Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Shame and the Body

A couple of years ago I mentioned the following story in a blog entry:
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 went on to remark, in that particular post, that in reality the Christian view of sexuality and the human body is far more salutary than the limited, and delimiting, view of contemporary secular society, in which we are reduced to a bundle of drives and desires. On the view I defended, following God's commandments with respect to sexual morality is not something that constrains us, but rather it sets us free in a way that the pagan cannot readily comprehend. I think that this freedom is the more obscure to the pagans because of their strange view of the nature of the Christian theology of the body. Is it really true that the Christian view of sexuality is all about guilt and shame? I would say no, but even many Catholics seem to view the matter rather differently, and that is perplexing.

I am thinking about this now because just today I received notice of a rather interesting-looking book recently out from the University of Pennsylvania Press. The book is Saving Shame: Martyrs, Saints, and Other Abject Subjects by Virginia Burrus, professor of early Church history at Drew University. She appears to work often in the field of sexuality, as her other books have titles like Toward a Theology of Eros: Transfiguing Passion at the Limits of Discipline, The Sex Lives of Saints: An Erotics of Ancient Hagiography, "Begotten, Not Made": Conceiving Manhood in Late Antiquity (I would love to hear Mike Liccione's opinion of that one!) and the like. Sex and gender studies is not an area in which I have any significant expertise to speak of, so I cannot pronounce on the scholarly quality of these tomes, other than to note that there are rather a lot of them for such a young scholar and they get good reviews, so I assume that she knows what she's doing. The book would not have come to my attention at all were it not for my subscription to Bryn Mawr Classical Reviews, which sense out email notifications of new book reviews as they come in. Saving Shame was reviews for BMCR by Walter Roberts, a visiting assistant professor of history at Ashland University here in Ohio. According to Roberts's review
Essentially, Burrus challenges the traditional thesis that in its early development, Christianity replaced public shame with private guilt as a model of social control and communal identity. Her rebuttal is that shame, rather than disappearing and being replaced by guilt, was transformed from a public to a private force in Christianity and then back to a public phenomenon that becomes the basis for both personal salvation and the conversion of non-believers. This was a very gradual
transformation that began with Apostolic ideas of shame, the body, and salvation, which attempted to reconcile the public role of shame with the private notion of personal salvation. The basic idea that the human body served as a conduit between public shame and personal salvation was introduced in Apostolic literature and was then transferred to the phenomenon of martyrdom, which in turn influenced the Christological debates of the second to fourth centuries. From there, these ideas were incorporated into the ascetic movements of late antiquity, where they
culminated in notions of grace and salvation, which contained elements of both shame and guilt, that were passed on to Medieval and later Christian thought. In many ways this is an intensely personal book for Burrus, and she also tries to link the modern culture that seems to embrace shame as a method of social protest with the ascetic movements of the ancient and late antique Greco-Roman world.
I think it would be interesting to read this book along with selections from early Church Fathers and, of course, JPII's Theology of the Body. My intuition is that the thesis, as interesting and remarkable as it sounds, will prove to be underdetermined by the data, but that, I suspect, is not uncommon as theses about historical trends go. Apparently, the really interesting stuff comes in the third chapter. Roberts again:
Chapter three presents one of Burrus's more novel arguments, tying developments of Christology and martyrdom into the burgeoning ascetic movements of the late antique period. Traditional interpretations of late antique ascetic movements put the emphasis on subjecting the body to abjection in order to be free of the body and to transcend to the spiritual world in imitation of Christ. Using her interesting
interpretations of John's teleology of the logos and the subsequent appearance of John's thought in the Christological debates of the second to fourth centuries, Burrus reexamines the underlying attitude of fourth to seventh century Christian ascetic ideology regarding the role of the body in salvation. She argues that
embracing physical, human existence is a key to becoming closer to God and salvation. By acknowledging the inherent shame and weakness of the human condition, we are forced to confront and ultimately transcend our limitations in this form. In addition, in keeping with the imagery of spectacle that she has cultivated throughout the book, the body and our struggle with it becomes a stage for showing our devotion to God and our disdain for the temptations of this world.
I wonder whether "shame" and "guilt" are really the right categories in this context, though of the two I suppose "shame" is closer to the mark than "guilt". What is "shame", exactly, in a Christian context? In classical virtue theory shame is an emotional response, but Aristotle points out that modesty, properly speaking, is not a virtue, even though it is praised (Nicomachean Ethics 2.7 1108a30-36). The reason he says that it is not a virtue is simply because of the fact that it is merely an emotional response, not a state of character that can be governed by reason, and so even though it can come in more or less moderate degrees we do not call it a virtue. In this sort of a context the Christian account of shame has got to build something further into the matrix if it is to fill the role assigned to it in this book, and I wonder where, exactly, that building got done (if, indeed, it did get done). I suspect that there is some interesting work still to be done in this area.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Quiz Show

Update: OK, I realize that it's a little too hard as is, so I've added a few more hints at the end of the post.

I want to test your wits, but to do so you have to promise to play fair. As most folks know, I am something of an anti-realist about science (in a very loose sense of "anti-realism"), and I have blogged often about the relationship between theory and observation and how perspectives in the working scientist can influence that relationship (this was, indeed, a theme behind my most recent posts on the "verification" of the miraculous). I have come across various statements of this theme in a wide variety of authors, from the usual suspects such as Bas Van Fraassen and Paul Feyerabend to some less obvious but perhaps for that even more interesting suspects such as Ernst Cassirer and Pierre Duhem, but recently I came across a version of this theme in a writer in whom I was quite surprised to find it, and I am wondering if anyone will be able to guess who it is.

When I say you have to play fair, what I mean is this. I'm going to offer some quotations from this author relevant to this theme, and I want you to try to figure out who the author of these quotations is, but of course you could easily discover it simply by Googling these quotations, because this author is very famous--so famous, in fact, that I'm quite sure that you have all heard of this person and, indeed, I would be willing to bet money that all of you have read at least one book by this person. So to play this game I must ask that you not use Google or any other electronic resource. Instead, rely on your wits and, if possible, your memory, or perhaps your collection of books or a good library. But if you think you know who the author of these quotations is, let me know in a comment, and I will announce the winner (the first person to correctly identify the source) as soon as we have one.

Now, on to the game. Here are the quotations, all from relatively close together in the one book from which they are all drawn. At the end of the post I will give some hints.
In every age it will be apparent to accurate thinkers that scientific theories, being arrived at in the way I have described, are never statements of fact. That stars appear to move in such and such ways, or that substances behaved thus and thus in the laboratory--these are statements of fact. The astronomical or chemical theory can never be more than provisional. It will have to be abandoned if a more ingenious person thinks of a supposal which would 'save' the observed phenomena with still fewer assumptions, or if we discover new phenomena which it cannot save at all.

This would, I believe, be recognized by all thoughtful scientists today. It was recognized by Newton if, as I am told, he wrote not 'the attraction varies inversely as the square of the distance', but 'all happens as if' it so varied. It was certainly recognized in the Middle Ages. 'In astronomy', says Aquinas, 'an account is given of eccentrics and epicycles on the ground that if their assumption is made (hac positione facta) the sensible appearances as regards celestial motions can be saved. But this is not a strict proof (sufficienter probans) since for all we know they could also be saved by some different assumption.' The real reason why Copernicus raised no ripple and Galileo raised a storm, may well be that whereas the one offered a new supposal about celestial motions, the other insisted on treating this supposal as fact. If so, the real revolution consisted not in a new theory of the heaves but in 'a new theory of the nature of theory'.
Some hints. The author is no longer living. The author was an expert in a particular academic field but also wrote popular works, both in the author's own field and in other fields. As I have already mentioned, it is extremely likely that you have already read at least one of this author's books, and I imagine that it is also likely that the book that you read was a work of fiction.

Note, too, that there are still some scientists out there who seem to want to treat their "supposals" as facts. One thinks, for example, of Richard Dawkins, but there are others who do the same.

More hints: The author wrote, in addition to scholarly articles and books, in more than one genre of fiction, including science fiction and fantasy. One of these works was made into a movie, and the author was also the subject of a book that was turned into a movie.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Now What Do I Do?



Well, I just can't vote for Obama, because I can't vote for someone who won't fight to protect unborn life, nor can I endorse his economic or foreign policy views or any of his plans for domestic programs, etc. etc., but this is a real quandary. How can I not vote for this guy?

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Explanation and the Inexplicable

If a fine follow-up to my posts on the miraculous, Dr. Mike Liccione of Sacramentum Vitae offers a cogent and illuminating defense of the Vatican's perspective on the role of empirical verification in the canonization process. There is much in his discussion to agree with, and my intention here is not seriously to dispute any of his major findings, but merely to quibble with some of his distinctions. In short, I intend to put the "anal" in "analytic philosophy", and with a vengeance.

Let me begin by reminding my teeming following of the excruciatingly banal point that I was trying to make in the first place. My view can be put succinctly this way:

(1) Miracles do occur. (I'm just putting this one in here for full disclosure.)
(2) Miracles are supernatural events.
(3) Hence, no scientific findings are ever relevant to the miraculous.


In my posts I had addressed these claims from the point of view of scientific explanation, since the point at issue was the utility, or lack thereof, of obtaining statements from medical professionals about alleged miraculous cures. Mike agrees with me, apparently, that medical evidence from professionals is not a sufficient condition for declaring a cure miraculous, but he asserts that it is at least a necessary condition. He goes on to say many fine things about the role of the miraculous in the life of a believer that I do not dispute at all, but he says these things partly with a view to defending the thesis that miracles are not, as I claimed, "inexplicable", so I will confine my remarks, at least for the nonce, to the questions:

(a) Is empirical evidence a necessary condition in the present case?
(b) In what sense may the miraculous be regarded as explicable?


Let me begin by stating at once that I think Mike has, as usual, done a marvelous job of making clearer points that I, in my haste and exuberance, left remarkably cloudy, and (again, as usual) I am in his debt.

Regarding question (a), let me say first of all that I myself did not put the thing in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions not because I wanted to avoid the argot of analytic philosophy (mê genoito!), and not because I did not think the conditions were neither necessary nor sufficient, but because I regard the application of such conditions to the present case something of a category mistake. The difficulty is not that empirical evidence fails to be sufficient, or that it is not necessary, but that empirical evidence is completely irrelevant to the question of the miraculous in general.

Having said that, however, let me address Mike's positive claim in a different way, namely, by assuming with him that such evidence actually is relevant. Still it would not be necessary, and this, I think, for reasons that Mike himself will accept. To assert that medical evidence of a certain kind is a necessary condition on the miraculous is to say that, absent that medical evidence, it is necessarily the case that a miracle did not occur. This, I think, is simply too strong a claim, given the sort of evidence we're talking about.

What sort of evidence is that? Well, ex hypothesi (as found in Fr. Martin's comments to my posts) we're talking about a situation in which, on one day a noxious condition (say, a lethal cancer) is present, and on the next day (or within some suitably short period of time) that condition is entirely gone, without a trace, and with no empirical evidence of any naturalistically describable sequence of explanatory causes that could suffice to "explain" the disappearance of the condition. For the time being, we must put aside any questions about how one might go about verifying something like this (the only way to investigate the matter, it seems, is to cut the patient open and find that there is no tumor there when the X-ray or MRI said that there was one; but by that time there is no way to ascertain whether the X-ray or MRI in which it appeared two days earlier was in the least reliable). Hence, the evidence that we're talking about in the case of the miraculous is an assertion from a scientific professional to the effect that the situation just described actually obtains in some particular case. The question, then, is, should we require that specifically this sort of evidence be a necessary condition on declaring a cure "miraculous"?

In thinking about this question, consider another kind of case. Suppose we want to explain why some particular bit of water is frozen solid. One sort of explanation says, "It's frozen because its temperature was held to 32 degrees Fahrenheit or less at one atmosphere for a certain length of time." That is, I take it, a sufficient condition on the water's freezing, and it is a fully naturalistic explanation of the water's freezing. Suppose we were not to ask, however, "Why is the water frozen", but rather, "How did the water's temperature come to be held to 32 degrees Fahrenheit or less at one atmosphere?" On certain sorts of occasions, that question might have an equally straightforward answer: "Well, it's the middle of a freezing cold January day in Minnesota and the Arctic Clipper has been blowing on this glass of water for two days straight now, and so the temperature in the water went way down and it froze." But suppose our question is this: "How did the water's temperature come to be held to 32 degrees Fahrenheit or less at one atmosphere, given that it is a balmy summer day in Florida, and this glass of water, which was quite warm yesterday, has been sitting here in the warm summer Florida sun for nearly 12 hours?" This gives our earlier "explanation" of the water's being frozen quite a different status.

If you're wondering about the relevance of all this, I'm trying to motivate the view I defended earlier, namely, that empirical evidence ought to be regarded as irrelevant, not necessary, to our believing something to be miraculous. Suppose a medical condition clears up for reasons that the medical community declares fully naturalistic. Does it follow that the disappearance of the condition was not miraculous simply because certain proximate causes can be identified as part of the process? Not necessarily, and yet we would be forced to say that it was necessarily not miraculous if we hold to the necessary condition that Mike has stipulated. While that might satisfy the non-believer, surely it should not satisfy the believer.

The evidence of medical experts is supposed to reassure us that there's been no funny-business, no "perfectly ordinary" or natural cure, and this, in turn, is supposed to reassure us that what happened was, in fact, a miracle. But empirical evidence, as such, can accomplish none of this. Indeed, the whole situation is a massive confusion of the ontological with the epistemic. Ontologically, a given event is either miraculous or not miraculous independently of any empirically observable phenomena; epistemically, of course, it is precisely the observable phenomena that we look to for reassurance that what happened was a miracle, but, as I showed in my earlier post, there is no rational reason why our confidence that a miracle occurred should either increase or decrease as a consequence of any empirical evidence, because the miraculous is not an empirical category. To say that our confidence in the miraculous should be affected by the empirical is like saying that we can determine the pitch of a particular sound by tasting it.

If empirical observations were rationally compelling in the case of the miraculous, then non-believers would be manifestly irrational, since the testimony of literally hundreds of witnesses has been handed down to us that Our Lord performed many miracles. And yet there are those who do not believe that testimony. If a medical expert tells us that there is no scientific evidence to explain the disappearance of a tumor that was present the day before in an X-ray or MRI, any good medical expert worth his salt would have to admit that there are all sorts of alternative, naturalistic explanations available as to why the disappearance of the condition ought not to be regarded as miraculous, if what one is after is a scientific standard of empirical verification. True, the Church is able to find medical experts willing to take part in the exercise and who will say that there is "no explanation", but that means nothing; for every non-believing medical expert the Church finds who is willing to take part in the "verification" process, there are dozens of other non-believing scientific experts who will tell you that the whole process is a waste of time. These folks will never say that there is "no scientific explanation" for such things, they will say that the scientific explanation has yet to be found.

This brings us to question (b). Mike wants to say that the miraculous is, in fact, explicable, but in saying this he equivocates on the notion of explanation. I had specifically confined my remarks to scientific explanation, because it is the relevance of the scientific method to the verification of the miraculous that is at issue. In this sort of a context, the miraculous simply must be inexplicable, otherwise it is not miraculous. Obviously there is a metaphorical sense in which the miraculous is explicable: it is the work of God. But to say this is not to explain the miraculous, it is to describe it (and in terms that are not acceptable to everyone). We do not know how God accomplishes the miraculous, and that is the sort of knowledge that would be required if we were to say that miracles are literally explicable. Similarly, to say that a miracle explains something else may satisfy some, but it will certainly not satisfy everyone: in order for the answer "It is miraculous" to satisfy any such question as "How did that happen?" one must antecedently be willing to accept that such things as the miraculous can occur, and the capacity to accept such things is already something supernatural and, hence, outside the scope of the notion of explanation as such.

I think that Mike is on the firmest ground when he notes that "for those who 'get it'", that is, for the believer, the miraculous can confirm faith; but this is to admit that faith is present to be confirmed. Without faith, one will not "get it" to begin with: the miraculous is simply impossible at best, meaningless at worst. For those who do "get it", however, it simply is not necessary at all that a cure be scientifically inexplicable in order to be regarded as miraculous, since everything, even the ordinary workings of nature, are the handiwork of God. Even if a cure appears to result from perfectly ordinary "scientifically verifiable" naturalistic processes, we may still ask "Why did those processes kick in in this particular case, allowing for full recovery, when in certain other identical cases they do not kick in and the patient dies?" Just as water may freeze for the perfectly ordinary reason that it reached a certain temperature, we may always seek beyond the proximate cause for a deeper explanation. In some cases, such as the Minnesota winter, we may not have any reason to believe that anything out of the ordinary has happened, but that fact should not deter us from being willing to believe that there is sometimes something extraordinary even in the ordinary. The willingness to entertain such beliefs has absolutely nothing to do with scientific empiricism, and can in no way be affected (either up or down) by any results flowing from empirical methods.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

When Liturgical Change is a Good Thing

A recent report by Sandro Magister at Chiesa tells of how Gianfranco Ravasi and Jacob Neusner have both defended the text of the new prayer for the Jewish people provided for the Good Friday service of the so-called "Tridentine Rite" of the Mass (better: Mass under the rubrics of 1958). I've blogged on this topic before, but the Chiesa piece reminded me of another liturgical area in which change has been, in my view, very much for the better. If, like me, you find the ICEL translation of the Office banal and stultifying, you have probably "shopped around", so to speak, for alternatives. In the end, I saved up a ton of money and got myself beautiful, leather-bound versions of the Vatican Press' Latin edition, but not everyone has that kind of dough or enough Latin to make it worth while, so I've sometimes recommended using The Anglican Breviary, which has been kept in print by the remarkable ministry of Daniel Lula. It, too, is bound in leather, but it costs only $65 (the Latin edition is close to $200 per volume, and there are four volumes). In addition, its English is that of the Authorized Version of the Bible and Cranmer's Prayerbook, so reading it is just about as pleasurable as things can get in the English language. If you're the slightest bit worried about that "Anglican" part, you needn't be: we're talking Anglo-Catholics here, Anglicans who are as Catholic as anyone in their belief and practice save for that whole "first-among-equals" thing. Also, even if they weren't as Catholic as the rest of us, it would hardly matter, since the book is just an English translation of the Roman Catholic Breviary as it existed in 1911, so it can hardly be faulted doctrinally (it includes elements that are, strictly speaking, only part of the so-called "English Use", but these elements are in addition to the full text of the Roman Use).

The rubrics of this Breviary can be rather daunting at first, but they are soon mastered and one will be happily praying away at the canonical hours in no time, but I learned rather quickly that I could not continue to use this particular form of the Office. I found that I was disturbed by something that was assigned as part of the Office for Epiphany. The readings for the Third Nocturn of Matins on that day are drawn from a homily by St. Gregory the Great. The homily is on the text of Matthew 2.1, and talks of the contrast between faith and reason as manifested in the reception of Our Lord by the Jews and by the Gentiles. Here is the text of Lesson vii:
Dearly beloved brethren, ye have heard from the Gospel how, when the King of heaven was born, an earthly king was troubled. For earthly greatness is brought to confusion when the might of heaven is made manifest. But let us ask a question: When the Redeemer was born, why was it that, to the shephers of Judaea, an Angel was sent to bring tidings thereof, whereas it was a star that led the Wise Men of the East to worship him? It would seem that the Jews, who had been hitherto under the governance of reason, received a revelation from a reasonable being, that is, an Angel; but that the Gentiles, who knew not the right use of reason, were brought to the Lord, not by a voice, but by a sign, that is, by a star. Hence Paul hath it: Prophesying serveth not for them that believe not, but for them which believe. So the prophesying was given to them that believed and the sign to them that believed not.
So far so good, and you've just gotta love that diction. But things take a rather dark turn in Lesson viii:
It is worthy of notice also, that to these same Gentiles the Redeemer, when he was of full age, was preached by his Apostles; whereas while he was as yet the little Child, and unable to use the organs of speech, he was shewn to them, not by the voice of Angels, but merely by the vision of a star. When he himself had begun to speak he was made known to us by speakers, but when he lay silent in the manger, by that silent testimony in the heaven. But whether we consider the signs which accompanied his birth or his death, this thing is wonderful, namely, the hardness of heart of Jewry, which would not believe in him either for prophesying or for miracles.
Uh oh. Whenever I see that phrase "hardness of heart of Jewry", my skin begins to crawl. But it just gets worse in Lesson ix:
All things which he had made bore witness that their Maker was come. Let me reckon them after the manner of men. The heavens knew that he was God, and sent a star to shine over where he lay. The sea knew it, and bore him up when he walked upon it. The earth knew it, and quaked when he died. The sun knew it, and was darkened. The rocks and walls knew it, and were rent at the hour of his death. Hell knew it, and gave up the dead that were in it. And yet up to this very hour the hearts of unbelieving Jewry will not acknowledge that he, to whom all nature hath testified, is their God. yea, it is as though they are more hardened than the rocks, and refuse to be rent by repentance.
Ouch. Even Hell itself has more sense than "unbelieving Jewry", it seems. After Matins on Epiphany a few years ago I put this Breviary on the shelf, and have not used it since, for the great beauty that it contains (and it contains very great beauty indeed) is spoiled by the blot and stain of ignorant bigotry.

Monday, March 10, 2008

The Miraculous: Explanans or Explanandum?

For the past few days I have had the great fortune and pleasure of carrying on a discussion with Fr. James Martin, SJ in the comments section to my post of last Friday on the recent document on canonization. Fr. Martin, who is an associate editor of America, the Jesuit journal, had written an OpEd piece on the document for the New York Times, which piece was the inspiration for my blog entry. Fr. Martin and Justin Catanoso, a professor of journalism at Wake Forest whose book, My Cousin the Saint, is due out in May of this year from William Morrow (and see the NPR story here), have done me the honor of discussing at length with me some of the aspects of "the miraculous" that I questioned in my earlier post, and an issue has arisen from that discussion that I would like to address in more detail. Few of my regular readers agree with my general position on the miraculous, so I highly recommend reading the comments on that earlier entry, because Justin and Fr. Martin do an excellent job of presenting the case against me. I feel extremely fortunate, on the one hand, to have been able to enjoy an extended conversation with Justin and Fr. Martin, but I also feel extremely guilty, on the other hand, for keeping them from what I assume must be very busy lives, so I can't promise anyone that they will continue to comment on my ramblings, but I certainly hope that they do.

My central worry in the earlier post was principally a methodological one, because I certainly do not deny that miracles occur. Indeed, I gave examples, in that earlier entry, of miracles that I believe occur every day. My worry is rather over the quasi-empirical condition put on canonization in the new document from the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints. As the discussion with Justin and Fr. Martin unfolded, it became clear to me that there was a minor equivocation taking place on the notion of explanation, as well as on the relation between the miraculous as a phenomenon to be explained (i.e., the miraculous qua explanandum) and the miraculous as phenomenon invoked as explanation (i.e., the miraculous qua explanans). In this entry I'd like to sort some things out with respect to that relation.

Let me begin with a story. When I was living in North Carolina I had a dear friend with whom I attended daily Mass, who claimed on many occasions to have enjoyed visions of Our Lady while at Mass. Sometimes, while kneeling in prayer after Communion, she would faint, and would tell us after coming to herself that Our Lady had spoken to her while she was unconscious. On other occasions, she claimed to smell a powerful scent of roses while receiving Communion. The Church I attended had a small coterie of folks who were regularly at the daily Mass, most of them a good deal older than I, and most of them took everything my friend said pretty much at face value. This mostly took place during the late 1980s, when a lot of people were claiming to experience wonderful things in Medjugorje, and my friend and her husband were refugees from Czechoslovakia, so the events in Medjugorje were close to their hearts. If my friend's experiences were literally what she believed them to be, then I suppose one could say that she was experiencing the miraculous on a nearly daily basis independently of what one thinks happens on the altar at Mass.

Putting that story aside for just a moment, let me limn, to the best of my ability, the position that Fr. Martin tried to stake out in his comments on my post. He noted that "medical miracles" are of particular importance to the Vatican's canonization process because they are "dramatic", the sort of events that are "so out of the ordinary as to be noteworthy". While it may not be possible to prove that such events are miraculous, he said, a medical doctor can still "rule out other causes for the healing, and can determine if a person is physically healthy." He goes on to make a rather pragmatic point about the process:
if you leave out the science and the medicine, then where are you in this investigative process? As Peter Gumpel, a Jesuit who works in Congregation for the Causes of the Saints, says in "My Cousin the Saint," a new book just out, "Do you have a better way of doing it?"
All of which is fair enough. I don't deny that medical miracles could occur, I only deny that there is any reasonable basis for declaring that they have, in fact, occurred, and this, I take it, is the principle difference between my view and that of Justin and Fr. Martin.

In my own comments in reply to them I framed the problem in this way. A medical doctor is a certain kind of scientist, and it seems fair to hold them to the methodological constraints of their science, medicine. It simply is not good science to say that, because we cannot find any explanation for some phenomenon, that there is no physicalist explanation for that phenomenon. Note that this is not to say that it would not be rational to believe that what occurred was miraculous; it is only to say that it would not be good science to say such a thing. The medical doctors in these cases are not, themselves, saying that a miracle has occurred, of course: it is up to the Church to determine such things. But it is troublesome that scientific evidence of any kind would be adduced as a part of this process, as I hope to show.

Let us imagine a case such as Fr. Martin himself described in one of his comments:
I've met one person who was authenticated as a miraculous cure, and she and her friends prayed, and was instantaneously and permanently cured of her lifelong illness. In her case, how much "evidence" would we need? Doctors affadavits before and after showing her physical state? Medical testimony from a battery experts? The presence of a completely healed person? As in other cases, we have all these things.
Let us assume, for a moment, that what we have observed so far is the illness itself, the praying, and the disappearance of the illness--we have not, as yet, obtained any "medical evidence" from physicians. What is the probability that this event (that is, the disappearance of the illness) was miraculous? I will use the variable p to denote that probability. On one reading of what probabilities are, p is nothing more than an indication of our willingness to accept the truth of some proposition, so there are some folks for whom p is already very close to 1, if not, in fact, equal to 1. But I think that most folks would not be very quick to assign such a high value to p; they would wait for the "medical evidence". And here is the problem. As medical experts are called in to examine the case, a variety of things can happen, but only two are of particular interest to this question. One thing that could happen, is that the medical experts could make an examination of the case and unanimously come to the conclusion that the illness disappeared in a completely natural way, and that the underlying mechanisms of what happened are fully understood by medical science. Now, this does not mean that a miracle did not occur, of course, just as the fact of biological evolution is not sufficient to show that there is no God who created the world and everything in it, but this particular scenario would certainly have the effect of causing the value of p to plummet for many people.

The other possibility is that "medical testimony from a battery of experts" could be unanimous in declaring that there is no known process whereby the illness could possibly have just disappeared in the way that it did. In this case, although there are indeed a few people for whom the value of p would increase, the difficulty is that there is no reason why the value of p should increase in this case. It is a simple fact of science that the tools, methods, procedures, and theories of any given epoch will fail to explain many things about the natural world on any given occasion. Hence, the unanimous agreement of medical experts that there is no physicalist explanation for this cure is no more significant than the unanimous agreement of physicists that we don't know whether there is a black hole at the center of each and every galaxy in the universe. The lack of a scientific consensus on a given question does not entail that there never will be such a consensus, or that there could not be one in principle. Hence the value of p ought not to increase in this case.

Depending on what we mean by that probability. I said that what it represented was the degree of confidence with which we would assent to a given proposition, in this case, that a miracle had occurred. What does it mean, exactly, to say that an event is miraculous? I've been talking as though its meaning were clear, but perhaps it isn't. I've been talking as though "the miraculous" is just something for which there is no naturalistic explanation, but is that what it really means? Certainly some people think that's what it means. If you look at the so-called "demythologizing" interpretations of the Scriptures, they are full of attempts to give naturalistic explanations of the miracles in there. When Moses parted the Red Sea, what really happened was a strong wind, not uncommon in that area, that blew all night during a low tide blah blah blah. When Jesus fed the five thousand, what he really did was to inspire a kind of community in which all worked together to find ways to be fulfilled by what they had blah blah blah. If you are a materialist, then you will antecedently recoil at the ontological ramifications of saying that Jesus literally fed five thousand people by literally generating bread out of thin air (or, perhaps, out of a pre-existing but very small amount of bread). To "demythologize" the miracles in this way is to attempt to explain them in physicalist terms, and I take it that at least one element of the desire to call a cure "miraculous" is the desire to claim that there exists no possible physicalist explanation for the event. If the event were merely unexplained for the moment, but would be adequately explained in the future, it would not be regarded as miraculous (hence the long wait in the Church in cases of cancers).

For this reason, I am reluctant to agree with Fr. Martin, when he writes:
I don't think that those healed say simply, "I have no explanation for this, and neither does anyone else." They go further than that, and so does the church. The one healed, and the church says, "In the absence of any other possibility, we do have an explanation: we believe it is a miracle."
To say that an event is a miracle is manifestly not to explain it, but to declare it inexplicable. Sure, it's an "explanation" in a metaphorical sense--it is something that you could say in answer to the question "Gee, how did that happen?" But in giving "It was a miracle" as an answer to that question one does not really explain anything, one merely categorizes. If there is a loud noise coming from my basement and someone asks me "What was that?" I could answer "It was a loud noise", but I have not explained how it happened, or whether it was an explosion or just a crash from falling boxes knocked over by the cat, etc.

So what are we to say about the case that Fr. Martin describes of the person "who was authenticated as a miraculous cure"? The view that I defended in my comments was this: what we ought to say depends upon how we interpret the world. If we are religious--in particular, if we are Catholics, for whom God's Incarnation is just one of infinitely many ways in which our world is shot through with God's literal presence among us--then there will be cases where it will be within the "rules of the language game", as it were, for us to declare that some phenomena are "miraculous", by which we mean not merely that we can find no "scientific" explanation for them, but that we believe that we can see the mind--and hand--of God at work in the event in a way that we do not always notice it in other events. Non-believers will never be able to say any such thing no matter how many medical experts you call in, and this, I suspect, is something that worries some folks, because Fr. Martin wrote explicitly in his original OpEd piece about not only making belief easier for believers but also making disbelief harder for non-believers when we canonize a person on the basis of an "authenticated miracle".

On the view that I am defending, the testimony of medical experts does not need to carry the weight that it is forced to, but cannot, carry. All that is really needed is the declaration of the Church that a person is worthy of veneration, and this kind of declaration is something that the Church has the capacity and the authority to make, whether or not there are any "medical miracles" in the offing. The earliest saints were simply those persons who died a martyr's death, and there was certainly no process in place for the requiring and testing of miracles. I suppose the difficulty with such a proposal is the political situation: if John Paul's hagioplethorification resulted in too many canonizations, one can only imagine what might happen if the requirement of "authenticated miracles" were to be dropped (hence my allusion, in the earlier post, to Fr. Guido Sarducci's routine about "just two lousy miracles"). So my musings here must be thought of in strictly methodological terms: I am not attempting to make any proposals about praxis.

The answer to the question of my title, then, is: Neither. To declare something a miracle is neither to offer an explanation of what happened, nor to ask for one. Such declarations are, rather, a part of the language of faith, a function of the way in which Christians read and interpret the world around them. I believe that there is a grammar to this language, by which I mean that I believe that it is salutary to entrust the Church's magisterium with the task of making normative judgments about how best to carry out this reading and interpreting.

I don't know, offhand--perhaps Fr. Martin will enlighten me--what the juridical status of these "authenticated miracles" is supposed to be. By that, what I mean is this: if I believe that person X is a saint on the grounds that the Church has declared X to be such, am I also required to believe de fide that the events declared to be miraculous in X's life really were miraculous in the sense that, say, Our Lord's raising of Lazarus from the dead was miraculous? Or may I, in good faith, wonder whether the people of the time simply could not find any naturalistic explanations for some of the events in X's life? It seems to me that it is more important to believe that X is a saint, if he really is one, than to believe that some event was miraculous, if it wasn't.

My friend from North Carolina who experienced Our Lady's presence in ways that the rest of us did not eventually had a particularly bad fainting spell, for which she was taken to the hospital, where they removed a tumor from her abdomen the size of a large cantaloupe. Her visions, fainting spells, and other apparition-related experiences came to an end with the removal of the tumor. Coincidence? Possibly. Perhaps her visions were authentic, or perhaps they were simply manifestations of some other underlying, physical aetiology. I'm not sure I'm in a position to say, with absolute certainty, what was going on with her, but I'm also not sure whether it matters: she was an example of holiness to me and to others, whether she was particularly close to Our Lady or not, so her life was already a sign of something else, whether or not she was having visions, and that, to me, is the true nature of the miraculous: a making manifest, to those who have eyes to see, of what is only visible to those with such eyes. If you have a listen to that NPR piece by Justin Catanoso that I linked to at the beginning of this piece, you will find that he actually says something similar at the end of his commentary: his brother was not cured "miraculously" of his cancer, even though many people in many places were fervently praying for such a cure. But, he says, a kind of miracle happened nonetheless: the coming together of family members from all over the world, united in prayer, seeking solace from the Comforter. As I have noted elsewhere, that is the sort of miracle that I think all prayer ought to be directed towards.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Father Guido Sarducci, Call Your Office

Fr. James Martin wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times last Sunday about the recent document on the process of beatification from the Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of Saints. One feature of the piece that caught my attention was Fr. Martin's discussion of the miraculous. The guy's a Jesuit and so I assume he knows what he's talking about, but in his OpEd piece he writes as though the only miracles that "count" towards beatification are "medical miracles":
One medically certifiable miracle is required for beatification (when the person is declared “blessed”), and one more for canonization. Only then will the pope declare a person a saint and worthy of “public veneration.”
This may be nothing more than sloppy writing, but as it stands this description makes "medical" a necessary condition on the required sense of the miraculous here. So if I ask God to grant, through the intercession of John Paul II, that the Jews and Palestinians sign a peace treaty tomorrow at 5:00 p.m. and immediately begin living in one accord, with members of Hamas happily working to build schools and hospitals alongside Israelis, and then hugging each other in brotherhood, and then that happens--well, an interesting coincidence, maybe, but not a miracle.

It's too bad that "medically certifiable" is now a category being put to this sort of use, since this particular usage betrays a rather unfortunate ignorance about the nature of scientific "verification", and any medical doctor who cooperates in the process is simply demonstrating that s/he, too, doesn't really understand science all that well from a theoretical point of view--an even more unfortunate aspect of the whole thing.

What is all of this "rigor" in the declaration sanctity supposed to accomplish? According to Fr. Martin,
The redoubled commitment to an impartial judging of a saint’s life demonstrates that the church does not “create” saints as much as it simply recognizes them. Likewise, its renewed reminders that, for the church, miracles are serious scientific business, may make it more difficult for agnostics and atheists to disbelieve.

And easier for believers to believe.
The man's faith is impressive: if any self-respecting agnostic or atheist were to be deterred even a little bit from disbelief by the process the Church has in place, that really would be a miracle. It's perhaps less miraculous, but just as unfortunate, that believing Christians are as impressed as they are by such things. Whenever I hear people going on about Padre Pio's "stigmata" or appearances of Our Lady at Medjugorje or this or that "miraculous cure" or what have you, I'm always reminded of Our Lord's words to the scribes and Pharisees when they asked him for a sign (Matthew 12.38-39):
[38] Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, "Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you."
[39] But he answered them, "An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign; but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.
This is not to say that I don't believe that miracles ever happen, only that I think that a good deal of the public's interest in miracles is less than salutary. I haven't conducted any studies, of course, but I suspect that a fairly significant amount of the interest in miracles is motivated less by a firm belief in God's power to forgive sin than by magical thinking about the way the world works (or ought to work).

This suspicion is only strengthened by this insistence (if it is indeed correct) that the "miracles" be medical in nature. Our Lord performed plenty of curative miracles, it is true, but he also performed other miracles. He fed the hungry, for example, when there was scarcely enough food for his own disciples; he raised a little girl from the dead; he prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple; he calmed a storm with a word of command. To these I would add other events that some might say are not truly "miraculous" in the proper sense of the word: he reconciled sinners to God and to each other; he comforted the poor and oppressed; he gave hope to those who had none; he saved mankind from eternal death. I would add these things because, in my view, all of the miraculous cures he effected were nothing more than outward signs of that last one--saving mankind from eternal death. Sickness, disease, indeed, death itself, are all signs of our fallen nature, and to remove sickness simply by saying "Be healed" is nothing other than to say to a sinner, "Your sins are forgiven." Only God has the power to forgive sins because God is the ultimate end of man, the one to whom we owe all debts and, hence, the only one who can forgive all of our debts.

If a "medical miracle" were to occur these days it would still stand as a sign in the same relation to God's power to forgive sins, of course, and so naturally it would be premature to declare outright that such things came to an end with the passing of the Apostolic generation, as some Christians insist. It seems to go without saying that, just as it is difficult to know for certain that a miracle has occurred, it is equally difficult, if not downright impossible, to know for sure that a miracle has not occurred. Sadly, that is actually a mark against the miraculous, rather than a mark in its favor, but few of the faithful see things that way. I myself believe that plenty of miracles occur every day: on every Roman Catholic altar, when the words of Institution are prayed, a miracle occurs; in every confessional, when the words of Absolution are prayed, a miracle occurs; at every Baptism, when the Baptismal formula is prayed, a miracle occurs. But those who look for signs are not impressed by these--I suppose because you can't really "see" anything happening when one's sins miraculously disappear, or when a piece of bread becomes the Sacramental Sign of Christ's own Body. This ought to be troublesome, though, because to think only of the "medical miracle" as the paradigm case of the miraculous is to betray a kind of closet empiricism: I can only know what I can empirically verify. St. Thomas, famously, was lectured on this very point (John 20.24-29):
[24] Now Thomas, one of the twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came.
[25] So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord." But he said to them, "Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe."
[26] Eight days later, his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. The doors were shut, but Jesus came and stood among them, and said, "Peace be with you."
[27] Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing."
[28] Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!"
[29] Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe."
Now, the Evangelist goes on to say:
[30] Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book;
[31] but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.
so it's fair for folks to object to me by saying that our faith makes hearty use of "signs". I don't deny it, indeed, I think everything I have said is fully consistent with this fact. It's only a matter of how one "reads" the "signs", as it were, and where one expects to find "signs". If a cancer disappears and no doctor can come up with a scientific explanation of that fact, my tendency is to put that down to the rather obvious fact that there are plenty of things that science has, as yet, failed to explain, and of course it doesn't follow at all that because our contemporary science is unable to explain some observable phenomenon, a miracle has occurred. If that were true, then events that we now regard as ordinary (such as an image emerging in a Polaroid photograph) would have been justifiably regarded as miraculous at some time during scientific history. It seems infinitely preferable to me to look for the miraculous in entirely different contexts.

For these reasons I hope that Fr. Martin is mistaken in his characterization of what is required for beatification. Whether it would count as a miracle for a Jesuit to make such a sloppy mistake is not something on which I am prepared to pronounce, but it would definitely be a miracle for the Times to get something about Catholicism right, so you do the math.

Puzzling Evidence

Well I hope you're happy with what you've made
(Puzzling Evidence)
In the land of the free and the home of the brave
(Puzzling Evidence)

I'm seeing
Puzzling Evidence
Puzzling Evidence
Puzzling (sometimes) evidence
Done hardened in your heart
Hardened in your heart.


Yep, that's right: there's a Talking Heads song for every occasion. Yesterday, according to the Catholic League, John McCain had this to say about John Hagee's endorsement of his candidacy:
Pastor Hagee endorsed me. That does not mean I endorse everything Pastor Hagee said. All I can say is lots and lots of people endorse me. That means they embrace my ideas and positions. It does not mean I endorse them.
To which Bill Donohue replied:
Ordinarily, what McCain said would be true enough. What makes the Hagee matter different is threefold: (a) McCain actively solicited the endorsement, appearing with the minister to accept it (b) Hagee is not simply guilty of a few throw-away lines—he has a long history of demonizing Catholicism, and (c) McCain blasted then presidential candidate George W. Bush in 2000 for not condemning Bob Jones University because of the school’s anti-Catholicism (Bush eventually did), thus he has already dropped anchor on this issue.
OK, so why doesn't McCain just bite the bullet and say explicitly that he rejects Hagee's anti-Catholicism? Frankly, the evidence here is not really all that puzzling. It's one thing when you're criticizing somebody else for not being more sensitive to voting Catholics, and that's why McCain was quick to jump all over Bush back in 2000. When it's a matter of apologizing for one's own insensitivity, well, that's often another matter altogether. However, McCain is well known for his integrity, and I don't think he would hesitate to apologize for this if it were only a matter of admitting that he himself has been insensitive to Catholics. The problem here runs a little deeper. Hagee represents many unsavory things, but his anti-Catholicism is probably among the most unsavory and it is, furthermore, a rather significant element in his world view. If McCain were to say something like

(a) "I reject everything about Hagee other than his endorsement of me"

well, that would just sound weird. However, if he were to say

(b) "I reject Hagee's anti-Catholicism"

well, that's tantamount to saying (a) anyway, so why bother? In short, McCain is stuck here, because he really needs to court the favor of conservatives, and for some reason his camp has gotten it into their heads that the sort of evangelical Christians who listen to Hagee are the folks who form the base for a significant portion of conservative voters. In other words, his camp isn't interested in my kind of conservative voter, but I'm rather used to that by now.

So I'm a little less puzzled than some as to why McCain isn't doing the right thing here. Is it a huge issue for me? Should it be a huge issue for other Catholic voters? Other conservative voters? Here, I think, there may be a puzzle. On the one hand, McCain is the only candidate still in the race who stands any chance of doing anything good for (a) the economy, (b) our security, and (c) social justice issues including abortion, immigration, and the future direction of the federal bench. These are the central issues for any Catholic conservative and, while McCain is not as conservative on some of these issues as I would like, he is certain far better than the possible alternatives. On the other hand, given that his candidacy will not stand or fall on the basis of my vote, I don't see that I have to vote for him simply in order to avoid the greater evil. If I thought that there were a decent chance of him losing as a consequence of my not voting for him, then to withhold my vote, even for a principled reason, would implicate me, even if only indirectly, in something happening far worse than if I had voted. Since that is not the case, however, then there are grounds for withholding my vote, if I have a (sound) principled reason for doing so.

Does the present case count as a (sound) principled reason? I think that it does, for reasons I have already pursued in other posts. Anti-Catholicism, at least as it is manifested in this country among those who have more than just a goofy, inherited suspicion of "all that 'high church' stuff", is a noxious form of bigotry grounded, ultimately, in a kind of race hatred and sheer ignorance. Neither race hatred, nor ignorance, are properties that ought to be promoted in any way, nor need they be tolerated, even in a pluralistic democracy. They are not the sorts of things that we can hope to eradicate, of course, but to admit that we cannot (or perhaps even ought not) eradicate is not to say that we need to tolerate them.

It is perplexing that more folks haven't picked up on this point. Things may be changing now that Nancy Pelosi has criticized McCain, but it's interesting that the Catholic League, which often gets results pretty quickly, has been largely ignored on this issue. Politics at work. As Bruce Wilson notes:
The question then becomes one of "prominence." Is Bill Donohue from the Catholic League a "prominent political figure"? When he attacked John Edwards last year, the media seemed to think so, covering his criticisms in great detail. Now that he's attacking McCain, however, Donohue's concerns no longer seem to matter. Hmm.
I might add that, as I've tried to get to the bottom of this, I've noticed that most of the folks who are actively criticizing McCain right now are liberals. Conservatives, who ought to care more about stuff like this, are either largely silent or else they are making excuses for McCain. Those who are critical are rather tepid about it. Here's what Kathryn Jean Lopez of National Review Online had to say:
CNN was playing up the John McCain John Hagee embrace last night (John Hagee is the anti-Catholic pastor whose church Mike Huckabee spoke to back in December, to some protest here and elsewhere.) Suffice it to say, the Brent Bozell in me assumes the mainstream media loves, loves, loves a story like this because it portrays religious conservatives in a bad light. On the Right, meanwhile, it's not much of an issue, though I do think it should be a moment for reflection. I understand the politics, of course, of John McCain embracing a well-known evangelical pastor. But at what cost? Especially in a year where the conservative coalition has been strained, where the pastor in the race has done his share of dividing (think Lucifer and the Mormons as an example), John McCain could have done without courting this pastor with his anti-Catholic baggage. You know he only did it to help himself with evangelicals, and to any Catholic conservatives paying attention, it only antagonizes. I don't think it does him any real longterm damage, but I'd respect him more if he hadn't. I can't be alone — and I bet that's a view I share with more than R.C. right-wingers.
Perhaps, but Lopez's short (that quote is the whole thing) notice is the only other place I've been able to find anything about it. Nor do I think that only "R.C. right-wingers" should be upset by this issue. Obviously any Roman Catholic should be upset, but I think that any conservative would be distressed by the attempt to curry favor with someone who stands so squarely against conservative values in just about every domain. It's rather simplistic and banal to say that Hagee is a "conservative" just because he claims to be pro-Israel or fiscally conservative or because he endorses John McCain or president. I very much hope that John McCain is quite wrong to assert that Hagee embraces him and his positions, because one hopes that McCain's positions are grounded in a rational morality that does not objectify persons and treat them as means to a sinister end. Let's hope that racism, anti-semitism, hatred of the Other, misogyny, and the various other unsavory aspects of Hagee's sick world view are not among the items that Hagee embraces from McCain's campaign. That would mean that there can be no legitimate reason to vote for McCain.

A number of people, including both Bill Donohue and Nancy Pelosi, have expressed the opinion that McCain will, sooner or later, make explicit his rejection of Hagee's ugly bigotries. Let's hope it's sooner rather than later.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

The Golden Rule

There used to be a slapstick "joke" of sorts in which a parent is depicted as giving a spanking to a young boy while sternly saying "this will teach you that it's wrong to hit your sister!" The idea is that there is a certain irony behind using physical violence as a means to teach the wrongfulness of the use of physical violence. Some parents, especially those who think that spanking is a great way to discipline children, don't think the joke is funny, even though they get the point. My own experience has been that you catch more flies with honey than vinegar, but I've learned that some parents can be extremely sensitive about this topic. Trying to talk to a pro-spanking parent about alternative methods of guidance for children is rather like talking to creationists about evolution, so I've learned to just smile, nod politely, and hope that calmer heads will prevail.

Of course, that never works. When it comes to dogmatically held ideologies there's no such thing as a calm head. Ordinarily I don't go in for Star Trek references, but there was an episode in the original 1960s series that starred Frank Gorshin as an alien named Bele who was all black on one side of his body and all white on the other, and he was relentlessly pursuing another alien across many star systems or whatever, and he tried to enlist the help of Kirk and the Enterprise in his pursuit. When the other alien is found many sparks fly, because these two guys hate each other with a passion. Kirk and the others are mystified by the level of animosity, and they press them to explain themselves, pointing out that they come from a common culture and have much in common and ought to get along better. The two aliens appear equally mystified by this, and the Bele character points out the "huge difference" between them: "Lokai is white on the right side. All his people are white on the right side." And we're all supposed to go "Whoa, that's really deep, man!"

The Israelis and the Palestinians could change their names to the Beleans and the Lokaians and do a remake of that show. The Israelis, angry for some reason about a barrage of thousands of missiles flying into their towns and villages made an incursion into the Gaza strip, killing 130 people, including some children. So a group calling themselves the Galilee Freedom Brigade launched an incursion of their own into a rabbinical seminary in Jerusalem and shot eight people. In the Strip, the reaction to this terrorist attack was celebration in the streets, with the handing out of sweets to the kiddies and prayers of thanksgiving in the local mosques. It's always good to strike a blow for freedom by murdering some seminarians, I guess. Some of the more militant citizens of Gaza said that Israel is just reaping the seeds it has sown, and I suppose that if one of your children had been killed by an Israeli incursion, you might feel the same way; but perhaps you could have avoided the Israeli incursion if you had not been firing rockets at anybody in the first place.

The lex talionis mindset seems firmly in place in the Middle East. Someone strikes at you, and you strike back. Curiously, the reasoning seems to be that it is wrong for the Israelis to kill innocent civilians, and so to punish them for doing something so morally outrageous the response is to strike back at them by--killing civilians? Well, OK, consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, and there is a new version of the Golden Rule floating about here. Instead of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you, just do unto others as they have already done unto you, provided what they did unto you was morally wrong. If what they did was morally right there's no need to do anything in reply. This way you're absolutely guaranteed to be always doing the wrong thing, but at least there's a small chance that you'll have the last word in the fight, like Bele and Lokai, who return to their home planet only to find that it has been completely destroyed by a race war. You'd think that something like that would help them to bury the hatchet, as it were, and not in each other's heads, but no, like ideologues everywhere the go down to the planet trying to kill each other, and Kirk and the rest fly sadly away in their starship, shaking their heads at the folly of mankind--or, well, whateverkind Bele and Lokai are supposed to be.

It's hard to hold out much hope for peace in the middle east when the people in charge of trying to figure out what to do in response to some perceived wrong are complete morons, and ordinary citizens find that fact something to celebrate in the streets.

New Position at Harvard: Office of Bullshit Dissemination

I read with some amusement an item by Michael Graham in the online edition of the Boston Herald the other day. According to this piece, Harvard University bars men from its Recreational Athletic Center for six hours each week in order to "accommodate" members of the local Islamic community who want their womenfolk to be able to use the facilities in the absence of testosterone overloaded Bostonians--the male ones, anyway. Bob Mitchell, a spokesman for Harvard University in this matter, must be a huge fan of George Orwell, because here's what he said in defense of this policy:
“we’re permitting women to work out in an environment that accommodates their religion.”

By banning all men from the facility, right?

“It’s not ‘banning,’ ” he insisted. “We’re allowing, we’re accommodating people.”
Although it may be difficult to imagine any rational person saying that with a straight face, the sentiment expressed is the sort of thing that is actually not the least bit uncommon in certain environments, and the people who come up with such policies take them very seriously. Is Bob Mitchell just a moron with no sense of irony, or is the position he is seeking to defend actually, in some sense, defensible?

There is a sense, of course, in which every act of banning something also allows something else, just as every act of allowing something bans something else. This is a straightforward feature of the logic of banning and allowing: as long as there are such things as contradictories, this feature will be inescapable. To allow free speech is to ban censorship; to ban free speech is to allow censorship. To ban abortion is to allow the right-to-life position; to allow abortion is to ban the right-to-life position. You get the idea. Now, most rational people understand that this is a two-way street, but there are some who insist that anyone who is upset by what banning something permits, or what permitting something bans, is out of line. For example, suppose we ban hate speech, thus allowing victimized groups greater freedom from hate speech. In doing this we, to a certain extent, ban free speech, and the defenders of free speech will say that we have gone too far. Suppose we allow hate speech, on the grounds that even hate speech is protected by the First Amendment. Some will say that the Bill of Rights is supposed to promote the pursuit of happiness, which is impossible when someone lives in fear because of all the hate speech directed at them. The defenders of free speech may then reply that these folks are too sensitive, that they need to grow up and get with the program, etc.

It may seem like a trivial issue, actually, but I find that more and more civic discourse is reducible to this kind of difference of perspective. The phenomenon that is called in some quarters "homophobia", for example, stands as a rather obvious case in point. Depending on your point of view, to say that same-sex sexual contact is intrinsically disordered is either a profound theological truth or an actionable instance of hate speech. Naturally, if you happen to believe that it is true, you expect to be permitted by the law to say it out loud; but if you think it is hate speech, that can only be because you think (a) it is false and (b) it is the moral equivalent (or much worse) of shouting "fire" in a crowded theater when there is no fire. In Canada, recently, activist Rob Wells filed a complaint against a Catholic magazine for, well, stating the Vatican's view of homosexuality. Or, to change the issue in question, in the video below, you can watch Bill Clinton go absolutely apeshit when challenged by some prolifers in Steubenville last week.



What he wants to say, of course, is that he (and, by implication, his wife, if given the chance) supports legislation that will reduce the number of "real abortions" rather than legislation that will criminalize abortion simpliciter. But he says it in the crazed argot of today's political scene, where it is necessary to demonize one's opponents as standing for something not merely different, but actively contrary to some imagined good and hence, in a sense, evil. One wonders, of course, why abortion should be restricted in any way at all if it is not wrong to get one. Hilary once, famously, said that abortion should be "safe, legal, and rare", emphasizing the last condition as though it somehow ameliorated the other two. Why on earth should it be rare, if there's nothing morally wrong with it? I suppose someone might suggest that, while not morally wrong in itself, it is the sort of thing that a young girl might choose to do impulsively and regret later, but the same could be said for getting a tattoo, and yet I hear no one calling for restrictions on tattoo parlors to make tattoos safe, legal and rare. If you think that there is something about abortion that makes it the sort of thing that ought to be rare, you really ought to examine your reasons for thinking that it ought to be rare and ask yourself if those are reasons that indicate that it may not be morally licit to begin with, in which case it should not be permitted. Banning choice allows life, in this case, and one must decide which one values more, the right to choose or the right to live. Given the narcissistic times in which we live, however, it is already appallingly obvious what most people think on that one. If it's a question of me being able to make my choice, as opposed to somebody else being permitted to live...well, that's a no-brainer these days.

The abortion debate has been rather badly twisted by those who think that permitting ought to be the default answer to every question of policy in a free and pluralistic society. To ban abortion is to prevent something, but to legalize abortion is to allow it, and "allowing" is better than "preventing" in a democracy. These are people, of course, who do not see an abortion as the termination of the life of an independently existing human being, otherwise they wouldn't have the balls to put it in these terms, but the underlying dynamic is present in many other policy debates, from the question of whether Nazis should be permitted to march through a neighborhood of Jewish holocaust survivors to the problem of air-travel restrictions during wartime. We're an individual-rights obsessed culture, and so we prefer individual liberty to collective restrictions, and we frame our policy preferences in that way.

Now, ordinarily I would have put the powers-that-be at Harvard among those who, by default, prefer allowing over banning, since that seems to me to be, by and large, the liberal view. Allow abortion, allow Nazis to march, allow homosexuals to marry, etc. We can do these things, after all, without approving of them ourselves (the famous liberal mating call: "I'm 'personally opposed' to [insert moral evil here], but I would not dream of 'imposing' my morality on others"). Hence, in the instance of the QRAC, our Owellian toady put the problem in terms of "allowing" Muslim women to work out in private rather than in terms of banning men from the premises. It's a funny thing, of course, because he seemed rather blissfully unaware of the fact that "allowing" such a thing logically entailed "banning" something else simultaneously, but that is not the only thing funny about it. It's also funny because, in every act of "permitting" there is a context that includes what is permitted and to whom it is permitted. As Graham rather gleefully points out in the Harvard case, we're talking about an institution that would simply scoff at the idea of closing any part of the campus to men in order to appease--oops, I'm sorry, "allow"--Christian women to do something more "modestly". We're talking about an institution that, on the one hand, filed suit to keep military recruiters off campus because of the military's attitude towards gays, but on the other hand had absolutely no qualms whatsoever about accepting a $20 million gift to promote the study of Islam from Sheik Al Waleed bin Talal, whose religion condemns homosexuality and whose country punishes homosexuals in ways that the U.S. military wouldn't condone for the treatment of traitors. This is an institution that is almost literally falling all over itself in an effort to be politically correct, and has yet to realize what a hopeless task it has set for itself.

"Permitting" Muslim women to work out in the enforced absence of men is to "permit" something to one particular interpretation of the Islamic religion and, simultaneously, forbid something to a rival interpretation. There are Muslim women in this country who do not agree that women must be segregated from men in just the way that Arabic countries insist they must be, and one might think that Harvard would prefer to "allow" these women who disagree with the Arabic interpretation to work out with their male companions if they so "choose", but apparently some forms of choice are more "permissible" than others.

Well, one point of view that one is unlikely to find among the liberals at Harvard is the market-oriented one that says, if the male students contribute anything to QRAC in their student fees, then they should not be banned from the premises during any of the facility's regular hours of operation. If Muslim women want to pay an extra fee to keep the facility open at different hours, that's up to them and the facility. Good luck seeing anything that non-Orwellian at Harvard.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

The Whited Sepulchre

Digging around into John Hagee's "ministry" is like working to clean out a septic tank. Just when I thought things were disgusting enough with his anti-Catholic bigotry, I find that he is also a crazed, anti-semitic, Left Behind type. As I mentioned in my previous post, you can discover for yourself rather easily that he is a slimy anti-Catholic just by poking around in YouTube. But you may also find these two videos rather instructive. In the first, we discover that the only reason he supports Israel is because he wants Iran to nuke it, thus bringing on the Rapture:



In the second, we find that the "illuminati" have been plotting the rule of the Anti-Christ for centuries, and it's gonna happen any minute now:



This is the guy whose support John McCain warmly welcomes, saying only that, in politics, it's possible to welcome someone's support even if you don't agree with "everything" the person stands for? Well, at this point, I'd like to know, just which of the things that Hagee stands for does John McCain agree with? Is there any substantive issue on which they truly do see eye to eye? I hope not: I have to assume that what McCain means is that, like Hagee, he "supports Israel". But surely he doesn't support Israel for the same reasons? That would be like saying that you welcome the support of Hitler because he believes in law and order. Anyone who finds anything Hagee stands for truly "welcome" is not only as stupid and evil as he is, but just as insane as well.

Why, I'm Shocked--shocked!--To Learn I'm a Bigot!

There seems to be a rather unsavory practical criterion operative among certain fundamentalist groups. In some such groups the practical criterion lays down constraints on what members of the group may do, but at the same time explicitly excuses the members from doing anything contrary to the criterion as long as what they do affects only those who are not members of the group. Hence, it may be permissible to lie to outsiders, or to cheat them, if the practical criterion holds that only members of the group are deserving of a given level of respect.

This may be a criterion employed by al-Qaeda, to the extent that such terrorist groups subscribe to any criteria at all. At any rate, one imagines that they would not be well pleased if the U.S. were to deliberately target their families, including their children, as a means of putting an end to their group, even though they themselves have targeted our families, including our children, as a means of putting an end to us. One imagines that the reason for this irrational asymmetry has to do with their wacky estimation of their own value as opposed to ours, or about the value of their "system" as opposed to ours.

John Hagee subscribes to the very same criterion, since his group, on the one hand, regards lying as a sin, yet on the other hand he has no scruples at all about lying to those outside of his group. According to a report from the Catholic League:
the Texas minister defends himself against charges of anti-Catholicism. Hagee says he is “shocked and saddened to learn of the mischaracterization of my views on Catholics that has spread while I spent the weekend celebrating the 50th anniversary of my entry into the ministry with family and friends.”
Notice the blatant argumentum ad misericordiam in calling attention to his celebration of 50 years of something that he calls "ministry", an entirely irrelevant fact given the context. The Catholic League documents his anti-Catholicism in some detail, but you don't need the Catholic League website to document it for yourself, you can find videos of him all over YouTube spewing his bigotry and filth, or you could just read his publications.

Now, I have suggested that John Hagee subscribes to the very same practical criterion that al-Qaeda uses to treat "outsiders" differently than they would tolerate being treated themselves, but there is, of course, another possibility, one that is, in all probability, the more likely explanation given the person with whom we are dealing. It could be that John Hagee just doesn't understand the nature of the things he has said. In other words, it could be that, in addition to being a bigot, he is also a moron. I've known people who say racist things about African Americans and then immediately point out "but I'm not a racist!" It's part of a rather interesting phenomenon, when you come to think of it: it's a rather pathetic attempt at a kind of rhetorical maneuver. Say the thing that you want to say, and then quickly point out that what you have just said should be regarded as immune to a certain kind of criticism on the grounds that you are aware that such criticism would be valid if it were true and you want to assure everyone that what you have just said does not fall under the rubric of the criticism. I'm going to say that the Roman Church is the whore of Babylon, that it is the anti-Christ, and that it is a false cult system, but hey! I'm not an anti-Catholic or anything! Geez, that would be awful! I'm just saying the truth here, and the truth is that, well, the Catholic Church is a moral monster that worked with Hitler to exterminate the Jews! Come on, that's not "anti-Catholic"! To be anti-Catholic is to say things about the Roman Church that are false in order to make people hate it for the wrong reasons! But what I say about the Roman Church is true! If what I say makes people hate it, well, the truth hurts sometimes!

My friend Paul Halsall, who is no friend of the Republican party, once told me that, in his view, anyone who could support the policies of the Republican party had to be either stupid or evil. Now, I'm not a member of that party, mind you, but they do tend to represent my views much better than the Democratic party, so I had to take issue with his characterization of things. However, I also pointed out to him that stupidity and evil are not mutually exclusive properties. Socrates thought otherwise, apparently, but in my view it is plausible that some people are evil because they are stupid, that is, they advocate morally unacceptable positions because they simply do not know any better. In some sense such people are arguably less evil than those who advocate the same positions knowing full well that they are morally unacceptable, but it seems to me that there are plenty of cases where ignorance is no excuse for the advocacy of moral banality. That's what we have in the case of al-Qaeda, it's what we had in the case of the guards at the Nazi death camps, and it's what we have now in the case of John Hagee and his ilk. You will point out to me that the consequences of the moral banality of al-Qaeda and the death camps were far worse, because people died, and in great numbers. But it is not a difference in kind, only in degree: hatred is always the same, and whenever someone advocates hatred in any form, the potential for seriously undesirable consequences is there. I don't think that anyone in his right mind would accept political support from a virulent racist, someone who called the members of a particular race "inferiors" or "whores of Babylon", nor should they. Everyone recognizes the danger of racist hatred, and contempt for Catholicism is, at least historically in this country, rooted in a form of racism.

At this point I am comfortable saying that I will stay home in November rather than vote for someone who will tolerate being associated with a disgusting, bigoted liar (or, more precisely, liar and/or moron) like John Hagee. It's time for McCain to demonstrate the same moral clarity that both Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama have demonstrated in the case of Louis Farrakhan and his support for the Democrats. Anyone who is so desperate, so craven, as to pander to a group of bigots simply to establish his conservative credentials not only does not deserve a vote: he is not worthy to serve as president. McCain has a reputation for being a man of honor, a man of principle. His valiant and heroic service to our country during the Vietnam war proves his courage and fortitude, and I have no doubt that, unlike Hagee, he does indeed possess the moral clarity to see what he must do.

Monday, March 03, 2008

And He Has a Very Large Congregation

Bill Donohue of the Catholic League continues to press for moral clarity from the McCain camp, but apparently it is not yet forthcoming, unless through surrogates:
Sen. Sam Brownback was more specific about what McCain allegedly believes. In a news release his office sent to us Friday afternoon (McCain’s staff has not contacted us at all), Brownback said, ‘While John McCain certainly cannot be expected to defend or espouse the views of every individual who has thrown their support to him, McCain completely repudiates any and all remaining elements of anti-Catholicism in America today.’

That’s a great statement. Too bad it didn’t come from McCain. But there’s the rub: John Hagee has contributed mightily to anti-Catholicism in America, so how can McCain have it both ways?
Well, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson sought to clarify the situation for us Catholics on Wolf Blitzer's show:
Well, I think there are two very different situations. John Hagee, Pastor Hagee [oops--oh yeah, don't forget to toss that "Pastor" in there!], has done some very good things, particularly with regard to Israel and the support for Israel and denouncing terrorism in that area. And he has a very large congregation. His endorsement, I think, is for people who believe and work for him. And he does some good things.
I wonder whether the McCain camp would be able to focus their criticisms of Hagee a little more sharply if he had a smaller congregation. Well, of course, Louis Farrakhan also has a "large congregation", but apparently Clinton and Obama were not impressed enough by size to let their moral guard down in his regard. As Donohue points out:
Farrakhan has done some very good things, too. He has called upon young black men to steer clear of drugs and to support their families. Yet no one is citing his good work as a justification for his bigoted comments. The same rule should apply to Hagee.
And the same moral clarity ought to come from McCain that is coming from the Democrats.

Oh, did I mention that Hagee has a very large congregation? Of conservative voters? Let's hope that they're not the vicious bigot that their "Pastor" is.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

To bdelugma tês erêmôseôs


I kid you not, this picture is from the new liturgical lectionary published by the Italian bishops' conference. It's supposed to be a picture of Our Lord, but as for what he is supposed to be doing your guess is as good as mine, though I would be really careful about it, if I were you. You can read all about it, along with a pair of essays by Timothy Verdon and Pietro de Marco regarding the success or failure of the, uh, art, as it were, contained in the thing, at Chiesa.

Read It But Don't Weep

Perry Robinson of Energetic Procession has announced the availability for purchase of Joseph Farrell's dissertation, God, History, and Dialectic. There is an interesting discussion of this event between me and Jonathan Prejean of CrimsonCatholic in the comments to this post; I recommend that readers have a look.