Thursday, August 28, 2008

Philosophia Perennis

Dr. Michael Liccione of Sacramentum Vitae has launched a new group blog, called Philosophia Perennis, to host the writings of a number of Catholic philosophers who have been around the blogosphere for a while. I find myself among those invited to contribute to this new effort, and I will do so happily--if everyone invited actually takes part, the enterprise promises to be an exciting addition to the Catholic blogosphere.

The Flynn Effect

I've just finished teaching for the summer. That gives me roughly ten days off to get ready for the fall term. Not much of a summer break, I'll grant you, but I needed the money. The good news is that the class I just finished teaching, Introduction to the Philosophy of Science, is one of the classes I will be teaching this fall, so I'm well prepared, at least for that class. I will also be teaching a graduate seminar on the philosophy of biology, and that one will take considerably more work. For one thing, that class is more likely to have some real scientists in it, and my experience has been that real scientists don't always take philosophy all that seriously, especially when it tries to say something about the particular domain of science in which they work. There is often a fair amount of persuasion that goes into greasing the wheels of the naturalist program these days.

The problem is rather different when I teach courses in the history of philosophy. These classes have no prerequisites, so they tend to have a fair number of freshmen and sophomores in them. I am more than happy to have such students in my classes, of course, but I've noticed something about them that is rather striking. Some of them have a tendency to challenge every argument from every philosopher they encounter. In itself it is not a bad idea to be skeptical about philosophical arguments, so it's not the fact that they are willing to raise such challenges that I find striking. Indeed, it would be more worrisome if they said nothing at all but rather just passively absorbed whatever they happened to come across. What is striking is that the challenges tend to be vociferous, dogmatic, and unrelenting. Some students appear to think that challenging a philosophical argument really amounts to nothing more than having a different point of view of one's own and then stating it. With conviction. When this attitude is combined with what appears to be a certain disdain for the arguments of the philosopher being challenged, one cannot help but get the feeling that intellectual laziness is on the rise.

Now, I'll grant you that such philosophers as Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hume, Wittgenstein, and Quine have all mounted arguments in favor of propositions with which it is tempting to disagree. Is it really the case, however, that Aristotle's views about, say, final causation, or Kant's categorical schema, or Quine's denial of the distinction between the analytic and the synthetic, are nothing more than the mere guesswork of complete morons? Because that's how some of my students treat such ideas when presenting their own. It's as if the 2300 years that have elapsed between Aristotle's time and our own was merely preparatory for the present generation: nobody noticed, until now, what a dork Aristotle was, and we finally have the definitive refutation of all of his views. The only problem left worth solving is the question why we even bother to teach the ideas of these benighted bozos at all any more. I taught a class a few years ago in which we read Plato's Gorgias as an introduction to certain elements of moral theory. One day we were discussing the argument, made by Socrates in the first half of the text, to the effect that every wrongdoer actually harms himself when he does wrong. I asked whether the argument was valid, and there was a moment's silence. I waited them out. Finally one guy in the back of the class said, "I think it's stupid." Well, it's a start, I thought to myself, but I tried to draw him out. "What part of the argument do you have in mind? Where do you think it goes wrong?" He just stared blankly at me. "Can you pinpoint any specific statement by Socrates that you think is the key here to the argument's failure?" He picked up the whole book and said "I don't know, I just think this whole thing is stupid." I still didn't get it. I asked "You mean you think the argument is no good?" He said, "No, the whole thing is stupid." It appears that he meant the entire text of the Gorgias. One of the greatest works of philosophical literature in the Western Canon, but this guy, an undergraduate at Ohio University, had decided that it failed to amount to anything at all worth reading. I should have asked him for a list of works that he thought would be better candidates for taking up his time in study, but I was a little worried that he might not be that much of a reader to begin with. We moved on.

I was reminded of this little exchange today as I read, with considerable morbid fascination, the exchange at a blog called Parchment and Pen between an author of one of the essays there and Dr. Michael Liccione of Sacramentum Vitae and Fr. Alvin Kimel, formerly of Pontifications. Mike and Fr. Al got drawn into the conversation because the topic of the essay was whether "Catholics deny Chalcedon in their view of the Mass." The author of the essay, C. Michael Patton, admits early on that "it may be that I am misunderstanding things (this would not be a first)." He goes on to document what he takes to be the impossibility of reconciling the notion of transubstantiation with the teachings of Chalcedon. It is a very interesting essay, and I certainly recommend reading it. What fascinates me about the exchange, however, is not so much the argument of the essay (which, in the end, fails for precisely the reason its own author had, with such admirable modesty, anticipated), but rather the exchanges in the combox between the author and Mike and Fr. Al. Mike, in particular, completed the Herculean task of making some sense out of the issues involved, and Fr. Al did an admirable job of clarifying what the Church actually has to say about these issues and noted, not unfairly, I think, that the Council of Chalcedon itself accepted the basic metaphysics of transubstantiation. Needless to say, none of this had any effect on those readers of the essay who, for various reasons, appeared to be predisposed to accept the Calvinist, rather than the Catholic, interpretation of things.

Now, just possibly it is the case that a 35 year old blogger from Norman, Oklahoma, has stumbled upon something that generations of philosophers and theologians have missed. Things like that may be very rare, but of course they are not literally impossible. But I couldn't help agreeing with Mike, when he closed his first comment with these words:
As a regular Catholic blogger, I often find myself confronted with arguments that the body of Catholic dogma is inconsistent with itself in this-or-that respect. Since I don’t want to invite more such arguments, I shall not now cite any examples other than yours. I mention my experience only so as to cite the lesson I’ve learned from it: invariably, I find that the critic has simply misunderstood at least one of the doctrines in question. In isolated cases, that would not be at all strange. What I do find strange is the apparent frequency of the belief that the Catholic Church, despite her nearly two thousand years of teaching, dogmatizing, and theological reflection, somehow keeps missing the rather elementary points of logic that would expose her doctrinal inconsistency. I would gently urge you to be very careful before you adopt a stance which entails something so unlikely.
You would think that this kind of advice, coming as it does from a professional theologian with advanced degrees and considerable academic experience, would have some effect. The effect it had, however, was not unlike the effect that Plato's Gorgias had on my student of yesteryear. C. Michael Patton was much more polite, and exhibited admirable Christian charity, but what he said was ultimately the same in substance as my former student's assessment of Plato's argument.

There's not much that can be done about that kind of thing, in my opinion. Mike is a Catholic, and C. Michael Patton is a Protestant, who claims that John Calvin is the greatest theologian in the last 2000 years: the guys are like antiparticles of each other, and it's probably best if we just keep them apart so they don't annihilate one another.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Sin of Believing in Sin

From the looks of things, Nancy Pelosi thinks that matters of religious doctrine are simply a matter of choosing sides. In particular, it looks as though she thinks that it is a matter of choosing the side that happens to agree with what you already think. When it was pointed out to her that the Catholic Church has always held abortion, from the moment of conception, to be gravely wrong, she was forced to admit as much but went on to say "many Catholics do not ascribe to that view" (I think she meant "subscribe", but whatever). She went on to say that she is happy to stick with Augustine, who held that the embryo is not ensouled at conception. She apparently takes this to mean that abortion prior to ensoulment is OK, even though Augustine himself would disagree with her: he thought it gravely wrong from the moment of conception, soul or no soul. But if you're a Catholic of the Nancy Pelosi stripe, it doesn't matter if the source of your beliefs doesn't go with you all the way: you just pick and choose those elements that are to your liking. In short, she, and those who think like her, is not using Augustine, or the Church, as a source of authoritative teachings, but rather as backup for her own antecedently endorsed political opinions. Augustine agrees with me here--so he and I are both right on that; but Augustine disagrees with me there, so I'm right and he's wrong on that one. It's all very convenient.

The claim that "many Catholics do not [subscribe] to that view" comes as no surprise from this sort of Catholic. There's safety in numbers, after all. On this sort of a view, there is really no such thing as sin, other than going ahead and doing something that you, yourself, already think is sinful. On the Pelosi view, if she happens to think that something is OK, then it is OK, whether or not the Church happens to agree with her. It is much better, of course, if she can point to "many Catholics" who agree with her against the Church, but there is no reason in principle that she would even need to have any others on her side. After all, the "many Catholics" that she has in mind are really just a minority of Catholics in Western Europe and North America; the majority of Catholics in those areas, and the majority of Catholics worldwide, happen to agree with the Church. So it's not even a matter of democratic judgment on her part, she's just playing oratorical games: I have lots of people on my side, so who cares what the Church, or even Senator Augustine, have to say on the matter.

Indeed, when other Catholics attempt to engage in a little fraternal correction with the Pelosi types, they are told in no uncertain terms that they are the ones who are being bad Catholics, because they are "judging" the people that they disagree with and are not showing Our Lord's "compassion" and "acceptance" of "the Other". It's a rather startling inversion, really: those who remain faithful to the Church's teaching are now the ones who are least Catholic, while those who question all the "outmoded" dogmas are the ones who are on the cutting edge, helping to build the Church of the future. On this sort of a view, of course, there is no teaching of the Church that is not at risk. These people may decide that God is not really a Trinity, or that Christ did not really rise from the dead, or that the Holy Spirit is really just a sort of nice feeling in one's gut. Indeed, many people appear already to have formed such banal views.

It might be time for folks like Pelosi to cut their losses: just admit that they're lousy Catholics. Why do they want to insist on this anyway? Is it supposed to attract Catholic voters to have people think that they're Catholic? That's not going to work very well when the Church itself is standing robustly against you, unless they're counting on that good old American notion of Questioning Authority. Well, if the Church says I should accept some view, then by golly I'm not going to accept it! I'm sick and tired of being hassled by the Man! Off the establishment! The "thinking man's" Catholic politician, maybe. Hey, I'm hip, I think for myself--hell, I even think for Senator Augustine, because he was way off when he said that unensouled fetuses deserve protection in the womb.

To be fair--if that is the right word--to folks like Pelosi, I think that there is at least one non-cynical way to interpret what she is doing. It is true, after all, that theologians like Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Bonaventure, or whoever, discuss matters like ensoulment all the time, and among the theologoumena one encounters in their writings are, of course, the many ramifications of adopting one point of view rather than another. To the unskilled reader, this obvious empirical fact about theological writings can give the impression that the Church herself has not settled upon any definitive answers to certain kinds of questions. The impression is mistaken most of the time, however, as here in the case of abortion. Does thinking that the Church has no definitive teaching when, in fact, she does, alter one's culpability in rejecting Church teaching? This is an interesting question, one that Dr. Michael Liccione has commented on at some length at Sacramentum Vitae. The principle of charity, perhaps, suggests that we ought to go easy on folks like Pelosi, but as Mike has argued with considerable persuasiveness, many of the folks who adopt positions like Pelosi's are people who ought to know better.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Intra Ecclesiam Gradibus

With his usual clarity and persuasiveness, Dr. Michael Liccione has posted an excellent essay at Sacramentum Vitae on the difference between saying that "there is no salvation outside the Church" and saying that "Communion with the Church comes in degrees". The heart of the lesson can be found here:
it is one thing to say that there's no salvation outside the Church; it's another to say what being inside the Church can consist in. The former claim remains the teaching of the Church, now expressed by [Lumen Gentium]'s formulation that she is "necessary for salvation." But the latter claim is that being in the Church, or at least being related to her in a salvific way, is often a matter of degree. That is a real development of insight into the fixed content of the deposit of faith.
Mike's analysis is not a mere Scholastic exercise, however, for he posted it within the broader context of the problem of Catholics "in the public sphere" who, in one way or another, manage to fall far short of the Catholic ideal in terms of integrating their faith into their daily lives, or at least into the public portion of their daily lives.

As I mentioned in a post yesterday, we live in a day and age--and, more importantly, a civil society--in which "every opinion is sacred", and this is taken by many to include religious opinions. Americans are, by and large, Protestant in their leanings, even many Catholic Americans, who make up the plurality of Christians in this country. I suspect that this is due to the Enlightenment principles underlying many of our so-called "civic virtues". In particular, individual autonomy was taken to be the foundation of human liberty by many of the Protestant-leaning Enlightenment thinkers who wrote the founding documents of our polis. As a result, there is a temptation among many Americans to think that, even in the sphere of religious belief, it is sufficient that I am sincere in my religious beliefs in order for me to think that I, and I alone, speak with any authority about what is "true for me" in the domain of religion. Not many years ago there was a rather well-known Catholic politician in California who was told that he might be barred by his Bishop from receiving Communion if he persisted in his erroneous views about abortion. His response was that the Bishop needed to understand that it's not up to him to determine what is true for other people in their religion. The response was absolutely classic: total ignorance of what the Catholic religion is combined with a resolutely American approach to the epistemic status of religious beliefs. I still laugh when I think about it.

Laughter, however, is not how everyone greets such pompous banality. Some want to punish such politicians at the Communion rail (if only there were still such things in most churches). As Mike rightly points out, however, that is not always warranted:
Catholic politicians who support laws giving wide scope to the practice of abortion are doing grave wrong. But it does not necessarily follow that they are guilty of that sin, so that they profane the Eucharist if and when they receive it. That follows only when (a) they are aware of how the teaching of the Church applies in this case, or (b) if they are unaware, they are culpable for being unaware. And the same holds for Catholics in general about any sort of serious sin, especially that of heresy. This is where the problem of pro-abort Catholic pols really arises from.
The problem is rather widespread, as Mike also notes. After all, it's not just the politicians who flout Church teaching. We've reached a point in time when it is not unwarranted to have grave doubts about whether the person standing next to you in the pew on a Sunday morning even believes in what the Mass is. On the one hand, some folks are not well-enough educated to understand what it is; on the other hand, other folks are too well-educated to believe in what it is. The failure on both counts, I think, lies with catechists, but that is a topic for another day. The practical side of the question is more vexing:
In most cases, bishops and priests presume that people are not culpable for their infidelity to Church teaching. They presume either that people are approaching the Eucharist in good conscience or that it is not the role of pastors to judge the consciences of communicants when they march up to receive. And in the case of many ordinary Catholics, that presumption is correct. The depth of ignorance and deception among ordinary Catholics, which reached new lows in the decade or so after Vatican II, remains so great in many instances that such Catholics cannot be presumed culpable when, out of habit and sentiment, they receive the Eucharist. And so, even when such a Catholic is objectively culpable for not being in full communion with the Church, the appearance of full communion on their part is generally kept up.
I live in a university community, so when I find myself wondering what the person standing next to me believes, I often feel as though the odds are in favor of the bet that the person ought to know better than to believe something heterodox. Granted, it's not always a sure thing, but I think it is certainly a safe bet. Not too long ago I was discussing these issues with some colleagues from the university who also happen to attend my church. One of them is a full professor of psychology and a life-long Catholic. As we talked, it started to dawn on me that he did not, in fact, believe many of the things the Church teaches, and I don't just mean those iffy "I-want-to-have-safe-sex-whenever-and-with-whomever-I-please" kinds of teachings, but the teachings about God, the Christ, and Everything. So I finally popped the sixty-four thousand dollar ontological question: What about the Creed? Don't you recite the Creed at Mass and, if so, how do you feel about saying that you believe these things when you don't? His answer struck me as so inane that I remember it virtually verbatim: "Oh, I think you do certain things socially like that and it doesn't really mean that you take them literally." In short, the recitation of the Creed at Mass is, like everything else one says at Mass, apparently, just a kind of stage play. This was not some hick from out in the county--those people often take their religion a lot more seriously. This was a well-educated person who ought to have known better. What are we to do with such people?
One cannot just pick out, and pick on, the ordinary Catholics who are implicated in this mess. Most of them are not morally responsible for it, nor is it their role to clean it up. But one can and ought to pick out and pick on erring Catholics who have the education to know and understand what the Church teaches as well as the power to affect a great many lives by their actions. I mean, of course, the Nancy Pelosis and the Joe Bidens. Archbishop Chaput has had some especially trenchant things to say about such people. If they have excuses, they shouldn't be left with them. Too much is at stake.
Mike is surely right in all this. I'm not at all sure what the best way is to begin to restore some semblance of order to Catholic catechesis, but it does seem to me that consistency is better than cafeterianism. At the very least it will help to impose a measure of humility on certain persons who privilege themselves and their own religious sentiments above the Ancient Faith.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Like Maybe We Should Change the Subject

I've been more than a little intrigued by Nancy Pelosi's recent gaffe on NBC's Meet the Press, where she averred as to how the Church's teaching on abortion has only been around "like maybe 50 years" (see the story at Amy Welborn's site, or at the Catholic League website). The difficulty, of course, lies partly in her inability to distinguish theologoumena from dogmata, that is, theological speculation from authoritative teaching. As Pelosi rightly noted, theologians have pondered various questions about human life for a very long time. St. Thomas Aquinas, for example, held the view that there is a moment in time, called "quickening" in non-technical contexts, at which a human body is "ensouled", and in some of his writings he speculates that this moment may be at some point in time after conception. His statements in this regard were not intended to be interpreted as arguments against the Church's definitive teaching against all forms of procured abortion, but try telling this to the desperate Democratic Catholic who wants to feel better about receiving Holy Communion on Sunday.

In Pelosi's remarks we see what we always see with politicians: an attempt to spin a story in such a way as to make their own views seem more reasonable, more pertinent, and more acceptable to a broader range of the public than the views of their opponents. Rhetorically it is a very good move, but from the point of view of, well, what's right (if such folks believe that there is such a thing), it leaves much to be desired. More interestingly, her remarks show the mark of the American Zeitgeist, which may perhaps be stated rather simply as "Every opinion is sacred." This is a democracy, after all, and in particular it is a democracy in which we treasure the freedom to express our opinions publicly. (If you think that this freedom is overrated here, try living in Canada for a few days.) Some folks--Pelosi, apparently, among them--appear to think that because everyone is entitled to their opinion every opinion is deserving of some entitlement. Or, to put it another way, Pelosi, like so many other moral slobs these days, confuses the rather obvious empirical fact that people disagree about things with the utterly false ontological claim that the things about which people disagree have no definitive answers. In her view, the question of "when human life begins" is unsettled. Why does she regard it as unsettled? The only reason that she herself can give for thinking the matter is unsettled is the fact that theologians have disputed it over time. Does that mean that it is really unsettled? If I ask a room full of students in a math class what the square root of 17 is, may I regard that question as unsettled if they each give me a slightly different answer? I suppose it is settled that the students don't know what the answer is, but if one of them were to produce a calculator and key in the relevant input, it seems as though the question would come a lot closer to being settled.

In the Catholic Church we have something that is analogous to a calculator in a math class, namely, the Magisterium. Theologians can discuss and dispute all they like, but definitive teachings cannot be changed. Pelosi, like many others, seems to be either unaware of this or, if she has heard of it, simply does not believe it. I have actually known Roman Catholic priests who have denied it, so it comes as no surprise to me that a Sunday-go-to-meetin' Catholic like Pelosi would deny it, or even be totally ignorant of it. I don't really even want to blame her for not knowing better: I think the lousy state of Catholic catachesis in this country is probably to blame. The good news in this regard is that Bill Donohue has sent Pelosi a copy of Catholicism for Dummies; the bad news is she probably won't read it--people like her think that they already know everything that a dummy needs to know.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

And With Thy Spirit

As I reflect a little more on my previous post (the one with the video of the Cirque de Sottise) I find myself wondering whether the time has come for folks such as myself, folks who find most contemporary liturgical settings banal and vapid, to recognize the need for what might be called a "Sacred Tongue" or, at the very least, a "Liturgical Dialect". This is not unheard of in religions: the Jews still make use of classical Hebrew in certain settings, as the Muslims do of classical Arabic. Until very recently Western Christians still had their Latin, and the Orthodox--some of them, anyway--still make use of something not very unlike koinĂȘ Greek. The Western Church, famously, tossed off its Sacred Tongue into the dustbin of history in favor of viewer participation or contemporary relevance or something along those lines, and while this makeover of the Mass into the language of the people may have been merely the tip of the iceberg, so to speak, in matters of banalification, it at least has the very salutary feature of being rather easily remedied, at least when compared with such things as getting congregations to use their beautiful, large, fixed altars again (if they haven't torn them out entirely) with the priest standing ad orientem, or making other, comparable, improvements to Things Liturgical.

The Episcopal church--and some other denominations as well--have gone through similar growth pangs even though the liturgical language was always vernacular. When the 1979 Book of Common Prayer was approved for use in churches it replaced the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, which was written in a kind of faux-Elizabethan English that was very popular in some circles. In fact, it was so popular that as late as 1983 there were still parishes that would set aside a service here or there in which the 1928 Book would be used to mollify those persons who continued to be whatever it is you call the Episcopalian version of a Lefebvrist. Now that the Episcopal church is coming apart at the seams, it is a rather easy matter for whole congregations to put the 1979 Book aside and take up such wonderful liturgical resources as the Anglican Missal and the Anglican Breviary, both publications of the Frank Gavin Liturgical Foundation (the Breviary can also be used by Catholics, since it is just an English translation of the secular Latin breviary in use in 1955--see the website, here).

Is there a problem with using liturgical texts written in this strange dialect that, like Homeric Greek or Renaissance Latin, was arguably never really a vernacular language? There are bits and pieces that are taken straight from Cranmer and other original sources, but even those texts are as often as not written in a style considerably more formal than what would have been spoken by most people of the time. The attraction of these texts lies not in their historical accuracy but in their poetic beauty. Whether they are faux or original, they read beautifully, and they make prayer into an aesthetic expression of our deepest longings. Prayer, by its very nature, is always a linguistic expression of one sort or another; to make it into an aesthetic expression is not to deny that or try to escape from the inevitable propositionality of prayer. It is, rather, to add another dimension to the expression, to make possible forms of representation that go beyond the merely verbal and propositional. In this sense, resources such as those provided by the Frank Gavin Liturgical Foundation provide a real service to the Christian believer.

There are some who find this sort of thing objectionable even while lamenting the use of the more popular forms of the vernacular. In the middle of the last century, for example, a new translation of the Psalms into Latin was undertaken by the Pontifical Biblical Commission under Cardinal Bea (sometimes called the Versio Piana since it was approved by Pope Pius XII of happy memory). This new translation was intended to be in a more high-falutin' style than the so-called "vulgate" version, following the stylistic principles of the Renaissance humanists instead of the more proletarian principles of Jerome and his followers. The new version was printed in many breviaries and is, indeed, very beautiful, but it was never as popular as the old Latin versions and it never really caught on, even among the sorts of people we would today call "traditionalists". It is ironic, I suppose, in a way, since what these people deplore about the English translations that have been foisted upon us by the ICEL is manifest also in the old Latin Psalter, but the operative word for some of these folks appears to be "old" rather than "Latin". In this particular case, the "newer" Latin of the Bea Psalter reads more like the Elizabethan English of the Anglican Breviary, while the "older" Latin sounds, if anything, like the sort of prose one finds in the National Enquirer (there is an interesting, if negative, review of the Bea Psalter reprinted here).

I have often blogged on matters of translation, including the very popular Shibboleth of "literalness" (this post is just one among many). Translations do not need to be literal in order to be translations, even good ones, but I find it to be a very safe generalization to say that, the closer a particular English translation is to the Latin of our liturgical texts (in terms of literalness) the more likely it is that the translation is going to sound more like a prayer and less like a whine. But one difficulty with any translation is that it will fail, by its very nature, to capture those elements of the original that are unique to the modes of expression employed in the original tongue. Just by way of example, let's have a look at the petitions from Vespers II of last Friday's HDO. The petitions begin with general invocation:
Deum patrem omnipotentem magnis laudibus extollamus, qui Mariam matrem Filii sui ab omnibus generationibus celebrari voluit, et ab eo supplices petamus: Plenam gratia intuere, et exaudi nos.
This is translated by the ICEL in the following way:
Let us praise God our almighty Father, who wished that Mary, his Son's mother, be celebrated by each generation. Now in need we ask: Mary, full of grace, intercede for us.
As translations go, that one isn't so very bad; as ICEL translations go, it is remarkably lucid and to the point. It's not completely literal (note, for example, that the final phrase has the name "Mary" where the original does not; the original has "intuere" while the translation does not, etc.), but it does far better than many of the scraps we have served up to us on a Sunday at Mass. More to the point, however, is the fact that the Latin prayer is remarkably well-crafted, while the English translation is almost literally limping along to keep up without screwing up. Just for starters, there's no way you can capture, in English, the deep resonances of the Latin phrase "Deum Patrem omnipotentem" while at the same time managing anything like literalness. The English phrase "God our almighty Father" is as literal--and as banal--as it gets (except for the "our" part). The trouble here is not one of failing to be literal, but of a more general failure of English to sound as good as Latin. To assert such a thing, however, is manifestly to assert an aesthetic preference. Lots of people do not share the view that Latin, at least in this instance, sounds better than English. De gustibus non disputandum est, I suppose, but those people are just wrong.

There are a couple of features of the Latin original that are not captured by the English translation, literal though it is to some degree, and these features add to the dignitas and maiestas of the prayer. I have in mind here the fact that the Latin original uses two hortatory subjunctives where the English uses only one, and the Latin original makes use of some rather nice features of the Latin language that have no real parallels in English. For example, notice how Mariam matrem Filii sui, "Mary, the Mother of his Son", precedes the expression ab omnibus generationibus, "by all generations". Because word order is not as strictly governed in Latin as it is in English by rules of syntax, it is possible to put these words into just about any order one might wish; in the present case, the solemnity of the prayer is enhanced by the fact that God's Son, indicated by the word Filii, stands between his Mother Mary (Mariam matrem) and all of the rest of us (omnibus generationibus). Imagine, if you will, a triangle, with Christ at the pinnacle, Mary at one corner, and the rest of us at the other corner. Mary stands as an exemplar for the rest of us, the Mother not only of God but of the Church, the meaning of both roles mediated for us by our experience of the Christ.She is not above us, but rather at the same level; nor does she stand between us and our Savior; but still she is distinct from us--like us insofar as she is at the same level, but unlike us in her sinlessness and special graces. The Latin here is not unusual, or high-blown, or forced--this is pretty much just how one would say, in Latin, what the prayer wants to say. But in saying what it wants to say in a perfectly ordinary way, it manages to say much more than the English could ever say if the English were expressed in a purely colloquial form. Before moving on to the next petition, I will also point out how the Latin original here concludes by invoking Mary's assistance in prayer through one of her most memorable--and pertinent, in the present context--titles, Full of Grace, rather than by her name. This would be possible, but rather unnatural, in English. In Latin it seems as natural as daylight.

The next petition builds the oratorical gravitas:
Deus, mirabilium patrator, qui immaculatam Virginem Mariam corpore et anima caelestis gloriae Christi fecisti consortem, filiorum tuorum corda ad eandem gloriam dirige.
The ICEL gives us:
O God, worker of miracles, you made the immaculate Virgin Mary share, body and soul, in your Son's glory in heaven, direct the hearts of your children to that same glory.
Here, "worker of miracles" seems a little tepid next to mirabilium patrator, though it is certainly better than some alternatives one could imagine, such as "miracle worker". The word patrator has deep religious resonance in Latin, though most of its associations in that language are to pagan rites, so perhaps one ought not to make too much of that whole thing. More to the point is the possible contrast between "worker" and "accomplisher", the latter being far closer to the meaning of the Latin. Someone who "works" miracles may not differ much from someone who "accomplishes" them or "effects" them or "brings them about", but the verb patrare may have some connection to the notion of paternal power to effect creation and, as such, seems far more redolent of God's power than the suggestion that he is just some sort of magician. And why on earth would someone translate caelestis gloriae Christi as "your Son's glory in heaven" rather than as "Christ's celestial glory"? I mean, the mind boggles. It's as if they went out of their way to sound trivial rather than grand.

I'll just do one more and call it a dies.
Qui Mariam dedisti nobis matrem, ipsa intercedente, concede medelam languidis, solamen maerentibus, veniam peccatoribus, et omnibus salutem et pacem.
Which the ICEL turns into
You made Mary our mother. Through her intercession grant strength to the weak, comfort to the sorrowing, pardon to sinners, salvation and peace to all.
Here, I'm afraid, the ICEL has really dropped the ball. "You made Mary our mother"? Are you kidding? One doesn't know whether to laugh or to cry, but it's a safe bet that neither is the emotion that was being aimed at. It's bad enough that they take what in the original is the introduction to the petition and turn it into an independent sentence with little, if any, obvious connection to what follows, but to turn dedisti into "made" is a slap in the face. God gave us a great gift in Mary, a woman who surpasses all mankind in grace and honor. The English would have us hear "Hey, did you know that God made Mary? Well, he did, and she's like a mother to us now. Let's ask her to pray for us." The Latin, by contrast, praises God's loving kindness to us while asking him to listen to our prayers through Mary, his greatest manifestation of that loving kindness short of his own Son. As she has served for us as a strengthener to the weak, a solace to those who mourn, etc., we ask that God grant these same things at our hands to those who stand in need of them. Mary is our mother, after all, and we learn at her knee; the graces that we receive from God through her intercession we are to take into the great family of the Church and thence to all. Here again word order elevates the style of the prayer. Note how the Latin ends omnibus salutem et pacem, so that the prayer as a whole is framed by Qui...dedisti at the beginning and salutem et pacem at the end: may the one who gave us Mary for a mother also give us salvation and peace, through her intercession. It is, of course, perfectly possible to translate et omnibus salutem et pacem not as "salvation and peace to all" but as "and to all, salvation and peace"--it just depends on how important you think what you're saying is.

That's probably enough kvetching for one day; I will resist the temptation to compare the ugly ICEL prayers with the beautiful ones in my Anglican Breviary. That will make for a nice future bit of kvetching.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Curb Your Enthusiasm

This evening I just happened to check in at one of my favorite blogs, Fr. Jeffrey Steel's De Cura Animarum, only to find myself wondering whether it might be possible to both laugh and puke at the same time. Check out this video of the "Liturgy of the Word" segment of something calling itself a "Catholic Mass" in California:

One finds oneself at a loss for words, which is OK in this case since the only words that fit the occasion can't be printed in a family blog. On the other hand, since the thing evidently makes no sense at all, it actually stands as a pretty good argument for bringing back Latin to the liturgy: as long as we no longer care whether anyone can follow what's going on, why not bring back Gregorian Chant?

Saturday, August 02, 2008

The First Covenant

On Saturdays I like to go to Confession. Not because I have a plethora of grievous sins to own up to each week, mind you, though I certainly have my share. Even if I had none, I would still go so as to make some reparation, however insignificant in comparison with Christ's, for the little ways in which I have failed to live up to my calling to be an image of God in the order of creation. It is a fine preparation for Communion and, if you live in a parish like mine, there's never any waiting because academics are far and away too pompous to admit that they've done anything wrong, being far more interested in pointing out the faults of others. Sometimes, when I'm finished, the priest will try to chat me up, knowing full well that once I leave he'll be sitting in lonely isolation until time for the vigil Mass.

Saturday has become one of my favorite days of the week. I like it that I can humble myself before the Lord in the Sacrament of Confession, making right my wayard path. I like it that I can pray an Office in honor of Our Lady during Ordinary Time when there is no competing memorial. I like it that I can be with my family in a special way, a way that continues through Sunday and that reminds me that simply to live, to move, and to have any being at all is a blessing beyond reckoning.

Today was a particularly beautiful Saturday, too, and that can help. I was up before dawn, at about 5:45, to pray the Office and read the Martyrology. By 7:00 I was done and ready for my bike-ride. We have a very nice bike-path here in Athens County, running nearly 20 miles from the east side of Athens to the south side of Nelsonville. It travels along an old canal tow-path, which, in turn, tends to follow the Hocking River, of Harvard on the Hocking fame. I like to ride about 20 miles, so I usually head up towards Nelsonville for about 10 miles and then come back. Today the temperature was perfect for going fast, though my top speed, even on the relatively flat bike path, is really only about 25 miles per hour, a snail's pace compared to the resting speed of really serious bikers. The path goes through cool wooded areas as well as open meadows, and with the sun low in the sky and the air still moist from the cool night the ride is just about as pleasant as one could wish. You have to watch for rabbits, deer, box turtles, and other critters, but if you keep your eyes peeled you'll be OK. Other creatures are more dangerous. About a month ago I was headed up my usual route when I say a large figure in the middle of the path. The bike path is only wide enough for three bikes to go abreast, and as I approached I saw that this particular figure was effectively blocking the whole path. It was a man, laid out right across the path and snoring loudly. Beside him in the grass was his own bike, along with his backpack. I had to go off the path to get around him. As I biked back in the other direction, nearly 40 minutes later, he was still there, soundly sleeping.

The day was getting ever more beautiful, so I decided to say my Rosary out in the hammock. It just don't get no better 'n that, folks. On days like this one must simply breathe in life and be grateful.

On Saturdays I like to remember the First Covenant. The Old Sabbath day is a good day for that, I think, and the Office often reflects it, with readings that refer to God's promise to His people and in the frequent commemoration of Our Lady, the last type of the Old People and the first type of the New, a bridge between the Covenants. The Jews were Chosen to be an image of God in the world--to represent what it is to live according to God's precepts. Though they did not always succeed, they are still to be honored for this role that was so graciously given them. We, too, are called to live as Imagines Dei, living a life that is full of praise and thanksgiving to our God and Redeemer. It's difficult to think of a more fitting way to bring a day such as this to an end than by kneeling down before God's minister and offering up those ways in which we have squandered, through our fault, our own fault, our own most grievous fault, the beautiful promise that has been handed on to us.

But the natural beauty of a day like this is not, I don't think, a coal that we ought to heap upon our own head. Rather, let it serve as a promise of what awaits us in the Confessional--let it be a physical sign of the ineffable beauty of Absolution, and of a return to life as it was meant to be lived. Confession can be difficult--especially if, like me, you are sometimes embarrassed to find yourself confessing sins you've confessed many times before. But it should also be beautiful, invigorating, and cleansing, like a fine Saturday filled with the joy and love that comes of being alive in God's presence.

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 [...