instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Thursday, June 27, 2013

On the way things are going

You can only be disappointed if you were appointed in the first place.

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Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The laicization of the laity

I've started reading Lay Sanctity, Medieval and Modern: A Search for Models, edited by Ann W. Astell. (which you can order for $5 through August 15 using the checkout code "NDEOVR13"). The idea of the book is to look at how holiness among the laity was recognized in the centuries before the Counter-Reformation and in the 20th Century, as potential models for those trying to answer the universal call to holiness following Vatican II. ("Models" not in the sense of abstractions that represent behavior, but in the sense of persons who model the behavior.)

The editor's introductory essay points out that the concept of lay sanctity depends, not just on the concept of sanctity in general, but also on the concept of laity. The technical distinction is between lay Christians and sacramentally ordained Christians, but the practical distinction is more between non-ordained/non-professed Christians and ordained-and/or-professed. And now that religious sisters have left the cloister (among other reasons), medieval lay, non-ordained, non-professed saints like St. Catherine of Siena look a whole lot more like ordained-and/or-professed saints to us than they did to their contemporaries.

The essay made good use of a passage in a homily of St. John Chrysostom (I quote the on-line translation, for ease of cutting and pasting). After recommending work, study, vigils, and fasts to young men to overcome unchaste desires, he says:
What then are these things to us (one says) who are not monastics? Do you say this to me? Say it to Paul, when he says, "Watching with all perseverance and supplication,"  when he says, "Make not provision for the flesh, to fulfill the lusts thereof." For surely he wrote not these things to solitaries [monks] only, but to all that are in cities. For ought the man who lives in the world to have any advantage over the solitary, save only the living with a wife? In this point he has allowance, but in others none, but it is his duty to do all things equally with the solitary.

Moreover the Beatitudes pronounced by Christ, were not addressed to solitaries only: since in that case the whole world would have perished, and we should be accusing God of cruelty. And if these beatitudes were spoken to solitaries only, and the secular person cannot fulfill them, yet He permitted marriage, then He has destroyed all men. For if it be not possible, with marriage, to perform the duties of solitaries, all things have perished and are destroyed, and the functions of virtue are shut up in a strait.
If it is the non-professed layman's duty to do all things equally with the monk, then the monastic ideal is the lay ideal.And since, for the most part, monks are much better than non-professed laymen at being monks, if we take St. John literally, then lay sanctity is merely, and inherently, an inferior version of monastic sanctity (although a particular layman may out-holy a particular monk).

I'm not sure we should take St. John quite that literally; I suspect he wasn't trying to put layfolk into the monastic mold so much as putting both layfolk and monks into the same, Christian mold, to live all the virtues according to the Beatitudes.

But "perform the duties of solitaries" does seem to have been the nub or crux of much of the spirituality proposed to the laity over the centuries. The virtues acted on in the world are cultivated in contemplation -- an excellent plan indeed. And yet, given that the laity "exercise the apostolate in fact by their activity directed to the evangelization and sanctification of men and to the penetrating and perfecting of the temporal order through the spirit of the Gospel," might there not be something in the activity of perfecting the temporal order -- something characteristically lay -- that serves to sanctify them? Might it not be natural to the laity to cultivate virtues in action?

To put it another way: the mission of the laity is to bring, not the cloister, but Christ to the world.

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Monday, June 24, 2013

On winning arguments

"Win an argument, lose a soul," as Ven. Fulton Sheen's warning goes. Implicit in that formula is that you are the judge of who wins; the lost soul need by no means agree with your judgment.

I am not very good at winning arguments, in the sense of changing minds from rejecting to accepting my position. When I argue, I usually try to construct the best argument I can, then put it forward and see how it goes over -- though everyone knows that even a rock-solid argument is no way to convince someone with a vested interest in something to the contrary. (And some of my arguments are, when you look at them, pretty flimsy.)

Naturally, I prefer to win an argument rather than not win. I'd like to think I'd rather lose an argument -- i.e., change my mind from rejecting to accepting someone else's position -- than to not win, because by that definition to lose an argument is to move from [what the loser now perceives as] an inferior position to a superior position. To lose an argument is to overcome some falsehood and to gain ground on the truth.

Maybe then the best arguments are the ones I win against myself. Not only do I win the argument (Excelsior!), but in admitting I'm right I move away from whatever bad position I was sort-of holding onto.

Particularly satisfying to win are the arguments along the lines of, "You don't need to comment on that, you know." I almost never need to comment on things, and I have far more regrets over things I've said that didn't need saying than over things I've kept to myself.

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Sunday, June 23, 2013

Salvation is not a matter of statistics

Even if you're with me on my claim that the proposition, "If you don't die as a Catholic, then you aren't necessarily damned," isn't what the Church has been commissioned to go out into the world and preach to every living creature, we're still left with the fact that the proposition is true. Which means we have non-Catholics, looking for the angle, asking, "So why should I become Catholic?" And we have Catholics asking, "Yeah, why should they?"

Before addressing these questions, let me propose another principle of Catholic teaching: Salvation isn't a matter of statistics.

That's true in pretty much any sense you want to take it. In particular:

A) The empirical statistics of salvation -- how many of which sub-populations will, on the Last Day, turn out to be saved -- is not a matter of Divine revelation. If something a Catholic says makes someone think the Catholic is making an assertion about the empirical statistics, there's been a miscommunication somewhere along the line.

B) Salvation is, in the end, a matter of the personal relationship between a human being and God. Whether the human being has chosen to belong to God is not determined by a random draw against some threshold, which is biased one way or another based on some set of objective factors. It is determined by the choices he freely makes, and at any time the choice can be freely made to cross from death to life or from life to death. A free choice is not a probabilistic choice (well, unless someone freely chooses to make choices based on coin flips or dice rolls...).

I've interrupted this blog post about evangelization to discuss statistics because the question about evangelization -- "If I don't die as a Catholic, then I am not necessarily damned, so why should I become Catholic?" -- presupposes a statistical approach to salvation. It is equivalent to asking, "How does the probability of my salvation improve if I join the Church?"

There's a common approach to answering the question that joins right in in accepting the errant presupposition. That approach is along these lines: "Catholics have access to the Sacraments, which are, by  Divine institution, the ordinary channels of the grace necessary to live and die in friendship with God. To deprive yourself of the Sacraments is to deprive yourself of the sacramental graces by which Christ intends us to be saved."

Now, everything between the quotation marks in the paragraph above is true, but notice the implication: Your odds of dying in friendship with God improve if you receive the Sacraments. It's an implication that has to be there if what's between quotation marks is intended as an answer to the question.

But if I'm right that salvation isn't a matter of statistics, then questions about how the statistics change with circumstances are ill-posed and shouldn't be answered as though they weren't.

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Saturday, June 22, 2013

The negation of the false doctrine isn't a doctrine

Mark Shea has replied to a question about the Church's teaching on salvation outside the Church (SPOILER ALERT: Outside the Church there is no salvation) by linking to an excellent article he wrote on the subject. The title of the article, "Just Exactly Where Is The Church?," indicates that the actual dogma isn't as triumphalistic as the formula (especially when stated in Latin) makes it sound.

Say what you want about triumphalism, though, at least you know where you stand. "If you don't die as a Catholic, then you are damned," is an appalling thing to believe, but it makes it pretty clear what's at stake.

The odd thing -- well, only odd as a matter of logic; given that we're dealing with people, I'll change it to, the regrettable thing is that we treat the correction of this misinterpretation of the dogma as the dogma. We say that the Church teaches, "If you don't die as a Catholic, then you aren't necessarily damned," as though that's the content of the doctrine instead of a consequence.

To treat it as doctrine means to act as though Jesus commissioned His Church to go out into the world and preach, inter alia, "If you don't die as a Catholic, then you aren't necessarily damned." That would make for a very strange evangelization pitch. What is someone, especially a non-Catholic Christian, supposed to do with that message, other than cross "learn more about Catholicism" off their bucket list?

Moreover, what are Catholics to do -- what have Catholics done -- other than cross "evangelize" off their bucket lists? Dare I call it a sort of Blasé Pascal's Wager? If the cost of evangelizing others (particularly non-Catholic Christians) is high, and the payoff uncertain, why play the game?

Add to that the failure of recent generations of Catholics to pass the faith on to their children, with the attendant unthinkable implications if being Catholic correlates with salvation, and I think we're pretty far along in explaining why so many Catholics (at least where these conditions occur) are universalists in action if not in thought. (A "universalist in action" is someone who expresses a belief in heaven but shows no concern that anyone might not go there.)

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Friday, June 21, 2013

Reading

T. S. O'Rama links to a Lifehacker post titled, "My Secret to Reading a Lot of Books," in which the author discusses ways he tries to achieve the following:
  • Keeping track of the books you want to read
  • Refining the list down to ones you’re going to read in the near feature
  • Actually reading them
  • Retaining the important parts
The first two don't really factor into reading a lot of books, at least not once you've reached the point where you have within fifty feet of you more books that you want to read -- or at least to have read -- than you will read in the next five years (yes, it's really "in your lifetime," but let's not twist the knife). Also, as much fun as it can be to make and remake lists of lists, I'm far too disorganized to use an electronic tool. I keep track of the books I want to read in the near future by stacking them next to my nightstand.

"Actually reading them" seems to be the key step in reading a lot of books. The author has a two-part rule for this:
I never read more than one book at a time, and I always finish every book I start.
I can see where following this rule would help with the total count of books read. Reading one book at a time keeps you focused on that book, and finishing every book ensures not a page goes to waste. If you don't like a book, and you can't read any other book until you finish it, then you'll read it a lot faster.

That said, to always finish every book you start is madness, unless the number of books you finish reading is more important to you than the quality.

As for the first part of the rule, I suppose I would prefer to read only one book at a time, all else being equal, but that would require keeping track of the book I am reading. I'd burn at least as much time finding that one book as reminding myself where I am in whichever book I can find.

What I really like is the author's idea of taking notes on a single sheet of paper, then folding it and tucking it into the book when you're done. What I usually do, when I read something I particularly like, is leave a little sliver of paper as a bookmark, which only tells me that there's something on these two pages I thought was good the last time I looked at the book. (I don't write in books; I'm not sure why, but I don't.) But a page of notes, for a noteworthy book, seems like an excellent way to revisit it. (Or to tell whoever picks up the book after me what I thought was worth revisiting.)

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Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Notre Dame Press overstock sale

Don't blame me; blame him.

I escaped with 8 books for 40 bucks. I might even read one or two of them, some day.

UPDATE:
Oh, yeah.

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Beato Ioseph, eius Sponso

Fr. Zuhlsdorf reports that the name of St. Joseph has been added to Eucharistic Prayers II, III, and IV:
Yay!

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Sunday, June 16, 2013

To whom much is forgiven

Following up on my last point in the "What counts as Pelagian?" post, I am thinking these days that one of the keys to a person's behavior is his attitude toward mercy. Put simply (and echoing Pope Benedict XVI on hope): The one who desires mercy lives differently.

But hey, if you want something put simply, why read this blog?

To start the complications, what is mercy? What, indeed, asks St. Augustine, "but a fellow-feeling for another's misery, which prompts us to help him if we can? And this emotion is obedient to reason, when mercy is shown without violating right, as when the poor are relieved, or the penitent forgiven." And, as St. Thomas points out, when you've got emotions moving a person to act in accord with reason, you've got a virtue.

So an act of mercy is an act of helping someone in misery. St. Augustine mentions two kinds of misery, and if I may take a broad understanding of "the poor," I'd say they are the two kinds of misery: privation and contrition. Bad things can happen to you, or you can do bad things and feel bad about it. You need assistance, or you need forgiveness. Either way is miserable.

To obtain mercy, three conditions need to hold:
  1. There must be some sort of misery, of either privation or contrition, which could be eased by some sort of succor, of either assistance or forgiveness. Help must be useful.
  2. There must be someone who can give the assistance or forgiveness. Someone must be able to help.
  3. Someone who can give the assistance or forgiveness must choose to do so. Someone must be able and willing to help.
Someone has to believe the first condition holds in order to desire mercy, but someone can believe all three conditions hold and still not desire mercy. I can think too much of myself to want help, or too little of myself to think I deserve it.

It's a lot simpler to live without the desire for mercy. Doing unto others as you would have them do unto you is easier if you wouldn't have them do anything unto you. But it's also pretty miserable, at least for anyone who's conscious of his own sinfulness (condition 1) or aware of the love God has for His people (conditions 2 and 3). And that ought to include every Christian.

I propose, though, that Christians who desire mercy for themselves must also desire it for others -- and Christians who experience God's mercy as mercy all the more so. Otherwise, it's not really mercy for themselves they desire, it's favoritism. It's not as mercy that they experience God's mercy, but as satisfaction of a contractual obligation.

If you desire mercy for others, you will be merciful to them. A Christian is always able to help anyone in misery with prayers, if not also with material assistance. And someone with fellow-feeling for everyone else's misery, someone who can and does help them, such a person lives differently.

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Saturday, June 15, 2013

Their Francis, too

This article, on why Evangelicals like Pope Francis, has been received by some Catholics as a hopeful sign of bridge-building between the Church and other Christians. (See, because the Pope is the pontifex maximus.)

I'm all for bridge-building between the Church and other Christians, but my enthusiasm for Pope Francis's popularity among Evangelicals is tempered by the actual reasons the author gives. For example:
Through his actions and his profound, visible humility, Pope Francis has demonstrated a Christ-like character, not only Christ-like rhetoric. And this has brought him respect across the spectrum of Christianity.

Every pope in the Catholic Church’s past has had a mastery over Catholic rhetoric—the pope always says the right thing. But Pope Francis has decided to lead with his actions. Before delivering his message at the Holy Thursday Mass (an extremely important mass in Catholic tradition), Pope Francis spent time on his knees, washing the feet of young women incarcerated at a nearby prison. This was the first time the pope has ever washed the feet of women—not to mention that one of them was a Serbian Muslim, which is another break in papal tradition.

This type of servant leadership is precisely what has connected the new pope to our younger, more cynical generation. He is breaking the rules in the right places: where they shouldn’t exist.
If what connects Pope Francis to younger Evangelicals is that they think he confirms them in their ignorance of liturgy and deprecation of tradition, that's not something to celebrate.

Of course, it's not only younger Evangelicals. Plenty of older Catholics think Pope Francis confirms them in their ignorance of liturgy and deprecation of tradition. And it's certainly better for Evangelicals to be favorably disposed toward the Pope than not.

This article, though, makes the reasons for the favorable disposition sound pretty shallow:
As Pope Francis accepts his role, a new generation of evangelicals accepts theirs. As young evangelicals have rejected the megachurch and the televangelist and embraced a more rugged, grassroots Christianity, these actions by the pope fit perfectly. He has refused to live in the massive papal quarters in Rome and has chosen to live in the guesthouse, instead. One of his first actions as pope was to cancel his newspaper subscription at his home in Buenos Aires.
They sound, in short, just like the superficial reasons so many Catholics give for their own favorable disposition.

Yes, I get that you have to start somewhere. I am merely pointing out that if you start at "I understand what this guy is doing," then you are at great risk of remaining there. If Evangelicals like Pope Francis because he seems more like an Evangelical to them than other popes, then they are at great risk of either not really hearing how he is not like an Evangelical or of falling back to disinterest or worse when the honeymoon ends and he turns out to be Catholic. (I've already used the expression "the Spirit of Pope Francis" in connection with the disillusionment Catholics who speak wistfully of the Spirit of Vatican II will come to feel as this papacy continues. And, God help us, the Church is still recovering from a generation of young Catholics who knew which rules shouldn't exist.)

That the author of this article, at least, is looking at Pope Francis through Evangelical lenses -- rather than trying to view him qua Catholic -- is evident:
It is important here to realize that the pope is popular with evangelicals not because he’s doing what they already do, but rather because he is doing what they are not doing but wish to begin doing. As I scour the landscape of evangelical leadership (authors, speakers, mega-church pastors), it is difficult to find a man like Francis. In the age of best-selling books and church auditoriums that rival arenas, we do not see many leaders take the route of Pope Francis. And perhaps this is why we enjoy him so much: He is leading us in a way we are not leading ourselves right now.
I'm not surprised there aren't men like Francis among Evangelical authors, speakers, and mega-church pastors. He is a leader in a way no Evangelical is. And it's because he is a leader -- specifically, because he is the successor of St. Peter as Bishop of Rome -- that what he does matters to cynical young Evangelicals. "Pope" and "Francis" can't be separated. (Put it this way: How many other men are praised by Evangelicals for wearing black shoes?)

Moreover, he refers several times to Pope Francis's humility as a feature that attracts. But it isn't his humility as such that attracts; otherwise every humble pope would be popular. Anyone who is unaware of Pope Emeritus Benedict's humility wasn't paying attention -- which, yes, is part of the point: Pope Francis's actions draw the attention of Evangelicals in a way Pope Benedict's did not. But the author doesn't merely like that Pope Francis exhibits humility, he likes that Pope Francis exhibits humility in a way that Evangelicals notice. He seems unaware that there are other ways of exhibiting humility, in particular that it can take just as much humility to follow a papal tradition as to break it, or that Christ-like character can be found in leadership styles Evangelicals might not wish for.

Honest, I'm not saying Evangelical attitudes toward Pope Francis don't matter unless they're able to perceive him in a truly Catholic context. I recognize it's early days yet, and without some good feelings ecumenism will get us nowhere.

But if it's too early to complain that Evangelicals aren't thinking like Catholics, it's also too early to celebrate the bonds being forged by this papacy. Pope Francis is building a bridge to the Evangelicals, but there's a lot of construction work yet to be done to finish it. We can, if you like, celebrate the opportunity the Pope has provided us for good, hard work.

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What counts as Pelagian?

If asked, I would say that Pelagianism is a heresy that holds we are capable of saving ourselves without God's grace or Christ's atonement.

That answer might be enough to get a multiple choice question right on a test, but it doesn't really get at what Pelagianism looks like when it's not writing theological treatises against Augustinian theories of grace. So I was brought up short when I ran into the phrase "Pelagianism of the pious," first in the report of Pope Francis's meeting with South American and Caribbean religious conference leaders, and then in a commentary on this report, which traces the phrase to Cardinal Ratzinger's 1986 spiritual exercises, in which he said:
...the other face of the same vice is the Pelagianism of the pious. They do not want forgiveness and in general they do not want any real gift from God either. They just want to be in order. They don’t want hope they just want security. Their aim is to gain the right to salvation through a strict practice of religious exercises, through prayers and action. What they lack is humility which is essential in order to love; the humility to receive gifts not just because we deserve it or because of how we act....
In my simple-minded literalism, I would not have identified an aim to gain the right to salvation through a strict practice of religious exercises as Pelagianism, since that aim doesn't per se deny the necessity of God's grace or of Christ's atonement.

On reflection, I think I get the Cardinal's point. A person may well hold, as a matter of abstract doctrine, that Jesus' death was necessary for salvation, and even that God's grace is necessary for us to choose the good and avoid evil, while living as though they weren't true.

I say a person "may well" do this. I could also say I personally do this on a daily basis, checking in with God in the morning, then going off into the world under my own power until I recollect how that usually turns out and cry out to God once more.

That's spiritual immaturity and lack of integrity. But if a person never asks God for His help or mercy -- or maybe that should be, never asks God for His help or mercy, but rather expects it in exchange for his strict practice of religious exercises; if his faith isn't personal so much as institutional (the way a person has faith in his bank); if he doesn't hope in God so much as accept Him as a law of nature; if he doesn't love God so much as love that God has set up this exchange program... then yes, I can see how you could say such a person functions in his day-to-day life as though he were a Pelagian.

You might even wonder whether there's any practical difference (academic and canonical differences not counting here as practical) between "he functions in his day-to-day life as though he were a Pelagian" and "he is a Pelagian." The doctrines of the necessity of Jesus' sacrifice and God's grace can be expressed in abstract terms, but can they in any meaningful way be believed abstractly? The devils believe, and tremble. In what sense can something be a "belief" if it has less of an effect on a human than on a devil?

In Ratzinger's Faith, Tracey Rowland writes that Cardinal Ratzinger
speaks of the twin pathologies of bourgeois Pelagianism and the Pelagianism of the pious. He describes the mentality of the Bourgeois Pelagian as follows: 'If God really does exist and if He does in fact bother about people He cannot be so fearfully demanding as He is described by the faith of the Church. Moreover, I am no worse than others: I do my duty, and the minor human weaknesses cannot really be as dangerous as all that.'
That, I'd bet, is by far the more common form of Pelagianism these days, but it seems to differ more in degree than in kind from the Pelagianism of the pious. The self-justification of the one group is done relative to the average behavior of those around them; the self-justification of the other group is done relative to some standard of prayers and action. The more a bourgeois hand out with the pious, the more pious will be his measure of "no worse than others."

Maybe the key point of Pelagianism, in all the ways it survives in the Church, is this (to quote the Cardinal once more):
They do not want forgiveness....
The desire for forgiveness will kill Pelagianism in the soul, and the lack of the desire will nourish it. A Pelagian can want salvation, but he can't know that he needs to be saved.

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Thursday, June 13, 2013

What the Pope did not say:

How many kinds of moral and material poverty we face today as a result of denying God and putting so many idiots in his place!
He said "idols," not "idiots." But it was early, and I'm more often concerned with idiocy than idolatry, so at first blink I misread.

On reflection, if I were more concerned with idolatry I might have a more constructive response to idiocy (my own and others).

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Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Not everything needs a bulleted list

While I'm thinking of it, here are my notes for a 30 minute babble on Baptism I gave at an RCIA retreat the weekend before Easter, generally based on Bl. Columba Marmion's Christ, the Life of the Soul:


Everyone showed up as scheduled at the Vigil Mass anyhow.

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Saturday, June 08, 2013

Another nail in the coffin

On Julie Davis's recommendation -- "Every Catholic should read this book. Period." -- I ordered Austen Ivereigh's new book, How to Defend the Faith Without Raising Your Voice.

I hadn't realized, or even considered the possibility, that Our Sunday Visitor Press had designed their edition for people who routinely read the fine print on medicine bottles.

Okay, maybe it's not quite that bad. But this is the first time I've opened a newly written, newly published book, looked at the font size, and thought, "Oof."

Guess I'd better step up on the wisdom-that-comes-with-age program.

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Thursday, June 06, 2013

Preach the Gospel always. If necessary, use pie charts.

Someone has said he would love to see how I incorporated Venn diagrams into the RCIA presentation I gave some months back. (Notably, he didn't ask whether I incorporated Venn diagrams.)

I am here to help. Here are the first five slides of my presentation (not counting the title slide):




As you can tell, it was a presentation on the Liturgy. The above set up a go-back fifteen slides later:


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Book recommendation

When I recommend a book, it's usually something I've read. This time, it's something I'd like to read (or at least carry around).

If you're an author wondering what book to write next, I have the perfect title for you:

HOLY CRAP
How to Deal with What God Throws at You Just When You Have it All Figured Out

No need to thank me. It's what I do.

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Sunday, June 02, 2013

The weakest link

William Luse commented on my previous post, concluding:
Besides, for Catholics, isn't the prohibition against lying one of those things not up for negotiation?
As far as I know, the answer is no, there is no explicit, binding doctrinal statement that all lying is sinful -- more precisely (since there's not an explicit, binding doctrinal definition of "to lie"), that all spoken untruths are sinful.

The Catechism has often been cited as a source of both an explicit, binding doctrinal definition of "to lie" and of an explicit, binding doctrinal statement that all lying is sinful. The problem with these citations is that the Catechism is not a source of doctrinal definitions and statements, it is a reference and summary of them. In the case of lying as an offense against the truth (CCC 2482-2486), the primary sources are St. Augustine and the theologians who followed his opinion. Absent an explicit, binding doctrinal statement to the contrary, a Catholic can in good faith disagree with a theological opinion, even one held all but universally.

Now, I like to say that I don't care whether something is infallibly taught, I care whether it's true. And in the case of lying, I am convinced that it is true that all lies are sinful.

What occurred to me in replying to William's comment is that, in the ongoing debate as to whether all lying is sinful, the argument from authority -- that the prohibition against lying is not up for negotiation -- may positively harm the overall progress on behalf of [what I judge to be] the correct position. And it's not just that the argument from authority happens to be unsound in this case. I propose that an argument from authority always weakens the overall argument for any position.

The introduction of an argument from authority has the following two risks (note that I call these risks, not foregone conclusions that apply categorically and universally):

First, some will accept the argument, and therefore the conclusion, without ever comprehending the other, stronger arguments for the conclusion. Not only will these people be ill-prepared to defend the conclusion against anyone who rejects the argument from authority, they won't really understand the conclusion itself as anything other than a "Simon Peter Says" declaration. When the conclusion relates to morality, it will act in their lives as a sterile rule, rather than a seed for virtue.

Second, some will not accept the argument from authority, while inferring that it's the best the other side has got. If the big gun defending a disputed proposition is "Simon Peter Says," then that proposition can be overrun at will by anyone who doesn't give a hoot what Simon Peter says.

And now for a few comments on the above:

  1. I refer to "Simon Peter Says," but the risks generalize. The authority could be the National Academy of Sciences, or Wikipedia (I was going to write the Encyclopedia Britannica, until I remembered what millennium we're in), or Grandpa. It's just that errors relating to faith and morals are more important.
  2. Those who accept an argument from authority are those who submit to that authority, and those who don't submit won't accept. The first risk above is therefore highest among Catholics, and the second among non-Catholics (yes, "duh"). The net effect is an increase in Catholics with a fideistic take on the matter and in non-Catholics who think the Catholic position really is fideistic. The "check your mind at the door" charge becomes reinforced outside the Church and more accurate statistically speaking within the Church.
  3. None of the above is intended to disparage arguments from authority when they are necessary or appropriate. The certainty of the conclusion depends on the certainty that the authority is correct, and when the authority is God the certainty is certain. That kind of certainty allows theologians to explore the conclusion with a confidence that helps to illuminate it in ways the proof itself does not. By itself, "God says X" leaves X opaque, but we have an entire science of penetrating such revelations to increase our understanding of X (as well as of God, and even of the fact that God said X).

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Saturday, June 01, 2013

My Solomonic judgment

One line of defense against the proposition that lying is always wrong is the claim that many Scriptural passages present lying in a favorable light. Abraham said Sarah was his sister, Jacob told Isaac he was Esau,  Rahab lied to the Jerichoans at the door, Judith put one over on Holofernes. Some suggest that Jesus lied in saying He wasn't going up to Jerusalem, or had come only for the children of Israel, or was going to continue past Emmaus.

Here I just want to comment on the suggestion that King Solomon lied in his famous judgment on dividing a baby between two women who each claimed to be the mother:

The king continued, “Get me a sword.” When they brought the sword before the king, he said, “Cut the living child in two, and give half to one woman and half to the other."
When the true mother revealed herself through her love for the baby, and
all Israel heard the judgment the king had given, they were in awe of him, because they saw that the king had in him the wisdom of God for giving right judgment.
Since this passage comes immediately after God promises Solomon, "I give you a heart so wise and discerning that there has never been anyone like you until now, nor after you will there be anyone to equal you," I agree that the sacred author intends for Solomon's command to cut the child in two to be seen as true wisdom.

But I don't agree that his command was a lie. An imperative statement like that doesn't have a truth value; it asserts nothing that can be contrary to a thought in Solomon's mind.

If a grammatical argument seems too slick or sterile, then go ahead and ask yourself what idea in Solomon's mind his words and actions are contrary to. They are, obviously, consistent with an idea that is contrary to what [we may presume] was in his mind, but that in itself does not constitute a lie. If it did, to speak English, or any natural language, would be to lie, since all natural languages have ambiguity.

Nor is it reasonable to deny that Solomon's words and actions were ambiguous -- or equivocal, to use the term that applies in matters of speech. The whole point of the story is that he had in him the wisdom of God for giving right judgment. Once they heard the story, all Israel saw that his words and actions were consistent with the idea of causing the true mother to distinguish herself; you don't need the wisdom of God to see how it works, just to think it up in the first place.

It might be countered that allowances for equivocal language don't apply in this case, that while yes, as a proposition a command is not (in a fussy technical sense) contrary to the intention to countermand it, it is contrary to a lack of intention to ever, under any circumstances see it carried out..

To that I would say[, first, I'm not the one who proposed an imperative command as an example of a lie, and it's not my fault if the contradictory proposition is so close to self-evidently true that its proofs seem too slick to be sound.

And second,] I don't think the counterposition holds up given (again) that Solomon had in him the wisdom of God for giving right judgment. (And recall that Solomon having in him the wisdom of God is the whole foundation of using this passage to argue that lying is sometimes just.) I think the question of intention is ill-posed in this case. Any judgment in these circumstances would necessarily be conditional on the identity of the mother not becoming known. But given his wisdom, Solomon would have been morally certain that the identity of the mother would become known. It's not a question of intention here, but of expectation. There was no expectation that the command would be carried out, so there was no need to intend to carry it out.

If that's still not clear, I'll add that Solomon did intend the servant to whom the command was given to accept it as a command and to act accordingly, which in itself is sufficient to make Solomon's act consistent with the virtue of truthfulness.

I suppose it remains to be asked whether Solomon's act might yet teach us something about truthfulness and lying since it might be said to have succeeded through the means of deceiving the women into expecting that the baby would be killed. This is perhaps different from common or garden equivocation, in that their misapprehension can't be passed off as an acceptable but unintended side-effect.

On this question, I'll just point out that Solomon was acting as judge of these women. As judge -- and king -- Solomon used his God-given authority to test the women, to construct circumstances in which they were free to respond as they wished. The women, in turn, acknowledged and submitted to Solomon's authority in the case. It seems to me that a petitioner cannot be both tested and deceived by a just judge at the same time. At the very least, whatever lesson on truthfulness one wants to draw from this would need to be seen in light of the judge-petitioner context.

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