Minute Particulars

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

Wednesday, May 26, 2004


An immoral response by victims of an injustice doesn't absolve the perpetrators of the injustice from culpability. Here's a silly and therefore simple example: If I steal an apple from a grocer and the grocer shoots me as I leave, my unjust act of stealing doesn't suddenly cease from being unjust. Let's assume I'm not starving. My action of stealing is unjust. My action of stealing wrongs the grocer. And while these points seem obliterated by the grossly disproportionate response of the grocer to my theft, his response doesn't change the fact that my initial action towards him was unjust.

His shooting me for stealing his apple is wrong because it is so disproportionate to my offense; justifying the shooting seems morally impossible. The moral thread of causation that stretches between my stealing the apple and his shooting me is so thin and tenuous that it's practically impossible to even trace it from my corpse to the theft. It's there, but it's hidden by far more relevant threads, thick ropes even, that link his shooting me to his obvious disregard for human life and his likely habitual inability to distinguish grave from petty offenses against him.

There is a similar point to be made in the serious and horrific acts of terrorism that continue to flare up all around us. In the case of terrorism, any injustice that ostensibly provokes it seems insignificant or even laughable to consider. In the extreme case of suicide bombers who kill thousands of innocent people, what possible injustice could provoke such depraved behavior? The moral gravity of terrorist actions, the killing of innocent human beings, seems to obliterate any possible injustice that might be "the reasons behind" such actions.

These terrorist actions are morally indefensible. But in a strikingly similar vein, letting such actions obliterate our moral framework, our ability to see "the reasons behind" them, may also be indefensible.

In his message for World Day For Peace 2004 , Pope John Paul II points out:
[I]f it is to be won, the fight against terrorism cannot be limited solely to repressive and punitive operations. It is essential that the use of force, even when necessary, be accompanied by a courageous and lucid analysis of the reasons behind terrorist attacks. The fight against terrorism must be conducted also on the political and educational levels: on the one hand, by eliminating the underlying causes of situations of injustice which frequently drive people to more desperate and violent acts; and on the other hand, by insisting on an education inspired by respect for human life in every situation: the unity of the human race is a more powerful reality than any contingent divisions separating individuals and people.
It is interesting that the pope uses the term "courageous" here.

Again, for simple clarity, take my apple stealing example. Would it take much courage for someone to point out that the grocer had a "reason" behind his shooting me, that I had acted unjustly towards him? He didn't simply shoot people randomly. His reason for shooting me was immoral; but he had a reason nonetheless. I did something which provoked him. What I did could never warrant his shooting me.

And yet, strangely, I think there would be a bit of courage required for someone to insist that I . . . and here's where it gets tricky . . . that I provoked the grocer to shoot me. I didn't do anything that makes his shooting me morally acceptable; but I did do something, and in this case what I did was unjust. It's weird that pointing this out would take some courage in a climate where the grocer was scorned and hated for his response. But I think it would require courage, even in the context of this silly example. People would ask, "What's the point of raising such a relatively minor point?!" Or, they'd ask, "Are you saying that Mark deserved to be shot when he stole the apple?" These kinds of reactions are likely what keep the conversations about the reasons behind heinous actions stifled. And I'm the first to admit they are understandable reactions.

But back to the more serious application of this simplistic analogy. In a climate where terrorists wreak havoc by actions that can never be justified, it seems downright ludicrous to consider "the reasons behind" their actions. But unless we're willing to make "a courageous and lucid analysis of the reasons behind terrorist attacks," our own moral framework gets distorted and perhaps even obliterated. If we are unwilling to make such an analysis, our response will be inadequate because it will lack the two concerns the pope mentions above: "eliminating the underlying causes of injustice" and "insisting on an education inspired by respect for human life in every situation."


Tuesday, May 25, 2004


I have a new icon I'm going to start using when I link to something that makes my little musings seem trite by comparison:

Here's what I mean. There's a typically fine post over on Disputations that starts with these words of St. Catherine of Siena:
Oh most gentle Love, it seems to me You are showing that the truest sign people are dwelling in You is that they follow Your will not in their own way but in Your way.
I'll be honest with you. I would have probably approached the issue, had it even occurred to me, with a quip from Woody Allen:
If only God would give me some clear sign! Like making a large deposit in my name at a Swiss Bank.
So in the future, if I attempt some little post and then stumble upon a similar but far more intelligent approach on another blog, I'll just stamp a "Moestein" icon over my drivel and suggest readers click over to the smarter post.


Thursday, May 20, 2004


I don't generally take Internet quizzes or tests, but here's a Stress Test that only takes a minute and it's quite good.


Wednesday, May 19, 2004


The other fragment purported to be from an article in Harpers Magazine from October 1987 with the title, "We Do Abortions Here," that I came upon and first mentioned in the post below is the following:
We make the powerful assumption that the fetus is different from us, and even when we admit the similarities, it is too simplistic to be seduced by form alone. But the form is enormously potent – humanoid, powerless, palm-sized, and pure, it evokes an almost fierce tenderness when viewed simply as what it appears to be. But appearance, and even potential, aren’t enough.
Maybe we ought to be asking: How do we recognize another human being? That's the question that, poorly answered and stripped from any robust epistemology, will yield a situation where, in the presence of an unborn child, "appearance, and even potential, aren't enough."

The principle that makes something what it is is also the principle that makes it intelligible to us. We recognize simply and essentially that a human is not a horse, a horse not a dog, a dog not an oak tree, an oak tree not a chunk of granite, and so forth. The traditional epistemology that arises from this most obvious experience we all have is sometimes, and sometimes rightly so, dismissed as archaic. But while the specific examples that Aristotle and Aquinas used might need some updating, the principles involved are grounded in a philosophy of existence rooted in principles that do not change. It's not that philosophers within this tradition don't want to see anything change or are swift to squelch any upstarts who suggest revisions; rather, the principles themselves are impervious to revision and update because they don't change; they can't change without changing . . . well . . . existence. Assuming you could change these principles, e.g. the principle of identity (A is A) or the principle of non-contradiction (A cannot be and not be at the same time in the same respect), existence would no longer do what it does. All that is would blink to nothing. Sort of. This is the kind of speculation that at the end of the day you really can't do even if you think you're doing it. But I think it roughly points us in a direction that is better than no direction at all.

But back to the point: If our ability to recognize the fact not only that things exist, but that they exist as certain kinds of thing, if this ability is grounded in principles that don't change and can be articulated fairly well, why is there such a debate about recognizing unborn human beings? After all, the most intelligible natural thing in our world is another human being. No other natural creature is more perfect and therefore more intelligible to us.

But in the case of unborn children, especially very early in development, can we really insist that "appearance, and even potential," are enough? Can we really say that a clump of cells viewed through a microscope is recognizably human? Well, of course we can. But you have to spread the epistemological spotlight out a bit so you can see the whole situation rather than a small circle of it.

While technology has extended our senses so that we can see and follow the development of an unborn child from conception to moments before birth, it also has a way of isolating things and crimping our ability to make necessary connections. For example, here is a photo of my second child (due to be born in mid-July) in utero at 11 weeks.

Now, I know that the above is a photo of my child because I was present with my wife when the ultrasound was done. I witnessed the doctor using the equipment to generate the image. It would be outlandish for someone to observe the ultrasound session I witnessed and insist that my 11-week-old unborn child was not "human." It would be, to use a favorite Chesterton passage, "not sane":
It sins against the light; against that broad daylight of proportion which is the principle of all reality. It is reached by stretching a point, by making out a case, by artificially selecting a certain light and shade, by bringing into prominence the lesser or lower things which may happen to be similar. The solid thing standing in the sunlight, the thing we can walk round and see from all sides, is quite different.
But apart from the above context, the human relationships and technical enhancements that allow me to recognize my unborn child, we'd likely arrive at a very different conclusion. Let's say I found this photo blowing down the street. Let's further assume I didn't know what an ultrasound was. Obviously I wouldn't say "this is a photo of an unborn child." I wouldn't have the proper context and so wouldn't make the connections that I made so easily when my wife was present and the doctor was doing the ultrasound in front of me.

When "appearance, and even potential, aren't enough" for some to recognize the presence of an unborn child, I wonder if there's something of the image of the photo blowing down the street at work. Some detachment from the relationships involved, some isolation of an unborn child by the sterile, clinical environment created by our technical (and very human) innovations. This is, perhaps, all a bit obvious. But then, why isn't the humanity of an unborn child "obvious" to all?


Tuesday, May 18, 2004


A papal encyclical seems to me to be something that many want to have read but don't want to read. Though that Twainish twist on it might not work since it's possible that there isn't a desire by many to "have read" recent encyclicals. I want to have read recent encyclicals carefully and with deep comprehension. And I want to read them carefully and with deep comprehension. I'm just not sure, at times, that it's physically possible for me these days.

I miss the long, leisurely chunks of time I used to have. Unfortunately, I didn't know they were long, leisurely chunks of time, not in the sense I know now.

While I've read many of the recent encyclicals, it seems that it's getting harder and harder to work through one properly (er, off-line and without a search engine). I had a long, leisurely chunk of time recently when I flew alone. Time at the airports and on the planes was long and leisurely. And so I decided to bring along a papal encyclical and see what I could do.

I've been thinking about Church teaching about a Catholic's responsibility to support legislation that promotes a "culture of life." This, at least for me, is fast becoming a critical aspect of Church Doctrine; and for fairly obvious reasons. And so I brought Evangelium Vitae along with me on my trip. I've "read" it before, but not with the urgency or focus on this particular issue and not for some time.

Isn't there a maxim that goes something like, "Work expands to fill the time allotted for it"? Well, reading something as dense as Evangelium Vitae fills the time similarly. I got through about a third of it (it was a short flight), but I've decided to continue working through it and noting here some of what occurs to me as the again short and frenzied chunks of time allow.





I suppose that Bishop Michael J. Sheridan's A PASTORAL LETTER
(via Open Book) is none of my business. I'm not one of the "Catholic faithful of the diocese of Colorado Springs." Unlike a papal encyclical, which usually includes "lay faithful and all people of good will" or something like that in the greeting to make me feel welcome, like I don't have to crane my neck over someone's shoulder to read it, Bishop Sheridan's letter is specifically addressed; and rightly so.

The availability of letters from bishops to their local flocks to anyone with Internet access and the idea that everything is fair game has, in my surely naive opinion, caused more confusion than clarity on some issues. As I've noted before, you can probably find words from some bishop somewhere to shore up your own ostensibly faithful position on some complex issue. I'll be doing it shortly.

But while not my bishop, Bishop Sheridan is a bishop nonetheless; and his recent letter has made quite a splash. So I take his words (in PDF here) seriously:
There must be no confusion in these matters. Any Catholic politicians who advocate for abortion, for illicit stem cell research or for any form of euthanasia ipso facto place themselves outside full communion with the Church and so jeopardize their salvation. Any Catholics who vote for candidates who stand for abortion, illicit stem cell research or euthanasia suffer the same fateful consequences. It is for this reason that these Catholics, whether candidates for office or those who would vote for them, may not receive Holy Communion until they have recanted their positions and been reconciled with God and the Church in the Sacrament of Penance.
I got in on the ground floor of the comments on a post about this over on Open Book. My point was that a vote for either Bush or Kerry doesn't seem morally acceptable if we strictly adhere to Bishop Sheridan's position. Neither candidate espouses a morally acceptable position on one or more of the issues the bishop mentions: "abortion, illicit stem cell research or euthanasia."

Let me make it clear that I'm not gainsaying Bishop Sheridan. If you think I snoop around to find opinions of bishops that I can then mangle into what I think they ought to say then you haven't read much on this blog. I'm simply looking at what seems an implication of his position as I see it. Here's the implication: it seems that if every Catholic took Bishop Sheridan's advice then no Catholic (a fifth of the country or so, right?) would vote for a viable candidate, which presently is either Bush or Kerry. As I've indicated before,
There's a point in every election in this country, when any reasonable person will grasp that either a Republican or a Democrat is going to step into the wheelhouse [i.e. steer the country for the next four years]. This may change in the future. But that's pretty much how it works in 2004. If you know this, and if it's true on Election Day, then what possible justification could there be to not vote for one or the other?

Such a situation . . . is not a moral compromise. It can't be reduced to "choosing the lesser of two evils." That's a silly statement in the context of our political system as it exists today and it oversimplifies morality and fails to acknowledge the practical aspects of any political system.
And so, if Catholics are really held to the position that it is morally unacceptable to vote for any viable candidate because his position on "abortion, illicit stem cell research or euthanasia" is morally unacceptable, then it seems that, come November 2004, the President of the United States would be elected without the vote of any Catholics. And this, I humbly suggest, is not an appropriate response. And, of course, this is not what Bishop Sheridan seems to be explicitly advocating; but it does seem, in my minute musings here, to be an implication of his position.

Archbishop John Vlazny makes a distinction that I think makes a difference in his own letter on this issue:
Should Catholics who choose to vote for pro-choice politicians refrain from reception of the Holy Communion? If they vote for them precisely because they are pro-choice, I believe they too should refrain from the reception of Holy Communion because they are not in communion with the Church on a serious matter.
A Catholic voting for a candidate "precisely because they are pro-choice" would indeed be a bizarre thing. Archbishop Vlazny continues:
But if they are voting for that particular politician because, in their judgment, other candidates fail significantly in some matters of great importance, for example, war and peace, human rights and economic justice, then there is no evident stance of opposition to Church teaching and reception of Holy Communion seems both appropriate and beneficial.
And here we have an important distinction:
voting for someone because he is pro-choice versus voting for someone who is pro-choice
Now, it may be that some politicians have made being pro-choice such a perversely central part of their campaigns that this distinction is difficult to make. And perhaps there is a point where a politician is so identified with "pro-choice" that it's difficult to grasp how anyone could honestly make the distinction. Nonetheless, the distinction is made by the voter, not the politician.

But Archbishop Vlazny makes it clear that if you do make this distinction and use it in your voting calculus, then you also must accept some "serious responsibilities":
Catholics who do support pro-choice politicians still have serious responsibilities with regard to their stance on this matter. They must make it very clear to these politicians and governmental leaders that their support is in no way based on the pro-choice advocacy of these political leaders.


Thursday, May 06, 2004


There was apparently an article in Harpers Magazine from October 1987 with the title, "We Do Abortions Here." I say "apparently" because I haven't seen the original article and I've only learned of it from various fragments quoted online in various places (if you have a link to the article online, let me know). I believe the author worked as a nurse in an abortion clinic and the article tells of her experiences. There are two quotes that caught my eye. Here's the first (the second in a later post):
I describe the procedure to come, using care with my language. I don't say "pain" any more than I would say "baby." . . . It is when I am holding a plastic uterus in one hand, a suction tube in the other, moving them together in imitation of the scrubbing to come, that women ask the most secret question. I am speaking in a matter-of-fact voice about "the tissue" and "the contents" when the woman suddenly catches my eye and asks, "How big is the baby now?" These words suggest a quiet need for a definition of the boundaries being drawn. It isn't so odd, after all, that she feels relief when I describe the growing bud's bulbous shape, its miniature nature. Again I gauge, and sometimes lie a little, weaseling around its infantile features until its clinging power slackens.
I was stunned by that last sentence. Well, I'm stunned by all of it, but that last sentence slices through the issue and exposes so much that is wrong with defending the indefensible, the "right" to terminate a pregnancy and kill an unborn child. The betrayal is on so many levels. And the innate ability to recognize another human being seems smothered in denial and deception.

How has this innate ability we all have to recognize another human being, even one of "miniature nature" and "infantile features," been so diminished and distorted that its "clinging power slackens" and no longer prevents us from actions we normally wouldn't be capable of?


Tuesday, May 04, 2004


I mentioned most of what follows in a post over a year ago. I was reminded of it when I wrote the previous post.

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

My son is now two years old. As the war in Iraq continues, I catch myself sentimentally imagining that every combatant from every side of a war was at one time two years old, smiling, helpless, laughing at the silliest things, and eager to go outside and play. Yes, this is mawkish pap. I don't deny it. But how does it ever come to pass that a child ends up years from innocence shouldering a weapon and killing someone who was once two years old, smiling, helpless, laughing at the silliest things, and eager to go outside and play? How does it happen that such a child as an adult might abuse prisoners of war in the manner we're now hearing about?

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

For me, seeing a war as anything other than a disaster suggests a yardstick that very few of us can wield comfortably and in complete innocence. This does not mean I am against every conceivable war. This does not mean that I would not participate in any war. But it does mean that any war I thought was just, any war that I judged to be morally good because it was morally the only option I could discern with the best of my limited abilities, would still be a disaster, a failure that I would feel to the core.

I'll state again what Pope John Paul II wrote:
War is not always inevitable. It is always a defeat for humanity.




Refrain:There is no excuse whatsoever for the behavior of US soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners. No excuse. None.

That said, I will say I'm puzzled at some of the comments on this story. In particular, I have in mind the comments that go something like this: How can any soldier not think abusing prisoners is wrong? It goes against our human nature! It goes against natural law! It goes against every fiber of moral decency!

Indeed. I'll not argue against any of that. Go to Refrain

But these actions don't happen in a vacuum. I think we can deplore these kinds of actions and detest all attempts to justify them without righteously implying that no circumstance or situation or fear or hell could ever get us to participate in such depraved actions. Go to Refrain

It's not that we can ever be forced to do something against our will; we can't be, not really. But most of us are sinful. Our sins generally aren't as easy to document and are likely less grave than the crime of abusing prisoners; still, we sin nonetheless. We are easily swayed by circumstances and dangers, misperceptions and hatred, and all those factors that could, in the right combination at the right time, lead us toward just this kind of thing. Go to Refrain

Be outraged at the abuse. I surely am. Loudly denounce the perpetrators of such actions. I surely would if it would make a difference. But can we ease up a bit on the righteous indignation? Can we lighten up on the incredulity that this kind of thing might happen in war? Go to Refrain

As Pope John Paul II puts it:
War is not always inevitable. It is always a defeat for humanity.
That war might create a time and place for this kind of abuse . . . Go to Refrain . . . is surely one reason it is "always a defeat for humanity." Go to Refrain


Monday, May 03, 2004


Someone's probably already made this quip, but . . .
"You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore, because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference and it will be one in which I have welcomed the opportunity to test wits with you."*
Sorry 'bout that. But after reading that Peter Nixon is closing down Sursum Corda I just couldn't resist.

Peter's blog has been a delight for me. It's one of the first blogs I started reading regularly. I hope he finds a similar way to share his thoughts in the future.