Friday, October 28, 2005

When It Rains It Pours

I'm beginning to feel a little sorry for Ohio University. First came the transition to a new president who clearly has every intention of leading us to that aurea mediocritas that places athletics ahead of academics. Then there was the drop in applications due to a riot during Halloween partying in the fall of 2003. We adjusted by lowering our entrance requirements, thus giving us one of the biggest but least capable freshman classes in years. Then came The Rankings. We dropped in academic rankings but rose in Party School rankings.

Now, the final blow. Playboy magazine has decided that Party School means more than drunken adolescent boys on Saturday nights, it means plenty of chesty babes to fill the pages of their porno rag, and they're recruiting up to 100 young undergraduate ladies from Ohio University to pose for their spring 2006 Girls of the Party Schools issue. It's been my experience that there really only two sorts of people who look at Playboy--boys who are too young to shave and men who are old enough to shave their ears. For both of these demographics the prospect of seeing college age women in various stages of undress is like a dream come true. (All they really need to do, though, is stop by campus on any sunny day in May and they'll see just about the same thing.) For most other sensible people Playboy has nothing to offer. When I was a kid people were fond of saying "I read it for the incisive interviews and cutting edge fiction," and they were only half joking. Bill Buckley was interviewed in Playboy, as were many other serious figures, and some of the fiction writing wasn't too bad. But nowadays only a moron would find the printed text in Playboy worth reading.

Ohio University officials have reacted rather predictably, saying things you would expect college administrators to say. One of them was quoted as saying that Playboy did not use any scientifically accurate measures to determine which schools are the Party Schools. One doesn't know whether to laugh or cry when one reads such things. If Playboy had just used a more scientific process, then OU might really count as a Party School! Another administrator griped that Playboy had just cribbed from the Princeton Review's list of party schools. I wonder whether the Princeton Review employed a viable scientific measure. Well, whether or not the Princeton Review was doing their job, surely Playboy was plagiarizing their work, and we all know how university administrators feel about that sort of thing. From now on, no more declaring a school to be a Party School unless you can show and explain your work.

Playboy's reaction, too, has been completely predictable. All the usual pablum about how these girls are all adult enough to make their own decisions, so if they want to be porn stars, who are these university administrators to say that they don't have the right to sell their bodies for money? It's not like college athletes don't do the same thing, after all. What do you think they've come here to school for if not to party and get naked? It's not like it's a place off higher learning or anything. My favorite line, though, came from the Playboy photographer, a guy whose name really is George Georgiou, who said that it's not like Playboy is making this stuff up--you don't need any scientific measures, just go uptown on a Saturday night and you'll know this is a party school. I guess you don't need to be a rocket scientist to get a job as a photographer at Playboy. Good thing, too.

The question of whether 18 year old girls are "adult enough" to make decisions like this is an interesting one. We know, from studies that really are scientific, that the brain's capacity to engage in complex theoretical reasoning isn't fully developed until we're well into our twenties. Making decisions about the best way to live one's life is a form of reasoning that is not only speculative and theoretical in some ways, but it is also practical, that is, it requires certain levels of experience if we are to carry it off successfully. My old pal Aristotle said it best, in his Nicomachean Ethics (I.3):
Every man is a good judge of what he understands: in special subjects the specialist, over the whole field of knowledge the man of general culture. This is the reason why political science is not a proper study for the young. The young man is not versed in the practical business of life from which politics draws its premises and its data. He is, besides, swayed by his feelings, with the result that he will make no headway and derive no benefit from a study the end of which is not knowing but doing. It makes no difference whether the immaturity is in age or in character. The defect is not due to lack of years but to living the kind of life that is a succession of unrelated emotional experiences. To one who is like that, knowledge is as unprofitable as it is to the morally unstable. On the other hand, for those whose desires and actions have a rational basis, a knowledge of these principles of morals must be of great advantage.
No college aged student is in a position to know--really know--that posing naked for a nationally distributed magazine is something that is really in her own best interest, let alone morally right in an objective sense. To say that these girls are "adult enough" is simply begging the question, since that is precisely what is at issue--are they, in fact, wise enough to make the right sort of decision in a matter like this? Simply asserting that they are becuase they are 18 years old just will not do. That is merely a legal definition, it is not a meaningful argument about their capacity to judge wisely. True, real adults also have trouble seeing what the right thing to do is. Money and hormonal reactions can be strong motivators even for the most experienced among us. To be at least 18 may be a necessary condition for adult thinking, but it certainly is not a sufficient condition. Aristotle was right about that.

The party school image may come and go--this particular incident may help, or it may hurt, OU in the short run. But it will damage these young girls for the long haul, and that is the real tragedy here.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Crime and Punishment

When I teach introductory level courses in philosophy, it is my habit to use complete primary texts whenever possible. For example, this term I am teaching Philosophy 101 and so far we have read Plato's Gorgias in its entirety; Plato's Theaetetus in its entirety; most of Aristotle's Metaphysics, David Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, again in its entirety, and all but one section of Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil. Although that's a lot of reading, it is a lot of very good reading, and my hope is that my students will be better off in some way for having read these books, whether or not they get the grade they were hoping for in my class.

Most of those writers are not only good philosophers, but fine writers as well. (In all truth, I would say that really only two of them are good philosophers, and three of them are fine writers. Your homework: figure out which ones are which.) Plato, of course, was in antiquity and remains to this day justly famous for being not only one of the greatest philosophers of all times, but also for his unparalleled Greek style. Indeed, one should really say "Greek styles", because in many instances his command of the various mannerisms and modes of speech employed by the various historical characters he puts into his dialogues is quite impressive. His dialogue Symposium is a case in point: the characters in that dialogue are all historical persons, each with his own style of speaking and particular world-view, and Plato captures the differences without seeming forced or artificial.

Aristotle, by contrast, will probably not win any creative writing awards any time soon, in spite of the fact that he is, in my own humble opinion, the greatest philosopher who has ever lived. To be fair, he did write philosophical dialogues similar to the ones Plato has left to us, but they have all been lost. It would be interesting to have a look at one of them--ancient reports have it that they were really quite good.

When teaching Plato and Aristotle to undergraduates, of course, one almost always must teach them in English translation, and that is rather unfortunate, because every translation is also an interpretation, and not all translators are equally up to the task.

This is not a problem with the writings of David Hume, of course, because English was his native language, and I would say that of all philosophers writing in English his philosophical prose style is the best. (Willard Van Orman Quine, the 20th century American philosopher, also writes very well, but I would make him a distant second to Hume.) In some ways this can be a problem for some undergraduates because they aren't always the very best readers (in fact, our incoming freshman class this year has the poorest reading skills of any class since 1993). Plato and Aristotle, of course, are in translation, and the translations are usually made just for the college crowd. Hume is speaking sua voce, as it were, and so there's no "translator" acting as a middleman to re-render his prose into something that a college aged reader (that is, someone who can read as well as an eighth grader could in my mother's day) can handle.

As a writer, then, Hume is unequalled in English language philosophy (well, in my opinion). Philosophically, however, just about every English language philosopher (and most of the others, too--well, except maybe for those French guys) has written better stuff than Hume. David Hume is the philosophical equivalent of a one-hit wonder, an intellectual version of The Rembrandts. (They wrote the theme to the TV show Friends, in case you've never even heard their one hit.) He managed to parlay two or three pretty interesting ideas into hundreds and hundreds of pages of wonderful prose. But if you're looking for powerful and persuasive arguments, you're out of luck.

A case in point that happens to be fresh in my mind, since I've just finished teaching it in my introductory philosophy class, is his postumous essay On Immortality. Hume argues against the widely held view (at least among Christians) that the soul is immortal by raising a series of questions designed to call into question the plausibility, not of the soul's existence per se (as an empiricist he cannot reasonbly claim to know that there is no such thing), but the soul's property of being undying. In this regard he makes several metaphysical arguments that are of varying quality. He adds to these metaphysical arguments, however, some moral considerations that are of very low quality because they are grounded on a very poor understanding of the nature of Christian theology--the very theology, in fact, at which his argument is aimed.

When I was living in North Carolina I used to see an old flatbed pickup truck driving around the streets of Chapel Hill with a large painted sign in the back. On one side of the sign were the words "Hell is hot"; on the other side the words "Eternity is long". This seems to have been about the extent of Hume's understanding of the Christian teaching on heaven and hell. For him, as for many Protestants, I imagine, heaven and hell are all about rewards and punishments. If you live a good life, you go to heaven; if you live a bad life you go to hell. And you go to these places as a consequence of the way you live your life. It is not difficult to see why people, especially people like Hume, might draw the inference that heaven is a reward for right living, hell a punishment for wrong living. Hume's argument amounts to the claim that eternal punishment or reward is never going to be fitting for the sorts of lives that ordinary human beings lead, and so the whole doctrine is manifestly unjust.

But this way of looking at heaven and hell is worse than useless--it's downright dangerous. It is not wholly wrong to view heaven and hell as destinations of a certain sort that one arrives at as a "consequence" of living in a certain way, but one must understand what kind of consequence we're talking about. Suppose you're a huge football fan living here in Athens, Ohio, and you want to go see the Pro Football Hall of Fame up in Canton. So you ask me: "How do I get to the Pro Football Hall of Fame?" I say: "If you want to get to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, you have to take 50 over to Marietta, get onto I-77 and head north for about three hours. You'll see it on your left soon after getting into Canton."

OK, so you head out in your car and you drive to Marietta then up to Canton, and you arrive at the Hall of Fame. In a certain sense it is true to say that you arrived at the Hall of Fame as a "consequence" of your driving on the right roads and going in the right direction, but who on earth would think of the actual arrival at the Hall of Fame as a reward for having driven in the right direction? It's not a reward for the particular route you took, even though it is a consequence of that route. If seeing the Hall of Fame is a reward for anything (IF, mind you) it is a reward for your wanting to see it so badly, not for your driving your car in a certain direction. Our goal in life is to love God, and just as there really is only one right way to get to Canton from Athens, there is only one right way to love God--the way that God himself wills and teaches through the Magisterium. If what you want is to love God in the right way--and that is the natural end of man--then you must do what God wills and teaches through the Magisterium. And if you love God in that way, you will find yourself quite close to God--so close, in fact, that when your earthly sojourn is over you will find yourself contemplating the Beatific Vision. That state will, in a sense, be a "consequence" of the life you have lived, but it is not a reward for having lived that way. After all, we don't ordinarily reward someone for doing something that they are supposed to be doing. When I drive at the proper speed on my trip to Canton I do not get any rewards, and I can't get any rewards by threatening to drive faster and faster until somebody starts paying me some money to slow down. Trust me on that one, I've tried it.

"Ah," you might be ready to object, "but if you drive too fast you will get a ticket and that ticket will be a punishment for what you are doing and not a mere consequence." Possibly, but going to hell is not a punishment for living wrongly, but rather is a mere consequence, since it is not so much like speeding on the highway as it is like turning south instead of north at Marietta on the way to the Hall of Fame. You're heading in the wrong direction, away from God and what he wills for us, and hell is not a fine but a state of your soul in which you suffer the loss of the Beatific Vision. To say that it is not a punishment is not to say that it is not unpleasant. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth, after all. But the temptation is to see that wailing and gnashing of teeth as somehow retributive in nature, a corporal punishment inflicted on us by God, rather than as a state we bring on ourselves by turning away from God. But we already know that God does not will the loss of any sinner or the suffering of any person. So if we are lost and we do suffer it is not because of anything God does to us but because of a deliberately wrong turn that we ourselves have made away from God.

That this distinction is lost on someone like Hume is not surprising, really, given his background and given his level of interest in finding out what the faith really teaches. For him all religion is "arrogant bigotry and superstition," and his attacks against Christianity in particular show that he is not so much interested in understanding the religion as he is in bringing it down. (We can see the same attitude in his self-professed followers these days--folks like Simon Blackburn proudly call themselves "Humean" in their orientation.) I have often had a certain sympathy towards the view sometimes known as "universalism", and I may post on the topic later, but I do believe that, in the case of folks like Hume, wherever they end up, in the end, will be a consequence of--though not a punishment for--the way they formed their conscience in this life.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Eucharistic Procession

I neglected to report on the Eucharistic Procession that I announced last week. In the end it came off rather nicely. The weather wasn't great, but it wasn't miserable, either, and it was a rather moving event for some of us who participated. I was particularly proud to walk beside my son, who is eleven. As goofy as he is when he is playing with his friends, I continue to be impressed by his capacity to be serious and responsible when he needs to be. I'm even more impressed by his capacity to be serious and responsible when he wants to be, and by the frequency with which he wants to be.

For once I'm rather happy to report that at least one of my predictions failed to materialize: there were no hoards of barbarians ridiculing us as we processed down Mill Street from St. Paul's to Christ the King. Maybe it was the weather, maybe it was the after effects of the Homecoming celebrations of the nighit before, but there were very few bystanders of any kind. We walked past the Lutheran church on the way, and there were a few people standing on the front porch--I wondered what they made of it all. There were a few young men standing on a porch of a rental house, but instead of laughing or gesturing, one of them clapped solemnly as we went by. I suppose it's possible that he was being ironic, acting as though we were just one more float in the Homecoming parade; but I prefer to think that he was applauding the idea of a Eucharistic Procession.

At the end of the Procession we gathered inside Christ the King for Adoration. Attendance was very good, and I confess that I saw some folks in there that I did not expect to see. My bad.

It is unfortunate, in one sense, that such events take place so very rarely these days. But perhaps it is, in another sense, somewhat fortunate, as it helps to bring into higher relief just how special and important such events are, and how special and important is the presence of Christ among us.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

I'm Fixin' a Hole Where the Rain Gets In

I hadn't noticed the fact that just when the Miers nomination was heating up, Michael Chertoff was telling the Senate that
Our goal at DHS is to completely eliminate the 'catch and release' enforcement problem, and return every single illegal entrant, no exceptions. It should be possible to achieve significant and measurable progress to this end in less than a year.
Sir Shane over at The Catholic Knight applauds this as an instance in which conservatives have gotten their way by complaining loud and hard about the Miers nomination.

I'm not so sure, though, that conservatives are exactly united on this one. It's true that there are some conservatives who are opposed to relaxing immigration laws, but there's quite a continuum out there, from the lunatic fringe of xenophobic ranting of the Pat Buchanan variety to the more docile economic and national security arguments of members of the Bush administration. But there are some conservatives, including, by the way, your Humble Blogger, who look at the whole immigration problem from a slightly different perspective: namely the perspective of social justice.

The United States, on this view, is arguably the best ordered polity in the world and, as such, represents a form of the Common Good to which the dignity of every human being is entitled. On this view there is a sense in which it is a matter of justice to let as many people as possible into the country. Indeed, as many people as want to come in ought to be let in. It is no accident that the few conservatives who hold this view happen, for the most part, also to be Roman Catholics, since the concept of the Common Good is a solid part of the Roman Catholic moral theology that goes back to St. Augustine and beyond. But I'm not claiming that it is a widely held view even among Roman Catholic conservatives. I do claim, however, that it is the correct view for Rolman Catholic conservatives to hold.

The argument in favor of the view is not a simple one, however, and it is complicated by the very problems of national security and economics that other conservatives use to argue for stricter immigration policies. I will have more to say on this issue in the coming days, however, as I attempt to articulate what I take to be the best argument in favor of an open immigration policy.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

A Scandal to the Gentiles

In spite of my curmudgeonly attitude I have to say that Ohio University does not really deserve the "party school" reputation it seems to have garnered for itself--forget about the rioting twice per year and on major holidays, like football Saturday, overall Athens is a very quiet town and the OU campus is a beautiful and scholarly place. It's probably like this in most college towns: there's always some small subset of the student population that gets in with the "wrong crowd", and these are the folks who are the partiers. Possibly there are more partiers here than at other comparable campuses, but even so I imagine we're talking about no more than 5% of the student body on a campus of 16,000.

But those rabble-rousers sure do get themselves into the news a lot. They are a very irritating bunch in some ways, because not only are they doing their best to ruin Ohio University's reputation, they are also doing their best to ruin their own lives. They are alcoholic know-nothings, the sort of people who think it's cool to blow off studying and for whom taking classes is more of a burden than a privilege. When I think back on how hard I had to work to keep my grades up so that I could keep the meagre scholarships that were paying my way through college (although based on grades they were not "merit" scholarships in the ordinary sense, but were rather based on economic need) I confess to being more than a little irritated by the attitude on display among these folks. And of course there are other students who could not get into Ohio University because these slobs took a slot that could have gone to a more serious-minded student, and that is an injustice. Their behavior is like going to an open market where a hungry homeless person is asking for money, and buying a nice piece of fresh fruit, taking one bite of it, and then throwing it on the ground in front of the homeless person before grinding it to a pulp under foot.

For reasons that are mysterious to me, a large plurality of these "students" wind up living in rental houses on Mill Street, which runs right past the two Catholic churches in town. In fact there are only two kinds of buildings on Mill Street: Catholic churches and rental properties rented by students. No single family dwellings, no businesses. Mill Street runs east-west, and Saint Paul's Catholic Church is at the extreme western end, and Christ the King University Parish is near the eastern end. We have them surrounded, so to speak.

In between lies the Athenian version of Sodom and Gomorrah. Most of the "partying" that happens in Athens happens here, on the part of Mill Street that runs between St. Paul's and Christ the King. (There is a connecting street, Palmer Street, near Christ the King, that is also a major party zone.)

All of this is why this Sunday will be very interesting to me. This Sunday our deanery, Nativity Deanery of the Diocese off Steubenville, will celebrate the closing of the Year of the Eucharist in a special way. It will begin with Mass at St. Paul's at 11:00, followed by a Eucharistic Procession down Mill Street from St. Paul's to Christ the King, where there will be Benediction, Adoration, and more.

Let me be clear about this. We're talking about a Eucharistic Procession, with priests, altar servers, THE BISHOP OF STEUBENVILLE, and many Roman Catholics from around the diocese. This is going to be a party that will put other Mill Street parties to shame.

Did I mention that this Saturday is Homecoming?

Homecoming has not been one of the traditional "Major Party Times" here in Athens, but it is becoming a bigger party every year, and this year, with Frank Solich doing his time in Purgatory here, I expect Mill Street will be rather crowded on Saturday night, and that a lot of the local residents will be sleeping in on Sunday. I only wish I could see some of their faces when they wake up and look out their windows. Assuming they're not still too drunk to open their eyes on the daylight.

Athens is in Appalachia, and the region is not without its Christian community; but Athens itself is thoroughly pagan. There are Christian churches, of course, a Jewish synagogue, and an Islamic Center (I don't think it counts as a "mosque" in the technical sense, but we do have a substantial Muslim community here). And many students are at least nominally Christian. But by and large religious belief here is of the kookiest variety, with every bizarre superstition you can imagine represented. A Eucharistic Procession is just what this place needs.

Some might question the value of such an event, however, on the grounds that it will only bring scorn upon Our Lord. There will be mockers, there will be jeers and taunts. Maybe that kind of thing will be marginal; perhaps most will look on out of curiosity, or even join in. That would be great: a "teaching moment", as they say. But even if the majority decide to ridicule what they see, it will be no different from what He experienced at His Passion, and it is only fitting that those in the Procession pray and offer penance for this treatment of Our Lord, a small act of reparation for His suffering long ago on the Via Crucis.

When you get right down to it, there can be no down side to this event.

Monday, October 17, 2005

The Intermess

Richard Fernandez over at The Belmont Club has some interesting thoughts about the possible disintegration of the Internet. It seems there is international pressure--notably from countries such as China, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, to "share the governance" of the Internet, which is presently administered by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann) under contract to the US department of commerce. The United Nations' Working Group on Internet Governance proposes putting control of the Internet in the hands of the United Nations (surprise). The fear, apparently, is that we can't be trusted to control the Internet anymore. Maybe because it's working so poorly now the only thing we can do to save it is hand over control to the United Nations, which manages to control everything so well. But Fernandez makes an excellent point:
It is precisely because the US "has never abused its position in that way" that the Internet has become so universally accepted. It is on the basis of that "full faith and confidence" in the system that vast information flows, often transacted by companies worth many billions of dollars, can occur on a routine basis. By maintaining this medium of exchange, the United States has become the information central banker to the world. The WGIG's essentially argues that the United States might be tempted to debase the Internet in order to control it. However, a moment's reflection will convince most readers that any American attempt to behave as the WGIG's members (like Saudi Arabia and Iran) would probably be tempted to behave would instantly lead to the end of the US monopoly. The New Scientist's claim that the Internet has become too valuable to entrust it to the United States stands the logic on its head. The Internet has become too valuable, even to American companies alone, for anyone to even think of monkeying with it. Anyone that is, except the WGIG.
Read the whole thing here.

Hey Wait! You Weren't Suposed to Actually Confirm Her!

I don't know whether the Miers nomination is in actuality some sort of political head-fake designed to lull Democrats into a false sense of smugness while Bush softens them up in preparation for the real nomination, but no matter what happens it's not very good news. James Taranto, referring to the facty that Republicans generally were supportive of the Ginsburg nomination 12 years ago, has one of the best lines in today's Best of the Web:
The Republican attitude, that is, is that a Democratic president's Supreme Court nominees are entitled to support as long as they are excellent. The Democratic attitude, by contrast, seems to be that a Republican president's Supreme Court nominees are entitled to support as long as they are mediocre.
And he's completely right. Of course they will support this nominee, and they will support her precisely because she is such a lousy candidate for the job. They know perfectly well that they've dodged a second Roberts bullet on this one.

It's the rest of us who should be worried. Is Bush serious? Putting aside the Macchiavellian possibilities that might lie behind this nomination that I alluded to above, one has to wonder who the hell was presiding over the meeting where this decision was made. One begins to fear that it was Bush himself, and that this is what happens when you let him play with the grownups' toys. We wait thirty years for this chance--some of us voted for Bush only because of this possibility--and this is what we get. And the Roberts nomination, of course, was just cruel now that we see how clueless our fearless leader is. Imagine getting us all excited and everything, only to dash our hopes when the climax was upon us.

I suppose it's too much to hope for that even if all the Democrats vote for her there will be enough Republican votes against her to kill her nomination.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Who Do We Think We Are?

Representative Roscoe G. Bartlett, Republican of Maryland, is quoted in today's online edition of the New York Times as saying that two new techniques for utilizing human stem cells will get "around all of the ethical arguments except for that small minority of the pro-life community that doesn't even support in vitro fertilization."

Some politicians tend to be somewhat Sophistic, so it pays to look closely at the words they use. Two things are worth noting here. First, the expression "this will get around all of the ethical arguments" makes it sound rather like Bartlett views such arguments as, well, things to be got around, rather than as serious propositions about the nature and value of human life. This is strange coming from someone who bills himself, on his website, as "a pro-life legislator". Second, note the subtle but telling use of the word "even." Those who are opposed to in-vitro fertilization--for whatever reasons they might muster, no matter how morally or logically compelling--are quickly characterized as the fringe by that one word. Fortunately, he seems to be saying, even those wackos can be "got around" with this new technology.

With friends like this, the pro-life movement hardly needs any enemies.

The two new techniques do represent something of a step in the right direction, or so the "gradualists" would have it. The "gradualists" are folks who argue that the pro-life movement must take what it can get, and move forward "gradually", step-by-step, one law at a time. The "gradualists" fear the "absolutists", folks who want abortion (mostly, but also euthanasia, assisted suicide, and other issues) to go away immediately and forever, on the grounds that it is the unjust taking of an innocent human life. Their fear does not (usually) lie in the position of the absolutists itself, since often enough the gradualists seek the same end. What they fear is, rather, the sort of marginalization that sophists like Bartlett will consign them to if they appear to be too zealous in pursuit of the pro-life agenda. Because they fear marginalization, which would, arguably, set back the cause, they opt instead for appeasement of a sort. Seek moderate goals, objectives that will be appealing to as many folks as possible, especially centrists. The more the merrier.

The moral question at issue is not as simple as the die-hard positivists in the scientific community would have us believe, however. The question is not necessarily merely one of whether the cell in question has been taken from a human embryo, but the far more complex question of whether permitting this sort of research will erode the boundaries between what is morally acceptable and what is not in the sphere of research using human subjects who cannot even in principle give consent. The Times makes not of this:
[The] technique is likely to be welcomed by many in the middle of the debate, although it has not won over the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Richard M. Doerflinger, its deputy director for pro-life activities, dismissed the technique, saying that pre-implantation genetic diagnosis itself is unethical. The technique "is done chiefly to select out genetically imperfect embryos for discarding, and poses unknown risks of future harm even to the child allowed to be born," he said in an e-mail message.

Only a procedure that generated embryonic stem cells without creating or destroying embryos "would address the Catholic Church's most fundamental moral objection to embryonic stem cell research as now pursued," Mr. Doerflinger said in testimony last December to the President's Council on Bioethics.
It will be difficult, if not impossible, however, to convince the positivists of this.

Who are the positivists? Those who regard scientific progress of a certain sort as worth virtually any cost that is comfortable to bear. Some costs are very high, but very comfortable to bear, at least for those who support the research. The exploration of space, for example, costs hundreds of millions of dollars that could easily be spent much more prudently, but the folks who favor such research are full of eloquent sounding arguments and high sounding ideals, and they can afford to pay the tax bill, so the real cost in human suffering of diverting those dollars to useless scientific projects is lost on them. Similarly, a human embryo is easy to ignore, not only because it does not really look all that human, but untold numbers of them die every day and nobody seems to be making much of a fuss about it except for those wackos on the religious right who think, for some bizarre reason, that "even" in vitro fertilization is morally questionable.

When we see public figures like Nancy Reagan or Christopher Reeves plumping for various kinds of scientific research in the most craven and self-serving of ways we begin to see whose ideals are really the high ones and whose arguments are really the most eloquent. We begin to realize that it is at least possible that some prices are too high to pay. William Bennett got himself into some hot water for making a rather inept sounding argument in this vein, but it is worth repeating: we could probably accomplish a lot of very nice things if we were willing to pay literally any price at all. Since children who perform poorly in school tend to be the ones who later on get involved with illegal drug use, why not just euthanize anyone who does poorly on some standardized test? It's a ridiculous idea, of course, but it is no more ridiculous than breeding up dozens of human beings, picking the one we like the most, and then killing the rest, which is something that is done every day in this country. But nobody notices that it's being done, and if you point out to somebody that it is being done you are likely to be regarded as something of a kook.

Stem cell research is particularly tempting because it appears to promise much. But of course we have no guarantee that it will have the big payoff that people like Nancy Reagan hope that it will, nor do we know for sure that it is the only research program that could possibly achieve the results that are hoped for from it. To paraphrase Nancy Reagan's much more prudent husband, who once gave a tepid argument against abortion along these line: given that there are no guarantees, isn't it better to err on the side of caution?

It's easy to forget that argument when the man who made it died a horrible death, and you had to watch him die it for a decade. Wouldn't life be a lot better if there were a cure for Alzheimer's? Better for people like Ronald Reagan, sure. Better for the untold numbers of human beings who had to sacrifice their lives so that he could keep his a little while longer? Who's to say? Wny do the Nancy Reagans get to say? Why do any of us get to say who lives and who dies? Who do we think we are?

Friday, October 14, 2005

Euthanize By 04-58

The Venerable Bede of Bede's Journal has a great tag line for those "christians" who favor euthanasia: "slapping a 'use-by' date on human beings." Its from a post on the Bishop of Oxford's strange (for him) defense of the traditional teaching on euthanasia. Perhaps the good bishop has been casting an eye towards his own "use-by" label and is now getting a little nervous about what might happen to recalcitrant oldsters who don't want to go away in a state where such things are permitted. Or maybe he's just rented the DVD of Soilent Green. IT'S CLERGY! IT'S CLERGY!

Getting What You Deserve

A few posts back I got involved in a discussion regarding the nature of justice within the context of the New Testament. In the original post I had suggested that one reason why some folks might defend a position that is both opposed to abortion and in favor of the death penalty is because they may be viewing justice in a Thomistic way that was inherited from the ancient Greeks. I've been thinking a lot about justice in general these days, as I go through training to become a Court Appointed Special Advocate/Guardian ad litem. The CASA/GAL acts as an advocate for children who find themselves in the legal system due to abuse, neglect, or dependency. The state mandates a minimum amount of training for anyone who wants to act as a CASA/GAL, and I attended a training session just last night.

I and the other volunteers heard a presentation on abuse and neglect from Robert Driscoll, the assistant county prosecutor here in Athens County. His method of teaching us about the nature of abuse and neglect was to lead us through a series of examples, and let me tell you, the details were quite gruesome. We heard about children who were serially raped; who were wrapped up in duct tape and plastered to a wall for sport; who were born addicted to crack cocaine because of a mother's abuse of that drug; and who were beaten to within an inch of their life. Not all of the examples were drawn from Athens County, but in a county of 12,000 children there are roughly 120 (1% of the total) who are in the custody of the state at any given time. Bear in mind that a child does not come to be in the custody of the state until a certain amount of abuse or neglect has already been shown to a certain degree; who knows how many other children are abused or neglected but who have yet to be helped.

That's a lot of kids who are suffering far more than they deserve, if indeed it even makes sense to speak of a child "deserving" to suffer at all. It seems to me to be a situation that is manifestly unjust. Indeed, it is enough to fill an average parent with rage, rage against the scum who would treat children in such a way. So it is not surprising to find that there is a certain amount of vigilantism out there. We heard of a case in which a man was sodomizing his own nephew, but there was insufficient evidence to make a case against him in court. So three of his neighbors took matters into their own hands. They kidnapped the man and tortured him. They tortured him with a metal spatula, which they heated on a stove and used to brand him on his testicles, his buttocks, his arms, his legs, and his face. When the spatula began to cool off, they would take it to the stove and heat it up again. The three men were arrested and plead guilty to felony assault with intent to cause severe harm.

After the prosecutor had finished his presentation and left the room, one of the other volunteers said, casually, "I'm all for what those three guys did." And one or two other people nodded their agreement with the sentiment. It is a sentiment that I understand: it is frustrating that many who abuse children are never brought to justice. But I could not condone the sentiment, I could not agree that "I'm all for what those three guys did", because I am not at all "for" what they did. What they did was a lawless act of barbarity that reduced them to precisely the same state as the man they were torturing, and no civilized person can condone that.

This is not to suggest that the man they tortured did not deserve to be punished for what he did. He does deserve it. But to say that he deserves to be punished by a legitimate authority is, of course, quite different from saying that he deserves to be horribly tortured by three thugs who are enraged enough to steal the law and use it for their own purposes, whatever those might be. I'm sure that the person who professed to be "all for" what they did did not really mean to endorse the use of torture in our legal system. At least I hope she did not mean that. I think what she meant was something along the lines of "I'm glad that bastard got some kind of payback for what he did." But if the man had been convicted of child abuse, he would not have been sentenced to a physical beating and burning at the hands of three of his neighbors. He manifestly did not get what he deserved.

What did he "deserve"? Even if the person who professed to be "all for" torture really only meant that she was all for doing something to punish the guy, even if that meant doing it outside the law, it seems that in her mind justice is all about rewarding good behavior and punishing bad behavior. That is, her attitude at least has the appearance of being an endorsement of the principle "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth," the so-called lex talionis that is rejected by Our Lord in the Sermon on the Mount. Of course, that principle would dictate that the man be sodomized, not that he be branded with a spatula, so of course he should have gone to jail, but never mind.

It doesn't pay to be made nervous about people who profess to be "all for" doing something when the law doesn't do it for us, because it is human nature to want some kind of "payback" when we are wronged. Even within the Christian understanding of sin there is a sense of retribution: many times the penances that we must do after Reconcilliation are intended as a small contribution to the process of healing that is begun in Christ, a way to make some reparation, however small, for the wrong that we have done. In antiquity the penances were rather spectacular: people were sometimes made to stand outside the local church day after day for months on end wearing sackcloth and a rope around their neck. Compare that to the five Our Fathers that I usually get. Or consider the penitential process as it was understood by the Cappadocian Father, Saint Basil the Great:
The man who has been polluted with his own sister, either on the father's or the mother's side, must not be allowed to enter the house of prayer, until he has given up his iniquitous and unlawful conduct. And, after he has come to a sense of that fearful sin, let him weep for three years standing at the door of the house of prayer, and entreating the people as they go in to prayer that each and all will mercifully offer on his behalf their prayers with earnestness to the Lord. After this let him be received for another period of three years to hearing alone, and while hearing the Scriptures and the instruction, let him be expelled and not admitted to prayer. Afterwards, if he has asked it with tears and has fallen before the Lord with contrition of heart and great humiliation, let kneeling be accorded to him during other three years. Thus when he shall have worthily shown the fruits of repentance, let him be received in the tenth year to the prayer of the faithful without oblation; and after standing with the faithful in prayer for two years, then, and not till then, let him be held worthy of the communion of the good thing.
Hoo boy! Those were the good old days! I think people would take the reception of Holy Communion a little more seriously if they thought that this might be the only way to come back to it after Confession.

The penances prescribed by Basil the Great are severe, but it is interesting to note that they do not involve any physical or spiritual harm. Quite the opposite: the acts one does as acts of penance are always acts that anyone, even the non-sinner, could do as a voluntary act of worthy and salutary self-denial. One is never required, as a penance, to burn one's own testicles with a hot spatula, or find three thugs to beat one to a pulp. Undergoing that kind of thing helps no one: it does not alter the fact that a wrong was committed, nor does it have any effect of healing the wrongdoer and helping him to live life more in accord with the Will of God.

Someone may object: but justice isn't about healing the wrongdoer, it's about righting the wrong, giving some sort of recompense to the wronged parties for what they had to endure at the hands of the wrongdoer. After all, at thee last judgment will there not be a great wailing and gnashing of teeth for the unjust?

This is an interesting objection, since it is an outright rejection of the very principle I was ascribing earlier to those who endorse this kind of thinking: it is a rejection of the Thomistic/Greek conception of justice as the spiritual analog of medicine, that is, the art of healing the sick soul. This objection is nothing but retributive. Retributive justice, however, does not do what this objection claims that it will have the effect of doing: it does not, in fact, obtain any kind of "recompense" for the wronged parties. How could it? It does not un-rape the child, un-kill the murder victim, restore destroyed property. It merely causes suffering in the wrongdoer, suffering that the wronged parties take some satisfaction in. Far from being a manifestation of some virtue, it is a grotesque indulgence in some of the worst of human passions and desires for revenge.

It is true, of course, that we are told that there will be a great wailing and gnashing of teeth for the unjust. But that is not intended to comfort those of us who have managed to squeeze through the narrow gate. It is not to give the unjust some kind of "payback" for their unjust ways that they find themselves where they do. Rather, they find themselves where they do merely because that is the state of their souls--it is the natural entailment of their corrupted wills that they are in a place of suffering, and their wailing and the gnashing of their teeth is not due to the fact that they are being burned on the testicles but to the fact that they are, by their very natures, unhappy people. Their wills are not able to pursue the end for which all men are created, the Beatific Vision, and to be that sort of person is, by definition, to be unhappy. In short, they are not unhappy because of anything that God is doing to them. They are unhappy because of the way they are.

Of course it is not as satsifying to be told, as my mother sometimes told me, that bad people are their own punishment. The retributive side of our human nature wants something more than that and, arguably, that is why we have the system of justice that we do. But positive law is not the same thing as natural law or the moral law (though in principle it should be). Will we be any happier when we internalize that? Probably not, since we will still be human, all too human. We won't be any happier; but we might be better.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

This I Believe

Ordinarily I find myself a little put off by the NPR series "This I Believe". Some of the folks taking the podium in that forum strike me as a little full of themselves. I don't want to vent about it, though, since it's too close to blogging to be a comfortable thing to whine about.

However, this installment struck me as particularly good, and I want to recommend it. It's by an African American man who has done very well for himself professionally, and he attributes his success to the good parenting he got from his mother. Since I was essentially raised by my mother I'm always on the lookout for good stories about single moms doing a good job, and this is a pretty good story. It's also rather inspiring.

Monday, October 10, 2005

The Real Dave Armstrong

Reading Dave Armstrong's blog Cor ad Cor Loquitur always reminds me of when I was in graduate school, because I used to know a guy who was just as much a fiend for apologetics as Dave. Then, when I happened upon a picture of Dave Armstrong, I began to wonder whether his name--or my friend's--isn't a pseudonym, since they look just alike and, come to think of it, I've never seen them in the same room together....

But as Theophilus at Vivificat rightly notes, internet persona are often--if not always!--quite different from reality. So he was excited to meet the real Dave Armstrong in person last June. Reading his account today, I'm convinced that I, too, would like to meet this extraordinary man. My mother-in-law lives in Ann Arbor, which is only half an hour from Detroit, so...who know?

Friday, October 07, 2005

The Ethic of Life

I'm beginning to think that Mike Liccione is a genius. After all, he often says out loud what I have secretly thought for years. In a post yesterday I mentioned briefly and in passing that I, personally, think that opposition to abortion and to capital punishment go hand-in-hand, and Mike makes an eloquent and more detailed statement to that effect today.

I did not always agree, however. Like many conservatives, I was willing to draw a distinction between those persons who are innocent of any wrongdoing and those who have committed capital crimes. Since the Church has explicitly argued that capital punishment is not per se wrong, one must look somewhere for a justification for its application, given that the Church has also explicitly argued that every human person has equal dignity and worth. The only such judgment that I could find, when I was a supporter of capital punishment, was the argument from justice: if a capital criminal is to be executed, it can only be because it is what is due him as a matter of justice. There are actually two principles at work here. The first is the assumption that the physical death of a human being is not the same thing as the spiritual death of a human being--an argument that is not all that bad even if it is stolen from that old pagan Plato. The other is the equally Greek notion that it is wrong not to give someone something that he needs and/or deserves. If you come upon a man suffering from a head wound and needing a transfusion of blood, it would be cruelly wrong not to give him a transfusion if you can do so with no threat to yourself (say, from a blood bank when one is available). So too, if you come upon a person needing an administration of justice, it is in fact wrong to deprive him of that, if it is something that is rightfully his. I call this a "Greek" notion because (guess who?) Plato argued that all true justice is rehabillatory, never punitive or retributive. In fact he argued that justice is the spiritual analogue of medicine: as medicine cures a sick body, the administration of justice cures a sick soul.

But we are not ancient Greeks. Should we adopt, without critical examination, their attitude towards justice? Mike offers an interesting peroration to his post:
What this whole debate shows me is that many Catholics don't adopt Catholicism as their primary template of thought. Especially on matters of political significance, their thinking is formed elsewhere and brought to their Catholicism. That shows they aren't Catholic enough. Of course few of us are; if we were, we'd all be saints, and I'm certainly no saint. But granted I find it harder to behave than to believe, I can and do expect consistency of belief and strive constantly to attain it. I don't understand why more Catholics don't do the same.
I would say that he is just about right, but I would perhaps make one emendation. Perhaps it is not because some folks are not "Catholic enough", but because some folks are Catholic in an outmoded way. They are still reading matters of justice through a lens that was inherited by the Schoolmen from the Greeks.

In my view, there is nothing wrong, and plenty good, about Scholasticism and Greek philosophy. But we are not bound to accept all of it de fide. I particularly like Mike's bit about adopting "Catholicism as [one's] primary template of thought." Doing that, I imagine, means transforming one's life in such a way that petty political attitudes must be abandoned in favor of more transcendental attitudes about the dignity and worth of other human persons and a foreswearing of violence and destruction as a method of dealing with human persons whom we dislike. Plato, bless his heart, may have had the right idea in principle, but much real life justice just is about retribution, whether we like to admit it or not. To avoid the danger of misusing the precious gift of just judgment in that way, why not use it more, well, judiciously?

"Coming to the Lord" and Real Christians

The other day as I was doing my Morning Penance--listening to NPR's Morning Edition--I heard a conversation with Harriet Mier's pastor, who was talking about the day she "came to the Lord", by which he meant the day she abandoned the Catholic faith in favor of Evangelical Christianity. The implication was that while she was a Catholic she was not really with the Lord. Now, responding to a remark by Andrew Sullivan, Mark Shea has argued that this is "evangelicalese" for "true discipleship" and has nothing to do with denominational affiliation:
Catholics who show evidence of a conscious attempt to be a disciple (such as, for instance, John Paul or Mother Teresa) are generally reckoned as "real Christians" by Evangelicals like Dobson. Conversely, fellow Protestants who are obviously *not* interested in discipleship are just as likely to be dismissed by Evangelicals as mere ritualists, practitioners of "Churchianity" and so forth. It's not a denominational thing for most Evangelicals, it's a perception of serious discipleship.
I've never been an evangelical myself, so I'll defer to Mark's expertise there, but I'm not so sure that a little circumspection is not in order here, because I've lost count of the number of times I've heard folks talking about conversions away from Catholicism as "coming to the Lord" or "becoming a Christian" etc., whereas I have never heard of a conversion in the other direction being described in a similar way. In short, it's actually rather difficult to believe that this is not, in fact, a "denominational thing", even if it is so only unconsciously.

It is striking, for example, to think that it takes discipleship on the order of John Paul the Great's or Blessed Mother Teresa's to tip Dobson's Christianity Scale in the right direction for a Catholic, but for evangelicals all you have to do is avoid "mere ritual" and other evidence of "Churchianity". What about the rest of us? It is hard to avoid the suspicion that, when it comes to the average man in the pew, Dobson is more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt if your pew is lacking kneelers.

Perhaps the main reason why this is so also serves to illustrate why it is difficult to be put at ease by Mark Shea's reassurances to the contrary. Praxis means a great deal both to Catholics and to Evangelicals: we are what we do. But Evangelicals and Catholics, as "together" as they may be on some points of political praxis, are miles apart on theological praxis. Everyone should avoid "mere" ritual, of course, no problem there. The problem is that what Catholics take to be essential ritualistic practices are dismissed by many, if not most, Evangelicals as being nothing more than "mere" ritual. For most Evangelicals "true discipleship" is, apparently, something that can be measured (otherwise there would be no point in talking about someone "coming to the Lord", since it would be impossible to have any adequate idea as to when it would be reasonable to talk about such an event), and yet it is not measured by any yardstick that Catholics can recognize. Similarly, as a Catholic I, too, place the highest value not on "mere" ritual but on "true" discipleship, but I find it difficult to believe that anyone who rejects the Magisterium of the Church of Rome or who misunderstands so seriously the character of the Sacraments is really a "true" disciple. I can claim all I like that it's all about "true" discipleship and not a "denominational thing", but if one defines "true" discipleship in terms of the praxis of a certain denomination or set of denominations, then it remains a "denominational thing" nonetheless.

When I first heard the pastor's remarks, my immediate reaction was the same as Andrew Sullivan's, not Mark Shea's. Is this because I'm a Catholic? Possibly, but I doubt it. As I said above, I've never been an Evangelical myself, but I've known plenty, and my reaction was due not to my being some sort of knee-jerk anti-Evangelical bigot but to my first-hand knowledge of how many Evangelicals think. It is unfair to generalize, of course, so one must admit the possibility that Mier's pastor intended the remark in the sense in which Mark Shea took it, and of course that sense is the most charitable interpretation as well. But just because something is logically possible we are not required to believe that it is as possible as any other alternative. To determine relative probabilities one must rely on what observational evidence one can muster, and so far the evidence seems to me to favor Sullivan's interpretation.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Pitchforking Babies

Within seconds of publishing the previous post, I read this wonderful piece by Tom Kreitzberg. Tom is talking about the "logical standards" that it is tempting to apply in every day conversations and he raises the question of how reasonable (!) it is to have such expectations in such conversations:
Not that I deny there is such a thing as "foolish consistency." Insisting on the same prudential actions in different situations with obvious and relevant distinctions could be described that way.

It seems to me, though, that, on the list of all the faults we humans are heir to, "consistency" of any kind wouldn't rank very high. On the contrary, I'd say foolish inconsistency is far more common.
We want to hold people to logical standards because that's what enables dialectical progress, and when folks are inconsistent, it's impossible to get anywhere with them in a conversation. But Tom is one of the finest judges of human nature that I know:
This thought came to me after reading a comment elsewhere that I took strong exception to. I ran through a list of the direct logical corollaries of that statement, picked out a particularly bad one, and began to compose a reply along the lines of, "Oh, really? If you think that, then you must think this."

I stopped myself before sending it. When people say such things to me, they're often wrong, because "this" in no way follows from "that." Before I fired off my unanswerable answer, I wanted to make sure that the this I had picked really did follow as the night the day from the that the other fellow had asserted.

That's when it occurred to me: It doesn't matter whether the this followed from the that. I was dealing with a human being, and human beings are perfectly capable of holding, in fact quite likely to hold, contradictory positions. The fact that P implies Q by no means means the fact I hold P implies I hold Q. "If you think that, then you must think this" ain't so.

One consequence is that devastating replies aren't always so devastating. "If you're right, then there's nothing wrong with pitchforking babies!" may be logically true, but it can be countered by a foolishly inconsistent, "Please, I'm not saying it's okay to pitchfork babies."
This is just marvelous stuff, and I quote it at length because it is said so much more eloquently than I could have said it, yet it is precisely what I have often thought myself.

Perhaps it borders on being a venial sin to become overly irritated by the logical inconsistency of the person on the street; if so, then it is a sin that I am particularly prone to. I can't really blame anyone but myself, but it is tempting to blame my job, since philosophy is particularly anal-retentive when it comes to logical consistency. Socrates, in fact, can be said to have shaped all of Western philosophy in the manner of his own method, the Socratic ad hominem, which had no other purpose than to show folks that they hold inconsistent beliefs and to get them to revise, reject, or reform whatever might be inconsistent in their worldview.

The "Socratic ad hominem" argument is really nothing more than the so-called "Socratic Method" that some folks may already have heard about. It is an "ad hominem" argument in the sense that it adopts the attitudes and presuppositions of some other person and uses them against that person's own point of view. (Note that this is not the usual sense of the expression "ad hominem"--in many contexts the phrase denotes a personal attack rather than an argument, but the Socratic ad hominem is not fallacious--it is in fact a valid argument form.) The way it usually works is this. Socrates would ask his interlocutor to say what he really thinks about some subject, and then, having elicited some kind of commitment from his interlocutor, Socrates would proceed to ask questions about that commitment that were designed to expose the logical consequences of maintaining the commitment. Eventually a logical consequence would be exposed that the interlocutor himself did not agree with. Since this unhappy result was the direct consequence of having that initial commitment, the interlocutor would be forced, on pain of irrationality, to either accept the unaccaptable consequence or else reject the initial commitment.

None of this would work at all if folks were not interested in having "rational beliefs", rational in the sense of cohering. Anyone can fill a basket full of incompatible beliefs pretty easily: "I believe abortion is wrong, but I also believe it's right; I believe capital punishment is wrong, but I also believe it's right..." etc. But it might be rather embarrassing to have others look through your basket when it's filled with that kind of stuff. What most of us really want is a basket full of beliefs that at least appear to be reasonably related to each other. That's what the Socratic ad hominem is designed to assess: is it, in fact, the case, that your beliefs are rational in this sense? If not, it's time to clean out your basket.

One way to approach Tom's worry that "'If you think that, then you must think this' ain't so" is to replace the "must" with "ought to". We're talking rational normativity here: if I believe that p entails q, and I also believe p, then I ought to believe q even if I do not, in fact, believe q. And others may reasonably expect me to believe q. If I don't believe q, that is a problem with me, not with the expectations of others. I am not fitting in to the rational discourse game that is human society. I am making myself, literally, a misfit.

Well, I can't write as well as Tom Kreitzberg, or reason as well as Socrates, but I suppose I can bitch about as well as anybody. And, all appearances to the contrary, of course I'm not advocating pitchforking babies.

More Muddled Thought

There is a report today at CNS about "Cardinal Mario Pompedda, the retired head of the Apostolic Signature, the Vatican's supreme court," who "said Catholics might find sufficient reasons to consider such a candidate a 'lesser evil' in a field of imperfect choices." This contradicts the opinions of some American Cardinals and Bishops, who agree with the teaching of Humanae vitae that it is never permissible to choose evil, even a lesser one, in order either to avoid a greater evil or to bring about a good.

There will be certain occasions where one is forced to act in such a way as to choose among an array of possible courses of action that are all evil to varying degrees, and in those cases, of course, one ought to choose the lesser evil. For example, suppose you are living in Nazi Germany and you are hiding Jews in your basement. The Gestapo comes to your door and asks you, point blank, "Are you hiding any Jews in your basement?" What ought you to do? Arguably your choices are none of them happy. If you lie, you commit a sin with no guarantee that you will actually save any lives; if you tell the truth, you seem almost certainly to endanger innocent lives; if you say nothing at all, you will probably get yourself arrested or worse, and it seems likely that your house will be searched no matter what you do. It's not clear that any of these choices are unambiguously good, and it's possible that they are all, in fact, bad (though Kant's view was that we are not obligated to say anything in such situations, and we would be acting morally to keep out mouths shut even if that had the effect of getting our house searched). In cases such as this, our Catechism teaches, we must attempt to do what causes the least harm. But we are never permitted to choose to do something evil--we may only act wrongly if there is literally no other option.

In the case of voting for a pro-abortion politician there is almost always a viable, morally licit alternative. Take the last American presidential election, for example. Suppose you are a voter who assumes, as a criterion of choice, that what you think of as a "consistent ethic of life" will require opposition both to abortion and to capital punishment (I'm not attempting to argue that this understanding of the ethic of life is correct, though that is in fact what I myself happen to believe). As it happens, in the last election such a voter would be SOL. The Democratic candidate opposed capital punishment but promised to do all he could to make abortions easier to procure. The Republican candidate opposed abortion but supported capital punishment. According to Cardinal Pompedda, it may be the case that our putative voter may "find sufficient reasons" to consider one candidate preferable to the other, but it is difficult for me to imagine how such a voter could possible claim that support of abortion, which has the very real effect of killing a million people every year, could possibly weigh in the balance against support of capital punishment, which results in far fewer deaths and arguably need not result in any at all.

Perhaps what Cardinal Pompedda means is that, all in all the support of abortion may not necessarily tip the scales in favor of a candidate. After all, Bush not only supports capital punishment, he also supports the war in Iraq, the destruction of our environment, the oppression of innocent civilians, the enrichment of corporations, blah blah blah yadda yadda yadda ad nauseam. So, OK, let's put all that in the balance. Does all of that stuff (which is, in fact, nowhere near as morally clear as the case of abortion) really cancel out the deaths of one million innocent human beings? If Cardinal Pompedda thinks so, then the most charitable description of his moral intuitions that I can think of is "banal."

Clearly to procure an abortion and to vote for a politician who merely wants to make it easier to procure an abortion are two different acts. The former is the direct, intentional killing of an innocent human being. The latter is more like hiring a hit man to do the job for you. Cardinal Pompedda quoted from Cardinal Ratzinger's 2004 memo to U.S. bishops:
-- A Catholic who deliberately voted for a candidate precisely because of the candidate's pro-abortion (or pro-euthanasia) stand would be guilty of "formal cooperation in evil."

-- When a Catholic does not share a candidate's stand in favor of abortion but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered "remote material cooperation," which is permitted when there are proportionate reasons.
Again with the "proportionate reasons"! Surely no sane person is going to suggest that there is any combination of social engineering programs or pork barrel welfare programs that will really count as proportionately equal to one million wrongful deaths a year? Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that the conservative/libertarian reluctance to have the state provide free medical care to anyone who wants it is per se wrong, and that, as a consequence of this wrongness, any death that is the result of a lack of proper health care might be able to be put in the balance next to the direct, intentional killing of an innocent child. But it seems unlikely to me that this sort of indirect loss of life, intended by virtually no one, is really on a par with the intentional killing that is abortion, nor is it likely that the unintended deaths caused by lack of proper health care will really reach into the millions per year.

It is possible that, like Cardinal Ratzinger, Cardinal Pompedda is talking in very abstract terms, meaning to say only that it is not by definition a sin to vote for a pro-abortion candidate, just so long as one does not vote for that candidate because of his pro-abortion views. This kind of "remote material cooperation" is not something to be proud of, of course, but certainly it is at least logically possible that it could happen and not be sinful.

But since there are always viable alternatives in a presidential election (our putative voter, for example, could have chosen to vote for neither Bush nor Kerry) I cannot imagine a case--beyond one that is merely logically possible--being made out to excuse a Catholic vote for John Kerry or any other U.S. politician who supports abortion rights to the exent that the Democratic Party does.

But we do live in debached times and, if modern politics demonstrates anything with a reasonable degree of certainty, it is that most voters don't bother to think these matters through very carefully. Earlier this evening I saw a woman with a button affixed to her backpack that said "Against abortion? Don't have one!" There, in a nutshell, is the frightening smallness of mind of today's polemicists. Against murder? Don't kill anybody. Against kiddie porn? Don't buy any. Against rape and incest? Don't have sex with your siblings against their will. But who are we to tell other folks who do enjoy these sorts of things that they ought not to engage in such activities? And for goodness sakes don't even think about bringing your hackneyed Judaeo-Christian-centrist oppressive ideas into the public square to enslave the rest of us! It's one thing to have religious attitudes in the privacy of your own home, where everyone is welcome to be a narrow-minded bigot if they so desire, but there's no reason that the rest of civilized society should put up with such monstrous folks as Christians, Jews, Moslems, and other self-appointed arbitri morum.

It's too bad that lawyers like Pompedda don't stop to consider the ramifications of their words before inflicting them on an unsuspecting public. I'm sure he meant well, though, and he's really only guilty of a remote material cooperation with evil.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Ecumenism Shmecumenism

I used to be irritated by stories like this, because I love not only Christ's Church but the Truths that He teaches us through His Church's Magisterium, and it's hard to keep a calm head about one when someone is attacking Christ in this way. But over the years I've mellowed a little. In particular, one can't help but be amused by this:
We Are Church argued that the dogma of the transubstantiation-- the teaching that the bread and wine at Mass are transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ-- is unacceptable to Protestants, and thus impedes ecumenical unity. The group decried traditional forms of Catholic piety, such as Eucharistic adoration and processions, as tending to make an "idol" of the Blessed Sacrament.

This, in itself, is enough to show that these folks are not the sharpest tools in the shed. OK, so transubstantiation is "unacceptable to Protestants". This is given as the reason why we ought to abandon the dogma. Well, the abandonment of the dogma is "unacceptable to all orthodox Roman Catholics", so, if unacceptability is to be our criterion of choice, then by their own definition we ought not to abandon it.

I suppose they would say that unacceptability simpliciter is not the actual criterion, but "unaccpetability to Protestants." If that is their true criterion, they have abandoned the Principle of Sufficient Reason, since there's no compelling reason to accept the judgment of Protestants over that of (centuries of) Roman Catholics, other than the fact that this will get the job done.

Since people are no longer burned at the stake for being Protestant, my view is that we should let folks who reject the dogma go ahead and be Protestants. That's what We Are Church should do--well, in fact, have already done. If there is no difference, as they think, between believing the dogma and rejecting the dogma, then there is no harm in being in a Protestant community where it is rejected, and ecumenism is pointless. If there is an important difference between believing it and rejecting it, as we claim, then it would be folly to reject it, and true ecumenism would recognize that fact.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

The Evolution of the Soul

In thinking some more about the controversy between ID and evolution, it occurred to me that evolution, as a description of something that happens to us (that is, we species) physically, is not a particularly bad metaphor for something that happens to us (that is, we individual body/soul entities) spiritually.

A biological species is an interesting metaphysical entity in some ways. There is a fair amount of controversy among philosophers of biology as to what is the best way to view the concept of biological species--are they individuals, groups, mere heaps, nothing at all--but intuitively at least I think that, when it comes to a biological species, most folks are like Supreme Court Justices looking at pornography: they know it when they see it. A species incorporates in itself all the information that is also distributed severally among the individual members of the species. Through time the species as a whole adapts or fails to adapt to the various aspects of the environment (physical and cultural) that apply selection pressure to the genome. If the species fails to adapt adequately, it may be driven to exstinction. That is, a time may come when that species fails to exist. Unless you are the most spectacularly out of touch fundie literalist, you think that this is exactly what happened to some of the dinosaurs, while others of them adapted over and over until now they are unrecognizable as dinosaurs because, well, they no longer are dinosaurs.

A species adapts or fails to adapt in the form of its individual instantiations, the particulars that constitute the species. Some die, some do not, those that manage to reproduce before dying pass on their genetic information to another generation. Those that reproduce more than others give their genetic information a kind of advantage in the gene pool, as it were. An individual human being is, of course, also a member of a biological species. An individual human being can die without leaving any offspring and the species will continue. At least for a while--who knows how long they can keep this up in Europe. But anyway. There is something about each individual human that does not die with its body: the soul is immortal, at least in principle. But that does not entail that it cannot "adapt" in its own way.

Each time we sin, we turn away from God, and because God is life, we also turn away from life, from our own survival. Dying, decay, and death are all physical signs of our fallen nature precisely because to fall is to reject life and bring upon oneself the consequences of that rejection. Just as the man who refuses to take a curing medicine will eventually die, so too the man who continually refuses to accept God's will also, eventually, will die.

To refuse to accept God's will, to turn away from life and towards dying, decay, and death, is not a very "adapted" way to "live", since the person who lives life that way is rather like a species that is fully unadapted to its environment. We were intended for life with God, but when we turn from that life we choose to live in the toxic environment of our own concupiscence.

How can we "adapt" our souls and, as the heliotrope turns its face towards the sun, turn our wills towards God? The Sacrament of Reconciliation. Each time we repent, amend our lives, confess our sins and receive Sacramental Absolution, our souls are healed of the damage done them by turning away from God, giving us a new lease on life, just as a species can survive by adapting to the structure of its environment. The difference, of course, is that each of us has only one soul, but that soul does die, if only a little, each time we sin. If we do not repent before our time is up, our soul may become like the Tyrannosaur. But if we do adapt through Confession and amendment of life, we may survive for eternity.

The similarity to biological evolution lies in the notion of change. A species cannot adapt without changing in some way. Either the expressed phenotypes must be different or the genome itself must be modified. So, too, we cannot amend our lives without changing something about us that has gone awry. The New Testament Greek word for repentance is metanoia, literally a "changing of one's mind": to repent of our sins we must make something different about ourselves, and that change will, with God's help, enable us to survive.

We are people of the Incarnation--in our experience the physical and the spiritual are inextricably linked. That is why we have the Sacraments, and that is why it is not really all that surprising to find that an extremely important aspect of the physical world--adaptation by natural selection--is isomorphic with an even more important aspect of the spiritual world.

Homily for Requiem Mass of Michael Carson, 20 November 2021

  Readings OT: Wisdom 3:1-6, 9 [2, short form] Ps: 25 [2] NT: Romans 8:31b-35, 37-39 [6] Alleluia verse: John 6:39 [...