Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Faith and Reason and Belief and Unbelief

Not entirely connected to my post of yesterday regarding unbelief, but Mike Liccione has a very nice post up at Sacramentum Vitae on Benedict's Regensberg address, discussing along the way the important of reason in any viable form of theism.

Medieval Art in Chicaco

Here is a review of a recent volume of Museum Studies, for those with interests in medieval art and culture and who can hie themselves to Chicago now and then. The review was published by The Medieval Review, a listserv subscription service out of Western Michigan.

Nielsen, Christina M., ed. Devotion & Splendor. Medieval art at the Art Institute of Chicago. Museum Studies, vol. 30, number 2. Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago, 2004, also distributed by Yale University Press. Pp. 96. $16.95. ISBN The Art Institute of Chicago, 0-86559-214-4, Yale Univ. Press 0-295-98458-9.

Reviewed by Gabriele Neher
University of Nottingham

Devotion & Splendor. Medieval Art at the Art Institute of Chicago is a deceptively modest looking paperback of just under 100 pages, with a very handsome detail of a Catalan fifteenth-century depiction of Saint George killing the dragon on the cover. What it actually contains is an up-to-date catalogue of all of the 58 pieces that make up the medieval holdings of the Art Institute of Chicago, supplemented by an Introduction by Bruce Boucher, the Eloise W. Martin Curator of European Decorative Arts and Sculpture and Ancient Art at the Art Institute and an essay on the provenance of the exhibits written by the editor of the volume, Christina M. Nielsen. All in all, the result is a very interesting collection, which is more than just another catalogue-- the difference here is in placing the items in the context of, for want of another word, "fashions" in museum's purchasing and collecting. The other interesting feature of this catalogue is the fact that it cuts across media, and thus brings objects together which would, ordinarily, be displayed in different departments.

The origin of this special edition of Museum Studies was an exhibition at the Art Institute in Chicago, from September 25, 2004-January 2, 2005, where the 58 items catalogued were displayed in two adjacent galleries. The range of the objects assembled is impressive, and highlights the quality of the medieval holdings of the Art Institute; its eclectic mix of medieval artifacts covers the sixth to the fifteenth centuries, and includes objects as varied as a Northern Spanish Altarpiece (the Ayala Altarpiece, Cat. No. 36) from 1396 and a Siculo-Arabic ivory casket from the first quarter of the thirteenth-century (Cat. No. 2). Also included in the collection are some superb examples of textiles (such as Cat. Nos. 7, 8, 21, 29 etc.), and such diverse treasures as a drawing by Pisanello (Cat. No. 10), a pilgrimage jug from the sixth century and a number of enamels and illuminated manuscripts. Each of the works is illustrated, many in full color, and given an extensive catalogue entry focusing on the use and context of the item.

Christina M. Nielsen's introductory essay, "'To step into another world': building a medieval collection at the Art Institute of Chicago" is best introduced by quoting the author herself. She writes that "when viewed as an ensemble, the museum's medieval works are in many respects as informative about the twentieth-century--its personal tastes, social influences and art-market trends--as they are about the Middle Ages' (7). She traces the origins of the collection to a taste for all things Gothic in the late nineteenth-century, and especially the 1890s, when American collectors became interested in medieval artifacts. A number of wealthy local philanthropists led the way in Chicago, amongst them Mr. and Mrs. Martin A. Ryerson and Mary Mitchell Blair. The latter's interest in the medieval highlights the significance not only of individual patrons acquiring and bequeathing medieval objects to the Art Institute, but also the role played by collective groups of patrons such as the Antiquarian Society of the Art Institute of Chicago. Nielsen traces changes in collection patterns, and the increasing professionalisation of museum purchasing in her informative essay, whose highlights are the 11 illustrations which show some of the various ways in which parts of the Art Institute's objects have been displayed over the years. The images also tell of the many and varied fortunes of some of the objects depicted; some have remained in the collection of the Art Institute and are highly valued for their rarity and quality, others have been shown to be inferior or fake objects, and have been removed from view. Other changes in the display relate to the medium of the objects in the collection. Where previously collections were arranged according to donor, the medieval objects of the Art Institute are now dispersed in various departments according to their medium and date of creation.

All in all, Devotion & Splendor rewards a closer engagement with its catalogue entries and opening essay by raising questions that go far beyond the matter of the medieval collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Monday, October 30, 2006


I've just returned from a brief hiatus, off to the American Catholic Philosophical Association to give a paper on the logic of relations in Saint Anselm's De processione Spiritus Sancti. I'd like to say that I gave the paper to a packed house, and indeed, I could say that with some truth, but it would be misleading, since the house in which I gave my paper was an annex to the main hotel where the convention was meeting, and it was packed because we were meeting in a rather small room in that house. Not exactly a broom closet, but not Shea Stadium either.

The meeting of the ACPA was up in Granville Ohio this year, at Dennison University, so I was able to just drive up there on the day of my talk. It's not a particularly long drive, but it certainly afforded me plenty of time to mull over some things that have been percolating in my psukhĂȘ for a while. Frequent readers of this blog will remember that I had occasion to meet Eamon Duffy a couple weeks ago, and that meeting was rather an inspiration for me, since he is a great Catholic in addition to being a great scholar, and I found myself contemplating this congruence of intellect and faith. Some folks, it seems, find intellect to be a stumbling block to faith, and some folks don't. This is an interesting epistemological problem: the limits of knowledge are roughly the same for everyone, so why is it that, in any given sample of reasonably well-educated persons, you will find an admixture of everything from fanatical commitment to fundamentalist religion to abject atheism?

My reasons for pondering this problem are far from academic in themselves, however. Like many religious persons, educated or not, I sometimes have my own doubts about things, and that can be rather troubling. In re-reading Eamon Duffy's Faith of Our Fathers I was struck by the fact that he begins with a chapter called "When Belief Fails", in which he recounts how the sudden death of a very close acquaintance nearly drove him to atheism. In the end it did not, but his faith was forever changed by that experience. Those who have read Bertrand Russell's famous essay, Why I am not a Christian, will remember that for Russell, the arguments for God's existence all fail, and the immoral behavior of religious folks is a sufficient reason for rejecting religious belief (somewhat ironic, if one consider's Russell's own behavior, but then he was never religious to begin with). Sir Anthony Kenny has a new book out called What I Believe, a surprisingly short little book given the title, and there are two chapters in it called "Why I Am Not a Theist." Presumably it's a little more difficult to explain something like that if one was once a Roman Catholic priest. Richard Dawkins, in his most recent book The God Delusion explains with great polemical force that there exists no rational warrant for belief in God in the first place, and so we must explain it by appealing to a feature of the human genome that can be explained in terms of natural selection, namely, the very useful phenotype of a childlike trust in one's parents when very young.

For me, none of these cases has much resonance, though if I were asked with whom do I have the most sympathy, I would have to say my own experience comes closer to that of Dawkins than the others. I can certain empathize with what Professor Duffy went through, but I cannot say that I ever suffered a moment of grief such that I was tempted to abandon faith entirely. My question, at such times, has always been something along the lines of "What kind of a being are you?" rather than "Oh, I guess there's no God then...too bad, really." In other words, I continued to believe that God was there, or else I was just too cowardly to believe that he wasn't there. I came through such feelings relatively unscathed, which I now believe to have been more than just damn fool's luck. If I learned anything from my suffering, it has been that suffering can be redemptive and, hence, is not in itself something to be avoided at any and all cost.

Richard Dawkins is not a bad evolutionary biologist, but as I have remarked before in this space that does not preserve him from making some remarkably bad--indeed, in some cases embarrassingly bad--arguments when he steps outside the domain of his own area of expertise. To notice the badness of his arguments, however, is not the same thing as to be fully immune from their effects. This will be particularly true for folks who, like me, work very closely with science and its foundations as a matter of professional expertise. There are a variety of different models of scientific explanation available to those who like to study such things--perhaps a very great variety, if one happens to be an anti-realist--and any one of them can be deployed to explain virtually anything that is out there to be explained. In light of that fact it can be very tempting, in difficult or worrisome times, to wonder whether the explanations one has aren't really all the explanation there is. To put that a little more straightforwardly: if one studies biology and physics and neuropsychology and who knows what all, one may sometimes find oneself wondering what the concept of God is supposed to be for in all of this. If I can account for good behavior, bad behavior, natural behavior, thoughts, actions, feelings, planetary evolution, the origin of life, and the rest, without ever appealing to God as an explanans, then why do I posit his existence in the first place?

One alternative--the one that I think is most popular among certain sorts of intellectuals--is to just deny that we really can explain all of those sorts of things without God. I have never found that particular assertion all that persuasive myself, but even if I did it would not really address the problem I am talking about here, which is the fact that, whether or not science can explain everything, sometimes some people, like me, wonder whether God's existence is very likely given everything that we know about the sorts of things that God's existence used to be invoked to explain. This is principally a psychological problem, a problem to do with me, rather than a metaphysical or epistemological problem about God. In spite of my worries, I take it for granted that God does exist, and worry instead about whether I am right to do so.

Sometimes you can rationalize these worries away. If you're worried about the problem of evil, there is a tidy theological story to tell that, at least in my opinion, more than sufficies to dispense with Russell's petty little worries. Or perhaps you are a student of neurobiology and you know that every facet of our mental life can be explained in physicalist terms; perhaps you are beginning to worry that the concept of an afterlife may be something of a category mistake given that our conscious, waking experiences are all due to chemical interactions in the brain, and that our moral choices, our beliefs and desires, and everything else about the "I" in there is reducible to the activity of neurons of one sort or another. Even the possibilty of free will seems to be up for grabs, depending upon how one defines it. But again there is a story to tell, one that equates the human soul not with the sum total of our conscious mental life but with something else, something non material that survives the death of our body waiting to be resurrected in a glorified body that is also not material but spiritual.

These kinds of worries come and go for me, as I imagine they or similar worries come and go for a lot of people. How each person deals with his or her doubts must be peculiar to the particular personality and psychology within which they arise. My own method is not particularly effect, even for me, since I continue to have doubts from time to time, and in addition to these skeptical doubts there is the added burden of knowing that you're not supposed to desire heaven merely from an egoistic point of view, that is, you're not supposed to be worrying about your own continued existence--we must say, with Saint Thomas More:
this I wot well, that without my fault he will not let me be lost. I shall therefore with good hope commit myself wholly to him. And if he suffer me for my faults to perish, yet shall I then serve for a praise of his justice.
Perhaps it takes a saintly person to commit himself to that sentiment and I do not mean to compare myself to such a person, but for me St. Thomas More's words have been a very great comfort in times of very great trial.

So in the end, although my worries are far closer to those of Richard Dawkins, I think that my settled thoughts are far closer to those of Eamon Duffy, who writes of his own return from the shadowlands:
There was no miraculous conviction. Perplexities and pain remained. I had and I have fewer certainties than before, and there are many areas of the faith that I gratefully and wholeheartedly accept which are opaque to me, like the idea of life after death. But now I know that faith is a direction, not a state of mind; states of mind change and veer about, but we can hold a direction. It is not in its essence a set of beliefs about anything, though it involves such beliefs. It is a loving and grateful openness to the gift of being. The difference between a believer and a non-believer is not that the believer has one more item in his mind, in his universe. It is that the believer is convinced that reality is to be trusted, that in spite of appearances the world is very good. When we respond to that good, we are not responding to something we have invented, or projected. Meaning is not at our beck and call, and neither is reality.
One's response to this state of affairs will always be very personal. For me, personally, it is a sufficient reason to reject unbelief, and to embrace belief in the Catholic faith wholeheartedly, even though my heart sometimes quails.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Saint Augustine Against Literal Interpretation

Sed verborum translatorum ambiguitates, de quibus deinceps loquendum est, non mediocrem curam industriamque desiderant. Nam in principio cavendum est ne figuratam locutionem ad litteram accipias. Et ad hoc enim pertinet quod ait apostolus: Littera occidit, spiritus autem vivificat. Cum enim figurate dictum sic accipitur tamquam proprie dictum sit, carnaliter sapitur. Neque ulla mors animae congruentius appellatur quam cum id etiam quod in ea bestiis antecellit, hoc est intellegentia, carni subicitur sequendo litteram. Qui enim sequitur litteram, translata verba sicut propria tenet, neque illud quod proprio verbo significatur refert ad aliam significationem. Sed si 'sabbatum' audierit, verbi gratia, non intellegit nisi unum diem de septem qui continuo volumine repetuntur; et cum audierit 'sacrificium', non excedit cogitatione illud quod fieri de victimis pecorum terrenisque fructibus solet. Ea demum est miserabilis animae servitus, signa pro rebus accipere, et supra creaturam corpoream oculum mentis ad hauriendum aeternum lumen levare non posse.

Shorter Lines at Communion Soon

The United States Bishops are preparing a draft of a document, "Happy are Those who are Called to His Supper", for their November meeting in Baltimore. According to this document, anyone who rejects the defined doctrines of the Church or her definitive teachings on moral issues should not receive Holy Communion (see the CNS story here). The document was drafted in response to a proposal by Archbishop John Myers of Newark, New Jersey in 2004 after a presidential campaign in which many Catholics, including some Bishops, had objected to John Kerry's Madonna-like use of Christian imagery, in particular his attendance at Mass and reception of Holy Communion, during his campaign. Given his public and unapologetic defense of the moral licitness of abortion, some have speculated that Kerry was not in a position to receive Holy Communion in good faith, thus giving rise to scandal among the faithful. The new document would apply to everyone, not just politicians, and in spite of the obvious worry that it will be unenforceable in principle it is still a good idea, if only as a reminder to everyone who claims to be a Catholic of just what it means to make such a claim.

Like a Martyr

The folks at NBC finally caved and have decided not to show Madonna bound to a cross and wearing a silver crown of thorns, according to a story at Catholic News Service. No doubt this will be hailed as an infringement of the First Amendment, even though the event was filmed in England where there is no First Amendment, and in any case the First Amendment protects religious belief as well as speech.

Of course the issue has nothing to do with governmental regulation of free speech in any case--it was a case of self-censorship on the part of a network that was rightly concerned with protecting its sponsors, who surely would have suffered from a boycott if the scene had aired. Madonna has been making a very public show of her Christlike properties, from having herself crucified on stage to adopting a young boy from Africa. Perhaps some of what she does is done with a sincere heart--I am certainly in no position to judge. She may even sincerely believe that her use of Christian imagery in her shows is a legitmate expression of some form of religious belief. Such things are possible in a day and age when just about every thought, no matter how banal, is regarded as important if it comes from the right source. This is why we have the president of the United States meeting with an aging rock star on Air Force One. Surely it is a good thing what Bono is doing in the fight against AIDS, but just as surely it is pathetic that the only way to get people to do anything about AIDS is to parade celebrities in front of them showing them how to do it. And therein lies the danger: one fervently hopes that people do not think that Madonna is showing them how to be religious, or how to regard Christianity. If you live in an age of celebrity, however, fervent hopes are often dashed against the vapidity of reality.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Logical and Non-logical Necessity

Dr. Mike Liccione of Sacramentum Vitae has a fascinating post today on modal arguments for the existence of God. He takes for his starting point a discussion at Maverick Philosopher that I can also recommend. If I thought that I could make heads or tails of either argument I would comment on them more extensively, but as it is I think I will leave the whole thing as an exercise for the reader.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Geoffrey Chaucer isn't the only one who Hath a Blog

Now Fr. Stephen Freeman has one, too. Check it out at Glory to God for All Things. Regular readers will recognize Fr. Stephen as one of the contributors at Pontifications.

Pontificator to become Pontifical

Well, at least in the sense of being officially under the authority of the Pontiff--sorry to get folks' hopes up like that. See his announcement at Pontifications.

More Thoughts on the History of Torture

I've just noticed that Mike Liccione at Sacramentum Vitae has posted some rather helpful thoughts on the same topic that I was just discussing in the previous post on Shawn McElhinney's take on the relationship between torture and the history of the Church's teaching. As usual Mike displays greater patience and charity than I, along with a solid foundation in doctrinal matters. I highly recommend reading his whole series of posts on this and other questions related to the development of doctrine.

Who Speaks for the Church?

I. Shawn McElhinney, whose blog Rerum Novarum I rather like and read rather often, has taken a position regarding the torture question that strikes me as grounded in reasons that are, for him, uncharacteristic. In a series of posts he has made an argument to the effect that it is not, in fact, the teaching of the universal and Ordinary Magisterium that torture is per se wrong, in spite of what Veritatis Splendor may have to say on the topic. His argument, in outline, goes something like this:
The teaching of the Church in the Ordinary Magisterium is indefectible.

Significant theologians, including John Paul II and, even more significantly, Benedict XVI when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger and, thus, an essential influence on the writing of Veritatis Splendor, have made it clear that certain teachings, when they impinge on matters involving prudential judgments about contingent matters of fact in the temporal realm, are not indefectible.

Historically, the Church has actually required the use of torture:
The past sanctioning of torture by popes and councils -going so far as to command kings and princes under pain of excommunication with matters of heresy when these undermined the common good of society- means that torture itself cannot be "intrinsically evil" unless the doctrine of indefectibility is contradicted.
Hence, in order to preserve the doctrine of indefectability, we must conclude that the teaching of Veritatis Splendor is not indefectible with regards to the moral status of torture.

Hence, torture is not necessarily per se wrong, and

In fact, given what the Church has done historically, we must conclude that torture is actually morally required under certain circumstances.
This argument is valid, but it is not sound. (For those who may not be familiar with these technical terms, an argument is said to be deductively valid when it is not possible for its conclusion to be false when all of its premises are true, and an argument is said to be deductively sound when it is both valid and all of its premises are in fact true.) The difficulty lies not in the structure of the argument, but in its reliance on historical facts of dubious interpretation to carry its conclusion through.

In particular, we may note that if it is possible for Veritatis Splendor to be mistaken about the moral status of torture because of the possibility of an appeal to fallible prudential reasoning, then it is equally possible for earlier documents "requiring" the use of torture to be mistaken in their use of prudential judgments to argue for the moral licitness of torture in defense of the common good. This renders the premise regarding the appeal to the alleged historical facts regarding earlier uses of torture either false or hopelessly ambiguous, and this vitiates the soundness of the argument.

It is worth noting at this point that the premise claiming that earlier "popes and councils" actually "sanctioned" torture is in itself hopelessly vague, even independently of its use in this particular argument. We are not told who these popes were, or which councils, or the circumstances under which they are being said to have "sanctioned" torture, or even what the alleged sanctions were other than threats of excommunication for "heresy". It ought to go without saying that this kind of premise is utterly useless if for no other reason than its manifestly controversial nature.

Even putting aside the difficulty of this particular premise, however, it is perhaps even more important to note that the language of Veritatis Splendor is as unambiguous in its condemnation of torture as the interpretation of earlier history regarding the alleged "sanctioning" of torture is ambiguous. So there is one point on which Shawn is quite right: either there has been a mistaken prudential judgment made somewhere, or the indefectibility of the Ordinary Magisterium is on the line.

Here it is essential to see that the judgment of Veritatis Splendor, that torture is per se immoral (or, "intrinsically evil", as Shawn puts it), is not a prudential judgment, but a judgment about matters of faith and morals, the very domain in which the Ordinary Magisterium is regarded by faithful Catholics as indefectible. The judgments of earlier "popes and councils", however, to the effect that the use of torture is the correct way to safeguard the common good, are clearly matters of prudential judgment, matters in which the Ordinary Magisterium is not regarded as indefectible.

So what Shawn has shown, if anything, is that if we are to regard the Church's Ordinary Magisterium as indefectible, we must take Veritatis Splendor to reflect the infallible teaching on the moral status of torture, and we must regard the actions of earlier "popes and councils" who threatened folks with excommunication for not using torture as misguided attempts to safeguard the common good. This is not what he intended to show, however, which is why I regard the argument as "uncharacteristic"--I think he is usually a little more careful than this, and his arguments are often sound as well as valid.

Friday, October 20, 2006

The Examined Life

Yesterday I had one of those experiences that come only very rarely: I got to meet, and hang out with, one of my intellectual heroes, if that is the right sort of word to use in this context. For a long time I have been an admirer of the work of historian Eamon Duffy, holder of a personal chair as Professor of the History of Christianity at Cambridge University and one of the most distinguished scholars of the late medieval and early renaissance periods in the world. Anyone who has read his magisterial The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580 (Yale, 2nd edition 2005) will know that he is a consummate scholar of history with what appears to be an unmatched mastery of his source material combined with an astute and insightful approach to the interpretation of that material. But if you read more widely in his (very large) oeuvre you will quickly find that, in addition to being a great historian, the man is also a Roman Catholic of the most admirable sort.

I was lucky enough to be invited to participate in Professor Duffy's visit to the Athens campus yesterday--his visit was officially sponsored by the History Department but several of the faculty in that department happen to be solid Catholics and one of them told me about Duffy's visit a few months back. I spent most of the day with him: I had lunch with him, sat in on a seminar presentation of some of the materials from his forthcoming book Marking the Hours: English People and their Prayers 1240-1570 (Yale, December 2006), and attending a public lecture in the evening that was a sampling of the materials from his forthcoming Birkbeck Lectures on the reign of Mary Tudor.

For someone who is both a Catholic and something of an amateur medievalist, the day was one of almost sheer ecstasy. As St. Anselm said so eloquently, I believe that I may understand: faith, for the Catholic, will always inform one's interpretation of the world, and scholarship of any kind, whether it is history, philosophy, sociology, physics, or biochemistry, is merely an interpretation of the facts, the positing of a hypothesis that will stand or fall not merely in terms of its harmony with the observable facts but principally in terms of its own internal harmony, the harmony it has with purely theoretical concerns. Competing hypotheses can claim to explain exactly the same observational data, and the data alone, famously, are insufficient to establish the indisputable truth of one theory to the exclusion of all others. This principle, known among philosophers of science as underdetermination, permeates all of academia, much to the chagrin of certain academics, and it permeates everyday life, too, as most sensible folks already know. Granted, some interpretations of the observable evidence may be more or less reasonable than others, but in general the differences between hypotheses are settled by adopting further hypotheses (for example, the principal difference between the Ptolemaic and Copernican models of the solar system is a theoretical one, not an empirical one: it is the difference between the Aristotelian vs. the Newtonian theory of gravitation, both of which are theories grounded in precisely the same observational evidence).

What is most striking to me about Duffy's work is what some might call its revisionist character. In The Stripping of the Altars, for example, he argued that popular piety in England at the time of the Reformation was deeply and committedly Catholic in orientation and that the Protestantization of the country was something forced on the population from above, as it were, by the ruling classes and the gentry, who were more interested in politics than religion. This kind of interpretation is part of a larger movement that has existed for at least the past 15 or 20 years that seeks to understand more fully the history of this period in English history by means of a more careful examination of the evidence for everyday sorts of lives rather than the traditional recounting of the greatest deeds of the greatest figures. Duffy's forthcoming book on prayer, for example, had for its starting point a hand-written note in a medieval book of hours in the Kalendar for 27 November: "On this day my mother passed from this life to God's glory". Professor Duffy remarked that he was looking at this medieval book as part of a research project (it was kept in a museum), but that he saw it not long after his own mother had died, and it sparked in him a tremendous interest in the commonality of human experience across times and cultures. It sent him to libraries and museums in search of further marginalia documenting the day-to-day prayer lives of medieval English people of all strata of society, and it confirmed for him the deeply pious--and Catholic--nature of late medieval English society. One can only anticipate the publication of this book with great excitement.

Suffice it to say that I continue to be amazed at how much one can learn, even in a single day, if one pays close attention to those around you who have much to offer by way of expertise, knowledge, and experience. If you find yourself intrigued by Duffy's work but are not all that sure you want to jump into a 750 page, rather technical historical treatise, he has written a few popular works on religion that I can also recommend very highly:
Faith of Our Fathers: Reflections on Catholic Traditions (Continuum, 2006).

Walking to Emmaus. (Burns and Oats, 2006).
These books contain short essays and even a few "sermons" (delivered at Vespers services at Duffy's college) on religious topics that are not only informative but also inspiring. Start with these, but by all means do not be afraid to delve into the more technical works as well. You will not be sorry you did.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006


The other day I was driving withy my 5 year old daughter on the way to doing some Krogering when she asked me, from her perch in the booster seat in the back, "Daddy, can we get that thing that's with the open part?" To which I replied, "I'm not sure what you're talking about, Olivia." Her reaction to this statement on my part was to say, in just about the loudest voice she could muster: "I SAID, CAN WE GET THAT THING THAT'S WITH THE OPEN PART?"

This is a tactic that is believed by many to work extremely well with older folks and foreigners. They don't understand you the first time, either because they're confused or they don't speak your language, and so you JUST SAY IT LOUDER, because then, obviously, they will understand you perfectly.

This appears to be Mark Shea's strategy in the present Torture Blogorama. Goodness knows I agree with him completely, but he really is starting to say the same things over and over again, only not in different ways so as to make himself understood, but rather just more loudly, so to speak, by adding invective, condescension, and sarcasm to the mix. I'm certainly not above any of that myself, so I won't criticize him for it, I'll just point out that it's about as effective as what Olivia said to me in the car.

In one sense it is very important, when saying it more loudly, to be sure that what you're saying very loudly is actually correct, otherwise you're just advertising your own ignorance. For example, in discussing some of the strategies of those who wish to wiggle out of the teaching on torture, Shea mentions this one:
Still another ploy is the "but it's just in one document" feint. Apparently, some Catholics think that the Magisterium is obliged to build up a pile of paper before we have to bother taking it seriously. Unfortunately for them, this is not so. When the Magisterium teaches something, that is what the Magisterium teaches, even if it has never taught on the subject before. This is why we are bound to pay attention to the Church's teaching on stem cell research, even though it has only addressed the issue recently. This was also why Catholics were bound to listen to the (then brand new) social teaching of Rerum Novarum a hundred years ago. Nobody said, "But there's only *one* social encyclical, so we can ignore it.
On the one hand, it is certainly true that Veritatis Splendor, along with various other "magisterial" documents, teaches that torture is intrinsically wrong. I suspect, as I remarked in this post, that what most people involved in this discussion are really trying to say is not that torture is sometimes morally licit, but rather that there are some acts that are sometimes classified as torture that perhaps ought not to be so classified, but that is a topic I have already addressed. Here my point is that Mark is not being careful enough in what he the way he frames the issue. I see why he wants to put it this way--he's trying to win a point. But you can't win points by saying things that aren't true, and it isn't strictly true that every papal encyclical has equal teaching authority. Certainly they are not all of them infallible, but even putting aside the issue of infallibility the simple fact of the matter is that Popes are often mistaken when it comes to matters of prudential judgments and, indeed, the Magisterium itself is not indefectible when it comes to such matters. But aside from all of that, it seriously begs the question to suggest, as Mark does here without warrant, that a papal encyclical is to be automatically identified with a teaching of the Magisterium. He makes this suggestion rather explicit by starting off his post with a citation from Veritatis Splendor, and then going on to say in support of what VS teaches that "When the Magisterium teaches something, that is what the Magisterium teaches." That is tantamount to saying "I know that what this newspaper article says is true, because it says right here in the article itself that it is only reporting the true facts."

This kind of dialectical maneuver is not even necessary in the present debate, since the teaching on torture does not flow from any particular Papal encyclical anyway. There are certainly some scholars who would dispute Mark's assertion (again, made without argument) that it is not really the case that the Magisterium needs to "build up a pile of paper", but in this particular case, it has built up such a pile, and it is fully unnecessary to engage in any pettifoggery to make the case against torture.

Having said all of that, I certainly sympathize with Mark Shea, and to a certain extent I share his sense of frustration that some folks who claim allegiance to a certain kind of Catholicism just aren't seeing straight on this issue. Maybe there are some folks for whom just saying it louder really is the only recourse, because some of them don't seem to respond all that well to the giving of reasons.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Scandal and Bad Reasons

I was a little surprised when I read Rod Dreher's recent explanation of his conversion away from Catholicism to the Orthodox Church. Dreher, of "Crunchy Con" fame, appears to attribute the motivation for his move principally to his assessment of the nature of the molestation charges being made against certain Roman Catholic priests, and to discovering the dishonesty of many members of the clergy. After reading his post several times, I couldn't help but come away thinking "Now there is some dreadfully bad reasoning for you." He says what all of us would say, of course:
All this takes a toll. And yet, I kept going back to my catechism, and to the truth that none of this undermines the truth claims of the Catholic Church. The Eucharist is still the Eucharist, no matter how corrupt the clerics may be.
It is, perhaps, not entirely surprising that someone might start off with a true premise, such as this one, and draw a spectacularly bad inference from it, namely that it is a good idea to leave the Church--people draw lousy inferences all the time. It is more surprising when someone who should know better draws such an inference, but even spectacularly intelligent people can draw a spectacularly bad inference, and here is a case of it.

One must feel strong sympathy for Dreher's sense of being "broken" by all he learned. He describes in rather painful detail the psychological and emotional pain he and his family have been through as they pondered their situation, and only the hardest of the hard hearted would ignore that and insist that he should be ashamed of himself. There is even an element of his story that ought to move every Catholic:
Over time, we got to know the people of the parish. They became our friends. It was a new experience for me to be in a parish where you can be openly small-o orthodox, and the priest and the people support you in that. In "Crunchy Cons," the Orthodox convert (from RCism) Hugh O'Beirne says that Catholics new to the Orthodox Church may find it surprising that they don't have to be on a "war footing" -- meaning the culture wars don't intrude into worship. People are on the same page, and if they're not, they're not out trying to get the Church to change her position on abortion, gay marriage, inclusive language, and all that. As someone who more or less is on the front lines of the culture war every day in my job as a journalist, I found it a new and welcome experience to be able to go to church on Sunday and get built back up for the struggle ahead, instead of to find mass the most debilitating hour of the week.
Although I would not leave the True Church in a bajillion years, I have to confess to having a great deal of sympathy for this line of thought. One rather striking difference between the Orthodox and the Catholic lies precisely here: the Orthodox communities are small and parochial, and everyone is on the same page because they are all taken from the same book; when James Joyce referred to Catholicism as "Here comes everybody" he wasn't kidding. It's rather amazing just how everybodyish the whole thing is sometimes--sometimes a little too everybodyish for me, in fact. But it is the truth, and the truth matters more than my own personal comfort zone.

But Dreher is talking about more than just a personal comfort zone. He's talking about a major crisis in his faith. That is one reason why it is a little disappointing to find him saying things like this:
I had to admit that I had never seriously considered the case for Orthodoxy. Now I had to do that. And it was difficult poring through the arguments about papal primacy. I'll spare you the details, but I will say that I came to seriously doubt Rome's claims. Reading the accounts of the First Vatican Council, and how they arrived at the dogma of papal infallibility, was a shock to me: I realized that I simply couldn't believe the doctrine.
Talk about your wishful thinking. True, lots of other people can't believe it either, but to begin questioning how an ecumenical council arrives at its dogmatic teachings is the doorstep to heterodoxy, not orthodoxy. Granted, the Orthodox Churches don't recognize the validity of all of the Ecumenical Councils, but you can bet your bottom dollar they wouldn't tolerate judging the dogmatic pronouncements of the ones they do accept on the basis of personal, private judgments about the manner in which the dogmata were arrived at! Is Dreher going to become a student of ancient history now, and look through everything that can be known about Nicea, Chalcedon, Constantinople, and all the other Councils accepted by the Orthodox, and decide for himself which ones came up with dogmata in a legitimate way and which ones didn't? Will he discover that the doctrine of the Trinity was forced through by a suspicious vote? Will he discover that physical force was brought into play in the debates over monothelitism? Perhaps he will found his own church someday that all of the other purists can come to.

This may sound unfair, of course, and it would be if Dreher had simply given his own personal reasons for leaving and left it at that. But he couldn't do that. Precisely because he is an intelligent person, he knew that Catholicism is right, and he needed an intellectual justification for doing what he was doing, and the only possible way to get that justification would be to call into question the teachings of the Church. In short, he made a conscious decision to become a functional protestant, while wishing nonetheless to continue enjoying the fruits of the genuine Sacraments.
But what I noticed during all this Sturm und Drang over doctrine was this: we were happy again as a family, and at peace. Julie said one day driving home from liturgy, "Isn't it great to look forward to going to church again?" And it was. I was beginning to pray again, and beginning to climb out of the slough of religious despond. I began to think differently about Truth. As Christians, Truth is a Person, not merely a proposition. Here I was beginning to live a more Christ-like life as a fellow traveler of Orthodoxy, and knowing that if I went back to full-fledged Catholicism, I would be returning to anger and despair. What does it mean to live in the Christian truth in that situation? How would I feel if I approached the Judgment Seat and said to God, "I lived as a depressed and embittered man, lost my children to the Christian faith, and was a terrible witness to your goodness. But Lord, thanks to you, I never left Catholicism."
Again, I have a great deal of sympathy for this. I wish the guy well, because I know perfectly well that I myself have had doubts and struggles, even times when I was tempted to leave the Church not merely for Orthodoxy but for abject atheism, and looking back I can only say to myself, over and over again, thank you, Lord, for not burdening me beyond what I could bear. Because I escaped that noose by such a narrow thread, I cannot stand in judgment of people like Rod Dreher, no matter how fatuous I find their reasoning. Judge Never, Forgive Ever. May God go with him.

I hope he doesn't find any dishonest priests in his new parish. Where will he go then?

Update: Be sure to check out the Pontificator's Trackback and Mike Liccione's post on this topic.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Vatican Excavations

There is a story at CNN about a "newly unveiled necropolis" under the Vatican dating from the time of the Roman Empire. The site is of particular interest for the light it sheds on the Roman middle class of at the start of the Christian era.

It appears that some of the folks buried there may actually have been Christians:
A male member of ancient Rome's class of knights, who died as a teenager, was remembered in death with a sculptured figure whose hands are outstretched as if in prayer. The kind of figure, known as an "orante," was widely taken as an early symbol of Christians.
If so, they are among the very earliest followers of Our Lord, but it should be noted that, since Christians were often persecuted at this time, it is not very likely that open symbols of religious belief would have been made so public.

Pontificator on Limbo

Fr. Alvin Kimel has weighed in (rather heavily!) on the topic of limbo at Pontifications. Discussion of his post is open at Sacramentum Vitae, but since I've blogged on limbo a number of times I also welcome discussion of the topic here at this blog.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Uh Oh...Now What Do We Protest?

According to a story in the Times of London, Pope Benedict XVI is about to sign a universal indult permitting priests everywhere to celebrate the Mass in accordance with the rubrics of 1962 any time and any place they wish. This raises two questions.

First, who is going to wish to do these things beyond the few folks who are already doing them, either with permission or without it? Is there going to be a mad rush to snatch up all those dog-eared Missals from days of yore? Will people finally start learning a little Latin for goodness sake? I certainly would have no objections to that. But I suspect things will stay pretty much the way they are, because people tend to a kind of conservatism when it comes to liturgy--they don't like change all that much.

And thereby hangs a tale leading to the second question. When the old Mass is universally allowed, what will the Trads have left to object to? Well, don't imagine that they won't continue to object to the Mass--they will, only this time it will be the old Mass that they object to, not the new one. Some Trads have sort of painted themselves into a corner on this one, because once they decided that the new Mass was no good they took it upon themselves to stand in judgment of everything the Church has done that they didn't like. So in some circles it's not just Vatican II and subsequent Popes who were heretics, but the Popes leading up to Vatican II who seem to the Trads to be on the Wrong Path, such as John XXIII and even Pius XII, both of whom introduced changes to the rubrics of Pius V that many Trads object to. Some want to go back even farther than Pius X--if you check out the breviary site run by the heretical clan down in West Chester, Ohio (www.breviary.net) you'll find that, in their view, things were already going wrong as early as 1915, hence the rubrics they demand of their breviary users are the rubrics of 1911. Once you become a functional protestant, you can just make up the rules as you go along, because now you're the Pope.

I would not mind having easier access to the Mass of the rubrics of 1962, actually, though in my view it is not obviously better than the Mass of the rubrics of 1970 or 2002. For me, it's a purely aesthetic question, and I'm rather conservative about aesthetics.

Combox A'Poppin'!

Christopher Blosser has done everyone in the Christian blogging community a huge favor by compiling the information in his two posts on torture (here and here) that I mentioned the other day. The topic is obviously a controversial one, so it comes as no surprise to find nearly 100 comments in the combox of the second post alone. Sadly, the level of discourse there is not what it could be, and at least part of the reason why lies in the fact that few have taken the trouble to explore the demarcation problem in any depth (this post was my tentative step in that direction, though I must confess that I did not get very far, and I devoted more time to that post than to any other on this blog--it is a remarkably vexed question). This is evident from the fact that the discussion takes the form "When, if ever, is torture morally licit", rather than "What, if any, degrees of violent treatment qualify as acts of torture". For Roman Catholics, torture is never morally licit, but people often disagree on whether a particular act of violence perpetrated against another person ought to be counted as an instance of torture. This might seem like a distinction without a difference, but the fact that the distinction goes unremarked in certain fora ought to raise red flags for anyone who hopes to gain any moral clarity on this issue. When the subject is one of such import (and that it is of great import is admitted by most of those contributing to the Battle of the Combox) it really does pay to be particularly careful in one's formulations, hence just a little philosophical distinction-drawing is in order, whether or not any particular person happens to enjoy the results of engaging in such difficult work.

In his dialogue called Phaedo, Plato has Socrates discuss certain folks who are not interested in the finial details of distinction drawing of this kind, and he characterizes them as misologoi, "haters of reasoning". The word there contains the form logos, the Greek word for, among other things, reasoning. It is no accident that the Divine Logos, Holy Wisdom, pleads with us through the mouth of the prophet, "Come now, and let us reason together...".

Now Playing at Pontifications

There is an interesting selection from the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes on display at Pontifications. In this passage we hear that
In reality it is only in the mystery of the Word made flesh that the mystery of humanity truly becomes clear.
This is a fascinating idea to me--I have blogged several times on the my suspicion that all of creation is shot through with meaning in a way that is commonly overlooked. In referring to humanity itself as a kind of mystery in this sense, Gaudium et Spes reminds us that the real significance of what the Greek philosophers called ta onta (literally, "the beings", "the things that are/exist") can only be read with the help of the Magic Decoder Ring that is Revelation, and, in particular, that part of Revelation that is the Incarnation.

Martyrology Returning Soon

A couple folks have asked about the daily lectio from the Martyrologium Romanum. In making the move to Beta Blogger I managed to lose the code I had written that was providing that, and it will be a day or two before I can put it back in. For those of you who can't wait, however, here is the selection for tomorrow:
Die 12 octobris
Quarto Idus octobris. Luna: 19

1. Romae via Laurentina, sancti Hedisti, martyris.

9*. Londinii in Anglia, beati Thomae Bullaker, presbyteri ex Ordine Fratrum Minorum et martyris, qui sub rege Carolo Primo, in ipsa Missa celebranda comprehensus, propter sacerdotium Tyburni laqueo suspensus est et adhuc spirans evisceratus occubuit.
Thanks to the British Crown for this cheerful image for the day.

Comment Moderation Now Off

I have turned off comment moderation to facillitate discussion. I had only turned it on when I found that I was getting some obscene and racist comments on certain posts, but now that I'm getting a little more traffic from folks who want to discuss issues raised at Pontifications, I think that it will speed things up considerably to let folks moderate themselves.

Besides, I'm the one with the worst manners around here anyway, so I'll just keep quiet in the corner.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Science Has An Answer For Everything

For those few people who still think that scientists are not slaves of their own passions and desires, I just got this announcement in my email for a paper to be delivered at the University of New England:
Kilian Garvey, Ph.D
A Neuropsychological Exploration of Creationist and Evolutionary

Thursday, October 26th, 2006 6 p.m.

University of New England, University Campus, 11 Hills Beach Road,
Biddeford, ME.04005.

St. Francis Room, Ketchum Library.
Free and open to the public

Description: More than seventy-five years after the famous Scopes trial, the battle between evolutionists and creationists continues to rage in the United States. Why is it that the theory of evolution by natural selection, arguably the strongest theory in the history of science, generates so much skepticism and suspicion? Perhaps science can go some way towards answering this question. In this presentation, I will use a number of psychological and neuroanatomical studies to explore possible reasons for this. I will suggest that there are at least two neuropsychological attributes that lead some people to form an incomplete assessment of evolutionary theory: (1) a relatively inefficient interaction between the two hemispheres of the brain due to differences in the corpus callosum, the band of nerve tissue that connects them, and (2) an overactive sympathetic ('fight or flight') nervous system that results in a false sense of danger. Along the way, we will consider a range of phenomena including right- and left-handedness, right-wing authoritarianism, the tolerance of ambiguity, the need for cognition, the need for cognitive closure, the emotions of fear and disgust as we explore the cognitive styles and motivational needs of creationists.
You can't make this stuff up.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Sensible Hope

More details on the status of limbo at Catholic News Service. The way that story tells it:
To hope that babies who die without being baptized will go to heaven makes more sense than the idea that they go to limbo, says a group of papally appointed theologians.
So, it makes more sense to hope that babies who die without being baptized go to heaven. That still leaves open the question of where they actually go. Personally, I hope that everyone goes to heaven, including Osama Bin Laden, Adolph Hitler, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett. For all I know, that's where they will all go--who am I to say? We condemn acts, not agents, and only God knows the state of any particular soul.

The difficulty with this sort of annoucement from the Vatican commision is that it confuses empirical evidence about who deserves what kind of justice in a system of justice like ours with the spiritual conditions requisite for communion with God. An innocent little baby appears to us more likely to go to heaven than either Adolph Hitler or Osama Bin Laden because the baby has done nothing deserving of exclusion from heaven, while those other fellows, well, they are often taken these days as the paradigm cases of Bad Guys. To see things in this way, however, is to make heaven a place of reward and hell a place of punishment in a strictly utilitarian sense--but that is not what they are. They wind up functioning as something like reward and punishment in our limited view of things, but what they actually are, according to our more nuanced theology, are manifestations of closeness to God. Those who respond to God's call and do his will just are those who will, in the end, enjoy the Beatific Vision, while those who willfully turn away from God--well, it's hard to see how they can enjoy the Beatific Vision when they aren't even looking at it, indeed, are willfully looking in the other direction.

The speculative doctrine of limbo is really nothing more than a coming to grips with this situation. St. Thomas says of limbo that it is not a place of punishment, but is rather a place where there is no suffering at all, because suffering is a figure for our sinfulness, but little babies (and certain others, apparently), are free from the sort of sin that is signified by suffering.
God's endless mercy, his love poured out in Jesus Christ and his desire to save all people gives a solid basis for hoping those children will be saved despite not having been baptized.
It is easy to agree with this sentiment, but it is difficult to reconcile with certain positive doctrines, for example, the doctrine that one must have certain beliefs in order to enjoy the Beatific Vision--a necessary condition that appears to arise from the desire to connect salvation with a free act of the human will. Babies are not capable of making the free act of the will that we believe to be necessary to salvation in its fullest sense, but neither can we stomach the idea of little baby souls bloating around in limbo for all eternity, so we cling to the hope that they will all be with us in heaven. I'm not out to say that I don't share this hope, but I do think that this kind of thinking is hopelessly anthropomorphic. I think it's a mistake to think of heaven as a place where individual souls are milling about in roughly the same form as their incarnate versions walked the earth. Our souls survive physical death not in material bodies, but in glorified, spiritual bodies, and I think it's fair to say that nobody has any idea what that will be like, any more than we can have any idea of what it would be like to be a bat. The hope is sensible, but beyond that it is difficult to tell how sensible the rejection of limbo really is.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Limbo Still In Limbo

According to the Times of London the Pope remained silent on the issue of getting rid of the old theologoumenon of limbo. I'm of mixed feelings about the whole thing; read my earlier comments on the topic here.

HT: EnglishEclectic.

Darwin on Darwinian Accounts of Religious Belief

There is a fine post up at DarwinCatholic discussing some of the issues raised by the materialist hypothesis that religious belief can be explained mechanistically in terms of selection forces. Darwin has articulated a very important point about such theses: they are instances of the genetic fallacy, the mistaken idea that by explaining the origins of some particular belief in terms of subjective interpretations of a complex and mysterious natural world we thereby disprove the objective truth of the belief. This is a very important point, since it vitiates every such materialist argument.

The materialist view is that religious belief is not what philosophers call an "inference to the best explanation", that is, it posits entities (such as God) that are unnecessary if we can explain the observable kosmos in terms of naturalistic entities and forces (matter and natural selection). This is a valuable strategy to use in scientific explanations, but it is important to remember that it is merely a strategy--that is, it carries no guarantee of truth. All the scientific evidence in the universe could suggest that there is no God, and there might still be one. It may, in fact, be "irrational" in a materialist sense to believe in God, and yet still a good idea, because still true. This is yet one more reason why it is better to be an anti-realist rather than a realist about scientific explanation.

Friday, October 06, 2006

There Will Be Gaps

Last Friday, Fr. Al Kimel completed his extended essay(s) on justification and predestination at Pontifications. Since that blog no longer supports user comments, and because Fr. Kimel has kindly brought his essays to my attention, I would like to make a few comments here, and I invite others who wish to comment on what Fr. Kimel has to say to contribute their comments here at this blog. My own comments are something of a meditation on something that appears to me to come very close to a solution to what I had always thought of as a problem rather than as an announcement, and in seeing this solution to my pseudo-problem I begin to understand the unpreachability of the announcement.

Fr. Kimel begins with what I think is an extraordinarily valuable insight: "in Scripture predestination is good news," and he quotes what I think is a particularly beautiful passage from Barth (Church Dogmatics II/2):
In itself, however, [the truth of the Gospel] is light and not darkness. In any case, even under this aspect, the final word is never that of warning, of judgment, of punishment, of a barrier erected, of a grave opened. We cannot speak of it without mentioning all these things. The Yes cannot be heard unless the No is also heard. But the No is said for the sake of the Yes and not for its own sake. In substance, therefore, the first and last word is Yes and not No.
Fr. Kimel nicely explicates this notion via the doctrine of the Incarnation:
Because predestination intends Jesus, it intends the Church, the body of Christ, the new Israel and elect company of the twice-born. And because predestination simultaneously intends Jesus, Israel, Mary, and the Church, it also intends the individual believer in Christ, who has been baptized into the death and resurrection of the Lord, incorporated into the eschatological community, and made an heir of the kingdom. The gospel of election proclaims to the baptized that through their sacramental incorporation into Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, they participate in the divine Sonship and are destined to be with Christ in his kingdom. Jesus is the elect One of God: united to him we share in his divine election. To be in the Church is to be in Christ; to be in Christ is to be in God; and to be in God is to enjoy eternal salvation in the life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
This is salutary for the philosopher who, like me, pedantically persues God through logic as though God can be captured within the formal constraints of the human mind; Fr. Kimel rightly notes what I had been missing: to conceive of the problem of predestination in the way that philosophers usually do is to make a kind of category mistake, or to commit oneself to something that is not a well-formed formula:
At the moment one makes the Augustinian turn and seeks to explain human rejection of the gospel in terms of God’s eternal decrees, the preaching of election becomes impossible. The logic appears inescapable. If salvation is by grace alone, and if some reject Christ to their damnation, does this not mean that God reprobates, directly or indirectly, the damned? But the gospel itself disallows the question. The election of Christ Jesus is the reason why some are saved, but it is not the reason why some are not!
Fr. Kimel turns, with the writer Joseph P. Farrell (of "Tesla studies" fame--or infamy, depending on whom you ask), to the thought of St. Maximus the Confessor in the quest for an explanation of this situation. The Maximian solution lies in seeing Christ's redemptive act as saving human nature rather than individual human persons, and ascribing the natural will to that human nature, while the personal will belongs to the individual person. Every natural will, on this account, strives for the good, thanks to the redemptive healing of Christ's sacrifice, but individual persons are still quite capable of choosing something that falls far short of the good, since a healed nature does not guarantee a healed individual capable of using a particular will in the way the healed natural will is structured to be used.

The idea here is a very interesting one. The metaphysics is broadly Neoplatonic, with a natural kind functioning as a kind of singular in which multiple particulars can participate by means of a kind of hypostasis. Just as in Neoplatonism, the singular is unqualifiedly what it is, while the particulars are capable of falling short of it. In the present case, the singular is unqualifiedly redeemed by the sacrificial act of Christ, and particulars may approach ever closer to that state individually by becoming as like to the singular as possible. Since the particulars have a share of the singular, they have a share of the salvation enjoyed by the singular due to Christ's sacrifice; but as particulars they are quite capable of having other properties as well, including a kind of falling short of perfection that, due to our limited free will, can have the effect of turning us away from God rather than towards him.

This sort of "both/and" metaphysics is characteristic of our Trinitarian theology. God is also a singular, and has certain properties, including "being from God/being the God from whom", a sort of bi-valent property that captures the essence of the relations among the three Persons. God the Father is the "God from whom", while God the Son is "God from God". The "both/and" aspect of this kind of metaphysics can be seen most clearly in the debate over the Filioque: since this bi-valent property must always be present in God considered as such, it must also be fully present (that is, both aspects of its valency must be present) in any given Person-pair. Obviously when you consider Father and Son it is present, as it is when you consider Father and Holy Spirit. But what if the pair is Son and Holy Spirit? The Greeks had argued that the Holy Spirit was not really "from the Son", but if, with the Latins, you accept that he is, then in that pairing also you have one Person who is "god from God" (the Holy Spirit) and one Person who is "god from whom" (the Son). The Latin formulation has the advantage of making perfect sense out of the properties that we must ascribe to God as such while at the same time making sense out of the properties that are ascribed to the separate Persons.

Trinitarian metaphysics is necessarily mysterious, because what it attempts to explain is a mystery. But being mysterious is not the same thing as being unintelligible; it means only that intelligibility will require cognitive leaps of the sort that ordinary logic does not sufficiently account for. The human mind is finite and limited, but God is not. We are like the poor folks in the book Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions: we are squares contemplating spheres, plane figures tyring to understand three-dimensional space, human beings trying to comprehend God. There will be gaps.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Catholic Friends of Israel

Catholic Friends of Israel is a blog that I have only just discovered today, although it has been around since September of last year. Christopher Blosser of Ratzinger Fan Club fame is one of the contributors, along with Don Kenner, and Sally Rogow. I haven't had time to read everything there, but from what I have seen the content looks good, and I will follow the blog closely

Finally, Some Practical Advice We Can All Use

Iran's Khameini explains the rules for masturbating during Ramadan.

Also, be sure to stand up when you're drinking water and don't bet on horses unless you're a jockey. You don't want to cause rioting in the streets, do you? That would be haram.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006


Christopher Blosser has gathered together an interesting and informative compendium of sources On Torture, "Aggressive Interrogation" and The Military Commissions Act of 2006 at the Ratzinger Fan Club blog, Against the Grain. There is a lot of important information and discussion cited in the text of the post itself, and there is already a lively discussion going on in the combox.

My own meagre first attempt to say something on this issue can be found here (kindly cited by Christopher in his post). In that post I argued that the standard arguments in favor of torture these days are all of them utilitarian in nature and, as such, are not arguments that a Catholic could appeal to in justifying torture. (This does not stop some of them from appealing to them anyway, but that is a separate issue.) In this post I am interested in addressing two separate, but related, issues: first, what I will call the Demarcation Problem, that is, what are the boundary conditions that separate acts of torture from acts that are merely "aggressive"? Second, a problem raised in Christopher's post: what to make of the use of torture by agents of the Church during certain periods of history? Does this in any way imply that the Church accepts the moral licitness of torture in defense of the common good?

The Demarcation Problem

The boundary conditions for torture are not as straightforward as they might seem, because torture can be either physical or psychological, and society accepts certain forms of both physical and psychological discomfort as morally licit. This might seem to beg the question, since putting it this way makes it sound almost as though torture is per se morally illicit, and and whether that is true or not is precisely the point at issue. So in order to be more careful in this minefield, let us say that every society recognizes some form of either physical or psychological discomfort that is morally licit and that does not qualify as an instance of torture. This is still problematic, since another point at issue is the definition of torture; you begin to see how complex this issue is.

One place to begin, if one is a Catholic, is with the infallible teaching of the Church, which holds that violence in itself is an artifact of sin and not something that can be intentionally sought as an end by the Christian (see, for example, CCC 1869, 2302-6, 2534). All recourse to violence in the Christian tradition must be as a last recourse in the defense of one's own life or the common good, and even then it is recognized that the use of violence, as such, is a sad fact of our fallen state and not something that is in itself justifiably good. Just war theory states that even in defense of the common good against an unjust aggressor the uses of violence are to be strictly curtailed by higher motivations, including justice, mercy, and compassion. We shoot back at our enemy not because we hate him, or want him to die, but because it is the only way to prevent him from shooting at us. Indeed, if there should exist some other way to prevent him from shooting at us, we are required to have recourse to that method prior to resorting to violence. In punishing criminals, we do not inflict pain on them for the sake of causing them to suffer, as "payback", as it were, for what they may have done, but in order to rehabilitate them, in precisely the same way that an unpleasant medicine might cause discomfort to a patient who needs that medicine in order to survive. Even when we defend our own persons against an unjust attack, we may use deadly force if our life is threatened, but we may not intend to kill with that force, or even harm; our only licit intention is self-preservation.

As a starting point this is not very helpful, because unpacking intentions usually only leads to greater difficulties, especially when folks find the so-called Principle of Double Effect so tempting to evoke in situations like this. "But your honor, my intention was to extract information; those cigarette burns are only regrettable though foreseeable secondary effects of my primary intention!" Furthermore, in real life we all use "force" of one sort or another every day. To rule out all forms of coercion and compulsion seems too strict. We, as a nation, threaten everyone on the planet, at least indirectly, simply by maintaining an army and stockpiling nuclear weapons. As individuals, we punish our children and constrain our fellows with laws and prisons.

So, while it may be salutary for a Christian to keep the prohibition from violence in mind while thinking about torture, as a philosophical starting point it is not going to be of much help. Nor may we begin to search for necessary and sufficient conditions by presupposing that what we are looking for are levels of violence that are "too great" or "morally unacceptable" since that again begs the question. George Bush made this same point in his notoriously colloquial way the other day, drawing derision from the likes of Jon Stewart and Mark Shea, but it is worth noting that the expression used in the Geneva Conventions--"outrages on human dignity"--is not a univocal expression. The Geneva Conventions do not bother to stipulate what an "outrage" is nor what "human dignity" is. As Christians, we believe we have some inkling as to what we mean by the latter, but we have no grounds for assuming that what we mean by "human dignity" is what everyone else means by it, or even that it is what the authors of the Geneva Convention meant by it. Mark Shea does a disservice to those who point this out in good faith by portraying them as making an obvious and outrageously stupid error. The implication is that George Bush is either a cynical sophist or an ignorant moron (or perhaps both); although he may be, his asking what an "outrage against human dignity" means is not evidence for the claim--it is a perfectly reasonable question to ask when one is trying to decide whether what one is doing is morally justifiable or not and folks are sticking Geneva Conventions under your nose in answer to your question. In short, pointing to the Geneva Conventions is not merely vague, it also begs the question, since the very point at issue is whether these actions are morally licit.

So how do we approach the Demarcation Problem (not to be confused with the Demarkshean Problem)? We want to know what torture is, and we find that it will not do to say that it is "too much" pain and suffering or that it is an "inapproriate" amount or form of pain and suffering, since these definitions beg the question. It is tempting to say that among the necessary conditions for torture is "very great pain or suffering, either physical or psychological". That does not fully dodge the normativity problem, but it is perhaps a little better than saying "too much" or "inappropriate". The difficulty, however, is that whatever any one person, or culture, might judge to be "very great" may not be so judged by another. Personally, I would not be the least bit affected if someone were to defecate on a Bible in front of me, but we are told that for non-believers even to touch a copy of the Qur'an in front of Islamic prisoners constitutes abuse; I do not like it, but I am not particularly harmed, when people make fun of Our Lord or put crucifixes into jars of urine or make portraits of Our Lady out of elephant dung, but simply draw a picture of the Prophet and there is rioting in the streets. To hear my son tell it, falling off of a skateboard might constitute torture in some circles. So to say that torture is "very great pain or suffering" is still rather vague and bound up with subjectivity, perhaps hopelessly so.

One way to escape this problem might be to say that pain or suffering is "very great" at the very least when it causes physical damage to the body of the person experiencing it. This would preclude, for example, the use of sterilized needles under the fingernails, or the rack. Sadly, "very great" pain can be inflicted without causing physical damage (electrodes on testicles, for example), and psychological pain can certainly be "very great" without causing any physical damage. So even an appeal to something empirically verifiable will not do the job fully.

This situation is an instance of what philosophers sometimes call a Sorites Paradox. "Sorites" is the Greek word for a "heap", and the paradox involves the question of how we manage certain kinds of boundary conditions. For example, a single grain of sand is not a heap of sand; if you add one more grain of sand to something that is not a heap, it seems fair to say that you still do not have a heap; but clearly, if you repeat this a sufficient number of times, you will eventually have a heap. Or: a man with a full head of hair is not bald; if you pluck one hair from the head of a man who is not bald, he does not become bald; but clearly, if you repeat this a sufficient number of times, you will eventually have a bald head. In the present case: some forms of coercion seem not to be instances of torture; wratcheting up just a bit on something that is not torture seems not to make that thing an instance of torture, but clearly if you wratchet things up enough you wind up with something that is clearly torture. Where is that line located and how do we know where it is located?

The difficulty in the Demarcation Problem lies not so much in thinking of things that we ourselves would prefer not to undergo. That would be relatively easy to do, and we could then compile a list of those things and say "This is what torture is--stuff like this." This is a notoriously bad way to define things, however. For one thing, once you have your list, you have your definition, and all one needs to do in order to torture someone licitly is think of something that's not on the list but that is very painful and effective. More importantly, lists of items cannot constitute definitions because they do not get at the essence of anything, they do not identify those necessary and sufficient conditions that must be present in order for something to count as an instance of torture.

Torture is usually employed to extract information. It is fair to say that prisoners never want to give their interrogators information, so any form of questioning is, in some sense, hostile and aggressive, since it is asking people to do things that they do not want to do. In the age-old "good cop/bad cop" scenario, one interrogator is mean and the other relatively friendly; but tricking a person into telling things to the friendly guy is still a form of coercion. Yet nobody would describe this kind of thing as tantamount to torture--it's only when the rubber hoses and toilet plungers come out that we begin to think that things are getting out of hand. It may very well be that Alan Dershowitz is right--we will have to decide, as a culture, precisely which acts of interrogation we are going to count as torture and which we aren't, and then heavily regulate the use of the former. This is, of course, entirely arbitrary, and just as culturally bound as anything else, but it is no more arbitrary than any other method, and it at least has the salutary effect of bringing this sort of thing under a limited amount of scrutiny. But the difficulty we still remain: how do we decide, as a culture, which acts we will accept as morally licit and which we will not? Is waterboarding morally licit? Is sleep deprivation morally licit? How do we decide? It is a complex and difficult question for a secular society. I think, however, that it is crystal clear to the Christian, and I cannot do better than to quote the words of Fr. Richard Neuhaus, but let me refer you here to the set of quotations that Christopher Blosser has put together--this is from his blog post:
Fr. Neuhaus has spoken on this topic several times. In Drawing the Line Against Torture, by Fr. Richard J. Neuhaus (First Things 146. October 2004):
Torture as defined in international agreements to which the U.S. is party—outrages against human dignity, humiliation, degradation, mutilation, the threat of death—is never morally permissible. Admittedly, a measure of coercion, both physical and mental, is inevitably involved in most interrogation. The very fact of being in custody and under threat of punishment is a form of coercion. The task is to draw as bright a line as possible between such coercion and torture, and to forbid the latter absolutely. The uncompromisable principle is that it is always wrong to do evil in order that good may result. This principle is taught in numerous foundational texts of our civilization and is magisterially elaborated in the 1993 encyclical of John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor. We cannot ask God’s blessing upon a course of action that entails the deliberate doing of evil. When something like Abu Ghraib happens, the appropriate response of patriotic Americans is one of deep sorrow, clear condemnation, and a firm resolution that it not happen again.
In The Truth About Torture: A Christian Ethics Symposium, Neuhaus engaged in a discussion of Charles Krauthaummer's "The Truth about Torture" (Weekly Standard Dec. 5, 2005) with Darrell Cole, Robert Vischer, and many others.

Finally, in Speaking about the Unspeakable (First Things 151 March 2005), Neuhaus, "struck by the paucity of serious discussions by Christian moral theologians and ethicists" about torture, calls for Jewish and Christian theologians to remedy the issue:
The instance of hijacked planes is relatively rare; the instance of torture is common, and, it would seem, becoming more common. Christian ethicists have in recent years moved away from “quandary ethics” to “virtue ethics,” and that is in many ways a good thing. But quandaries persist. Casuistry has a bad reputation, but the careful study of cases and the moral rules that apply to them is inevitably part of serious moral reflection. I, too, earnestly wish that we could not talk about torture. But the reality and the discussion of the reality will not go away. One cannot help but think that the discussion would benefit from the contributions of Christian and Jewish thinkers informed by the wisdom of biblical sources and their own traditions.
Torture and the Church

My second issue is, at least in my own opinion, much less complicated than the first. Christopher quotes the Catechism, section 2298, as rather definitive proof that the Church does not herself condone the use of torture and never has. But I think that it is worth adding that even the rabidly anti-Catholic historian, Henry Charles Lea, in his mammoth, three-volume slander against the Church called A History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages (New York, 1955), points out that throughout history the Church has always handed prisoners over to secular authorities to be tortured. This is precisely the sort of thing that will make some folks smile knowingly and say "Oh, sure, the Church is against torture like Ted Kennedy is against abortion."

As the Catechism makes clear, however, it is a mistake to make a moral judgment about the Church as a whole and her teachings on the basis of certain mistaken prudential judgments made by members of the Church at certain times in history. The teaching has always been clear; men's minds are often less so, and what seems prudent in one situation may not seem very prudent in retrospect. Whatever we may make of the decisions made by certain individuals to hand prisoners over to secular authorities for torture, it remains a fact that the Church herself has always forbidden it of her own representatives.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

BBC Picks Miss India

In case you were wondering what sort of photo to use to accompany a story about two Turkish hijackers taking over a passenger jet in protest over the Pope's remarks about Islam, you can always follow the lead when it comes to journalistic professionalism, the BBC, and print a publicity shot of Miss India, who happened to be on the same plane.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Guns 'n' Logic

I've never really understood the whole Second Amendment obsession. It seems to me that one can cover the whole "well-maintained militia" thing--if anybody really takes that seriously anymore--by issuing every military-age person a non-automatic rifle and then banning literally everything else. Because, as my friend Paul Halsall of English Eclectic points out in a recent post, while it is true that not all gun possessors are criminals, it is true that all those who commit crimes with guns are gun possessors. As someone who teaches a fair amount of logic, I have to say I'm rather impressed with that little bit of it, though the issue is much more complex than this. On a day like today, however, when we are hearing reports of the third school-shooting in the course of a week, it's tempting to look for ways to simplify.

The standard lines on the pro-gun side are fairly well drawn. If you make gun possession illegal, they say, all you do is take guns out of the hands of otherwise law-abiding citizens--there will be no effect on the criminal element because they don't obey the law anyway. Or else you make criminals out of otherwise law-abiding folk by forcing them to hide their guns. Of course, when an otherwise law-abiding citizen decides to actually use his gun for self-defense, he stands a good chance of making a criminal out of himself anyway, if he should happen to kill someone, since that would be to make an illicit private decision about the proper course of action to take in the defense of the common good.

The use of a firearm to kill in self-defense cannot properly be described as a defense of the common good--it is sheer self-preservation, and while we have a limited right to self-preservation, we do not have an inalienable right to self-preservation at literally any cost, in particular, we may not intentionally kill another in self-defense. We may apply deadly force, and the use of that force that results in unintentional death is licit, but this is rarely--if ever--what defenders of the Second Amendment have in mind. But those who construe the Second Amendment as having to do with individual rights of this kind are mistaken from the get-go: the Second Amendment does not so much guarantee a right to own firearms as it establishes a civic guarantee that citizens will be prepared to fulfill their duty to their fellow citizens in times of need. That is, the right to keep and bear arms is merely an instrumental right that is valid only in pursuit of the greater duty to maintain a militia for the defense of the common good. It is not at all clear that the unrestricted stockpiling of weapons of all types is in any way consistent with what the Second Amendment demands of us as citizens.

The positive law does not always track the moral law, however. Interpretation of the Second Amendment takes place within the context of the former, not the latter, and it responds to political pressure from all sides. What we wind up with is often not merely far from what the Framers intended, but also far from what is morally licit. This is most evidently true in the case of the Fourteenth Amendment, which was manifestly intended to free the slaves but now serves to justify the slaughter of unborn children. What was originally intended as a defense of the morally licit--and necessary--obligation to take up arms against unjust aggressors in defense of the common good is now used to justify the collection of all manner of weaponry for such trifles as killing other animals or such outrages as shooting trespassers, as if the right to private property were somehow higher on the scale of proper values than the right to life. The use of our Constitution in the defense of such practices is not without its costs, however, as we are now seeing in our schools. Are we willing to pay this cost rather than sacrifice a non-existent right to keep and bear arms for whatever reason we happen to think justifies our ownership and use of such things?

Magisterium and Private Judgment

There is a fine metathread up at Pontifications: the Pontificator has collected together the comments--all of them, apparently--and other contributions to the blog by Mike Liccione, one of my favorite bloggers and Catholic philosophers, having to do with the relationship between magisterial teaching and private judgments. The resulting PDF file can be accessed here. I've downloaded a copy for permanent storage on my hard drive.

What they ought to do is make an audio file of it available so one could listen to it while driving--no dozing off under those conditions!

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Kip Hawley Is An Idiot

Welcome to Amerika: CNN reports that a "combative" passenger was detained by airport security for carrying a toiletries bag bearing the slogan "Kip Hawley is an idiot". Kip Hawley is the director of the TSA, just in case you were wondering. The passenger was told that "You can't write things like that" and compared it to making jokes about bombs and stuff like that. Well, sure, some jokes are bombs, but this one's not bad if you ask me. It's interesting how not liking inane TSA procedures means you're "combative". The guy's probably just a libertarian--that's how the feds define "combative" anyway these days.

I'd like to think that I'll be spending a little more time at the airport now, but I doubt that the Big Kipper reads my blog.

So Many Books, So Little Time

If you're a massively bibliophilic person like me, you probably tend to buy a lot of books that you intend to read at some time but that have to be put on the back burner just because they aren't necessarily connected to what you do for a living and there are just so many books a person can expect to read in a lifetime. I'm a pretty slow reader, as it happens, slogging my way through one page of academic-level writing only once every other minute. Now, if I live to be 80, Deo volente (kind of a longshot, but one can always hope), I have about 16.5 million minutes left, or roughly 8 million pages. Most academic books are in the neighborhood of 250 pages these days, so I can still look forward to reading 32,000 books if I read constantly, day and night, 24/7, from now until the day I die. Not a bad way to live, if you ask me, but certainly it's not for everybody. I suppose the main worry, if one wanted to attempt such a thing, is that the process of trying to read so many books might in itself actually shorten one's lifespan.

If you add to this the fact that I am not merely massively bibliophilic but massively procrastinatory as well, it is unlikely that I will read 32 books before I die, let alone 32,000. If I could change this aspect of my personality, however, I would, and i suppose that if I were to succeed, I could probably pull off reading about one book per week. That will require a little over eight hours, which I can probably manage in a seven-day period. This will give me time to read roughly 1600 books between now and the time I reach 80 on 30 April 2038. (Geez, that's a lot closer than I thought it was....) I have way more than 1600 unread books between my house and office, however, so some of them will have to pass on unread either to my beneficiaries or the government, depending on how this whole death tax thing turns out.

In light of all this it will seem strange but unsurprising that I'm constantly on the lookout for more books to add to the pile. In pursuit of this I subscribe to a number of email notification services: the major academic presses all have them, and I subscribe to those offered by Princeton, Cambridge, and Oxford. Then there's the Bryn Mawr Classical Review, which not only tells you what the new books in Classics are, it also provides reviews of them the whet your appetite. And for medieval books I subscribe to The Medieval Review, which is much like BMCR. In today's email I received notification of what the next four books to join my pile of unlikely-to-be-read-in-my-lifetime but likely-to-join-my-library books:
Pentcheva, Bissera V. Icons and Power: The Mother of God in Byzantium. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006. Pp. xviii, 302, 120 color and B&W illustrations. $60.00. ISBN: 0-271-02551-4.

Mulder-Bakker, Anneke B. Lives of the Anchoresses: The Rise of the Urban Recluse in Medieval Europe. Translated by Myra Heerspink Scholz. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2005. Pp. 312. $55.00. ISBN: 0-8122-3852-4

Mitchell, Piers D. Medicine in the Crusades: Warfare, Wounds and the Medieval Surgeon. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Pp. ix+293, illus. £48.00 (hbk). ISBN 0 521 84455.

Roest, Bert. Franciscan Literature of Religious Instruction Before the Council of Trent. Studies in the History of Christian Traditions, vol. CXVII. Leiden: Brill, 2004. Pp. xxi+673. $280.00. ISBN-10 90 04 14026 3, ISBN-13 978 9004140 26 4.
Joe Bob says check them out. To subscribe to the Bryn Mawr Classical Review, go here; to subscribe to The Medieval Review, send a "subscribe" message to the listserv at Western Michigan University: TMR-L@wmich.edu.

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 [...