Minute Particulars

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

Friday, March 28, 2003


Here's a comforting review; a two-dollar bottle of wine comes in last place:
It's got big buzz, super-sized sales figures and a puny price tag.

But how does "Two-Buck Chuck" really taste compared to other inexpensive wines? And would serious wine drinkers be able to tell it apart from the others?

We put Charles Shaw chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon to the test in a blind tasting of some of the biggest names in low-priced wines, from $4.99 to $15.99. Nicknamed for its $1.99 price in California (it sells for $2.99 in Oregon), Two-Buck Chuck can hardly be kept on the shelves at Trader Joe's, where it's carried exclusively. And though a case can cost less than one bottle of premium Oregon pinot noir, do you really want to drink it?

No, according to our five-member panel of wine experts, whose combined ratings placed its cabernet dead last in our tasting; the chardonnay tied with two other wines for last place.
I'm happy that my reaction that it tasted like it had been run through a used sock was not just snobbery. Why did I buy a bottle of Two-Buck Chuck? Actually, I was just grabbing some cheap cooking wine and thought I'd give it a taste.


Thursday, March 27, 2003


Flos Carmeli and Disputations have interesting posts and comments that touch on the reason for and use of Scripture. The discussion prompted me to look again at Dei Verbum where you'll find this wonderful phrase from St. Augustine:
Therefore, following in the footsteps of the Council of Trent and of the First Vatican Council, this present council wishes to set forth authentic doctrine on divine revelation and how it is handed on, so that by hearing the message of salvation the whole world may believe, by believing it may hope, and by hoping it may love.


Tuesday, March 25, 2003


Peacemaking and the Use of Force: Behind the Pope's Stringent Just-War Teaching (via Amy Welborn) is an interesting article written nearly four years ago that shows the fairly clear lines of concern Pope John Paul II has had from very early in his pontificate. Here's a small bit, but you should read the whole article:
Finally, Centesimus Annus, with echoes of earlier 20th-century popes, presents John Paul II's negative judgment about war as an instrument of policy:
No, never again war, which destroys lives of innocent people, teaches how to kill, throws into upheaval even the lives of those who do the killing and leaves behind a trail of resentment and hatred, thus making it all the more difficult to find a just solution of the very problems which provoked the war.
This passage has become almost a leitmotiv in the Vatican's response to the use of force, repeated again and again in papal statements and other Vatican declarations.

As a rule of thumb, I would suggest that here as elsewhere the Pope should be taken at his word. While the form is rhetorical, the substance is serious. The point is that the consequences of war are beyond calculation. We should consider soberly whether the use of force does, in fact, do what the Pope says. Above all, does it take the life of innocent people? Does it leave behind a trail of resentment and hatred? Does it make finding a just solution more difficult? These objections do not rule out resorting to force, especially in case of humanitarian intervention. They do imply that every effort must be taken to avoid the vastly unpredictable consequences of taking up arms.




Happy Solemnity of the Annunciation. Mary's response to the angel Gabriel provides us with a profound insight into the nature and inner workings of faith. I once heard a very smart priest compare Mary's response with Zechariah's response to the same angel. We get a glimpse of the integrity of each response from the reaction of God's messenger to each. One human's response is of deep trust, the other of wary hesitation.

The Annunciation is a richly textured description of the human assent of faith. And contrasting it to the response of Zechariah is illuminating:
[T]he angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right of the altar of incense. Zechariah was troubled by what he saw, and fear came upon him. But the angel said to him, "Do not be afraid, Zechariah, because your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall name him John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of (the) Lord. He will drink neither wine nor strong drink. He will be filled with the holy Spirit even from his mother's womb, and he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. He will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah to turn the hearts of fathers toward children and the disobedient to the understanding of the righteous, to prepare a people fit for the Lord." Then Zechariah said to the angel, "How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years." And the angel said to him in reply, "I am Gabriel, who stand before God. I was sent to speak to you and to announce to you this good news. But now you will be speechless and unable to talk until the day these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled at their proper time."
Perhaps the first question which grips a human being regarding the Revelation of God is simply, "How shall I know this is true?" It seems a natural enough question. And this is the question of Zechariah, a devout and reverent man who followed "all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord" (Lk. 1:6). When the angel Gabriel, who stands "before God," tells Zechariah that Elizabeth will bear him a son, he responds by asking "How shall I know this?" And what is the reaction of the angel to this question, a question we all would probably ask as well? Zechariah is struck dumb by the angel because he did not believe the angel's words. His question is apparently one of "unbelief" and it seems, given the angel's reaction, that such a question is inappropriate. It does seem the angel might have been a little rough on poor old Zechariah on first glance.

But I think we get a sense of just what is wrong with Zechariah's question by looking at our own response to the revelation of another person. This is an important point, for the claim of the Catholic Tradition is that if I am truly to receive the Revelation of God, in the Sacraments, the proclamation of the Word, the teachings of the Church, and so on, it will be similar to my receiving the word of someone whom I love and trust.

And so, when someone I love reveals something to me, why is it that I never ask the same question as Zechariah, "How shall I know this is true?" It seems an inappropriate thing to ask and something you really only find in soap operas or between strangers. But if it is inappropriate to ask "How shall I know this is true?" when someone reveals something to me, for example that they love me, so too, and in a far greater way (because God is infinitely more loving and trusting than we can ever be), it is inappropriate to ask "How shall I know this is true?" regarding God's Revelation.

But what would be an appropriate response? We find it in the very next section of Luke, the response of Mary:
In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin's name was Mary. And coming to her, he said, "Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you." But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. Then the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, 11 and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end." But Mary said to the angel, "How can this be (RSV has "How shall this be" which seems better given the original Greek future tense used), since I have no relations with a man?" And the angel said to her in reply, "The holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. And behold, Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren; for nothing will be impossible for God." Mary said, "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word." (Luke 1:26-38)
The same angel Gabriel visits Mary, a virgin, and tells her that she will bear a son whom she shall call Jesus. And what is Mary's response? She asks the question "How can (shall) this be?" (Lk. 1:34). There is a wide chasm between the response of Zechariah and Mary; but there is, too, as wide a gap between one I love and trust, and one I do not. Mary does not ask how she will know that this will be, but only how it will occur, how it will be. As one commentary has it:
How, &c.--not the unbelief of Zacharias, "Whereby shall I know this?" but, taking the fact for granted, "How is it to be, so contrary to the unbroken law of human birth?" Instead of reproof, therefore, her question is answered in mysterious detail.
Mary's completely faithful response to God is why the Church (CCC) holds that she is its archetype:
By her complete adherence to the Father's will, to his Son's redemptive work, and to every prompting of the Holy Spirit, the Virgin Mary is the Church's model of faith and charity.
Mary is the model of the perfect response to the Word of God:
[A]t the Annunciation Mary entrusted herself to God completely, with the "full submission of intellect and will," manifesting "the obedience of faith" to hm who spoke to her through his messenger. She responded, therefore, with all her human and feminine "I," and this response of faith included both perfect cooperation with "the grace of God that precedes and assists "a perfect openness to the action of the Holy Spirit, who "constantly brings faith to completion by his gifts." Redemptoris Mater, 13
When we consider our own response to the Revelation, it may be useful to reflect on both Zechariah's and Mary's response to Gabriel. Why is Zechariah's a question of unbelief? After all, he simply wanted to know how he could be sure that what the angel described was going to happen. And isn't this precisely the question I may be inclined to ask of God myself? Surely I know this feeling from my experience with other people. I do not trust the word of everyone whom I meet. In fact, it seems I have a rather small handful of persons in my life whom I would trust completely.

But, I do have a sense of how someone who is trustworthy will be. And I can say this not because I know their every motive and deepest felt conviction, or why they love me; clearly I do not. But I can say this because I recognize somehow that this person is trustworthy. I believe him or her.

If you think about it, in our own lives the question isn't, How do I know this is my friend? Rather, the question is, How shall my friend be? And it follows that when we consider God revealing Himself to us through the prophets, and finally through the Word made flesh, our question should be that of Mary's, an attentive response to the Truth, a response of recognition, an asking of how this will be? How will God manifest Himself in my life? How will the Truth of God touch me? How will friendship with God be?

C. S. Lewis suggests such questions in his remarkable description of deep friendship:
Are not lifelong friendships born at the moment when at last you meet another human being who has some inkling (but faint and uncertain even in the best) of that something which you were born desiring, and which, beneath the flux of other desires and in all the momentary silences between the louder passions, night and day, year by year, from childhood to old age, you are looking for, watching for, listening for? You have never had it. All the things that have ever deeply possessed your soul have been hints of it -- tantalizing glimpses, promises never quite fulfilled, echoes that died away just as they caught your ear. But if it should really become manifest -- if there ever came an echo that did not die away but swelled into the sound itself -- you would know it. Beyond all possibility of doubt you would say "Here at last is the thing I was made for.




Christianity is not simply a doctrine. First and foremost it is an event -— the manifestation of a divine act in and through human history. Revelation is an existential event in which a divine reality impinges upon human realities in an earthly, visible form. It is thus a history of salvation—God acting in history and thereby coming to us in salvation.

~~ Edward Schillebeeckx, Mary Mother of the Redemption


Friday, March 21, 2003


The task now is to work and pray and hope that war's deadly consequences will be limited, that civilian life will be protected, that weapons of mass destruction will be eliminated, and that the people of Iraq soon will enjoy a peace with freedom and justice.
~~ Most Reverend Wilton D. Gregory
The latest statement on Iraq by the USCCB is online. Be sure to click over and read the whole thing.




Flannery O'Connor tells an amusing anecdote about Henry James:
It's said that when Henry James received a manuscript that he didn't like, he would return it with the comment, "You have chosen a good subject and are treating it in a straightforward manner." This usually pleased the person getting the manuscript back, but it was the worst thing that James could think of to say, for he knew, better than anybody else, that the straightforward manner is seldom equal to the complications of the good subject.
Now, frankly, and with all due respect, it does seem to me that many of the bloggers who have disagreed with or outright dismissed the statements on Iraq from the USCCB and the pope have treated these statements "in a straightforward manner." And, in my humble opinion, I really think many of their explanations are not "equal to the complications" of the deep and long standing tradition of how Catholics are to receive official statements that are a prudential judgment on a current situation by bishops and the pope.

One glaring omission seems to be the sheer fact that the USCCB and pope have made statements about war with Iraq. If you're going to say that these bishops and the pope have overstepped their authority and competence, then you're faced with the fact that their own understanding of their authority and competence did not prevent them from making the statements. That, of course, doesn't necessarily mean they in fact do have the necessary authority and competence, but it ought to make one pause a bit. After all, how else does the Church determine what it does and does not have authority and competence about if not from bishops and the pope? But there's a more jarring problem with many of the explanations I've read.

Ham-fistedly separating prudential judgments from the rest of Church Teaching, or limiting the scope of such judgments to liturgy, governance, and directives to prayer, penance, and fasting, does two things:
1) it whittles the prudential judgments by bishops and the pope down to slivers of opinion that are basically personal and subjective.
2) it empties the very principles that are being applied in the prudential judgment of any real significance and clips them out of their context as principles that are designed to be applied to the world.
There's a kind of chicken or egg dynamic here. Church Teaching doesn't arise in a vacuum. In large part, it's the result of concrete, particular situations rearing up and demanding resolution. Flip through any history of Early Christianity and you'll see nearly every article of faith challenged by particular individuals with particular notions. There is an integral relationship between doctrine and its application that is not a one-way shot in the dark. Specific situations gave rise to doctrine and the further elucidation of that doctrine. Specific wars gave rise to the proposal and clarification of the Church's much bandied about just-war principles. For example, the nuclear arms build up and the potential for unprecedented destruction that existed in 1963 surely motivated the writing of the great and influential encyclical Pacem in Terris. But to admit this is to admit an intimate relationship between Church Teaching and current events.

Why, then, do some insist on denying that the moral authority of the bishops and the pope has weight and significance that ought to at least cause one some trepidation when publicly dissenting from its conclusions? Yes, yes yes, I know know know that these prudential judgments are NOT not not binding and DON'T don't don't require the assent of the faithful. Sheesh! Can we move past this objection? The reason they don't require assent is because they're applications to a particular situation that can't be universally applied or cover every possible circumstance that someone might find him or herself in. But they still pack a proportionate authority that makes such judgments different from your own personal opinion, the opinion of bloggers (yes, really), and the opinion of government officials.

And so, I'll say again what I mentioned before. Dissent from Church Teaching should never leave you feeling warm and toasty. For Catholics, the Church is so central to any application of moral theory, and the very basis of such an application, a well-formed conscience, has its roots so deep within the Church, that any dissent from prudential judgments that the bishops and pope make ought to be a cold comfort at best.




This wonderfully counterintuitive statement from John Courtney Murray has been highlighted again by recent debate; this time it's the debate on exactly how Catholics ought to react to a statement on a current situation by bishops or the pope. I'm amazed at some of the negative responses my recent post, COLD COMFORT, received. I'm not amazed because they're negative responses, of course not; I get lots of those. I'm amazed because I'm still not quite sure what it is we're disagreeing upon. I know it must be hidden somewhere in all the "isms" that are being used to describe my position and others who have approached the issue in a similar manner.

The first impediment to genuine disagreement about this issue has been the terminology. At least in the discussions I've been involved with, there is an interesting resistance to the terms "official statement" and "dissent." Some hold that "official statements" by bishops and the pope are not official statements unless they are doctrinal or statements of principles that aren't applications to particular situations and current events. I don't quite follow this objection. On the one hand, we're not talking about an opinion by the pope overheard at dinner about a soccer match that day. On the other, we're not talking about an infallible teaching or even an ordinary teaching that requires the assent of the faithful. We're talking about statements intended for the public by bishops, the pope, or appropriate Vatican officials, about important current events. Yes these are prudential judgments. Yes they are not binding nor do they require the assent of the faithful. But if these aren't "official," if these don't reflect current judgments about current events by bishops and the pope from their "office" as bishops and pope, then I don't know what "official" means.

I understand that a Catholic might wince at the realization that he or she utterly disagrees with an "official statement" from the pope or USCCB. But I don't think limiting the scope of what's "official" is the best technique around this. While it might make it less awkward to, as Mr. Dreher put it, "stand by their president, and not their pope, in this matter," denying that there are official statements on an issue seems to water down the statements of bishops and the pope to mere opinion devoid of wisdom or inspiration from the Holy Spirit. And if we can't call statements on important current events by bishops and the pope "official," then our disagreement will only be about opinions, and underlying our conversation will be the assumption that bishops and the pope don't really have authority or competence to make statements on these matters. It would then follow that we really don't have to take them seriously. This seems the implicit and even explicit position of a number of Catholics.

The other disputed term is the word "dissent." Some insist that "dissent" exclusively implies an unfaithful break from the Church, though obviously the word has a much more general meaning as well. If the only objection to using "dissent" is that it has a strict ecclesial meaning then I'm happy to say "disagree" or some such term. But I used the word deliberately in previous post not to suggest that any dissent is necessarily unfaithful, but to suggest that one is disagreeing with an official statement of the bishops or popes that has a context and implications that "disagree" doesn't quite get at.

I actually wonder if avoiding the word "dissent" is really a very smart tactic. If you don't want to distance yourself from the context of a bishop or pope's prudential judgment, and authentic discussion ought to attempt to preserve the proper context of such judgments, then why not roll up your sleeves and get dirty? Why not claim that as a faithful, good-willed, intelligent Catholic, you are dissenting from an official statement by the USCCB or pope? Using "disagree" or some such term undermines the weight of the official statement and the impact that a contrary opinion might have; and yes, avoiding "dissent" waters the position of the bishops and pope down to mere opinion devoid of wisdom or inspiration from the Holy Spirit (you see the pattern developing).

By now many who have objected to the use of the above terms are probably seeing red, saying
That idjit at Minute Particulars is at it again! He's claiming that the statements from the USCCB or pope are binding on the faithful and anyone who disagrees is a devious, dastardly dissenter!
And this brings us to the next obstacle for our ever getting to the point of really disagreeing: the creative reinterpretation of comments and positions into straw men that can be whisked away swiftly and easily. I have not said many of the things that several blogs have claimed I've said. Most of them have kindly provided a link to my original post, and I'd simply ask the reader to look again at what I and others have actually said. You might be pleasantly surprised.

I could continue listing the other hurdles that seem to keep us from getting to and digging into our respective positions so that intelligent discussion can occur. But you've surely gotten my point and so I'll stop piecing together scaffolding and get directly to what bothers me in all this blog blather.

My concern from the start, when I first raised doubts about the wisdom of Catholics writing an Open Letter that seemed inappropriate, was that there have been motions, some subtle and perhaps unintended, some explicit, vigorous, and deliberate, to vitiate the Church's moral authority in secular matters. I get the impression that Catholics are being encouraged to look for loopholes, to walk within the letter but perhaps not the spirit of Church Teaching, to wiggle and squirm so they can comfortably dismiss the clear statements of concern about current events from the USCCB and the pope. I don't mean genuine, faithful dissent that may be heroic, objectively correct, and noble. I don't mean a humble, reverent shaking of one's head in disapproval. I don't mean the kind of disagreement that leaves one uncomfortable, causes one to look again for what is not seen, and hobbles one a bit by pangs of conscience. I mean the dissent of Catholics who boldly proclaim the bishops are wrong, the Vatican is wrong, the pope is wrong on an issue of utmost moral significance.

I don't understand the loud and booming dismissals of official statements by USCCB and the pope that many have offered for public consumption. I don't quite see how these Catholic pundits can be so confident; from my vantage point they only seem to be offering a simplistic notion of the difference between doctrinal statements and prudential judgments, a shallow reading of the Tradition, and subtle but definite resistance to letting the Lumen Gentium shine without filters or obstruction through the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.

But more importantly I'm troubled by the following fact: most of this resistance is coming from faithful, good-willed, intelligent Catholics. Sure there are some frothing fringe folks, but many of these opinions are coming from those who, judging from what they've said in the past and on many issues, are wiser, smarter, and older than I am. It's as if the cap is stuck on the St. Blog's toothpaste tube and the current crisis is giving it a good, hardy squeeze; the toothpaste is squirting out in places I would have never suspected. And this is disturbing because it makes it clear that the consensus on many issues of earlier times was a little more brittle than I thought.

I simply don't know the reason this tendency to be so dismissive of statements from bishops and the pope has arisen in faithful, good-willed, intelligent Catholics. Surely it's complex and my dim words have not been an attempt to explain it. The perceived shaking of the foundations caused by the sexual abuse scandal is a likely contributor. And what some see as the brazen battering of U.S. policies by bishops and the Vatican is likely at play as well. But at some point a line gets crossed and new ground is stood upon that may seem to give one firm footing for a particular situation. But I wonder how well that ground will support the broader issues one inevitably faces once a crisis passes.


Thursday, March 20, 2003


Eve Tushnet had a nice series of posts (scroll down and then scroll up for email comments and further discussion) a while back with some great links on the grim issue of torture. My only quibble is that she uses a notion of "stopping-points on the slippery slope" that are abstract scenarios that don't root the slippery slope in the human being as a disposition that is very real and concrete. Once someone tortures another human being, his or her ability to see another human being fully and with integrity is diminished; it's not because they've reasoned through the strictures of torture and found them wanting, but because they are viscerally inclined toward other human beings in a manner that increases the likelihood that they'll find themselves in a situation where something like torture might again seem the only option. The real "slippery slope," if we can use such a term in morality, is a habit that is formed when one engages in torture, not a lack of or flaw in intellectually compelling arguments against torture.




Fr. Jim discusses Augustine's Dilige, et quod vis fac (Love, and do what you will) over on Dappled Things.


Tuesday, March 18, 2003


There are a lot of ways one could enter the vast pool of wisdom that the virtue tradition created. You could dip your little toe in gingerly with a question about whether it's okay to sneak into a movie theater without paying (why is that always the quintessential light-weight morality question?) or you could do a cannon ball into the middle by grappling with an issue like torture right from today's headlines.

Moral issues can be difficult in two ways. The first difficulty is getting a handle on the theoretical aspects of an issue. What precepts are we obliged to follow? What kinds of actions are morally licit? The other difficulty is the application of morality to particular actions.

Take the standard, boilerplate example: A hunter shooting another hunter whom he mistook for a deer (assuming he didn't think it was a deer wearing an orange vest, smoking a cigar, and cleaning a rifle by the campfire!) is a different moral event than a premeditated plan conceived by one hunter to shoot deliberately another hunter. The intention of the person acting is an important factor in specifying whether the action was good or bad, whether the shooter was morally culpable or not for killing another hunter.

For anyone who believes that human beings are created in the image of God and have an intrinsic and divine dignity, most extreme moral issues aren't difficult in theory. That torture is always wrong is something that in theory is pretty clear for those who recognize the dignity of every human being. The difficulty is located in the consideration of what constitutes torture and how these tenets must be applied, not in the moral principles involved. But if you hope to convince others who don't accept your principles of faith and only acknowledge a morality grounded in reason and human nature you start getting into some tricky moral quandaries.

One of these tricky spots in a morality prescinded from truths of faith becomes clear with a kind of question that goes something like this:
Why should anyone ever refrain from an action that cannot reasonably have any negative consequences for them?
Why shouldn't we torture someone who will eventually end up dead or in prison for life anyway? He or she could never retaliate. Why shouldn't I kill someone if I would gain something by it (money, position, freedom from obligation) if I can do it in a way that virtually assures me that I will never get caught? If there is no immediate negative consequence, no subsequent negative consequence, and no eternal negative consequence, why refrain? If you're resisting this hypothetical because there is always a chance, even if very remote, that someone will get caught, let's assume for the sake of argument that one will not get caught. Why refrain?

I noted in a previous post that torture is a bit like being in a room where the entire floor is covered with a few inches of gasoline and you've decided to make someone tied to a chair in the middle of the room talk by using a blowtorch. Of course, the moment you slosh over to the person and light the blowtorch is the moment your world explodes in a ball of flame. The point of this silly image is that the torturer is definitely and concretely affected by his or her act of torturing another human being. And the reason for this is found in the virtue tradition.

Likely the most important implication of the virtue tradition is that it addresses the dynamic between "who we are" and "what we do," and it does this without explicitly appealing to articles of faith -- Aristotle was a pagan. The virtue tradition is responsive to the uniqueness of the human being, a creature both immaterial and material in composition, neither angel nor brute:
[T]he human soul is said to be on the horizon and boundary 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)
An incarnate spirit, a creature capable of actions which transcend the material world, the human being is nonetheless shaped and moved by the effects of his or her immersion in the historical world of matter; in fact, St. Thomas's great insight regarding the nature of human beings was his insistence that the soul informing the body is the natural condition of the human being. This insight is significant regarding the nature of moral reality because any appeal to disembodied principles or necessary ideals — a tendency that is persistent throughout history — will fall short in considering the natural condition of human beings.

The virtue tradition is a response to our natural condition and it highlights the fact that our activities will necessarily impact our disposition to the world. Paul Wadell puts this very nicely:
The intention of an act gives a special quality to the act, it identifies it. But when we act, the identifying quality of the action also becomes an identifying quality of the self; the intention which forms the act also forms the person who acts, the two are internally connected.
While we remain free in the truest sense, the habits which accrue to us, both good and bad, affect our basic posture toward the world and create propensities and inclinations toward certain actions.

That virtues are "habits" is a source of confusion since the word has many meanings and in current parlance it tends to conjure up a kind of behavior that is unappealing or unhealthy. But if you understand what the tradition is driving at by using the term, you'll find a wealth of wisdom. Aquinas has a long and nuanced section on "habits" in his Summa Theologica that is well worth working through. He writes:
habit implies a disposition in relation to a thing's nature, and to its operation or end, by reason of which disposition a thing is well or ill disposed thereto.
The virtue tradition has as its central concern the habits by which incarnate beings can more readily live a good life. There is a resistance to broad generalizations and an emphasis upon particular situations. Morality is not considered a science in the strict sense, since it involves human actions which can never be reduced to necessity in particular instances. There is necessity in the larger considerations: e.g. the definition of a human being, the free will that all human beings possess, the inclination of all human beings toward a perceived good; but the specific occasion of a human action will always have a component of freedom to it, and thus be a matter of contingency rather than necessity.

And so, back to the question:
Why should anyone ever refrain from an action that cannot reasonably have any negative consequences for them?
An approach along the lines of the virtue tradition and emphasizing only the tenets that we can derive from reason would, I think, conclude that the very act of torturing another human being would shape one's moral outlook, one's disposition toward other human beings, in a manner that is habitual. Because the action is so extreme, I would suspect that even after one occurrence a habit of cruelty, inability to empathize, and a kind of blindness to decency would creep into one's constitution. Such a habit doesn't necessarily mean one will torture again -- perhaps the occasion was unique and never arises again -- but it necessarily taints one's perception of fellow human beings in a manner that I would think would be difficult, though not impossible, to undo. So the answer would be that there is indeed a negative and very real consequence. The act of torture obviously devastates the one tortured; but it also devastates the one doing the torture. The torturer and the tortured enter a nightmare that neither can emerge from completely. The difference of course, is that the torturer is the cause of the nightmare and the very act of torturing another person necessarily distorts his or her ability to relate to other human beings.


Monday, March 17, 2003


I've received a lot of emails and links about my COLD COMFORT post below that I hope to ponder and respond to soon.


Friday, March 14, 2003


It's interesting that one of the most cited texts from the USCCB on Iraq by those who disagree with the bishops is the following:
People of good will may differ on how traditional norms apply in this situation. The gravity of the threat and whether force would be preemptive are matters of debate, as are the potential consequences of using or failing to use military force.
I wonder if those taking comfort in the fact that a judgment doesn't require assent, in this case a judgment by bishops or the pope about the current Iraqi situation, might be dismissing the opinion in part because it doesn't require assent. I've read suggestions that the opinion of bishops and the pope on Iraq doesn't touch on faith and morals; but surely it's an application of these. I've also sensed that some think a prudential judgment is a kind of personal opinion about a matter that "people of good will may differ on" and thus, because they consider themselves people of good will, they implicitly or explicitly hold that their opinion is necessarily equal to the opinion of the bishops and pope. I'd like to suggest that there might be a bit more to disagreeing with bishops and the pope on prudential issues than the doesn't require assent mantra might suggest. But to do this we need to consider again the nature of a prudential judgment.

Here's a fine description of prudence from Josef Pieper:
The immediate criterion for concrete ethical action is solely the imperative of prudence in the person who has the decision to make. This standard cannot be abstractly construed or even calculated in advance; abstractly here means: outside the particular situation. The imperative of prudence is always and in essence a decision regarding an action to be performed in the "here and now."
The opinion of bishops and the pope on Iraq doesn't require assent because any application of moral principles requires a prudential judgment, a judgment in the "here and now" about a concrete situation, a decision upon which people of deep faith and good will might differ. If you think about it, in theory, there are very few if any applications (not principles or laws or doctrines, but practical applications) of Church Teaching that would necessarily and in every case require assent or agreement of the faithful given every possible permutation of intention, events, and circumstances. If you're thinking "the divinity of Christ" or some such thing you're missing the point; look again at the last few sentences and the parenthetical, I'm talking about "practical applications." How do you apply the doctrinal truth that Christ is divine? In the moral realm, even applying the straightforward and unequivocal prohibition against killing an innocent human being can get difficult when one must determine the particular aspects: intention, innocence, mitigating circumstances, etc. Certainly you can say it's always wrong to kill an innocent human being, but applying that in particular situations is often quite difficult.

A judgment requiring assent would have to be applicable to and anticipate every possible particular situation in advance. The reason judgments requiring assent are so rare is that it's nearly impossible to account for every possible mitigating circumstance when the judgment is applied to concrete, complex, and particular situations. Judgments by bishops and the pope that are prudential don't require assent in the manner that doctrinal declarations do because doctrinal declarations can have universal scope for every possible circumstance -- even if applying the doctrines to the world is difficult; prudential judgments don't have this same scope.

But judgments "not requiring assent" have somehow drifted to being perceived by many as "judgments that have the same weight and authority as my own judgments as long as I'm good willed about it." This, I would suggest, is a distortion. Judgments by bishops or the pope not requiring assent are still informed by the Holy Spirit, the teaching authority of the episcopal office, and the solicitude the Church has for the dignity of every human being.

A judgment of the bishops and pope, even a unanimous one that holds that the current conditions for a just war have not been met could very well be wrong. But if so, it will only be seen as such in hindsight. The purpose of these prudential judgments is to guide all men and women of good will in the "here and now." Dissent from these positions ought to be done with reverence, with humility, and frankly, with a little fear and trembling. I say this NOT because one is somehow not "faithful" if one dissents from the prudential judgments of bishops or the pope. Rather, I say this because one is deciding to go it alone or with others of like mind who have themselves decided to go it alone. This could indeed be noble and even heroic. History may show that those who have strongly disagreed with the present opinion of bishops and popes on Iraq were virtuous, faithful, brave men and women of good will who fought the good fight and were clearly right to dissent.

But this kind of dissent loses its authenticity if it stems from suspicion of the motivations of the pope or bishops, or is rooted in doubt that the Holy Spirit is working through the pope or bishops, or derives from a love for one's nation that surpasses love for the Light of nations, or is grounded in good old fashioned despair about the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ:
Christ, the one Mediator, established and continually sustains here on earth His holy Church, the community of faith, hope and charity, as an entity with visible delineation through which He communicated truth and grace to all. But, the society structured with hierarchical organs and the Mystical Body of Christ, are not to be considered as two realities, nor are the visible assembly and the spiritual community, nor the earthly Church and the Church enriched with heavenly things; rather they form one complex reality which coalesces from a divine and a human element. For this reason, by no weak analogy, it is compared to the mystery of the incarnate Word. As the assumed nature inseparably united to Him, serves the divine Word as a living organ of salvation, so, in a similar way, does the visible social structure of the Church serve the Spirit of Christ, who vivifies it, in the building up of the body.
Finally, it seems to me that faithful dissent needs to be accompanied by an awareness of the fact that formation of conscience is very closely tied to Church Teaching:
In the formation of conscience the Word of God is the light for our path, we must assimilate it in faith and prayer and put it into practice. We must also examine our conscience before the Lord's Cross. We are assisted by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, aided by the witness or advice of others and guided by the authoritative teaching of the Church. (CCC)
Dissent from Church Teaching should never leave you feeling warm and toasty. For Catholics, the Church is so central to any application of moral theory, and the very basis of such an application, a well-formed conscience, has its roots so deep within the Church, that any dissent from prudential judgments that the bishops and pope make ought to be a cold comfort at best.


Wednesday, March 12, 2003


Don't miss the latest in the series of excellent posts over on Disputations that discuss the theology behind notions for and against universal salvation. My minute musings on this are pretty primitive and revolve around two questions about incarnation:
- Why were humans incarnated in the first place so that they must exercise their choice toward or away from God while immersed in history?
- Why did God become incarnate and dwell among us?
These are, of course, the deepest mysteries of human existence. But how you answer these will have a direct bearing on your sense of whether Hell is empty. The fact that I think one can never exhaust the implications of these two questions also suggests that I think the deep questions that swirl around the idea of universal salvation will remain just beyond a resolution that is crisp and compelling. Still, the topic is fascinating precisely because it traces back to such fundamental questions.

Years ago, I remember reading Pope John Paul II's first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, and being blown away by this passage that I think touches on many aspects of universal salvation:
Through the Incarnation God gave human life the dimension that he intended man to have from his first beginning; he has granted that dimension definitively -- in the way that is peculiar to him alone, in keeping with his eternal love and mercy, with the full freedom of God -- and he has granted it also with the bounty that enables us, in considering the original sin and the whole history of the sins of humanity, and in considering the errors of the human intellect, will and heart, to repeat with amazement the words of the Sacred Liturgy: "O happy fault... which gained us so great a Redeemer!"




The notion that "war is always a disaster" is generating lively debate over on Disputations, Flos Carmeli, and Kairos. My contribution started with the post below. That a just war is the lesser of a number of potential disasters is a strange way to put it. But I suppose that's how one can get around the moral pinch that yokes "just" and "disaster" together. In this strange way we can say that war is always a disaster and that it is morally defensible to go to war when it's the last option you have amid a pretty grim set of options.

I guess I'm bothered by the implication that it's somehow comforting to know that a given war can be morally defensible. Let me try the following image:

Choosing to go to war is a kind of "Sophie's Choice" where, if you know the novel or film you'll remember, a mother of two young children in a concentration camp is forced to choose between saving one child or losing both of them. It is a situation where one is forced to make a "decision," but only in the superficial sense of cold calculation and primitive survival, aspects of quantity and quality that never touch the substance. How can one make such a choice? Indeed it's a stretch to call this a "choice." Really, in such a scenario one can only make sterile computations. The girl is young and may die anyway. The boy is older, stronger, and might have a better chance at surviving. These are decisions that don't touch upon the heart of the matter, the great evil of being in the position to have to choose in the first place.

That is the nature of any decision to go to war no matter how just the war may be and how horrific the enemy. A decision to go to war is a decision about quantity and quality of life that addresses nothing of the substance of life, the dignity of every human being. A decision to go to war is similar to the terrible crisis of a parent having to choose between saving one child or losing both. Sure it can be made, but it's made in just about the most deprived manner of freedom and vitality that we can endure and still actually be free and alive. It is always and everywhere a disaster. Saying it is the lesser of various disasters that would ensue if war weren't started is kind of like saying a choice involving two children is better than a choice involving four when half will die.

And so I continue to be puzzled by the Kairos Guy's response to my post when he begins with:
And what is so terrible about war, as opposed to all the other fundamentals of the fallen human condition, anyway? We all die sometime, but in war, those who die are more prepared for the possibility than most of us. Heroism is rarely possible on my morning commute, but in war, sometimes "uncommon valor is a common virtue."
Since I think the Kairos Guy is pretty sound on most things I'm just going to chalk up my inability to see his point to my obtuseness and hope we can agree to disagree. I mean, I read the above and can only think of a conversation between Wally and The Beaver that went something like this:
Beaver: Wally, why are there wars?
Wally: I don't know Beav, I guess people gotta die somehow.
So, obviously I'm missing the point.

A war entered into regardless of how just is always a disaster. And the fact that it is the lesser disaster among potentially greater disasters explains the moral defensibility of a just war at the moment it is begun, but it's really no consolation. If it is indeed the only option, it is so NOT because it was inevitable, but because there were failures upon failures over time that brought things to the brink. I don't simply mean failures by any particular country, but failures by all humans of good will. It is a failure on every level: a lack of wisdom and charity; a lack of diplomacy and mutual understanding; a lack of prayer. A just war is a disaster that is "preferable" to other disasters because the quantity and quality of the other envisioned disasters are potentially greater; but the nature of the thing, the substance of it remains: an unequivocal disaster for the human race.


Monday, March 10, 2003


I usually understand, even when I disagree with, many of the arguments over on Kairos. But I don't quite follow this post which ends with:
Pardon me (for this violates my Lenten attempt to reform my language) but it is manifest BULLSHIT that war is always a disaster. That is the sort of thing that only cowards and wimps can believe, and it is precisely the sort of thing that Satan wants us in our comfortable suburbs and our nice cars and our 401k plans to believe. FAILING TO FIGHT has been every bit as disastrous as fighting at many identifiable points in history. "War is always a disaster" is exactly the sort of thing Orwell had in mind when he lumped the pacifists in with the fascists in 1940. War is sometimes a disaster; but cowardice: always.
War is utterly and unequivocally always a disaster, a chaotic nightmare, an absurdity, and an event where no one emerges untainted. It pits human beings who have a dignity divine in its source and end against each other. It is a moral quagmire of unimaginable depth and murkiness and it should be the last resort to any escalating conflict between countries.

A war can be a just war. A war can be morally defensible. A war can be the highest good amid various concrete choices. But war is a complete failure and breakdown of human society. It is a disaster for all involved, even if it's the only option left.

My son is now 14 months old. As war with Iraq looms I catch myself sentimentally imagining that every combatant from every side of a war was at one time 14 months old, smiling, helpless, laughing at the silliest things, and eager to go outside and play. Yes, this is mawkish pap. I don't deny it. But how does it ever come to pass that a child ends up years from innocence shouldering a weapon and killing someone who was once 14 months old, smiling, helpless, laughing at the silliest things, and eager to go outside and play?

That, Mr. Kairos, can only be described as a disaster. We have failed our children, we have failed our young people, we have failed the King of Peace when war ravages our world. Indeed a war may seem inevitable and surely there comes a time when there really is no option even for the wisest and most charitable of people. I suppose there are some, perhaps many who are comfortable enough in their assessment of their own wisdom and charity to claim that a particular war is not a disaster. I suppose some see "just wars" as sterile events where the moral questions are crisp and clean. But I wonder.

For me, seeing a war as anything other than a disaster suggests a yardstick that very few of us can wield comfortably and in complete innocence. This does not mean I am against every conceivable war. This does not mean that I would not participate in any war. But it does mean that any war I thought was just, any war that I judged to be morally good because it was morally the only option I could discern with the best of my limited abilities, would still be a disaster, a failure that I would feel to the core. As Pope John Paul II recently wrote:
War is not always inevitable. It is always a defeat for humanity.


Saturday, March 08, 2003


There's a great summary of the antics of former NBA great Bill Laimbeer that includes the following:
In 14 bruising NBA seasons Laimbeer made up for his minuscule vertical leap, slow feet, and sluggishness by becoming a master of posturing, muscling, and anticipating -- plus fomenting trouble, pretending to be fouled, and drawing his opponents' ire. Laimbeer always seemed to be nursing a brawl-induced shiner or broken nose. He was punched by some of the league's best players, including Robert Parish, Bob Lanier, Larry Bird, and Charles Barkley. "We don't like him that good," Bird once told Sports Illustrated.

The Laimbeer "flop" became the stuff of legend. A grimacing Laimbeer would often go careening to the floor in reaction to the slightest tap from an opponent. More often than not, the whistle went his way. With aggravating if not refreshing candor, Laimbeer never disavowed his on-court histrionics.
Now, I hope Rod Dreher won't take this the wrong way (well, I'm sure he will), but his latest article reminded me of Laimbeer's antics at both fouling and flopping. The foul -- at least to me though I know many disagree -- is his suggesting an analogy between the Church's response to the sexual abuse crisis and its response to the Iraqi crisis; this claim is specious at best and disingenuous at worst. I'm wondering exactly what moral position Mr. Dreher might accept from the Church without suspicion and what moral authority it has for him anymore, if any?

As far as crying foul, Mr. Dreher seems to "flop" to the hardwood the moment someone suggests that there could be something amiss in his characterizations of Pope John Paul II. These things cut both ways. On the one hand it's possible that some Catholics have a sentimental tendency to defend the pope regardless of the issue. On the other hand, it's possible that some have a clinical tendency to dismiss the pope on every issue because of perceived failures in one or more particular issues. But surely there is a mean between these that doesn't result in uncritical obeisance or vitriolic suspicion.

Beneath Mr. Dreher's persistent stance of righteous indignation seems to be the assumption that if we the unenlightened really knew the horrific details of the sexual abuse scandal we would agree with him that it reflects a systemic moral corruption in the Church. I, frankly, resent this. Is anyone seriously denying that the victims have been harmed, in many cases irreparably, and suffered a terrible, terrible ordeal? I don't think so. Is anyone really insisting that the responses of many bishops were appropriate and continue to be appropriate in light of all we now know? I don't think so. Mr. Dreher seems to be doing the Laimbeer flop, "careening to the floor in reaction to the slightest tap from an opponent," when he attempts to convert every moral matter the Church addresses back to the sexual abuse situation.


Friday, March 07, 2003


Bill Cork was kind enough to respond to my THE OL' END AROUND PLAY post below. He writes:
Mark is mistaken, I think, in confusing Church teaching with its application. The "Church's position" is that there is such a thing as Just War, and that there are several criteria that need to be evaluated when considering what actions might be undertaken by a nation in the defense of its citizens. What this letter suggests is that Catholics sometimes disagree in how to apply these principles.
Certainly the distinction between what the Church teaches and how we ought to apply that teaching is crucial. But the USCCB and the pope have indicated not only what the Church teaches, but how they believe it ought to be applied at the current moment. For example, the USCCB has declared:
With the Holy See and many religious leaders throughout the world, we believe that resort to war would not meet the strict conditions in Catholic teaching for the use of military force.

In our judgment, resort to war in this case should have broad international support. As crucial decisions draw near, we join the Holy See in once again urging all leaders to step back from the brink of war and to continue to work through the United Nations to contain, deter and disarm Iraq. We hope and pray that leaders in Iraq, the United Nations and in our own land will hear and heed the persistent pleas of Pope John Paul II to take concrete steps to avoid war and build peace based on respect for international law and for all human life.
And there's this report from Ash Wednesday regarding Vatican envoy Cardinal Pio Laghi:
He said that the Vatican (news - web sites) stands by its view that a pre-emptive strike on Iraq is immoral "unless it gets backed by the U.N."
"It's illegal, it's unjust," the Roman Catholic prelate said.
And this from Cardinal Pio Laghi's official statement:
The Holy See maintains that there are still peaceful avenues within the context of the vast patrimony of international law and institutions which exist for that purpose. A decision regarding the use of military force can only be taken within the framework of the United Nations, but always taking into account the grave consequences of such an armed conflict: the suffering of the people of Iraq and those involved in the military operation, a further instability in the region and a new gulf between Islam and Christianity.

I want to emphasize that there is great unity on this grave matter on the part of the Holy See, the Bishops in the United States, and the Church throughout the world.
I'm not suggesting that this is the only conclusion that one can draw about the Iraqi crisis in light of just-war theory. And indeed, the USCCB, as Bill notes, concluded with this sentiment:
People of good will may differ on how traditional norms apply in this situation. The gravity of the threat and whether force would be preemptive are matters of debate, as are the potential consequences of using or failing to use military force.
But I simply don't see how anyone can claim that the Church's teaching on just war has not officially been applied.

Obviously all Catholics don't agree with what the USCCB judges is the appropriate application of Church Teaching. I'm not suggesting they ought to. Of course not. But I am suggesting that Catholics shouldn't distort the spirit of what the bishops and pope have stated or the fact that their statements constitute a concrete application of Church Teaching.

If I want to know what Catholics think about Iraq I can read blogs, talk to Catholics, and so on. But if I want to know what the Church position is and how the Church has judged that teaching ought to be applied, then I should look to the bishops and pope.

I think the Open Letter from CatholicJustWar undermines the authority of the USCCB and pope. Why point to the aspects of just-war theory that can be pushed and pulled while still remaining within the letter of the theory? It is clear that the bishops and pope do not think the present situation warrants an invasion of Iraq. Could they be wrong? Of course. Can I disagree? Of course. But as a Catholic, I probably shouldn't throw up a website that purports to be "Catholic" and then write a letter that suggests to President Bush that given the current situation he could order an invasion of Iraq and still be within a valid interpretation of Catholic just-war theory. Assuming President Bush even cares about such a thing, what purpose does it serve for Catholics to convince him that the bishops and pope may have not made a proper decision about the application of just-war theory? Shouldn't Catholics be pointing out what the teaching is and how the bishops and pope have applied that teaching? If Catholics disagree they are free and perhaps even morally bound in some cases to make their disagreement known. But their statement of dissent should be clearly labeled as such and certainly shouldn't obfuscate what the official Church position is.




This Powers of Ten (via Disordered Affections) demonstration is pretty slick:
View the Milky Way at 10 million light years from the Earth. Then move through space towards the Earth in successive orders of magnitude until you reach a tall oak tree just outside the buildings of the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory in Tallahassee, Florida. After that, begin to move from the actual size of a leaf into a microscopic world that reveals leaf cell walls, the cell nucleus, chromatin, DNA and finally, into the subatomic universe of electrons and protons.


Thursday, March 06, 2003


Fr. Jim of Dappled Things continues his weekly explanation of a Latin phrase and also has a fine, brief Ash Wednesday Homily.




Glenn Reynolds of InstaPundit spotted this picture

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat raises the hand of Vatican envoy to Israel, French Cardinal Roger Etchegaray before their meeting at Arafat's headquarter in the West Bank city of Ramallah, May 2, 2002. Cardinal Etchegaray arrived in Israel to try to end the month-old standoff at the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem.

and started a blog bluster about whether the Catholic Church is anti-Semitic. Jesse Walker has a nice response and comments to this InstaSilliness; Justin Katz has a number of germane quotes with his response; and Tacitus has plenty of discussion in the comments of this post.

This whole thing is hard to take too seriously. Anyone who is really interested in what the official position of the Roman Catholic Church is on any important matter can read all about it in the many documents online. You really do have more than photos, especially photos ripped from their context.

If you don't think the Church is living up to its stated positions, or if you think those positions are a facade and ruse to throw folks off the scent of the real evil it is actually working, then you should say so and be explicit about it. But why make serious charges and insinuate pretty nasty things about Catholics from a photo?

Posting a photo like the above and then claiming that the photo is evidence of anti-Semitism seems to imply a refusal to give the Church the benefit of context and the courtesy of assuming its many documents, statements, and gestures to the contrary are authentic. The point is moot if you really don't think official Church statements mean anything; but then, nothing will ever convince you that the Church is not doing and promoting whatever you claim it's doing and promoting. But if you think the Church's positions are genuine but misinformed, you ought to be able to cite the position, and explain your disagreement without just posting a photo and blathering on about how it confirms your every suspicion.

Of course, if you really want to play the "What They Were Thinking" photo game and take the moral pulse of the Vatican on critical issues from a glimpse at a photo, why stop with a Vatican envoy?

Hmm, I guess the pope really is anti-Semitic after all. Isn't this where Glenn's reasoning leads? The photo surely says it all; never mind the recent, sober, deliberate, and emphatic papal statements and gestures to the contrary, toward reconciliation and understanding with people of all faiths.

Oh, and if you can tell so much with just a photo, try this one:

Is that the pope and is he really meeting with, embracing, and forgiving the man who attempted to murder him and left him permanently disabled? It doesn't make any sense! It's like the pope is doing everything that seems loopy in my cramped, crimped little world of tit for tat, my black and white world where human dignity is measured by my willingness to tolerate others.




Kevin Miller has a nice review and some great quotes from Josef Pieper's The Concept of Sin.
... We have yet to establish how unlimited self-love with its demand for limitless freedom necessarily implies an attack on God.  To find this plausible, let alone convincing, we must investigate more deeply the implications of man's creatureliness. ...

... The true alternative ... looks like this: either self-realization as surrender to God by recognizing one's own creatureliness; or "absolute" self-love by trying to realize oneself by denying or ignoring one's creatureliness.  This is the fundamental decision in every concrete decision, preceding them all.  This decision for "absolute" self-love is the original sin ..., both in the sense that it was the first ever committed and has also become the very wellspring and fountainhead of all concrete guilt.



CRAPULOUS \KRAP-yuh-luss\ (adjective)

Hmm . . . the Word of the Day for Mar 06 , the day after Ash Wednesday, the day on which the pope suggested that Catholics pray and fast, is:
crapulous \KRAP-yuh-luss\ (adjective)

1 : marked by intemperance especially in eating or drinking
*2 : sick from excessive indulgence in liquor
Example sentence:
If you're feeling crapulous the morning after the big celebration, drinking lots of water and taking some aspirin will help.


Tuesday, March 04, 2003


This open letter (via Disputations who has a fine response with an example I've picked up and run with) from a group calling itself Catholic Just Do It! Catholic Just War is a bit puzzling. It seems a little like an end around play in football: it's legal and it can work; but it requires someone with fancy footwork, some nimble blockers, and the ability to deceive one's opponent about what your intent is. It's not a play one can use consistently. It's kind of a fluke that you can try once or twice in a game, but if that's all you have in your playbook you're going to get creamed.

What I find objectionable is the apparent acknowledgement of the authority of Bishop Gregory, the stated positions of the USCCB, and the Vatican, while an undercurrent of dissent swells. It plays lip service to the various official positions and documents, and then wiggles into the cracks and distorts their meaning.

The letter seems to be saying to President Bush,
Here's what the Church has taught on just-war theory and the current crisis with Iraq. But you should know (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) that the Church is not the proper authority to declare war, does not know the top-secret intelligence information that you are privy to, and is not infallible on these issues.
Implicit in this kind of approach is something like this,
The Church position needs to be taken seriously but it's one of many serious positions and you, Mr. President, are surely serious and so you should know that it's okay to act in a manner that is contrary to the Church position.
If we assume for the sake of argument that the letter has accurately stated Church Teaching (though I agree with Tom's concerns about its accuracy in his response and comment section), the problem is that it puts the acCENT on the wrong sylLAble.

What's bizarre is not the fact that the President of the United States is not bound by Church Teaching. Of course he's not. What's bizarre is that "Catholics" are suggesting this to him. Sure it's respecting the separation of Church and State, and it's working from a prudential decision about a contingent and particular issue, a decision that could be in error. But what's the next step in this kind of approach?

I just don't think the decision makers from the President on down need any more encouragement to dismiss the Church's positions on important issues. Shouldn't "Catholics" be clarifying Church Teaching and insisting that it's relevant, sober, and serious? Shouldn't dissent from Church Teaching or attempts to resist the spirit (and Spirit) of such Teaching while remaining within the letter of it at least not be labeled and presented as "Catholic"?




I had an email discussion this weekend that reminded me of this quote from a letter written in 1854 by Dostoevsky:
I'm a child of the age, a child of doubt and unbelief, and even, I'm certain, till the day they close the lid of my coffin. What terrible torment this thirst to believe has cost me and is still costing me, the stronger it becomes in my soul, the stronger are the arguments against it. And despite all this God sends me moments of great tranquility, moments during which I love and find I am loved by others. It was during such a moment that I formed within myself a symbol of faith in which all is clear and sacred for me. The symbol is very simple, and here is what it is: to believe that there is nothing more beautiful, more profound, more sympathetic, more reasonable, more courageous, and more perfect than Christ; and there not only isn't, but I tell myself with a jealous love, there cannot be. More than that -- if someone succeeded in proving to me that Christ was outside the truth, and if, indeed, the truth was outside Christ, I would sooner remain with Christ than with the truth.
Dostoevsky's sentiments are both moving and cautionary. There is indeed something so beautiful, profound, sympathetic, reasonable, courageous, and perfect in the Word Incarnate, that it is tempting to cling to Him even if we thought He were outside of the truth.

Now, even a fairly rudimentary grasp of theology like mine will quickly see the problem here. Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and "through him all things were made." So any idea that He could somehow be outside of the truth is a misunderstanding. And while this is a basic point, I find that it's not clearly understood or applied in a lot of the discourse on reason and revelation. This may be the result of a kind of weariness many have when hearing the surely overused tenet that "truth is one" and "reason and revelation can't contradict each other."

Where you find this tenet completely ignored is in discussions animated by a premise similar to Pascal's, "Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction." These discussions revolve around a kind of eyes-rolled-back doggedness to reduce any religious conviction to superstition, subjective whim, or nonsense. Comparisons between what the pope says and what Osama Bin Laden says are all over the Net these days and are supposed to suggest that any religious conviction and position is irrational.

Christians say A, Muslims say B, Jews say C, Buddhists say D, Hindus say E, and on and on. Christian A says X, Christian B says Y, Christian C says Z, and so forth. Muslim A says X, Muslim B says Y, well, you get the idea. It can look like a potpourri of silliness. The conclusion from this, since all of these assertions are superstitious nonsense, is that they can all be summarily dismissed as such.

I can't speak from any of the other traditions, but I think the Catholic can slice through this Gordian Knot of tangled and contradictory revealed truths with a very simple statement:
Nothing revealed to us can ever be unreasonable. Nothing. If propositions of reason and faith seem contradictory, then one or both are unreasonable and we need to look again at how we arrived at each.
Slice! Clarity! Sort of.

Let's stay with the extreme examples. Let's say that I believe from my understanding of Revelation that I ought to go out and smite anyone who denies X. Let's say another true believer holds from the same or different source that he ought to go out and embrace anyone who denies X. Are we at a complete impasse? Practically speaking, we usually are. But strictly speaking we ought to be able to trace each belief to its source and ask whether it's a reasonable belief. We might see, for example, that underpinning both is a fundamental reverence for human life. We might then see that smiting anyone who denies X is contradictory to the more fundamental truth and that we've misinterpreted or misunderstood the source of revelation or that the source of revelation is not genuine.

For Catholics, "Revelation" is a very nuanced and layered term. It is foremost in the Sacraments, then in Scripture, which itself has layers of meaning, traditionally the literal, allegorical, moral, anagogical, etc., then in Church Teaching, where distinctions in gravity are made between something proclaimed infallibly, or in an encyclical, or by a local bishop, or at a papal audience, and so on. All of these are "Revelation" in some sense, but they are always in a context that suggests a proportionate understanding and appropriate response.

So, as I mentioned in FORGIVENESS, CONTRADICTIONS, AND SPEED BUMPS , when "Revelation" in this broad sense contradicts my expectations or challenges some well-worn notion I cherish or just doesn't seem to mesh well with my grasp of a situation, I need to look at the context of that revelation and my understanding of it. And at some point I ought to ask if the position is unreasonable. It may be challenging, or seem to be asking to much, or require a reconsideration of many things I've grown used to, but if what is revealed is not unreasonable, if it doesn't patently contradict more fundamental truths, if it is made known by proper authority in an appropriate context, then it could be something that should be forming my conscience rather than agitating it.


Monday, March 03, 2003


Mark Shea has a good, succinct response (with some interesting comments) to this disturbing comment about whether torture might be used to get information from Khalid Shaikh Mohammed
Torture Time? The weekend apprehension of al Qaeda next-to-Mr. Biggest Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was good cause for international high-fives. It seems, at the last minute, money talked and his neighbors turned him in. His capture sent TV producers scrambling for anyone around on a bleak Sunday night who could comment on the use of torture. The general consensus was "of course, we don't do it." What they don't say is that with friends who do, we don't have to.
This is a little like being in a room with gasoline sloshing on the floor and deciding you're going to make someone talk by lighting a blowtorch and holding it on some body part until the person screams out the information you want. The moment you light the blowtorch with the intent to torture is the moment your whole world disintegrates. That's a bit melodramatic and limited, but I'm not sure there's a lot of wiggle room around torture.

Either we are defending and cherishing something precious and other than what an Al Qaeda leader envisions or we are all in a gray, wretched, impalpable quagmire of absurdity where everyone is shouting "Don't Tread on Me!" and we huddle together with those who seem to be shouting "Don't Tread on Me!" in the way that most appeals to us. Perhaps we prefer the loudest shouts, or the smartest, or the cleverest, or the quietest, or the warmest, or . . . regardless, you'll soon discover there's not much nuance possible in those four words. Either we are capable of rising above the gray, wretched, impalpable quagmire of absurdity that results when we are selective about our application of dignity to every human being, even to those who deny our own dignity (or theirs!), a dignity and worth that only God can see clearly, or we are not.




A number of folks responded to my INTOXICATING DRAUGHTS AND MY LUCKY MOODWATCH post by pointing out that if you can't knowingly choose a lesser good then you aren't really free. Here's a response and discussion over on Naked Writing as an example of this position. To be blunt, if you understood the terms as I'm using them here, and, more importantly, as I believe they've been used traditionally, you'd realize that saying "you can knowingly choose the lesser of two or more goods" or saying that "you aren't really free if you can't knowingly choose a lesser good" is about as intelligible as saying "you can knowingly borsh lemtoo of two or more glixes" or "you aren't really flixed if you can't grumple a zackle."

A fundamental truth in traditional moral philosophy is that no one ever knowingly chooses the lesser of two or more goods. In a way, the point is somewhat semantic. If by good you mean something we find desirable then no one can choose one thing over another because it was less desirable; the fact that they chose it means it was, in fact, more desirable at the time, in the particular situation. But this will seem mere word play and not mean much until we take the inquiry down a level or two.

Describing how a rational creature makes a choice is always tricky because we're inevitably careening near the edge of halting, mechanical, clumsy phrases and images for something that is holistic and organically unified. But the alternative is silence, so I'll risk sliding over the edge.

There are two aspects at play when we choose something: our understanding of whether something is desirable and our choosing what is desirable. Traditionally these involve the operations of the intellect and will: the intellect for our grasp of the intelligible aspects of our world; the will for our choosing what we find desirable.

Now, unless we want to empty "good" of any meaning with regard to our choosing something, what we find "good" in choosing between several possibilities is what we find "desirable." And what we find desirable is not simply what we choose -- this, of course, would be tautological -- but what we understand to be desirable. Our knowledge of the world, e.g. that boiling water is hot and shouldn't be touched while warm bath water is soothing and ought to be touched, requires experience, making judgments, and remembering the results or our actions. Something is desirable when I understand it to be desirable and that thing is chosen when it is the most desirable of the possible options.

Now, to say, well maybe I'd still want to choose the less desirable is to misunderstand how something is understood to be desirable. To say, I know X is more desirable than Y but I'm just too lazy to choose Y is to equivocate the uses of "know" and "desirable." If I'm too lazy to do Y, then I really don't "know" that it is more desirable since what is desirable is determined by my knowledge of X and Y and what I choose is determined by which is more desirable.

Why is any of this important? Good question. It probably isn't if our understanding of how we choose things is that we arbitrarily and often without any reason or even against reason choose things. In other words, if you think free will is the ability to do anything (e.g. if God is free then He can make a square circle; if I am free then I can choose a lesser good based on the irrational claim that it was more desirable or that such a choice had absolutely no rationale) then you're probably not still reading this post.

Contrary to a disturbingly common and frankly unthinking assertion, having free will does not mean random choice. But this is precisely the position of those who claim that free will, if there is such a thing, is the ability to choose one thing over another without any necessary rationale. They wouldn't likely phrase it that way. What they would say is, look, if human beings have free will then they can knowingly choose any option including a lesser good in a situation where there are two or more options. But if you eliminate any necessary rationale, you eliminate any stable and intelligible notion human nature and choice. To say we knowingly choose something is to imply that our intellect, grasping the world and its options, and our will, desiring what is good, are involved. The only way out of this is to deny that we knowingly choose options, which reduces choice to whim or random occurrence.

So, back to what got this issue swirling. We choose things when our intellects present one thing as more desirable than another. If I have absolute certainty about the perfection of a good (i.e. beatific vision) then I'm still free to choose what my intellect presents as more desirable. But if my intellect cannot be in error when it presents a good to the will (i.e. beatific vision), then I will always choose the highest good because I will always perceive it as more desirable. Freedom is not eliminated, it's acting perfectly.




Good article on pseudo-scientific hussles:
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is investing close to a million dollars in an obscure Russian scientist's antigravity machine, although it has failed every test and would violate the most fundamental laws of nature. The Patent and Trademark Office recently issued Patent 6,362,718 for a physically impossible motionless electromagnetic generator, which is supposed to snatch free energy from a vacuum. And major power companies have sunk tens of millions of dollars into a scheme to produce energy by putting hydrogen atoms into a state below their ground state, a feat equivalent to mounting an expedition to explore the region south of the South Pole.


Sunday, March 02, 2003


Charles Murtaugh has an interesting article with copious links on DNA, the obscurity and importance of structural biology, and some interesting, though as he clarifies on his blog "tongue-in-cheek," musings about what could be or could have been. For example, he writes:
Once biologists figured this out, they were off to the races: gene cloning, DNA fingerprinting, genome microarrays, behind all the buzzwords of modern biology is the double-helical nature of DNA.

In this way, one can see the Watson and Crick finding as the beginning of an almost uninterrupted string of good luck for molecular biologists. What if the structure of DNA had been a triple-helix, with some bizarre, non-linear coding and binding properties? It's easy enough now to say that such a molecule could never have served for genetic material, but the fact is that until we discover little green men from outer space, we'll never know if there could have been a different, more complicated and less useful (from the biologist's point of view) way of constructing our chromosomes.
As I've mentioned before in my OF SYSTEMS POSSIBLE post, I don't quite follow the willingness of some to speculate about different structures of nature as if they're speaking of anything intelligible. What can "triple-helix, with some bizarre, non-linear coding and binding properties" really mean? I raise the point because it's central to Murtaugh's concluding point which I'll get to.

When we speculate on how things might be, how, for example, there might be some universe different from ours because it's grounded in different laws of nature, different fundamental constants, we should be on guard that we are really saying something intelligible. What can we really say about other possible life forms, worlds, or universes?

We can know that any possible life forms, worlds, or universes can't contain contradictions (e.g. square circle) because they would have at least one thing in common with the way things are now: existence. And "existence" suggests fundamental principles like a thing can't be (e.g. square) and not be (e.g. not square) at the same time in the same respect. But with the exception of these negative metaphysical assertions, I don't think there's really much anyone can say with certainty. And the main reason for this is that all of our thought originates from our senses.

Our consideration of possible life forms, worlds, or universes is bound by the nature of things we experience in this universe. We know nothing that isn't derived from what exists in our universe. Any creature we imagine, perhaps one with genetic material that is a "triple-helix, with some bizarre, non-linear coding and binding properties," any world we imagine, any story we conjure up, will necessarily derive from our experience in our universe. Everything we know originates from our senses. We abstract, compose and divide, we reason from what is more known to what is less known, but all of the grist in our mind's mill comes from our world. That is the rock-ribbed truth of any realist philosophy. When we conjure up imaginary creatures, whether it be a unicorn, E.T., a sandworm, or a hobbit, we have no idea about whether such creatures could actually exist. This is not simply because we don't know if such creations violate fundamental laws of biology, but also, and more fundamentally, we don't know if such creations violate fundamental aspects of existence which are the foundation for any laws of nature.

Murtaugh wasn't suggesting that a "triple-helix, with some bizarre, non-linear coding and binding properties" actually exists. But his conclusion seems to suggest that a lot of things fell into place for us to have learned about and be able to manipulate genetic material as much as we can:
And since Watson and Crick? Most biologists are unsympathetic to William Paley's argument from design, but perhaps they might be susceptible to an even older argument for the existence of God, based on the abundant goodness of the world. They might say, if the DNA had been a double helix, but there hadn't been bacteriophages around to help us understand its function, that would have been enough. And if there had been bacteriophages, but no restriction enzymes to let us cut and paste DNA in the lab, that would have been enough. And if there had been restriction enzymes, but no reverse transcriptase to let us capture genes in action, that would have been enough. And if there had been reverse transcriptase, but no green fluorescent protein to light up the inside of the living cell, that would have been enough. And if…

It's not the worst argument I've heard on God's behalf, and it contains a ready rebuke to anti-biotech activists: if we're doing something against God's will, why did He give us such good tools to do it with?
Most folks will object to the obvious fact that availability of good tools doesn't shed any light on the morality of exploiting the fruits of those tools. And I think the point was a bit rhetorical. But there's a more fundamental mistake here. The assumption is that the double-helix structure of DNA could be in a world without bacteriophages; that bacteriophages could be in a world without restriction enzymes; that restriction enzymes could be in a world without reverse transcriptase; and that reverse transcriptase could be in a world without green fluorescent protein. In other words, the observation that all of these things occurred in our world and are thus available to us doesn't mean anything unless we can know that they might not have all appeared in the same world. We can't know if any of these things and every other thing and aspect of our world could have arisen apart from the conditions we find. We can't know because we quite literally don't know what it takes to make something exist, to make something from nothing. We simply don't know the "structure" existence requires.

So, the argument is moot and goes the way of any argument that suggests that it's amazing that things are the way they are. It's possible that things are the only way they could be.


Saturday, March 01, 2003


Perhaps predictably, a number of blogs picked up and ran with a silly headline, Pope hits out against sarcasm, and summary of this papal audience. The summary had blurbs like this:
Pope John Paul II described sarcasm as a modern form of martyrdom, suggesting a sarcastic person delights in "isolating the righteous with mockery and irony".
This quickly got morphed further into the idea that the pope had denounced sarcasm when used anytime anywhere. How does a speech on a passage from the Old Testament get transformed into the notion that the pope thinks sarcasm is not appropriate in any forum? Obviously it's the perennial problem of not reading the actual documents when they are actually available. But there's also a propensity in some to take headlines and summaries quite literally when it can make a convenient rhetorical point. The former is perhaps excusable since no one can read everything that pertains to some issue that he or she wants to splatter onto a blog. The latter seems a bit disingenuous though. If you're really going to treat a headline, paraphrase, or summary and their inevitable lack of context as equivalent to what someone actually said, then your point becomes tabloid filler rather than a serious and sober response to an important issue.

If you're interested, the "sarcasm" reference was from this line: "And we know that the persecutor does not always assume the violent and macabre countenance of the oppressor, but often is pleased to isolate the righteous with mockery and irony, asking him with sarcasm: 'Where is your God?' (Psalm 41[42]:4,11)." Note that in the context of the speech the pope is discussing Daniel 3:51 and, even more narrowly, he is making a reference to a Psalm when he mentions sarcasm.