Minute Particulars

"...minute and particular." -- Enormous Generalities

Friday, July 12, 2002

UN . . .er, NOT . . . um, IL . . .hmm . . .

Thanks to Mark Shea for this beauty:
Mr. [Jesse] Jackson also called the president's comparison of a recent Supreme Court ruling favoring school vouchers in Cleveland to the 1954 desegregation order in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas "unliterate" and "fuzzy history."
How does that blog phrase go? “You can’t make this stuff up folks.”


Thursday, July 11, 2002


Wow, this (link via Quid Novi) is pretty high drama:
On June 29, 2002, Romulo Antonio Braschi, the founder of a schismatic community, attempted to confer priestly ordination on the following Catholic women: Christine Mayr-Lumetzberger, Adelinde Theresia Roitinger, Gisela Forster, Iris Müller, Ida Raming, Pia Brunner and Angela White.

In order to give direction to the consciences of the Catholic faithful and dispel any doubts which may have arisen, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith wishes to recall the teaching of the Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis of Pope John Paul II, which states that "the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful" (n. 4). For this reason, the above-mentioned "priestly ordination" constitutes the simulation of a sacrament and is thus invalid and null, as well as constituting a grave offense to the divine constitution of the Church. Furthermore, because the "ordaining" Bishop belongs to a schismatic community, it is also a serious attack on the unity of the Church. Such an action is an affront to the dignity of women, whose specific role in the Church and society is distinctive and irreplaceable.

The present Declaration, recalling the preceding statements of the Bishop of Linz and the Episcopal Conference of Austria and in accordance with canon 1347 § 1 of the CIC, gives formal warning to the above-mentioned women that they will incur excommunication reserved to the Holy See if, by July 22, 2002, they do not (1) acknowledge the nullity of the "orders" they have received from a schismatic Bishop in contradiction to the definitive doctrine of the Church and (2) state their repentance and ask forgiveness for the scandal caused to the faithful.

Rome, from the Offices of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 10 July 2002.

Joseph Card. RATZINGER, Prefect
Tarcisio BERTONE, S.D.B.
Archbishop Emeritus of Vercelli, Secretary


Wednesday, July 10, 2002


Mark Shea had this to say recently on AIDS prevention:
By the way, not to inject a note of gloom, but an acquaintance of mine who is a molecular biologist went to an AIDS conference about ten years ago and basically came away saying "We will never find a cure for AIDS." Prevention? Easy as pie. Live, well, basically the way God says to and your chances of contracting AIDS are right up there with your chances of getting hit by lightning. But once you've got AIDS, you've got it and you are not going to get rid of it except by having the host organism die.
Hmm . . . living “basically the way God says to” has always struck me as more of a dangerous thing than safe.

And think about it. A healthcare person increases his or her risk of contracting HIV by working with AIDS patients. Would God want healthcare folks to stop treating AIDS patients so that they don’t risk a needle stick or infection by other means? Probably not. Would God have wanted Mother Teresa to avoid the sick and dying because she might contract some disease from them? Probably not.

Fr. Damien of Molokai contracted leprosy because he lived with the abandoned lepers. Was he living “the way God says to”?

I’m pretty sure this wasn’t what Mark intended. But I think one needs to be careful about these kinds of statements.

AIDS is an infectious disease. Certain behaviors can expose you to infectious diseases; no reasonable person disputes this. But living “basically the way God says to” is a silly way to discuss AIDS prevention or any other infectious disease prevention. Ironically, appealing to living “the way God says to” as a guide to prevention of an infectious disease is precisely the kind of thing Shea detests in his battles with Christian Fundamentalists who take the Bible literally and as a scientific text. Perhaps worse, though, is the misunderstanding that can arise by asserting that if people simply live the way God says to they can avoid contracting an infectious disease: it implies that God only calls us to safe and risk-free living.

UPDATE: Blogger permalinks don't seem to be working so you'll need to scroll down to Mark's "Yesterday, Drudge has some headline declaring they will have a cure for AIDS in five years" post of 7/9 to find the text I quote above.



Here’s an article (link via Amy Welborn) that points out that the “arguments of some academic philosophers are contributing to the plausibility of belief in the supernatural.”
Swinburne, Plantinga, and others have reshaped the philosophy of religion. Christian thinkers are no longer on the defensive. By dedication to truth and dint of clear thought, they have shown that the philosophical materialists offer unsatisfying answers and question-begging challenges. Perhaps someday soon, the barrenness of atheistic materialism will be broadly realized as cultural arbiters like The New York Times filter academic thought to the masses. In the meantime, we are grateful to Swinburne and his fellows for demonstrating the plausibility of Christian truth.
Related to this, the always interesting Redwood Dragon takes on USS Clueless’s view of the world.

Let me make a rather bold, bald statement. Atheistic materialism can’t really, seriously be held by anyone. Notice I’m not saying “shouldn’t be held by anyone.” I’m saying “cannot be held by anyone.” The reason is simple. To claim that there is no God and that all things can be reduced to materialistic or mechanistic principles is akin to saying “a thing is and is not at the same time in the same respect.” You can say it, but it’s meaningless. As Disputations put it a while back, in a different context, it’s like saying I’m going "Tie a rainbow to my thought."

So, exactly why am I equating atheistic materialism (or just atheism or just materialism) with a nonsensical statement like “a thing is and is not at the same time in the same respect.”? Because that’s what atheistic materialism is in essence claiming. One way to organize your thinking on this is with Aquinas’s familiar proofs for the existence of God. If you look at how he approaches each of the five proofs, you’ll see that each one is an assertion that something cannot be and not be at the same time in the same respect. Now, obviously, any speculative argumentation will eventually reduce to this first principle, but it’s interesting to note what he does.

In the first proof (you should go to the link and read it if you haven’t yet) he points out that the existence of an unmoved mover is required unless we wish to claim that something can be in motion and not in motion at the same time and in the same respect. In the second, the existence of a first efficient cause is required, unless we wish to claim that something can exist and be the cause of its existence at the same time in the same respect. In the third, the existence of pure act is required unless we want to be held to asserting that something is actual and possible at the same time in the same respect. In the fourth proof, the existence of pure being is required, unless we wish to claim that a thing can be more and less actual at the same time in the same respect. Finally, in the fifth approach, the existence of a principle of design is required, unless we want to claim that something can be a designer and designed at the same time and in the same respect.

Now, I don’t expect the previous paragraph to convince anyone that God exists. But taken in the metaphysical context that stretches back to Aristotle, that’s pretty much what the proofs are attempting to demonstrate.

But here’s the problem. The God you arrive at from these proofs, from any proof that is grounded upon reason, is not very interesting. It’s about as interesting as watching the water level in a swimming pool rise a bit when a person enters the pool compared to actually meeting the person. The former is evidence of the person’s existence; the latter is relationship with that person. Now that’s not literally what the difference is between philosophical approaches based on reason and theological musings based on faith. But I often wonder what all the excitement is about when someone claims that the existence of God is reasonable, or probable, or some such thing. Philosophy is one of many tools that theology uses. But it’s not the linchpin.

When God revealed Himself to us, when the Word became Flesh and dwelt among us, the possibility of genuine relationship with God emerged. Prior to this deliberate revelation, our knowledge of God was impersonal and about as interesting as chewing chalk. That our reason can arrive at aspects of God is not surprising. That we can know the Father through the Son . . . well, that’s the most startling thing one could ever encounter.


Wednesday, July 03, 2002


Yesterday’s Dilbert was great. Dilbert explains to his boss that his project failed because he was forced to use a rope instead of an electronic cable. The Procurement Manager is a monkey who signed an exclusive cable contract with a rope vendor. The boss, after hearing this, says, “I’d rather not take sides until I hear the monkey’s version” (If that doesn’t seem funny, maybe you should click to the strip above). I mention this because many bloggers who have expressed an interest in the theology of Stanley Hauerwas and pacifism in general are being roundly criticized and treated as if they’d just said, “I’d rather not take sides until I hear the monkey’s version.”

It would be a bit of an understatement to say that this article about Stanley Hauerwas has caused a blogstorm. As Telford Work writes:
Stanley Hauerwas is the laughingstock of the week on many of the weblogs I frequent: Glenn Reynolds (twice), The Wall Street Journal's Best of the Web, Kathy Shaidle, Andrew Sullivan ... all because of an interview in the National Catholic Reporter.
There’s a fine line between dismissing something as nonsense and dismissing an idea that takes a putty knife to the fringes of what we’re comfortable with and scrapes under it. I’m a little surprised at some of the vitriol being spewed about Hauerwas. I’d never heard of him until the NCR article – or if I did I'd quickly forgotten it. I’ll admit he comes across about as well as Susan Sontag did in the New Yorker shortly after 9/11. Remember that gem? Here’s part of it.
Where is the acknowledgment that this was not a "cowardly" attack on "civilization" or "liberty" or "humanity" or "the free world" but an attack on the world's self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions? How many citizens are aware of the ongoing American bombing of Iraq? And if the word "cowardly" is to be used, it might be more aptly applied to those who kill from beyond the range of retaliation, high in the sky, than to those willing to die themselves in order to kill others. In the matter of courage (a morally neutral virtue): whatever may be said of the perpetrators of Tuesday's slaughter, they were not cowards.
Sontag’s statement is ludicrous. It seems it’s not worth the bits in blogland to respond to it. And yet, it was the focal point of many columns and articles and, I believe, it is the reason for Andrew Sullivan’s “Sontag Award” which he attributes to anyone who says something completely whacky. So, there is such a thing as nonsense and I think she captured it.

But the outright dismissal of Hauerwas, especially when his work has been praised by respectable and intelligent people (Sursum Corda and Telford Work to name a few), seems different. I wonder if it's the result of a certain type of idea hitting a mind that has well-worn grooves from long-held ideas? I’m thinking of something similar to Chesterton’s famous quote:
Ideas are dangerous, but the man to whom they are least dangerous is the man of ideas. He is acquainted with ideas, and moves among them like a lion-tamer. Ideas are dangerous, but the man to whom they are most dangerous is the man of no ideas. The man of no ideas will find the first idea fly to his head like wine to the head of a teetotaller. from Heretics
Only, I don’t think those vehemently denouncing Hauerwas have “no ideas” and are violently denouncing him in a drunken stupor. Rather, I wonder if their ideas, at least about certain issues, might be a bit crimped and cramped, ideas that are “well understood,” supple and comfortable in the cranium. Not because they reject Hauerwas, but because they can’t seem to calmly unpack what might be behind his statements.

Look, I’m not advocating pacifism and I’m not espousing Hauerwas. And these really aren’t the point. I’m simply trying to remind folks that the fact that something seems absurd, loopy, or ludicrous is not automatic grounds for dismissal unless it’s an answer on your Logic 101 quiz. I’m simply trying to remind folks that if you think God has indeed revealed Himself to us, if you believe the Word became Flesh and dwelt among us, the character of that revelation is likely not going to be on our terms, terms with which we’re comfortable, terms we can handle easily. In fact, the Word of God will grate against or even contradict our naked human expectations just about every time we are touched by it: "Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted" (Luke 2:34). This does NOT mean that our every opinion will be stood on its head when we hear the Liturgy of the Word, read the bible privately, or experience a sacrament. Rather, it means that meditating on what God has revealed to us will, if we let it sink in and take hold, affect us in very unexpected ways.

No, I’m not saying “I’d rather not take sides until I hear the monkey’s version” when grappling with Hauerwas or pacifism or any other volatile issue. But I hope I’m not so bound in the vice grip of expectations that I’m blind to something, perhaps a meditation by someone on the Word, perhaps a position that I find astounding, perhaps a blog post, or article that seems absurd, all things that might contain grains or whole mountains of the Truth that sets us free. Entertain words of nonsense? I’d prefer not to. But entertain these words?:
And to another he said, "Follow me." But he replied, "(Lord,) let me go first and bury my father."
But he answered him, "Let the dead bury their dead. But you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God."
And another said, "I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say farewell to my family at home."
(To him) Jesus said, "No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God" (Luke 9:59-62)


Tuesday, July 02, 2002


Lots of comments and posting going on from this post and this one by Amy Welborn. They center on this post by Jody at Naked Writing. These issues are probably too big and cumbersome for a few comments and posts; but it’s fun to try to get a blogbyte or two in that might cause a pause in the commotion.

Chesterton wrote volumes in response to positions which water every religion down to superstition and flavor-of-the-month. Here’s what he was concerned about:
There comes an hour in the afternoon when the child is tired of 'pretending'; when he is weary of being a robber or a Red Indian. It is then that he torments the cat. There comes a time in the routine of an ordered civilisation when the man is tired at playing at mythology and pretending that a tree is a maiden or that the moon made love to a man. The effect of this staleness is the same everywhere; it is seen in all drug-taking and dram-drinking and every form of the tendency to increase the dose. Men seek stranger sins or more startling obscenities as stimulants to their jaded sense. They seek after mad oriental religions for the same reason. They try to stab their nerves to life, if it were with the knives of the priests of Baal. They are walking in their sleep and try to wake themselves up with nightmares. The Everlasting Man
The point, I think, is not that Jody’s post suggests childishness on his part, even though he himself seems to suggest that believers are childish:
Yet the superstition behind religion, the sectarianism, the blind cultural superiority, and the intractable dogma that flavors and colors this wish for certainty, isn't much different than a group of eight year olds arguing the victory of Superman vs. Hulk, Spiderman vs. Batman or Green Lantern vs. Green Lantern --- cute, but terribly frightening when they themselves come to blows.
The point, rather, is that there are indeed consequences to a) dismissing all religion as a playground for fools and b) embracing a religion like that of Jim Jones, et al. The point is that you can’t just walk away from religion but you can’t embrace all of them as well. That’s the rub. That’s why this is a difficult but important issue.


Monday, July 01, 2002


Since it’s Summer-Rerun season and things have been a bit hectic for me, I thought I’d cut and paste from a few earlier posts of mine to respond to this post by Amy Welborn and this post by Jody at Naked Writing.

Mark Twain wrote, “’Twere not best that we all think alike, it’s difference of opinion that makes for horse races.” I was reminded of this quote when I read this article in the NY Times a while back (and again after reading the discussion on Amy and Jody’s blogs above). It’s a report on an attempt to assess “the probability of the Resurrection” and it’s a sad commentary on a common misunderstanding of faith:
In plain English, this means that, by Mr. Swinburne's calculations, the probability of the Resurrection comes out to be a whopping 97 percent.

While his highly technical lectures may not net Christianity many fresh converts, Mr. Swinburne's efforts to bring inductive logic to bear on questions of faith have earned him a considerable reputation in the small but vibrant world of Christian academic philosophy. Thanks to the efforts of Mr. Swinburne and a handful of other nimble scholarly minds - including Alvin Plantinga at the University of Notre Dame and Nicholas Wolterstorff at Yale - religious belief no longer languishes in a state of
philosophical disrepute.
Is it just me or is there a lack of plain ol’ horse sense causing this misconception about the mechanics of faith?

Reducing the event of the Resurrection to probability is akin to reducing it to a wager or bet. But anyone who does this either:
a) simply doesn’t understand the nature of a historical event
b) equivocates when using the word “Resurrection”
c) conflates reason and faith
d) commits all of the above
One “believes” in the Resurrection because the event is not simply historical, like Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon, but because it is a historical event upon which Creation hinges. Such an event is impervious to reason because:
1) we can’t be there ourselves to witness it
2) we can’t gather evidence about it empirically (e.g. an attempt to find the bones of the historical figure Jesus Christ)
On the contrary, we “believe” because this is the only mechanism by which we can have knowledge of the event. And by “believe” I simply mean “a participation in the knowledge of a knower,” to use Josef Pieper’s phrase.

With the Resurrection, the first “knowers” are those who knew Christ and testified to his words, actions, and eventual resurrection from the dead. If we could “know” as these followers of Christ “knew,” we wouldn’t need to “believe” because we would have the more certain knowledge of seeing and hearing the Word Made Flesh in the flesh (albeit without the Grace of the Holy Spirit as promised at Pentecost). Hence, the famous remark by Aquinas that “Other things being equal, seeing is more certain than hearing.”

To believe in the Resurrection is an eminently reasonable thing to do, not because it is reason exercising its powers to investigate the event, but because it is reason understanding the dynamics of such an event and concluding that we can only come to know it by believing the testimony of another and “participating in the knowledge of a knower.” In fact, as Pieper again points out, “the credibility of the witness whom we believe cannot also be the subject of belief; this is where real knowledge is required . . . if everything is said to be belief, then belief has been eliminated.”

What this all boils down to is not a wager or bet, but knowledge of the credibility of witnesses and assent to the content of their testimony. Thus, Aquinas writes
Now, whoever believes, assents to someone's words; so that, in every form of belief, the person to whose words assent is given seems to hold the chief place and to be the end as it were; while the things by holding which one assents to that person hold a secondary place. Consequently he that holds the Christian faith aright assents, by his will, to Christ, in those things which truly belong to His doctrine.
This gets tricky and it’s hard to keep it brief; but it’s an important point and it’s a common misunderstanding of the Catholic tradition on faith. I’m using the words “belief” and “faith” in this way: thinking is to reason as believing is to faith. When I say I “believe” something, I don’t mean to suggest an opinion or a hunch based on probability. I know folks use the word that way but that’s not how I’m using it and it’s not how it’s used in the Catholic tradition (and that’s why the notion of “the probability of the Resurrection” in the above article is silly and why Jody’s “My invisible sky god is real and yours is just made up. Nah, nah" comment misses the point). Rather, as I said above, one way to describe “belief” is that it’s a “participation in the knowledge of a knower.” The “knower” is important. “Belief” as I’m using it here requires that there be a “knower.” As Newman puts it, “faith, then, must necessarily be resolvable at last into sight and reason; unless, indeed, we agree with enthusiasts.”

Again, you can think that’s not what “belief” means, but that’s how I’m using it here (and I think that is a nice way to put it with regard to the Tradition). Now obviously if I can know what the “knower” in the definition above knows, then I would not have to “believe,” not have to “participate in the knowledge of that knower.” I’d know it myself through sight and reason. Belief would not be required. Faith would not be in the picture. But if the knower knows something that I don’t have access to, and I would like to share in that knowledge, then I’m going to have to do something to “participate in the knowledge of the knower.” And this can only happen when the knower reveals his or her knowledge to me.

Notice, again, that if I could know what the other person knows myself, through sight and reason, then I wouldn’t require that person’s “revelation” to me of what they know. In fact, the dynamic of faith only makes sense when there are certain truths which are hidden from us in such a way that we could never know them apart from “participating in the knowledge of a knower” for whom such truths are not hidden.

The trivial but useful example I like is that of someone’s name or birthday. If you met a complete stranger who had no identification and there was no one around who knew him, you could never know his name unless he told you. Your own birthday is something you would never have known without someone initially revealing it to you. These are shallow examples, but the dynamic is the same with both profane and sacred truths. There are some truths that remain hidden unless revealed. This is especially evident when we speak of things which are hidden between persons. Our knowledge of the interior life of others is solely contingent upon their decision to reveal themselves to us.

So, how does this touch on religious faith? The key is the “knower” in the phrase “participate in the knowledge of a knower.” Regarding the Catholic Faith, the first “knower” was the Word Incarnate: Jesus had to know who the Father is, else his revelation of Him to the apostles would not be possible. The apostles had to know who Jesus Christ was, in order to believe what He revealed of the Father. And the community of believers nearly two millennia later must know that the succession of witnesses from the apostles on down has an integrity to it. We as believers are participating in the knowledge the Son revealed of the Father to those He “dwelt among” by knowing the testimony of the apostles and the believing communities (hence Councils, etc.) that has persisted through history.

Belief permits us to participate in the knowledge of another person. Belief, therefore, is intimately connected with our ability to recognize another person, to judge his or her integrity, because the credibility of the person is prior to the content of what he or she reveals to us. In this sense too, believing is not a shot in the dark, a wager, or a bet, but, perhaps ironically, a very reasonable thing to do.


Friday, June 28, 2002


Here’s (link via Relapsed Catholic) an interesting article on Flannery O’Connor. The author explains:
My own approach to questions of O’Connor’s religious faith and its influence on her writing attempts a kind of mediation between the bodies of religious and secular criticism that have accumulated in response to her work. The danger of any straightforward religious reading lies in its tendency to reduce O’Connor’s literature to a mere cipher for Christian dogma, at the expense of any other pertinent insight. Secular criticism likewise flirts with the danger of cutting itself off from the religious presence that clearly must be kept in mind when considering a writer with O’Connor’s background.
Even if you don’t quite agree with some of the points, the essay contains enough quotes and anecdotes to make it worth reading.




What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason!
how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how
express and admirable! in action how like an angel!
in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the
world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me,
what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not
me . . . .Hamlet 2.2
I didn’t want to add another post to the blog buzz around the therapeutic cloning issue, but I just noticed this link on InstaPundit. I’ve been especially struck with the breezy treatment that defining a human being often gets in the recent cloning debates. Notice Ronald Bailey’s (from the above link) definition of a human being:
But what makes us human are our brains from which our hopes, our plans, our moral choices and our consciousnesses arise. Blastocysts do not have nerve cells much less brains. Also ponder the fact that perhaps half of all blastocysts produced via conventional conception fail to implant in a womb and we do not consider them to be children to be either medically rescued or mourned.
Now, forget about his attempt to lump abortive contraception (e.g. IUDs), which he calls “conventional contraception,” in with all contraception, and focus on his notion of a human being. He claims that it’s “our brains from which our hopes, our plans, our moral choices and our consciousnesses arise” (boy that word “consciousnesses” looks funny, but that’s the plural – say it fast three times!). And this, of course, is pure materialism which, no matter how you slice it, will always come up short in describing the human being.

There are lots of ways to rebut this and a post in a little ol’ blog is probably not the best place to attempt it thoroughly. Aquinas, following Aristotle, writes
The human soul is said to be on the horizon and boundry line between things corporeal and incorporeal, inasmuch as it is an incorporeal substance and at the same time the form of a body.SCG 2.68
It’s the fact that the substantial form of the human being, that which makes us “human” rather than “horse” or “geranium” or “granite,” is an incorporeal substance, a thing that can exist without requiring a body, that makes all the difference. In another place, Aquinas counters the materialist notion that the soul does not survive the corruption of the body (remember that some materialists admit the existence of a “soul” as the principle of life; what they resist is that anything might “subsist” after the living thing dies) by stating:
Therefore the intellectual principle which we call the mind or the intellect has an operation "per se" apart from the body. Now only that which subsists can have an operation "per se." . . . We must conclude, therefore, that the human soul, which is called the intellect or the mind, is something incorporeal and subsistent.ST 1.75.2
Human understanding per se is an operation that does not require a body – however, a body is required if we want to have something to think about, i.e. “grist for the mill,” which is provided by the senses.

The challenge then to those who define a human being in materialistic terms (e.g. to be a human being you have to have ____ cells, or _____ neurons, or _____ organs, etc.) is simply that you can never determine when the human soul, the subsistent incorporeal form, is present at the extremes of human life. The Catholic Church, informed by faith, teaches that the human soul is present at conception since it holds that a human being is present at conception; and you can’t be a human being unless you have a human soul. And I think you can even propose a pretty good philosophical argument, an argument solely based on principles of reason, that the human soul is present at conception – yes, I know that Aquinas claimed that it wasn’t present until “quickening,” the first discernible movement of the fetus, but he didn’t know about organizing principles like DNA which are present from conception.; and something has to organize the organizing principles of life and that is what we call the soul, the first principle of life. But the cleverness and subtlety of such arguments really aren’t the point.

The point is that no one can say for certain that the human soul is not present at conception and therefore no one should be acting in a manner that assumes such certitude. The glibness with which some of the “pro-cloning” folks treat the definition of a human being is irrational. It is against reason. If one cannot be certain that a human being is not present where it might be, e.g. a blastocyst, then one cannot act as if there were no doubt involved in the rightness of any action which destroys a potential human being. And notice I say “where it might be” in the previous statement. No one is suggesting that an unfertilized egg is a human being. Why? Because we understand that unfertilized eggs don’t suddenly start dividing and developing into a human being. Only fertilized (the old fashioned way or by artificial means as in parthenogenesis or transplanting the nucleus) eggs are potentially, if not already, human beings.

I sometimes wonder if those who are so cavalier about handling fertilized human eggs are thinking to themselves, “And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not me.”


Thursday, June 27, 2002


Veni Sancte Spiritus is getting serious about Nihil Obstat’s proofreading. Nihil Obstat mentions Fair Use law. Tensions mount.

Me? I don’t think I’ve made it into a Nihil Obstat post yet. But Minute Particulars has always had the policy: Any Traffic Is Good Traffic. In fact, just for fun, I like to purposely split infinitives, in slip a solecism, and makes an agreement error in my posts just to see if Nihil Obstat will bite at the flashing ungrammatical lure. If everyone made this claim, Nihil Obstat would be out of business and my little ploy wouldn’t work. So I’m happy to see that folks are still getting bent out of shape by the nefarious Nihil Obstat.




Old Oligarch’s cranked up the posting. Here’s a beauty about the pandas at the National Zoo.
I've got a better idea. Why not shove a rocket up the hindquarters of Tian Tian and Mei Xiang and blow them up for the 4th of July? A triple independence day: From Britain, from China, and from ridiculous American obsessions.


Wednesday, June 26, 2002


GKC’s Blog has some thoughts about the importance of juries. A timely post in light of the recent Supreme Court decision.




Old Oligarch’s got an interesting review of the book In the Gravest Extreme: The Role of the Firearm in Personal Defense. Old Oli explains that the book was
Recommended by a buddy of mine who's a Federal Agent on our most recent afternoon out shooting. It's an all-around beginner's introduction to the legal, moral and tactical issues surrounding handgun ownership.
If you’re like me and don’t have something like this on your nightstand you might be surprised by the topics covered in the book. For example, Oli points out the following:
One sad observation Ayoob [the author] has seen time and again comes from men who shot armed house robbers in defense of their family: 1) The men weren't prepared to face the existential realization that they've just killed a man, and 2) The man expects the wife and children to be proud of him, but often, they are estranged from the father of the family because they have just seen him take a human life, even a guilty one in their own defense. Hollywood, Ayoob maintains, is guilty of creating many such false myths about the ease of gun use and its consequences, causing a blindness to gravity of death, and an image of glamorized cowboy-style armed conflicts.
How refreshing to find that in a firearm personal defense book. I know many intelligent, reasonable people who own handguns and I guess it’s nice to see intelligent, reasonable discussion about them.


Monday, June 24, 2002


I wouldn’t lump Steven Den Beste’s latest discussion on the Church in with the stack of recent articles that I’ve claimed have the sophistication you might find in a high school paper. He’s clearly intelligent, insightful, and very much engaged in the issues of the day. And the fact that he can write coherently and persuasively on so many topics speaks for itself. But, as I pointed out here, Steven tends to underestimate the nuances and wisdom of the Catholic Tradition. Dave Trowbridge has a nice response to Steven’s question, “How can the Church perform its function when it has been so thoroughly marinated in sin?” (Dave’s also got a nice post on “the depth, variety, and subtlety of the Christian intellectual tradition” that’s worth reading). Here’s how I would respond to the “marinated-in-sin” objection:

There’s a classic homily joke that goes something like this: A guy tells his wife he’s going to Mass and then ends up at the local pub. This goes on for a few weeks and she gets suspicious so she decides to quiz him one Sunday upon his return.
She asks, “What was the homily about?"
He answers, “Sin.”
“What did the priest say about it?”
He pauses, and then grumbles, “He was against it.”
Anyway, surely everyone is against sin. And it would seem on the surface that “a Church marinated in sin” must have something wrong with it. But here’s the interesting aspect of sin that often gets missed: sin is not inevitable, yet everyone sins. If you grasp that seeming paradox, you’ll grasp why a Church marinated in sin is not contradictory. Sin occurs because we have free will and in our daily existence we lack a certain consonance between our longing for God and our actions. Sin is “tolerated” because we all sin, not because it is something petty or of little significance. In fact, grave sin is considered a turning away from God that is quite perilous. The Church is thoroughly marinated in sin because it’s been thoroughly handed over to sinners, to the community of believers who, with the Grace of the Holy Spirit, strive to protect, preserve, and cherish it. As Dave points out, the efficacy of the Sacraments is unaffected by the sinfulness of a priest, bishop, or pope. Are sinful priests or bishops or popes a good thing? Of course not. Should priests and bishops be prosecuted if they violate the law? Of course.

Well, then what about Den Beste’s question about how a bishop can continue to serve “when he's under indictment for obstruction of justice”? There’s a simple answer: the service of a bishop, the office of a bishop, and the grace conferred at his ordination are not bound by human law (law legislated by a human community). Is the priest or bishop himself bound by human law? Absolutely. But the office and grace conferred on the ordained to minister the Sacraments are not bound by the law. This is why the Seal of Confession is not affected by any human law. Now obviously, as Den Beste suggests, if priests and bishops are thrown in jail it will have some effect. But the effect will simply be the physical removal of the priest or bishop, not the removal of the power of his office.

What is significant about the Church is not that it’s marinating in sin, but that the sinful marinade never penetrates the core of the Church, the Sacraments, the Scriptures, and the Tradition handed on over the centuries. And at the center of the believing community is the Eucharist, the words and actions of one who was like us in all things except sin.




on about this recent Supreme Court decision in the comments section of this post over at In Between Naps.


Sunday, June 23, 2002



Saturday, June 22, 2002


Though, as I pointed out here, I'm not very impressed with Neil's command of the language.


Friday, June 21, 2002


Sometimes there’s simply no choice but to break out your best material
A mere eight days into United Methodist Church's summer Bible school, youth pastor John Dearden, 49, was forced to break out his trademark "Hell Is Not Disneyland" speech Monday, outlining the differences between eternal damnation and the popular Anaheim, CA, theme park.
I wonder if we’ll start seeing this on blogs: “Well, I had to repost the ol’ _________ screed for the fifth time.” Or, “It made me want to repost my trademark ____________ rant just to get his attention.”


Thursday, June 20, 2002


This article (link via The Drudge Report) is a little unsettling.
An asteroid the size of a soccer field narrowly missed the Earth by 75,000 miles (120,000 kms) last week, in the closest known approach by objects of this size in decades, scientists said Thursday.
The best line is from “Grant Stokes, the principal investigator for the Lincoln Laboratory Near Earth Asteroid Research Project, whose New Mexico observatory spotted the object.” According to Stokes,
Asteroids of that size are estimated to hit the Earth every 100 to several hundred years, causing local damage, but no disaster to civilization or the planet's ecosystem . . . . Civilization has to get used to them on some level.
Get used to them?

If you want to see just how close this thing came to Earth, take a look at this diagram (link via InstaPundit).




Aristotle’s concern that “A small mistake in the beginning becomes a large mistake in the end” would be a nice rebuttal to Mary Eberstadt’s long article “The Elephant in the Sacristy” (I know, I’m a little late to the party on this). Perhaps a better title would have been “The Mouse in the Elephant Costume in the Sacristy.” If you give her the initial small points she wants, she’ll then succeed in beating you over the head and shoulders with point after larger point after larger point to shore up her position. Care to see what happens when you let a mouse impersonate an elephant in the sacristy? Check this (via InstaPundit) out:
I would go further than Ms. Eberstadt or Ms. Welborn; I think this scandal is grounded in the essentials of Catholic doctrines about sex, sin, guilt, and authority. This is not an accidental corruption of the church, any more than Stalin was an accidental corruption of Communism. Bad moral ideas have consequences, and those consequences can be seen most clearly in the human monsters who are both created by those ideas and exploiters of them. There is a causal chain that connects loathsome creatures like the "Reverend" Paul Shanley directly back to the authoritarianism and anti-sexuality of St. Augustine; a chain well-analyzed by psychologists such as Stanley Milgram and Wilhelm Reich. I suggest that any religion that makes obedience to authority a primary virtue and pathologizes sex will produce abuses like these as surely as rot breeds maggots.
I’ll assume Armed and Dangerous is, well, just that, and so I’ll refrain from pointing out the many fallacies of reason and unsubstantiated premises in this statement. I’ll just say that this is a perfect example of where Eberstadt’s thinking will lead you.

So, let’s look at her position:
In what follows, therefore, I propose that we tunnel down through the diverting abstractions in which the debate has been shrouded, and then reason back upward from the level of simple fact. For in focusing precisely on the uncontested facts of cases, we do learn something potentially useful not only to the bishops as they hammer out policies for the future, but also to the victims, and possibly even the perpetrators, of this evil. In order to get there, however, we must be able to call the elephant by its name. The real problem facing the American Catholic church is that a great many boys have been seduced or forced into homosexual acts by certain priests; that these offenders appear to have been disproportionately represented in certain seminaries; and that their case histories open questions about sexuality that--verboten though they may have become--demand to be reexamined.
Please note that I’m not questioning Church Teaching on sexuality. I think, pace A & D, that the wisdom of the Tradition and Teaching on human sexuality is simply unsurpassed. Rather, I’m questioning the use of statistics in predicting human behavior. I’m questioning the stark lines drawn up when categorizing human beings and the unflinching tendency to draw conclusions from these categories. As I pointed out in my earlier post, sexual abuse of children, adolescents, and adults is a great evil that “is by every standard wrong and rightly considered a crime by society; it is also an appalling sin in the eyes of God.*” It is the result of the ability of every human being to sin, to commit evil, to harm another person. It’s a failure of chastity and a deep inability to recognize the dignity of another person. My objection to statistics and sociological studies of certain “types” of people, of claims that a certain “group” is responsible for what seems to be a trend, is that this trivializes the evil and individual culpability of the perpetrators at the core of the Church sexual abuse scandal. Such labeling and accusations create lifeless abstractions, demean the innocent, and absolve the guilty.

Twain’s famous “lies, damned lies, and statistics” used to point out the fallacy of leaning too heavily on statistics. But I think it’s lost much of its sting. Perhaps folks will soon be saying “some of my best friends are fill in whatever fits here” and no one will do a double take. I’m tempted to put a link to a Statistics 101 site on this blog so that I can just stick the link in a post, point the reader to it for a refresher, and then continue with my point. And my point here is that the bedrock rule of statistics, that correlation does NOT imply causation, still applies these days.

The Church’s current crisis started with individual acts of sexual abuse. How were these acts possible? Well, how is any evil act possible? Do some people have a proclivity toward sexual abuse? Sure. Can we identify these people ahead of time if they are not sexually abusive? No. Unless we want to attribute sexual abuse to some bio-chemical mechanism in the brain that eliminates free will and therefore all personal culpability, there is no behavior short of actual sexual abuse that will tip us off that a priest might sexually abuse a child, adolescent, or adult. If you claim homosexual behavior qualifies as an indicator of potential sexual abuse, then you’ll need to:
1) explain what homosexual behavior is
2) explain how it is equivalent to sexual abuse
The first, unless you’re privy to what is typically fairly private activity, will likely end up as a mishmash of speculation. And notice in the second, that I’m suggesting the activity would have to be equivalent to sexual abuse. Why? Well, if it’s not actual sexual abuse then it can, at best, only be behavior correlative to sexual abuse and any attempts to attribute causality will fail. It’s probably clear that I doubt explanations about these two points will ever achieve a level of moral certitude.

Eberstadt is not attempting to identify those who have committed sexual abuse – that’s obviously a matter for the police and I’m all for prosecuting those responsible. Rather, she’s attempting to identify a “type” of person or a “group” of people who have the propensity to commit sexual abuse. And I’m afraid that the free will of every human being dooms that attempt to failure.




It is the private life that holds out the mirror to infinity; personal intercourse, and that alone, that ever hints at a personality beyond our daily vision.

   ~~~ E.M. Forster, Howard’s End



”riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay”

This (link via Anne Wilson via Bookslut) is a very funny account of an attempt to tackle Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.
So there I was in a North Vancouver coffee shop, with my laptop and the Penguin. Jacked up on two Americanos and ready for anything the author could throw at me, I cracked open Joyce's cryptobrick.

"riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs."
Not bad for an opening sentence, with the river's flow mirrored in the structure of the sentence itself. I could tell that even without knowing what a "vicus" is. But I'm afraid it was downhill from there:

"Sir Tristram, violer d'amores, fr'over the short sea, had passen- core rearrived from North Armorica on this side the scraggy isthmus of Europe Minor to wielderfight his penisolate war: nor had topsawyer's rocks by the stream Oconee exaggerated themselse to Laurens County's gorgios while they went doublin their mumper all the time . . ."

And that's only halfway through the sentence. As I flipped through the book, I could see little in the way of anything my understanding could light upon. It was Greek to me, literally: Joyce apparently incorporated something like 40 languages in his multilingual puns. I didn't need CliffsNotes for FW -- I needed simultaneous translation from the UN.
I’ve not read FW and don’t think I’ll ever attempt it unless I enroll in some college extension course on Joyce. There’s a point of diminishing returns with these kinds of works where the insight and pleasure you might get once you’ve grasped the meaning is not commensurate to the energy required to decipher them.

Wednesday, June 19, 2002


Amy Welborn found this comment on the tragic death of a 21-month-old girl. Probably everyone wants this unbearable story to go away. I know I do and I know that’s not the best reaction. But I just can’t imagine a more horrific scene than
On May 29, the 13th and youngest Kelly child, 21-month-old Frances, waited strapped in her car seat inside the stifling family van for seven hours as other Kellys did chores and apparently never asked where she was or whether she might need food or a diaper change.
So I wrestled with even posting anything on it and now I wonder if my commenting on a comment about it is appropriate. The point of this recent article is that the coverage of this story has been skewed by the fact that the Kellys are Catholic and belong to “a mainstream conservative parish.”
After years of reading opinion pieces in The Washington Times, I believe that if the situation involved a single African-American mom in the District of Columbia with even six kids (let alone 13) who'd lost track of one, there'd be a call for forced sterilization and demands that Social Services take her children away. You can't convince me that the connection to a mainstream conservative parish doesn't affect the coverage to some degree.
I wonder, though, if the timing of this article and raising the issue of the Kelly’s religion isn’t the equivalent of “playing the race card”? I think there probably has been bias in the coverage of this story. And it seems the media might have dug in a bit more if the Kellys belonged to a cult or some obscure religion.

But isn’t the image of a 21-month-old toddler strapped in a seat and dying from heat and suffocation kind of off-limits for political commentary? Isn’t this a case of an unbelievably tragic set of circumstances that had consequences that no one involved could have ever intended? The Kelly's religion, politics, race, class and so on have nothing whatsoever to do with this terribly, terribly sad story. To bring it up now strikes me as inappropriate and opportunistic. That the media have backed off from this story and the devastated family is probably a great blessing. That someone feels this incident is a good springboard for diving into the issue of media bias and objectivity is unfortunate.




I have to say that USS Clueless swerves into some great topics. There’s a breadth to the posts that is quite impressive. Still, I think he sometimes underestimates the depth and nuance of arguments in the Christian, or perhaps I should just say Catholic, Tradition. This recent post ( link via Mark Butterworth , also see Louder Fenn and Lane Core who offers this link ) discusses what is impossible for God. As the captain of USS Clueless explains, “Tonight I'm going to explain Russell's Paradox and show how it can be used to prove that there are limits on the capability of God.” I think I followed the argument and I know I found it kind of interesting. Here’s a taste of the final assertion:
Define the universe set V to be all actions. Within that we define two subsets G representing all the actions God is capable of, and G' representing all actions God is not capable of. (G' is defined as being everything which is in V which is not in G.) The hypothesis is that G' is empty, because God is omnipotent and thus is capable of doing everything. (Thus the hypothesis is that G is equal to V.) There is no act that God cannot do, and therefore G' is the null set.
Let us define act A to be identify a member of G'. A is an action and therefore a member of V, so which subset is it a member of? In other words, can God identify an act that God cannot accomplish?
If A is a member of G, which means that God is capable of doing A, then it means that God can identify a member of G', and thus we know that G' is not empty (even though we may not know what it contains).
But if God cannot do A, then A is itself a member of G' (by the definition of G' as the set of all acts that God cannot accomplish), and G' is still not empty because it must contain A. Either way, G' cannot be empty, and thus we have proved that there must be something God cannot do.
Huh? Okay, I’ll admit you have to slow down from your normal blog reading speed to follow. Anyway, perhaps I’m just a bit too sensitive about these things, but if you go read the whole post there’s a tone of discovery to the assertion that “there must be something God cannot do” that connotes a typical misunderstanding of traditional notions about God. The misunderstanding goes something like this:
God is omnipotent
Yet God can’t do _________.
So something has to give.
But these kinds of statements lack any real metaphysical depth. And, as I said above, I think such remarks derive from underestimating the sophistication and wisdom of traditional philosophical and theological thinking. Let me try to explain with a distinction Thomas Aquinas makes.

Early on in his Summa of Theology ST I, 14, 9 he asks whether God can have knowledge of things which do not exist. To answer this question, Aquinas proposes that things can be divided into actual beings and possible beings. Actual beings are those beings which now exist, i.e. all of Creation. Possible beings are beings which do not now exist except in God’s mind. There are possible beings which do not exist now, but existed in the past or will exist in the future. An animal that has died and one not yet born, or, in light of evolution theory, an extinct animal and one not yet evolved, are examples of this kind of possible being. But there are also possible beings which do not exist now, never existed in the past, and will not exist in the future. And so, all things which can exist, all possible beings, do not necessarily exist.

Just as the will of the artist determines which possible artifact he or she will make, so too the will of the Creator determines which possible being will exist at some time and which will never exist at any time. In Aquinas’s terminology, what distinguishes this first kind of possible being from the second is the power and will of God. The Creator is infinitely powerful and therefore can create anything which is conceivable in the divine mind. God is the only being whose essence is being (that should be read BE-ing) and for whom “to know” is “to be.” God knows all things through the divine essence, and all possible beings are contained in the essence of God.

It is the will of God which finally determines the existence or non-existence of a possible being. The will of God determines whether something was, is, or will be; it is not an intrinsic principle in the thing itself which determines that it will at some time be actual. But, and here’s my point with regard to USS Clueless, an intrinsic principle may determine that something can’t exist; for example, a square circle does not exist because it is not a possible being, it is intrinsically contradictory and the mind of the Creator cannot conceive of something that is not intrinsically possible. Now, before you say “Aha!” remember that saying something is not intrinsically possible is simply restating the principle that something can’t be and not be at the same time and in the same respect. It has nothing to do with power or will and everything to do with BE-ing. God can’t be and not be at the same time since God’s essence is “to be” or BE-ing. So too, God can’t do anything that requires that something be (square) and not be (not square) at the same time. And really, saying “square circle” is a sort of rhetorical technique to give the argument some momentum. The truth of the matter is that we’re not really saying anything and aren’t really conceiving of something that’s impossible when we utter “square circle” since that too would require that something both be and not be at the same time in the same respect. You can’t have an idea of square and not have an idea of square at the same time.

So, asking whether God can make a rock He can’t lift is as nonsensical as asking whether God can make a square circle. So too, stating that there are some things that God can’t do is nonsensical (you’ll note I said God can't “conceive of something that is not intrinsically possible” and other like phrases above, but that was to keep the argument moving along; such statements are as nonsensical as “square circle”). Why? Well, such a statement implies that you can conceive of something that God cannot conceive of, which is nonsense. If it’s conceivable in any mind, divine of human, God could create it and that’s why He is omnipotent. When folks say God can’t do ___________, press them a little and you’ll see that the ___________ they’re proposing is nonsensical like “square circle” (that or it’s conceivable and thus God could do it and the statement would be false).




File13's Amish Tech Support (link via Dave Trowbridge) reports on a sobering experiment he performed with some scissors and his high school yearbook.

UPDATE: It occurred to me that this story is a nice antidote to Eric Hoffer's disturbing statement, "How frighteningly few are the persons whose death would spoil our appetite and make the world seem empty." Anything we can do to bring news of human suffering and death a bit closer, anything that makes us pause or say a prayer for the loss of those we don't know, is probably a very good thing to do.


Tuesday, June 18, 2002


This article in last Sunday's NY Times simply adds to the pile of articles on the Church that you’d only expect to find in a high school paper. Here's the clincher:
Ultimately the church's leaders decided they had to become followers of public opinion in the hopes of regaining their credibility as leaders — a situation attested to by some bishops in their remarks from the floor and in interviews. They took this route because they felt they had no choice. They took it because it was good public relations, and they had spent untold thousands on public relations consultants who were working both behind the scenes and quite publicly at the Dallas conference. They also took it because they wanted their prophetic voice back.
As I’ve said before, most of the folks in mainstream media who write on the Catholic Church simply don’t have even a basic understanding of the Catholic Faith in order to place things in context. I don't understand why the NY Times continues to assign unqualified journalists to these kinds of stories. I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say that a journalist reporting on the Church ought to at least be a believing Catholic, but there is an aspect to the Church that is inaccessible to an unbeliever. This is not because there exists some esoteric nook of knowledge only open to the initiated – the Church isn’t a frat house after all. Rather, it’s because the experience of a believer can’t be shared with an unbeliever. You can’t try on the Catholic Faith to see what it’s like. You either believe or you don’t. And a believer would have a sense of context, a sense of the faith, that would reveal the silliness of comments like “the church's leaders decided they had to become followers of public opinion in the hopes of regaining their credibility as leaders.”

Steve Mattson (link via Amy Welborn) has a nice response to this article. I would want to emphasize, however, that the notion of the sensus fidei is just that, the judgment, perception, or understanding of the faith (“sense” as a translation of “sensus” works, but it can connote “opinion” more than “judgment”) by believers. As Lumen Gentium points out:
The holy People of God shares also in Christ's prophetic office: it spreads abroad a living witness to him, especially by a life of faith and love and by offering to God a sacrifice of praise, the fruit of lips praising his name (cf. Heb. 13:15). The whole body of the faithful who have an anointing that comes from the holy one (cf. 1 Jn. 2:20 and 27) cannot err in matters of belief. This characteristic is shown in the supernatural appreciation of the faith (sensus fidei) of the whole people, when, "from the bishops to the last of the faithful"[8] they manifest a universal consent in matters of faith and morals. By this appreciation of the faith, aroused and sustained by the Spirit of truth, the People of God, guided by the sacred teaching authority (magisterium), and obeying it, receives not the mere word of men, but truly the word of God (cf. 1 Th. 2:13), the faith once for all delivered to the saints (cf. Jude 3). The People unfailingly adheres to this faith, penetrates it more deeply with right judgment, and applies it more fully in daily life.
Notice that sensus fidei assumes believers, people who live a life of faith. This fact is missing in the above account of how “the church's leaders decided they had to become followers of public opinion.” This notion of “public opinion” is not the “the supernatural appreciation of the faith (sensus fidei),” but rather the opinion of anyone anywhere. While public opinion has its place, one place it’s fairly meaningless is as an indicator of a “universal consent in matters of faith and morals.”


Sunday, June 16, 2002


Is it the rhinoceros who charges when you move? Anyway, I guess I’m a bit anxious about pointing out an error on Nihil Obstat, the self-appointed St. Blog’s proofreader, since I don’t want to draw his or her attention to Minute Particulars and find my posts impaled on the rhino’s grammatical horn. Maybe if I just move slowly . . .

“Nihil Obstat” mentions the following:
Lah Skool Grammer Lessun
The aspiring lawyer at Joshua Claybourn's Domain defends himself against charges that he's "young and has a 'gee whiz', 'swell' tone to his praise."
"News flash: those younger than I have led nations, ..."
True. They also have used the word me when called for.
Hmm, it seems to me that “than I” in the above sentence is perfectly fine. In fact, using “than me” as “Nihil Obstat” suggests would be considered wrong in many usage guides. As one usage guide comments:
It depends on how you feel about that word "than." Most writers will say that it is introducing a clause (with an understood verb), as in ". . . less privileged than I [am]." Some folks argue that the word than ought to be regarded as a preposition (like "like") and that the word that follows can be in the object form, "me" in this case. Personally, I think you're better off spelling out the clause: "I want to help those less privileged than I am." Without the verb, the "I" sounds stuffy, and too many people would regard the "me" as just plain wrong.
Apparently “Nihil Obstat” is not one of the “too many people” who regard “than me” in the above sentence as just plain wrong. Maybe the confusion is from the following two possible sentences:
“He likes proofreading more than I.” (He likes proofreading more than I do)
“He likes proofreading more than me.” (He likes proofreading more than he likes me)
Anyway, with “Nihil Obstat” stomping on solecisms and publicizing the offending posts, I guess I’m going to have to start getting an Imprimatur from my wife whose editing skills are unsurpassed before I post anything.