Minute Particulars

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

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Did you know that there is an "I'm Not Sorry" movement that encourages women to speak publicly and proudly about having had an abortion? I learned of this from this recent article (via After Abortion) which hints at the purpose of such public proclamations (and seems to mention the very same "selective reduction" of triplets in the post below):
It's time to tap into the well of women who have had abortions and don't regret it. . . . I have been working on a campaign to recast the Roe anniversary, January 22, as I'm Not Sorry Day. The campaign consists of three elements: a film directed by Gillian Aldrich documenting women's experiences with abortion, T-shirts that read I Had an Abortion and a postcard that lists such resources as unbiased post-abortion counseling and the National Network of Abortion Funds. The message of the day is that women might have complex, or even painful, experiences with abortion, but they are still confident they made the right decision and adamant that it had to be their decision to make.
If abortion were connected to actual women--people like my friend . . . who had an abortion at 18 and a selective reduction last year when she found she was pregnant with triplets, or [another woman], who was a single mom finishing her BA at Cornell when she had an abortion and who told me she would "never have been able to have the rich life I've had and help my son as much as I have if I'd been the single mother of two children"--perhaps the mounting restrictions wouldn't pass so handily. To paraphrase the late poet Muriel Rukeyser: What if women told the truth about their abortions? Even if the world didn't split open, this paralyzing issue might.

I think, though, that the truth might surprise proponents of the various "I'm Not Sorry" movements. As I mentioned a few posts ago, I have in mind this statement from Evangelium Vitae:
All this explains, at least in part, how the value of life can today undergo a kind of "eclipse", even though conscience does not cease to point to it as a sacred and inviolable value, as is evident in the tendency to disguise certain crimes against life in its early or final stages by using innocuous medical terms which distract attention from the fact that what is involved is the right to life of an actual human person. (emphasis added)




I initially didn't post about this eugenics article in the NYTimes a month ago because I thought there must be some intended irony that I missed. But when the NYTimes again ran a story (see below post) about eugenics without even a hint of irony or trepidation by those involved (I only get the Sunday edition so perhaps I missed others), I began to wonder what was going on (more later).

The front page of NY Times on Father's Day had an article on how more and more "parents" are practicing eugenics. The article included the names and photos of a number of women who have had abortions because tests indicated that their unborn children were going to have an abnormality like Down syndrome. I've removed the names from the excerpt of the story below because I think the parents might actually feel some shame about their behavior in the years to come and I didn't want to add, however slightly, to the search engine record associating their names to these tragic and thoughtless acts:
"It was never even anything I had considered until I had the bad results," said Ms. H______, who ended her pregnancy last year after a followup test confirmed that her child, if it survived, would have Down syndrome. "It was the hardest decision I ever had to make."

She and her husband . . . decided that the quality of the child's life, and that of the rest of their family, would be too severely compromised. "I don't look at it as though I had an abortion, even though that is technically what it is," she added. "There's a difference. I wanted this baby."
Even if one is convinced that aborting a child because he is likely going to have some defect is morally licit, wouldn't most people hesitate about publicizing this action? What kind of person would willingly talk to a reporter about this decision, "the hardest decision" she "ever had to make"? Assuming it was a hard decision because she had some moral uneasiness about aborting her child because he had Down syndrome, why would she then be willing to discuss it in great detail in public?

Perhaps I shouldn't be too surprised at this story. I've recently worked through Evangelium Vitae which has many passages that touch on the inability to distinguish good and evil:
The end result of this is tragic: not only is the fact of the destruction of so many human lives still to be born or in their final stage extremely grave and disturbing, but no less grave and disturbing is the fact that conscience itself, darkened as it were by such widespread conditioning, is finding it increasingly difficult to distinguish between good and evil in what concerns the basic value of human life.




Probably stories that really happened with real characters and real dialogue are often submitted and published as thinly-disguised fiction. I wonder how often such accounts get rejected by an editor as, ironically, unrealistic and contrived? For example, how do you think an editor might react to the following actual dialogue and narration if it were submitted as fiction?:
I looked at Peter and asked the doctor: ''Is it possible to get rid of one of them? Or two of them?'' The obstetrician wasn't an expert in selective reduction, but she knew that with a shot of potassium chloride you could eliminate one or more. . . .  
On the subway, Peter asked, ''Shouldn't we consider having triplets?'' And I had this adverse reaction: ''This is why they say it's the woman's choice, because you think I could just carry triplets. That's easy for you to say, but I'd have to give up my life.''
Not only would I have to be on bed rest at 20 weeks, I wouldn't be able to fly after 15. I was already at eight weeks. When I found out about the triplets, I felt like: It's not the back of a pickup at 16, but now I'm going to have to move to Staten Island. I'll never leave my house because I'll have to care for these children. I'll have to start shopping only at Costco and buying big jars of mayonnaise. Even in my moments of thinking about having three, I don't think that deep down I was ever considering it. . . .  
Oh, my gosh, there are three heartbeats. I can't believe we're about to make two disappear. . . . I went on to have a pretty seamless pregnancy. . . . I had a boy, and everything is fine. But thinking about becoming pregnant again is terrifying. Am I going to have quintuplets? I would do the same thing if I had triplets again, but if I had twins, I would probably have twins. Then again, I don't know.
Surely most fiction editors would reject it with comments like:

The characters are flat, superficial, and unconvincing.
The dialogue is heavy-handed, clumsy, and strains credulity.

This is farcical without any apparent purpose.

These people really do seem flat and superficial. Their dialogue and concerns indeed strain credulity. And yet they are, remarkably and apparently, real; and I've no reason to doubt this. I find myself wondering, though, what the point of such an essay is.

UPDATE After Abortion has some good commentary and links about this story here.


Thursday, July 15, 2004

I'm hesitant to comment on blurbs I've read from an article I haven't (it requires a subscription). So let's just take the "money quote," the quote (via NRO) that most people who have read the full article cite, in isolation and assume it's out of context and a distortion of the author's true intent. Let's just make it a hypothetical statement:
The great conflict of the 21st century will not be between the West and terrorism. Terrorism is a tactic, not a belief. The true battle will be between modern civilization and anti-modernists; between those who believe in the primacy of the individual and those who believe that human beings owe their allegiance and identity to a higher authority; between those who give priority to life in this world and those who believe that human life is mere preparation for an existence beyond life; between those who believe in science, reason, and logic and those who believe that truth is revealed through Scripture and religious dogma. Terrorism will disrupt and destroy lives. But terrorism itself is not the greatest danger we face.
False dilemmas leap out of this passionate plea so fast and furiously that it's hard to read it straight through without wincing.
those who believe in the primacy of the individual and those who believe that human beings owe their allegiance and identity to a higher authority
Surely it's possible for the "primacy of the individual" to be the result of "allegiance . . . to a higher authority" if that higher authority reveals, well, the "primacy of the individual." I know what was likely meant here, a kind of Enlightenment rant about freedom and the individual, but it's nonsense to think that belief in a personal God who reveals the truth of who we are is somehow contradictory to the primacy and importance of every individual.
those who give priority to life in this world and those who believe that human life is mere preparation for an existence beyond life
Again, I know what is likely meant here, that somehow setting our sights on a higher good beyond this life negates or lessens the goods we now possess. But this is a false dilemma. One can assert that human life is the greatest natural good a human being possesses -- an assertion the Catholic Tradition makes -- and still hold that there is a higher good that ought to be sought in this life. These notions are not contradictory.
those who believe in science, reason, and logic and those who believe that truth is revealed through Scripture and religious dogma
As I've mentioned here many times before, "science, reason, and logic" and "truth [that] is revealed through Scripture and religious dogma" are not necessarily contradictory. In the Catholic Tradition, any contradiction between reason and faith suggests that something is wrong with one's reasoning and/or understanding of the revealed truth.
I did find one line in the above statement that didn't self-destruct upon reading it:
But terrorism itself is not the greatest danger we face.
Indeed. Puerile, irrational, shallow, politically motivated punditry is a far greater danger.


Wednesday, July 14, 2004


Ales Rarus linked to this post which linked to this article on the pervasive false assumptions many make with regard to the Church and Galileo:
Galileo's condemnation was certainly unjust, but in no way impugns the infallibility of Catholic dogma. Heliocentricism was never declared a heresy by either ex cathedra pronouncement or an ecumenical council. And as the Pontifical Commission points out, the sentence of 1633 was not irreformable. Galileo's works were eventually removed from the Index and in 1822, at the behest of Pius VII, the Holy Office granted an imprimatur to the work of Canon Settele, in which Copernicanism was presented as a physical fact and no longer as an hypothesis.

The Catholic Church really has little to apologize for in its relations with science. Indeed, Stanley Jaki and others have argued that it was the metaphysical framework of medieval Catholicism which made modern science possible in the first place. In Jaki's vivid phrase, science was “still-born” in every major culture — Greek, Hindu, Chinese — except the Christian West. It was the insistence on the rationality of God and His creation by St. Thomas Aquinas and other Catholic thinkers that paved the way for Galileo and Newton.

So far as the teaching authority of the Church is concerned, it is striking how modern physics is playing catch-up with Catholic dogma. In 1215, the Fourth Lateran Council taught that the universe had a beginning in time — an idea which would have scandalized both an ancient Greek and a 19th century positivist, but which is now a commonplace of modern cosmology. Indeed, the more we learn about the universe, the closer we come to the ontological mysteries of Christian faith.
Of course, the teaching of the Fourth Lateran Council (I think this is the section mentioned above:
Creator of all things invisible and visible, spiritual and corporeal, who from the beginning of time and by His omnipotent power made from nothing creatures both spiritual and corporeal, angelic, namely, and mundane, and then human, as it were, common, composed of spirit and body.)
was not a scientific discourse in the modern sense, but a statement about aspects of revealed truth. In light of this, I think the phrase "which is now a commonplace of modern cosmology" is a bit misleading. As I mentioned a few posts ago, if "modern cosmology" can demonstrate that the universe had a beginning, then the assertion "the world did not always exist," which Aquinas concludes is held "by faith alone" would be demonstrable from reason alone and something would indeed be amiss.


Tuesday, July 13, 2004


This remark (via Open Book) by a professed Catholic politician, highlights something I haven't seen discussed much. When asked what he would do "if a priest refused him communion," Rep. William Lacy Clay, "a St. Louis Democrat who favors abortion rights" replied: "I would stand there."

Then what? Do ushers wrestle him to the ground and remove him? Do his fellow parishioners awkwardly step around him and receive? Would he continue standing there as Communion was finished? Would he continue standing there until Mass ended? It's a small aspect of an important issue; but the small aspects often highlight the heart of the matter. What if someone just stands there?




Fr. Jim of Dappled Things has a post about arguments for Zionism (or against anti-Zionism) that raises an important point:
But if people are going to make a moral argument for Zionism (or against anti-Zionism), then it's going to have to be based on principles that everyone shares and not just "God told me so" or guilt by association.
This seems a sensible point to me. And it seems to highlight the concern I mention below about confusing revealed truth with truth from reason in legislative matters:
Where you get into trouble . . . is when you propose that a revealed truth, an article of faith, ought to shape legislation directly. . . . [T]he term "religion" implies revealed truth, truth that cannot be known from reason alone. And so proposing that "religion ought to be the resource utilized for [any or] all legislation," even if one doesn't have one particular religion in mind, is going to be problematic.


Monday, July 12, 2004


Aquinas's Treatise on Law examines natural law quite extensively. Here, in my opinion, is the heart of what is traditionally meant by natural law, from Aquinas's ST 1a2ae 94, 2 resp.:
[T]he precepts of the natural law are to the practical reason, what the first principles of demonstrations are to the speculative reason; because both are self-evident principles. Now a thing is said to be self-evident in two ways: first, in itself; secondly, in relation to us. Any proposition is said to be self-evident in itself, if its predicate is contained in the notion of the subject: although, to one who knows not the definition of the subject, it happens that such a proposition is not self-evident. For instance, this proposition, "Man is a rational being," is, in its very nature, self-evident, since who says "man," says "a rational being": and yet to one who knows not what a man is, this proposition is not self-evident. Hence it is that, as Boethius says (De Hebdom.), certain axioms or propositions are universally self-evident to all; and such are those propositions whose terms are known to all, as, "Every whole is greater than its part," and, "Things equal to one and the same are equal to one another." But some propositions are self-evident only to the wise, who understand the meaning of the terms of such propositions: thus to one who understands that an angel is not a body, it is self-evident that an angel is not circumscriptively in a place: but this is not evident to the unlearned, for they cannot grasp it.

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

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




Camassia has some fine thoughts, comments, and links on the issue of legislating morality. She links to an interesting post by Clifton that raises a number of important issues about legislating morality:
The law is not mere convention--though clearly there are conventional aspects to the law. The law is much more powerful than that, as Plato, Aristotle and many important thinkers have recognized throughout history. No, in point of fact, the law is a paedegogus, a tutor, instructing us in morality, inculcating in us notions of right and wrong, virtue and vice.

So the current understanding in the U. S. of the separation of Church and State is both philosophically unsound, and, ultimately, unworkable. And as the culture wars continue to flame, this is becoming more and more obvious.
But I think there's some confusion in Clifton's post about the distinction between revealed truth and truth from reason.

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

Related to this, believers ought to take care that they don't shape laws for a community of believers and unbelievers by appealing directly to revealed truth, truth that requires faith, truth that by definition has not been assented to by the unbelievers in the community. In legislating morality, we need to be careful that we don't directly legislate those things that are of faith. And we need to do this not because things of faith are unreasonable (in the Catholic tradition, faith and reason can never contradict each other without something being amiss), but because legislation, law, is first and foremost "an ordinance of reason":
[Law is] an ordinance of reason for the common good, made by him who has care of the community, and promulgated. (ST 1a2ae 90 4)
So, I think one can only say, as Clifton does, that "the law always, necessarily and inescapably legislates morality" if one has in mind human laws derived from natural law and reason. The traditional definition of human law doesn't mention revealed truth.

Where you get into trouble, and Clifton seems to have swerved in this direction in his post, is when you propose that a revealed truth, an article of faith, ought to shape legislation directly. Now, he didn't use that language, but generally the term "religion" implies revealed truth, truth that cannot be known from reason alone. And so proposing that "religion ought to be the resource utilized for all legislation," even if one doesn't have one particular religion in mind, is going to be problematic.


Thursday, July 08, 2004


As I stated in the previous post, I really do think most people think most abortions are morally repugnant. And I suggested that the political debate really ought to be about legislating abortion rather than the morality of abortion. But, of course, there are plenty of influential people who hold that abortion is not morally problematic. And issues like the much touted use of embryonic stem cells for scientific research have cut a large chunk out of the foundation many stood upon in their abhorrence of abortion. The moral concerns about abortion must remain clear and forceful, even if the political concerns tend toward the practicalities of legislating abortion.

I've often thought Camus' famous statement* about suicide would be quite applicable in any reasonable** discourse on abortion:
There is but one truly philosophical problem regarding abortion, and that is homicide. Judging whether an unborn child is or is not a human being amounts to answering the fundamental question of abortion. All the rest -- whether or not individual choice must be safeguarded, whether abortion can be legislated -- comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer.
If one wants to make any headway in persuading reasonable people that abortion is morally wrong, one's approach needs to be grounded in what reasonable people hold in common. While Church Teaching is clear on the fact that abortion is immoral, obviously not all reasonable people accept Church Teaching (as I pointed out below, even professed Catholics don't agree on Church Teaching -- but that's another issue). But we can be assured that all people of good will ought to accept teaching on abortion that is reasonable. Notice I don't say that "all people . . . will accept," but "all people . . . ought to accept." The former is an obvious fact of living in society. Not everyone is going to accept reasonable arguments. But the latter, while perhaps not as obvious to some, is just as applicable to society. Everyone really ought to accept teaching on abortion that is reasonable. And we can and must insist on this point. Unlike teaching that proceeds from articles of faith that require an initial assent, teaching that proceeds from reason simply requires that it be received by a rational creature.

One of the dangers of focusing any discussion of the morality of abortion on individual rights is that people on both sides of the debate get lulled into a discussion that, in comparison with the "one truly philosophical problem regarding abortion," is a bit of a game. Until we've agreed upon what an "individual" is, discussing the rights of an individual, or freedom of choice, or the role of law among individuals is premature.

* - There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest -- whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories -- comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer. The Myth of Sisyphus

** - I have in mind here debates on the morality of abortion that don't directly rely upon revealed truths that are a matter of faith.




This report generated a lot of buzz from bloggers:
A Catholic who supports abortion rights and has taken heat recently from some in the church hierarchy for his stance, Kerry told the paper, "I oppose abortion, personally. I don't like abortion. I believe life does begin at conception."
I am not pro-choice and have never understood the appeal. But I do think there is a distinction that needs to be addressed in abortion and, more generally, in attempts to legislate morality. Which statement do you think those who claim to be "pro-choice" would be more comfortable with:
a) abortion is not morally wrong and therefore it shouldn't be illegal
b) abortion is morally wrong, but it can't be legislated and therefore shouldn't be illegal
I suspect "b" would be the overwhelming position. I have no real data on this, just a sense that more people find abortion morally problematic than is typically portrayed in the media. And after all, how else can one explain the concern that abortions be "rare" in much of the pro-choice literature? More profoundly, I also have in mind this statement from Evangelium Vitae:
All this explains, at least in part, how the value of life can today undergo a kind of "eclipse", even though conscience does not cease to point to it as a sacred and inviolable value, as is evident in the tendency to disguise certain crimes against life in its early or final stages by using innocuous medical terms which distract attention from the fact that what is involved is the right to life of an actual human person. (emphasis added)
Anyway, it doesn't really matter because those who answer in the manner of "a" are not really going to care about the finer points of any discussion of "b." It's those who would answer in the manner of "b" that I have in mind.

Let's simplify things initially so we at least know some of the fundamental principles involved in legislating abortion. What if an abortion could be induced by a pregnant woman without any assistance from anyone or anything? Let's grant that there really would be no evidence of such an act that would be admissible in a court of law. And let's further stipulate that it would be practically impossible to prevent someone from doing this without locking her into a padded room wearing a straightjacket. Would it be appropriate to legislate such an immoral act?

How one answers this question is revealing. If you answer "Yes" and think a law that is unenforceable ought to be on the books, then why? Perhaps it's simply the fact that an unenforceable law against an immoral act still serves as a statement of what a society holds dear?

But if you answer "No" and think that a law must be enforceable to be a law, then, again, why? Perhaps it's simply the fact that an unenforceable law against an immoral act opens the door to attempts at enforcing it that undermine the foundation of those laws that are enforceable?

If we now come back to the real world of moral complexity I think it's fair to say that abortion has aspects that are unenforceable and aspects that are enforceable. And I'm guessing that the concern of those who think abortion is immoral but refuse to make it illegal tends toward the "No" answer above, to a concern that a law that is unenforceable is not a good law. And if this is true, then I think this is where the discussion ought to center. If it's true that most people think most abortions are immoral, then debating whether and how abortion should be legislated would seem a productive focus in promoting a culture of life.

Notice that I'm not saying that there isn't solid moral teaching on whether and how abortion should be legislated. Here's one example of many found in recent Church Teaching:
This is what is happening also at the level of politics and government: the original and inalienable right to life is questioned or denied on the basis of a parliamentary vote or the will of one part of the people-even if it is the majority. This is the sinister result of a relativism which reigns unopposed: the "right" ceases to be such, because it is no longer firmly founded on the inviolable dignity of the person, but is made subject to the will of the stronger part. In this way democracy, contradicting its own principles, effectively moves towards a form of totalitarianism. The State is no longer the "common home" where all can live together on the basis of principles of fundamental equality, but is transformed into a tyrant State, which arrogates to itself the right to dispose of the life of the weakest and most defenceless members, from the unborn child to the elderly, in the name of a public interest which is really nothing but the interest of one part. The appearance of the strictest respect for legality is maintained, at least when the laws permitting abortion and euthanasia are the result of a ballot in accordance with what are generally seen as the rules of democracy. Really, what we have here is only the tragic caricature of legality; the democratic ideal, which is only truly such when it acknowledges and safeguards the dignity of every human person, is betrayed in its very foundations: "How is it still possible to speak of the dignity of every human person when the killing of the weakest and most innocent is permitted? In the name of what justice is the most unjust of discriminations practised: some individuals are held to be deserving of defence and others are denied that dignity?" 16 When this happens, the process leading to the breakdown of a genuinely human co-existence and the disintegration of the State itself has already begun. (Evangelium Vitae, 20)
My point, though, is that whether and how abortion should be legislated ought to be more front and center in much of the political discussion. After all, the real debate, certainly among Catholics but I think in the non-Catholic population as well, is not whether abortion is morally repugnant, but whether it can be legislated without shaking the foundations of all good and appropriate laws.


Monday, July 05, 2004


Perhaps I'm obtuse. Here's what I thought was a pretty clear statement:
Therefore, by the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors, in communion with the Bishops-who on various occasions have condemned abortion and who in the aforementioned consultation, albeit dispersed throughout the world, have shown unanimous agreement concerning this doctrine-I declare that direct abortion, that is, abortion willed as an end or as a means, always constitutes a grave moral disorder, since it is the deliberate killing of an innocent human being. This doctrine is based upon the natural law and upon the written Word of God, is transmitted by the Church's Tradition and taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium. (Evangelium Vitae, 62)
But look at the following (here's a copy of the text if the NYTimes version is archived) from Garry Wills:
So "right to life" as a slogan is a question-begging term. The command not to kill is directed at the killing of persons, and the issue in abortion is this: When does the fetus become a person? The answer to that is not given by church teaching. Even St. Thomas Aquinas, who thought that a soul was infused into the body, could only guess when that infusion took place (and he did not guess "at fertilization"). St. Augustine confessed an agnosticism about the human status of the fetus.

Natural reason must use natural tools to deal with this question — philosophy, neurobiology, psychology, medicine. When is the fetus "viable," and viable as what? Does personality come only with responsibility, with personal communication? On none of these do the bishops have special expertise. John Henry Newman said, "The pope, who comes of Revelation, has no jurisdiction over Nature." (emphasis added)
This, in my view, is an attempt to run around a clear and obvious statement of Church Teaching. Contrary to Wills' above assertion, the explicit and obvious issue in abortion in light of Church Teaching is not "When does the fetus become a person?" (I'll get to that shortly), but "Is abortion a grave moral disorder?" The answer is clearly, "Yes." The reason? Because abortion "is the deliberate killing of an innocent human being." What Wills is doing is the worst kind of sophistry. He twists a clear and precise statement and then suggests:
Nothing I have said is a defense of abortion. . . . All I am saying is that the bishops have no special mandate from their office to supplant the individual conscience with some divine imperative. For them to say that this is a matter of theology is, simply, bad theological reasoning.
Look again at how Pope John Paul II prefaces is statement on abortion:
. . . by the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors, in communion with the Bishops-who on various occasions have condemned abortion and who in the aforementioned consultation, albeit dispersed throughout the world, have shown unanimous agreement concerning this doctrine . . .
What more does the Pope have to say to make it clear that direct abortion is a grave moral disorder? Wills is obviously trying to create some room to wiggle by confusing the question "Is abortion a grave moral disorder?" with "When does the fetus become a person?" To say yes to the first question makes the second question moot, unless one wants to equivocate the term "abortion" and distort the obvious intended meaning in the explicit papal statement.

So, Wills' little end around play, in my humble opinion, is balderdash.

But while made moot by the prohibition on abortion, the question "When does the fetus become a person?" is obviously important in Church Teaching. Earlier in Evangelium Vitae, the Pope states:
Some people try to justify abortion by claiming that the result of conception, at least up to a certain number of days, cannot yet be considered a personal human life. But in fact, "from the time that the ovum is fertilized, a life is begun which is neither that of the father nor the mother; it is rather the life of a new human being with his own growth. It would never be made human if it were not human already. This has always been clear, and . . . modern genetic science offers clear confirmation. It has demonstrated that from the first instant there is established the programme of what this living being will be: a person, this individual person with his characteristic aspects already well determined. Right from fertilization the adventure of a human life begins, and each of its capacities requires time--a rather lengthy time--to find its place and to be in a position to act". Even if the presence of a spiritual soul cannot be ascertained by empirical data, the results themselves of scientific research on the human embryo provide "a valuable indication for discerning by the use of reason a personal presence at the moment of the first appearance of a human life: how could a human individual not be a human person?"
Now, admittedly this gets a little tricky. But to claim as Wills does that the Church doesn't teach when a fetus is a person is bizarre. You'd have to squint and look very selectively to even attempt to justify such an assertion.

Wills' little "even St. Thomas Aquinas . . . could only guess when that infusion took place" shtick above is an old and tiresome routine that is usually trotted out in these kinds of arguments when someone is trying to empty Church Teaching of all authority. Look, if Aquinas had known modern biology and had the benefit of the papal teaching quoted above, he would surely have adjusted his position on the infusion of the soul. The adjustment would not have changed any of the underlying principles he drew from. The medieval notion that something that is not a human being precedes the infusion of the human soul after conception can't seriously be maintained today. The discoveries of modern biology don't change the principles of traditional philosophical anthropology, but they have to be taken into account when we apply these principles. The organizing principle of human life, in the first moment of conception, is a unique principle evident in the unique structure of a human fertilized egg; unless one wants to maintain the equivalent of epicycles, there is no reason to assert that this unique principle is not a "human organizing principle of life." "It would never be made human if it were not human already."

Wills seems oblivious not only to some obvious recent sources of Church Teaching on this like Evangelium Vitae above, but also to an edifice of the Tradition that is central to the question of when a person is present. As I've suggested before, the Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception has profound implications for conception and the presence of a person. In his General Audience of June 12, 1996, Pope John Paul II states:
The proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception expresses the essential datum of faith. Pope Alexander VII, in the Bull Sollicitudo of 1661, spoke of the preservation of Mary's soul "in its creation and infusion into the body" (DS 2017). Pius IX's definition, however, prescinds from all explanations about how the soul is infused into the body and attributes to the person of Mary, at the first moment of her conception, the fact of her being preserved from every stain of original sin. (emphasis added)

John Paul II suggests that Pius IX did not have merely the infusion of the soul or animation in mind in his definition, but rather, the person of Mary.

So, again, in light of these and surely many other examples one could find with a little research, I don't understand how Wills can claim:
All I am saying is that the bishops have no special mandate from their office to supplant the individual conscience with some divine imperative. For them to say that this is a matter of theology is, simply, bad theological reasoning.
I'll admit that there is some tricky terrain here in distinguishing truths of reason from revealed truths. It is indeed a laughable offense to confuse reason and faith and claim that a revealed truth can be proved by reason. But that's not what is going on here. Objecting to Wills' statements doesn't require nuance or very profound insight because his statement contains neither nuance or profound insight. Wills has executed a clever little rhetorical trick to move an obvious agenda in the direction he'd like.


Friday, July 02, 2004


"Here, in a text explaining his discovery of what would later be understood as Saturn's rings, Galileo gives us two simple line drawings." 1613

"Taken on May 7, 2004 from a distance of 28.2 million kilometers (17.6 million miles) from Saturn."

The pictures from the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn and Titan are spectacular.


Thursday, July 01, 2004


TSO has done a very fine job with a new Flannery O'Connor blog. There are already some superb quotes, including:
To love people you have to ignore a good deal of what they say while they are being honest, because you are not living in the Garden of Eden any longer.




I should probably get into the habit of checking the "Latest News" section of the USCCB site. The last time I checked, this (via Santificarnos) list of interim reports wasn't available, though the main report was.

Here is, I think, an important section from one interim report:
It is important to note that Cardinal Ratzinger makes a clear distinction between public officials and voters, explaining that a Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in evil only if he were to deliberately vote for a candidate precisely because of the candidate’s permissive stand on abortion. However, when a Catholic does not share a candidate’s stand in favor of abortion and/or euthanasia, but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered remote material cooperation, which can be permitted if there are proportionate reasons.

Therefore, based on the traditional practice of the Church and our consultation with members of our conference, other episcopal conferences, distinguished canonists and theologians, our Task Force does not advocate the denial of Communion for Catholic politicians or Catholic voters in these circumstances.

No one should mistake our task force’s reservations about refusing Communion or public calls to refrain from Communion as ignoring or excusing those who clearly contradict Catholic teaching in their public roles. Those who take positions or act in ways that are contrary to fundamental moral principles should not underestimate the seriousness of this situation. We insist that they must study Catholic teaching, recognize their grave responsibility to protect human life from conception to natural death, and adopt positions consistent with these principles. However, in our view the battles for human life and dignity and for the weak and vulnerable should be fought not at the Communion rail, but in the public square, in hearts and minds, in our pulpits and public advocacy, in our consciences and communities.
If you're a bit rusty on the kinds of "cooperation" distinguished in traditional morality (e.g. "formal" versus "remote material cooperation"), you might click here, here, and here.

Now, I say the above is an important statement not because it will cleave the moral Gordian Knot of whether one can vote for politicians who are pro-choice, but because it offers a solid moral principle from which we can ponder the issue: remote material cooperation can be permitted if there are proportionate reasons. The rhetorical danger in admitting this rock-ribbed precept of morality is that folks will see a statement like
voting for a pro-choice candidate can be permitted if there are proportionate reasons
and run with it, perhaps entitling a post about the above interim report like this:
Vatican: Okay to Vote for Pro-Abortion Politician
There's a big difference between
remote material cooperation can be permitted if there are proportionate reasons
So repeat this as a mantra until the media gets it. The Vatican says (a) abortion is NOT the only important issue politically, and (b) voters are free to support pro-abortion politicians as long as they are proportionately good on other Church priorities.
Yikes! It's clumsy thinking like this that makes me wonder if maybe the USCCB ought to require that readers pass an entrance test before having access to documents that use language like "remote material cooperation" and "proportionate reasons." That's not a fair thing to say -- and, actually, I'm sure I wouldn't get beyond a fairly rudimentary entrance test. But these kinds of documents make demands on readers and presume a working knowledge of the Catholic Tradition. They need to be read in their entirety (how often does that happen?) and they refer to numerous other documents that need to be read in their entirety (how often does that happen?).