Minute Particulars

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

Friday, October 31, 2003


Ha! Philip Greenspun's Weblog has one of the better blog mottos I've come across:
an interesting idea every three months; a posting every day


Thursday, October 30, 2003


Like true friends, they take no hardy or elegant stance loosely choreographed from some broad perspective. They get right in there and mutter "Jesus Christ!" and shake their heads. -- Lorrie Moore, New Yorker




I wanted to be a high hurdler in high school. I actually had good flexibility and pretty good form. My problem was speed. I decided to be empirical about my aspirations. I had a friend clock me sprinting the 110 meters without hurdles. My time was lackluster and would not have been competitive even if I'd done the same time over hurdles! The stopwatch is a harsh mistress and shattered my dreams with a simple statement that day: an average high hurdler could cover 110 meters over hurdles faster than I could sprint it without hurdles. It would have been foolish for me to continue. And yet, in other endeavors, I find that people do this sort of thing all the time.

As I mentioned below, I've been concerned over the past year, I suppose starting with Iraq and the just-war debates and now most recently with decisions about feeding tubes, that some are dismissing moral arguments that suggest there might be a little more at issue than what would seem "plain and obvious to any compassionate person." And I also think there's a dismissal, likely unintended, of the virtue tradition in such appeals to common sense morality.

This will seem a little blunter than I intend, but this scoffing at nuance and debate is a little like running a race in a lane without hurdles, crossing the finish line in a respectable position, feeling pretty good about yourself and how well you raced, and doing all of this oblivious to the fact that the rest of the racers had hurdles in their lanes.

Now let me quickly say that I don't think I'm one of the moral hurdlers who see the real obstacles and grasp moral issues better than others. I make no such claim. But I do have a sense that some seem far more confident than they ought to be in their moral assertions about the particulars in some of the events in the news this past year. I say "more confident than they ought to be" because I see no indication that these folks are in any better position than I am to make a prudential decision about the people involved, and I don't see how I could make such confident assertions. So either I'm a moral buffoon, surely the more likely of the options, or they are making moral pronouncements that are simplistic and inappropriate: simplistic because they don't have adequate knowledge of the people, intentions, and circumstances involved; inappropriate because such pronouncements caricaturize what genuine moral judgment ought to look like.

Maybe I'm wrong on this, but I really do get the feeling, perhaps it's from reading some of the rapid blurbs in comment boxes on various blogs, that a lot of people think there's a sword called "obvious to anyone with a sense of decency" that can slice through any moral knot they come upon. They have sprinted into the situation wondering what all the fuss is about, oblivious to the fact that those who really do know the people, have a real sense of the intentions of those involved, and have weighed all of the circumstances, had a lot more hurdles to negotiate before making a responsible moral judgment.

In fact, even if the image didn't occur to me because of my high school aspirations, I still think the high hurdles event is a fine image for the demands on us when making moral judgments. The high hurdles are a sprint, but a controlled sprint: too fast and you bang into hurdles with your lead foot, too slow and your trailing leg snags them and you fall in a heap on the side of the track. They require an ability to remain limber and graceful while maintaining explosive strides between, toward, and away from each hurdle. There is quite literally a "grace under pressure" required that is a wonder to watch when you see a really good hurdler.

Moral issues make analogous demands on us. Even the most urgent issues can't be resolved by a simple sprint to a simple conclusion. They require a controlled and careful sprint where one must negotiate obstacles that are often unseen by others, move as fast as possible because of the dire issues raised, but not so fast that you miss important aspects or too slow that your judgment becomes irrelevant.


Wednesday, October 29, 2003


My Dad likes to tell an old Army joke where two privates are grousing about the meals they have to eat. One says to the other, "Man, this sure tastes like moose sh*t!" The moment he utters this he spots his sergeant walking by and it's obvious the sergeant has heard the private and is about to say something. The quick thinking private continues with, "But it's good moose sh*t!"

I feel that way about some clichés: it may be cliché, but it's good cliché! The cliché I have in mind is the passage from Robert Bolt's play, A Man For All Seasons (via PublicDefender.com):
Roper: So now you'd give the Devil benefit of law!
More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
Roper: I'd cut down every law in England to do that!
More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you - where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast - man's laws, not God's - and if you cut them down - and you're just the man to do it - d'you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake.
Roper: I have long suspected this, this is the golden calf; the law's your god!
More: Oh, Roper, you're a fool, God's my god....But I find him rather too subtle....I don't know where He is or what He wants.
Roper: My God wants service, to the end and unremitting; nothing else!
More: Are you sure that's God? He sounds like Moloch. But indeed it may be God - And whoever hunts for me, Roper, God or Devil, will find me hiding in the thickets of the law! And I'll hide my daughter with me! Not hoist her up the mainmast of your seagoing principles! They put about too nimbly!
I call this great passage from this great play cliché because it was kind of ruined when it was trotted out in the Clinton impeachment hearings at a point when I'm not sure anyone was capable of taking it seriously. It's also leans too heavily, as it should in its context, on a rhetorical point that seems to rend positive and natural law from divine law. But it is a wonderful and memorable passage nonetheless and quite instructive. Just don't use it as one of the foundations for your book on ethics.

I was reminded of the passage when I started fielding some of the emails I've received by those who seem to think I'm being obtuse about the morally obvious. This has happened with several issues this year and the volume and vehemence of responses was probably greatest around the polarizing (apparently for Catholics) issue of whether the US ought to invade Iraq. The passage comes to mind for the obvious reasons when laws are circumvented or simply ignored. But it also comes to mind when moral precepts are downplayed or dismissed when the matter seems especially dire and time is of the essence. In fact, let's swap a few words into the key quote, e.g. "moral precept" instead of "law," and see what happens:
Church teaching on morality is planted thick with moral precepts, precepts that reflect our understanding of natural and divine law (the two are inextricably related), our grasp of the human condition in the light of both reason and faith; if you cut them down, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of moral precepts, for my own safety's sake.
It limps a bit and mashes metaphors, but I think the point is sound.

If we want society to reflect Church Teaching on moral matters, we require both a conversion of hearts and the promulgation of reasonable laws that will hold up in the courts. It's true that moral precepts can really only serve as guidelines for decisions which are moral and therefore prudential in nature; and prudential judgments require that we carefully weigh all of the particulars of a pressing moral situation. But we mustn't forget that prudence, a virtue, a proper, practiced, and experienced disposition to the world, has a well-formed conscience at its core. And, barring some possible extenuating circumstances, our formation of a conscience would inevitably be flawed were it adrift from any semblance of moral precepts grounded in natural and divine law; it would in essence be a conscience hoisted up the mainmast of a seagoing vessel unmoored from the wisdom of the Tradition.

Perhaps what bothers many about the plea for nuance, for discussion, for a careful look at the moral precepts that pertain, is that this plea seems disproportionate to the urgent moral issues of our day. A doctor crushes an infant's skull with forceps. A doctor removes a feeding tube from someone whose family vehemently objects to such action. If these don't cry out for immediate intervention what would?!

I agree that urgent matters require quick responses. But here's what I fear has been lost in recent events. Traditional morality, and certainly the morality found in Church Teaching, insists that living a virtuous life requires, well, virtue. And the traditional virtues are more like our modern sense of "habits" than ideals. Virtues are ways of acting that reinforce individual actions and shape us to be more disposed to that kind of action in the future. The difficult part is not developing morally habitual responses -- we can't help this since we're human -- but developing good habits, virtues, which allow us to appropriately and "instinctively" respond to situations that arise in our lives. For one who is virtuous, who has a well-formed conscience and is able to act with prudence in difficult moral situations, it is indeed possible to act swiftly and without delay or ponderous consideration of what moral precepts are involved and at stake. I certainly don't dispute this nor do I doubt that many truly virtuous folks have responded appropriately in some of the current cases in the news.

But, frankly, there has been a kind of lurching about. Folks from all sides are getting white-hot about events in the media that most have no personal knowledge of. And in a separate post I'll try to see if I can articulate what seems to be a kind of dismissive posture to the virtue tradition, a preference to respond to moral issues with appeals to what is "obvious" and clear to any "compassionate" person.


Tuesday, October 28, 2003


The Homily by our parish priest on Sunday's Gospel was unbelievably unthinking. And I say this as one who realizes that any jackass can kick down a barn; I say this realizing that I'm not offering a Homily week in and week out, year in and year out; I say this realizing that punching holes in a Homily is petty in light of the staggering fact that many people walk through a stinging sandstorm of reasons not to go to Mass, and come and worship anyway.

Our priest asked a parishioner to help him during the Homily by standing in front of us and answering a few questions. The priest had spoken to him before Mass, but hadn't prepared him for every question he was going to ask. He then asked the parishioner to name three material possessions he treasures. He followed this by asking him to name three creature comforts he cherishes. Finally, he asked him to name three people he would want to have at his death bed. The first questions were answered predictably enough: house, food, etc. To the last question, the parishioner answered: "My three children." I immediately wondered what his wife might think about this, but I don't think she was at the Mass. Then the priest painted a scenario where the man was going to die and he had to give some things up. He asked him which of the material possessions he would give up. Then which of the creature comforts. Then which of his kids would he give up having at his death bed if he had to choose. Much of this was done in a jocular fashion and to the last question he said, "Well, since _________ isn't here [only two of his kids were present at the Mass] I'll choose him." The priest then continued the questioning by asking again which of the now two things remaining from each category he would give up. When he asked which of the two kids he would choose not to have at his death bed, and he did this knowing that the two kids were present (one is probably about 5 and the other about 7 years old), I was mortified for the Dad on the hot seat and hoped he'd say, "I can't choose." But I think he was flustered and probably thought the priest had an important point to make so he murmured the name of one of the kids. I couldn't believe it. The priest forced this man to publicly declare, admittedly in a silly hypothetical scenario, which of his kids he'd prefer to have at his death bed if he could only have one.

The priest then thanked the parishioner and continued with his point which was something like, "There will come a time when we have to choose Jesus over material possessions, creature comforts, and even loved ones." It seems to me if he wanted to give an example of an agonizing choice, he could have mentioned something in the news or a piece of fiction, perhaps the well-known instance in Sophie's Choice. Instead, he chose to portray it live and in a manner that I thought might possibly cause the little girl who was not chosen by her father to wonder why he chose her brother over her in this silly game. I wonder if the father wonders why he was put in such an awkward position or didn't just say "I can't choose between my children!"

In a way, this is just another dumb Homily and another weird attempt by a well-intentioned preacher to make a point in an unconventional or clever way. It's just another shot at an interesting Homily that swerved into something strange. But there's something strange about our priest not realizing how the little stunt, a stupid and silly scenario, might not be understood by the children involved or might cause a parent to say something that it would never occur to him to say otherwise.

I worry that I'm getting bothered by a grain of sand in a windstorm, stooping to find it angry from its sting on my face, pinching it tight as I shake my hands in complaint, and then realizing as I show the speck to someone how little it is in light of all the good that goes on at the parish: the celebration of the Sacraments, the community gathered in prayer, the outreach and good works being done. But I also wonder if I'm being too easy on our priest by not confronting him or writing a letter to him with my concerns.


Monday, October 27, 2003


Through emails and the responses of other bloggers to some of my concerns about the Schiavo case, it's clear that many are frustrated with treading a little more carefully around issues that seem so simple and obvious. "We should treat every human being as a child of God." "We should especially love the weakest and most vulnerable in our society." "We should affirm human life at all times." I agree with all of these statements. In fact, they're simply an aspect of Augustine's famous ethical maxim: "Love, and do what you wish."

The context of Augustine's statement is:
Once for all, then, a short precept is given thee: Love, and do what thou wilt: whether thou hold thy peace, through love hold thy peace; whether thou cry out, through love cry out; whether thou correct, through love correct; whether thou spare, through love do thou spare: let the root of love be within, of this root can nothing spring but what is good. Commentary on the First Letter of John, 7.8
Now, on a very profound level, "Love, and do what you wish" is all one really needs to live a good and charitable life. If love is desiring the good of another,* desiring what is best for another, then if we truly love our fellow human beings there is simply nothing we could desire for them that would be inappropriate. And I suppose this approach would be foolproof if, to but it plainly, we really knew how to love others so deeply and completely that we really could love, and do what we wish. But we don't. And there's the rub.

I have a friend who was once, apparently sincerely, told that "Jesus was no Aristotle." To this my friend replied, "He didn't need to be." I thought that was brilliant, but likely lost on the person he responded to. Because we aren't capable of perfect love, because sin distorts our world, because we rarely see the dignity of another human being as we ought to, we need help when it comes to loving another as we ought to. And, in the Catholic Tradition, even if we were capable of seeing clearly, we would still need God's grace to recognize another's dignity fully and deeply, the dignity that we each possess and that is really only glimpsed in what God has revealed to us in Christ, in the Sacraments, and in the Scriptures.

For saints, perhaps, "Love, and do what you wish" might be a fitting moral mantra. For most of us, along with the grace of the Sacraments, we require the nuance of Church Teaching and the constant jostling of the heart that comes from discussing moral matters amongst ourselves and with those who are wiser.

There is an understandable backlash at attempts to nuance situations that seem so utterly obvious. And, as I mentioned in the below post on partial-birth abortion, I know this backlash firsthand since I really don't see how anyone could find the doctor's words anything other than repulsive. What could possibly be nuanced here? What requires discussion? But I think such a reaction is simplistic and ultimately morally detrimental. Unless you think someone capable of this is the devil incarnate, there ought to be a way to express our moral concerns carefully and intelligently. Any hope of passing laws that will be upheld requires this; and, more to the point, any hope of converting hearts will fail without it.


Thursday, October 23, 2003


I write below about the importance of nuanced discussion in moral matters, and yet I'll honestly admit that I don't see how "nuanced discussion" could reach someone who can dispassionately write (via Mark Shea) the following:
In my private practice, I perform many abortions as late as the 26th week of pregnancy, and some as late as the 34th week. . . .

Earlier this year, I began an abortion on a young woman who was 17 weeks pregnant. Because of the two days of prior treatment, the amniotic membranes were visible and bulging. I ruptured the membranes and released the fluid to reduce the risk of amniotic fluid embolism. Then I inserted my forceps into the uterus and applied them to the head of the fetus, which was still alive, since fetal injection is not done at that stage of pregnancy. I closed the forceps, crushing the skull of the fetus, and withdrew the forceps. The fetus, now dead, slid out more or less intact. With the next pass of the forceps, I grasped the placenta, and it came out in one piece. Within a few seconds, I had completed my routine exploration of the uterus and sharp curettage. The blood loss would just fill a tablespoon. The patient, who was awake, hardly felt the operation. She was relieved, grateful, and safe. She wants to have children in the future.
If you read the whole sickening thing, you'll see that this doctor is actually trying to be clever about what he sees as loopholes in partial-birth abortion laws. It's mind numbing.




I got a lot of replies to this post about the authority of a husband or wife to make decisions for an incapacitated spouse. Many considered it to be a sed contra to much that was being discussed about the Schiavo case; but I think it was more of a sed etiam [but also or furthermore] stressing that the authority of a husband or wife to make decisions for an incapacitated spouse is at the heart of marriage and ought to be unimpeachable unless he or she is incapacitated as well or there is evidence beyond a reasonable doubt of malice toward the incapacitated spouse by the husband or wife.

I found an interesting remark in the comments over on Sursum Corda:
I find the attempts to see nuance in such a clear case more than a little maddening. . . . why all the intense intellectual effort to act as though there is all of this supposed ambiguity in the situation?
On a certain level, a level that is really just scratching the surface, I understand the comment. The proverbial debate about whether something that looks, sounds, smells, feels, and, once properly prepared, tastes like a duck is actually a duck often seems absurd. Probably it is if we really are discussing a duck. But when we enter the realm of human action, the only realm in which one can really speak of "morality," discussion and nuance are not only nice to have, they are, so to speak, morally required. In fact, a central work in Catholic morality, St. Thomas Aquinas's Summa, is framed in terms of a nuanced discussion (a question is asked, objections are raised, authorities are cited, a position is laid out, responses to the objections are made). So, wondering why there's such a fuss about what seems so obvious when it comes to moral matters is, frankly, a bit simplistic and, perhaps ironically, even a bit egocentric in its avoidance of discussion.




I think we as a society, and especially those of us striving to transform a "culture of death" into a "culture of life," need to be careful about requiring safety nets around every human choice. When the issues involve human beings who are completely innocent of their predicament -- and abortion is likely the quintessential case here -- then indeed we ought to put as many nets up as we can. But when the issue is something like marriage, when a mature human being makes a decision to give him or herself completely to another person, then I think societal safety nets are out of place and even contradictory.

Here's what I mean: If we enter a marriage freely and appropriately (at least in the context of the Sacrament of Marriage), then prenuptial agreements or any kind of arrangement that anticipates malice from a spouse would be abhorrent to the giving of oneself completely to another. When you get married, you ought to, as the cliché goes, "work without a net." Even in light of the Schiavo case, it would be reprehensible for me to prepare a legal document that would give my parents or siblings the right to impeach my wife's authority to make decisions for me if I were incapacitated and they didn't think my wife was doing the right thing. And, and this was a point that many seemed to miss in my earlier post, it would truly be condescending to me and a denial of what my parents and siblings witnessed at my marriage for them to attempt to interfere with my wife's decisions about my welfare.

Our urge to intervene in a situation ought to be tempered by the kind of situation it is before we lurch in. The act of giving oneself freely and completely to another, the act of marriage, is a kind of act that would dissolve into parody if accompanied by hesitation and private reserve. And such an act should not be second-guessed by us except under extraordinary circumstances. In the case in which a husband or wife is incapacitated, unless there are clear and present actions by the husband or wife that demonstrate malice toward his or her incapacitated spouse that is beyond a reasonable doubt, our intervention seems inappropriate.

I wonder if the desire to reverence the dignity of every human person and the desire to protect all human life have been conflated by an ardent conviction to do the right thing? We reverence human persons because, on the deepest level, it has been revealed to us that every human being is deliberately created by God and made in the image of God. But isn't a central and integral aspect of our being human, being deliberately created by God, and being fashioned in the image of God, our freedom, our ability to enter into covenants freely and completely with another and with God?

And so, I wonder if our initial response of erecting safety nets around and intervening between a married couple ought to be tempered more than our initial response to other moral situations between people not married to each other? And what should temper our response? I suspect it would be the understanding that our ability to enter into marriage and other covenants stems from the fact that we are persons and from this fact our dignity becomes evident. And so our desire to recognize the dignity of every human being requires that we allow that dignity to manifest itself in acts like marriage. If we are too quick to lump the actions between husband and wife in among actions between friends, acquaintances, and strangers, we might indeed save more lives. But I wonder if our ability to see the depths and magnificence of our dignity as human beings would be diminished or even obscured by this?

(If I had comments, I'm sure some would wonder about spousal abuse, spousal rape, spousal murder, etc. and question whether "tempering" our response is very realistic or wise. To this I would admit that these are vital concerns that are difficult to address. I would first distinguish what we mean by "marriage" and acknowledge that giving oneself to another freely and completely may not be something that happens in many "marriages," though I would still hold that that ought to be the presumption we make.)


Monday, October 20, 2003


The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.

~~ Chesterton
I haven't read Andrew Sullivan in a long time. I find him more clever than wise in his punditry, and sadly juvenile in his assessment of the Church. As he puts it (via Camassia's fine response):
The combination of the cover-up of sexual abuse and the extremity of the language used against gay people by the Vatican has made it impossible for me to go back inside a church. I do believe that something is rotten in the heart of the hierarchy, that it is bound up in sexual panic and a conflicted homosexual subculture that is a deep part of the Catholic Church. Until that is dealt with, until a new dynamic of hope and honesty replaces denial and authoritarianism, I cannot go on.
And he writes in a recent column (via Open Book)
The current pope is obviously a deep and holy man; but that makes his hostility even more painful. He will send emissaries to terrorists, he will meet with a man who tried to assassinate him. But he has not and will not meet with openly gay Catholics. They are, to him, beneath dialogue. His message is unmistakable. Gay people are the last of the untouchables. We can exist in the church only by silence, by bearing false witness to who we are.
I know some Catholics probably think, "Fine! See ya later Buddy" when they read something like this. But I find Sullivan's departure very sad, or at least as sad as I can be without actually knowing the guy. Here is a clearly intelligent, articulate man who feels rejected by the Church, and yet seems to believe that in the Church he ought to be most free, most himself, most filled with faith, hope, and love. What makes me sad is that no one has been able to present the Church to Sullivan in a way that precipitates a few solid crystals of sense from what he sees as a murky, swirling solution of incoherence.

Ironically, Sullivan, who probably fancies himself to be intellectually tenacious and endlessly curious, has worn out and become dull in the presence of the Church. He seems trapped in a rut of his own construction, an understanding of Church Teaching that he has spun a certain way to the exclusion of any other possibilities. In fact, and I'm sure he'd cringe at this, he seems to be quite narrow, shallow, and provincial in his response to what the Church teaches. Rather than finding himself in a vast and immense cathedral, he refuses to climb out of the crimped and cramped box he's built in the far corner. Indeed, it seems to me that the Church has "not been tried and found wanting" for Sullivan, but "found difficult; and left untried." And what is sadder than that the one place where we ought to find ourselves most free, most ourselves, most filled with faith, hope, and love, be perceived by us as a place of chains, caricatures, doubt, despair, and hatred.


Thursday, October 16, 2003


The first words of the new pontificate, 25 years ago:
It was to Christ the Redeemer that my feelings and my thoughts were directed on 16 October of last year [1978], when, after the canonical election, I was asked: "Do you accept?" I then replied: "With obedience in faith to Christ, my Lord, and with trust in the Mother of Christ and of the Church, in spite of the great difficulties, I accept". Today I wish to make that reply known publicly to all without exception, thus showing that there is a link between the first fundamental truth of the Incarnation, already mentioned, and the ministry that, with my acceptance of my election as Bishop of Rome and Successor of the Apostle Peter, has become my specific duty in his See.

I chose the same names that were chosen by my beloved Predecessor John Paul I. Indeed, as soon as he announced to the Sacred College on 26 August 1978 that he wished to be called John Paul-such a double name being unprecedented in the history of the Papacy-I saw in it a clear presage of grace for the new pontificate. Since that pontificate lasted barely 33 days, it falls to me not only to continue it but in a certain sense to take it up again at the same starting point. This is confirmed by my choice of these two names. By following the example of my venerable Predecessor in choosing them, I wish like him to express my love for the unique inheritance left to the Church by Popes John XXIII and Paul VI and my personal readiness to develop that inheritance with God's help.




I haven't said much here on the agonizing story of Terri Schiavo; and I don't plan to. It has become a flashpoint for many, and perhaps it really is a portent of just how bad things are in our society. Most of the reports I've read have been from those who don't know Terri Schiavo personally. And those who do know her seem to be so polarized about this, her husband, her parents, those supporting either her parents' wishes or her husband's, that it's hard to know what to make of it. What I do know is that euthanasia in any form is wrong while at the same time taking extraordinary measures to maintain life is not called for and can in some cases be inappropriate.

What I haven't seen addressed by anyone I've read is the important right of a husband or wife to determine what is best for his or her incapacitated spouse. In the abstract, in light of what I think is the Catholic understanding of the Sacrament of Marriage, the two are one and a husband or wife has complete authority over decisions about what an incapacitated spouse "would want." They spiritually and legally stand in the spouse's place. Not other family members, not friends, not strangers, not bishops, not governors, not presidents. And this right to make decisions regarding an incapacitated spouse's well-being ought to be unimpeachable unless the spouse making the decisions is also incapacitated or demonstrates above and beyond a reasonable doubt malice toward his or her spouse.

If I were incapacitated, I would expect that my wife would have absolute authority in decisions about my well-being, even if these decisions were about life or death, even if my family members vehemently objected, even if others who didn't know me vehemently objected, even if state of federal government officials vehemently objected. Unless the question was about my wife's own ability, not authority which I think can't be questioned without disparaging my own decision to enter into Marriage with her, but ability to make these decisions, everyone else, whose opinions in some cases would be quite important and, I would hope, taken into consideration by my wife, would finally need to defer to my wife and support her decision once made. Now, I say this in the context of my marriage and my understanding of what my wife holds dear. I don't claim that this ought to be the rule of the land. And I'm not in anyway suggesting this is what ought to be done in the Schiavo case. I do think, though, that the institution of marriage hinges on this.

So, here's my concern. Given a serious and sacramental understanding of marriage, given that "a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one body*" is not just pious sentiment, isn't there really no one else who has greater authority over the decisions about an incapacitated spouse than the husband or wife? Don't we undermine marriage somewhat if we steamroll over the authority a husband or wife has for an incapacitated spouse? Isn't it a bit condescending to the incapacitated spouse if we assume that we know better than the incapacitated spouse's husband or wife? Is this really a precedent we would want to set?

Again, let me stress that I am not suggesting this is the situation in the above case. I don't know and don't feel competent to even speculate. But I have noticed and have been a bit surprised at the lack of discussion of this. Shouldn't some of the discussion also center on how important and unimpeachable the authority is that a husband or wife has over the well-being of an incapacitated spouse? Isn't this in fact what it means to give oneself to another, in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health? Isn't this what it means to leave father and mother and cling to one another and be of one body?

Should society have recourse to prevent a husband or wife from making bad decisions for an incapacitated spouse? Of course. Just as we allow the State to take children out of abusive or harmful family situations, so the State ought to have an option to intervene between husband and wife. And just as intervention between a parent and a child in his or her custody ought to be done only in quite exceptional cases, intervention between husband and wife ought to also be reserved for quite exceptional cases. If we're going to insist that marriage be taken seriously, then within the context of marriage we ought to require a proportionately greater burden of proof of incompetence or ill will before we strip a husband or wife of the authority to decide what is best for an incapacitated spouse.

UPDATE:Peter of Sursum Corda has a fine post on this issue.


Monday, October 13, 2003


Update: There is a gracious and very fine response to this post now up on Disputations. Also, TS O'Rama has found some interesting quotes about how East and West emphasize different aspects of Original Sin.

Tom of Disputations has a troika of responses (start here and scroll up) to my concerns about whether Mary died before being assumed. I think I understand Tom's points and I would agree that the Tradition does seem to be freighted with an assumption about the Assumption: that Mary indeed died before being assumed into Heaven. But I would want to distinguish what is explicitly declared in the doctrines of the Assumption and the Immaculate Conception from what was believed by many, including perhaps the very popes who made the pronouncements, or which way the Tradition seems to be leaning. Definitive declarations inspired by the Holy Spirit are never fully understood by the Magisterium proclaiming them. And so, what popes or bishops believed about matters not specifically proclaimed is important, after all, it is informed belief; but it shouldn't hinder us from sober considerations that are within the explicit teaching but suggesting something different about matters left undeclared.

I'm an amateur here. If the Tradition seems to lean toward the fact that it was fitting and proper that Mary die before being assumed, then I remain open to this and submit my musings here to the vigor and wisdom of those who know better than I. I'm not a historian and I haven't read widely on this. My approach is one of examining the implications more than examining the state of this question from century to century (a worthy and important aspect). And I simply don't think the implications of Mary's death can be as easily brushed aside as Tom and some of the folks who commented on his posts suggest.

Let me mention three implications (actually, the third will be in a later post) that I keep tripping on when careful and faithful thinkers insist that Mary suffered death. The first is the startling and disturbing fact that the manner in which she was most fully human, her natural way of being, the state in which she was able to say "May it be done to me according to your word," would cease in the catastrophic event of her death. The Mother of God, the one "full of grace," the only creature to do God's will perfectly because she was without sin, would exist unnaturally, in the dim world of the separated soul. She would be subject to the one substantial change that entered the world from sin: death. The argument that she died but did not corrupt misses the point that death is not a gradual, temporal event. You are either alive or dead. Whether she was assumed immediately after death, or after three days as one tradition has it, is irrelevant since the separated soul exists outside of time and death is a substantial and instantaneous change, not some suspended animation.

So, the statements about how one can suffer "death" without "corruption" suggested by Aquinas regarding Christ's body in the tomb, are important, but ancillary to the issue here. I don't think anyone doubts that "Divine Power" is capable of preventing "corruption" after death and making it possible for us to say that it was indeed Christ's body in the tomb prior to Resurrection (though in light of the nature of substantial change I do wonder what "preventing corruption" can really mean). So, certainly God has the power to prevent corruption after Mary's death.

But my concern is with the event of death itself, the substantial change that occurs when the soul no longer informs the body. Suffering death, even if the death does not cause "corruption," is a terrible, terrible thing. The separated soul is an unnatural condition, a condition at which we ought to recoil with horror. St. Thomas is clear on this:
Of all human ills [humanorum malorum] the most grievous is death, by which human life is snuffed out [tollitur].* (Comp. Theol., I, cap. 227)
The context of this statement is significant; it is stated in a question about why Christ willed to die and the very next sentence reads:
Hence no greater proof of love is possible than that a man should expose himself to death for a friend.
No greater love is possible because death is the ultimate privation one can endure. That Christ's passion, death, and resurrection is an appropriate means to our redemption suggests that death, the ultimate consequences of which were conquered by Christ's actions, is the "most grievous" natural privation we can undergo because that's how far Christ went, that's in fact what he did, to pull us from the consequences of sin, the oblivion of not being in God's presence.

Our natural condition is sundered at death, and we can no longer make choices, no longer use our intellects in the manner we'd grown accustomed to. This is why there is an urgency to our fundamental choices while we are alive, for after death we are no longer able to make such choices. This cleaving of our natural way of being is why death, anyone's death, is tragic. And this is why our resurrection will be bodily, for it will free us from the unnatural condition of the separated soul and make us whole again, albeit in a manner that we can't fully grasp this side of Heaven.

Why we all have to suffer this violent event, this rending of our natural condition is a primal question with no easy answers. The Catholic Tradition, as I mentioned in my previous post, proposes that death is the result of sin. Aquinas states in several places, including here, that "man was immortal before sin."

In my humble opinion, it simply doesn't seem fitting that Mary, who was without sin and preserved free from all stain of original sin, should suffer death. That Mary's son was without sin and indeed suffered death doesn't contradict this: Her son is the Redeemer of Mankind; his death is instrumental to the saving act of our Redemption. But his death doesn't suggest that one without sin must or ought to die. I guess I don't follow this connection.

Aquinas suggests, in his famous Article from the Summa Theologica that is often anachronistically called his "denial of the Immaculate Conception" (he of course, was working from a notion of "delayed hominization" where the human soul is not immediately present at "conception" and, more importantly, did not have the benefit of a Papal Bull on the doctrine), that if Christ is the "universal Saviour of all" that it would be "derogatory to the dignity of Christ" if Mary "had never incurred the stain of original sin." I think folks have extended his reasoning to say, in essence, that it would be "derogatory to the dignity of Christ" if there were a creature of God who did not require the saving act of his Redemption. But isn't the unique event of the Immaculate Conception the manner of salvation for Mary, which in turn is folded into the event that then enables our own salvation with the birth of Christ?

A second concern I have about the insistence that Mary suffered death stems from my desire to take Christology seriously (ironically, one person in the comments of one of Tom's posts seemed to think I was suggesting just the opposite when he wrote, "Mariology that is detached from Christology gives us these kinds of arguments"). In Gaudium et Spes we find the notion that Christ "fully reveals man to man himself":
22. The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light. For Adam, the first man, was a figure of Him Who was to come, namely Christ the Lord. Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear. It is not surprising, then, that in Him all the aforementioned truths find their root and attain their crown.

He Who is "the image of the invisible God" (Col. 1:15), is Himself the perfect man. To the sons of Adam He restores the divine likeness which had been disfigured from the first sin onward. Since human nature as He assumed it was not annulled, by that very fact it has been raised up to a divine dignity in our respect too. For by His incarnation the Son of God has united Himself in some fashion with every man. He worked with human hands, He thought with a human mind, acted by human choice and loved with a human heart. Born of the Virgin Mary, He has truly been made one of us, like us in all things except sin.
Now, if these statements are really taken seriously, then not only divine nature, but human nature itself ought to be most fully revealed to us when we encounter that nature without the stain and disfigurement of sin; in other words, the human nature that is evident in Christ is precisely what our natures would be were it not for original sin. And because of this, we need to look carefully at the human nature of Christ, and distinguish what he took on of necessity because it was inherent in human nature from what he freely assumed in order to suffer and die. As Aquinas writes:
[Christ] received human nature without sin, in the purity which it had in the state of innocence. In the same way He might have assumed human nature without defects. Thus it is clear that Christ did not contract these defects as if taking them upon Himself as due to sin, but by His own will.
Now, I think you'd need to read the entire Question and follow some of the references to what he's said earlier to really get a handle on what Aquinas is saying here. If you do, I think it will become clear that unless we deny that Christ took on our nature completely, one of the things that Christ reveals to us about our nature is that human nature does not necessitate death, else Christ would have had to die of necessity when he willingly became human. Aquinas clearly objects to this in several places, including the text I linked to in my original post
Christ's death ought not to come from weakness of nature, lest it might not be believed to be voluntary: and therefore He willed to die, not from sickness, but from suffering inflicted on Him, to which He gave Himself up willingly.
And in another work:
Christ did not die because of any necessity.* (Comp. Theol., I, cap. 230)
I'm, of course, not suggesting that Christ was simply a prelapserian man. Clearly his divinity is able to exercise its power over all nature and thus even over his human nature. But I think we miss an important aspect of the Incarnation if we merely claim that Christ "suspended" the death imminent because of his human nature. If the Son of God truly suffered, died, and was buried, he would not simply "appear" to go through such motions, but actually encounter them -- hence the redeeming effect on all of Creation since through Christ all things were made.

And so, again, I find the suggestion that Mary died prior to her assumption a bit problematic. It implies a notion of human nature that doesn't seem to reflect completely the fact that Christ "fully reveals man to man himself" and that the human nature in Christ is a glimpse of human nature in its purest form, without the stain or disfigurement of sin. And from this it seems evident that death is not natural, not part of our nature, but something that exists because of sin. It suggests that Mary, a human being who was without sin and who had been preserved from the stain of original sin, a person who had not assumed any defects of human nature that resulted from original sin (as Christ did, though without committing sin as Aquinas discusses above), still ought to be subject to death. Why? This suggestion just doesn't seem to follow.

While I'm certainly not suggesting those who think Mary died are explicitly suggesting this, the notion of her death, because she was full of grace and without sin, seems to water down the tragedy of death. It just doesn't seem fitting that she suffer the greatest privation we encounter in this life, a privation that is the result of sin. It seems to dissolve somewhat the connection between sin and death and fracture the integrity of human nature unstained by sin. And, finally, by obliquely suggesting that death is a necessity of our human nature, it fails to face squarely the horrible death that Christ freely chose and that was integral to the saving act of a crucified God.

The third concern I have in this rambling and too long post will have to wait. It is more along the lines of natural philosophical rather than theological implications, and so it might be more appropriate to post separately.

* -- the Vollert translation of passages from Compendium Theologiae




Here's a disturbing article on the Golden Gate Bridge and suicides:
Every two weeks, on average, someone jumps off the Golden Gate Bridge. It is the world’s leading suicide location. In the eighties, workers at a local lumberyard formed “the Golden Gate Leapers Association”—a sports pool in which bets were placed on which day of the week someone would jump. At least twelve hundred people have been seen jumping or have been found in the water since the bridge opened, in 1937 . . . .
The article covers the pros and cons in the debate over whether to erect a suicide barrier on the bridge:
The bridge comes into the lives of all Bay Area residents sooner or later, and it often stays. Dr. Jerome Motto, who has been part of two failed suicide-barrier coalitions, is now retired and living in San Mateo. When I visited him there, we spent three hours talking about the bridge. Motto had a patient who committed suicide from the Golden Gate in 1963, but the jump that affected him most occurred in the seventies. “I went to this guy’s apartment afterward with the assistant medical examiner,” he told me. “The guy was in his thirties, lived alone, pretty bare apartment. He’d written a note and left it on his bureau. It said, ‘I’m going to walk to the bridge. If one person smiles at me on the way, I will not jump.’”

Motto sat back in his chair. “That was it,” he said. “It’s so needless, the number of people who are lost.”

As people who work on the bridge know, smiles and gentle words don’t always prevent suicides. A barrier would. But to build one would be to acknowledge that we do not understand each other; to acknowledge that much of life is lived on the chord, on the far side of the railing. Joseph Strauss believed that the Golden Gate would demonstrate man’s control over nature, and so it did. No engineer, however, has discovered a way to control the wildness within.
How various people responded to this issue in the article was intriguing. There were some who thought, “They’re going to jump anyway, and you can’t stop them.” Others thought that these “are real people -- not crazy people but real people suffering from depression” who are jumping at an average of one every two weeks. The former response may strike some as a kind of rugged individualist approach, a stoic, no nonsense recognition that we simply can't worry about people who voluntarily walk to the middle of a bridge, crawl over the rail, and leap to their deaths. The latter may strike some as a kind of sentimental altruistic approach, an anxious, emotional plea that we need to do something about people who voluntarily walk to the middle of a bridge, crawl over the rail, and leap to their deaths. Those opposed to a barrier -- it would be costly -- might seem realistic: What about all of the other preventable causes of death where the victims aren't deliberately trying to die? Those in favor of a barrier might seem idealistic: What kind of society are we if we allow so many easily preventable suicides?

I don't think there are easy answers here. I do think, though, that "realistic" could just as easily apply to those who want to build a suicide barrier. And "idealistic" could indeed apply to those who think "They’re going to jump anyway" so why bother. Perhaps the first step ought to be a closer look at our own response to this or similar moral issues without the easy labels and insulating jargon.


Thursday, October 09, 2003


Here, from a recent New Yorker (or is it "New Yorker"?), is a very funny review of the fifteenth edition of The Chicago Manual of Style. Go read the whole thing. Here's how it starts:
It is 2:30 A.M. of a Monday, spring semester, 1983. Things are looking extremely good. Forty-eight hours of high-intensity stack work and some inspired typing have produced the thirty-page final paper for Modern European History (Mr. Blague, MW 9-10) that you were supposed to be working on all semester . . . . Now, as you contemplate the pile of neatly typed 20-lb. Eaton non-corrasable bond on your desk, you are satisfied that you have turned out, in two days, the intellectual and moral equivalent of three months’ steady application, a paper that Professor Blague will recognize as the work of a powerful and unexpectedly mature historical mind. Only the notes and the bibliography remain . . . .

Annotation may seem a mindless and mechanical task. In fact, it calls both for superb fine-motor skills and for adherence to the most exiguous formal demands. Throw in sleep deprivation and a mild case of caffeine jitters, and the combination is guaranteed to produce flawed page after flawed page. In the world of End Matter, there is no such thing as a flyspeck. Every error is an error of substance, a betrayal of ignorance and inexperience, the academic equivalent of the double dribble. That the decorums of citation are the arbitrary residue of ancient pedantries whose raisons d’être are long past reconstructing does not reduce the penalties for nonconformity. You are on page 3 of your endnotes before you remember that ibid is supposed to end with a period, since it is an abbreviation for ibidem (“in the same place”). What genius decided that it was worth saving a character by this practice no longer matters. What matters is that it is now three-thirty in the morning and you have to retype three pages of notes. Or perhaps it suddenly strikes you, with the force of panic, that maybe, as a foreign term, ibid. should be underlined. You quickly discover that, by continually hand-adjusting the typewriter’s platen (the “roller,” in layman’s language), in order to superscript your endnote numbers, you have thrown the alignment out of whack, and when you roll the page back up to underline the ibid.s you type the line right through the word. You have to pull the paper out and start over.


Wednesday, October 08, 2003



I'm guessing that a lot of people are happy that an Austrian-born actor can come to this country with nothing and become governor of a state that is purported to have the fifth largest economy in the world, an economy, if I remember the report correctly, that comes between France and the UK. I'm also guessing that as many if not more people are grateful for Article 2, Clause 5 of the Constitution:
No Person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President . . . .
But apart from the fact that many cringe at the thought of a Schwarzenegger presidency which Article 2, Clause 5 prevents, why should a foreign-born citizen not be allowed to be president? In fact, I predict the "natural born Citizen" requirement is going to get some scrutiny now that a tenacious and ambitious foreign-born citizen is governor of California. After all, isn't the prohibition more arbitrary than rational? Why does being born on American soil make a difference?


Monday, October 06, 2003

Friday, October 03, 2003


There've been some great conversations about whether St. Joseph was assumed and the significance this might or might not have on several blogs including: Disputations (with a further post here), And Then?, El Camino Real, and Kevin Miller (in the comments box of Disputations). Tom of Disputations proposes an interesting theory about why Mary's dying might set her assumption apart:
It occurs to me now that uniqueness [of Mary's Assumption] may lie in the combination of death (which Enoch and Elijah, according to some, did not experience) and incorruption in the tomb (which the saints who had fallen asleep did not experience) prior to her Assumption (and, obviously, the incorrupt saints known to us have not experienced bodily assumption (and, for that matter, their incorruption seems to be somewhat different than Mary's)).
I wrote about the controversy of Mary's death over a year ago, but Tom's theory intrigues me so I thought I'd revisit the topic.

As I mentioned before, if you believe that God can create ex nihilo, then anything else is pretty trivial. In other words, the power to create something from nothing is the power to do anything that is possible. I’ve always thought this is a good thing to keep in mind when discussing doctrine, miracles, or any other notions that imply something extraordinary. It obviously makes it clear that the debate is moot if you don't believe God exists, but it also emphasizes the fact that our job as human beings isn't so much to try to ponder all that God could do, but all that He has in fact done.

So, discussions about whether Mary died shouldn’t be about what God can do -- He’s certainly capable of bringing the dead back to life and assuming them into everlasting life -- but about what the tradition asserts and implies. You'll find a nice presentation of what is asserted in this article from the always reliable online Catholic Encyclopedia. And you can also simply go straight to the pope's pen to read the declaration of the doctrine.

I suppose debating the implications of the Assumption may strike some as the kind of discussion that might take place in some dark, dank nook in an otherwise bright and lively medieval cathedral, where stodgy theologians, nervous sticklers, mutter about esoteric matters that have little impact on our faith. But this, of course, would be a gross misunderstanding of how doctrines like the Assumption and the Immaculate Conception illumine the faithful and shore up theological concerns. Certainly the importance ought to be clear to the faithful from the pronouncement itself:
44. [W]e pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.
45. Hence if anyone, which God forbid, should dare willfully to deny or to call into doubt that which we have defined, let him know that he has fallen away completely from the divine and Catholic Faith.
46. In order that this, our definition of the bodily Assumption of the Virgin Mary into heaven may be brought to the attention of the universal Church, we desire that this, our Apostolic Letter, should stand for perpetual remembrance, commanding that written copies of it, or even printed copies, signed by the hand of any public notary and bearing the seal of a person constituted in ecclesiastical dignity, should be accorded by all men the same reception they would give to this present letter, were it tendered or shown.
47. It is forbidden to any man to change this, our declaration, pronouncement, and definition or, by rash attempt, to oppose and counter it. If any man should presume to make such an attempt, let him know that he will incur the wrath of Almighty God and of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul.
So, for Catholics anyway, what Church Teaching asserts about the Assumption is as clear as it can be. What the Assumption implies, though, is where the theological fun begins. When the ornamentation of commentary and opinion is stripped off any divinely revealed dogma, you'll find that the reason for the existence of such a dogma is simple and straightforward: to lead us to the Way, the Truth, and the Life. So, I sometimes find it useful to simply ask, What do the various implications of a theological doctrine reveal about who we are and what we seek?

With regard to the implication that Mary died before being assumed into Heaven, I do think there’s been some equivocation of the word “death” in much of the discussion. “Death” seems to mean the separation of the soul from the matter it informed and thus a complete corruption of the human being in some cases, while in others it seems to mean a suspension of temporal life that may not include bodily corruption.*

There’s a related dispute with the death of Christ. The dispute is not about whether Christ died, versions of most creeds through the centuries squelch any such notions, but about whether his body corrupted at his death. This is important because it must be the same Christ who suffered, died, was buried, and rose. If Christ’s body corrupted then it would not be Christ in the tomb prior to the Resurrection, but decomposed matter. This actually created some difficulty for the notion that death was a substantial change where the soul no longer informs matter to form a composite that is the human being.

Aquinas acknowledges this problem and explains in ST 3, 51, 3 that “Divine Power” prevented the corruption of Christ’s body. And elsewhere, in his Commentary on the Sentences, he explains that it is because of this divine intervention that it is accurate to say that it is the same Christ who suffered, died, was buried, and rose again.

So, it is possible that divine intervention prevented the corruption of Mary’s body at death or “apparent death” prior to being assumed, though it seems her lack of Original Sin would already prevent this. It's also possible that divine intervention caused the corruption of Mary’s body at death or “apparent death” prior to being assumed, in order that she undergo death. Further, it's possible there was no divine intervention and that she died in the sense of her soul separating from the matter it informed and that there was indeed a substantial change that occurred at her death and prior to her assumption. We simply can't know for sure.

Still, I think the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception (the other fairly recent doctrine declared here with the authority of papal infallibility):
We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful
raises some problems with the implication that Mary died in the manner that we are subject to from Original Sin.

As I've said before, I wonder if the theological equivalent of Occam’s Razor, which states that “Plurality should not be posited without necessity,” is the way to approach the implications of the Assumption? One who is “preserved free from all stain of original sin” it seems to me is not subject to death because the integrity of human nature prior to The Fall is preserved in such a person. For prelapsarian humans, death was unnatural, something that was not in the natural course of events. So, Mary dying seems to entail an extra requirement at the completion of “the course of her earthly life,” namely to have Mary undergo death which is not required for assumption. Obviously it’s within God’s power to have Mary conceived without original sin and to have her still undergo death in the manner that we are subject to, but I wonder if this posits an unnecessary requirement and, more importantly, lessens the impact of what it means to be without Original Sin. And I also wonder if admitting that Mary died somehow lessens the impact of death for us, an event that is a sundering of our natural condition as incarnate beings. Mary, it must be remembered, represents our natural condition and is thus the paradigm of human response to God. To imply that she died seems to imply that she entered into something that is not natural for human beings:
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; and the creatures of the world are wholesome,
And there is not a destructive drug among them nor any domain of the nether world on earth,
For justice is undying.
It was the wicked who with hands and words invited death, considered it a friend, and pined for it, and made a covenant with it,
Because they deserve to be in its possession . . . (Wisdom 1:13-16)
Death is unnatural. It entered the world when humans turned from God. To insist that Mary undergoes death seems, to my mind, to undermine this important point and attenuate the significance of Mary’s life and her perfect response to God.

* -- This is a notion of death that many advocates of cryonics cling to. Maybe with the right catalyst this weekend I'll come up with a post entitled: CRYONICS AND THE ASSUMPTION. But for now, I'll simply note that the philosophical issues in cryonics center on two understandings:
-- If "cryonics" implies placing a living human being into suspended animation and then successfully bringing him out of that deep, cold sleep, then I see no technical barrier – though plenty of moral considerations.
-- If "cryonics" implies reviving a frozen human being who was dead prior to being frozen, then I do see not just a technical barrier, but a metaphysical barrier, a chasm that we will never be able to cross.
Many cryonics proponents seem to lean on a third possibility, where a person is not really dead or alive, but in a kind of "dormition."


Wednesday, October 01, 2003


I went to the zoo this morning with my son (who is now 21-months old). I like to think I'm exposing him to links in the "Great Chain of Being," surely a noble and profound reason to go to the zoo. As I keep a firm hold on him while he peaks over the fence at the tiger, or watch him press his nose against the glass of the tank where sea lions gracefully sweep by, I occasionally muse about what it must be like for his young mind to take in these creatures, some of them for the very first time. And today I was reminded of an interesting debate, or maybe a low grumble is a better way to put it since it's really not an issue that has ever caught fire or threatened any foundations, among traditional philosophers about the role of species.

Beginning most notably with Aristotle, and continuing on into our own day, the notion of substantial form as a gradation of being, a point along a spectrum of being between pure potency and pure act, has been at the heart of the notion of species. One kind of creature is distinguished from another by its most fundamental manner of being, its substantial form which is understood as the "first act" of a thing. But this is difficult to grasp because we do not possess the definition of a thing, its essence, very easily. It is not clear, apart from a list of properties, why one kind of creature is different from another kind. When we distinguish living from non-living corporeal beings, or animals from plants, it becomes clearer. But this is not so much because we understand the substantial form of one more clearly than another, but because one kind of being can obviously “do” more than another kind. So, philosophically distinguishing between species gets tricky if by species we mean the traditional combination of the genus (a general class like "animal") with the specifying difference (e.g. "rational") -- human beings are said to be "rational animals" from the combination of the specifying difference, "rational," and the genus, "animal." Raymond Nogar points out (quoted in an old Thomist article by John Deely*) the difficulty of trying to speak philosophically about the many species in our world:
[T]he divisions between substance and accidents, composed and simple bodies, the living and the non-living, the sensible and the non-sensible, the rational and the irrational, do not carry the analysis very far into the matter of natural species. They do not tell you the difference between the paramecium, the mollusk, the toad, the flamingo, the camel and the cat . . . . Contemporary science does not use the criteria of higher or lower for the simple reason that they cannot be applied to the details of specific classification. Which is a ‘higher’ form, the beetle, the grasshopper, or the honeybee? It is not that the metaphysical grades of perfection are not valid philosophical categories of the general divisions of being; the scientist just has not found them useful in his methodology.
As you might imagine, this “problem of species” became especially evident to philosophers when the theory of evolution blossomed into a legitimate scientific theory. What had been assumed in the philosophy of Aristotle and those who followed him was that the term and use of “species” delineated fixed essences that were found in nature. But as Darwin himself made clear, with evolution and the theory of natural selection this traditional notion began to sputter a bit:
I look at the term species as one arbitrarily given, for the sake of convenience, to a set of individuals closely resembling each other, and . . . it does not essentially differ from the term variety, which is given to less distinct and more fluctuating forms. The term variety, again, in comparison with mere individual differences, is also applied arbitrarily, for convenience’s sake.
As Deely* puts it (try to read this Faulknerian sentence in one 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.
While I think I understand the philosophical bind you get into if you want to posit more than these four species, there's something about this that I resist. I guess my concern is that the "intelligibility" of a thing, our ability to know it and distinguish it from another, is so intimately tied to the thing's substantial form, its "primary act," that I think we lose a lot of epistemological explanatory power by admitting only these four species. There's also a metaphysical issue that rears up here. The formal difference between one kind of thing and another, between a rock and a raccoon if we want to keep the example easy, or between granite and marble or a raccoon and a cat if you want to make it tougher, is traditionally along the lines of potency and act. The substantial form of one kind of thing is different from the substantial form of another kind of thing in that it is either more or less "actual." The gradation of beings spans from less actuality to more actuality.

Even if you're not familiar with these metaphysical terms, you'll have a sense of what they imply when you consider what a rock can do compared to a raccoon. A raccoon, an animal, can simply "do" more in the deepest sense of that word than a rock can. This stems from it being more "actual" than a rock. While these terms are used analogously, the metaphysical ideas of potency and act are intuitively available from our ordinary experiences. "Actuality" is also evident from the fact that as things become more actual on the scale of being, they become more intelligible. If we're briefly shown a pair of things that have the same substantial form (but are distinct and separate), we struggle more with those things that are less actual. For example, most of us would probably struggle to tell two similar chunks of granite apart; we struggle somewhat less with two similarly cut roses; we can typically tell two Golden Retrievers apart after a brief encounter; and we can nearly always tell a pair of human beings apart (expect, of course, with identical twins, though those who know them of course don't have any trouble). Again, this is not a proof that things are more and less actual in our world, but an analogous observation explained by the metaphysical ideas of potency and act, matter and form, essence and intelligibility.

So, we get into both epistemological and metaphysical binds if we too readily agree with the "four species" solution to "the problem of species." But denying it leads us onto shaky ground. I mean, what am I supposed to tell my son when he asks me, "Daddy, which is more actual, which has a substantial form that is higher up the scale of being: the beetle, the grasshopper, or the honeybee?"

* "The Philosophical Dimensions of the Origin of Species," Thomist 32 (1969) 331)