Minute Particulars

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

Tuesday, April 29, 2003


Above is a picture of a helium party balloon (not a monstrance from the 70's) that has become my 16-month-old son's favorite toy. I decided to teach him some Archimedean principles have some fun with him by showing him how he can make the balloon go up and down by adding or removing things from its basket which you see below.

Since I didn't want to use paperclips or other small items that he would surely try to eat, I used Cheerios (it takes 15 Cheerios to get a slight negative buoyancy if you're wondering). Of course, by introducing Cheerios, which my son loves, I unintentionally presented him with a dilemma:
- Eat all the Cheerios and the balloon will float up to the ceiling where you can't reach it.
- Leave the Cheerios and the balloon will stay within reach.
How did I slice through this Gordian Knot and keep my boy from tears?

A side bowl with lots of Cheerios in it (and on the floor, and couch, and under the table, and in the corner, and . . .) to place in mouth or basket as necessary. Which goes to show you that you can have your ballast and eat it too.


Monday, April 28, 2003


Sunday's Gospel portrays the well-known incident of "Doubting Thomas." It seems Thomas is chastised, or perhaps that's too strong, maybe chided(?), for his desire to see Christ and actually touch him before he will believe:
Jesus said to him, "Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed." (Jn. 20:29)
But I'm not so sure there's anything wrong with his desire to see and perhaps that's not why Jesus mentions Thomas's doubt. After all, Aquinas points out that:
Other things being equal sight is more certain than hearing.
Aquinas then says something that touches on what I think the real issue with Thomas's doubting is. It's not his desire to see as the other apostles had been able to see, but his blindness to the authority his fellow apostles have as witnesses filled with the Holy Spirit:
[B]ut if (the authority of) the person from whom we hear greatly surpasses that of the seer's sight, hearing is more certain than sight: thus a man of little science is more certain about what he hears on the authority of an expert in science, than about what is apparent to him according to his own reason: and much more is a man certain about what he hears from God, Who cannot be deceived, than about what he sees with his own reason, which can be mistaken.
Thomas's doubt is not a problem because he wishes to see, to have evidence he can touch; this is proper and a fully human desire. But he still doubts even after he has been told by those whom he knows and ought to believe. While he may not have known that his fellow apostles had received the Holy Spirit,
And when [Jesus] had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained."
I think we can know that their account to him must have been told with integrity and was believable within the context of their relationships. Hence the problem with Thomas's doubt.




For those interested in the minute particulars of Ecclesia de Eucharistia, the footnote to this important line:
There can be no danger of excess in our care for this mystery, for "in this sacrament is recapitulated the whole mystery of our salvation".
is to St. Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theoligica IIIa q. 83 a. 4 co.:
Since the whole mystery of our salvation is comprised in this sacrament, therefore is it performed with greater solemnity than the other sacraments.
The Latin for this which you'll also find in part in the Latin text of the encyclical is:
Respondeo dicendum quod, quia in hoc sacramento totum mysterium nostrae salutis comprehenditur, ideo prae ceteris sacramentis cum maiori solemnitate agitur.
A look at an Aquinas lexicon (Deferrari) and the context of the question suggests that comprehenditur doesn't only denote "recapitulation" as the English version of the encyclical has it, or "comprised" as the above English translation of the Summa has it. Deferrari suggests:
1) to take in, include in one's self, comprise
2) comprehend, understand
3) seize, reach, hold fast, apprehend, possess (the final goal)
Of these meanings, probably #2 and some of #3 are least applicable in terms of strict denotation; I'm not sure "in this sacrament is comprehended or understood or seized the whole mystery of our salvation" is quite the right sense. I think "taken in" is interesting to contemplate.

As for what can be gleaned from the context of the question from the Summa that this line is from, "Whether the words spoken in this sacrament [the Eucharist] are properly framed [or suitably ordered, convenienter ordinentur]?", I'm not sure we get any further explicit insight so much as a glimpse of how Aquinas understands the structure of the rite of the Sacrament and his reinforcement of the fact that the Eucharist is the central sacrament of the Church.

Also, in the same section of the encyclical, you might be interested to know that the hymn (not referenced in the Vatican version of the encyclical) from Aquinas that the pope ends with, which in the encyclical begins with Bone pastor, panis vere . . ., is the Lauda Sion written for the Feast of Corpus Christi. The Latin behind the words in the encyclical:
Come then, good Shepherd, bread divine,
Still show to us thy mercy sign;
Oh, feed us, still keep us thine;
So we may see thy glories shine
in fields of immortality.
O thou, the wisest, mightiest, best,
Our present food, our future rest,
Come, make us each thy chosen guest,
Co-heirs of thine, and comrades blest
With saints whose dwelling is with thee.
Bone pastor, panis vere,
Iesu nostri miserere,
tu nos pasce, nos tuere,
tu nos bona fac videre
in terra viventium.
Tu qui cuncta scis et vales,
qui nos pascis hic mortales,
tuos ibi commensales,
coheredes et sodales
fac sanctorum civium.
If you ask me, the original gets scratched and dented a bit in the move to English, but I suppose that's inevitable with any poetic translation.


Sunday, April 27, 2003


Our priest mentioned today the book, Guidelines for Mystical Prayer by Ruth Burrows, which I am not familiar with. I found this excerpt online and I have to say that if this is representative of the rest of the book it's probably worth tracking down:
The proud cannot bring themselves to hold out empty hands to God, they insist on offering virtues, good works, self denials, anything in order not to have nothing. They want to be beautiful for him from their own resources, whereas we are beautiful only because God looks on us and makes us beautiful. God cannot give himself to us unless our hands are empty to receive him. The deepest reason why so few of us are saints is because we will not let God love us. To be loved means a naked, defenceless surrender to all God is. It means a glad acceptance of our nothingness, a look fixed only on the God who gives, taking no account of the nothing to whom the gift is made. To lose ourselves like this is the most radical of despoliations because the last shred of self-importance is discarded. The very words and acts of humility can be a barricade of well-nigh infinite subtlety. Jesus came to us precisely to break down the bars, something we could never have done of ourselves. Yet we cannot live the life of Jesus unless we consent to leave our own pitiful lives, and this is what pride finds unendurable. Striving for ‘perfection’ is the most disastrous of the mistakes good people fall into. It feeds the very vice it intends to destroy. Most fervent souls are prepared to give God any mortal thing, work themselves to death, anything except the one thing he wants, total trust: anything but surrender into his loving hands.
If you're familiar with the book I'd appreciate any input.


Friday, April 25, 2003


A short article on Chesterton, Chesterton gone, not forgotten, elicited this response over on relapsed catholic:
And I'm not the only one who's noticed how heavily Christian writers (pro and am) lean upon Chesterton, Lewis, Belloc and, to a lesser extent, Merton, Nouwen, Tolstoy and Dorothy Day. Their quotes and epigrams take up a sometimes shocking amount of space in columns and essays.

Frankly, I'm sick of it, and have been for some time. Many of these folks are certified geniuses, I know, but they are all dead and gone. The whole point of Lewis was that he was writing in terms his contemporaries could undersand. How relevant do you really think his tea-and-crumpets milieu is to most of us today? Brand me a heretic for saying so, but you know it's true: Lewis turns off as many people as he attracts.
Hmm . . . the first sentence in the above article is,
Tradition, he [Chesterton] wrote, "is the democracy of the dead."
Oh well.

But don't most people understand that these writers lived in a particular context? If something is profound enough, or clever enough, why rephrase it or avoid it? If a quote is obscure or irrelevant, who would include it in the first place?

Here's an example. I've always liked this image from Lewis when he describes entering a toolshed one bright sunny day and seeing a beam of light coming through a small hole in the wall:
Everything else was almost pitch-black. I was seeing the beam, not seeing things by it. Then I moved, so that the beam fell on my eyes. Instantly the whole previous picture vanished . . . . As soon as you have grasped this simple distinction, it raises a question. You get one experience of a thing when you look along it and another when you look at it. Which is the true or valid experience? Which tells you most about the thing?
Now then, should I not use it? Should I reword it and present it as mine so that I don't "turn off" anyone who can't stand words from writers who are dead and gone?

Such silliness.


Thursday, April 24, 2003


Pioneer Plaque

Mr. Riddle of Flos Carmeli was kind enough to respond to my below post. I agree with his quibble that my phrase "human beings are substantially unique among all beings of the Universe" is, as another blogger might politely put it, "insufficiently nuanced." But I would further nuance it for reasons other than those Mr. Riddle raises. He is right that, really, every creature is unique from many perspectives including those of biology and philosophy. But he then heads in a direction that leaves the issue of unique substances -- which is what I was discussing and where I would further nuance -- and heads into a method of distinguishing creatures that is based in biochemistry, which of course is scientifically sound, but philosophically, at least traditionally, only involves accidental aspects, e.g. the number and arrangement of molecules. But substantial difference doesn't derive from these material considerations, but from formal considerations of essence and intelligibility. All things, including the molecules that form our genetic blueprints consist of principles of potency (matter) and actuality (form).

If we work in broad strokes we will find that among corporeal existing things (let's not worry about angels for now) there are four kinds of things that are clearly formally different: "corporeal substance, living corporeal substance, sensitive corporeal substance, and rational sensitive corporeal substance."* A rock exists but is not alive. A geranium exists and is alive. A poodle exists, is alive, and is sensate. A human being exists, is alive, is sensate, and is intelligent. Arguably for some, further formal distinctions can be derived within each of these four kinds of corporeal substance, but it gets trickier -- e.g. what really is the formal difference between a cat, dog, and horse other than "catness," "dogness," or "horseness"? We recognize each and can distinguish them which suggests a formal difference, but it's not as easy to track philosophically as the above four distinctions and, anyway, it's not germane to my point here.

What I meant by saying that "human beings are substantially unique among all beings of the Universe" is that human beings dwell in a metaphysically unique place in possible existing creatures. Human beings dwell on the boundary of material and immaterial existence, having a material existence as a corporeal being immersed in history and an immaterial existence in that the human soul is an immaterial (i.e. it is above material conditions) subsistent (i.e. it can exist apart from the matter it animates) form (i.e. it is a principle of actuality):
[T]he 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)
And I would further claim, and it seems Mr. Riddle wants to resist this, that human beings described as such are unique among all creatures in the Universe because they dwell in a metaphysically unique place. No other creature has both corporeal and incorporeal aspects and because this is a metaphysical boundary on a scale of being that is distinguished by "more or less actuality," one cannot have more than one kind of entity in that "position"; a creature with "more actuality" than a human is a pure intelligence and not corporeal; a creature with "less actuality" than a human is not intelligent. If there are extraterrestrial intelligent corporeal beings, then they, I submit, would be recognizably (formally) human, though they might have very different accidental characteristics (yes, yes, perhaps pointed ears or the like).

While this might seem a claim that can't be refuted unless you drag in an intelligent corporeal being who is not human (historically and disturbingly this has of course been attempted when the humanity of others has been denied legally or just as a matter of social understanding), I think the philosophical uniqueness of the human being can be grounded in principles of reason. But, for believers, we also have the stark and staggering fact that the Word, through whom all things were made, became a human being like us in every way but sin. That it was "fitting" for God to become human is about as much as we can say about why He would do such a thing from the perspective of philosophical anthropology. But surely the act itself eclipses, at least in my mind, any musings about His dwelling elsewhere in the Universe.

Perhaps He has, though I find the possibility fairly uninteresting compared with the unsurpassable fact that He became one of us. But what, then, are we to do with the various teachings that imply that the Incarnation is, er, I hesitate to use the word, "unique" in Creation? What would "the fullness of time" mean in a Universe where God dwelt among others? What about the sublime teaching that Mary is the Mother of God, Theotokos? How many mothers can God have? And so forth.

Perhaps more when time permits. . .

* - I'm using John N. Deely's terms from an old Thomist article ("The Philosophical Dimensions of the Origin of Species," Thomist 32 (1969) 331) where he writes (uh, at least he uses a few semicolons to let you catch your breath):
[I]f by species you understand a type of grade of being irreducible in a hierarchy by reason of a formal difference, a type so related within the hierarchy as to be unilinearly situated as higher or lower than the ones immediately below or above by the addition or subtraction of a unit difference peculiar to that one step of gradation in the natural hierarchy -- an irreducible level of intelligibility which admits of no intermediate stage -- then there are but four species: corporeal substance, living corporeal substance, sensitive corporeal substance, and rational sensitive corporeal substance; for only these four notions taken as types of being can be so defined inductively that their respective differences differentiate every inorganic composite, the highest (most active) as well as the lowest, from every plant, the lowest as well as the highest; and so on for plants and animals, animals and men.


Wednesday, April 23, 2003


Let's say you're wondering if I have the ability to shoot an arrow into the center of a target from 50 yards away. You won't know much about this ability by looking at me just standing around. I suppose you could determine that I can see and that I have two arms with working hands so that I could likely use a bow and arrow. But until I actually demonstrate my ability, you won't know if I am capable of it.

When you observe me shooting the arrow (the action) and see that the arrow flies successfully to the target (the agreed upon object of my action), then you know that I have the ability to shoot an arrow into the center of a target from 50 yards away.

Abilities are distinguished by actions, and actions are distinguished by objects. This is one of the central tenets of traditional philosophical approaches to human nature. We speak of a principle of life, of a "soul" in philosophy, not because there must be some wispy thing that makes things alive, but because we observe actions and their objects and these actions suggest abilities that non-living things don't have. Likewise, traditional explanations of human intelligence, free will, and language come not from superstition, but from our recognition of abilities that are evident from actions which are evident from their objects. And this has important implications for morality.

Traditional morality is grounded in human nature and the consequences of human actions, actions by an intelligent and free creature. But morality will lack any rigor or persuasiveness if intelligence and free will are not seen as fundamentally and distinctly human abilities that are qualitatively different from the abilities of other creatures.

I raise this because I'm beginning to suspect that some folks have become inured to claims that human beings are substantially unique among all beings of the Universe. For Catholics, this inattentiveness would surely be a grave failure to contemplate and cherish the Incarnation and its inexhaustible implications for human beings, human nature, the human person, and the startling fact that every human being was willed freely and deliberately into existence by the Creator:
Of all visible creatures only man is "able to know and love his creator". He is "the only creature on earth that God has willed for its own sake", and he alone is called to share, by knowledge and love, in God's own life. It was for this end that he was created, and this is the fundamental reason for his dignity:
What made you establish man in so great a dignity? Certainly the incalculable love by which you have looked on your creature in yourself! You are taken with love for her; for by love indeed you created her, by love you have given her a being capable of tasting your eternal Good. (CCC, 356)
And as Pope John Paul II teaches,
For, by his Incarnation, he, the son of God, in a certain way united himself with each man. He worked with human hands, he thought with a human mind. He acted with a human will, and with a human heart he loved. Born of the Virgin Mary, he has truly been made one of us, like to us in all things except sin", he, the Redeemer of man. (Redemptor Hominis)
Thus the teaching and urgency for Catholics.

But unbelievers are not exempt from deriving morality from the uniqueness of human abilities. And it seems that for some reasonable and unbelieving people of good will, there does seem to be a kind of blindness to the uniqueness of the human being, a uniqueness that can be demonstrated from reason alone (though, of course, the conclusions of such demonstrations will lack the depth of the above teachings from Revelation). Perhaps it's the creeping influence of materialism that's to blame; and surely a pervasive secular humanism that is bereft of many of its original notions of human nature contributes to this; more likely and on a deeper level I suspect the persistent affronts to human dignity and human life we are immersed in from our global perspective have worn many of us down and left a hardened glaze that prevents such considerations from seeping in.

Whatever the reasons, a failure to recognize human uniqueness and the dignity that derives from it will continue to corrode our ability to ground moral reasoning in the concrete reality of human action. Without such grounding, our moral judgments will drift into the abstractions of utility and power, rather than remaining firmly rooted in incarnate being.




Most blogs that comment on events rather than just link to comments on events consist largely of throw-away remarks dashed off in a hurry. But what's so interesting about this is that even such remarks can lead one to some really interesting places. Thomas de Disputationibus made a casual observation on the difficulty he has with the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar whose admirers often seem long on enthusiasm but short on clarity when they try to explain what von Balthasar is up to as he dwells and revels in apparent contradictions. His post generated a comment thread with some very fine remarks. As Tom puts it:
I mumble something that sounds reasoned -- like the mathematician's wife who learned to ask algebraists, "But do the roots lie in the field?" -- and people who know a lot of things I don't fill me in.
Someone in the above comment thread mentioned that Fr. Bryce Sibley recently had a number of posts and links on von Balthasar. Tom followed by throwing in some more remarks along with some useful links. One of the links was to a page called Balthasar Via Nichols, where Fr. Aidan Nichols, O.P. has some links to and excerpts from his guides to von Balthasar's theology. Included in one of the excerpts is this interesting statement:
The whole of Theologik I could be described as a meditation on a somewhat throw-away remark of Thomas' in the Commentary on the Sentences: res corporales sunt in anima nobiliori modo quam in seipsis, 'bodily things are in the soul in a more noble fashion than they are in themselves'.
And the circle is complete! A casual remark here, an off-handed comment there, lead me to a nice little "throw-away remark" in one of the lesser-known texts of Aquinas. Here's the full text from Aquinas if your Latin is in working order (scroll down to Super Sent., lib. 1 d. 3 q. 4 a. 4 co.).


Tuesday, April 22, 2003


A kind blogger pointed out that higher-order vagueness is even more fun than vagueness. A little Googling coughed up this paper (PDF) which starts out:
Sorensen (1985) has argued that 'vague' is itself a vague predicate; it is just assorites-prone as its positive instances. This result has been exploited by Hyde (1994) in an ingenious attempt to establish that vague predicates must necessarily suffer from higher-order vagueness
This got me thinking, is there a field on, oh, how about imprecision? Yes indeed. This is from the abstract of Optimal Imprecision and Ignorance (PDF) that, you'll be happy to know (I think) is about investment strategy rather than building airplanes or some such thing:
Firms often make investment choices in the light of profitability information unknown to the capital market, and accounting measurements of investment are invariably imprecise. We examine how the market's ignorance interacts with measurement imprecision in simultaneously determining equilibrium investment and capital market prices. We show that both ignorance and imprecision are value enhancing. An appropriate balance of ignorance and imprecision is needed to induce optimal investment decisions.
As I said about the philosophical field of vagueness, I don't doubt the validity or merit of these things, but it must be fun to be on the phone and say to your client:
Your portfolio has an appropriate balance of ignorance and imprecision. I'm sure you're pleased.




Thoughts Arguments and Rants (via Matthew Yglesias) is an interesting philosophy blog by Brian Weatherson who is an expert in Vagueness. I'd never heard of the field of "Vagueness" and I don't doubt its merit (cf. Vagueness Page); but I'm sure such expertise is a lot of fun in class:
That wasn't clear? Well thanks for the compliment. You are very kind.




. . . war is always a betrayal: of the young by the old, of soldiers by politicians, of idealists by cynics. I wish it weren't true, but it is, and it breaks my heart
Before you grouse that this article with the above words of Chris Hedges is just another damn piece of pacifist pap, look at Hedges' background:
I began covering insurgencies in El Salvador, where I spent five years, then went on to Guatemala and Nicaragua and Colombia through the first intifada in the West Bank and Gaza, the civil war in the Sudan and Yemen, the uprisings in Algeria and the Punjab, the fall of the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, the Gulf War, the Kurdish rebellion in southeast Turkey and northern Iraq, the war in Bosnia, and finally to Kosovo . . . . I have been in ambushes on desolate stretches of Central American roads, shot at in the marshes of southern Iraq, imprisoned in the Sudan, beaten by Saudi military police, deported from Libya and Iran, captured and held for a week by Iraqi Republican Guard during the Shiite rebellion following the Gulf War, strafed by Russian Mig-21s in Bosnia, fired upon by Serb snipers, and shelled for days in Sarajevo with deafening rounds of heavy artillery that threw out thousands of deadly bits of iron fragments.
That doesn't mean anything he says about war is necessarily right or even profound; but it ought to make even the most strident defenders of the war with Iraq, most of whom I suspect have little if any similar experience, at least give him a listen. The few quotes from Hedges in this article didn't strike me as deep or sophisticated, but their starkness and context offer a voice not often heard.

Hedges makes it clear that he's not advocating pacifism:
"I'm not a pacifist," Hedges said. "I've studied Just War theory, and I understand there are some wars that are necessary. I've known many soldiers who are honorable and admirable. In the first chapter of my book I mention two generals, Ulysses S. Grant and Wesley Clark, who are great leaders. But they say no one hates war more than a soldier who's been in it. What I'm saying isn't a slam on the military. It's an effort to expose war for what it is."
So what does he have to say about war in our time?
"We've lost touch completely with what war is," he said. "The way the war is being portrayed is nothing more than a celebration of our power and weaponry. It's a giant commercial for the U.S. military. It's not war, it's a packaged version of war, like a sports event or a video game. (TV) gives it a narrative it doesn't have, quite intentionally. People don't want to see what it's really like, so (the TV networks) show maps and soldiers eating next to their tanks and the rescue of Jessica Lynch. We're not seeing what the rest of the world is seeing."

And what is the rest of the world seeing?

"They're seeing a lot more Iraqi civilian casualties," Hedges said. "What they see is a lot more focused on the results of the fighting, of what happens when the bombs drop."
Later in the article he states:
"Shock and awe, Showdown with Iraq, Operation Iraqi Freedom -- what do these things mean?" he said. "Cliches are not only the enemy of good writing but of clear thinking. I've seen it in war after war. By using these phrases, by taking control of the terms, they make it harder to express another way of thinking."

Expressing another way of thinking is possible, Hedges said, even while the war in Iraq continues. The costs -- personal, political, financial and historical -- cannot begin to be counted yet, but he knows one place to start.

"We're going to pay for every bomb we drop," Hedges said. "And we should. You have to remember, war is always a betrayal: of the young by the old, of soldiers by politicians, of idealists by cynics. I wish it weren't true, but it is, and it breaks my heart."


Monday, April 21, 2003


The President's Council on Bioethics (via Eve Tushnet) has a new From Our Bookshelf feature that's nicely done.
Bioethics generally touches matters close to the core of our humanity: birth and death, body and mind, sickness and health, freedom and dignity are but a few. From the beginning, human beings have addressed these matters in works of history, philosophy, literature and religious meditation. These works can be invaluable companions as we grapple to understand our brave new biotechnology.

In "From Our Bookshelf," we offer a selection of these works for interested readers. Each of the readings that follow - which include poetry, short stories and more - is accompanied by a brief introduction and questions about the bioethical implications of the work. The questions are suitable for discussion by groups reading together, or for study by individuals reading alone.
Here's an example of what they've done with a fairly well known text, Discourse on Method by Rene Descartes
In . . . Part I, Descartes gives an account of his early education, indicating why he rejected all book learning and nearly all the then-extant sciences: Their teachings were either uncertain or useless, or both. This desire for certain and useful knowledge led him to devise a method that would yield such knowledge, a method that combined elements of the previously distinct sciences of arithmetic and geometry to form what we today call analytic geometry . . . . Armed with this new mathematics, Descartes then shows how it could lead to an entirely new science of nature (physics), devoted not to discovering the nature of things but to describing precisely all the material changes they undergo, in terms of laws formulable as equations . . . .

In the second excerpt, from the beginning of Part VI, Descartes in a famous passage tells the reader why he publishes, despite the great danger that he might in doing so run afoul of the Inquisition. He has discovered “knowledge very useful in life,” practical knowledge that could enable us to become “like masters and possessors of nature.” Such “mastery,” Descartes predicts, will enable us to satisfy all basic needs without toil, to conserve health, to make men wiser and more capable, and even to conquer the infirmities of age: in a word, to lift the curse laid on Adam and Eve and to regain the tree of life by means of the tree of (scientific) knowledge. What moves the soul of Descartes? What is the demand for certainty? For utility?

Is there some connection between these motives and the insistence on “methodical” knowledge?
Is there some connection between these motives and the goals of “mastery and possession of nature”?
Can we have certain knowledge about all the questions that we are inclined to ask, even about the natural world and about human beings?
Who stands to benefit from the new practical science? What is the implied relationship between the scientist and the broader society?
I suppose this all might strike some as a little too high-schoolish, but I thought the selections and questions were quite good. It's worth a look.




I just e-swerved into a really nice Latin resource, Forum Romanum, which "is a collaborative project among scholars, teachers, and students with the broad purpose of bringing classical scholarship out of college libraries and into a more accessible, online medium." It's very well done.




First Lt. Justin Chandler tries to comfort the children of a wounded Iraqi civilian, who American medics worked on nearby. Photo by Peter Sleeth/The Oregonian

This is a really remarkable little article from a photographer embedded in Iraq. Here's an excerpt about the above photo (which isn't included in the online version when last I checked):
At one point, alarmed by warnings of a counterattack, a CNN photographer and I hunkered behind the engine of a Humvee for protection.

Just yards away, four Iraqi corpses hung from a burning truck or lay spread on the pavement, a macabre reminder of an attempted suicide bombing just hours earlier.

In the midst of all this, 1st Lt. Justin Chandler was giving Skittles and sweetened water to two Iraqi children, and I took the picture. It was the only picture I took of that afternoon on a side street in As Samawah, Iraq. The picture told a little story, but it left out so much of what was happening all around me.

War correspondence is like that -- you take a shot at what you see, but most remains untold. Journalism is about facts, figures and quotes. In our format, much of the truth of war doesn't make it home. . . .

. . . . Probably 95 percent of those soldiers had never been in battle. One soldier I knew and liked was small, yet he carried the biggest infantry weapon soldiers carry -- a machine gun that weighs about 23 pounds and puts out 800 rounds a minute. He got in his first fight and killed a man with that gun at As Samawah.

I saw him later; it seems trite to say he was changed, but he was. His face was grimy and he looked very tired. He no longer carried the machine gun. He carried a rifle. I asked him why. He said the machine gun was just too heavy for him.

I doubted that.

I think what the machine gun did that day at As Samawah was too heavy for him. Stories like his rarely get told, for a lot of reasons. Like the picture of the lieutenant with the kids, you can only capture so much in war. It never seems like you have told the whole story.


Thursday, April 17, 2003

Monday, April 14, 2003


Matthew Yglesias discusses Atheism and Moral Progress (archive problems!) (via Eve Tushnet) by quoting from Derek Parfit’s Reasons and Persons:
Some people believe that there cannot be progress in Ethics, since everything has already been said. Like Rawls and Nagel, I believe the opposite. How many people have made Non-Religious Ethics their life’s work? Before the recent past, very few. In most civilizations, most people have believed in the existence of a God, or of several gods. A large minority were in fact Atheists, whatever they pretended. But, before the recent past, very few Atheists made Ethics their life’s work. Buddha may be among the few, as may be Confucius and a few Ancient Greeks and Romans. After more than a thousand years, there were a few more between the Sixteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Hume was an Atheist who made Ethics part of his life’s work. Sidgwick was another. After Sidgwick, there were several Atheists who were professional moral philosophers. But most of these did not do Ethics. They did Meta-Ethics. They did not ask what outcomes would be good or bad, or which acts would be right or wrong. They asked, and wrote about, only the meaning of moral language, and the question of objectivity. Non-Religious Ethics has been systematically studied, by many people, only since about 1960. Compared with the other sciences, Non-Religious Ethics is the youngest and the least advanced.
Yglesias then comments:
I assume religious people will find this condescending and offensive, and rightly so. Nevertheless, I think the point is worth making, not as an exercize in religion-bashing, but as something for non-theists to think about. In particular, I have the sense that many of the “intuitions” that moral philosophers like to appeal to are grounded in the cultural heritage of christianity and that insofar as this is true, you have no more reason to respect the intuition than you do to respect the truth of christianity.
Well, I've not read Parfit, but there is the moral "intuition" from natural law that, while deepened and clarified by Revelation and Church Teaching, does not necessarily depend on Revelation or belief. Aquinas's Treatise on Law examines natural law quite extensively. Here, in my opinion, is the heart of what is traditionally meant by natural law, from Aquinas's ST 1a2ae 94, 2 resp.:
[T]he precepts of the natural law are to the practical reason, what the first principles of demonstrations are to the speculative reason; because both are self-evident principles. Now a thing is said to be self-evident in two ways: first, in itself; secondly, in relation to us. Any proposition is said to be self-evident in itself, if its predicate is contained in the notion of the subject: although, to one who knows not the definition of the subject, it happens that such a proposition is not self-evident. For instance, this proposition, "Man is a rational being," is, in its very nature, self-evident, since who says "man," says "a rational being": and yet to one who knows not what a man is, this proposition is not self-evident. Hence it is that, as Boethius says (De Hebdom.), certain axioms or propositions are universally self-evident to all; and such are those propositions whose terms are known to all, as, "Every whole is greater than its part," and, "Things equal to one and the same are equal to one another." But some propositions are self-evident only to the wise, who understand the meaning of the terms of such propositions: thus to one who understands that an angel is not a body, it is self-evident that an angel is not circumscriptively in a place: but this is not evident to the unlearned, for they cannot grasp it.

Now a certain order is to be found in those things that are apprehended universally. For that which, before aught else, falls under apprehension, is "being," the notion of which is included in all things whatsoever a man apprehends. Wherefore the first indemonstrable principle is that "the same thing cannot be affirmed and denied at the same time," which is based on the notion of "being" and "not-being": and on this principle all others are based, as is stated in Metaph. iv, text. 9. Now as "being" is the first thing that falls under the apprehension simply, so "good" is the first thing that falls under the apprehension of the practical reason, which is directed to action: since every agent acts for an end under the aspect of good. Consequently the first principle of practical reason is one founded on the notion of good, viz. that "good is that which all things seek after." Hence this is the first precept of law, that "good is to be done and pursued, and evil is to be avoided." All other precepts of the natural law are based upon this: so that whatever the practical reason naturally apprehends as man's good (or evil) belongs to the precepts of the natural law as something to be done or avoided.

Since, however, good has the nature of an end, and evil, the nature of a contrary, hence it is that all those things to which man has a natural inclination, are naturally apprehended by reason as being good, and consequently as objects of pursuit, and their contraries as evil, and objects of avoidance. Wherefore according to the order of natural inclinations, is the order of the precepts of the natural law. Because in man there is first of all an inclination to good in accordance with the nature which he has in common with all substances: inasmuch as every substance seeks the preservation of its own being, according to its nature: and by reason of this inclination, whatever is a means of preserving human life, and of warding off its obstacles, belongs to the natural law. Secondly, there is in man an inclination to things that pertain to him more specially, according to that nature which he has in common with other animals: and in virtue of this inclination, those things are said to belong to the natural law, "which nature has taught to all animals" [*Pandect. Just. I, tit. i], such as sexual intercourse, education of offspring and so forth. Thirdly, there is in man an inclination to good, according to the nature of his reason, which nature is proper to him: thus man has a natural inclination to know the truth about God, and to live in society: and in this respect, whatever pertains to this inclination belongs to the natural law; for instance, to shun ignorance, to avoid offending those among whom one has to live, and other such things regarding the above inclination.(emphasis added)


Saturday, April 12, 2003


Interesting images (via Medpundit) from Andreas Vesalius's De Humani Corporis Fabrica, 1543


Friday, April 11, 2003


Interesting update (via Medpundit) on the scientific possibility of human cloning:
Whether or not rogue scientists could clone a human is hotly debated. After 6 years trying, on over 700 monkey eggs, Gerald Schatten of the University of Pittsburgh says not.

The current technique, his team conclude, robs primate eggs of proteins they need to survive. The 'nuclear transfer' procedure used to create Dolly the sheep "paralyses the egg", Schatten says. Key proteins are sucked out when the egg is stripped of its DNA to be replaced with genetic material from another cell.

Cloning has worked in mice, sheep and other animals because their eggs contain back-up supplies of these proteins, says Schatten. The conventional technique "will have to be modified" to make it work on primates, including humans, agrees Roger Pedersen, who studies cloning at the University of Cambridge, UK.




I'm a little ashamed to admit that my dialogue with other Catholic bloggers sometimes seems like inter-religious dialogue. I think this impression is surely the result of a lack of charity on my part. I recently emailed the following Flannery O'Connor quote to one blogger I was discussing this with:
All voluntary baptisms are a miracle to me and stop my mouth as much as if I had just seen Lazarus walk out of the tomb. I suppose it's because I know that it had to be given to me before the age of reason, or I wouldn't have used any reason to find it.
My point was that the positions of a number of Catholic bloggers seem just plain untenable to me; and I'm sure they think the same of my points. I guess I'm struck with awe that we who profess the same Faith can hold so many contrary opinions. But I also find it comforting that this vast difference of opinions is somehow loosely yet firmly held together by our common faith.

All of this got me thinking about differences of opinion in light of the charity that we're all called to. Aquinas writes that,
Concord which is an effect of charity, is the union of wills, not opinion. (ST 2a2ae, 37, 1, resp.)
His words point out an aspect of "concord" that I think we don't distinguish much these days. The modern propensity is to equate concord and genuine community with intellectual agreement; this, I think, has obscured the deeper understanding of vital communal activity as the union of wills and the effect of charity. What is paramount to a community is not consensus of opinion, but a common inclination toward a common object. Elsewhere, Aquinas writes:
For concord, properly speaking, is between one man and another, in so far as the wills of various hearts agree together in consenting to the same thing. " (ST 2a2ae, 29, 1, resp.)
The modern conflation of consensus of opinion with concord, the union of wills in the love of a common object, has, ironically, spawned both breezy relativisms that cannot consistently object to any affront to human dignity and rigid objectivisms that often exclude different approaches to the same truth. When St. Thomas states that:
[F]riends need not agree in opinion, but only upon such goods as conduce to life, and especially upon such as are important; because dissension in small matters is scarcely accounted dissension.
he is touching on an important but little noticed truth: that loving the same thing is different from opining the same thing. Aquinas continues,
Hence nothing hinders those who have charity from holding different opinions. Nor is this an obstacle to peace, because opinions concern the intellect, which precedes the appetite that is united by peace. In like manner if there be concord as to goods of importance, dissension with regard to some that are of little account is not contrary to charity: for such a dissension proceeds from a difference of opinion, because one man thinks that the particular good, which is the object of dissension, belongs to the good about which they agree, while the other thinks that it does not. Accordingly such like dissension about very slight matters and about opinions is inconsistent with a state of perfect peace, wherein the truth will be known fully, and every desire fulfilled; but it is not inconsistent with the imperfect peace of the wayfarer. (ST 2a2ae, 29, 3, ad 2)
For all of us on the way, wayfarers, peace within a community and peace between communities will indeed be an "imperfect peace." But even this imperfect peace is built directly from charity, and only indirectly from justice and similar opinion. As Aquinas explains immediately following the above,
Peace is the "work of justice" indirectly, in so far as justice removes the obstacles to peace: but it is the work of charity directly, since charity, according to its very nature, causes peace. For love is "a unitive force" as Dionysius says (Div. Nom. iv): and peace is the union of the appetite's inclinations. (ST 2a2ae, 29, 3, ad 3)
Perhaps more on this when I get a chance.


Wednesday, April 09, 2003


Simone de Beauvoir wrote,
Whether you think of it as heavenly or as earthly, if you love life immortality is no consolation for death.
Her words will seem shallow and naïve to anyone who hopes for the beatific vision, and they are on some level. Still, she touches on a very important point: the potential loss of our or a loved one's greatest natural good is simply not consolable by the fact that we may somehow live on in another state. If we too easily dismiss the tragedy of death then we too easily dismiss the good and rich possibilities of human life. "You cant be alive forever," one of Faulkner's characters explains, "and you always wear out life long before you have exhausted the possibilities of living." Death is the ultimate natural privation of the human being. Flannery O'Connor famously wrote, "You can't be any poorer than dead"; and St. Thomas Aquinas puts it about as bluntly as one can:
Omnium autem humanorum malorum gravius est mors, per quam tollitur vita humana, unde nullum magis signum dilectionis esse potest quam quod homo pro amico vero se morti exponat.(Compendium theologiae, lib. 1 cap. 227 )
[Of all human evils death is the most grievous, by which human life is destroyed; and so, no greater sign of love is possible than that a man face death on behalf of a friend.]
And finally, Hans Urs von Balthasar situates death in an angst-ridden and disturbing quote (not sure where I got this, it's on an index card like the above quotes from a stack of these kinds of things and I didn't note the work it was from)
In death the uncompletability of man becomes obvious to the point of absurdity, because his descent into corruption destroys any vague remaining hope of integration. When the beloved face loses its color and starts to decay, a curtain is lowered which separates forever: a unique being has gone, irrevocably. No transmigration of souls, no reunion on "other planets," is a satisfactory substitute for continuation. But death, attacking the sense of life at its core, is not simply an external catastrophe, the Fates cutting the thread. It seems to reveal a whole gradient in life that falls away in the opposite direction from wholeness.
I've gathered all of these fine quotes and cobbled them together to respond to something that was tugging at me in some of the comments on this post over on Disputations (Kairos morphed his comments into a post here). I think we need to be very careful in our discussions about moral issues of life and death that we don't drift into a notion of death that isn't tragic or gloss over the death of even one human being in our moral calculations.

In the Catholic Tradition, death is not natural; and since the Fall it is the greatest natural privation we can suffer. The death of human beings is a tragedy and an event that we are right to mourn and ought to mourn. That sin and death are inextricably linked in Scripture and the Tradition is a profound point. Sin, like death, is a corruption of the good that we are all called to:
Court not death by your erring way of life, nor draw to yourselves destruction by the works of your hands. Because God did not make death, nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living. For he fashioned all things that they might have being. (Wis. 1:12-14)
The idea that death should not be deeply troubling to Christians can be propped up from a number of passages of the "Death, where is thy sting" motif. But these conceits point to the efficacy of the Resurrection and, I think, aren't descriptions of how we ought to comport ourselves when facing our own or another's death. While we are indeed incarnate beings who have a share in eternal life, our natural condition is a good and our natural desire is for being, existence, life. Surely there are things worth dying for. And surely the Passion and Death of Christ, the ultimate sacrifice that we will soon celebrate, makes this fact perfectly clear. But all human beings are called to live life fully and with an understanding of death that is not a Pollyannaish dismissal of the ultimate natural privation we all face. The rip in the fabric of our lives that the death of those whom we love represents and the shudder many feel at seeing young lives end in circumstances that were not inevitable is a very real sundering of our well being. Those who hope for eternal life ought to see that part of that hope is grounded in the very condition we mourn when others die, our fragile lives.


Tuesday, April 08, 2003


Aquinas scholars are crackling with excitement and frabjous joy at the recent discovery of a disputed question (archive problems may require that you go here and scroll down) thought to have been destroyed in the Outgrabe of Mome Raths that occurred late in the 13th century. The only other extant comments on the subject come from the little known philosopher and critic Humptus Dumptus de Muro, who suffered a freak accident that left much of his oeuvre unfinished, or at least softer than most prefer.


Monday, April 07, 2003


A favorite quote of mine on Aquinas is Josef Pieper's:
It is, alas, only too easy for the superficial reader to float along on the unruffled surface of these statements of Thomas Aquinas, which seem transparent to the very bottom, and take no account of the depths over which their serene clarity lies.
Clarity can be deceptive. Shallow water can be "transparent to the very bottom" because, well, it's shallow water. Deep water that is crystal clear, unruffled on the surface, and "transparent to the very bottom" can seem shallow. But there is a big difference if you can't swim.

I've marveled at those who were and continue to be so confident and adamant that war with Iraq was our only option within just-war principles. I'm not now debating the issue; I'm merely marveling at the clarity some claim to have had and continue to have on such a complex issue. And I guess I've never been convinced that this apparent clarity and determination stem from a solid understanding of the Catholic Church's teaching on just-war principles, especially the teaching in some of the encyclicals of Pope John Paul II. Sure there've been learned discussions and links provided to all kinds of resources on just-war theory. But there seems to be a lack of emphasis on the further teaching that the Holy Father has contributed in a number of encyclicals during his nearly 25-year pontificate. This is troubling because, as the pope has pointed out in various places, "continuity and renewal are a proof of the perennial value of the teaching of the Church"*. I wonder if the "renewal" the pope offers has been missed or glossed over. As he explains:
This twofold dimension is typical of her teaching in the social sphere. On the one hand it is constant, for it remains identical in its fundamental inspiration, in its "principles of reflection," in its "criteria of judgment," in its basic "directives for action," and above all in its vital link with the Gospel of the Lord. On the other hand, it is ever new, because it is subject to the necessary and opportune adaptations suggested by the changes in historical conditions and by the unceasing flow of the events which are the setting of the life of people and society.* (emphasis added)
Much of the pope's concern about the Iraqi crisis was and continues to be grounded in this important dynamic of Church Teaching: a renewal that nuances the continuity of the tradition and makes it relevant.

Regardless of your position on Iraq, you can't deny that the past 25 years have been historically remarkable. While we might be able to apply Church Teaching from 25 years ago to many issues today, we would surely find the Teaching lacking if we didn't include the "renewal" that the current pope and Magisterium have contributed over those years. And this is my point. Anyone who has carefully read the relevant documents of Church Teaching on war and our world would, I think, find it difficult to be so confident and adamant. Not because no moral clarity is possible, but because no war is inevitable. This is the tension in much of Pope John Paul II's teaching that makes a posture of confidence and self-assurance difficult to assume in time of war.

War is a failure and disaster in the human endeavor. A war may be just, but it is not inevitable. It may be the last resort, but it is not inevitable. The seeming inevitability of any war is the result of a failure on some level of recognizing our common humanity and acting with integrity. And so I wonder if one of the postures that ought to shape our prayers now as we pray for the safety of all, a quick resolution, and peace, is a posture of humility, and perhaps a gnashing of teeth that somehow we could not see our way through this complex and difficult crisis.




Flos Carmeli has an interesting post on just-war theory (cf. a reply and comments to this over on Disputations). It struck me as a kind of assertion that one can believe something while being convinced that it is unreasonable. Read it and see what you think. Steven's approach reminded me of the intriguing, though I think problematic, statement from Dostoevsky that I discussed a while ago:
[I]f 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.
But even if his suggestion really does boil down to a double-truth claim: a truth revealed by faith contradicting a truth from reason alone, or vice versa, I don't think I'll attempt to work through it here; so much ink has been poured out on whether a truth derived from reason and a truth from faith can ever contradict each other that I wouldn't be stating anything new. When the terms are used properly and within the context of Catholic Teaching, faith and reason don't contradict each other; faith and reason can't contradict each other.

But I would like to look at why it is that truth properly understood and applied, whether derived from reason or believing what someone has testified, whether obtained first, second, or 2000th hand, is one, a unity derived from the most fundamental unity possible. I sometimes wonder if this is not seen by those who think love could be unreasonable, or contrary to what is good, beautiful, true, and virtuous. I think there's a misunderstanding of the unity of truth at the heart of any end justifying the means morality, or any utilitarian calculation of the greatest good for the greatest number.

Etienne Gilson described “the unity of the philosophical experience” to be the fact that all philosophical inquiries, all authentic inquiries into meaning and our place in the Universe, share a common characteristic, a fundamental posture toward existence.
In each instance of philosophical thinking, both the philosopher and his particular doctrine are ruled from above by an impersonal necessity.
This “impersonal necessity” is at the core of our ability to understand. And I use "to understand" here in the sense of a movement of the intellect which starts with first principles known by all, discourses from these to what is not immediately known, and comes to rest again when one indeed understands something new.

Gilson’s point is that, in any intellectual endeavor, the fundamental fact of existence, our own and that of all things, whether or not it is explicitly described as such, is the source and measure of any knowledge we can acquire about anything. When we make a judgment, when we say "A is ___________," that "is" in the statement, the copula, is an explicit reference to existence. All notions we have, whether we are composing or dividing in our minds, all thoughts, all propositions, all judgments are inextricably immersed in an "is-ness." Even imaginary beings either are (in someone's mind) or are not (nobody has thought of them). All of our understanding requires an implicit or explicit "is" or "is not." There is no "kindofisbutnotreally" or "kindofisnotbutnotreally" -- to deny this means, and one can't really say this about too many things, to deny this means you don't understand the terms of the argument. To deny this is to deny that "A is A" or deny the principle of non-contradiction in which a thing cannot both be and not be at the same time in the same respect.

So, when some say that science presents truths about the world that contradict truths presented by religion they are equivocating the term "truth," using "truth" in more than one way. When folks say that they will continue to believe in something that reason has demonstrated to be impossible, they are being foolish, or rather, they aren't really saying anything intelligible because they are in essence saying "A is A and A is not A at the same time in the same respect." They might as well say "blambo forstine inblims abadaba."

Things either are or are not. There's no other option. Yes there are different ways of existing, different "modes of being." But things either are or are not. And thus, whenever we say something "is" some color, or shape, or property, or just "something is," we are making an assertion, an enunciation that is linked to all things that "are," that exist. Truth is one, truth is a unity, because existence is one, existence is a unity.

Steven is an intelligent, sensitive thinker and so I don't mean to cherry pick troublesome phrases. You should read his various posts on just-war issues in their entirety. Still, when he writes:
I must submit to the logic of it--but this is where I do not trust logic.
I probably won't submit to the persuasion of reason on this but follow my heart.
I can't help but wonder if he's not implying a contradiction between reason and faith or even heart and mind. Regardless, this kind of approach creates cracks in the notion that truth is one, a unity that arises from existence itself, and it's an approach that will eventually contradict itself.


Sunday, April 06, 2003


We had a visiting priest give an excellent homily today on the meaning of solidarity with the poor in the recent Teaching of the Church. It drove me to read Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, where I found this remarkable phrase:
(41) . . . But the Church is an "expert in humanity,"* and this leads her necessarily to extend her religious mission to the various fields in which men and women expend their efforts in search of the always relative happiness which is possible in this world, in line with their dignity as persons.
The footnote is to Populorum Progressio, 13, where you'll find:
However, local and individual undertakings are no longer enough. The present situation of the world demands concerted action based on a clear vision of all economic, social, cultural, and spiritual aspects. Experienced in human affairs, the Church, without attempting to interfere in any way in the politics of States, "seeks but a solitary goal: to carry forward the work of Christ Himself under the lead of the befriending Spirit. And Christ entered this world to give witness to the truth, to rescue and not to sit in judgment, to serve and not to be served". Founded to establish on earth the Kingdom of heaven and not to conquer any earthly power, the Church clearly states that the two realms are distinct, just as the two powers, ecclesiastical and civil, are supreme, each in its own domain. But, since the Church lives in history, she ought to "scrutinize the signs of the times and interpret them in the light of the Gospel". Sharing the noblest aspirations of men and suffering when she sees them not satisfied, she wishes to help them attain their full flowering, and that is why she offers men what she possesses as her characteristic attribute: a global vision of man and of the human race.


Friday, April 04, 2003


John Allen of NCR, in his recent column (via Amy Welborn), mentions Cardinal Stafford's interesting comments on the notion that the United States is a “dwelling place of liberty” :
Americans often ask how the Vatican sees the United States, especially in the wake of the sex abuse crisis and now the war.

One such view was on offer last Thursday, March 27, from Cardinal Francis Stafford, an American himself and head of the Pontifical Council for Laity. The occasion was the presentation of a book by Guzmán Carriquiry, Stafford’s under-secretary, entitled A Wager for Latin America. In it, Carriquiry argues for the creation of a “United States of Latin America” as a counter-weight to the United States of (North) America.

Reflecting on the book, Stafford noted that in 1884, at the conclusion of their third plenary council in Baltimore, the U.S. bishops declared: “We retain that the heroes of our country were instruments of God when they created this dwelling place of liberty.”

Is the United States really, Stafford asked, a “dwelling place of liberty?”

Catholic opinion, Stafford noted, is divided. Optimists such as George Weigel, Michael Novak and Richard John Neuhaus assert congruity between the founding ideals of the United States and the Catholic vision of society and the human person. Less sanguine observers, such as David Schindler and the theologians associated with Communio, have their doubts. Stafford said that both he and Carriquiry incline to the second view.

Stafford contrasted a famous Latin American image, Our Lady of Guadalupe, with a famous North American image, the Statue of Liberty. These two icons, he argued, embody different conceptions of human liberty.

Our Lady of Guadalupe, Stafford said, is based on a real person’s experience, that of the Indian peasant Juan Diego, who responded freely to the love of God expressed by Mary. Hence the image reflects the Catholic understanding that true liberty means “taking delight in what is right,” freely choosing to orient oneself to God’s truth in a spirit of thanksgiving.

The Statue of Liberty, created by the French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, depicts an abstraction derived from the European Enlightenment, Stafford said. It exalts the absolute autonomy of the individual. Stafford observed that the woman of the statue is holding a book, but said it is not a book of the natural law founded on eternal truths, but a book of procedural law based on American liberalism.

In short, Stafford believes that mainstream American culture fosters an understanding of freedom that places autonomy before truth. In that sense, Stafford seemed to suggest, to be Catholic in the United States is to be counter-cultural.




I just found a Pronunciation Guide with .wav files for the standard pronunciations of most Lectionary names. It's limited but a nice bookmark if you get stumped.


Thursday, April 03, 2003


Aquinas used an interesting phrase in his answer to Question 46 of the First Part of the Summa Theologica: materiam irridendi (an occasion to be laughed at, mocked, or ridiculed). He uses it in his warning that believers shouldn't state things in such a manner "so as to give occasion to unbelievers to laugh, thinking that on such grounds we believe things that are of faith." The issue was the interesting philosophical debate about whether one could demonstrate that "the world did not always exist." His point was that believers will appear silly to unbelievers if they make claims that are irrational, in this case claiming they can demonstrate with reason something that is an article of faith.

The temptation to claim that we can demonstrate from reason alone that the world did not always exist -- the eternal world of Aristotle or even some current cosmologies which posit an eternal oscillation of Big Bangs -- was and is irresistible for some; in fact, unless you think about what demonstration really means, the intuitive answer from most of us would probably be something like, "Well, of course the world couldn't always exist."

But as Aquinas explains:
By faith alone do we hold, and by no demonstration can it be proved, that the world did not always exist . . . . The reason of this is that the newness of the world cannot be demonstrated on the part of the world itself. For the principle of demonstration is the essence of a thing. Now everything according to its species is abstracted from "here" and "now"; whence it is said that universals are everywhere and always. Hence it cannot be demonstrated that man, or heaven, or a stone were not always.
Any demonstration involves our ability to abstract universals from the "here and now;" but these universals are "everywhere and always" and so there will be no distinction between a universal derived from something that always existed or something that did not always exist. When we demonstrate something we do so wearing always-and-everywhere tinted glasses that make everything appear to us as if it always existed. And so the question of whether something always existed can't be demonstrated.

This alone is an interesting argument loaded with fascinating implications. But it didn't occur to me because I was wondering whether one could demonstrate that the world did not always exist; it occurred to me because I've been reading a number of articles (e.g. here) that suggest the current Iraqi crisis has ushered in a new moral standard where preemptive strikes are permissible. To see why I made this convoluted connection, you'll need to permit me to set some context.

The Ancient Greek perspective on the future and the past was once described in the following interesting way:
They saw the future as something that came upon them from behind their backs with the past receding away before their eyes.
I think that's an useful way to place moral questions in context. In morality, "the future" is something that comes upon us from behind our backs. And the past is something that recedes away before our eyes. And so trying to anticipate or react to what we think a person with free will might do is different from responding to what a person with free will has already done (which immediately begins to recede away before our eyes).

As everyone following the debates on various conclusions from just-war theory knows, the reason people of good will and intelligence can in fact come to different conclusions is because moral decisions resist universal application. The reason is not because moral laws don't pertain to every human being, but because a moral act is an event in the "here and now" and that event is unique and can only be judged when all of the intentions and particular circumstances are accounted for. If we look at the "essence" of a moral act, the intentions of the actors and those being acted upon in the "here and now" we ought to able to demonstrate whether the act is good or bad. And this would follow from the fact that "the principle of demonstration is the essence of a thing."

While in natural philosophy and metaphysics, the fact that "the principle of demonstration is the essence of a thing" is what allows us to draw conclusions that are universal, that apply "everywhere and always," it's not so in morality. The moment you draw universally applicable conclusions from the particular act, conclusions that are "everywhere and always," in that moment you no longer have the moral act. In morality, while "the principle of demonstration is the essence of a moral action", the "essence" of a moral action remains the particular, concrete "here and now" considerations. And so we might say that an "occasion to be ridiculed" in moral claims is not a failure to realize that universals have an "always and everywhere" tint, but just the opposite, that moral actions always have a "here and now" tint.

And now my point about future contingencies and the past, the image that the future is something that comes upon us from behind our backs with the past receding away before our eyes might be clear. When we act in a way that treats the future as known, especially with moral agents, human beings with free will, we are moving away from the "here and now" considerations of a moral act. We aren't reacting to what has been done and is now receding away before our eyes, but to what is behind us, unknown though we may hear or feel it approaching. If we make serious moral judgments about matters that have not occurred and may not occur, we are no longer working within the framework of traditional morality. And this, I think, is the shift that many are discussing.

Is this kind of judgment an occasion which ought to be ridiculed or a noble and necessary development of morality given the unprecedented circumstances of our day? Time will tell.




Russel Shaw has an article (via Bill Cork) that states a position that I'm starting to think is a bit contrived:
To disagree with the pope in this manner is not dissent. It's not as if Pope John Paul II had taught a definitive moral principle (e.g., direct attacks on noncombatants are ruled out) which the disagreeing Catholics rejected. They agreed with the principle. They disagreed about something contingent and by no means certain: what the future outcome of complex, competing scenarios was likely to be.
Is anyone really claiming that the pope's position on Iraq represents a "definitive moral principle."? Is anyone really denying that the application of just-war theory to the Iraqi crisis is a prudential judgment? Is anyone really claiming that the statements of the pope and bishop on this matter require the assent of the faithful? These straw men have been raised so many times that perhaps it's assumed that many Catholics think this way. Yet I know of no one who has made such claims.

My use of "dissent" has been deliberate. And many who have disagreed with my use of it have tediously responded in the manner of Shaw above, even though I've been explicit that I am not making such claims. I use "dissent" to point out that folks disagreeing with the pope and many bishops on important issues are not just disagreeing with a personal opinion; I use dissent because disagreeing with the clear concerns the pope has expressed on any grave matter is not something that should be bandied about lightly. If you disagree with the pope on a prudential judgment, you are disagreeing with the Vicar of Christ on the application of principles to an event, an application the nature of which he probably understands quite well. You are certainly entitled to disagree; but to then claim the pope is naïve or that the bishops are stepping in where they don't belong seems to imply an inappropriate dismissal of the position that seems a bit unseemly for Catholics.

Could the pope be wrong? Yes indeed. But the fact that the pope could be wrong, that the pope could have erred in many ways, that the pope is human and fallible, does not change the fact that he has stated again and again, in clear statements, what his position is and what he judges the proper action is.

So, why do some Catholics who disagree with the pope's position object to the term "dissent"? If "dissent" can only mean that they are unfaithful to Christ, then I agree that it is an inappropriate word to use. But this would be a very limited use of the term and, as indicated above, no one is seriously suggesting this meaning. "Dissent" in the context of a position of the pope or bishops that is derived from a prudential judgment denotes disagreement about a prevailing or official position with the added connotation that those who disagree are knowingly and willingly disagreeing with the ordained teachers of the Church including the Vicar of Christ. Why pad this good-willed and genuine disagreement with disclaimers that the pope and bishops aren't asserting doctrinal truths or a position that is binding to faithful Catholics? Why not admit forcefully and succinctly that one is disagreeing with consistent and clear statements by the pope or bishops, that one is dissenting from these statements? To hedge this by objecting to the term "dissent" -- and this has been my point throughout -- undermines the teaching authority of the Church by watering down the import and significance of the application of Church Teaching by those who are tasked with teaching and applying it to the world.

Finally, and related to this, there is a persistent strain of thought among many Catholics that the pope and bishops should stick to liturgy, doctrine, and Church governance and let military and civil authorities do their jobs. But this strikes me as simple-minded obfuscation. Again I ask, is anyone really claiming that bishops should take the place of generals or the commander in chief? Of course not. Applying moral teaching and carrying out the judgments arrived at are separate actions. We are all called to do both according to our competence and authority. That the bishops and pope have arrived at a judgment about how countries ought to proceed in a matter of great consequence does not suggest that they are attempting to usurp the appropriate military and civil responsibilities of all involved. Rather, such judgments serve as clear and explicit concerns that all people of good will can consider and that Catholics ought to look long and hard at. The claim that bishops and the pope should butt out of these issues is an utter misunderstanding of the episcopal and papal offices.


Wednesday, April 02, 2003


Just War and Humanitarian Intervention (via Amy Welborn) by Jean Bethke Elshtain, written in 2001, makes some very interesting points. Here are some I pulled out of the PDF document:
Just war is a way of thinking that refuses to separate politics from ethics. Unlike the competing doctrine of state-centered strategic realism,just war argument insists one must not open an unbridgeable gulf between “domestic ”and “international ”politics. The tradition of political realism and that of just war embrace contrasting presumptions about the human condition. The realpolitikers, whose great forefathers are Machiavelli and Hobbes,hold that men in general are ungrateful, dissembling, back-stabbing, and untrustworthy (Machiavelli here). In Hobbes’s scientistic account, humans are isolates driven into forward motion, bound to collide violently, and humanity in general is defined by the most horrible equality imaginable — the power one has to kill another. Under these circumstances, it takes a great deal of coercive force to hold such creatures in check, and not in the interest of a positive vision of human possibility but simply to stop them from marauding.

By contrast, just war thinkers begin with a commitment to both human solidarity and human plurality. The presupposition is that there are constant features of humanity of both a universal and a particular nature; indeed, particularity is itself a universal dimension of humankind. Viewing humanity through the lens of “original sin,” just war thinkers have historically expanded on understandings derived from theology: that human beings are broken and separated by sin and that this simply is the human condition between the fall and the end-time. At the same time, these torn and sinning creatures are haunted by the trace of their lost condition and yearn, therefore, for less alienated and fractured lives. Human motives and actions are always mixed: we both affirm and destroy solidaristic possibilities, often doing so simultaneously. For example, we affirm solidarity within the particular communities of which we are a part. Every human being is a member of a way of life that embodies itself institutionally as family, tribe, civil society, or state. This plurality is a constant feature of human political and moral life. We may launch ourselves into wider or more universalistic possibilities from this particular site, seeking to affirm our common humanity through organizations, institutions, ways of being and thinking that draw us into wider streams of existence. Or we may not. And we may not in dreadful and destructive ways, for example, by denying the very humanity of those from different groups than our own. This denial of humanity is also a denial, or a refusal to recognize, that all cultures without fail define and refine moral codes and that these moral codes invariably set norms for the taking of human life; all have some notion of what counts as a violation of this norm.

In light of this backdrop, the classical realpolitiker sees violence, whether domestic or international, as an unsurprising breaking forth of given features of the human condition, because, from our “chained beast ”starting point, we have created institutions that, in some sense, reflect and refract our insecurities, our passions, our drives for dominance, our capacities for suspicion and even hatred. For the just war thinker, human motives and actions are invariably mixed. War, when it occurs, is as likely to be an expression of justifiable outrage at injustice as an ineluctable bursting forth of our innate brutishness. Might never makes right, argues the just war thinker, but might may sometimes, on balance, serve right.

Whereas the realpolitiker insists that the rules governing private or domestic moral conduct are inapplicable to the world of what used to be called “men and states,” just war politics insists that, although it would be utopian to presume that relations between states can be analogous to those between family and friends, this does not mean a war of all against all must ensue once one leaves the hearth or the immediate neighborhood. The strategic realist is governed by instrumental calculations and a concept of national interest. The just war thinker begins with complex, normative commitments, as well as pragmatic considerations, that overlap with those of strategic realism, though the starting points vary. Although the just war thinker would not be so harsh in evaluating what is usually called liberal internationalism, with its justifications of intervention in the name of sustaining, he or she would voice skepticism about the possibility of building a universal culture of Kantian republics governed by identical normative and legal commitments. This skepticism does not derive from opposition to a robust international regime of human rights or greater international fairness and equity but, rather, comes from a commitment to the intrinsic value of human cultural its justifications of intervention in the name of sustaining, he or she would voice skepticism about the possibility of building a universal culture of Kantian republics governed by identical normative and legal commitments. This skepticism does not derive from opposition to a robust international regime of human rights or greater international fairness and equity but, rather, comes from a commitment to the intrinsic value of human cultural plurality. Indeed, for the just war thinker, the sin of hubris is implicated in any attempt to weld humanity into a single monoculture. . . .