Minute Particulars

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

Tuesday, September 30, 2003


TS O'Rama links to an excerpt of an article, God's Spy: Shakespeare and the Mystery of Things, that I thought was quite good. I found the entire article here. It opens with a remarkable poem and an explanation about why the author gave a talk about Shakespeare for an event that honors St. Thomas Aquinas:
Why Shakespeare? Why, in a paper that honours Aquinas, have I chosen to reflect on the work of a man--a poet and dramatist--whose work lies outside, apparently, the ecclesial and theological sphere? It is, of course, precisely because this lecture honours St. Thomas that I have felt free to approach such a subject. Several years ago, in a radio-broadcast delivered in honour of St. Thomas, Cornelius Ernst, O.P., asked the question: "What is a Christian thinker supposed to think about?" And "the answer," at least the answer for Aquinas, according to Ernst, "was simple enough: it was the job of Christian thinkers, of doctors of theology, to think about everything." At the conclusion of his talk, in order to emphasize the point about Thomas' "intuition of claritas," or what he characterized as that "view of the world in which the world effortlessly shows itself for what it is," Ernst quoted the following lines from a poem by Wallace Stevens:
In the end, however naked, tall, there is still
The impossible possible philosophers' man,
The man who has had the time to think enough,
The central man, the human globe, responsive
As a mirror with a voice, the man of glass,
Who in a million diamonds sums us up.
He is the transparence of the place in which He is
and in his poems we find peace.
The bold application by Fr. Cornelius of these lines to Aquinas was unexpected, revelatory. But, for me, the lines are eloquent also of another "central man," "the human globe," "the man of glass,/Who in a million diamonds sums us up"--the poet and dramatist, William Shakespeare.


Monday, September 29, 2003


Camassia raises a good point about the claim that faith is a gift:
[W]hat really bothers me about this . . . is the moralism carried along with the faith thing. If faith is a "gift of God," it sounds like: if God gifted you with faith you'll get to heaven, but if you're not so lucky you'll burn in hell and there ain't squat you can do about it.
I say it's a good point because I think many interpret statements like "faith is a gift" in this way. But if the context of the teaching about faith being a gift is understood, the objection loses its teeth.

Any reasonable person intuitively grasps that belief in the sense of our accepting the testimony of another and therefore "participating in the knowledge of a knower" is common and ordinary; after all, we live most of our lives with most of our knowledge coming from our participation in the knowledge of a knower, whether it be:
-- our understanding of personal information like what our name is and when we were born (both of which require that we believe another person's testimony about what name we were given and when we were born)
-- our grasp of events we read about or see in the news
-- our acceptance of history
-- our knowledge of our world based on evidence we haven't seen firsthand (e.g. Have you actually seen the stellar parallax which provides evidence that the earth orbits the sun?)
-- etc.
Yet, many balk at this obvious means to knowledge when it is applied to religious faith. There are two reasons for this. The first is that the knowledge that might be obtained from religious faith is, well, unbelievable. The second is this idea that religious faith requires "grace" and so it's only possible for us to believe if we have mysteriously received the "gift of faith."

The first reason is fairly easy to understand and rebut. It confuses the credibility of the witness with the credibility of the content of what the witness reveals. You either trust the witness or you don't. If you trust him or her then you would believe the stories, even the wildest stories, that he or she reveals because you have no reason to doubt them. For example, when Chesterton describes the claim of Christianity:
It is quite unlike anything else. It is a thing final like the trump of doom, though it is also a piece of good news; or news that seems too good to be true. It is nothing less than the loud assertion that this mysterious maker of the world has visited his world in person. *
even with such incredible claims, your only source of knowledge about those things the witness reveals derives from the witness:
177 "To believe" has thus a twofold reference: to the person, and to the truth: to the truth, by trust in the person who bears witness to it. (CCC)
(There is a related question about the veracity of the content that goes something like, What if the witness is claiming that he saw a square circle? While this can get tricky, with Christian faith, which is the context we're interested in here, this cannot happen since what is revealed by God cannot be contradictory.)

What I'm more interested in, though, is the second reason given above for lack of faith, the statement that faith is a gift. Tom of Disputations has a very nice response to Camassia's concerns about this. He links to a fine and concise passage from the Catechism of the Catholic Church that seems a relevant text here. But I have to confess that this section seemed too fine and concise for my coarse mind. It passed through me like a nimble neutrino, leaving me with nothing to object to but also with the sense that there might be more to the notion that religious faith is somehow a gift from God in a manner that other kinds of faith are not. So I thought I'd attempt a response that's rough and rambling and sure to ding and dent a few sacred truths. The danger with not keeping things minute and particular on this complex topic is that I'll likely commit a theological howler or two before I'm through. So, caveat lector!

The passage from the CCC states:
Faith is a grace

153 When St. Peter confessed that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, Jesus declared to him that this revelation did not come "from flesh and blood", but from "my Father who is in heaven".24 Faith is a gift of God, a supernatural virtue infused by him. "Before this faith can be exercised, man must have the grace of God to move and assist him; he must have the interior helps of the Holy Spirit, who moves the heart and converts it to God, who opens the eyes of the mind and 'makes it easy for all to accept and believe the truth.'"25

Faith is a human act

154 Believing is possible only by grace and the interior helps of the Holy Spirit. But it is no less true that believing is an authentically human act. Trusting in God and cleaving to the truths he has revealed is contrary neither to human freedom nor to human reason. Even in human relations it is not contrary to our dignity to believe what other persons tell us about themselves and their intentions, or to trust their promises (for example, when a man and a woman marry) to share a communion of life with one another. If this is so, still less is it contrary to our dignity to "yield by faith the full submission of. . . intellect and will to God who reveals",26 and to share in an interior communion with him.

155 In faith, the human intellect and will cooperate with divine grace: "Believing is an act of the intellect assenting to the divine truth by command of the will moved by God through grace."27
Someone I know once said about his dissertation that "It's all in the footnotes." That would be an exaggeration in this case, but much of the context for understanding the Catechism here is, in fact, in the footnotes. Here they are:
24 Mt 16:17; cf. Gal 1:15; Mt 11:25.

25 DV 5; cf. DS 377; 3010.

26 Dei Filius 3:DS 3008.

27 St. Thomas Aquinas, STh II-II,2,9; cf. Dei Filius 3:DS 3010.
(I wonder if there's an online version of the Catechism that has links to the text of the footnotes?) Anyway, if you read the text, for example, of footnote 24, Mt 16:17 (actually 15-17 here):
He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?"
Simon Peter said in reply, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."
Jesus said to him in reply, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.
you'll see that Peter hasn't just blurted out this declaration, but does so in response to an intimate question from Jesus, "Who do you say that I am?" It is within the context of the relationship of Jesus and Peter that the question is raised. Notice, also, that Peter doesn't seem to recognize the profundity of his statement and it's Jesus who tells him that his response has been revealed to him by God the Father. If we are to understand Peter's declaration as a profession of faith, and the source of his declaration to be not flesh and blood, but the Father, how are we to understand this faith as a gift?

I suppose we could imagine that Peter has received some kind of clean, bright divine illumination, some crisp, crackling epiphany which makes all things clear to him. But I tend to imagine a grittier, dingier kind of illumination that is ensconced in human relationship. What is revealed to Peter is simply something like this: This man Jesus is speaking the truth. Once Peter gleans this, all other things cascade into place. In one sense, the Father is the source of this revelation because it is the Father's Will that Jesus carries out.

This gets to what I think is the nub of the matter: the notion that faith is a gift does not so much suggest that some are offered this gift and some are not, but that faith requires our trust of another person in a manner that can only originate from that other person, as a gift to us in the purest sense, something that is freely given and which we do not merit. When the Church teaches that faith is a gift, it is suggesting that the source of faith is something wholly other than us and something that we cannot coerce or deserve in someway. But what is this something? Well, again in the context we've established, I think we are given a glimpse of that something that moves us to trust a person. I know I've in essence just said, "that something which is the something that . . . ," so let me try again. (Part II coming soon)


Wednesday, September 24, 2003


I recently shredded a stack of receipts and junk mail that had information that I didn't want someone finding in the garbage and using to open a line of credit in my name. While holding up a spongy wad of the shredded paper, I wondered what it would require to put it all together again. What if I'd accidentally shredded something with important information on it? In theory, it would be possible to take each shred, smooth it out, and begin to match the pieces (it's not a high-security NSA-approved shredder). But, like trying every combination on safe, while it's possible in theory, it isn't really possible in practice. I could also ask someone who'd read it if he or she recalled what was on the now shredded document.

While too simplistic and one-dimensional to take seriously beyond blog musings, shredding documents is a nice image for two aspects of faith:
- the role that tradition plays
- the importance of the testimony of witnesses
Without tradition, without the shaping force of early Christian communities gathered around the celebration of the Eucharist, without the continued living out of the Gospel of contemporary parish life, and without the continued solicitude and teaching of the Magisterium, we would have a bag of shredded ancient texts that we would never really be able to piece together in any meaningful way.

That, of course, is one reason why a sola scriptura approach is inadequate. It's appealing to some I suppose because there's a sense that, in theory, we can put all the pieces back together even after they've been shredded and in essence thrown into the winds of time. But this is really a kind of "mechanical" objection and not what I think the main problem with a sola scriptura approach is. The main problem is that it tears Revelation from its context and reduces belief to a kind of wager.

This brings us to the second aspect of faith the shredder image highlights. What if an important document were shredded and you really needed to know what it said? There is no doubt that having been able to read it before it went to the shredder would be the best way for you to know what it said. But it's been shredded. Now what? Well, was there anyone who'd read the document before it was shredded? If you could talk to them and get them to tell you what it said, assuming they were trustworthy, you would have knowledge of the content of the document and this knowledge would be gleaned in the only manner possible (we're assuming there aren't copies of the document and your only source for knowledge of its content would be someone who had read it before it was shredded). In this case, our "knowledge" comes from our believing in the testimony of another person who'd read the document before it was shredded.

As I've mentioned many times here, we "believe" because this is the only mechanism by which we can have knowledge of the events witnessed by those who knew Christ. By "believe" here I mean "a participation in the knowledge of a knower," to use Josef Pieper’s phrase. The first "knowers" in the context of Christian faith, are those who knew Christ and testified to his words, actions, and eventual resurrection from the dead. If we could "know" as these followers of Christ "knew," we wouldn’t need to "believe" because we would have the more certain knowledge of seeing and hearing the Word Made Flesh in the flesh (albeit without the Grace of the Holy Spirit as promised at Pentecost). Hence, Aquinas's famous remark that "Other things being equal, seeing is more certain than hearing."

To believe in Christ and the events of his life testified to by the Apostles is an eminently reasonable thing to do; not because it is reason exercising its powers to investigate the event, but because it is reason understanding the dynamics of such an event and concluding that we can only come to know it by believing the testimony of another and "participating in the knowledge of a knower." In fact, as Pieper again points out,
the credibility of the witness whom we believe cannot also be the subject of belief; this is where real knowledge is required . . . if everything is said to be belief, then belief has been eliminated.
What this all boils down to is not a wager or bet, but knowledge of the credibility of witnesses and assent to the content of their testimony.

In the case of the shredded document, there has to be someone who actually read the document before it was shredded if we hope to know its contents. But notice that for anyone who had not seen the document before it was shredded, knowledge of the document comes from believing the testimony of the person who did read it, not from determining which parts of the person's testimony are believable and which are not.

Thus, Aquinas writes:
Now, whoever believes, assents to someone's words; so that, in every form of belief, the person to whose words assent is given seems to hold the chief place and to be the end as it were; while the things by holding which one assents to that person hold a secondary place.


Tuesday, September 23, 2003


The below post reminded me of a nice passage from C.S. Lewis on the problem of human freedom. In his book, The Problem of Pain, Lewis writes the following about human freedom:
The inexorable “laws of Nature” which operate in defiance of human suffering or desert, which are not turned aside by prayer, seem at first sight to furnish a strong argument against the goodness and power of God. I am going to submit that not even Omnipotence could create a society of free souls without at the same time creating a relatively independent and “inexorable” Nature.
What he is suggesting is that a free creature must exist in an environment in which it can assert itself against the Will of God and human beings. Because we are incarnate, physical beings, there must be what Lewis calls a “neutral” environment:
If a “world” or material system had only a single inhabitant it might conform at every moment to his wishes -- “trees for his sake would crowd into a shade.” But if you were introduced into a world which thus varied at my every whim, you would be quite unable to act in it and would thus lose the exercise of your free will. Nor is it clear that you could make your presence known to me -- all the matter by which you attempted to make signs to me being already in my control and therefore not capable of being manipulated by you.
While many areas of this kind of argument need to be reinforced, unpacked or shored up, I think it's a nice way to picture things. In order for us to be truly free creatures interacting with one another and in relationship to God, there had to be an environment (Nature) which did not conform to our every desire. Still, couldn’t God nullify the harmful effects of such an environment or even prevent a turning away from Him? Lewis responds with:
We can, perhaps, conceive of a world in which God corrected the results of . . .[an] abuse of free will by His creatures at every moment: so that a wooden beam might become soft as grass when it was used as a weapon . . . . But such a world would be one in which wrong action were impossible, and in which, therefore, freedom of the will would be void.
Evil is the result of free creatures in a good creation turning from the source of Goodness, and therefore depriving some part of Creation of the Goodwill of God. While the image, like any image, is inadequate for every objection and example, the notion of the “inexorable ‘laws of Nature’” sheds some light on how evil can occur in a creation that is good and how “a society of free souls” can exist in that creation.




I noticed that Michelle of And Then? (scroll to "Seeking that V-8 moment") has a response to Raving Atheist about prayer. RA trots out the ol' standards which always strike me as explanations about why you can't hang a hat on a painted hook; what's strange about these kinds of explanations is that the expounder never seems to realize that the hook is painted and the hat is not.

That God exists and that I have free will are not contradictory facts. That God is omniscient and that I have free will are not contradictory facts. That God made every fiber of my being and that I have free will are not contradictory ideas. It's true, and the debate even among believers has been very heated on this, that exactly how our actions contribute to or impede our salvation is a difficult question. But that it's difficult points to the complexity of our condition, our multifaceted understanding of Revelation, and our limited grasp of those things which transcend us. The difficulty does not stem from the fact that we have somehow painted ourselves into a corner by demonstrating that God exists and maintaining that we have free will (we could, of course, get out of the corner since the floor might be painted but we're not!).

The problem with RA's response, as with two other responses he links to here and here, is that it derives from an apparent conviction that there aren't more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in materialist philosophies. I don't mean the denial of superstition and wispy notions of spirit and sky gods; any pure philosophy ought to deny such things as not within the realm of reason. No, I mean the reasoning in the responses is founded on a primitive philosophy, an underdeveloped metaphysics to be precise, which assumes that all possible existence is material existence.

Arguments based on a primitive grasp of philosophy aren't flawed by a failure to believe, but a failure to be reasonable. In this case, the arguments lack any nuanced understanding of being, existence, essence, substance, act, potency and the like. Some 2,300 years ago, Aristotle, from reason alone and without appealing to the revelations of any religion, developed metaphysics to a point far beyond what many of today's staunch materialists seem to realize.

I don't think those who lean on shoddy metaphysics are unintelligent, far from it in many cases; but I do think they've either not had a chance or perhaps simply don't care to look at these kinds of things carefully and critically. Certainly there's a lot of confusion about what it means to say that metaphysical notions, to paraphrase Aquinas's well-known passage (De Trinitate, 5), are not by their very nature associated with matter and motion but can exist apart from both matter and motion, though they may happen to be found in matter and motion. The confusion seems to stem from assuming that something that is "not by its nature associated with matter and motion" must automatically be a god or demon or ghost or tooth fairy.

Perhaps it's an understandable though unfortunate confusion with the fact that metaphysics from reason alone, as Aquinas points out in the same above text, treats things which are not by their very nature associated with matter and motion (e.g. being, existence, essence, substance, act, potency and the like) as the principles of its proper subject, while sacred theology treats things which are not by their very nature associated with matter and motion (e.g. God, angels) as its proper subject. The principles of metaphysics are arrived at from reason alone. The principles of sacred theology are arrived at from faith (belief in revealed truths).




Interesting article in a recent Atlantic Monthly on how some of us might think diversity in a community would be nice but we don't really seek it out:
Maybe it's time to admit the obvious. We don't really care about diversity all that much in America, even though we talk about it a great deal. . . .

Think of your twelve closest friends . . . . If you had chosen them randomly from the American population, the odds that half of your twelve closest friends would be college graduates would be six in a thousand. The odds that half of the twelve would have advanced degrees would be less than one in a million. . . .

Many of us live in absurdly unlikely groupings, because we have organized our lives that way.
Yes, I know, you're probably asking, as I did, Why would anyone randomly choose friends? But stay focused.

If the "community of weblogs" listed under BETTER BLOGGERS that I regularly visit is any indication, I'd say I've flunked the diversity ideal. There's obviously a bit of filtering already going on before someone ever publishes a blog: literate, access to a computer and the Internet, time to blog, etc. Still, I'm pretty sure most of the folks on the list of blogs I read regularly are more like me than not.

I did briefly try to get a pinch of diversity into the list of blogs I read by adding a "SED CONTRA" list that some readers might recall. I introduced the list by saying:
I've added a section of links to blogs that espouse, though aren't necessarily limited to, materialistic and/or atheistic views contrary to much of what you'll find on Minute Particulars. Some of the blogs linked to (in my opinion) can at times be offensive and tend toward a Beavis-and-Butthead style of humor that is tiresome. But I've also found them to be smart and challenging. I include them because genuine debate with a raving atheist or materialist is often better than no debate at all.
Well, it was noble while it lasted. I guess I grew weary of the blogs and really wasn't reading them much anymore. After a number of readers inquired about why I would bother to link to such offensive and tiresome stuff, I decided to remove the list. Such was my brief excursion into blog diversity.


Friday, September 19, 2003


Peter of Sursum Corda links to an interesting article by Francis Cardinal George, the Archbishop of Chicago. Along with what Peter quoted, I liked this description of what it means to be a mature Catholic:
“Adult Catholicism” does not mean creating an alternative Church, arrogantly breaking faith with the Church and her teachings; it means finding ways to take responsibility for them, humbly and together, and to speak of them civilly to those who do not understand, let alone believe. It means submitting every agenda to the Lord, every personal inclination to examination before him. How courteous are our prayers? The baroque language of a St. Teresa of Avila, addressing God as if he were the King of Spain, may not be the proper idiom for today’s prayers. But God remains God; and we are not God. Our prayers should reflect that infinite difference, even as they acknowledge God’s graciously giving us the means to be one with him in Christ. Perhaps that’s the test for ecclesiastical civility, as it is for so much else in the Church: how do we pray?




I had a good friend get married a few years ago in a secular ceremony or "outside of the Church" as the saying goes (he's a baptized and confirmed Catholic). When he told me of his plans, he said "God will be there, but he won't be Catholic." I thought that was an interesting thing to say. While I think I knew what he meant, I'm not sure he knew some of the implications of such a statement.

Anyway, Disputations has a fine response to this post on Church of the Masses where the, um, "question" of "Whether God is Catholic?" was raised. The "question" is a little silly if one pins some meaning to the words, but it does raise a real and interesting question, "How can creatures speak about their Creator?" I posted a little something on this a while back:

Many folks have a kind of slack-jawed amazement at how some believers speak so freely about riddles wrapped in mysteries inside enigmas like: God, Trinity, Providence, Free Will, Forgiveness of Sins, Incarnation, Eternity, and so on. This astonishment requires a twofold response.

It's true that "God talk" often proceeds with little regard for either God or the limits of language. There is a famous phrase from the Lateran Council IV of the thirteenth century that ought to temper learned pontifications:
Between Creator and creature no similitude can be expressed without implying an even greater dissimilitude (CCC).
And if that doesn't level the theological playing field, try this from Aquinas written in the same century:
Concerning God, we cannot grasp what he is, but only what he is not, and how other beings stand in relation to him (CCC).
That ought to cause at least a slight pause between pontifications.

But we miss the point if we think such caveats imply that we should be awed or intellectually cowed into silence. On the contrary, our intellects are designed to know and love God and His Creation. The pause in our pondering ought to be the simple act of framing our speculations, our "faith seeking understanding" in light of the above notions. Bold, relevant, and penetrating theological insight is likely only possible if we first understand our limitations and the small beam of light we can cast into the void. As T. S. Eliot wrote:
These are only hints and guesses,
Hints followed by guesses; and the rest
Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.
The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.


Wednesday, September 17, 2003


Bill Cork has a nice response as does Tom of Disputations to the much discussed Peggy Noonan column, What I Told the Bishops. I guess I found the column a bit maudlin; certainly it wasn't very insightful or helpful in the manner that interests me: I now know what Peggy Noonan thinks, but really have no sense of what important points might have been raised or discussed at the meeting or what she brought to the discussion in any deep sense. I do find it interesting that many of the reports I've seen tend to be a kind of soliloquy where the reporter in essence seems to say
I came to the meeting with . . . .
I had hoped that the bishops would . . . .
I was concerned about . . . .
But enough about me, what do you think of me?




This brief article, Language influences the way you think (via Dappled Things) raises some interesting and fundamental questions on language and thought:
Speakers of different languages not only describe the world differently but think about it differently too, according to a new study.
One of my favorite quotes from Madame Bovary is:
[N]o one can ever give the exact measure of his needs, nor of his conceptions, nor of his sorrows . . . since human speech is like a cracked tin kettle, on which we hammer out tunes to make bears dance when we long to move the stars.
In other words, human speech is an inadequate instrument for fully expressing human thought. Implicit in this notion of poetic frustration is a distinction between human thought and the speech which attempts to express it. And it's this distinction that seems blurred a bit in the above article. Traditionally, I think language, i.e. spoken and written words, is described as a system of conventional signs which designate our thought and the mental experience of things we encounter in the world; language is an "instrument" or "tool" we use to express our thought. But there is a distinction between thought and its expression which has haunted theories of language and epistemology; and this distinction spawns many diverse theories.

We find this distinction in Aristotle:
Spoken words are the symbols of mental experience and written words are the symbols of spoken words. Just as all men have not the same writing, so all men have not the same speech sounds, but the mental experiences, which these directly symbolize, are the same for all, as also are those things of which our experiences are the images.(On Interpretation)
"Symbol" here means a conventional sign; i.e. while the "mental experience" (e.g. apprehending or considering the essence of a horse) is the same for all human beings, the spoken or written word which signifies the horse are conventional (e.g. "horse", "cheval" "caballo"). And so, we have a "mental experience" or thought, desire to express this thought, choose words to express this thought, and speak or write these words. But what is the character of the thought which our spoken or written words signify? That's where things get really interesting and the debate about language and thought heats up.

Aquinas has a nice passage on this where he writes:
[J]ust as we consider three things in the case of a craftsman, namely, the purpose of his work, its model, and the work now produced, so also do we find a threefold word in one who is speaking. There is the word conceived by the intellect, which in turn, is signified by an exterior vocal word. The former is called the word of the heart [verbum cordis], uttered but not vocalized. Then there is that upon which the exterior word is modeled; and this is called the interior word [verbum interius] which has an image of the vocal word. Finally, there is the word expressed exteriorly, and this is called the vocal word [verbum vocis]. Now, just as a craftsman first intends his end, then thinks out the form of his product, and finally brings it into existence, so also, in one who is speaking, the word of the heart comes first, the word which has an image of the oral word, and, finally he utters the vocal word (De Veritate 4 1 co.).
The modern question, I think, seems to be, Can there really be thought which is prior to either interior or exterior expression, i.e. Aquinas's verbum cordis? What is the content of a "mental experience" which is prior to the fully formed interior word that we then express? And, can we "think" without the use of an "interior language?"

The modern hermeneutical ideas found in Heidegger and further developed by Gadamer, reject the traditional description of language because it seems a mere instrument of expression rather than the very foundation of thought. The connection between what is thought and what is expressed, Gadamer claims, cannot be intelligibly distinguished. He explains in Truth and Method that,
Language is not just one of man's possessions in the world, but on it depends the fact that man has a world at all. For man the world exists as world in a way that no other being in the world experiences. But this world is linguistic in nature.
Gadamer is denying (I think, it's been a while since I slogged through this stuff) that it is somewhat meaningless to speak of any mental experience which is prior to the interior word.

The traditional approach doesn't deny that our grasp of the "word of the heart" as used by Aquinas above is tricky to articulate. As Etienne Gilson puts it:
[I]nfants think before speaking. Every parent knows this, and, moreover, no linguist contests the issue. But can we imagine thought devoid of words -- those resistant nuclei, or at least those sorts of floating buoys -- to which thought fastens itself, about which it organizes itself, and upon which it depends in order to develop? It is impossible even to conceive of a method of recording facts of this order of things, but our ignorance of their nature does not authorize us to deny them.
But this approach would insist that there is something before the interior word that we then express in speech, and that prior "something" is the same for all human beings regardless of their native language.

As I said, it's been a while and I'm sure there may be more relevant passages elsewhere, but Aquinas has a very interesting way of describing this pre-language intellectual activity in his Commentary on the Gospel of John, though it lacks the nice tripartite explanation (word of the heart, interior word, vocal word) in the above quote:
It is clear then that it is necessary to have a word in any intellectual nature, for it is of the very nature of understanding that the intellect in understanding should form something. Now what is formed is called a word [verbum], and so it follows that in every being which understands there must be a word . . . . [O]ur word is formable before being formed, for when I wish to conceive the notion of a stone, I must arrive at it by reasoning [ratiocinando]. And so it is in all other things that are understood by us, with the sole possible exception of the first principles which, since they are known in a simple manner, are known at once without any discourse of reason. So long as the intellect, in so reasoning, casts about this way and that, the formation is not yet complete. It is only when it has conceived the notion of the thing perfectly that for the first time it has the notion of the complete thing and a word. Thus in our mind there is both a "cogitation," meaning the discourse involved in an investigation, and a word, which is formed according to a perfect contemplation of the truth. So our word is first in potency before it is in act.(Super Io., 1, 1)
The intellect "casting about this way and that," prior to its formation into a mental word seems to be a description of the "word of the heart," thinking prior to forming a "word" that we then might utter.


Monday, September 15, 2003


It was as though a veil had been rent. I saw on that ivory face the expression of sombre pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror--of an intense and hopeless despair. Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision--he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath: "The horror! The horror!" (Heart of Darkness)
A year ago I wrote that I objected to showing pictures of those who jumped from the burning WTC Towers. I had two concerns. First, a loved one might recognize the person falling – and it seems cruel to subject them to such a sight. Second, there's something a bit pornographic about taking and viewing pictures of human beings jumping to their deaths. It’s a picture of someone in the most desperate and vulnerable position they could possibly be in and it's inappropriate to try to capture the moment in a photo or get a glimpse of it.

And I have to say my conviction about this has only deepened. An Esquire article, The Falling Man (via Lane Core) is a recent examination of this and is introduced with the following:
Do you remember this photograph? In the United States, people have taken pains to banish it from the record of 9/11. The story behind it, though, and the search for the man pictured in it, are our most intimate connection to the horror of that day.
There was also a 9/11 post on Blogs4God with a picture of someone jumping (obviously, I'm not going to link directly to the post given my objection). There seems to be a concern that unless we see pictures of human beings jumping we won't really begin to grasp the horror of the day.

This seems to be a kind of if-a-tree-falls-in-the-woods-and-no-one-is-there-to-hear-it approach which suggests that our understanding of horror can only come from well-documented, explicit accounts that flinch at nothing. But we should be careful about presuming that others won't understand just how horrific something was unless they have graphic evidence. It presumes that we lack imagination or a very real and rooted sense of how horrific the world can be.

This wish that we see all so that we can fully appreciate the horror of an event is related to another kind of insistence. I have a good friend who used to work alongside a lot of Vietnam veterans, though he himself was not a veteran. His veteran coworkers would occasionally grouse about how bad their experience was, usually ending with "you just can't know unless you were there." My friend never really doubted this, but he also realized that we all have our own experiences of horror, whether specific incidents, an existential angst, or the realization that we and our loved ones all face death. He would respond to the vets with, "Yeah, well, we all have our jungles." He wasn't dismissing their claims to having endured a terrible experience that left many physically and psychologically maimed. But he objected, as I do, to the notion that somehow such experiences give a person insight not possible elsewhere.

While I'm generally and sincerely respectful of those who make such claims, I resist the you-just-can't-know-unless-you-were-there bit. I resist it because I don't buy it. I don't believe that surviving a terror filled nightmare gives someone a privileged vantage point that others who haven't been through the experience lack. Obviously I don't mean the specifics, the smell of napalm, the sight of spurting blood and so forth. And I also don't mean to deny that there can be very real psychological trauma that requires healing, sometimes a lifetime of healing. But what I deny is that there is a uniqueness to the experience of horror, dread, terror, angst and the like that isn't firmly and crisply grasped by other human beings who've had a modicum of living.

This ought to makes sense to anyone who believes that there is the most horrific event imaginable at the center of Creation:
And at three o'clock Jesus cried out in a loud voice, "Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?" which is translated, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Mk. 15:34)
words that allude to Psalm 22:
My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? Why so far from my call for help, from my cries of anguish?
My God, I call by day, but you do not answer; by night, but I have no relief. . . .
At the core of Christian belief is an event that it would seem we can never directly experience ourselves, and yet we are called to respond to our world in the manner that Christ responded to us. If his experience as a human being provided a vantage point that we can't somehow grasp ourselves, or, conversely, if his experience as a human being did not reach to the very depths of anything that we can experience, then our faith would seem to be in vain.

Our ability to grasp our human condition fully regardless of our physical limitations or what might be perceived as a rather "sheltered" life is nowhere better demonstrated than in the lives of the saints. While many saints lived through what we would immediately and rightly call horrific events, many would at first appear not to have experienced such vigorous events. St. Therese of Lisieux, entered a Carmelite convent at age 15, and died at the young age of 24. And yet she is a patron saint of missionaries, likely the most outgoing, adventurous, and often terror-filled vocation one could have. Imagine, if you're at all familiar with the life and holiness of St. Therese, how ludicrous it would be for a missionary whom she prayed for and corresponded with regularly to say to her, "you just can't know unless you were there." It would make some sense superficially, but the statement would dissipate as the silliest thing one could ever say to her.


Sunday, September 14, 2003


This article (via Open Book) from the NYTimes raises the following point:
The Roman Catholic Church has detailed provisions, honed by centuries of sometimes painful experience, that regulate the election of popes. It has virtually no provisions for the very modern problem of aging and physically or mentally declining popes.
Well, there is one provision I'm aware of:
And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
This will strike some as naive and unrealistic. Well, okay, but then, how naive and unrealistic do you have to be to believe that the pope is the Vicar of Christ?
The Pope, Bishop of Rome and Peter's successor, "is the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful." "For the Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire Church has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered." (CCC)
Obviously there are many in the world who think this is superstitious nonsense. But if you're Catholic then it's a bedrock tenet of the Faith.

Now then, to whom is the above article about "no provisions for the very modern problem of aging and physically or mentally declining popes" supposed to appeal? To non-Catholics? But why would they care? It assumes claptrap that they would dismiss in a heartbeat. To Catholics? But how could it get any traction to be of interest in the context of the Faith?


Wednesday, September 10, 2003


I was a bit puzzled by the central image used in this article, Foreign Policy Immaculately Conceived (via A&LDaily)
All of a sudden, crystalline truth rises from the clear flame of an obvious logic that, for some unexplained reason, all of the experts and practitioners thinking and working on the problem for years never saw. This is the immaculate conception theory of U.S. foreign policy at work.

The immaculate conception theory of U.S. foreign policy operates from three central premises. The first is that foreign policy decisions always involve one and only one major interest or principle at a time. The second is that it is always possible to know the direct and peripheral impact of crisis-driven decisions several months or years into the future. The third is that U.S. foreign policy decisions are always taken with all principals in agreement and are implemented down the line as those principals intend — in short, they are logically coherent.

Put this way, of course, no sentient adult would defend such a theory.
Unless I'm misunderstanding this, it's troubling to see the "immaculate conception" trope portrayed as something "no sentient adult would defend." If that's the intent of the author, I suppose it's a superficial slam at best and really nothing new, unfortunate though it may be. I also wonder if the author is confused about what the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is when he writes, "All of a sudden, crystalline truth rises from the clear flame of an obvious logic that, for some unexplained reason. . . ."

As I've said before, it’s not too surprising that non-Catholics might think “Franco Harris” when hearing the term "Immaculate Conception,” having the derivative “Immaculate Reception” in mind; yet many Catholics think the Immaculate Conception refers to the the virgin birth of Jesus; it doesn’t, of course. But I suppose it's not a good sign that there's confusion on this among wonks in think tanks. After all, "Immaculate Conception" is not an obscure term tucked away on long book shelves in theological libraries. It’s central to the Faith and one of the few “infallible” doctrines proclaimed in the last few centuries.

Ironically, his description,
All of a sudden, crystalline truth rises from the clear flame of an obvious logic that, for some unexplained reason, all of the experts and practitioners thinking and working on the problem for years never saw.
could be a nice way of describing not the Immaculate Conception, but the effect of the doctrine. There was indeed vigorous dialogue and debate stemming from widely divergent ideas about the possibility that,
in the first instance of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace granted by God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race, was preserved exempt from all stain of original sin.
Look at the above article on the Immaculate Conception (scroll down to “The Controversy”) and you’ll see evidence of this, including the fact that:
St. Thomas [Aquinas] at first pronounced in favour of the doctrine in his treatise on the Sentences [ Super Sent., lib. 1 d. 44 q. 1 a. 3 ad 3], yet in his Summa Theologica [e.g.ST 3.27.2 ad 2] he concluded against it.
Of course, Aquinas didn't have the "crystalline truth" of the papal pronouncement Ineffabilis Deus which declared the doctrine "revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful." And we could even say, assuming it's understood that Church Teaching over the centuries deepens our understanding of truths often deeply enmeshed in what has already been fully revealed, that this doctrine, declared in 1854, "rises from the clear flame of an obvious logic that, for some unexplained reason, all of the experts and practitioners thinking and working on the problem for years never saw."




After considering the meandering length (29 inches in the present format if you care to know) of the last post, I'm thinking this blog might be better titled: Enormous Generalities. Ah well, you get what you pay for. I have been trying to tighten things up a bit. Still, if it's true, at least according to Samuel Johnson, that "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money," it's probably more the case that, "No man but a blockhead ever edited what he wrote, except for money."




I've only now stumbled upon this interesting interview, Cardinal Stafford on the Church's Crisis. You should read the whole thing, but this especially caught my eye:
The general principle is this: If we judge that religion is irrelevant to politics, then we are recognizing that the political realm is no longer part of the realm of God. If we divide the religious, the sacred, from the secular, then we are limiting severely, into very narrow confines, the action of God in the life of the world. But that's not what we confess in our faith as Catholics. God is not simply the God who is limited to a very specific area of life. He is the Creator of all that we see and all that is not seen.

For the Catholic politician who lives fully his or her baptism, it is impossible that God should simply be a "tag-on" to the system, whether it is political or economic. That is not the Catholic understanding of God. He is the Lord of Life. We confess in the Creed [that] he is the Spirit, he is the Lord, the Giver of Life.

Governor [Mario] Cuomo and President John Kennedy, both Catholics, did a severe disservice to the Catholic laity by setting a path that limits God in his role as Creator and Redeemer of all of mankind. And for Catholic politicians today to believe that they [Cuomo and Kennedy] are guides for their consciences, puts them at total odds with the Catholic magisterium and with the Catholic tradition.
Justice, or at least our justice system, insists that a person is presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt -- even and especially when everything seems to the contrary. Likewise it might seem that the preeminent role of conscience in moral judgment suggests that we presume someone is following a well-formed conscience until it's proven otherwise beyond a reasonable doubt.

So, what would it mean to make a judgment beyond a reasonable doubt regarding a well-formed conscience? After all, in the context of Catholic politicians, we ought to be able to claim, on some level, that there are times when he or she should "know better," when he or she seems to have failed to develop a well-formed conscience and is acting with poor judgment in the moral and political sphere. Otherwise, folks could claim they "followed their conscience" in moral matters and the Church would be compelled to remain silent and let such people portray themselves as faithful Catholics.

I think Cardinal Stafford's point, and the point of the recent Doctrinal Note on the participation of Catholics in politics, rests on the fact that we can judge with moral certainty whether a politician is following a well-formed conscience as long as we restrict such judgments to well-defined Church Teachings and a proper forum. A Catholic politician who grasps even a glimmer of what the Church teaches couldn't object with integrity to a well-defined Church teaching like that on abortion. And to claim that one is appealing to a well-formed conscience as one publicly contradicts such Church Teaching does not seem credible, or at least, it seems that we can gainsay such a claim with moral certitude.

But what about Catholic politicians who don't disagree with Church Teaching but disagree about legislating moral matters? Is abortion, for example, something that can really be legislated? Well, I don't think there's quite the wiggle room many politicians claim on this; Church Teaching has been pretty clear. There's this from the above Doctrinal Note:
When political activity comes up against moral principles that do not admit of exception, compromise or derogation, the Catholic commitment becomes more evident and laden with responsibility. In the face of fundamental and inalienable ethical demands, Christians must recognize that what is at stake is the essence of the moral law, which concerns the integral good of the human person. This is the case with laws concerning abortion and euthanasia (not to be confused with the decision to forgo extraordinary treatments, which is morally legitimate). Such laws must defend the basic right to life from conception to natural death.
And this from Evangelium Vitae, 72-73
Disregard for the right to life, precisely because it leads to the killing of the person whom society exists to serve, is what most directly conflicts with the possibility of achieving the common good. Consequently, a civil law authorizing abortion or euthanasia ceases by that very fact to be a true, morally binding civil law.

Abortion and euthanasia are thus crimes which no human law can claim to legitimize. There is no obligation in conscience to obey such laws; instead there is a grave and clear obligation to oppose them by conscientious objection.
And finally, from the USCCB:
We urge those Catholic officials who choose to depart from Church teaching on the inviolability of human life in their public life to consider the consequences for their own spiritual well being, as well as the scandal they risk by leading others into serious sin. We call on them to reflect on the grave contradiction of assuming public roles and presenting themselves as credible Catholics when their actions on fundamental issues of human life are not in agreement with Church teaching. No public official, especially one claiming to be a faithful and serious Catholic, can responsibly advocate for or actively support direct attacks on innocent human life.
I'm not sure how one could be much clearer within the context of Church Teaching (in the context of a personal letter from a bishop to a Catholic politician, I suppose one might find even more explicit and specific guidance).

But the problem for we lowly voters is that it's rare to find a viable candidate who publicly espouses Church Teaching consistently on all issues. And most folks don't want to throw away their vote on someone who doesn't have a chance to win or is a limited single-issue candidate who will flounder in other important political matters. So, what to do?

I'm not sure. Though, it occurred to me that this statement from Evangelium Vitae, ostensibly aimed at politicians, might apply to voters as well since a voter indeed makes political decisions, even if most are made indirectly by one's representative:
In a case . . . when it is not possible to overturn or completely abrogate a pro-abortion law, an elected official, whose absolute personal opposition to procured abortion was well known, could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality.
Two points seem to apply:
1) making it clear that you oppose positions of the candidate that are morally problematic
2) limiting harm and lessening negative consequences
If you end up having to vote for a candidate who has some views that are problematic, perhaps it's important to make this fact "well-known." It would be nice, for once, to see an ad that says something like:
Flym Flamm for President

Morally cheap,
A bit of a clown,
But we're just trying to keep
The damages down.
And this leads to the second point. If one's concerns about a candidate's moral positions are made known and not glossed over, then voting for the candidate who might best limit harm and lessen negative consequences may be the appropriate thing to do short of voting for a non-viable candidate or abstaining.


Tuesday, September 09, 2003


Though our lips can only stammer, we yet chant the high things of God.*
There is, as usual, some fine chanting of the high things over on Disputations around the fuzzy, but interesting, question of what the "central fact" of Christianity is. Is it the Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection? Most of those discussing this seem to agree that answering the question is a little like trying to empty the water out of a well: even when you get a long enough rope for the bucket and can yank buckets out pretty fast, the water will seep back into the well faster than you can haul it out.

Perhaps, though, it's more a question of accent than definition. When we put the accent on a different syllable of a word than another person does from a different region or background, we'll both still understand the word even if it sounds a bit odd to each of us.** The reason for the difference in accent is akin to what someone might emphasize in their own understanding of the saving action of Christ.

French Dominican Fr. Jean Corbon, whom I’ve quoted before, suggests the following as the central emphasis:
What then, does it mean to say that our God saves human beings? Does it mean that he gives them a course in theology? That he gives them a moral law, or even that he gives them the commandment of love? That he lets them know in the smallest detail the kind of worship agreeable to their creator? That he reveals to them that God is a Father, and kind and merciful? But then what? -- Even after all this the basic question that holds the human being in its grip and has found no real answer--still remains. I exist, but I exist for death at every moment and in the final moment. Of what use to me are models of morality and fine promises of life as long as the root of death has not been pulled up. This is the only really important question. Everything else is just a passing episode and a distraction . . . . If the coming of God into a human person did not reach to these depths we would be left with the failure found in all the religions and ideologies: being unable to do away with death, they simply suggest that we not think of it anymore.
I suppose pulling up "the root of death" can't be understood apart from the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection. The accent, so to speak, is a kind of meta-accent, emphasizing the whole saving action of Christ rather than its parts, again, so to speak.

** - Of course, most people will also wonder why we are placing the accent on the wrong syllable. Are we from a different region? Are we uneducated? Did we simply make a mistake? Are we deliberately mispronouncing it for some reason?




Mark Shea has an obviously passionate and sincere post on remaining faithful through good times and bad. Tangled in his points, though, was this baffling statement:
There are, as I have said, things I would do differently if I were Pope. But I'm not. So I accept the choices of the Pope God *does* want to be Pope as part of God's wise Providence and with the awareness that I just might not know what I'm talking about.
Now, I guess I know what he means to say, but I think we need to be careful about statements like, "If I were pope, I'd do things differently." If he said, "If I were president" or "If I won the lottery" I'd understand. But, for Catholics, this is akin to saying, "If I were the Vicar of Christ, I'd do things differently." "Presumptuous" only scratches the surface when trying to explain what's wrong with that.

But let's stay with the statement for fun. First, there are a lot of things the pope does. Saying you might do a handful of the things you know about (among the uncountable things you don't) differently presumes you'd be able to, you'd have the spiritual rigor, the holiness, the mind, and the stamina to do all that other stuff you wouldn't do differently. And it's this kind of selective criticism that I don't understand. Or rather, I think I do understand it and I realize that it stems from a very fragmented notion of "what the pope does" and, for most of us, a very high estimate of our own abilities.

I'm reminded of a quote by Moehler about the "antipapal sects of the twelfth century who dreamed of a spiritual and holy Church" that von Balthasar includes at the beginning of his book, The Office of Peter and the Structure of the Church:
They dared to accuse the indomitable Church, which had endured many storms and upheavals, with having failed in her mission. Had these creations of fantasy and selfishness -- and we cannot but recognize them as such while not denying whatever good was in them -- had they borne the burden that weighed on the Catholic Church, they would have vanished in a trice into the void from which they emerged.
I'm sure this is not what Shea has in mind and I'm not suggesting that it is. But I think even offhanded comments can tip discussions early on in a direction that might be unintended. And I do think much of the negative criticism of the Church, and surely there's an appropriate place for such, is a bit unthinking with an approach that first splinters the whole and then stomps on a few of the parts before trying to piece it all together again.


Sunday, September 07, 2003


TS O'Rama has been posting some quotes from Flannery O'Connor's collected letters, The Habit of Being. I hope he continues. Here are some O'Connor quotes in no particular order that I've posted here before (hence already typed up and ready to copy and paste):
My cousin's husband who also teaches at Auburn came into the Church last week. He had been going to Mass with them but never showed any interest. We asked how he got interested and his answer was that the sermons were so horrible, he knew there must be something else there to make the people come.... The Habit of Being

It’s some that can live their whole life out without asking about it and it’s others has to know why it is. A Good Man is Hard to Find

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. Mystery and Manners

The presence alone of Faulkner in our midst makes a great difference in what the writer can and cannot permit himself to do. Nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down. The Habit of Being

[Responding to the claim that the Eucharist is a symbol] Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it. [She then explains:] That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable. The Habit of Being

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. The Habit of Being


Saturday, September 06, 2003


I read an interesting article (not online) recently that featured, Temple Grandin, an Associate Professor of of Animal Science at Colorado State University. The article was about her own autism and her description of how those with autism think. I found an excerpt from her book, Thinking in Pictures, that begins:
I think in pictures. Words are like a second language to me. I translate both spoken and written words into full-color movies, complete with sound, which run like a VCR tape in my head. When somebody speaks to me, his words are instantly translated into pictures. Language-based thinkers often find this phenomenon difficult to understand, but in my job as an equipment designer for the livestock industry, visual thinking is a tremendous advantage.
I also found an article, My Mind is a Web Browser: How People with Autism Think, that explains her thinking process with a computer analogy:
The language part of my brain is the computer operator, and the rest of my brain is the computer. In most people, the brain's computer operator and the computer are merged into one seamless consciousness; but in me they are separate. I hypothesize that the frontal cortex of my brain is the operator and the rest of my brain is the computer.
I find these and similar articles (e.g. some of Oliver Sacks's work) really interesting, though I think one has to be careful about explaining a whole from a part of the whole. There also tends to be a very clinical, reductionist approach that these writers enter into to explain some of the particulars but then continue the approach when drawing conclusions.

But what I really wanted to comment on is somewhat oblique to what these articles are proposing. I find it interesting that computer analogies are used so much in explanations of how the human intellect works. I suppose I first thought this was innocuous enough, a convenient image to use that most people understand in order to explain a more complex thing that fewer people grasp. But I think there's been a subtle shift in how the analogy is used and I bet a little research would show that the computer image for explaining the human mind was first proposed in a very different way than it is now. Before, probably because it was proposed in a milieu in which computers were quite rudimentary calculating machines, the similarity of a computer and the human mind would've been presented by saying something like this:
A computer is like the human mind, but the human mind is not like a computer.
Now, because we are far more dazzled by computers and the prospect of "artificial intelligence," I think we would change the statement to something like:
A computer is like the human mind, and the human mind is like a computer.
It's a subtle shift, really a shift in conjunctions, from but to and, but it's significant.

Aquinas has a very nice explanation (ST.1a.4.3) of the different ways in which something can be "like" another in a question about whether a creature can be like God. Unfortunately, the text is hobbled a bit by an archaic example ("as things generated by the sun's heat") and the English translation sounds a little odd in places unless you have the Latin text handy (e.g. "in the same form [forma], but not according to the same formality [rationem]"). I think the analogy of a human artist (one who makes a computer) and an artifact created by a human (a computer) is similar to what Aquinas proposes regarding God and creatures:
Although it may be admitted that creatures are in some sort like God, it must nowise be admitted that God is like creatures; because, as Dionysius says (Div. Nom. ix): "A mutual likeness may be found between things of the same order, but not between a cause and that which is caused." For, we say that a statue is like a man, but not conversely; so also a creature can be spoken of as in some sort like God; but not that God is like a creature.


Friday, September 05, 2003


The news that Paul Hill was executed a few days ago has generated a lot of discussion. Many of the responses, though, are certainly not new. Nearly nine years ago, after the arrest of Hill, First Things had an article that contained brief responses by various folks to Hill's assertion that:
Whatever force is legitimate in defending a born child is legitimate in defending an unborn child.
It offers an interesting spectrum of responses and is worth reading.

It's a flimsy rhetorical trick to link the two, but it occurred to me that the Hill case had moral similarities to the case of whether a preemptive or preventive strike against Iraq could be morally justified. In fact, a response I posted a while back on Iraq could very easily be a response to Hills's actions and his supporters if I just change a few specifics. Here's the slightly revised post:

While most of us have a notion that "an end never justifies the means" or some variation of that, I wonder if many realize that this is what preemption is? Wouldn't we describe a preemptive strike in this or a similar manner:
The threat of a looming danger moves one to eliminate a possible event (the end) with a strike (the means) that is not directly linked to any actual event (e.g. the actual performance of an abortion) but only to a possible event (e.g. the possible performance of an abortion).
The reason this is an end-justifying-the-means scenario is that a possible event does not have the same moral weight as an actual event; and so whenever a possible event is the object of a moral response, we are no longer in the realm of traditional morality which requires actual events to judge.

To this, some may say,
Fine, then traditional morality is going to have to stretch or change because preemptive or preventive strikes are warranted when there's the possibility that abortions will be performed by a doctor entering an abortion clinic.
But if that's your sense of things you may have a difficult time lashing your moral sense onto a firm metaphysical foundation.

I think part of the trouble here is a failure to grasp why the end never justifies the means. This is not just some lapidary maxim that sounds nice but doesn't ring true when things get rough and we have to cut moral corners. It's a rock-ribbed truth of existence and human nature. In this case, an end (preventing a possible abortion) has prompted a means (murder the person who might perform the abortion) in a manner that is morally disproportionate because preventing a possible event is not a morally valid end.

A moral judgment is made when we apply principles to a present situation. Why "present"? Well, the present is all that exists from moment to moment. A "moral" judgment is emptied of meaning if it is not about human beings acting and being acted upon or if it is not applied to existing beings in existing circumstances. I can't condemn a murderer for murder until the murder actually happens. That's why we distinguish murder from attempted murder. In a way, you'd think we wouldn't make such a distinction. If you shoot me in the heart and my bullet proof vest saves me, you won't be charged with murder, but attempted murder. While it seems that you are morally culpable for murder if you knew nothing of my vest and intended to kill me by shooting me in the heart, we don't make such jumps into events that don't exist. My murder didn't occur and so you aren't charged with it.

Human beings are free and have actions that cannot be anticipated with any moral certitude. If we apply principles to a future situation, a situation we anticipate and conjecture about, we are no longer making a moral judgment, we're making a bet, a wager about the outcome of something. If the outcome we've anticipated actually occurs, any previous moral judgments are still just that, previous moral judgments that don't apply to the event that actually occurred.

The obvious, though myopic, objection to this runs something like this:
So, you're saying that until someone plants an axe into my skull, an axe that someone is currently swinging toward my head, I can't -- let's say I can freeze the action and ponder it -- I can't with moral certitude state that they are going to murder me!?
Well, yes. But obviously this is not to say that I can't or shouldn't move out of the way or defend myself appropriately, even with lethal force if necessary, to stop the person swinging an axe at me. And this is the point that some of the preemptive strike advocates have missed.

Preemption attempts to anticipate with moral certitude what another person will do before they do it. This, of course, by definition can't be done. "Moral certitude" and "anticipate" don't go together. I don't think you can wiggle out of this bind unless you either deny that your action is preemptive or that the action you anticipate is freely done.

That was roughly what I posted earlier. As I said, connecting the two moral situations is tenuous at best. I realize someone could skirt the moral repercussions of preemptive or preventive strikes in the Hill case by proposing an example where an abortion were actually being performed in front of a person who felt that it was a grave evil, but I think that's not quite the point here. Nor is the point to argue that the invasion of Iraq was not preemptive or preventive. I'm suggesting that one's moral convictions need to be well-constructed and bolted onto a solid foundation so they don't shake apart when we're tempted to cut corners.

I think most would agree that a preemptive or preventive strike against a person (the doctor who was entering the abortion clinic) as we saw in the Paul Hill case is not morally defensible. But many thought a similar preemptive or preventive strike, albeit against a sovereign nation and tyrant, was indeed morally defensible. While I'm not exactly saying that you can't defend the morality of one and not the other, I think I'm only hesitating because of the complexity of the issues rather than the principles involved. In principle, moral actions where the end justifies the means, in this case, a preemptive or preventive strike, are not defensible.

Update: A couple of kind folks emailed me wondering if I really meant to write (in the original last sentence of the above post): " . . . moral actions where the end is justified by the means . . . . " That wasn't quite what I meant and so I've corrected the sentence.




It seems (via Sursum Corda ) there was a miscalculation about the chances of an asteroid slamming into the earth in 2014. It's been reduced from a "1" to a "0" on the Torino scale, "which ranks collision likelihood from 1 ("merits careful monitoring") to 10 (cash in your IRA now).

But don't get too complacent. According to JPL's Current Impact Risks chart, 1997 XR2 is still out there with a possible impact in . . . uh . . . 2101. Well, I guess I'll save the link for my son who would be 100 years old then.


Wednesday, September 03, 2003


Some very nice images of Mars here if you haven't already been to the Hubble Site. As you've surely also heard, "Mars will not be this close again until 2287." More amazing to me, for some reason, perhaps the fact that events can be separated by such long periods of time, this is the "closest approach [of Mars] to Earth in nearly 60,000 years." I don't know anything about orbital mechanics so I'm not sure whether this pattern will repeat itself; obviously future close approaches can be predicted, but will the spans of time follow a periodic pattern so that a time will come again when someone could say "this is the closest approach of Mars to Earth in nearly 60,000 years and it will be this close again in 284 years?

I think the longest periodic time I've heard of (I'm sure there are others and I suppose an oscillating Big Bang theory or some such thing would trump all) is the precession of the equinoxes which is a 26,000-year wobble of the Earth. According to the above link, the precession of the equinoxes
was the third-discovered motion of the Earth, after the far more obvious daily rotation and annual revolution.
Hmm, I thought I felt something.




I don't play much in the comment boxes of some of the more popular blogs, though I'm grateful to folks like Amy Welborn and Mark Shea for providing a forum for some of the livelier comment threads. I don't spend much time in them because it's usually a futile endeavor. Some of the participants seem unable to think carefully and with even a little nuance and many seem to prefer swinging a sledge when a tack hammer might do. I give you Exhibit A. Scroll around in it and I think you'll see what I mean. I was thinking that, just once, it would be nice to see something like the following in a comment box:
You know, you're right with that last comment; what I was saying is complete unthinking twaddle. Forgive me. I'll be more careful in the future.
Yeah, sure!

Anyway, checking in on the comments once in a while usually confirms my suspicion that actively participating in or even just reading these kinds of things isn't for me, especially when I come across a gem like this:
Let me raise a slightly related point that I've been mulling over recently: the Pope's slogan is "Be Not Afraid." So we are not to fear anything? Not even the possibility that loved ones are headed for hell? And if the possibility of damnation for self and others is not to be feared, then he's tacitly revealing he thinks no one actually goes to hell no matter what they do/chose. What do the rest of you think about this?
That comment has to be one of the looniest things I've seen in some time and the only thing loonier would be to respond to it directly.

Instead, here's a chapter from Crossing the Threshold of Hope that explains what John Paul II has in mind with those words.


Monday, September 01, 2003


Lost in Translation (via Alan) lets you play a kind of high-tech game of "telephone":
As of July 2003, translation software is almost good enough to turn grammatically correct, slang-free text from one language into grammatically incorrect, barely readable approximations in another. But the software is not equipped for 10 consecutive translations of the same piece of text. The resulting half-English, half-foreign, and totally non sequitur response bears almost no resemblance to the original. Remember the old game of "Telephone"? Something is lost, and sometimes something is gained.
I tried
Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off - then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.
It flopped back and forth through five languages and produced
All mark to the dark degree this lucky increase of the Entdeckungselbst in the opening; all the marks that are a humidity, bruineux November in my heart; all the marks, that one that supports lucky person had discovered it, that involuntary the forms and the totality hardwired obtain to a rupture before the campings of the Sarges, of each burial I; and special all the marks that my side advanced of apanhou of the hypos, if of me, to that it demands, of who of a rule of the moral base extremely, due to me the end metodicamente to prevent the company intentionally and with the head of the pregos with the distant absentees with fixed people with a point in the way - then, later calculation of him great hour to arrive not thus in the sea that I can.




Laborem Exercens was issued in 1981, but it's still timely, challenging, and a good Labor Day read. Here's an excerpt:
We are celebrating the ninetieth anniversary of the Encyclical Rerum Novarum on the eve of new developments in technological, economic and political conditions which, according to many experts, will influence the world of work and production no less than the industrial revolution of the last century. There are many factors of a general nature: the widespread introduction of automation into many spheres of production, the increase in the cost of energy and raw materials, the growing realization that the heritage of nature is limited and that it is being intolerably polluted, and the emergence on the political scene of peoples who, after centuries of subjection, are demanding their rightful place among the nations and in international decision-making. These new conditions and demands will require a reordering and adjustment of the structures of the modern economy and of the distribution of work. Unfortunately, for millions of skilled workers these changes may perhaps mean unemployment, at least for a time, or the need for retraining. They will very probably involve a reduction or a less rapid increase in material well-being for the more developed countries. But they can also bring relief and hope to the millions who today live in conditions of shameful and unworthy poverty.

It is not for the Church to analyze scientifically the consequences that these changes may have on human society. But the Church considers it her task always to call attention to the dignity and rights of those who work, to condemn situations in which that dignity and those rights are violated, and to help to guide the above-mentioned changes so as to ensure authentic progress by man and society.(my emphasis)