Monday, July 31, 2006

Sunt Lacrimae Rerum

The first funeral I ever attended was my father's. I was seven years old and the full magnitude of what I was witnessing didn't really sink in until thirty years later.

Not so today: I was immediately and profoundly struck--right in the depth of my being--upon viewing the lifeless body of a baby in the vestibule of my Church. Only two months old, our parish celebrated her funeral Mass today and it is fair to say that there wasn't a soul in the place who was not moved with sorrow and pity. One of her surviving brothers is only a couple years younger than I was when I attended my father's funeral, and I glanced at him now and again, wondering what he thought of it all. He was one of the few people in the room who was not weeping: ignorance, it seems, really is bliss, at least sometimes.

The church, which ordinarily draws five or six people for a daily Mass, was as full as it is on Sunday morning. After Mass I trekked out to the graveside, where many of us stood around in 95-degree heat for the commendation. In spite of the tremendous sadness and the sense of loss, of somehow being lost, there is some comfort in the action of a community that comes together in this way for this purpose: to bury the dead and comfort the mourning, a Corporal Work of Mercy and a Spiritual.

Requiem aeternam dona ei, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat ei

In Vino Veritas

Speaking of anti-semites, Mel Gibson has shown that the fruit doesn't fall far from the tree. Like his father, he will now be remembered for saying crazy things about the Jews. When The Passion of the Christ was in release he was careful to deny charges of anti-semitism, but it's strange how truthful we become when we're blasted, downright Kantian, sometimes, in the refusal to say anything other than what we really believe to be the case. Better to know this about him than not, I suppose. Those who heard his apology say that it was half-hearted and insincere; I can't comment on any of that, since I didn't hear it, but one can imagine how good an indicator it is of his innermost feelings.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

The Moral Equivalence Fallacy

Mike Liccione has a good post up at Sacramentum Vitae on the war in Israel and Lebanon. I've never fully understood why it is that some folks are more than willing to heap all sorts of opprobrium on the Israelis while saying nothing at all about the doings on the other side (or worse, making the other side out to be the only victim), but I suspect that Keith Burgess-Jackson has isolated at least one reason: anti-semitism is more popular with leftist academics than s'mores at a Scout camp. Now, the blame-Israel-first tendency does not always signal anti-semitism, and of course one is not an anti-semite merely for disliking a particular policy of a particular government in Israel, but when it is as unrelenting as one finds in certain quarters, it is rather difficult to come to any other conclusion. If we combine this with curiously intense disquisitions on the "true nature of Islam" and on the disconnect between today's Israelis and the "Hebrews" of the Old Testament, well, the plot thickens.

The idea that there is some kind of moral equivalence between the state of Israel and Hezbollah is risible, and yet this is an idea that appears to underlie most of the thinking about what ought to happen next over there. The facts are rather simple: Israel, a sovereign state, was unjustly attacked by a radical group of terrorist thugs hiding behind human shields in foreign territory. That Israel should do nothing is not just silly, it is dangerous, since it only encourages further attacks. Much has been made of the disparity in the casualty rates in Lebanon and Israel, but it seems rather out of place to judge the ius in bello by such a measure. The Germans, after all, suffered far greater civilian losses during World War II than did the allies (though not for lack of trying on the part of the Germans), but it would be unreasonable to suggest that for that reason the allies were unjust in their prosecution of the war. This is not to suggest that civilian casualties are acceptable tout court, only that they must be balanced against the intentions of the agents who cause them and the proportionality with the end(s) sought. According to Humanae Vitae it is never acceptable intentionally to do a wrong, even in order to bring about some good; but when all courses of action have some negative effects, the principle of double effect can be invoked.

Calls for a cease-fire seem to presuppose that there is some good end to be gained either by negotiating with terrorists or by appeasing them. Since it is no secret that this war was underwritten by Iran, whose president has called for the "annihilation" of the state of Israel, the initial U.S. policy of giving Israel some time to inflict some damage on Hezbollah seems reasonable. But this policy, as reasonable as it is from the point of view of justification of tactics, will nevertheless backfire in the end. Mike puts it succinctly and well, as usual:
By adopting a military stance that interweaves combatants and their weapons among civilians as well as buildings designed for peaceful purposes, Hezbollah makes it impossible for Israel to fight for victory without killing civilians—many of whom are innocent—and destroying Lebanon's infrastructure. Israel has not let that stop her, of course; nor could she, if she is to achieve anything useful. The result: many innocent civilians are dying and Lebanon is being set back decades. That makes Israel, even more than Hezbollah, seem cruel and immoral—even though Israel would rather not kill civilians and uses precision bombs in an effort to avoid such deaths while Hezbollah, having no such scruples, fires volleys of rockets indiscriminately at Israeli civilian targets. Thus is Hezbollah winning the propaganda war among the constituencies it most cares about: the Arab "street" and the Left around the world, on whom it's counting to help bring the IDF to heel via the White House.
It's too bad the Left is populated by so many suckers, but it's not all that surprising, given their track record.

Saturday, July 29, 2006


Jim Tucker seems to have forgotten that his own Church officially teaches that Anglican Orders are "null and void". Even if the bread and wine had been legitimately consecrated, however, one wonders whether Aldrin had official sanction to be totin' the stuff all over the universe, since his church officially teaches (to the extent that the Episcopal church can be said to "officially teach" anything) that the Sacrament is not to be carried about.

Burden of Proof

In an interesting review in the Times Literary Supplement (21 July) of the re-issue of Anthony Flew's God and Philosophy, Alvin Plantinga writes:
The thought seems to be that atheism is the baseline or default position: anybody who departs from it labours under a burden of proof. This idea makes sense in legal contexts, and also in the context of debates. But why think the believer is engaged in something like an Oxford Union debate?

Most believers in God aren't suing anyone or even arguing with anyone; they are just living their lives and minding their own business. Nevertheless, says Flew, they are still under some kind of burden of proof; they are obliged to have good arguments for their theism. But why so? And if they don't, then what, exactly, is their problem? Why think they owe the atheist or anyone else an argument?

Flew doesn't answer this question. Perhaps, however, the idea is that theists without arguments are irrational or unreasonable, or have failed to meet their intellectual obligations, or stand convicted in some other way of being intellectually second-rate. But a chief lesson of the history of modern philosophy from Descartes to Hume is that good arguments for our fundamental beliefs are not easy to come by. For example, there don't seem to be any good arguments for the existence of other minds; nonetheless nearly all sane people believe in other minds, and do so with complete propriety.... Why think belief in God is different along these lines? Bertrand Russell once suggested that for all that our evidence shows, the world could have spring into existence just five minutes ago, complete with all its memories, wrinkled faces, crumbling mountains, and the like. No one knows how to prove this false: does it follow that those of us who believe in a substantial past are irrational, unreasonable, unjustified, or in some other way deserving of abuse and contempt? If not, why think differently in the case of belief in God? Maybe there is a relevant differenced here, but if there is, neither Flew, nor, I think, anyone else has succeeded in saying what that difference is.
This is a very important point, I think, one that is difficult for the philosopher to make himself comfortable with. But I must remind myself of the various religious philosophers who have made little mottos out of it over the ages (Augustine's faith seeking understanding, Anselms I believe that I may understand, etc.). Contrary to what some might have us believe, plenty of really smart people have believed in God for very good reasons, and the burden of proof should not be foisted onto one side rather than the other--in the domain of reason-giving (i.e., philosophy) it ought to be shared by all.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Irish Psalter Found in Bog

The BBC website has a story today about a 1200 year old Psalter found in a bog in the south Midlands. The Latin text of the Psalter is fairly well established, so the discovery is not important from the point of view of textual criticism; but in the words of Dr. Pat Wallace, director of the National Museum of Ireland:
It testifies to the incredible richness of the Early Christian civilisation of this island and to the greatness of ancient Ireland.
If, like me, you're tired of the constant association in the popular mind of Celtic civilization with paganism, this will serve as a salutary reminder that Celtic Christianity is one of the gems of our tradition.

Monday, July 24, 2006

James L. P. Butrica, R. I. P.

I learned today of the passing of James Butrica, a professor of classics at Memorial University of Newfoundland. Educated at Amherst and the University of Toronto, he specialized in Latin and Greek elegiac poetry, and Latin paleography and textual criticism. I did not know him personally, but he was a frequent contributor to an online classics discussion forum, where his was one of only a very few consistently intelligent voices. I did not agree with all of his views, but I was always impressed by his measured wit and seemingly infinite capacity for respectful dialogue. I have no idea whether he was a religious person, but I pray that God's grace will not be lost on a man who was himself so very graceful.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Realism Rules!

When I first moved into the house where I now live (it was August of 1997, by the way, for those of you with a prurient interest in the boring details of my existence) my neighbor noticed that we got up en famille on Sundays and went out. She asked me what was up, and I told her we were Catholics and were off to Mass.

"Catholic! You must love guilt, then!" she said with a smile, then went back to mowing her lawn.

The view of Catholic moral theology here expressed has the remarkable, if unsurprising in this day and age, property of being both banal and widely shared. The idea appears to be that Catholics live their lives as slaves to some set of Divine Command moral rules that are inscribed upon their hearts like prison tats on burly forearms, and infractions of these rules inspire in their benighted adherents spasms of fear borne of a superstitious belief in places of eternal flame. The old joke, based upon the instructions one once found on shampoo bottles, went "Sin; confess; repeat", but what seems to strike most outsiders about Catholic life is a perceived emphasis on sin--especially of the sexual kind--that drives the people in the pews to distraction.

I was reminded of this as I wrote yesterday's post, because Plato's Gorgias ends with a myth about the fate of just and unjust souls. In the text, the soul of the person who has lived a just life goes on to a kind of eternal paradise, while the soul of the unjust person goes, well, to a very different place. Students invariably misinterpret this as evidence of Plato's adherence to a kind of utilitarian view of justice, where the point living well is so that you can get to heaven and avoid hell. Nothing could be further from Plato's real intention in that section of the dialogue, where what he really has in mind is a rather straightforward point about the independence of the soul's happiness from the body's physical state. It is easy to make a similar mistake about the point of Catholic moral theology--in fact, some Catholics themselves appear to believe that the reason why one ought to live in accordance with God's commandments is precisely so that we may win heaven at the end of this earthly sojourn. But, like Plato, the Catholic Church is not utilitarian: the point of living in accordance with God's commandments is not at all that one will thereby win heaven--that is merely a fortuitous artifact. In principle, one will want to live in accordance with God's commandments regardless of what happens when one's body dies--even if there is non-existence afterwards. One follows them because that is what our proper good is, and all things ought to seek their proper good. The point of Plato's myth is that the just life is its own reward, and the Church's teaching does not differ all that much.

One variety of moral realism recognizes that members of natural kinds, such as human beings, are subject to certain objective conditions of flourishing, and that the pursuit of those conditions is what constitutes the best sort of human life. Different theorists will differ as to what, precisely, those conditions are, but it is safe to say that it is never merely following a rule for the sake of mere rule following. The rules, on the contrary, are merely linguistic representations of the means necessary for the attainment of those conditions; hence following them is a necessary, though not a sufficient, condition for human happiness.

Although this is a rather straightforward point, it never ceases to amaze me how few people really understand it. I am not a Marxist, but I am familiar with the fundamental tenets of Marxism, and Marxism isn't even a dominant intellectual force in our culture. Why then, are so many otherwise well-educated people so ignorant of the fundamental tenets of Christianity, which has been a powerful force in our culture? One hears about it all the time. Even if one wants to criticize it, it seems that it makes a little sense to find out a little bit about what one is criticizing before launching into a seriously wrong-headed critique.

In a pair of comments to my post of yesterday, a reader appears to endorse this rather misbegotten view of Catholic moral theology when he writes, in response to my claim that I've never come across a student who was not a moral relativist "of some kind":
I suppose that if you use the phrase 'moral relativism' a bit like the Pope sometimes seems to, to refer to any view which is not rigidly absolutist and generally rule-based, then I am certainly a moral relativist 'of some kind,' since I tend to believe that there are a variety of legitimate and yet mutually exclusive good kinds of life that people can lead, and that right action is underdetermined by rules of anything more than a very general kind....I suspect that there are a good number of students who think that they are relativists, but only because they mistakenly believe that the only alternative to relativism is a rule-based deontology or divine command ethics.
The implication appears to be that the Pope speaks ill of a moral system, which he calls "moral relativism", that he intends to contrast with its opposite, presumably "moral realism", which is here assumed to mean a "rigidly absolutist and generally rule-based" view of normativity. The reader then goes on to say, rather wildly, that he is rather in agreement with folks like Aristotle and Martha Nussbaum that "there are a variety of legitimate and yet mutually exclusive good kinds of life that people can lead", and he appears to think that this makes him a moral realist "of some kind", or at least not a moral relativist of any meaningful kind. Well, I can't speak for Martha Nussbaum, though I am fully prepared to believe of her that her thinking is indeed every bit as muddled as my dear reader suggests, but Aristotle would never say such a thing as is here attributed to him, so it isn't just morons like Benedict XVI who think that the proper end for humans entails--yes, that's right, entails, and I'm not even a Kantian deontologist--a certain set of guidelines for living. Whether these guidelines translate into "absolutist" rules is, I suppose, a function of how one happens to view the nature of prudential reasoning. It is, for example, an absolute rule that if one wants to obtain 5 from 3 and 2, one must add them together. Similarly, if one wants to live well a certain form of life, it is necessary (in an absolute sense) that one refrain from killing innocent persons without justification. It is, indeed, rigid under a certain description, but there is no compelling reason to appeal to that description rather than another. For example, one may say of the Ten Commandments that they are absolutist, rigid, rule-like prescriptions, or one may take the view of the prophet Baruch, who wrote:
Hear, O Israel, the commandments of life: listen, and know prudence! How is it, Israel, that you are in the land of your foes, grown old in a foreign land, defiled with the dead, accounted with those destined for the nether world? You have forsaken the fountain of wisdom! Had you walked in the way of God, you would have dwelt in enduring peace. Learn where prudence is, where strength, where understanding; that you may know also where are length of days, and life, where light of the eyes, and peace. Who has found the place of wisdom, who has entered into her treasuries? He who knows all things knows her; he has probed her by his knowledge--he who established the earth for all time, and filled it with four-footed beasts; he who dismisses the light, and it departs, calls it, and it obeys him trembling; before whom the stars at their posts shine and rejoice; when he calls them, they answer, "Here we are!" shining with joy for their Maker. Such is our God; no other is to be compared to him: he has traced out all the way of understanding, to Israel his beloved son. Since then she has appeared on earth, and moved among men. She is the book of the precepts of God, the law that endures forever; All who cling to her will live, but those will die who forsake her. Turn, O Jacob, and receive her: walk by her light toward splendor. Give not your glory to another, your privileges to an alien race. Blessed are we, O Israel; for what pleases God is known to us!
Although the image of stars "shining with joy for their Maker" is tough to top, surely the point of "absolutist" rules lies in the final clause: these aren't just any rules, they are the keys to pleasing God, and since finding joy in our Maker is our highest good we need to know what those "rules" are.

Not so that we may win heaven, though a banal and superficial reading of the prophet might give one that impression, just as many students come away from Plato's Gorgias thinking that Socrates is really a proto-utilitarian. Both talk about living rather than dying, after all, and in our debauched times that is always translated into utilitarian calculations about survival.

I imagine that, if one put one's mind to it, a thoughtful person would easily find that any form of moral realism entails a certain set of rules, whether or not one thinks that members of a single kind can have multiple highest ends. The more difficult task is, I suppose, psychological rather than merely logical. The difficult task here is to conquer one's inner instinct to find "rules" repulsive just insofar as they are rules. This is a difficult instinct for the libertarian to overcome, since freedom is just about the only rule that he recognizes, and since "absolutist rules" give the (false) appearance of restricting the behavior of others, libertarians naturally balk at them. But the sorts of "absolutist" rules that Benedict and the Church advocate restrict no one any more than the "absolutist" rule that human beings need water to survive. Just as there are objective conditions for the flourishing of the human body, so too there are objective conditions for the flourishing of the human person. One can learn about medicine and exercise physiology if one wants to keep one's body flourishing; to keep one's whole person flourishing one needs to learn about the "absolutist" rules that follow from the logic of morality.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

I Know What I Believe

I've just finished teaching my summer class, an introduction to philosophy in which we read Plato's Gorgias cover to cover. Although the course went fairly well in terms of covering the content and bringing the study of philosophy to an audience that otherwise would never experience it, I've managed to come away with some worries, as I do at the end of almost every term, about what, precisely, my students have learned.

Aristotle, very famously, held that "all men by nature desire to know", but I spent several days in argument with my class about just what knowledge itself is. Plato's Gorgias contains a brief argument designed to highlight the difference between knowledge and conviction, but my students were unpersuaded, either by Plato or by me, that there is really any difference between the two. Some students were not happy with Plato's contention that, whereas conviction can be either true or false, knowledge can only be true. Others could not accept the notion that knowledge is itself a particular kind of belief (a warranted and true one). One student went up to the blackboard and drew charts and graphs trying to show why, once we "know" something, it ceases to be a "mere belief" of ours but is rather some new kind of thing.

Plenty of students are sloppy thinkers--cleaning up their critical thinking skills is one reason why they come to college, after all, and it is certainly a good goal to have in mind when taking a philosophy class. What surprises is not so much the sloppy thinking that one finds in beginners, but the resistance that one finds to the helpful corrections offered by experts in the field. I haven't had a course in physics since I was in college, and that was a long time ago, but in my day students didn't engage in long, drawn out arguments with professors of physics about the fundamentals of the science that one encounters in a class like Physics 101. Imagine a student going to the blackboard to illustrate why, even in a classical context, moving objects simply do not move in a straight line unless acted upon by some force. Imagine the physics professor patiently explaining to them why the science is the way it is but meeting steadfast resistance at every step and a glaring skepticism at the end.

Well, philosophy is not physics, of course, but philosophy 101 is not exactly a matter of simply making things up as one goes along. Some students, however, seem to think that merely having a firm conviction about something is a sufficient condition for them to act as experts in philosophy. There sometimes seems to be very little skepticism about their own convictions.

This is particularly true when it comes to matters of morality. The Gorgias is, at least in part, an extended treatment of the differences between a kind of unrestrained hedonism and the moral realism of Socratic intellectualism. Nobody under the age of 27 can really grasp the possibility that Socrates may have been right about the nature of human happiness. There are a few youngsters who pay lip service to it, but when push comes to shove they'll go for desire over intellect every time and, more importantly, when asked whether intellect ought to trump desire for everyone, students these days are notoriously relativistic. I have yet to meet a single undergraduate who was not a moral relativist of some kind.

Often times this relativism finds expression in what is commonly called "cultural relativism". This is the view that one sometimes hears as "I'm personally opposed to x but I don't favor making it illegal for others because they may not be opposed to it." Cultural relativism, in other words, is simply the view that cultures do, in fact, differ with respect to values and practices. This view is congenial to some because it does not entail that there are no moral truths, only that we have no grounds for enforcing moral truths. So the wishy-washy can have their convictions and be laissez-faire at the same time. It's no wonder, then, that when you ask students whether they are moral realists or moral relativists, they will very often say "Both!" The reason is that they want to believe that what they believe is true, for them, but it might not be really true for others because others might not believe it. They are radically confused about what it means to know something as opposed to having a firm conviction about it.

On the other hand, suppose one is a moral realist, and has a very firm conviction that one actually knows some moral truth. Does is follow from that that we have an obligation to see to it that everyone else knows the truth as well? In other words, may we legislate in accordance with what we have knowledge of? This is an extremely controversial question, one that is fraught with political overtones these days. Even if we put aside that rather sticky question of how one is supposed to know for sure that one knows some moral truth, it is by no means clear that we ought to mandate compliance with some moral norm, even one that is objectively true. Human freedom and autonomy go together, and without them moral responsibility is meaningless.

This is a problem raised in another of Plato's great dialogues, the Republic. In that work, Plato famously (or infamously, depending on your point of view), recommends mandating moral standards that some of us these days find repulsive (wives and children are to be held in common, for example). This already stark portrait of the "ideal state" is painted in even darker colors in the Laws, where even minor infractions of seemingly unimportant rules are punishable by draconian penalties. Most of us prefer to hold that people must be free to sin, otherwise they are not genuinely free, and freedom is a particularly prized thing these days.

We're more willing to intervene, however, when the so-called "Harm Principle" kicks in, that is, when allowing someone to act freely enables him to harm another person. In cases like that, we feel somewhat justified in saying "No, you can't do that, and if you do, we'll punish you." Even moral relativists quickly become realists when the issue is keeping other people from mugging or killing them. Or keying their Beemer.

Even the Harm Principle raises serious and tough questions, however. Abortion, for example, is the intentional destruction of a fetus. To destroy a fetus is, obviously, to harm it. Should we permit such harms? Some say yes, on the grounds that harms to a fetus are not on the same moral level as harms to fully-formed adults, or that a fetus does not warrant legal or even moral protections against the actions of fully-formed adults. Others say no, on the grounds that there is no meaningful, non-arbitrary difference between a fetus and a fully-formed adult qua human. Those who are convinced of the latter view may have a variety of reasons for thinking that they are right, and some of those reasons may be connected to some religious conviction. This is not necessarily the case, of course--plenty of high-profile pro-lifers are also atheists--but it would be disingenuous to claim that nobody opposes abortion for religious reasons.

So what do we do now? Can those who oppose abortion for religious reasons be permitted a place in the public square to promote their view of reality? These people are generally realists, so they think that their convictions are more than mere conviction, they are instances of knowledge. But why should the non-realist believe them? Why should the non-realist permit the realist to "legislate morality"?

Pundits are a lot like students--they tend to be relativists--and they also tend to be particularly outraged by the prospect of religious folks worming their views into the public agenda. In the most recent number of First Things (August/September 2006) Ross Douthat reviews four books that have as a common theme the rise of the so-called "religious right" and the ramifications of its political power. The title of the review, "Theocracy, Theocracy, Theocracy", gives a hint as to the perspectives to be found in these books, but Douthat paints a wonderful picture himself in the opening words of the review:
This is a paranoid moment in American politics. A host of conspiracies haunt our national imagination, and apparent incompetence is assumed to be the consequence of a dark design: President Bush knew about the attacks of September 11 in advance, or else the Israelis did; the Straussians took us to war in Iraq, unless the oil companies did; the federal government let the levees break in New Orleans, unless it dynamited them itself.

Perhaps the strangest of these strange stories, though, is the notion that twenty-first-century America is slouching toward theocracy. This is an old paranoia: Back in 1952, the science-fiction libertarian Robert Heinlein's Revolt in 2100 envisioned a religious tyranny toppled by a Freemason-led rebellion...but the fear of theocracy has become a defining panic of the Bush era, reaching a fever pitch in the weeks after the 2004 election, when a host of commentators seized on polls suggesting that "moral values" had pushed the president over the top...
Paranoia is a wonderful description of the view that political beliefs supported by religious conviction are in some sense dangerous to our polity. One wonders what sorts of supports are preferable. If one examines the political beliefs of just about any group, one is likely to find a squirrel's nest of sloppy thinking and poorly considered first principles; why should the nests of the religious squirrels be any more frightening?

Perhaps it is a consequence of rampant Dawkinsism--on this view religious thought is inherently inferior to all other kinds of thought. Indeed, calling it "thought" at all is already to insult the mental activities of dolphins and orangutans. So to find a political view supported by religious conviction is ipso facto to demonstrate that said political view is the view of a moron. More importantly, the morons who believe in God are morons precisely because they think they are right in their beliefs, that is, they think they know moral truths, rather than just believing them, the way the smart people do, and it is this insidious conviction that they have knowledge that makes them so dangerous to the rest of us. It is because they think they know something that the rest of us don't that they think they can get away with mandating morality for everybody.

In short, you have to be a moral relativist to be afraid of religious conviction as a foundation for political views. This does not mean that you have to be a moral relativist to be afraid of theocracy, I suppose. I would not want to live in an Islamic theocracy of the sort advocated by some folks in places like Iran. But the reason for that fear is not only because such places are very scary--it is also because the ideas lying behind that sort of theocracy are false. What if there were a theocracy in which the ideas behind its policies were all of them true? If you suffer from Dawkinsism, naturally, you'll think such an idea a blatant contradiction, but obviously it isn't at all. There could be such a place. Would it be as scary as the theocracies in the Middle East?

From one point of view--the libertarian--it most certainly would be. If you are a libertarian, then even if you are a devoutly religious person you will be suspicious of the prospects for putting political power into the hands even of your co-religionists. Libertarians of a certain stripe are fundamentally pessimistic about human nature, and I suspect they are right in that. A theocracy grounded in solid Catholic moral and political teachings would still need to be administered by sinful, error-prone human beings, who must be as free to sin in their application of power as the rest of us are in our day-to-day lives. But to allow them freedom to sin is to allow them to misuse their power, and to allow that is precisely what makes theocracies, along with all other forms of government, very scary. This is why it is better to keep governments as limited as possible, rather than as extensive as possible, as would be the case with a theocracy.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Pius XII and Vatican Files

The folks at the Society That Thinks Pope Pius XII Rules have given us the text of a story about the status quaestionis in re Pope Pius XII and the Vatican records regarding his Pontificate. Read it here.

When the First Stone is Really a Millstone

The other day I was perusing some posts at Roman Catholic Blog, and I noticed a very long contribution to the comments section of one post. The comment was many times longer than the post itself, and was prefaced with a title and everything. It's not all that unusual to get spam in your comments--that's why many bloggers turn on the "word verification" function at Blogger--but this was something more than spam. It was a screed from "E. Michael Jones", who calls himself the editor of something called "Culture Wars Magazine."

Curious, I "pointed my browser", as they used to say, at the URL, and found that "Culture Wars Magazine" is a kind of conspiracy-theorist anti-semitic fringe thingy, the sort of outlet that is prone to rather lengthy foaming-at-the-mouth collections of "data" that are supposed to point to inevitable but downright Straussian (ironically) conclusions. One thing that caught my eye as I perused the site was a lengthy (over 7500 words) piece by one Thomas Herron on Amy Welborn. The title: "The Double Life of Amy Welborn". Well, I thought, this ought be interesting. Perhaps Amy is secretly Christopher Hitchens in drag. So I had a look.

I'm sorry to say that the worst dirt Herron could come up with on Amy consists of two facts, both already well documented in Amy's own books: (a) her first marriage was declared null by the Catholic Church; (b) she is now married to a laicized priest. Quel scandale! Herron tries valiantly to connect his critique of Catholic blogging to the more respectable attempt of Jonathan Last in First Things, but you'll never find anything like this in First Things:
a down-side to this phenomena [sic] which has been previously discussed in these pages a tendency for these conservative Catholic blogs to quickly become politicized in a Republican Party direction, become excessively commercialized with the hosts hawking their books or speaking venues and the fact that, with all the links to the same sources, they have in fact become a giant echo chamber. The politicization of the Catholic blogs that Mr. Last notes in his articles [sic] may not be due entirely to osmosis but due to the fact that the Bush White House has been reported as having full-time personnel devoted to cruising the blogs to shout down comments deemed anti-administration.
Now there's a smoking gun on a grassy knoll for you. It takes a special intellect to craft prose such as this:
The creation of Amy Welborn as the Catholic anti-Dowd always features pejorative comments to the frustrated fifty-something Irish maiden Dowd’s Manhattan life being something out of the network drama Sex and the City to be unfavorably contrasted to the savvy Catholic right-wing mother of five from Fort Wayne. Apparently this contrast in Catholic female paradigms appears to date to The Corner blog of National Review Online to Holy Week, 2002, March 27 to be exact, when conservative Catholic convert, Rod Dreher, who was then working for National Review and seems to throw the loudest echo in the St. Blog’s echo chamber, noted Amy’s response to Maureen’s take on the priestly pedophile scandal.
Not bad for a mere two sentences. But as is the case with most of these screedy takedowns from the fringe, what really wows is the scholarly integrity that goes into researching one of these articles:
Amy Welborn has recently pushed the book on the childhood memories of Peter Manseau titled Vows: The story of a Priest, a Nun and their Son. I was hoping to read this book as background to writing this article but the ebook download from and my computer weren’t compatible. But the outline of the story of the Manseau family is clear from the first chapter contained at the web site....
You can't make this stuff up--nobody would beleive it.

The long and the short of it--well, OK, the long of it--is that Amy and her husband are disingenuous hucksters who may be able to fool the benighted "conservatives" at "St. Blog's Parish" into thinking that they are good Catholics, but a Real Catholic (TM) knows better:
Now I’m a Boomer myself and I well remember the Lord’s injunction in John 8:7 about casting the first stone at the Dubruiels, even if their reinvention of themselves concurrent with a move to a different section of the country is rather typical behavior of our generation. But it needs to be said that being conservative in theological, political, or economic terms is not exactly the same as living a moral life in the light of the Gospel. It is easy to educate yourself that what has been taught in most religion classes offered by Catholic institutions of this country has little to do with what the Church has always and everywhere taught. I well remember what I was taught in Catholic high school and college in the years following Vatican II, and the only reason I kept my faith was that my father was something of a working-class intellectual and had purchased some books from the Catholic revival authors back in the thirties and I came across The Spirit of Catholicism by Karl Adam in the basement of our row house early in my college years. I could see for myself that what I was being taught as cutting-edge Catholic thought was merely professorial spin based on articles in Commonweal and America. In this I was fortunate as I didn’t lose the faith as many of my contemporaries did. It appears that Amy and Michael came to the same conclusions for themselves some years later. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of becoming a political conservative in the National Review mold as a reaction to the religious and political liberalism I was learning; this too was a mistake that many young Catholics made before me and, sadly, still are making if the young folks who maintain web sites at St. Blog’s Parish are typical. The problem is that maintaining a conservative ideology in theological and political terms trumps attempting to live a life in harmony with Church teachings. This will lead you for a big fall with the sexual revolution raging all around you, even for right-wingers. However, there are a lot of Catholic conservatives who hang out at St. Blog’s web sites who basically said when the Dubruiels’ history was revealed with the link to the Commonweal article in the discussion at Mark Shea’s blog: hey, what’s the big deal? She has an annulment, he’s got a laicization decree; of course they can be conservative Catholic icons.

Well, it seems that they’re forgetting some people, namely Amy’s ex-husband and her children by him and by Michael Dubruiel. What will the kids say when they grow up? Are they going to maintain the practice of the Catholic faith into adulthood or will they think it’s optional like marriage and religious vows? The public records check on Amy Welborn’s migrations show that she lived in Blacksburg, Virginia, another college town, prior to relocating to Gainesville, Florida in 1988. It would appear that she was married to a man who had obtained his doctorate in statistics from Virginia Tech and then went south to teach at the University of Florida in that year. About a decade later he would return to Blacksburg to become the chairman of the statistics department at V.T. His undergraduate degree is from the University of Tennessee, Ms. Welborn’s alma mater. It would appear that his interests are in statistical process control pioneered by Dr. W. Edwards Deming and has written a textbook in statistics for engineers. Most interestingly, for me, is the fact that around this time Deming’s Total Quality Management was being implemented across the board in Defense Department bases like those in nearby Jacksonville. However, whether we use the much-abused left-brain/right-brain dichotomy, graduate level statistics is somewhat different from spirituality. While the professor doesn’t respond to emails, if he is Amy Welborn’s ex-husband, what would he say if he spoke out someday? What would he say of Amy and Michael’s “family that is making a unique contribution to the Church,” in Mark Shea’s words? What did he feel about his ex-wife taking his kids out of town to be near her boyfriend and reducing him to a “twice monthly check’? What are his feelings toward the once Father Dubruiel? Would he say he was the cuckolding curate of Gainesville?
Well, he doesn't have to say it, does he, now that Herron has said it for him.

You've got to wonder what this guy thinks it means to be a Catholic; what would he have to say to St. Paul, were he to meet him in person? The Double Life of Paul--or should I say Saul!--of Tarsus! Once stood idly by while others murdered St. Stephen! The Double Life of Augustine of Hippo--so-called "saint" of the Church, or so he is called by the others in that echo-chamber of the West! What if we could do a public records check and find his "wife" (they were never actually married, mind you) and ask her what she thinks of his career in the Church? What would Adeodatus tell us, if we could ask him what it is like to have a "father" who is father to so many others but never was to him?

Herron, in a moment of unintended irony (or perhaps self-parody), actually begins his piece with a quotation from Amy Welborn:
If you insist on using political labels to identify Catholics, here’s the way it works: the “liberals” aren’t interested in us because we make fun of them. The “conservatives” like us until they find out our histories, because there’s no worse epithet-not “pagan,” not “Protestant,” not even “heretic”-in a conservative Catholic’s vocabulary than “ex-priest,” a word which comes with a “p” conveniently built in so it can be virtually spit out of contemptuous lips.
Like many folks who write the way he does, Herron nowhere explains what he thinks follows from all of his muckraking--he merely lays out "fact" after "fact" as though what follows from it will be obvious to all. In a sudden move towards self-revelation, however, he spills the beans at the end of his piece:
As Amy Welborn is part of the conservative Catholic crusade against Church cover-ups of pedophile scandals the obvious question is what did she do in her years as DRE in Gainesville? Did she have oversight responsibility for Kevin Williams, who was an older teen when the assaults took place at a parish sponsored event? Where was Father Dubruiel at this time, what was his responsibility for youth religious education in the parish? Were Father Mike and Amy too busy with their Catholic Great Books discussion group to see what the young man was doing with the younger kids? Were they too involved with each other to see what was going on at Holy Faith? Is this why so many of the Church Fathers said lust darkens your mind? So maybe we should start examining the background of our crusaders against clerical hypocrisy and cover-ups and find out if they have skeletons in their closets.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Eamon Duffy on Papal Power

Here is an interesting passage from Eamon Duffy's Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997; revised edition 2001):
A crucial influence in the development of the idea that the Pope himself might be free from error came from the Franciscan debates about poverty. Successive popes had ruled in favour of the Franciscan rejection of property. When Pope John XXII repudiated that teaching, and denied that Christ was a pauper, Franciscan theologians appealed against his judgment to the infallibility of other, earlier popes. They argued that the Church, in the person of those popes, had repeatedly accepted the Franciscan view of poverty as an evangelical form of life. John XXII, therefore, was in error in rejecting this infallible teaching--and since true popes do not err, this proved that he was no longer a true pope. Papal infallibility was here being invoked not to exalt the Pope's authority, but to limit it, by ensuring that a pope did not arbitrarily reverse earlier Christian teaching.