

Cdl-des. Wuerl's spoke at the Knights of Malta's Defense of the Faith Forum held last week in Washington, DC. Msgr. Pope has blogged some thoughts on his remarks.

Here's a transcript of the remarks. Formatting and typos are mine:
Thank you. And thank you, Kathryn. Thank you for the very, very gracious introduction -- but more importantly, for taking the responsibility of putting together this forum that we are about to, not only enjoy, but benefit from -- the wisdom of the three panelists here. So thank you very, very much. And I would also like to recognize Paul McNamera, our president, and thank him for the great service he provides all of us. Thank you, Paul.

To our panelists, to all of the Knights and Dames of Malta, distinguished guests, friends. As we begin this Defense of Life forum, I want to begin by expressing my appreciation to the Order of Malta, for arranging the opportunity for all of us to hear from the experts who have gathered as panelists and who have so much knowledge on the topic we're going to discuss.

The topic for the forum, "The Erosion of Religious Liberty in America," is not only timely, but it's much needed in the circumstances of our culture today. Religious freedom is something we tend to take for granted. We've grown up in a nation that prides itself on so many freedoms. We sing that we are "the land of the free, and the home of the brave." And we have every right to make that claim, "the land of the free." The First Amendment to the United States Constitution begins with the words, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting free exercise thereof." This part of the Bill of Rights, which was ratified in 1791, has woven the idea of freedom of religion into the very fabric of our democracy.

Few Americans, however, may know that the statutory religious freedom begins in what is now the United States more than 150 years [earlier] in the only Catholic English-speaking colony, Maryland. In a historic action, the assembly of this newly formed civil government declared freedom of conscience and the free exercise of religion to be the law of the land.

Within 30 years, however, when Catholics no longer controlled the government of the colony, that provision was revoked. And last fall, I had the pleasure of participating in a ceremony in historic Old St. Mary's City in southern Maryland in that original colony, for the unlocking of the first Catholic church in the English colonies. The Ark and the Dove arrived in 1634, the statue of religious freedom was passed in the assembly shortly after government was organized, and the first Catholic church -- called a chapel then, although it must have looked like a cathedral for those early colonists -- was built, and then in 1704, in an effort to impose silence on the Catholic Church, the new government in Maryland, now controlled by non-Catholics, revoked the statute that provided religious liberty and ordered the church locked, so that, in the words of the governor, it could never again serve as a place of worship. You can imagine my delight when I joined the current sheriff of St. Mary's County, who arguably is the successor to the sheriff who was ordered by the royal governor to lock the church, when he inserted a replica of the great iron key into the restored door, turned the key, then he said, "Archbishop, push open the door." But I couldn't help but note to the large crowd of participants there, it's easy to lock doors. It's very easy to lock doors. We must always be pushing doors open, to allow the place of religious freedom, religious faith, religious experience, to be a part of our nation, our society, our culture.

We take for granted our religious freedom, but today it is under substantive while subtle challenge. Freedom of religion, freedom of conscience, are gradually being reduced to the concept of freedom of worship within your church building, within your house of prayer. The importance of this panel this afternoon, and the discussion that it encourages, are to reflect on a very basic human truism. We all need to recognize that we need to know something is broken before we can fix it. We simply need to know what's broken before you set out to fix it. And today we need to know that something we have taken for granted is becoming broken. My hope is that we will come away from this discussion with an awareness that there is a problem, the dimensions of the problem, and a renewed commitment on the part of each of us individually to address the problem.

A starting point for this forum is the reflection on just how much has changed in our country, how much has changed when we talk about religious freedom as it has always been understood, how much has changed in just the past twenty-five years. We may be tempted to think that what happened at Historic St. Mary's Chapel simply couldn't happen today. Yet, as recently as one year ago, the Connecticut state legislature introduced a law that, in effect, was the same measure. It provided that the ownership of all Catholic church property would be removed from the control of any bishop in Connecticut. In July of this year, Professor Kenneth Howell was fired from the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champlain for teaching the Catholic position on marriage. According to news reports, an unidentified student in the class complained that Howell was limiting the marketplace of ideas and acting out of accord with the University's principles. In effect, what the University countenanced when they dismissed him was the argument that political correctness would take precedence over religious freedom. And the mechanism to enforce this, the mechanism to enforce this new position, would be an appeal to a prohibition against hate speech. Little did we think that the content of something as familiar to all of us as the catechism of the Catholic Church could be branded as hate speech. But if it becomes now a challenge to political correctness, this is one of the issues we face.

We're in the midst of a sea change. We're being told that religion doesn't really have a place in the marketplace, in the public forum. Legislatures and courts are being asked to create and apply hate language legislation directed to faith bodies that would challenge politically correct positions. This has become almost accepted.

At a memorial service quickly assembled for the families of the heroic passengers of United Airlines Flight 93 that crashed into the ground near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, as part of the 9/11 terrorist attack, a priest, a rabbi, and two ministers were invited to be a part of this memorial service -- and then they were exhorted by a government official, responsible for this whole activity of trying to recover what could be recovered from this crash site, that they should not mention God, for fear that they would embroil everyone in a church-state problem. Well, I'm happy to say the young priest, whom I have known since his seminary days, began his remarks by saying, "Two thousand years ago, Jesus Christ came among us, to tell us what we do with a day like today, what we do with a situation like this, what we do with a tragedy like this, and try to make sense out of it." And I'm happy to say that, one by one, the other religious leaders also spoke very welcome words of vision and comfort to the people who had come to that memorial service precisely to hear out of their faith tradition a message, a message of faith, consolation, comfort.

It's not enough, though, that we recognize there's a problem. All of us could go on and relate our own story of some experience of this. It's not enough that we recognize the problem and even lament the consequences of the problem. We have to be prepared to respond to the problem. We need to know enough, and that's the reason for this panel today, to help all of us be better informed. We need to know enough so that we can recognize, how do we begin to fix something that's broken, what is broken, and what can I personally say adds to the discussion when we have an opportunity.

I hope this forum will provide all of us, not only with useful information to help us better understand the situation, but also encourage us to speak up for and defend our faith and our Church, in all those situations we find ourselves in individually, when conversations arise about so many of these issues.

The Knights of Malta have a proud history of defense of the Faith. Centuries ago, a band of knights, numbering in the hundreds, withstood the onslaught of Saracens in the tens of thousands at Lepanto. Today, the new word for "defense" is simply "witness." Witness, to bear witness to what we believe personally, individually. How important is personal witness to the Faith? Today, I think, it's extremely significant. What should guide our actions is the conviction that that ancient maxim, Magna est veritas et prævalebit, the truth is great and it will win out. But for the truth to prevail, it must first be heard.

A valuable outcome of this forum would be the recognition that we, faithful members of the Church, must find ways of being informed, getting information, getting the rest of the story, so that we know what the facts truly are. So much of what we receive by way of information is mediated. What we learn comes to us through the filter of a newspaper writer, editor, and publisher, a radio announcer, editor, and producer, or a television reporter, anchor, editor, and producer. Those are all the filters that something has to go through before it reaches you and me. What reaches us is what several other people have decided we should know. Media begin, oftentimes, with a determined storyline. There's nothing wrong with that; that's the way stories are produced. But the storyline or theme of an article becomes the norm of selectivity for what goes into the article. We need to have access to the rest of the story if we're ever going to make a judgment about that story. Most stories are inconsequential, but sometimes they touch the very core of who we are.

The recent discussion around the same-sex marriage legislation introduced in the past in the District of Columbia is a perfect example of news media crossing the line from fact to spin in such a way that it created a fog around the issue, a fog of misinformation. The real story was the clash of rights, the newly created right to a newly defined definition of marriage needed to be balanced with the longstanding right of conscience that has traditionally been protected by religious exemption. But the media never covered the real story. Where do we go? Where do we go for the rest of the story? Where do we go to find the rest of the story?

One more example of just how the principle of selectivity can so taint the story that when you walk away from it you really don't have the facts. The New York Times, not too long ago, ran a very long, long story in defense of embryonic stem cell research. This was not an opinion piece, this was a news story, and it covered the opening story on the front page and the entire page inside. The story carefully avoided the distinction between embryonic and adult stem cell research, one of which is moral and the other immoral. The paper then went on to attribute to embryonic stem cell research the benefits that have so far been derived only from adult stem cell research. For a person unaware of the distinctions and the facts, the New York Times's myth became a reality.

The need for us to know the rest of the story. So much of what we and our neighbors in the nation know about our Catholic Church is mediated through the lens of others, many of whom simply don't know the story.

Earlier this month, PBS ran a documentary entitled, "God in America." Purporting to be a balanced study of the influence of faith in shaping U.S. history and molding our national character, there's a lot in that series that we would want to praise, and the whole concept of faith in America is something we would want to praise. While early on in the series, a disastrously unsuccessful Franciscan-led effort to evangelize the Pueblos in New Mexico came in for predictable criticism as the script rather naively applied 21st Century values to the Age of Discovery, you can look for many, many, many hours in that series, and not learn about the things that all of us know are a part of the history of the Catholic Church in the New World. Bleached out of this documentary are the stories of the works of thousands and thousands of women and men religious who educated millions of some of the poorest children in this nation. There's one reference to the establishment of a school system, but there is no reference to the enormous, enormous on the poor that those schools have had. Thousands of health care and social service institutions, hospitals, orphanages, asylums, homes for the aged that were and are a substantive part, a thread that runs throughout this entire fabric, are simply ignored. The impact of Catholic social justice teaching on the efforts of organized labor in the '30s and '40s and the work of the Church to bring about just legislation governing child labor, decent working conditions, fair wages -- all passed over in silence. If you came from another planet, and you landed here and watched that, you would come away with the idea there was some religious influence in the United States, but you'd learn very little about the Catholic Church. It reminds me of Michener's book, Poland, that purports to be a history of Poland, and never mentions the Catholic Church.

This year, Catholic Charities USA celebrated its centenary, noting that nine million people, this year alone, were assisted by Catholic charities across this country. You would watch in vain for so-called fair and balanced presentations to hear anything about that. The celebration took place in this city. I'm sure you're all familiar with all the coverage on it.

If I had hours rather than minutes for this introduction, we could go on and list case after case after case of what has become substantive but subtle re-dimensioning of how we look at faith, faith experience, faith-based entities, and their impact on our culture. This is part of the background for the discussions we're about to have, so that we can be as well informed as possible.

My hope is that, at the end of this program, we will recognize three things: the nature of the problem, involving the erosion of religious liberty; the need for more effective dissemination of the rest of the story; and our own personal role in being a witness, a defender of the Faith, whenever those opportunities arise.

And I want to conclude with an experience I had last week, at the gala for the groundbreaking of the new national law enforcement museum. I was invited to give the invocation, and so they asked would I step backstage behind the curtain, and then when the voice said, "And now we will have...," I could step out and go to the podium. And behind the curtain, I could see this young man, a technician -- he looked to me like he was in his late twenties. And he had in front of him a console on which he controlled the lights and sound, and he also had on an easel in front of him the papers that told him the whole program and script. And he dimmed the lights, and a voice came on saying, "Ladies and gentlemen, please stand for the colors." And they paraded in the flag. And everyone stood. And then he announced, "Ladies and gentlemen, our national anthem." And everyone stood and began to sing.

From where I was standing -- and he couldn't see me there because I was to his back -- this young man at the console directing all of this shuffled his papers to put them down so he could extricate himself from the chair and stand with his hand over his heart. Nobody could see him, but clearly that anthem meant something to him. And he stood, even though he was standing there singing only to himself.

We're asked to stand today, we Catholics, Knights of Malta and Dames of Malta, we're asked to stand quietly, personally, individually, sometimes alone, to stand as a Knight, as a Dame, to stand as a defender of the Faith, to stand as a witness to the truth. Simply because the Faith, the Church, the truth means something to us, means something very much to us.

And for these reasons, I welcome this symposium with such highly qualified presenters, knowing that the information we will receive today, that you and I, Knights and Dames of Malta, and guests and friends, will continually reinforce us in our efforts to be as informed as possible in the service, in the defense, of the Church and the Faith we love.

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A question of authority

The argument from authority is a strange thing. No less an authority than St. Thomas teaches:
although the argument from authority based on human reason is the weakest, yet the argument from authority based on divine revelation is the strongest.
When you have an argument that is either the weakest or the strongest depending on its basis, you'll want to keep an eye on the basis.

So, for example, if someone rejects clear and explicit Church teaching with a counterargument that begins, "Many theologians say...," remember: Cherchez le basis.

Fortunately, in this example, the basis is easy to discern. The authority based on divine revelation is Holy Scripture and Sacred Tradition as interpreted by the Church's Magisterium. This, of course, is the authority with which the Church speaks, so the argument, "The Church says...," is the strongest form of proof.

At the same time, this is not the authority with which "many theologians" speak, so the argument, "Many theologians say...," is the weakest form of proof. The strongest proof contradicts the weakest proof. Which one proves its claim is easy to see.

Suppose, though, that there is no clear and explicit Church teaching the "many theologians say" argument contradicts. The rule is the same, and the conclusion -- this is the weakest form of argument -- is also the same.

Those who offer such arguments may well be faced with counterarguments like, "Yeah? Well, many small businessmen say...," or, "Many grandmothers say..."

Which, if any, argument should win the day is not something that can be determined ahead of time. Theologians do not necessarily speak with more authority than grandmothers (I know I've never heard a theologian speak with more authority than my grandmother did). Schooling, academic credentials, and lists of publications do not settle the question, "But is it true?," any more than the absence of these things does. (I'm no more fond of the "she's a little old lady who goes to daily Mass, so she must be wise" myth than of the "he's a tenured professor of theology at a university in the Catholic Tradition, so he must be sound" myth.)

If it's a question of theology as an academic subject -- how did Jansenism develop, say, or what are the open questions on the doctrine of predestination -- then a theologian may speak with more authority than a small businessman (though of course a particular theologian may not be particularly capable). But if it's a question of what God has revealed to mankind, a question of what St. Thomas called "sacred doctrine," then we look to the gifts of knowledge and wisdom the Holy Spirit gives, not to the job title a university gives, to judge the authority with which a person speaks.

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Friday, October 29, 2010

The lie we tell ourselves as we fall asleep on Election Night

"We do the best we can with the choices we are given."

We have a lot more choices to make in the composition of a ballot than in filling one out. Do we do the best with those choices, too?

See also "Election Day--and the Other 364 Days of the Year," from the Virginia Catholic Conference.

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This is not your father's Halloween

"What are you dressing up as?"

"A vampire. See? I've got the hair gel, eye liner, glitter, and T-shirt."

"What about the fangs?"

"Fangs?"

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Thursday, October 28, 2010

A followup on Fr. Martin

Which, in your judgment, is the more disastrous trend for the Church:
  1. Someone barely out of college who spends his days cherry-picking quotes and thumbing through the Catechism in an endless game of Catholic gotcha.
  2. Someone years out of college, well established in academic or religious circles, who spends his days cherry-picking quotes and thumbing through back issues of America in an endless game of rejecting the Church's teaching and authority.
I have always opposed self-licensed heresy-hunting. I've certainly seen a lot of attempts at theological argument by people who were way out of their depth.* I am often reminded of St. Thomas's statement that it is the height of madness is for a simple man to declare something a philosopher says to be false only because he doesn't understand it.

But, as the Curt Jester points out, "you don't need a degree to say that abortion is intrinsically evil." The Catechism really does suffice to answer the question, "Does the teaching authority of the Church lie with academic theologians?" To deny that entire congregations of women religious have given up any real pretense of obedience to legitimate Church authority is folly. When a priest says, "What the Church teaches is wrong," it's a sign of over-education to argue that he is not rejecting what the Church teaches.




* My own blog could be described as "a lot of attempts at theological argument by a person who is way out of his depth." But my conclusions are rarely recommendations of official censure of others.

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Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The betting line between good and evil

Scott W. at Romish Internet Graffiti has found an image of Satan and Jesus arm wrestling, which bears the caption, "Pure Epic."

I know, it sounds silly when I describe it like that.

Scott has rightly dismissed the picture as, "Dualist crapola," but the scene might be salvagable if the POV widened to show the counter at which each of us places our bets on the winner.

This may well be the only contest in history for which betting doesn't close until long after the contest is over and the winner is announced.

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It fits the pattern

Ours are pattern-making brains; hence, when the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (i.e., the Minnesota Democratic Party) released a political ad showing a priest wearing an "Ignore the Poor" button, the Catholic blogosphere readily inferred a message of anti-Catholicism. That anyone could be so stupid as to produce such an ad without intending anti-Catholicism was, if not literally inconceivable, at least not conceived in practice.

Both conservative and progressive Catholics made the same inference, which is one indication of just how stupid the DFL is.*

Generally speaking, in the U.S., conservative Catholics more readily interpret things as evidence of anti-Catholicism than do progressive Catholics. For conservatives, the question, "Why would the DFL make such an anti-Catholic ad?" is more of a head-shaker than a head-scratcher: "Well, I mean to say, Democrats."

For a Commonweal Catholic like Grant Gallicho, though, the explanation can't possibly be something habitual about the Democratic Party. Before the true story came out, he offered this interpretation:
Presumably the postcard is intended to push back on Archbishop Nienstedt's anti-gay-marriage mailing. Instead, the DFL has successfully impugned the charitable efforts and concerns of the Catholic Church in general, and its priests in particular, all while reinforcing the notion that Democrats not only don’t get religion, they harbor animosity toward it.
For a Commonweal Catholic, the problem isn't that Democrats might push against the Church's teaching on gays and marriage. The problem is that Democrats might do it badly.



* It might be argued that I should amend this to something like "how stupid the DFL was in this instance." But this is not "locked the keys in the car" stupid, this is "give the finger to a quarter of the voters" stupid. You can't be that stupid only within an epsilon neighborhood of this ad.

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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The purging impulse

Fr. James Martin, SJ -- who often has interesting things to say about Catholic culture -- makes a disappointing foray into the "tone of the Catholic blogosphere" melee. (To call it a "debate" would be an insult to televised senatorial and presidential debates.)

It's "disappointing" in the empirical sense that I was disappointed by it, on three counts:
  1. Fr. Martin calls the AP's Rachel Zoll's article on conservative Catholic bloggers a "fine piece." I'd say, rather, that a very strong case can be made that the article is an objectively lousy piece of reporting. There's the use of Pavlonian phrases -- e.g., "the usual liberal suspects" -- where the reader is expected to fill in who or what is alluded to. There's the assertion of fact without any supporting evidence (even when the evidence couldn't be hard to come by). There's the ever-popular "unattributed 'some say'" trick ("Critics of the bloggers contend"). There's a laughable nod toward balance ("Some left-leaning Catholics are outraged by any exercise of church authority."). There's the editorializing ("dissecting...combing through...hunting for" vs "has advised church leaders for four decades," "known for his humility"). And of course -- though Zoll can't be blamed for this -- there's the standard editorializing-unsupported-by-anything-in-the-article headline ("Catholic Bloggers Aim to Purge Dissenters").

  2. One of the reasons Fr. Martin gives for what makes what he calls "web-based McCarthyism" "disastrous" is this:
    the focus of their blogs is almost risibly narrow. Here are the sole topics of interest, in the order in which they cause foaming at the mouth (or on the keyboard): homosexuality, abortion, women's ordination, birth control, liturgical abuses and the exercise of church authority. Is this really the sum total of what makes us Catholic?
    Setting aside questions about his ordering of topics, his final question misses the point so badly it's embarrassing.

    First, a blog need not address "the sum total of what makes us Catholic." (Frankly, I'd doubt the prudence of any blogger who tried, and I'd doubt the humility of any blogger who claimed to succeed.)

    Second, irreformable doctrine on these issues does, in fact, proscribe what makes us Catholic. That they do not constitute "the sum total" does not mean they are not included in the total, as Fr. Martin is well aware.

  3. Finally, Fr. Martin seems blind to the irony of his call for civility from people whom he describes in these terms: "Taliban Catholicism;" "both craven and cowardly;" "little theological knowledge;" "someone barely out of college;" "McCarthyism at its worst;" "devoid of any sense of Christian charity;" "they don't seem particularly Christian."

    Now, I've been criticizing pharisaism in the Catholic blogosphere for eight years. Not only do I have questionable time management skills, I think much of Fr. Martin's criticism is valid and on target.

    But he had a choice. He could attempt to correct those he disagrees with, or he could call them "the 'Catholic Taliban.'" One or the other. Not both.

    Yet, based on his replies to the comments on his post, he seems unaware that, as a blogger himself, he is in no position to tell people to shut up and take it. After 50 comments, he writes:
    I give up. Calls for civility met with people crowing over who got the last word. The blogosphere really is dangerous to your spiritual health.
    Yes, Father, it is frustrating to speak the truth and have it ignored.

    That's sort of the point, isn't it?

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Monday, October 25, 2010

Mountains out of mustard seeds

Among the hard sayings of Jesus recorded in the Gospels is the "faith the size of a mustard seed" one, which appears in all the Synoptics:
Matthew 17:19-20
Then the disciples approached Jesus in private and said, "Why could we not drive [the demon] out?"

He said to them, "Because of your little faith. Amen, I say to you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you."

Mark 11:21-23
Peter... said to him, "Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered."

Jesus said to them in reply, "Have faith in God. Amen, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, 'Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,' and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it shall be done for him."

Luke 17:5-6
And the apostles said to the Lord, "Increase our faith."

The Lord replied, "If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you would say to (this) mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it would obey you."
What makes it hard is that there are a couple billion Christians in the world, and very few mountains being thrown into the sea.

The safest thing is to treat that mountain-moving as metaphorical. The Fathers suggest that the "mountain" in question represents the demons cast out in Jesus' name, or simply any great deed, such as bringing the dead back to life. (More prosaically, we might think of accomplishing great deeds through endurance fed by faith.)

St. John Chrysostom observes of the literal reading:
But if mountains were not removed in the Apostles' time, this was not because they could not, but because they would not, there being no pressing occasion. And the Lord said not that they should do this thing, but that they should have power to do it.
Hard to dispute that, but it still leaves me a little uneasy. I don't believe [stet] a mountain, or even a tree, would move if I told it to. Partly, it's because I can't conceive of a pressing occasion; partly, it's because even if there were a pressing occasion I suspect I'd still feel like I was tempting God or trying to show off; partly it's because I'm not sure faith is supposed to work like that, at least in my life; partly it's because I simply may not have faith the size of a mustard seed.

It's generally understood that faith the size of a mustard seed is not very much faith. In both Matthew and Luke, it's explicitly contrasted with the lesser faith of the Apostles, and we also have the line about the mustard seed being the smallest of all seeds.

But how small is it? St. Jerome, looking at 1 Cor 13:2 -- "if I have all faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing" -- concludes, "The faith therefore which is compared to a grain of mustard-seed is a great faith."

I don't think there's a contradiction between some measure of faith being both great and small. Great, relative to the faith possessed by most people; small, relative to the human capacity for faith in the One Who Is both Truth and Love.

Mark's version, included in the peculiar account of the cursed fig tree, adds yet another wrinkle. Not only must the mountain-mover have faith in Jesus, he must believe in his heart that what he says will happen shall be done for him. That is, his faith in Jesus must not only constitute a credal belief that Jesus is Lord and will save him from his sins, raising him on the Last Day to eternal beatitude in the presence of the Almighty. His faith in Jesus must include the belief that, through his faith in Jesus, mountains are his to command.

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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Hitting the Trifecta!

In a comment on my post below -- the part about how using "to believe" as an all-purpose verb of cognitive production can fuzz up thinking about belief as the act of religious faith -- cricket writes:
I think--that is to say it occurs to me--that the word "hope" suffers from the same problem.
And what shall we say about the water carried wood chopped by "to love"?

Can it just be a coincidence that all three theological virtues are muddled by common speech?

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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Two for one

I wasn't sure which blog post I was going to write next. It was a choice between commenting on Mark Shea's Conservative American Catholic Problem, and lamenting the equivocal nature of the English verb "to believe."

Now that Pat Archibald has replied to Mark, I can write one post on both topics.

My impression, as a steady but not systematic observer, is that communication between Mark and many other politically conservative American Catholics suffers from what you might call an impedance mismatch. For his commentaries on politics (and other fleeting subjects), Mark uses a writing style that might be described as "editorial cartooning with words instead of pictures."

Those readers who are expecting something else -- political commentary, perhaps, rather than commentary on politics -- aren't altogether wrong in seeing something cartoonish in Mark's writing (they might even add "artless," ha!). Many of them, though, seem to be misinterpreting his arguments as far more rigorous and categorical than he intends. Some of the misreadings I've seen -- along the lines of, "Shea says if you vote Republican then you love your country more than you love God," for example -- are as wrongheaded as a claim like, "That guy thinks all bankers smoke cigars and carry overflowing sacks of cash around."

The trick in responding, as always, is to distinguish disagreement from irritation.

Pat Archibald attempts this in his reply. How well he succeeds is a question I'll set aside, in favor of feeding my current favorite pet peeve, which is the fact that it's habitual to say "I believe" about things that do not involve faith.

Now, there's nothing wrong in doing this, either morally or grammatically. But one consequence of repeatedly saying things like, "I believe the Phillies will win in six," or, "I believe these Cabernets are overpriced," is that it makes it hard to verbally distinguish an act of faith from an act of judgment.

For example, the import of Pat's column is in these words:
I am a Catholic. I call myself a conservative. I put my Church first and my party about 108th.
He goes on:
...I believe [small government] protects our God given liberties, including our religious liberties, best. I believe in the Constitution....

I believe in free enterprise....

I believe in a strong defense....
As I said, there's nothing wrong with this grammatically or morally.

Rhetorically, though: Using a credal structure of repeated "I believe"s to present your political opinions in a column intended to show that your political opinions are distinct from and subject to your religious faith is best avoided.

The use of "to believe" as a generic term for asserting non-specific levels of confidence in the truth of some proposition has a number of problems, all related to the socially recognized nobility of the act of faith.
  • It can make an act of guessing, wishing, or feeling sound far more substantial and important than it really is -- e.g., "I believe the Phillies will win in six."
  • It can make a conclusion sound like a premise -- e.g., "I believe corporal punishment is necessary for a well-ordered school."
  • Most significantly, I judge, it can make a religious belief sound like an opinion, and vice versa -- e.g., "I believe women can be priests."
The fallout from this last is not the elevation of opinion to the dignity of faith, but the degradation of faith to the everyone-has-one vulgarity of opinion.

My recommendation (which I don't expect to follow slavishly myself) is to use "I think" for the generic act of asserting a non-specific level of confidence, or even a more specific verb when you think you can get away with it. (Will it ever be safe to "opine" in public?)

So much for "I believe X." What about "I believe in X"?

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Thursday, October 14, 2010

Way too many words to say "yes"

Some guy on the street catches me in vaguery:
I'd be glad of further clarification of the last paragraph; particularly in light of the Holy Father's words to the assembled British Lords and Members of Parliament in Westminster Hall, "[t]he Catholic tradition maintains that the objective norms governing right action are accessible to reason, prescinding from the content of revelation."

If, say, the sense of omission entails willfully ignoring what Church teaching one has heard contrary to his inclination, then I can square your last implication with the Pope's words. Again, if it means a cavalier incurious attitude to what the Church might say on some moral question, I can understand that this would be reckless for a Catholic casuist. But if, for instance, you had been raised on Confucius and Mao's red book, apart from the inherent dischord I should excuse your poor soul for omiting questions about Catholic moral teaching.
To clarify, when I wrote "if, a priori, I omit from my determination [of the moral nature of an act] the teaching of the Church," I had in mind something like, "if I, who profess the Catholic faith, decide to ignore what the Catholic Church teaches about the morality of the act." Or, in some guy's words, "willfully ignoring what Church teaching one has heard contrary to his inclination."

The point being, again, that willfully ignoring what Church teaching one has heard contrary to his inclination is contrary to Church teaching on conscience.

The Pope's point about objective norms governing right action being accessible to reason touches on the distinction between accessible to reason in principle and accessed by reason in practice, which St. Thomas mentions in the first article of the Summa Theologiae, on the necessity of Revelation:
Even as regards those truths about God which human reason could have discovered, it was necessary that man should be taught by a divine revelation; because the truth about God such as reason could discover, would only be known by a few, and that after a long time, and with the admixture of many errors.
Granted, objective norms governing right action is not nearly the challenge to human reason that truths about God are, but the same principle applies.

When a person goes to determine whether an act is morally good, he will often find that there are mutually exclusive goods involved. Right reason dictates he not sacrifice a greater good for a lesser good, and I'd guess most grown-ups can see that objective norm clearly enough. The challenge comes in properly ordering the goods relative to one another, and it is in performing this ordering that Church teaching can be particularly helpful.

Someone who does not use Church teaching in a particular case -- be it through ill will, culpable ignorance, or non-culpable ignorance -- may still reach the correct conclusion about the moral nature of the act. A non-culpably ignorant actor may even apply the correct process -- that is, apply the objective norms governing right action as they are apprehended by the actor's human reason. But, as I said before, those of ill will or culpable ignorance are not performing the act of conscience correctly.

In short: Some guy on the street is right.

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Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The point being

Conscience is not the act of determining whether I judge an act to be morally good. Conscience is the act of determining whether an act is morally good.

The first sort of act, the sort of act that conscience is not, is an act I can't fail at. A genuine act of conscience, though, is something I most certainly can get wrong, both in how I do it and in what determination I make.

And if, a priori, I omit from my determination the teaching of the Church, then I most certainly am doing it wrong, even if I accidentally reach the correct conclusion.

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Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Neither living nor lifeless faith

There may be some Roman Catholics who would say something like, "I know that the Church teaches that God commands this thing, but I don't agree with them on that."

Any such Roman Catholic should draw no comfort at all from St. Thomas's teaching that an erring conscience binds. He is, after all, the same St. Thomas who teaches that, "Neither living nor lifeless faith remains in a heretic who disbelieves one article of faith."
Now it is manifest that he who adheres to the teaching of the Church, as to an infallible rule, assents to whatever the Church teaches; otherwise, if, of the things taught by the Church, he holds what he chooses to hold, and rejects what he chooses to reject, he no longer adheres to the teaching of the Church as to an infallible rule, but to his own will.
Note that this isn't a matter of interpreting or opining upon Divine Revelation; it's simply manifest, from the meaning of the terms, that who these days is called a "Cafeteria Catholic" adheres to his own will and not to the teachings of the Church.

And before anyone points out that "Cafeteria Catholic" is a derogatory term, let me point out that there are not only people who brag about adhering to their own will and not to the teachings of the Church, there are people who have made careers out of bragging about adhering to their own will and not to the teachings of the Church.

That people who adhere to their own will and not to the teachings of the Church are heretics is not based on Divine Revelation, nor the opinion of celibate old men in dresses in the Vatican, but from the definition of "heretic." The opinion of celibate old men in dresses in the Vatican is merely that being a heretic is not good.

St. Thomas concludes his response with:
Therefore it is clear that [an obstinate] heretic with regard to one article has no faith in the other articles, but only a kind of opinion in accordance with his own will.
The evidence that this is true in particular cases is often quite obvious. I need hardly add that holding opinions in accordance with your own will is not what the Church regards as proper exercise of conscience.

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Friday, October 08, 2010

Water of life

I had a great time at the Celebrate the Macallan whisky tasting last night.* Led by "Macallan Ambassador" Graeme Russell (@LivingTheDram), it was entertaining and informative, with a couple of lovely expressions toward the end.** You can check to see if it's coming to a town near you.

A highlight of the evening was the time spent talking about Macallan's relationship with Charity: Water, a nonprofit that builds water wells in Africa. According to their website:
Almost a billion people on the planet don’t have access to clean drinking water. Unsafe water and a lack of basic sanitation cause 80% of all disease and kill more people than all forms of violence, including war.
Since "whisky" means water, and water means life, it's a natural partnership.






* Truth be told, I'm not a big fan of Speyside single malts. Dollar for dollar and year for year, I'll generally go with an Islay. Unless you're buying.*** I've never tasted a bad free whisky.****

** "Expression" is the term whisky distilleries use to refer to different bottlings. Last night, they served five Macallan expressions: the 10, 12, and 18 year old sherry oaks; and the 15 and 17 year old fine oaks. When I first walked in, they were handing out samples of the 10 y.o., and I could only get as far as, "Do you have any other...?" I wasn't quite pretentious enough to drop an "expressions" on the poor waiter,***** and I didn't have any other words at the ready.

*** If you follow the @LivingTheDram fellow on Twitter, you'll find out where he's pouring free drinks. He'll probably be returning to the rooftop of the W Hotel in DC tonight, if you're not doing anything.

**** And I've tasted Virginia Lightning.

***** The one time I tried to be pretentious, I mispronounced "Islay." I've tasted a bunch of different whiskies, and my tasting notes are generally along the lines of "hmm" and "oh yes that's nice." My palate seems to comprise "spicy," "some sort of candy, isn't it?," and "dirt." (Oh, and there was that Ardbeg that might as well have just said "BACON" on the label.)

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Thursday, October 07, 2010

It gets worse

Still skirting the morass of what it means to know that the Church teaches that God commands something, I will toss another log onto the pile of reasons dissenters shouldn't appeal to St. Thomas.

In a previous post, I linked to ST I-II, 19, 5, "Whether the will is evil when it is at variance with erring reason?" The very next article is, "Whether the will is good when it abides by erring reason?"

You might think that, if the will is evil when it is at variance with erring reason (because it is at variance with what the intellect perceives to be good), then the will must be good when it abides by erring reason. In fact, this is the first objection St. Thomas raises. That it's not the case, though, is because,
in order that the thing to which the will tends be called evil, it suffices, either that it be evil in itself, or that it be apprehended as evil.
"That it be apprehended as evil" is what happens when an evil will does not follow reason (whether right or erring). "That it be evil in itself" is what happens when the will wills something that is... er, evil in itself.

St. Thomas regards the question of this article as equivalent to
"whether an erring conscience excuses."
To answer this question, he refers back to his teaching on voluntary and involuntary ignorance (which I wrote about several months ago), and concludes:
If then reason or conscience err with an error that is voluntary, either directly, or through negligence, so that one errs about what one ought to know; then such an error of reason or conscience does not excuse the will, that abides by that erring reason or conscience, from being evil.

But if the error arise from ignorance of some circumstance, and without any negligence, so that it cause the act to be involuntary, then that error of reason or conscience excuses the will, that abides by that erring reason, from being evil.
Hence, per St. Thomas, our wills can be evil even if we are following our consciences!

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Wednesday, October 06, 2010

The act of conscience, in theory and practice

The act of conscience is the act of applying knowledge of moral principles to determine whether a particular act is morally good or morally bad. In theory, it works something like this:



When we ignore conscience, the picture changes:



When we're too smart to follow Church teaching, it looks something like this:

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Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Meet the blogger

I'll be making a rare public appearance this Thursday evening at Atlantic Video in Washington, DC, to attend a Celebrate the Macallan tasting event. Sign up and join me; I'll be the one drinking whisky.

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The mountain beneath the molehill

As always, though, when the subject is the relationship between conscience and Church teaching, the point should be made that, for all of us, the conflict is far less often between conscience and doctrine than between conscience and will.

Those who brag about following their conscience when it contradicts Church teaching had better take care to follow their conscience when it contradicts their druthers. Those who kvetch about others following their consciences into dissent had better take care to follow their own.

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Doctor's orders

It's common for Roman Catholics who disagree with Church doctrines to invoke Church doctrine on conscience as proof that their disagreements with Church doctrines is consistent with Church doctrine. Quite often they will point out that St. Thomas himself taught that one must follow one's conscience, even if that contradicts what the Church teaches.

It's certainly true that St. Thomas taught that an erring conscience binds. He could hardly have taught otherwise, since he regarded conscience as the act of applying knowledge of moral principles to deciding what should be done. To act against your conscience is to choose to do something you judge to be evil, and it is always evil to will evil.

That said, St. Thomas is not a safe authority for dissenters to invoke. The same article of the Summa Theologiae in which he argues that conscience always binds includes the following objection:
...according to Augustine, the command of a lower authority does not bind if it be contrary to the command of a higher authority: for instance, if a provincial governor command something that is forbidden by the emperor.
St. Thomas replies:
The saying of Augustine holds good when it is known that the inferior authority prescribes something contrary to the command of the higher authority.
In other words, St. Augustine is right: the decision of an erring reason does not bind when it is known that the erring reason prescribes something contrary to God's commandments.

This raises the question, how can we know when our reason prescribes something contrary to God's commandments? We need to be able to recognize a contradiction when we see one, and we need to know God's commandments. How do we know God's commandments? He has revealed them, and founded the Church to teach them to the nations.

If, then, I know that the Church teaches that God commands something, and I know that my own judgment is that I should do something contrary to what the Church teaches God commands, then I know that at least one of these two things must be true:
  1. My reason is in error, and I should not follow it.
  2. I do not believe that the Church teaches what God commands.
Now, if I don't happen to believe that the Church teaches what God commands, then I don't believe it. But I can't at the same time claim to be acting as a faithful Christian.

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