Monday, June 30, 2008

Gandalf and Saruman Recite the Creed!

In Quenyan, no less! You can listen to it here.

Sorry about that, folks, I couldn't resist. Ian McKellen and Christopher Lee were not really impersonating BXVI and Bartholomew, it just sounds like they are. Actually, it's the real thing: the real Pope and the real Patriarch, reciting the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed in Greek, not Quenyan, and it is a marvelous thing to hear. Using the original text avoids that whole Filioque thingy.

Thanks to Fr. Kimel for the link.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

"Real" Catholics

There is an interesting passage in Eamon Duffy's magisterial if popular Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2nd edition, 2001) in which we read of a fascinating appeal, by the Franciscans, to the notion of the irreformability of the ordinary magisterium:
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.
What is interesting here is not the idea that a particular Pope had erred (or so the Franciscans were claiming), but the idea that Popes, as such, cannot err and, hence, the erring person in the papal garb is not really a Pope at all, but is only homonymously a Pope--a Pope in name only. This is not an appeal to an early version of the doctrine of Papal Infallibility as promulgated at Vatican I, though it is clearly connected to that idea, but is rather an appeal to the idea that, whenever Popes teach in conformity with the magisterium, they, insofar as they act as spokesmen for the maagisterium, are preserved from error. Not because they, as particular human beings, have some special grace that nobody else has, but because the office they hold has been granted that grace. If they should happen to err, that means that they no longer truly fill that office.

I was reminded of this passage by the recent kerfuffle surrounding Jay Dyer's decision to become a Roman Catholic. I call it a "kerfuffle", but it seems to have provoked controversy primarily among his Orthodox friends: the Romans in the playground have yet to get deeply involved. I was particularly struck by an essay at a..sinner by Sophocles Frangakis. I find Sophocles to be a voice for Christian charity in the blogosphere, and have always respected his opinions and comments, whether I read them here or at other blogs where he contributes, and his essay on Jay's conversion is, in my opinion, a good example of how to write an essay about something you disagree strongly with but are willing to respect as a matter of Christian love. As the essay progresses, we find Sophocles answering a few of Jay's arguments, and this, too, he does with sensitivity and care, and it is only to be expected, I think, that someone committed to a particular reading of history would want to defend his reading against a rival, especially when that rival had, for some time, been perceived as a friend. I do not doubt for a moment that I would do the same thing, were I in his shoes.

In fact, I write this very essay for that reason, because Sophocles makes an interesting sort of argument in his reply to Jay. He notes that
The citations Jay provides were written at a time when Rome herself was indeed Orthodox, and from the high remarks lavished on her in lieu not only of her position as the First See but also because of her exemplary Orthodoxy and the keeping of that one salvific Faith preserved and undiminished when other Sees were beset with heresy.

Rome was Orthodox and this is why the East "tolerated" her position because they were brethren, confessing one and the same Faith together and gladly accorded primacy, as it, primacy, existed then in its proper context.
Later (because of the Filioque controversy, among other things), Rome ceased to be "orthodox" in the sense that Sophocles has in mind and, hence, ceased to fill that office of Primacy that the other Sees willingly recognized in her for so long. In short, Sophocles makes here the very same argument that the Franciscans made about Pope John XXII. Just as he ceased to be truly a Pope when he attempted to teach something contrary to the Tradition, so too, Sophocles (and other similarly-minded Orthodox) claims, the Roman See itself, insofar as it has "erred", has ceased to be Primatial.

And now there looms on the horizon a possible concordat between Rome and Constantinople, and this would permit another application of the same argument:
Hold still, everyone, because we may in our lifetime witness another schism in the Church if the Ecumencial Patriarch Bartholomew continues as he is in opposition to Moscow, who is holding the line formulating Orthodox answers to modern problems and challenges but of course is considered as narrow and old fashioned for doing so.

If Constantinople should, for argument's sake, unify with the Roman Catholic Church, the Patriarch of Constantinople would cease to be "Orthodox" despite the fact that he takes up residence in the place Constantinople as Patriarch of the New Rome. He would in effect not hold in common that Faith held by the other Patriarchs.
In other words, once you determine who is in the wrong, you also get to determine who is in the right, and the "real" church will move around from place to place depending on who happens to toe your particular line. Constantinople has displaced Rome, but is now in danger of being displaced by Moscow. Eventually, I suppose, if Moscow were to reunite with Rome along with Constantinople, it, too, would be displaced (perhaps by Moscow, Idaho, just to keep things from getting too complicated).

I am reminded here of an argument that was put against me over at The Continuum. After suggesting that a central interpretive authority is required to avoid theological relativism, I was treated, in answer, to a quotation from, of all places, the 39 Articles:
As the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch have erred: so also the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of Ceremonies, but also in matters of Faith.
I confess that it was difficult to refrain from laughing out loud at this, but I never got the chance to ask whether the "Church" of England had "erred" in saying that the Church of Rome had "erred", since I was unceremoniously dismissed by the worthies there as a crank. You know you're in trouble when folks who routinely use Christian names with one another decide to refer to you only as "Carson". That's OK--I've been called worse, but I am certainly not insensitive to the necessity for the Church of England to maintain that everybody else is wrong. Indeed, it is the great Protestant Burden, it seems to me, to maintain two incompatible ideas at the same time. On the one hand, it must be maintained that something called "the Tradition" is not to be located in any one time or place, but in all times and places, that is, it is what has been believed by everyone everywhere. That's what "catholic" means, after all: "universal". On the other hand, it must be maintained that, when it comes to deciding what, exactly, fits this description--well, then it's confined to one time and one place: it's me. If you start to do or to teach something that is not all that consonant with what I and my cronies have been doing and teaching, clearly the only explanation is that you have departed from "the Tradition". I can prove this, too, by showing you the documents and other artifacts that constitute the evidence of "the Tradition" and interpreting them for you in the proper way, not in the heterodox way that you interpret them. If you insist, for some perverse reason, that I am interpreting them wrongly, then I will just point out to you that their meaning is plain and that you are the one jumping through hermeneutic hoops to get it to come out your way, while I am simply looking at all the data in the plain light of day, with no interpretive lens other than sheer rationality.

This kind of game can be played by both sides, of course, but I have to admit that the Orthodox have something of a leg up on us Romans, because we tend to think that the Orthodox are, apart from that whole Papal Primacy thing, well, orthodox, whereas the Orthodox tend to think that Romans, in addition to that whole Papal Primacy thing, have heaped many other heterodoxies onto their ash heap of theology. In other words, if reunification is what we're after, the Orthodox think that the Romans have a lot farther to go than the Romans think the Orthodox have to go. Having said that, however, I must say that my own opinion is that, however far you happen to think the other side has to go to meet you half way (and don't we all think we're closer to the center than the other guy is, else we would be standing with that other guy already), there are better and worse ways to go about approaching that center. The wrong way is to start quoting from the 39 Articles, or to say that Rome as a See has done the equivalent of what John XXII did. A far better approach is that taken by such excellent Orthodox writers as Peter Gilbert of De unione ecclesiarum or the folks at Eirenikon. The strategy employed at sites such as those (and there are others) is to look for common ground rather than difference, and where there are differences, to look for a common hermeneutic that will allow both sides to approach the center together, rather than forcing one or the other to come the whole distance alone.

I freely confess to my own particular bias here, and I hope and pray that my Orthodox brethren do not take what I have written in the wrong way. I suppose they are used to hearing such things from certain sorts of Catholics and perhaps it is safe to say that everyone, on all sides of any debate about who is "right" and who is "wrong", should be mindful that pride is the deadliest of sins, so I will be the first to apologize if what I say in genuine charity and hope for reunification comes off as proud, condescending, or just generally arrogant. It may be, as some Orthodox writers have lamented, that reunification is basically de facto impossible now, but one may pray otherwise since, of course, with God all things are possible.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Jay Dyer Comes Home

Jay Dyer of Nicene Truth posted a lengthy Apologia Pro Vita Sua on Wednesday in which he explains his reasons for turning away from Eastern Orthodoxy and towards Rome. There are only a few comments posted there today, mostly supportive (though some taking issue with his analysis of this or that), but it is perhaps worth mentioning in the context of the East-West "scorecard" that ecclesial decisions such as Jay's are always very difficult for the person making the decision and, I believe, when such decisions are made with such evident intellectual effort and faithful reflection, we may trust that that they are made in bona fides, whether or not the decision is the same one that we have, or would have, made under the circumstances.

I remember reading that greatest of questing blogs, Pontifications, over the course of a year or two as Fr. Alvin Kimel publicly pondered what to do about his increasing sense of alienation from his own communion and began the lengthy process of soul-searching that led, in the end, to his conversion to Roman Catholicism. That process involved a great deal of public discourse (the comboxes there were very often a full-day's worth of reading for me), and anyone who followed it will have come away far more knowledgeable about all sides of the question than when they first began. In some ways it seems almost reasonable to say that God, in his providence, is able to bring about great good even from the personal suffering of those individuals who find themselves deeply troubled by these reflections, for if they are willing to share their journey with the rest of us, we can learn from them and from those who are willing to discuss publicly the reasons for this or that doctrine.

My own process of conversion was neither very thoughtful nor very faithful, as I am now ashamed to admit but happy to confess (if that makes any sense). I became a Roman Catholic exactly 25 years ago this past Tuesday, on the Solemnity of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist, and I believe that it is true to say that my real conversion has been ongoing since that time, and I am not fully confident that it is complete even yet. I am as troubled as anyone by certain features of the calling, and I suppose that posts such as this one are, finally, a reflection of my attempts to come to grips with some of these troubles. As a consequence of this I am always particularly moved by anyone who can make available in a public forum their inner dialog of the soul leading to conversion, whether it be Westward or Eastward. It is very sad that such decisions need to be made at all, but given that they do, the participation of charitable and merciful interlocutors in the blogosphere is a welcome bit of light in the otherwise pervasive darkness that is our barren secular culture.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Long View

I've been following with some interest the discussion at Sacramentum Vitae regarding the Filioque controversy. Much of it is familiar ground, but the dialectic is still fascinating. (I've posted on this controversy myself a few times; just use the blog search to find it all.)

It's tempting, sometimes, to look upon debates of this kind as threatening, somehow, to our Christian identity. The reason for this, I suppose, is that we all tend to prefer concord to discord, harmony to cacophony. The temptation to worry about such things should be resisted, however. When the philosophical writings of Aristotle were rediscovered in the West during the thirteenth century, they became extremely popular subjects for discussion among certain teachers at the universities of Paris and Oxford. In some ways, Aristotelian philosophical perspectives could be viewed as threatening to Christian doctrine, provided that one antecedently adopts certain philosophical starting points that are incompatible with Aristotelianism. In 1210 the provincial synod of Sens attempted to put a stop to whatever pernicious influence Aristotelianism might have upon the nascent clerics at Paris by forbidding the Masters of that institution from reading any texts by Aristotle, either in public or in private, thus forbidding also the teaching of said texts. The ban was repeated in 1215, and in 1231 Pope Gregory IX promulgated a bull that extended the ban, in a modified form, to other universities. (For some reason the university at Toulouse was immune from the ban, until Pope Innocent IV extended it to include all of Christendom in 1245.)

Papal pronouncements in the thirteenth century appear to have been viewed with the same care and respect that they are accorded these days in institutions of higher learning: by the 1250s the ban was being ignored everywhere, especially in Paris and Oxford. Bonaventure, in his capacity as minister general to the Franciscan order, called upon Etienne Tempier, bishop of Paris, to issue a condemnation of certain Aristotelian theses. In 1270 and again in 1277 he issued the famous condemnations that had the effect, in the end, of putting Saint Thomas Aquinas, a thoroughgoing Aristotelian (and a, ahem, Dominican), on the index of forbidden teachers. This situation was not changed until Thomas's canonization in 1325.

For roughly a century, then, some of the most fundamentally important philosophical perspectives in history were banned from institutions of Christian education, in spite of the fact that many of these perspectives were not merely consistent with Christian teaching, but were actually quite effectively deployed, by Aquinas and others, in the defense of Christian belief. Looking back on this situation from a distance of over 700 years, one can simply scratch one's head in wonderment over the thoughtlessness of certain kinds of partisanship, but at the time, to those who found Aristotle's texts brimming with stimulating and fertile ideas, the ban must have seemed not merely frustrating but positively maddening. In the midst of the controversy itself the disparate sides must have experienced varying degrees of fear and loathing for one another, and yet, in the end, the whole thing was settled amicably and has remained relatively irenic for seven centuries, a sevenfold increase over the amount of time spent squabbling about things.

Some may wish to suggest that the controversy over the Filioque is of an entirely different order than disagreements over curricula that are largely internal to institutions of higher learning and, hence, is not about to go away any time soon. On the one hand, there is some truth to this: after a millennium of argument, there are still some folks who regard the controversy as a point of schism between East and West. On the other hand, the relative importance of the issue with respect to division-making power can be seen in the fact that the version of the Creed used in Uniate liturgies omits the Filioque with the Vatican's blessing. One thing that is about as clear as anything from the posts and comments at Sacramentum Vitae is the fact that the issue turns on various philosophical notions, including cause, unity, identity, and other inheritances from the Neoplatonic and Peripatetic philosophical traditions. As the condemnations of 1270 and 1277 illustrated so nicely, philosophical conventions come and go, sometimes with alarming frequency, sometimes only very slowly. The long view seeks to go beyond theological analysis, which is always metaphorical and analogical at best, and hit upon the deposit of faith which is the same for everyone at all times and places. This task, of course, can be extremely difficult, and it goes without saying that it cannot be accomplished in a conceptual vacuum: philosophical machinery will necessarily be deployed, whether intentionally or not. What ought to be of interest is not the machinery deployed, however, but the faith displayed. If the dialog between opposing parties is a cooperative search for the truth, then charity demands that we wait until both sides have had their say. In this there is, perhaps, some small difference between the words being exchanged at Sacramentum Vitae and the condemnations of 1270 and 1277.

C. S. Lewis, famously, tried to do an end-run around problems such as the Filioque controversy by searching what he thought of as "the tradition" for those elements of belief that, in his judgment, stood the test of the so-called "Vincentian Canon". The result was his Mere Christianity, drawn from a series of radio addresses and constituting a kind of curious attempt at a non-denominational Credo. While such palliatives are sometimes attractive to certain sorts of minds, they are rarely as satisfying as the quest for deeper understanding that animates the differences of theological opinion that they mask. (In this respect it is rather surprising that Lewis, one of the most brilliant minds of his generation, adopted such an approach.) Indeed, in the absence of difference and variation it is not clear whether our understanding could advance at all beyond the truths that we are spoon-fed from the Gospels themselves. Everyone, Greek as well as Latin, knows that the Gospel of St John tells us that the Son "sends" the Holy Spirit; the dispute is not over that fact, but over the meaning and interpretation of that fact and how it is to be interpolated among the other facts handed us by the Gospels. To say with the "mere Christian" that all we need know is that the Son "sends" the Spirit and no more, is to sow the seeds of heterodoxy, since it leaves to individual judgment what, precisely, the upshot of "sending the Holy Spirit" is to be taken to be. It will not do to say, "Just don't think about what the 'upshot' of our faith is to be taken to be, just endorse the facts as we have them." That is like telling a teenage boy "Our cable package came with the Playboy channel, but don't you dare turn it on, even when I'm not at home!" The Filioque controversy arose in the first place as a consequence of localized attempts to put a stop to Spanish monarchianism (a heretical version that denied the subsistence of the Son, not the orthodox version that says that the Father is the only arkhê, "principle" or "source"). In localized liturgies where there was a danger of the heterodoxy, the Filioque was inserted into the Creed to make the Son's subsistence clear (lex orandi, after all, is lex credendi). This local change was later endorsed by Rome, even though the threat of heterodoxy was not a universal one, but that Rome permitted the change in the liturgy at all was part of what angered the Greeks. Or at least some of them: Theophylact of Ochrid noted that the Latins did not have the rich theological vocabulary available to the Greeks, and in particular they had only one word for "procession" whereas in Greek there were four different verbs to indicate four different ways in which it was possible for one thing to "be from" another (ekporeuesthai, khorêgeisthai, metadidosthai, and pempesthai).

Theophylact was extremely patient about the inability of the Latin language to do justice to the finial theological nuances of the doctrine of the Trinity, far more so than most Greek theologians of his day, who took advantage of theological excuses to promote their own anti-Latin Church polity. In his view it was important to allow for the particularities of local practices in the various Churches, especially in the East (he appealed to the case of the Bulgarian Church to illustrate how even in the East it is essential to insure the understanding of theological terms by the lay members of the community) but also, of course, in the Latin West, and many of the differences between East and West he ascribed to cultural differences that were due ultimately to differences in language and custom. Such things were quite permissible, in his view. He drew the line, however, when it came to matters that had been settled by the decision of an Ecumenical Council, and the text of the Creed fell under this rubric. With the insertion of the Filioque clause the Latin West had gone too far, in his view.

And there, for the most part, is where things stand to this day. By now, of course, Western theologians have had plenty of time to absorb the nuances of meaning present in the verbs ekporeuesthai, khorêgeisthai, metadidosthai, and pempesthai, yet they continue to maintain the validity of the insertion of the Filioque clause into the Creed, and the Greeks continue to object. The dispute over the Filioque has been called trivial by Kallistos Ware, but others are quick to point out that it is but the tip of the iceberg separating East from West. Even if this is true, however, it must be admitted that even a thousand years is not very long in comparison with eternity, and I suspect that the long view will see even this dispute in much the same way that we now see the condemnations of the thirteenth century.

Santa Fe

The New Mexico town is named after Holy Faith; Michelle of Quantum Theology has an interesting essay posted about some encounters she had there in which science and faith appeared to be at loggerheads. Highly recommended reading.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Well, "Gooey" is One Word For It

Just the other day I was recommending Dr. Mike Liccione's Sacramentum Vitae for the fascinating essays on offer there regarding the ordinary and universal Magisterium. Since I check in there regularly to see if there's any more of the same on offer, I get to blame him for directing me to the stomach-churning essay by Mark Morford of the San Francisco Gate, in which we are treated to the sort of analysis one ordinarily expects to find in the Onion, not major newspaper outlets. Just to whet your appetite a little, check this out:
Here's where it gets gooey. Many spiritually advanced people I know (not coweringly religious, mind you, but deeply spiritual) identify Obama as a Lightworker, that rare kind of attuned being who has the ability to lead us not merely to new foreign policies or health care plans or whatnot, but who can actually help usher in a new way of being on the planet, of relating and connecting and engaging with this bizarre earthly experiment. These kinds of people actually help us evolve. They are philosophers and peacemakers of a very high order, and they speak not just to reason or emotion, but to the soul.
And, no: he's not kidding. He's. Completely. Serious. Dude. The whole essay is just like that. Don't try to read it after a heavy meal.

I would say that at least part of Morford's problem is that he is just a kid. At the bottom of the essay there's a picture of him, and he looks like he's about 22 years old, if that. Which would explain why he would say things like this with a straight face:
Are you rolling your eyes and scoffing? Fine by me. But you gotta wonder, why has, say, the JFK legacy lasted so long, is so vital to our national identity? Yes, the assassination canonized his legend. The Kennedy family is our version of royalty. But there's something more. Those attuned to energies beyond the literal meanings of things, these people say JFK wasn't assassinated for any typical reason you can name. It's because he was just this kind of high-vibration being, a peacemaker, at odds with the war machine, the CIA, the dark side. And it killed him.
Of course, he's too young to really know anything at all about Kennedy, or Martin Luther King Jr., for that matter: he's just regurgitating what he's been spoon-fed by all the right media outlets and has adopted as his own because, well, it's what he would like to believe. People of his ilk are bound to lionize Obama because they hate George Bush so much. But he gives the rest of us something to smile about.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

On Infallibility

Dr. Mike Liccione of Sacramentum Vitae has a great essay on the infallibility of the ordinary and universal magisterium. I highly recommend it: he argues, first of all, that there really is such a thing as the infallibility of the ordinary and universal magisterium and, second, that the normative criteria for determining which teachings of the ordinary and universal magisterium are "clear enough in magisterial documents themselves to be authoritatively extended to particular teachings." At the end of the essay there is promissory note for another essay that will examine the status of the licitness of ordaining women and the use of artificial contraception vis-a-vis these considerations.

I won't say much more about Mike's essay here because that might tempt some readers to rest content with the Readers' Digest version on offer here, when in fact the essay ought to be read in its entirety, as I suspect will also be the case with its sequel.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Skip a Bit, Brother...

The new English translation of the Roman Missal has been slowly wending its way through the vetting process at the Vatican now for several years. One argument in favor of the older, simpler translations (which I have discussed before) has been that English is just plain fundamentally different from Latin in its modes of expression. Where Latin waxes pleonastic, it is more natural for English to simplify. So a sonorous Latin phrase like "Omnipotens sempiterne Deus" gets turned into the mere vocative "God", or on some occasions, "Mighty God". I don't think that the ICEL translations have been uniformly as banal as this example, but they come fairly close to a certain aurea mediocritas that has generated legions of critics, at least in this country.

Is it really true that simpler, plainer style is the norm in English? I'm not so sure. Although it tends to be rather common nowadays, the plain style is not something that motivated many of those who first translated Latin liturgical texts into English. In his magisterial English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (by far his greatest scholarly work, if you want the opinion of someone whose only knowledge of the subject matter comes from reading the work in question), C. S. Lewis explained in loving detail the various ways in which a desire for stylistic English (as opposed to merely colloquial) drove some of the work (p. 218):
Thus in vota humilium (third in Lent) English forces us to have a noun with humilium so that we get 'thy humble servants'. It then seems to the translator's ear that vota also should have a satellite, and, selecting (for he is an Englishman) one that alliterates, he writes down 'the hearty desires of thy humble servants', where the medieval translator would probably have been content with 'vowes of us humble'. In addition to such rhythmical motives I suspect the influence of a feeling, and, I believe, a just feeling, that the resonant Latin words carry more not only to the ear but also to the heart and imagination than their short English equivalents, so that 'faithfully to fill' is not an excessive allowance for ad implenda nor 'in the midst of so many and great dangers' for in tantis periculis.
I am particularly struck by the phrase "It then seems to the translator's ear...". I wonder how much banality in the ICEL translations could have been avoided by paying more heed to "the translator's ear"? Did the ICEL translators even have ears? Sometimes it seems not. Lewis was a master of translation, of course, and quite possibly the members of the ICEL committee entrusted with the task of translating the liturgical texts were principally trained in matters of theology, as opposed to Lewis's background of classical philology, philosophy, and English literature. One suspects, rather sadly, that even if Lewis had lived long enough to help out with the ICEL translations (and had been willing to, and had been able to, etc. etc.) he would not have been invited to do so. While that is merely a suspicion, it appears to be supported by the actual outcome of the project, given that Lewis was not the only person on the planet with his qualifications and talents.

I'm not at all sure that the ICEL is entirely to blame for the present unpleasantness, however. It takes two to tango, as they say, and the numbers of people who read and take delight in the same sorts of literature that transported Jacksie Lewis and his friends at the turn of the last century are rapidly dwindling. I won't pretend to be a snob in this regard: when I was 14 years old, I was reading Lewis's stories for children; when Lewis was 14 years old, he was reading Homer. In Greek. By the time I was 17 years old, I had read some more Lewis, all of Tolkien (several times) and, for some reason, Thucydides (in English), but by that same age Lewis had been offered a scholarship at Oxford University after having passed an entrance examination that I could never pass in a million years, even now. So I am in no position to lecture my cohort about their reading habits. Our technological age has favored the capacity for quick adaptation to electronic marvels rather than the slow, meticulous scholarship that made Lewis the genius that he was. It's not that we are no longer capable of such genius, it's that we no longer have the patience for it. As I said, I read Tolkien in my teens, and I loved what I read so much that I had read and re-read The Lord of the Rings nine times before I graduated from college. Arguably I should have been branching out a little, but even so: I cannot get my own son to read through the thing even one time. I have tried everything: I got him a very nice, deluxe edition of the thing, which has been gathering dust in his room. I tried reading it aloud to him on our cold, snowy winter evenings, along with servings of hot chocolate and beautiful, atmospheric music; I got a recorded books version that we both listened to together; I got the deluxe version of the DVD of Peter Jackson's movie interpretation and promised him that he could watch the whole thing if he would only read the book first. All to no avail: he still has not gotten any farther than the first third of The Two Towers. And yet he will sit for hour upon hour trying to "finish" Grand Theft Auto IV.

He is typical of a certain sort of adolescent boy. I have no illusions about that: some kids just don't like that kind of stuff, and no amount of immersion therapy is going to change that. I haven't figured out yet what he does like, but reading books is just not on his list. (A little sad, since in a house containing two classicists and a philosopher, there are literally thousands of really good books in the offing, all for free. It's like a fucking lending library in here, but never mind.) The same is true for most of his friends, as it happens. Much the same, I suppose, is probably true in the culture at large. I'm sure there are plenty of kids who do go in for a little more culture than most, but I fear, based not only on my experience with my son and his friends, but on my experience with the average undergraduate student, that the days when Lewis and his ilk formed the dominant culture are long gone, if they were ever really here in a dominant form. There will always be exceptions to the situation I am lamenting. I have a friend that I went to graduate school with who was, in some ways, remarkably like C. S. Lewis: he had a very good, classical education as a young boy, he grew up learning how to play the harpsichord and I don't know how many other musical instruments; he appears to have been as well educated as Lewis upon entering college, and he remains a remarkably able and productive scholar in classics. But in the 30 years I have been in the business, he's the only person I have met like that from my own cohort. And what one sees of the intelligentsia in the mass media these days is only discouraging. Just have a look at what passes for thoughtful, intelligent discourse among the self-styled "Brights", and you will have cause to weep; but much the same can be said for popular "apologetics"--there are no Lewises out there defending the faith today, only Bakkers.

Lewis was an amazing man, a man whose view of reality was animated by a love of myth and whose capacity to see the truth was galvanized by a herculean imagination. Many intellectuals these days are basically variations on the Mr. Spock theme: they are able to excel in this or that technical discipline, but the lack that spark of creative intelligence and imagination that enabled Lewis to see the whole world as it really is. He was a complete man, and his was a complete intellect, in a way that is rare to find these days. The delight that he took in English literature was a manifestation of his fascination for the word as sacramental representation of the truth. That's why he delighted so in poetry, and why he lamented what he saw as the degradation of poetic achievement in modernism.

Few of us, apparently, delight in the sheer poetry of language in the way Lewis did, or we would be far more vocal than we are about the banalization of our liturgy, where the sacramentality of language is more paramount than anywhere else. We have become like Brother Maynard in Monty Python and the Holy Grail who, when the monk played by Michael Palin is reading from the Book of Armaments, urges him to "Skip a bit, brother", when the reading becomes rather more detailed than time would appear to permit. We seem to like our liturgies streamlined rather than drawn out, simple rather than complex, and, above all, something that does not demand too much of us. When we remember why we attend Mass in the first place, we will perhaps begin to recapture something of our own sense of excitement and pleasure in the participation in a feast of words, and start praying for more Lewises in the ICEL.

And no, C. S. Lewis would never, in a bazillion years, have used the word "fucking" in an essay. The times, they are a-changin', baby!

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

A Place for Evolutionary Theory in Theology?

The question seems not only absurd, but also to work against the position I have staked out in this blog over many months. On the view I have defended, Evolutionary Theory (ET) is a theory whose application is restricted to a particular domain, namely, the domain of the material and the empirically verifiable; theology is not so restricted, and so the utility of ET to theology seems to be very low, if not zero.

There's certainly no need to convince the working evolutionary biologist of such a possible utility: what the working biologist has to say about theology, qua biologist, is irrelevant--indeed, meaningless. Nor is there any particularly compelling reason to convince the orthodox (small "o") theologian of such a possible utility, because the orthodox theologian already knows that materialist, empirical theories have nothing to say about, and no ramifications related to, theology. This is why, in fact, no orthodox theologian is worried about the question whether Christianity is compatible with ET, for he already knows that they are as compatible with each other as Euclidian geometry, qua geometry, is compatible with musical composition, qua musical composition: the disciplines do not impinge on each other in any way.

So what possible utility could ET have for theology, and to whom are we addressing this argument? ET is a theory about certain forms of material beings and how they relate to each other as individuals and in populations situated in certain environments. It is one of the most robustly confirmed scientific theories in history and serves, if anything does, as a paradigm case of the importance of human reasoning in understanding human nature as such. But all scientists and philosophers of science know that it is open to revision: if and when new empirical evidence should prove to be incompatible with the theory as it stands, the theory will be revised appropriately. This is not a threatening fact to the scientist or the philosopher of science, it is further proof of the value of scientific investigation and, hence, a motivation to keep doing scientific research. (In this regard it is somewhat strange that writers like Richard Dawkins write about ET as "an established fact". Established facts, whatever else they may be, are not open to revision, otherwise they would not be established facts. No scientific theory is "an established fact" in the sense of not being open to revision, though it is, of course, quite true to say that ET is well confirmed. It would be a mistake, however, to conflate the notions of confirmation and facticity.)

That scientific research is a hallmark of the human mind and an expression of the human essential nature is one reason to think that ET has some value to theology, since it is a fact that is not merely consistent with but appears to follow from what theology claims about human nature; but it is not something that is unique to ET. Any robustly confirmed scientific theory can claim an equal utility for theology. ET, however, has a unique value that is not shared by any other scientific theory. ET is essentially a theory about change, and more specifically it is a theory about change that is due to variation. Where there is no variation, evolution by means of natural selection cannot take place (drift would still be possible, of course, but that would be true even if ET were false). A necessary precondition on variation is, of course, difference. Indeed, variation is arguably just another term for difference. Without getting overly Parmenidean about it, we may also say, somewhat loosely, that difference is a kind of opposition: a property p is said to be different from any property that is ~p and, according to the Law of Concontradiction, ~(p & ~p). This is an ontological as well as a logical claim: just as the two propositions, p and ~p, cannot be true at the same time and in the same respect, the state of affairs cannot be in two orthogonal states at the same time and in the same respect (according to ET; according to quantum mechanics this may not be the case; whether the consistency of ET with quantum mechanics is more of a problem for ET than for QM is a question for another context, but it certainly underscores what I said earlier about the revisability of scientific theories).

The fallen world in which we live is, from a theological point of view, above all a world of oppositions: opposition to God, opposition to one another, even, in a sense, opposition to ourselves (I want to resist sin, but because of weakness sometimes I cannot). To move from sin to grace is to make a change that is, in a certain extended sense, adaptive. Sin is, by definition, a willful turning away from God; by God's grace we are given the capacity to turn back to him, and doing so is as salutary as adapting to the environment in which we live. Every time I turn away from God, every time I sin, I die a little (sometimes, completely), but through Reconciliation I am given another "generation", as it were, another seed to plant in the environment in which I live to nurture and train to grow towards God rather than away from him. If I learn anything from my sin and reconciliation, it is rather like an adaptive change in a genome that did not survive in a previous setting. Without opposition, without variation, none of this would be possible ("O happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam, that gained for us such a Redeemer"). Life before the fall was, in a certain sense, a static sort of life in the sense that Adam and Eve had not yet sinned, there was not yet any opposition to God, to each other, or within themselves; in the eschaton life will again be static: as the Talking Heads once said, "Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens". All will be one at that time, and the Sacraments, including Reconciliation, will pass away. Only here, in this world, are the Sacraments necessary and good, and although ET does not explain anything about our relations to God or one another (since it is not a theological but a materialist explanatory account aimed not at theological truth but empirical truth), nevertheless by its very truth it illustrates something deeply true and important about the very fabric of being itself as we experience it. It is, in short, a sacramentally sound description of the way things are in addition to being empirically verifiable.

In my opinion, this will be true of any robustly verifiable scientific theory, precisely because every such theory, if accurately representing they way things are to any significant degree, will be consistent with the theological truths about how things are. But ET seems to play a special role in this illustrative sense, since it paints a very vivid picture of what "survival of the fittest" means when translated into "survival of the most grace-filled". By the way in which natural processes play themselves out at the level of merely material beings, we see writ large the far more important way in which our spiritual survival is tied to adapting our own wills to the will of God by means of a sequence of generations of reconciliation. That God would use perceptual evidence--evidence at the materialist, empirical level--to communicate to us this great truth is not in the least alien to our theology, since the core of our faith was made known to us empirically, by means of the life of Our Lord and the eyewitnesses who have made known to us the facts and meaning of that life.

So my claim here is aimed principally at those who fear that ET represents some sort of a threat to Christian truth, or that it raises difficulties for Christian theology. Far from doing that, it is fully consistent with that theology and, indeed, serves to illustrate certain very important aspects of it. I have argued elsewhere that it even serves quite well as an answer to the so-called "problem of evil", since it makes suffering, death, and dying all perfectly natural processes that are in fact valuable elements of any evolutionary story of the origins and development of life, just as, theologically, suffering and death are turned by God into ways of growing closer to him and experiencing first hand what it means to abandon oneself to him. This is a message that will be of no interest to the biologist qua biologist (though it may interest the biologist who happens to be a Christian), and no news to the theologian. Perhaps it will be of service to nobody in particular. In fact, I hope that is the case, if what it means is that everybody already knew it to be true. But for those who were still worried about ET, it may perhaps serve as some sort of palliative.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Choosing Among Evils

Doug Kmiec had a rather unpleasant experience at Mass last Sunday, when he was refused Holy Communion on the grounds of his open and unapologetic endorsement of Senator Barack Obama for President. The decision to deny Kmiec Holy Communion, to judge from the media accounts of the event, was made unilaterally by the priest celebrating the Mass. Archbishop Roger Mahoney, that icon of Catholic orthodoxy and strict discipline, condemned the move, as did two different canon lawyers interviewed by National Public Radio for a story on the event that aired this evening on All Things Considered. According to an opinion piece he published at catholic.org last May, Kmiec's excuse for his endorsement was "To some of my fellow Catholics, Senator Obama's answers on abortion make him categorically unacceptable. I understand that view, respect it, but find it prudentially the second-best answer in 2008".

This is a debate that has come up before, and it raises some interesting issues. Let's take Kmiec, who has sometimes described himself as a conservative, at his word when he claims to be against abortion himself. What, then, does it mean to say that he thinks that Obama is nevertheless "the second-best answer in 2008"? The answer, it turns out, is rather incredible. In spite of his views about abortion, which Kmiec himself does a very good job of showing to be both facile and banal, Obama nevertheless seems to Kmiec to offer a greater opportunity for limiting abortion than does the Republican party, which makes opposition to abortion a part of its official platform. Thus, as usual, an allegedly pro-life argument is made for abandoning pro-life legislation in favor of a different sort of "pro-life" legislation:
Commit us toward a course of environmental stewardship that will not be dependent upon fossil fuel

•Focus tax and health policy reform in favor of the average working family and the poor

•Reaffirm an American foreign policy respectful of international standard

•And end an unjust, preemptive war – another obvious life issue -- that deprives families of some of our most self-sacrificing yet often least advantaged young men and women and drains our economy in a 3 trillion dollar fashion, crippling our practical ability to be the force for human good that Americans want their country to be
These things, you see, are more consistent with that whole "seamless garment" thing that faithful Catholics are supposed to care about. In short, the sophistry tells us, as long we the overall good of pro-lifeyness is moved forward, then it's OK to fall down on one or two of the more finial pro-life positions. Basically it's just an old-fashioned liberal excuse for not caring as much about abortion as about the other favorite issues of the left.

Typically, arguments like this also tend to paint a picture of more serious opponents of abortion as "single issue" voters, who unreasonably make abortion a kind of on-off switch with regard to the acceptability of a given political candidate. Kmiec doesn't go quite this far, though he cannot resist saying that an Obama candidacy will
•Transcend the politics of division – so well illustrated on any given day by the unfortunately base tactics of the Clinton or McCain campaigns (see the recent GOP ad in North Carolina once again dredging up Reverend Wright)
It's hard to imagine saying this with a straight face about a man who says, almost every time he speaks, that a McCain presidency will really just be a third term George Bush presidency, but perhaps Kmiec has never heard of guilt by association.

Well, until now, anyway. He knows about it now because his association with Obama has cost him his chance to receive Holy Communion, at least on one occasion. The canon lawyers interviewed by NPR stressed the formal elements of the process whereby excommunication is made a matter of public knowledge, ad did Mahoney, and nobody addressed the question of the latae sententiae nature of certain kinds of excommunication (of course). Mahoney, to his credit, did not complain (that I heard, anyway), when Kmiec arrogated to himself the task of deciding whether or not he was still in Communion with the Church and criticized the priest who refused him Communion in very inappropriate terms. Whether or not the priest acted in accordance with canon law (or even common decency), it is clear that the question of whether or not a particular person has excommunicated himself by his own actions is something for the local ordinary to decide, not the person in question.

In situations such as this I always find myself wondering, What are the limits of this person's commitments? Imagine, for example, a slightly different candidate than Obama. Make this candidate identical to Obama in every respect, political and otherwise, except three. First, let this other candidate by fully opposed to abortion in just the same way that Kmiec is (or claims to be). Second, let this other candidate be white rather than black. Third, let this other candidate be a vicious racist. What would the Kmiecs of the world make of such a candidate? I suspect that nobody of Kmiec's ilk would stomach such a candidate, no matter what this Other Candidate's views happened to be about global warming, health care for the poor, or the war in Iraq. Now, it has often been alleged--and I think that it's true--that no president is going to have anything like a significant impact on abortion policy in this country. Even the Supreme Court seems to have very little, if any, impact on said policy (indeed, in the few instances in which one might have thought that a more conservative court would have been an advantage in this area, the impact of the Supreme Court has been, if anything, negative). The same, of course, is true with regard to public policy regarding race relations. So a racist president, though a disgusting spectacle, would not bring about anything like the virtual apartheid from which we escaped in the 1960s. Those days are, in a word, gone. (Now, those of you who happen to find unrealistic thought experiments rather distasteful--and I'm with you on that, as long as it's somebody else's thought experiment we're talking about--substitute for "vicious racist" something like "benign but vocal racist", or whatever it takes to help you imagine such a person actually getting elected these days). In spite of the fact that such a person could have no meaningful impact on racial legislation, nobody like Kmiec would ever vote for him. Nor would I, or, indeed, any sane person.

What's the difference between espousing racist views, and espousing views like Obama's regarding abortion? There are two ways to conceive of the difference. One is a nominal difference, the other a real difference. According to the nominalist, abortion is called wrong because some people think of it as the killing of a human being. Others may not think of it in those terms and, according to the nominalist, such people do not call abortion the killing of a human being. For them, indeed, it is not the killing of a human being or, if it is, it is not a significant killing of a human being. For the nominalist, then, the "wrongness" of abortion, such as it is, amounts to nothing more than a conventionalist judgment about the acceptability of a certain practice to a certain group. There is no compelling need to consider such judgments other than to acknowledge that they exist and to "respect" them, as legitimate, if wrong-headed, views. According to most of these very same people, however, the judgment that one race is superior to another is not such a judgment because it is not only wrong-headed, it is also unreasonable, it is not a legitimate judgment at all and must not be tolerated. (There are some nominalists who think the same about the judgment that abortion is the unjustifiable killing of a human being, but I will pass over such persons in silence, as they appear to be confined to Canada for the nonce.)

The realist view says that abortion takes the life of a human being, and that any taking of the life of a human being has to be justified in some way. Usually we think of such justifications as involving things like self-defense, or defense of the common good, or some other situation in which there is a grave threat that must be answered with deadly force. It is difficult to imagine what sort of grave threat a fetus could present along these lines, though one does sometimes hear of those who think that abortion may be justified to save the life of the mother, but for the most part those who defend abortion rights don't really understand the need for justification in these terms. According to the defender of abortion rights, the only justification that's needed is to point out that the fetus is in the body of another person, and that other person, that is, the mother of the fetus, has absolute autonomy over her own body, even to the extent of taking the life of the fetus, just so long as said fetus is an invader in her body. For the realist, however, the need to justify the taking of a human life goes beyond arguments grounded in personal autonomy, since we would not ordinarily excuse the killing of, say, a three year old child on the grounds that having to care for it was an infringement on the autonomy of its parents. It is rather curious, when you come to think of it, that some of the people who favor abortion rights also oppose capital punishment, and in some such cases the reason for opposing capital punishment is expressed as a rejection of the idea that the taking of human life can be justified. For such people, I imagine, the real obstacle to understanding the realist view of abortion is quite simply the fact that they just don't believe that the fetus is anything important. It is not autonomous itself, and autonomy seems to be the main thing. It does not look like a human being, indeed, when it is a mere conceptum consisting of a single cell it seems almost absurd to say that it is a human being. Perhaps it is human in some adjectival sense, as, say, the hairs on my head are "human" hairs, but who on earth would say that it is a human in a noun kind of way, as in "human being"? It is, of course, far easier to support abortion rights if you just do not think that fetuses are anything like human "beings", if you think that they are not "persons" and, hence, don't actually have any rights or duties.

Herein, I think, lies the difference between the Kmiecs of the world, and those Catholics for whom life issues are more coherently understood. If there was a man running for president who knew full well that there were whole populations of "real people" being intentionally killed--let's say, for example, that there is some backwards county in northwestern Idaho where they are rounding up blacks and shooting them--if there were such a man running for president who said that he thought such activities ought to have the support of the law, then I imagine that even Doug Kmiec would say that he couldn't find it in his heart to vote for him. And yet that is exactly what Barack Obama, and others who support abortion rights, do say, though they do not say it knowingly. Of course Barack Obama does not believe that abortion is the moral equivalent of racial genocide, because of course he would fully oppose it if he did view it that way. So Barack Obama at least has the excuse of ignorance; what is Doug Kmiec's excuse, if he really believes what he says he believes about abortion? Can it be any more obvious that he does not believe what he says he believes about abortion? He does not think what the Catholic Church thinks, at any rate, that is, he does not think that human lives equal in value to his own are being intentionally taken every day, or he would be far more outraged than he is at the moral sloppiness of the Barack Obamas of the world who fail to understand what it is they are defending, just as any rational person would be outraged at a racist who defended himself by saying that he just doesn't think other races are equal to his own. I'm sure that Barack Obama is a nice man who is very sincere and who really wants to do good things, but even if I found his other ideas politically acceptable, I could no more vote for a person who favors abortion rights than I could vote for a person who is openly and viciously racist. Such a person is morally crippled and does not have a healthy understanding of the foundations of morality. Such a person, no matter how "nice" they may appear, no matter how well intentioned, cannot be trusted to make sound policy decisions.

If I were a priest, I would not withhold Holy Communion from anyone unless my Bishop instructed me to, but in the case of someone like Kmiec I might be tempted to do it, just because of the guy's hubris in thinking himself fit to make moral pronouncements about issues he clearly doesn't fully understand. Unlike Obama, who is rather famously not Catholic, Kmiec pretends to be not only Catholic but pro-life. And he's not a complete idiot: he's a professor of constitutional law at Pepperdine University and at Catholic University of America. His argument, which is nothing more than "choose the least of the evils", is bogus. In his radio interview today he averred as to how "not voting" for one of the candidates on offer is actually a greater sin than voting for a pro-abortion candidate, but what a crock of shit that is--it amazes me that an educated person would even think once, let alone twice, about taking a statement like that seriously, let alone actually endorsing it as one's own, considered view. Since when is refusing to vote for candidates whose views are repugnant the moral equivalent of refusing to take part in a democratic process? If I go into a voting booth and write in "Mickey Mouse" because my other choices are complete losers, am I sinning by "not voting"? If I register as a Democrat so that I can vote in the primaries for the candidate I think most likely to lose the general election, am I somehow subverting democracy and "not voting" in an honest way? Or what ought I to do when it's not just a matter of picking some jerk to be the dog catcher, but picking a monster to be president? Well, gee, all of the candidates on the ballot this year just happen to be members of the Nazi Party, but I have to vote for one of them, it would be a sin not to vote for any of them, so I guess I'll just pick the least objectionable Nazi in the bunch. Please. No wonder people complain about CUA; I don't know what the story is at Pepperdine, but this is the sort or thing that gives professional ethics a bad name, at least among reasonable people. I don't know about Doug Kmiec, but I would not vote for a Nazi even if all of the slots on the ballot were filled with Nazis. I would sooner go into the voting booth and write in "Doug Kmiec" than vote for a Nazi. I suspect Doug Kmiec would too, but after today it's difficult to tell for sure.