Sunday, December 06, 2009

History and Evolutionary Theory

According to orthodox mythology, Galileo was something of a martyr for the cause of science and human enlightenment. After the publication, in 1632, of his Dialogo (its full title in English, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, Copernican and Ptolemaic), he was condemned at Rome the following year. The way the story if often told, his only offense was to challenge the dominant scientific orthodoxy of his day, which claimed that the earth was motionless. The Church, it is often claimed, held this to be a theological truth not open to challenge by mere laymen, and his trial was, accordingly, one for heresy. He was forced to abjure his belief that the earth moved, and to spend the rest of his life under house arrest. As if to make the story even more dramatic--and to add a nice kick on behalf of the "good guys" who might be reading this story nowadays--it is also reported that he muttered "And yet it moves" under his breath after his public proclamation that the earth is motionless.

High drama--drama that would be rather spoiled if the whole story were told sine ira et studio. The story provides some comfort to those who would defend a kind of secular humanism, in which the saints are such figures as Galileo, Giordano Bruno, and their ilk. Comfort because, in our own enlightened times, we see the scientific community as the victors, the Catholic Church as the loser, in this earliest of modern-era culture wars. Indeed, when John Paul the Great offered up an apology for the condemnation of Galileo there was much rejoicing on the part of those who think that the Church has much to answer for in terms of her opposition to scientific enlightenment. The apology was actually seen, in some quarters, as some sort of a victory for the humanist side, if you can believe it, though that sort of thinking is of a pace with those who so often fail so utterly to understand anything about the Faith.

A similar culture war rages in our own day, this time not between The Church and The Astronomers but between The Church and The Biologists. In the present conflict, a few humanist biologists are pitting (in their own imaginations) the theory of evolution by natural selection against the truth of the Faith, in the rather vain hope that any rational person accepting the truth of the former will, by some strange (bio)logical necessity, have to reject the truth of the latter. There are a few humanist biologists who think this way who are not otherwise insane, so it is at least worth thinking about what on earth could possibly give rise to such a risible belief in a putatively rational person. My own hunch is that it is largely an accident of history.

The accident that I have in mind is the fact that Darwin did his work in the 19th century, while progress in molecular biology did not really occur until the 20th century. I think that if these two historically contingent facts were reversed, we would not see the present conflict. Darwin's idea was a big one: a grand explanatory theory that was sent forth fully formed into a public that was just beginning to grapple with the social and political pressures of materialism, industrialization, and internationalism. The perceived threat to religious belief was, it seems to me, already incubating on a number of fronts. When The Origin came along it was not a particularly revolutionary work from a theological point of view, but the popular culture was prepared to receive it as such principally because it came along at a time when religious folks were already beginning to feel besieged. If you add to this the rise, forty years later, of Protestant fundamentalism and the rather bizarre belief in the literal truth of the mythological cosmology at the start of the book of Genesis, along with the fact that the majority of Americans at the time (indeed, to this day) were Protestants who were also Americans committed to the view that every opinion is sacred, it is not all that surprising that things have evolved (so to speak) the way they have.

Contrast this with the rise of modern cosmology. The theory of the Big Bang seems to me to present no less a challenge to the cosmology of Genesis, but although I have heard a few religious skeptics discount it I don't think it has nearly the same hold on the popular imagination as the debate between defenders of evolutionary theory and the proponents of intelligent design. One reason for this is the fact that modern cosmology has taken shape during a completely different historical epoch, in which that sort of science was already widely accepted among a more materialist public. If Darwin had published The Origin in 1959 instead of 1859--after the growth of molecular biology and modern genetics--I think the public attitude towards evolution would be no different than it is towards the Big Bang. There would still be a fundamentalist reaction to it, but it would be much more marginalized.

To see where the present debate will be fifty years hence I think we need only turn back to the 17th century. None of the revolutionary scientific proposals from that era, including not only Galileo's contributions to astronomy, but the theories of universal gravitation, combustion, circulation of the blood, and many others, are not exactly on the table as matters up for continued debate between working scientists and armchair theologians. No one is going before the local school board demanding that Aristotelian gravitation be taught alongside the universal theory, or that the theory of the four humors be taught alongside other medical theories. One of the principal reasons, of course, is that the theories of universal gravitation and modern medicine have far more wide-ranging practical applications than does the theory of evolution by means of natural selection. Evolutionary theory is, principally, a historical discipline; but molecular genetics and other branches of modern biology have more important applications, and so far they are robustly consistent with everything predicted by evolutionary theory. So as these science continue to impact our lives, the rabble that continues to push intelligent design will become ever more marginalized until, like the flat-earthers, they are seen for what they are.

Of course, they are already seen that way by the folks who know better, but one does wonder when the media will catch on to this fact. Part of the problem, I think, lies in the fact that too many working biologists are playing into the hands of the crazies. I teach philosophy of biology at both the undergraduate and the graduate level, and most of the textbooks that cross my desk looking for inclusion in my classroom have sections on the "debate" between evolution and intelligent design. For the life of me I can't imagine why. No philosophy of science textbook contains articles by flat-earthers who challenge the Copernican system. There aren't many such articles to begin with, I suppose, but even if there were hundreds available that would not warrant anthologizing them along with real science. The sooner we begin to treat these folks as the outliers that they are the sooner the hubbub will die down. Since publishers have to sell books, I take it that the inclusion of this stuff is still in demand. This is a good reason never to use a textbook that has such a section in it.

Friday, October 23, 2009


I understand that there are some folks in the Catholic Church who do not agree with everything the Church teaches, but this one goes beyond mere dissent to the level of sheer stupidity. Maureen Fiedler, a Sister of Loretto with a PhD from Georgetown, writes in the online edition of the National Catholic Reporter (where else):
Imagine for a minute that it’s 1954, as segregationists faced Brown vs. the Board of Education, the Supreme Court case which mandated school de-segregation. And imagine that the Vatican, or the Catholic bishops, said to Protestant segregationists in the South, “You can come to our schools, to Catholic schools, and we’ll provide you with a home.” Most Catholics would have been outraged, I daresay. (And of course, precisely the opposite actually happened, as many Catholic bishops were outspoken against racial segregation, and integrated Catholic schools -- thank God).

But it’s a different story with gender segregation or sexual orientation. This is not a perfect analogy, granted. But the Vatican’s overtures to dissident Anglicans sound like those “imagined” 1950’s with a different twist. The Vatican is opening Catholic doors wide to Anglicans who believe in “segregation at the altar,” for women, and for openly gay/lesbian clergy.

Where is the outrage at this policy? I have heard some of it. I attended a small liturgy with friends this week, and they shared this sentiment: We have enough Catholics who have not come to terms with human equality and gospel equality… why would we go searching for more? We should welcome newcomers who wrestle with issues, yes… including these issues, … but why establish a policy that give special place to those with segregationist credentials?
Let's pass over in silence the rather laughable attempt to claim moral equivalence between racism and faithfulness to the Magisterium regarding admission to Holy Orders and sexual activity outside the Sacrament of Matrimony. Much more to the point is this: in admitting these particular Anglicans into the Church, the Church is admitting people who actually believe what the Church herself has always taught. In other words, it isn't like a non-racist Church admitting new members who are racists; rather, it is a faithful Church admitting new members who are also faithful. I'll tell you where the outrage is: it's at the National Catholic Reporter.

"Not a perfect analogy." Duh. More like, not analogous in the least. Ironically, just as Fiedler and her ilk ask themselves questions like Why welcome people like this into the Church, I ask myself, Why do people like Fiedler stay in the Church? One possibility is that they seriously believe these teachings may change, hence the talk of "human equality" as though it is the least relevant to the question of admission of women to Holy Orders. To think this way is to be seriously out of touch with reality, but it was not an uncommon way to look at things forty years ago. Just as one might claim that dinosaurs are not really extinct but rather have evolved into birds, so, too, the dinosaurs of academia are still with us even in this more enlightened age. What they have evolved into, unfortunately, is nothing quite so beautiful as a songbird. Instead, they have become like shrill harpies, continually shrieking about the same range of dead-letter issues. A quick perusal of the entries in Fiedler's blog is sufficient to show that her understanding of Catholicism is not only seriously wrong, it is seriously outdated.

And yet. Imagine for a minute that it is 1954, and a group of segregationist Protestants from the south seek reconciliation with the Church. I can think of no reason to say to them, You cannot come home--people like you fill us with outrage. Rather we should say: your desire to come home is like that of the Prodigal Son! Do penance for your sins and come on home! Fiedler writes as though, by welcoming these Anglicans home, we are "giv[ing] special place to those with segregationist credentials", without even considering the possibility that those whom we welcome are coming to us with humble and contrite hearts. Of course, if you look at the world the way Fiedler does, assenting to Church teaching is orthogonal to being humble and contrite, since the Church teachings themselves just are the "segregationist credentials" that she bemoans. So for people like her it's a lose-lose proposition: the teachings on Holy Orders and Matrimony are not going to change, and the people who are welcomed home are going to be continually diluting the influence of the heretics of Loretto.

It Depends on What You Mean by "Forward"

There has been some consternation among bloggers both Anglican and Catholic about what's happening at the Forward in Faith UK general meeting. Fr. Jeffrey Steel blogs about it today at De cura animarum. He writes, in part:
To be perfectly honest, it almost feels like a bluff has been called. Sitting and listening to those speeches made me sad and realise that for many in the C of E, the issue that alone makes them 'feel' Catholic is being against the ordination of women or so it seems. Let me state clearly that I did not leave the C of E over women's ordination or homosexuality though in regards to both of these issues I hold the Catholic orthodox line. I became Catholic because being Catholic was true, the primacy of Peter and his infallibility is true and the lack of the Magisterium in Anglicanism leaves the priest with nothing other than his (or now her) own opinion. I am afraid that this sort of approach has nothing to do with true Catholicism. This approach has nothing to do with the theological idea of communio in the writings of the Holy Father either.
I have a great deal of sympathy for this--my own reasons for conversion were similar. Indeed, women had already been ordained to the priesthood in the Episcopal church when I was a member of it, but that was not really what tipped me off that the boat was about to start sinking. It was rather the bizarre individualism that is the artifact of the phenomenon Fr. Steel mentions here, the lack of any sort of counterpart to the Magisterium.

But on the more personal level I also feel very deeply the same sort of sadness that Fr. Steel mentions in his post:
Many might ask me why I care. The answer is, because our Holy Father and pastor just extended a hand of welcome for reunion and reconciliation beyond what any could imagine and they have to think about it...I hope the Vatican isn't listening to that assembly.

What I feel is most problematic is that so many claim to have been praying for the very thing that the Holy Father has given and even more and now what is in reality a lovely piece of fish seems to be treated as if it were only a stone.
When I think back to the mid-1980s, when I was myself yearning for this very thing (along with some of my Anglican friends), I can't help feeling a little like a parent watching a talented young child drop out of medical school to join the circus--if I had had back the then the opportunity that they have now, etc.

Some might suggest that it is far better, for those who are not fully prepared to accept the Magisterium, to stay out of the Church, rather than to join it and become irritating dissenters. After all, some may say, there are enough of that ilk in the Church already, and some of them cause real harm. My own view is that those who do choose to make the conversion will make it for the right sorts of reasons--the sorts of reasons that prompted Fr. Steel to make the change, or Fr. Al Kimel. Such persons only strengthen the degree of orthodoxy in the Church by their presence in and contribution to it.

The folks at Forward in Faith seem remarkably reluctant to move, well, forward, preferring to remain in the stasis of separation. What the advantage of this could possibly be only they can imagine.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Sursum corda!

A very literal translation of sursum corda might be something like "Up with the hearts!" Personally I prefer the more standard "Lift up your hearts", which is one of the many places in which the English translation of the Latin Mass matches the English of the Book of Common Prayer used by Anglicans. I mention all of this because I have always thought that there is a great deal of commonality between Roman Catholicism and what is best about Anglicanism (in the interest of full disclosure I will remind my regular readers--both of them--that I am myself a convert to Catholicism from Anglicanism). I have blogged often about the reasons for my conversion, so I won't go over all of that again, but in light of what happened yesterday I felt as though some sort of effusive outburst on my part would be appropriate.

So what happened yesterday, you ask? Well, let me begin by saying that if it had happened twenty-five years ago my conversion story might have been very different. Yesterday the Vatican announced the creation of a Personal Ordinariate for Anglican Christians, allowing as many as wish to enter into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church (see the story here at This is nothing short of spectacular, in my opinion, and it is the first step towards the righting of the wrongs that began centuries ago when Christians first started disagreeing with each other so vehemently that they began to excommunicate each other.

A Personal Ordinariate is an ecclesial structure that allows for parallel Ordinaries. To put it more simply, if there is both a Roman Catholic Bishop of, say, Steubenville, and an Anglican Bishop in the same area, the Anglican Bishop and his entire Diocese can retain their current ecclesial structure--that is, they will continue on as the Anglican Diocese of Steubenville or whatever, and will not need to be "absorbed" into the Roman Catholic Diocese--and yet they will be in full communion with Rome. They will continue to use the Anglican Rite liturgies, their priests, if married, will continue as priests in communion with Rome, and their Bishops will continue to have autonomy within their Dioceses.

I have already seen many reactions to this, some happy, some virtually ecstatic, but also some not so happy and some downright negative. I suppose this sort of distribution of views is to be expected--you can't wipe away 500 years of bitter division overnight--but one does hope and pray for further healing, and not just between Romans and Anglicans, but among all Christians worldwide. Our greatest charism is our unity as members of the Body of Christ, and we ought to be ashamed of ourselves for having thrown that away, and we ought to work ever harder to make amends for what we have wrought. It is not an easy task, but yesterday's decision shows that it is not as difficult as some have feared it might be.

Many who call themselves Anglicans do not approve of this move, however, and they will say that it is easy for me to rejoice today, since I view myself as having made the right move long ago. Those who do not think this is the right move will have many different reasons for being unhappy. Some will say that Rome has been in error about many things, including Papal Primacy; others will say that to "come back", as it were, is to admit that you were wrong; still others will say that the whole thing is a tempest in a teapot, that it just doesn't matter all that much if one is in communion with Rome or not. All of these views entail that it would be wrong to take the Vatican up on its offer, though clearly some of these views entail it much more strongly than others. Certainly the first objection--that Rome is the one that has been wrong all these years--is the biggest worry for some. If Rome has been wrong about such things as Papal Primacy, the Marian dogmata, the nature of justification, etc., then it would not only be a bad idea, it would be virtually heretical to rejoin her. But this sort of view is typical only within the more Protestant parts of Anglicanism, and I don't think it is very widespread. In any event, there is not much one can do about that sort of view, since the arguments against it are out there and anyone who is not yet persuaded by these arguments is unlikely to be persuaded by kindly invitations to just forget the whole thing. Much more to the point, I think, is the fact that many hundreds of thousands of Anglicans--if not millions--have secretly been longing for this sort of invitation for years, and now here it is. If charity and unity can be miraculous, then here is a miracle for you.

What would I have done had this invitation been made prior to my conversion in 1983? It's difficult to say with any certainty, obviously, but I remember quite clearly thinking at the time that I wanted to work for reconciliation. I had followed the work of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission with great interest, and at that time the prospects for reunification did not seem so dim as they had come to seem in recent years as the Anglican Communion slowly began tearing itself to bits. The Anglican Use is an attractive one, and I imagine that I would have taken advantage of an offer such as this; but after 26 years of the Latin Rite I don't see myself getting rid of all my Latin Breviaries and taking up the Anglican one (though it is a wonderful thing and I heartily recommend it--you can order one here), or trying to find an Anglican Use parish somewhere around here. Time is grace, and I think that, in general, it is a mistake to try to undo what one has done thoughtfully and prayerfully (unless of course one discovers some serious error in one's thoughts and prayers). So I remain quite happy and content with my own choice, while rejoicing in this opportunity that has been made available to all those I was grieved to leave behind 26 years ago.

Those who have followed my last few posts will know that I particularly have Robert Duncan in my thoughts and prayers today. When I wrote my last entry, Sunt Lacrimae Rerum, I really had no idea that this sort of thing might happen, and I really wonder what his response will be. Many years ago I would have guessed that he might take advantage of such an offer, but as I indicated in my last post, it seems I did not know him as well as I had thought. So who knows? One can only hope and pray. Time is grace.

In the meantime, sursum corda! Rejoice in the Lord, for he has done great things for us, and this is surely one of them.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Sunt Lacrimae Rerum

It has been a while since I blogged about the man who brought me into the Church--by which I mean "Christian Church" this time, rather than "Roman Catholic Church". I thought of Robert Duncan again today because I have been getting some email about me previous post here, the one about appearing on Marcus Grodi's The Journey Home program on EWTN. I mentioned on that program how hearing the preaching of Fr. Duncan, when he was still an associate pastor for campus ministry at the Chapel of the Cross in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, was one of the principal factors in moving me from abject atheism to Christian theism. There were many other factors as well, of course, but the Christian community is essentially just that--a community, and so when one thinks of what brought one in to such a community it is inevitable that one thinks of the persons who helped to form one's conscience in such a way as to finally be able to discern the presence of God permeating all of creation.

Fr. Duncan was not the only such person in my life--I can name several others, beginning with my own mother who, as I also mentioned on The Journey Home, was not herself a theist (possibly she was some sort of deist, but I fear I know little about what her precise views actually were). But she taught me the words to the Lord's Prayer when I was just five years old, and although I have no idea what she herself thought about that prayer, either at that time or later in her life, it was surely a gift of some sort, freely given and dutifully received, though I never really realized how great a gift until decades later, when I finally learned to believe what the words of the prayer really say.

I don't think I could have learned to believe those words if Fr. Duncan, and certain other individuals like him, had not shown me by his own example what those words actually mean. Such discoveries are not to be made by the individual working on his own in the dark, separated from his brethren, whatever the post-Reformation individualist may like to think. And so, as I have written here several times before, Fr. Duncan was instrumental in my becoming a Christian, and I will always respect and admire him for that, another great gift that I was slow to appreciate.

That is why I find Fr. Duncan's present state of affairs so utterly depressing. He was deposed as the Bishop of Pittsburgh in the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States by that denomination's Presiding Bishop, Katherine Jefferts Schori, in September of last year. In my opinion, that would have been the perfect opportunity for him to find a way to make an appearance on Marcus Grodi's program. Given the number of ex-Anglican priests of my acquaintance--Al Kimel, Jeffrey Steel, Trevor Nicholls, among others--I can't help but hope to meet more, especially one who is already an old friend. But that, alas, was not to be. What was to be instead reads like something out of one of my worst nightmares--or one of my many rants right here in this blog about denominationalism in this country.

Things began, if not with the desired appeal to the Pastoral Provision of 1980, at least with a step in the right direction: Fr. Duncan made a move to associate with those elements of worldwide Anglicanism that still cling, however precariously, to the precious traditions of our faith. Happily, these elements are more numerous once one moves outside of the United States. But for whatever banal reason, the leadership in the worldwide Anglican communion feels a strange loyalty to that train wreck that is now the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States, a body that has moved steadily away from authentic Christian belief ever since the election of John Shelby Spong to the episcopacy. Consequently Fr. Duncan did not receive the welcome that he deserved among those in communion with Canterbury. This too, would have been a good time to contact Marcus Grodi. What happened instead, sadly, was aptly described--it breaks my heart to say it--by Ephraim Radner, one of the co-founders of the Anglican Communion Network, in his statement of resignation from the ACN:
It is with sorrow and deep disappointment that I tender my resignation from the Anglican Communion Network. Since the time I assisted in its founding, its leaders, members, and mission have been dear to me, even when I have disagreed with some of its corporate actions. The recent statements by the Moderator of the Network, Robert Duncan, however, so contradict my sense of calling within this part of Christ’s Body, the Anglican Communion, that I have no choice but to disassociate myself from this group, whom I had once hoped might prove an instrument of renewal, not of destruction, of building up, not of tearing down.

Bishop Duncan has now declared the See of Canterbury and the Lambeth Conference — two of the four Instruments of Communion within our tradition – to be "lost". He has said that God is "doing a new thing" in allowing these elements to founder and be let go. I find this judgment to be dangerously precipitous and unfair under circumstances when current, faithful, and hard work is being done by many to bolster these Instruments as servants of our common life in Christ. The judgment is also astonishingly self-confident and autonomously prophetic in a mode not unlike the baleful claims to visionary authority of those who have long misled the Episcopal Church. Finally, the declaration in effect cancels out the other two Instruments of Communion that also uphold our common Anglican life – the Primates’ Meeting and the Anglican Consultative Council. It is the entire Anglican Communion, therefore, that Bp. Duncan is declaring to be "lost". The judgment is far too sweeping.

Bp. Duncan has, in the end, decided to start a new church. He may call it "Anglican" if he wishes, though I do not recognize the name in these kinds of actions that break communion rather than build it up – for such building is what I have long perceived to be the "thing" God was "doing" with the earthen vessel of our tradition. In founding his new church, furthermore, he is, I fear, not working for the healing of our broken Body, but repeating the mistakes of Christians in the past, whose zeal has not only brought suffering to themselves, but has wounded the Church of Christ. It is not only his own diocese that his statements and actions will affect; it is many others, including parishes within them, many of which have worked for faithfulness and peace, truth in love, for some time, and for whom new troubles and divisions are now promised. Enough of this. I cannot follow him in this way. There is great work to be done, with hope and with joy, if also with suffering endurance for the faith once delivered, in the vineyards of the Anglican Communion where the Lord has called us and still maintains His calling; just as there has been in the past, and all for the glory of the larger Church Catholic.
He has, indeed, "decided to start a new church", and as my faithful readers will remember, that is one of the things that I so despise about Protestantism generally--the instinct to reboot things in one's own image that Radner rightly describes as "astonishingly self-confident and autonomously prophetic".

The only saving feature to all of this that I can see is that Fr. Duncan has at least moved towards orthodoxy, if not towards orthopraxis, simply by moving away from what was so egregiously heterodox and heretical. But even a stopped clock is right twice a day, and one ought not to praise the workmanship of such a clock just because one happens to look at it at the right time.

So what is a person in my position to do? When he remained in the Episcopal Church, Fr. Duncan was a voice for orthodoxy crying out among the heretics. In becoming the archbishop of what is basically his own denomination (this is, of course, somewhat hyperbolic--he did not create the "Anglican Church in North America", but still, I can't help but be reminded of this guy), he has done something that ordinarily would strike me as just plain wacky. Yet, of course, what he has done he has done in the name of orthodoxy, a kind of protestation against what Protestantism has become. While protesting the Protestants is perhaps not a bad idea, it can't be a good idea unless it leads you back to Rome. That is clearly not in the cards here, so orthodox or not this cannot be seen as an intrinsically good move.

I suppose the good news is that this provides further confirmation of the truth that our freedom lies in our capacity to make mistakes of such grandiose proportions.

Sunday, October 04, 2009


So last weekend I hopped on a plane and flew down to Birmingham, Alabama. I've never been to Alabama before, and in some respects I suspect that I have yet to see the real Alabama, because the purpose of my trip was not to visit the Yellowhammer State but to put in an appearance on Marcus Grodi's Journey Home program on EWTN. I've never been on TV before, either, so the whole trip was something of a novelty for me.

I was picked up at the airport by an EWTN car, and it was a short drive to "the compound", barely 20 minutes at the most. Since it was Sunday there weren't many people about and, in particular, there didn't seem to be anybody in the little booth at the entrance to check our passports or anything--we just drove right in and I was taken to a house (called "Madonna House" by the locals) where I would stay for the duration. It seems that EWTN owns a number of houses on its property and some of the employees live in them, some of them are used for guests, and at least one of them is used as a set for some of their shows.

The house was deserted when I got there, but I knew that there would be two more gentlemen joining me before my stay was completed. That didn't stop me from looking around a bit. It was a modest house, tastefully decorated. Lots of Catholic art on the walls, and a crucifix in every room (except the bathroom; I didn't actually look in the garage). There was a big TV just like in a hotel, and it had cable, including ETWN. I didn't check to see whether it blocked the sorts of channels that regular EWTN viewers would find objectionable. There was a computer but the internet connection wasn't working, which was probably a good thing or I would have wasted a lot of time reading my email when I should have been preparing my classes for my return to Ohio.

Since I had been traveling all day I had not had an opportunity to attend Mass, so when I heard bells ringing I thought that perhaps there was going to be an evening Mass that I could attend, so I high-tailed it to the chapel--the very chapel where they have the Masses that one can watch on EWTN each day. It turned out not to be Mass, but Vespers, which was the next best thing as far as I was concerned, so I stayed and enjoyed the largish community of folks who had turned out. After Vespers there was a Benediction service, and then I returned to my little house. I was soon joined there by Fr. Trevor Nicholls, a former Anglican Priest turned Catholic priest (thanks to the Pastoral Provision of 1980). He turned out to be a delightful conversationalist, and we had many fine conversations over the course of just a day and a half.

Monday morning dawned early for me, what with it being in a different time zone and all, and I got up to say the Office. By this time I was starting to get a little nervous about my appearance on Journey Home--what on earth was I going to talk about for an hour? My own conversion story seems prosaic and uninspiring to me, and it is very difficult to imagine why on earth anybody would want to hear all the gory details. My confidence was not the least bit increased by my conversations with Fr. Nicholls, who was not only far more articulate than I but who also had a nifty British accent sure to wow the folks in the audience.

To take my mind off my troubles, I attended the daily Mass at noon. The venue was small and it was packed full of people--I had to stand at the back, along with several others. The liturgy was exceptionally well executed, I thought, with great reverence all around. Indeed, many who received Holy Communion did so kneeling on the ground, and even those who did not kneel to receive made a genuflection rather than bowing the head prior to reception. Servers held small patens under the chins of all who received.

After Mass I walked around the compound, but there wasn't much to explore: part of the enclosure is a monastery, and one cannot just walk in and look about. On the other hand, right next to the house where I was staying was a "farm" of satellite dishes--seven in all, one of them as large as the two-storey house in which I was staying. (You can see these dishes, and the house in which I stayed, if you look at the EWTN compound with Google Earth. You will not see me snooping around the dishes, and you certainly won't see me trying to break into the monastery. I really have no idea what you're talking about.)

When it was finally time for the taping, I changed into my best dress uniform and walked over to the studio with Fr. Nicholls. His uniform was much nicer than mine, being all black and priestly, but I did have on a nice tie and a sweet little silk hankie that Lisa gave me for Christmas about twelve years ago. Nevertheless as I walked along beside him I couldn't help feeling like a pair of old brown shoes at a black tie party.

The studio was deserted except for Marcus Grodi, the host of The Journey Home, and his crew, which seemed to me to number fewer than a dozen people. There were three cameramen, a Franciscan stage director who also applied makeup to everyone, and the producer and director and whoever else was back in "the booth". Although there were chairs for an audience, there was nobody there watching the taping. Some episodes of the show are live, and they take calls from viewers and questions form the audience, but both shows we taped that night were canned.

Fr. Nicholls went first, which meant that I had to watch him be all urbane and sophisticated before I went out there with my countrified Ohio ways. Shucks, Padre, that there was some mighty fancy talkin'! When my turn came I was still a little nervous, but since the studio was basically empty it didn't seem so bad. I soon discovered that I wasn't going to have any trouble filling up the time allotted--what with my blabbermouth ways and all--and the conversation seemed to go fairly smoothly. At the end, however, I couldn't help feel that I had done a terrible job. It seemed that I hadn't really said anything very substantive--but on the other hand, I was just supposed to be bearing witness to my conversion, so I don't think there was any expectation that I produce philosophical gems (if only I could get the folks at Ohio University to see things the same way).

Then it was all over. Fr. Nicholls and I talked long into the evening about many things, and then the next day I flew home. All in all I found the experience rather exciting, and one certainly can't help wishing that one lived in a community with such a strong Catholic identity. The task, I suppose, is to make a community where one is, rather than travel around looking for one to sneak into. It's difficult in a secular university to make such a community, but we already have the beginnings of one here, at least among some of the Catholic students. But I have to admit that when the guy who drove me back to the airport told me that he had retired from the fire department in Florida in order to take a job at EWTN, the idea didn't seem like a bad one to me.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Ritual Apologies

The Rule of Benedict forms the backbone of Western monasticism. It has its roots in the coenobitic tradition that began in Egypt in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, and draws upon such diverse sources as St Basil, St Augustine, John Cassian, and the anonymous Rule of the Master. While it is certainly worth reading on its own, one learns a great deal more from reading it with a commentary, and I can highly recommend the commentary of Fr. Terrence Kardong, OSB (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1996).

Recently I came across a passage in Kardong's commentary in which he discusses the numerous times St Benedict calls for some sort of "correction" or "punishment" for "faults" committed during the liturgy (in this case "liturgy" refers to the opus Dei ["work of God"] or the Divine Office). The language used in Rule 45 moves gradually from mere mistake (fallor) through bad mistake (delinquo) to bad intention (culpa). Often these "faults" are merely mistakes in the chanting of the words of the liturgy or some other failure to follow the rubrics carefully. But in commenting on the progression from fallor to culpa Kardong says
...the author moves from description of the error to refusal to acknowledge the error. That recalcitrance is the real "fault" involved. And indeed such contumacy is the only real fault that Benedict ever punishes. But the effect here is to make it sound as if all such errors were rooted in bad will, which is manifestly not the case. Indeed, the whole question of liturgical faults and their correction is somewhat vexing. On the one hand, no one wants a slovenly and undisciplined liturgy. Yet the question remains as to how to achieve that goal without introducing disciplinary measures alien to the very spirit of the liturgy itself. In response to Vatican II, which calls for a much more humane approach to liturgy, most Benedictine communities have distanced themselves from the rather draconian measures suggested by Rule 45. And this has been done without any noticeable sign of deterioration, at least in the Divine Office.
This is a topic near and dear to my own heart, because like many converts to Catholicism (especially converts to Catholicism from Anglicanism) I am deeply wedded to the view that it is precisely the formal beauty and spiritual reverence of a carefully executed liturgy that connects the participant to the underlying realities of which the liturgical movements are signs. Some of these signs are particularly important ones, because they are Sacramental signs. There was much uproar in the 1980s over various liturgical experiments in which substances other than bread and wine were used as Sacred Elements for consecration, and in the end the Vatican issued an instruction requiring only unleavened wheat bread and real fermented grape juice (i.e., "wine") be used for consecration. We don't see the Vatican intervening in the case of lesser signs, although very recently there have been some exceptions to this general rule. For example, the faithful who approach to receive Communion are to make a profound reverence prior to reception--the intention behind this instruction was to emphasize through a sign the unity that is Communion by eliminating the many disparate forms of personal piety that one sometimes could find within a single parish (kneeling upon exiting the pew, for example, or making a sign of the cross after reception) and imposing a kind of unity of action on those who participate. But I doubt that we will see any Vatican instructions about whether one ought to bow one╒s head at the Divine Name (as some do, but many do not), and we certainly will see no penalties imposed for those who fail to follow these instructions (the situation is different for the Sacramental signs, of course, but laymen need not worry about those sorts of penalties).

So why the fuss over the chanting of the Psalms at the Office? In antiquity, monks who made such mistakes had to lie prostrate at the feet of their confreres while the latter filed out of the oratory after the liturgy, begging their forgiveness. In modern monasteries the penalty has been greatly reduced, if that is the right word: monks typically just touch their lips with a finger, or tap the pew, when they make a mistake. I'm not entirely sure that this is really what Kardong has in mind when he writes that the penalties have become more "humane" since Vatican II, so I won't comment on that. What I find interesting in this is not so much the penal character of the Rule, but rather the symbolic function of penalties in general as they are implemented in the Rule.

I play a lot of soccer, and anyone who plays soccer at the amateurish level at which I play it will often hear players all over the field calling out "my bad", "my fault", "sorry!" and the like (along with much more colorful epithets that I will pass over in silence). These are all of them admissions of mistakes, blunders that may well cost a possession or a goal or, in certain kinds of cases, an entire game. There is no requirement that anybody say anything at all after such a mistake, and in some sorts of competitions--notably those at a higher level of competitiveness--one doesn't hear them very often, if at all. I think that this can be explained by the sort of community one is dealing with. A pick-up game played by amateurs has a very different sort of social structure to it from what one might find in a competitive game played by professionals. Amateurs at a pick-up game often are friends getting together just to have some fun or to get some exercise. They often don't keep score, and they usually don't get into fights with other players. They see one another off the field at the grocery store, the farmers' market, their kids' schools, and other places, and they are friendly to each other in these other settings even if they are not otherwise very close socially. They talk about the games, of course, but they also wind up talking about other things. They are, in short, a kind of community. Professional athletes are often friends, too, of course, and they see each other in other settings, but I suggest that the situation for them is really quite different. When David Beckham plays soccer, he is not doing it for the exercise or even because it is fun (though it might be). He is doing it because it is his job. If he messes up, or if another player messes up, there might be some recriminations of some kind later, but then there might not be. It's just a job. What usually gets more notice than the mistakes are the great plays, the goals scored, the fancy footwork. Successes are admired and played and replayed on the Sports news or on YouTube; mistakes are often just ignored (unless, of course, they are spectacular ones, like running the wrong way with the ball, or scoring an own-goal). In a professional setting, the point is to play the game well, and it is the well-played game that gets the attention and the highlight footage attention. The game is an end in itself, not a sign of some greater end.

This difference in social structure explains why one hears "my bad" more often in amateur games than in professional games. True, amateurs probably make a lot more mistakes than professionals, but I think more importantly in the amateur setting the person who has made the mistake is more prone to say something like that because he is more prone to be sensitive to how his mistake will affect the other people he is playing with. Since there is no money on the line, to say "my bad" after such a mistake clearly has no purely utilitarian motive behind it: one says it because one genuinely wants to own up to something that was not done as well as it ought to have been done. The other players probably do not care all that much about the mistake, but I can say from personal experience that the other players appreciate hearing it the admission of a mistake, because it shows that the person who said it cares about how the game is going, and he cares about that not because he fears losing his bonus pay or because he is going to lose a bet, but because he sees that it was because of something that he did that the game was made somehow less, both for him and for the other players, and he is sorry about that.

Sports metaphors can be pushed only so far, of course, but my idea is this. In a coenobitic community the emphasis is not on perfection of liturgical technique, but on communal love. One does not bemoan a poorly executed neume because one wants to strive for a perfect performance as some kind of end in itself, but because the execution of the neumes in choir is a sign of something much more important than mere melody. The monks chant the Psalms together--in unison--because they are one body. Their execution of the liturgy is a sign of their community, and if an individual does something that makes the sign less effective, it diminishes the effectiveness of that sign. It is, in a certain sense, an insult to the unity of the community to be slovenly in representing it through signs, just as it is poor manners to slur your words and talk indistinctly when you answer a question someone has asked you in earnest. Since communal love is the highest Christian virtue, we are talking about something far more important here than mere bad manners. If you find it obnoxious that some artist somewhere has decided to immerse a Crucifix in a jar or urine and call it a work of art, or to portray the Virgin Mary using elephant dung as a medium, then you should see the importance of avoiding liturgical errors.

Just as I don't expect an amateur soccer player to run off the field in tears when he makes a mistake, neither do I think it essential that monks--or anyone else, really--prostrate themselves and beg forgiveness after liturgical mistakes. I guess I agree with Kardong that the finger to the lips or the tap on the pew will do, just as "my bad" will do in the soccer game. But that something ought to be done, if not to make the error go away, at least to admit that one is part of a community and that one has in some way diminished that community, whether intentionally or not, I think is an important point. Indeed, I think it may be one of the many gifts of monasticism to the rest of us that there is such a sense of communal obligation over such things. I don't mean to suggest that we introduce a whole new set of rubrics for things we ought to do when we screw up at Mass. I will be content if people are just a little more careful about things than many appear to be these days. And I certainly would have no objection if Andres Serrano were to lie prostrate and beg everyone╒s forgiveness for "Piss Christ".

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Talking Past Each Other

There used to be something of a schism in the domain that is professional philosophy. During the 1960s and 1970s you could find some philosophers who would categorize themselves as "analytic", others who would categorize themselves as "Continental". This dichotomy was predominantly maintained by philosophers working in American colleges and universities, and it had to do, primarily, with macho posturing. Analytic philosophers, for the most part, agreed with Richard Rorty that philosophy had taken a "linguistic turn" sometime in the 1940s or 1950s, and that good philosophy consisted of the careful analysis of concepts and arguments. Continental philosophers, by contrast, used to be portrayed as being less interested in logical rigor (at least of the sort favored by self-styled "analytic" philosophers) and more interested in metaphysics and politics.

This false dichotomy was effectively emasculated by Michael Dummett in his 1996 book The Origins of Analytic Philosophy, in which he shows how the sort of philosophy practiced by both of these groups is descended from a common ancestor. Just as chimps and humans differ only very slightly in their genetic makeup, so, too, analytic and Continental philosophers have more in common then some of them may like to admit. (Some of them don't mind admitting it, just so long as we are straight about which ones are the chimps.) It turns out that most of the differences in this genetic makeup find expression in modes of discourse or, to put it in layman's terms, jargon. Analytic philosophers like to talk about inferences, abductions, modus ponens, punctuated equilibria, epistemological standpoints, defeasible theories, and supervenience. Continental types like to talk about subjectivity, The Other, bracketing of horizons, and manifolds of experience. To the outsider, all of it is gobbledygook, but for those of us who are members of the club, you can tell who the chimps are by their vocalizations.

I was reminded of this false dichotomy this evening after reading through a post by an old mentor of mine, Fr. Robert Connor, who blogs at The Truth Will Make You Free. In a series of posts there, Fr. Connor takes George Weigel to task for "misunderstanding" Benedict XVI's "hermeneutic of continuity". The posts are many and long--I particularly recommend this one, this one, and this one. It seems as though the principal target of Fr. Connor's critique is Weigel's complaint against some aspects of Caritas in Veritate. Other Catholic bloggers have already taken Weigel to task for his apparently schizoid reading of that encyclical, and I won't add to the confusion by taking him on myself. Upon reading Weigel's critique, I did get the impression that he was rather selective with his material, but one thing that he clearly did not get wrong, in my view, is the import of Benedict XVI's famous slogan, the "hermeneutic of continuity". The expression is drawn from the Pope's address to the Roman curia of 22 December 2005, and it refers to the fact that the Second Vatican Council stands in a relationship of doctrinal continuity with the totality of Magisterial teachings of the Church leading up to Vatican II. Although this fact should come as a surprise to nobody, there certainly have been pundits who wished to assert that "Vatican II changed everything", and by "change" they mean that the Council reversed, or else substantively modified, traditional teachings. This view Benedict rejected as the "hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture", that is, these pundits think that many of the Church's traditional teachings--the ones the pundits dislike the most, of course--are not only open to revision, but have, in fact, been revised.

This sort of a view is incoherent, and Benedict was right to contrast it with the proper view of the Church's Magisterium as continuous and unbroken. Weigel has put it this way:
Throughout his pontificate, and in Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI has been at pains to stress the continuity of Catholic life and thought before and after the Second Vatican Council: what he terms a “hermeneutics of continuity,” as distinguished from a “hermeneutics of rupture.” Or, in lay language, the claim that the Catholic Church reinvented itself at Vatican II is simply wrong.
Yet this statement, and others like it, from Weigel is what my old friend Fr. Connor objects to. He says:
It’s difficult not to contradict Weigel with Karol Wojtyla’s profound assessment of Vatican II as crossing the threshold from noetic object to subject. Nothing could be more profound and telling in that it is a reorienting of the entire doctrine of the Church from propositional truth to personal “attitude” of self-gift in the ontological horizon of subjectivity.
I don't know how difficult it is not to contradict Weigel, but I do know how hard it is to make sense of Fr. Connor's objection to Weigel, since I've been trying to do just that for some time now and I can't do it. As I read through Fr. Connor's various posts on this topic, it seems to me that he actually agrees with Weigel that the Church's teachings are consistent from the beginning right through Vatican II; his main point of departure is not on the logical point (which was also Benedict's), but on a more esoteric point that seems to come, not from anything Benedict had to say, but from a decidedly anti-analytic philosophical stance. In short, Weigel and his ilk are the chimps. But are they wrong? Well, about some things they are, but not about the hermeneutic of continuity.

Fr. Connor is surely right to note, as he does in many of his posts, that there is an emphasis in the Magisterium on self-transcendence and the struggle for holiness. Is this new since the Council? Of course not, and Fr. Connor certainly does not say that it is new--indeed, he argues, correctly, that this was one of the central teachings of the Council but that it informs rather than changes what went before (he quotes extensively from Pope John Paul the Great on this point). What Fr. Connor thinks is "new" (though not "really" new) is the emphasis on what he calls the "subjective perspective" that the Church took on at the Council. "Subjective perspective" here is Continentalese for what Fr. Connor sees as a move away from certain kinds of theological questions ("What does this teaching mean?") to certain other kinds ("What sort of a life ought I to be living if I am a member in good standing of Christ's Body the Church?"). All theology, of course, is metaphor, so whether this is new or not is irrelevant to the question of whether the substance of the Magisterium has changed. Certainly perspectives on the Magisterium change all the time--that is, indeed, precisely what gives rise to the continuity of rupture that Pope Benedict so rightly laments. But changes in perspective are not changes in substance, and on this point Fr. Connor and George Weigel are in agreement. The only real change has been in the discourse: that common descendant of analytic and Continental philosophy that Michael Dummett talked about was having its heyday in the mid-nineteenth century, just prior to Vatican I. From the time of Frege and Nietzsche we begin to see the real rift between the analytic and Continental styles of philosophy, with Frege standing at the head of the analytic tradition (it would be a little unfair to put Nietzsche at the head of the Continental tradition, but if anyone tried to do it I would not say him nay). So what was really "new" at Vatican II was a shift away from the old-fashioned Thomistic style of philosophical discourse that had dominated theological pronouncements since before Trent and towards a new style of philosophical discourse that was highly favored by the most important (so-far) of the post-conciliar Popes, John Paul the Great. Whether the Thomists and the Balthasarians are really saying anything different is a question that I will leave to my readers.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

21st Century Gnosticism

Historically, gnosticism is any mystical movement in which knowledge (< Gr. gnôsis) is essential to salvation, and this knowledge is to be had only by those to whom it is granted. This special knowledge typically had to do with the deep structure of the cosmos and our place within that structure. In this connection the definition on offer from the old Catholic Encyclopedia, while clearly rather dated, is nevertheless perfectly serviceable:
A collective name for a large number of greatly-varying and pantheistic-idealistic sects, which flourished from some time before the Christian Era down to the fifth century, and which, while borrowing the phraseology and some of the tenets of the chief religions of the day, and especially of Christianity, held matter to be a deterioration of spirit, and the whole universe a depravation of the Deity, and taught the ultimate end of all being to be the overcoming of the grossness of matter and the return to the Parent-Spirit, which return they held to be inaugurated and facilitated by the appearance of some God-sent Saviour.
The role of special knowledge in these systems was often responsible for such cults taking on secretive attributes, with clandestine meetings, secret rituals, and restrictive membership requirements. In antiquity it was a pretty big deal to be a member of such a cult, and this continues to the present day in a more benign form in such institutions as Masonry or "secret brotherhoods" like Skull and Bones.

Recently I was put in mind of this sort of gnosticism after reading through some of the comments on a post at a blog I happen to like very much, Prof. Peter Gilbert's De unione ecclesiarum. Dr. Gilbert is Orthodox, but writes with an ecumenical spirit, and his posts are always intelligent and illuminating. Fr. Al Kimel brought my attention to a post at this blog a couple of months ago regarding some statements by St. Cyril of Alexandria on the principle of divine simplicity. It is well worth reading for the documentation it supplies, but the gist of it is contained in its introductory paragraph:
In the discussion to a recent post (The debate on Bekkos’s Epigraphs), some skepticism has been expressed concerning an identification, made by theologians like Thomas Aquinas and Bessarion of Nicaea, between God’s will and God’s being. For this reason, I thought I would present here a couple of passages which show St. Cyril of Alexandria asserting this very identification; i.e., he explicitly states that God is whatever he has, and that will and being in God are the same. A strong view of divine simplicity is traditional Christian theology, not a medieval, Latin invention or a Platonizing corruption.
In the comments to this post there are some remarks that are clearly gnostic in their orientation. For example:
They do NOT get it and won’t.
The author of the comment does not explicitly identify the referent of his pronomial "they", but it becomes clear from further comments posted later that he means (a) Western Christians and (b) any and all self-styled Eastern or Orthodox Christians who have any interest in some kind of meaningful ecumenical dialogue with the West. I say "self-styled" here because the author of the comment also makes it quite clear, in a later comment, that anyone who disagrees with him (that is, with the author of the comment) is not really a Christian at all:
“Fr.” [sic] Kimel,
I do not consider Peter [Gilbert], You, Michael Liccione, or any other person engaged in the pan-heresy of ecumenism as a “brother in Christ.”...If your [sic] expecting a dialogue where I view your RC views as equally valid or that I respect Dr. Gilbert [sic] views AS ‘Orthodox,’ you will be gravely disappointed. I do not believe the SCOBAdox agenda to be an Orthodox one, but rather a disease and infected with folks like Dr. Gilbert serving as one, among many, exemplars.
More interesting, however, is the claim that "they do NOT get it and won't". Get what? Well, The Truth, obviously--and they "won't" get it, because for whatever reason they are incapable of seeing the compelling nature of his (the author of the comment) views. This is gnosticism plain and simple: a claim to possess an important truth that is literally unknowable by certain persons, either because of their willful blindness in the face of "evidence" or because of some ideology to which they have sold their souls.

Who does know The Truth? Well, listen again to Our Author:
You’re not going to convince me of anything that you are giving because I had the privilege of learning these things at the feet of someone far greater than any one here arguing these points. In fact, as far as debate is concerned I think people are more impressed by my presentation of the data. I can solve questions that have plaqued [sic] western christianity, like the Problem of Evil, Predestination/Free-Will, and a Free Creation.
There are some interesting claims here, but first among them is the claim to have learned at the feet of a Master--someone whose arguments are literally irrefutable, even by compelling evidence. (I'm not altogether certain that Our Author is not also a Young Earther--it would not surprise me to learn that he is, since his appeal to "evidence" and "authority" is rather similar.) So no matter what anybody says, Our Author is not going to be convinced, since he has learned from The Master who has no equals. Thanks to this secret learning, he can solve any and all of the classic "problems" associated with Christian belief.

It is impossible to know for certain what sorts of emotional, intellectual, or inter-personal crises could lead someone to think in this way, but I suspect that the use of the term "infect" is, ironically, rather apt, since the gnostic world-view permeates this persons writing even outside the domain of theology. In other comments he writes such things as:
I was battling this type of modernism as a Traditionalist Roman Catholic, so it is by no mistake or accident that I scratched and sniffed my way into Traditional Orthodoxy...Even without the current theological mess, Rome is a highly compromised body, from Freemasonry run amuck in its butchered liturgy to the compromises it has made with the International Banking Cartel (well attested to by Hans Kung and Malachi Martin; folks who knew the continental figures and internal workings of the Vatican all too well). To be honest with you, and I mean this all sincerely, I could not walk into that place (the Vatican) without some realization that I am in a synagogue of Satan."
I found this particular comment rather revealing, as I have had quite a bit of experience with folks who see International Conspiracies, Trilateral Commisions, Area Fifty-oners, and other Scary Types behind every tree, and their thinking is all remarkably gnostic. It is, indeed, rather ironic that Our Author also avers his interest in The Truth in this way:
And much to Kimel’s ado, I submit myself to an authority: an apostolic bishop. I’m just very careful and perceptive in my selection [sic etiam!] (as we all should be). Confessing right doctrine is very important to me.
One does not know whether to laugh or to cry at such a claim, but it is certainly not surprising that one has to "shop around", so to speak, to find "an apostolic bishop" who endorses views such as these. Knowing who the "bishop" is leads me to suspect that, instead of a Synagogue of Satan, Our Author has joined a Synagogue of Two. This is why Our Author does not realize that he is a gnostic: he believes that it is not just his own opinion that is The Truth--rather, it is the opinion of "Orthodoxy" to which he subscribes. But it is an "Orthodoxy" of his own making, since he has set himself up as the final arbiter of which "apostolic bishop" is the one to hitch one's rig to. How this differs from mainline Protestantism is anyone's guess, but it is typical of the gnostic that he is in a kind of denial about the source of his own beliefs coming from within himself and having no real grounding in the external evidence that he himself cites. Instead, he looks for evidence that is already consonant with his own views, labels that "Orthodox", and then claims to be adhering to "Orthodoxy".

The greatest irony of all, however, is the number of times Our Author accuses the likes of Peter Gilbert, Alvin Kimel, and Michael Liccione of being the gnostics. Indeed, he uses the term in just about all of his several comments to the original post. His love affair with secret knowledge leads him to be jealous of others whom he suspects of believing that they, rather than he, are the ones who have it. So we must tear them down, label them heretics and intellectual hacks, and excoriate anyone who takes them seriously. Talking to them, he says, is a "waste of time". It is always a waste of time to engage in a discussion when you already know everything there is to know, and your interlocutor, for some insane reason, fails to grasp that fact about you. No prophet is welcome in his own land, after all.

The comments on Dr. Gilbert's original post are now closed; the whole episode is extremely sad, not only because of the sad divisions among the Members of Christ's Body that it brings into such high relief, but also--and principally--because it is such a stark and revealing portrait of a troubled soul. Some of the early gnostic sects were clearly intended to bring a kind of ataraxia, or freedom from concern, to their adherents, hence the final irony lies in the clear and disheartening suffering that such a world-view clearly evinces. If Christianity is a way of seeing, a way of experiencing the world, we must all pray for Our Author, and all who see the world and experience it as he does.

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Return of Fr. Jeffrey Steel

Fr. Jeffrey Steel, who recently converted to Catholicism with his family, has returned to blogging after a short hiatus. His blog, de cura animarum, has long been a source of intellectual stimulation and faithful reflection. In today's entry, Fr. Jeffrey discusses the difficult issue of approaching Marian piety from a Protestant background. As often happens, Fr. Jeffrey has had to deal with some folks who criticize the Church's reverence for the Mother of God. Also as often happens, Fr. Jeffrey gives an excellent treatment to this thorny matter.

A very good book on Mary's place in the culture at large as well as within the Church is the late Jaroslav Pelikan's Mary Through the Centuries: Her Place in the History of Culture (Yale University Press, 1996). It's a good place to start reading on the history of the topic.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Great News About Fr. Jeffrey Steel

It is always exciting for one convert to watch the conversion of another. I think, in my heart of hearts, that at least part of this excitement is due to the feeling that one did, in the end, make a rational choice--a choice that other reasonable people could be expected to make. This is not to say that those who have not so chosen are not acting rationally, it is only to say that, when leaving one's friends behind, one fervently hopes that one has done the right thing. When honest and intelligent men do as you have done, that is at least consistent with the possibility that you have done, if not the right thing, at least something for which there may be good reasons. Since I started blogging a few years ago, I've seen this happen a few times, and it always brings me great joy--not only for the new convert, but for all the rest of us who long for the unity in Christ's Body for which Our Lord Himself prayed so fervently.

Today, on the Sollemnity of the Most Holy Trinity, Fr. Jeffrey Steel announced, at his blog de cura animarum, that he is converting to Roman Catholicism. This is great news to all Catholic bloggers, for anyone with an ounce of sense knows that Fr. Steel has been, and will remain, an intelligent and vigorous defender of orthodoxy and orthopraxis. The news may not be welcome everywhere, as Fr. Steel remarks:
I realise that this decision is going to make some really happy, some very sad and others possibily angry. But, I have made the decision with the deepest sense of integrity and by conscience.
While I would not be angry if it were a decision going in the other direction, I do think I would be saddened, so I feel a degree of sympathy for those who may be dispirited by Fr. Steel's decision. Their comfort must lie in that final declaration, that he has acted with integrity and in conscience. He can do no other--they may not command him to.

His story is a deeply moving one for me, personally, coming as I did out of a similar tradition 26 years ago this month. I continue to pray for many of my friends who did not follow me; I hope Fr. Steel has better luck with his, because I sincerely believe that it will be to their benefit. Every religious tradition believes that it has "the truth", and one hopes that it is a love affair with the truth that keeps adherents in their religions, even if the vision of the truth to be found in other traditions is incomplete. If it is for reasons only of obstinacy, or pride, or mere complacency, then it is certainly not a good thing to stay where one is.

It is impossible to write something like that last paragraph without the knowledge that you are going to offend somebody somewhere, however unintentionally. But Fr. Steel puts his finger right on the button when he writes:
What I became aware of was that it was almost impossible to say 'the Church teaching is' within the Anglican church because there are so many various opinions on matters of sacraments, liturgy, morality, scripture etc. What I did not want to experience anymore was proclaiming the teaching of the Church only to end up defending myself rather than the Anglican church defending me. This has become an ever-increasing impossibility that is no secret to the entire Anglican world. My preaching would always be seen as a matter of personal opinion rather than having the authority of the Magisterium that backs up what I teach publicly. Of course there is dissent in the Catholic Church but it is always that, dissent towards what Mother Church proclaims as authoritatively true. It is the truth of Mother Church that I embrace as my own deep personal faith.
Not everyone can make that embrace--it really is an act of faith, rather like jumping into a broad and deep river, hoping to reach the other side in safety. Anyone who attempts to swim the Tiber--especially from as far away as the Thames, will find the waters perilous, but the beauty of St. Peter's Basilica awaits on the other side. If Plato was even half right about the relationship between The Good and The Beautiful, then the Vatican stands as an icon reminding us of the beauty of the truth. There is plenty of beauty in Anglicanism, too--you'll be preaching to the choir if you try to tell me that! But I am reminded of my first trip to Europe in 1990. I went first to London, and then to Paris. I looked at the great churches of London--St. Paul's, Westminster, and others--and found that I was deeply moved by their beauty, but more deeply moved by a sense of loss, the loss of what Fr. Steel calls, rightly, communio. It grieved me that these great places, with their rich history dating back centuries--and more importantly the people for whom these beautiful places were built--were somehow separate from me, and from the rest of my co-religionists. I felt that, if it had not been for some poor choices on the part of the ruling elite of the early 16th century, none of this separation would have happened. I confess it now to my shame: I was angry. When I went to Paris, I was already feeling the sting of this anger, and realizing that it was not good. I went to confession at the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris, where a kindly old priest, who did his best with English, reassured me that, in the end, truth is one thing, mercy another. The Scriptures constantly tell us, he reminded me, that God waits for the Prodigal Son, and the Father who was waiting was not waiting in anger, but in hope and love. He saw him returning from a long way off, according to the Gospel of Luke--and how could he have seen him "from a long way off" if he had not been already standing there looking out for him, eagerly awaiting his return.

So, instead of dwelling on what hasn't happened yet, or getting myself bogged down in thoughts about what I think ought to happen in the future, I will simply be grateful for what has just happened in the present. Apparently, I'm not the only one who feels this way:
My deepest gratitude goes to the wonderful woman who said 'yes' to my question over sixteen years ago. She has given me six wonderful children and all of them have a deep Catholic faith and serve Christ as witnesses to his love. Rhea meant her vows 16 years ago and has followed me throughout our marriage as my best friend, supporter and wisest critic. She is so grateful to finally be becoming Catholic as her family did a few years ago. Lumen Gentium reminded me that, Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ, would refuse to enter or to remain in it, could not be saved. And so, I swim with my family entrusted to me by God. The process of our reception is now well under way.
Welcome home, Fr. Steel.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Ora et Labora

The beginning of May was once marked by the Feast of Saints Phillip and James--a "Double of the Second Class" in the old taxonomy--but in more recent times it has been marked by an Optional Memorial of Saint Joseph the Worker. To some, this represents an unsavory change: in the days when May began with Saints Phillip and James, Saint Joseph was celebrated with a "Double of the First Class with a Common Octave"--the highest rank in the old taxonomy short of a "Double of the First class with a Proper Octave"--and he was celebrated under his title as "Most Chaste Spouse of the Ever-Virgin Mary, Confessor, and Patron of the Universal Church". This was a movable feast, held on the Wednesday in the second week after the Octave of Easter. Some critics of the change have described it as at once throwing a sop to Pinkos, making Joseph the "Patron of Workers" on "May Day", while at the same time kicking Traditionalists in the groin by demoting poor old Joseph to a mere Optional Memorial in the execrable new taxonomy forced on us by "that 'council'".

I do not really have a dog in that fight: there are some elements of the old taxonomy that I happen to like, but I have no objections to the new one, which is far simpler for those of us who happen to take the Daily Office fairly seriously but who prefer the Benedictine custom of preserving, as much as possible, the weekly structure of the Psalm cycle. Having said that, however, I was struck this year by one of the readings from the Daily Office on the first of May. The reading is from Sections 33-34 of Gaudium et Spes, the Second Vatican Council's Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. This reading does not treat Saint Joseph's new aegis as "worker" as anything like a sop to Commies; it is, rather, a tribute to Joseph's role as archetype of mankind's triumph over the forces of nature by means the efforts of his own God-given capacities for manipulating the created order of things:
Where formerly man looked especially to supernatural forces for blessings, he now secures many of these benefits for himself, thanks to his own efforts....

Those who believe in God take it for granted that, taken by itself, man's activity, both individual and in keeping with God's purpose.

Man, created in God's image, has been commissioned to master the earth and all it contains, and so rule the world in justice and holiness. He is to acknowledge God as the creator of all, and to see himself and the whole universe in relation to God....

This commission extends to even the most ordinary activities of everyday life. Where men and women, in the course of gaining a livelihood for themselves and their families, offer appropriate service to society, they can be confident that their personal efforts promote the work of the Creator, confer benefit on their fellowmen, and help to realize God's plan in history.

So far from thinking that the achievements gained by man's abilities and strength are in opposition to God's power, or that man with his intelligence is in some sense a rival to his Creator, Christians are, on the contrary, convinced that the triumphs of the human race are a sign of God's greatness and the effect of his wonderful providence.
This reading resonated with me at a very deep level, because it touches on some of the themes that I myself have been working through in my own spiritual investigations and about which I have written in this forum. In particular I am struck by the description of man's success in the epistemological domain as a sign of God's greatness: I have often written of my belief that the Incarnational aspect of our religion carries with it an assumption that all of reality, no matter how mundane in appearance or base in its experience, is nevertheless shot through with the reality of God, and stands as a sign, for those who are able to read such signs, of God's presence among us. So here, too, in the case of human labor, we see a sign of God's presence among us: the universe is such that we are able to master certain elements of it by virtue of the capacities that God gave us for such mastery, and to the extent that we make use of these capacities and bring about good things by means of them, we make manifest God's presence and, more importantly, his love--an essential act of witness on our part to those parts of God's creation that are not yet, for whatever reason, able to read the signs for themselves.

There is a steady emphasis upon the integration of such human capacities into a God-centered way of life in the Rule of Saint Benedict. Writing in the sixth century Benedict saw the real benefits of manual labor to the maintenance of well-being in a well-balanced human life. Although his Rule is clearly modeled on the earlier Rule of the Master, he departs in some significant ways from the Master's conception of what that well-balanced human life was directed toward. They both agree, of course, that the goal is to gain heaven, but whereas the Master seems to treat our life in the material mode as something of an obstacle to that end, a kind of pre-purgatory to be endured until the End Time comes, Benedict is much more optimistic about the real presence of God's Kingdom among us in the here and now, and he writes his rule with a view to showing how his vision of this Kingdom can be lived out in Community.

This is an element of Benedictine spirituality that I find deeply compelling. If reality really is incarnational, as I have suggested, then it seems naturally to point towards the eschaton in a manner than is more than merely symbolic. It does so by means of a kind of revelation: reality, as we experience it in the here and now, is already a sign of God's presence among us. It seems to me, then, that we ought to interact with reality as though we believe that to be true, and not so much as though we are waiting to see God only at the end of time.

Work is sometimes seen as a figure for our fallen nature: we must engage in toil and live by the sweat of our brows in order to atone for our sinfulness. According to this view, the whole point of the Sabbath day is to illustrate for us God's merciful forgiveness: though we deserve to toil, he sets aside a day for us on which we are to refrain from doing any work, because God has it in his power to excuse us--forgive us--from our debt. To work on the Sabbath, on this view, is to reject God's forgiveness. This is why Jesus said that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.

But this view of work is only half the story. Work per se is not a punishment, only work that is dreary. In the beginning Adam was placed in the Garden in order to tend it, and as any gardener knows, tending a garden is most definitely work. But people who love gardening love the work that they do in their gardens--it is not dreary toil, but sheer pleasure--though if you are like me, you often spend the evening after a day of such sheer pleasure with you feet up and a cool drink by your side nursing your aches and pains. But you don't regret any of it.

So the Benedictine approach to work sees labor in its fullness: sure there is always the possibility for any job to become tedious toil, but it need not do so. Saint Benedict had manual labor in mind when he established his Rule for monasteries in which the monks would pray for eight hours, work for eight hours, and rest for eight hours. But we all have work to do, whether it is the manual labor of tending a garden, driving a tractor, working a lathe, assembling a chassis, or less physically demanding forms of labor such as working at a computer, advising a client about her investments, teaching a class, or keeping the files in order. Many of us do plenty of work that we don't get paid for: taking care of our children, cleaning our house, mowing our yards, doing our laundry--and it is sometimes this kind of work, the work that we don't actually get any money for doing, that we come to find the most dreary. And yet all of this work can be approached with an attitude that sees it as part of a communal project undertaken with our fellow men in order to advance the common good, whether we get paid for it or not. If we have this sort of attitude towards our work, we take a step towards Benedict's vision of how we ought to incorporate work, labor, into our overall lives, lives that, in their fullness, include prayer and rest along with work.

If we are to take seriously the Benedictine injunction to "pray and work" (ora et labora), we will need to find ways of making our work a prayer-like activity. That is, if it should happen, as it often does in this life, that we begin to find our day-to-day tasks tedious and toilsome, we need to search in our hearts for ways to offer up our dislike for what we are doing as a form of prayer; if we happen to love what we are doing, we should offer that up as well. In the former case we ask the Spirit to help us to see, and to help us to help others to see, that everything we do, we do for the Lord; in the latter case we rejoice with the Spirit in our communion with God's manifest image in the created order of things.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Prospective Perspective

I think one of the wisest things I have heard in the confessional was also one of the simplest and most straightforward: "Time is grace." The priest who said this to me was helping me to come to grips with one of my own most commonly confessed sins, a sin of omission: I often feel as though I have done virtually nothing to bring God's love to my fellow men, that there is still much to do in the way of showing to others God's mercy, kindness, and compassion. I found it very helpful to be reminded that one of the ways in which God shows us his mercy and compassion is in giving us time to repent and change our ways. He is a just judge, but he does not rush to judgment.

I have been reminded of this kindly, priestly advice often in the past few weeks. For many years (fifteen, actually) I took various medications to control a cardiac arrhythmia that I sometimes suffered from in my thirties. Atrial fibrillation is not a life-threatening condition, and in my case it was easily controlled with an anti-arrhythmic drug called flecainide. In fact, as long as I was on the medication I was totally free of the arrhythmia, but my doctor thought that there could be complications from using a drug like flecainide for so long, so he had me check in with a cardiologist to see about going off of it. I did that last December, and the cardiologist agreed that I should try to go off the drug, so I did. I made it until late February, but then the arrhythmia returned. I was very bummed out about this, but my wife kept telling me that I was being a baby about it all. She pointed out, quite rightly, that instead of bitching about such drugs I should be thankful that they exist at all and can improve my life. But you get to a certain age and your doctor is prescribing this drug for blood pressure and that drug for cholesterol and this drug for this and that drug for that, and eventually you begin to feel like a walking pharmacy. I went back on the flecainide, but now they wanted me to take warfarin as well, an anti-clotting agent that is often prescribed when atrial fibrillation is ongoing. I had to have weekly blood-tests to make sure my blood was properly thinned out.

So by the time May rolled around I was rather depressed about things. I had successfully completed a half-marathon at the beginning of April, but I was feeling more and more as though I was on the downhill side of life's journey. But then an extraordinary thing happened. It began when I had to go back to the cardiologist to see a specialist, an electrophysiologist (specialist in heart arrhythmias). This guy doesn't have an office in Athens, I had to drive to Columbus to see him. When I got there I was amazed at the facilities: a building the size of a large hotel filled with nothing but cardiologists. I walked into the lobby and it felt as though I was about to book myself onto a flight at a major airport. I mentioned this to the lady checking me in but she didn't think it was funny. After my two-hour drive I had to use those other facilities, but when I got there the door was locked. I had to wait a long, long time for the guy in there to finish. I began to worry that he might be having a heart attack or something, this being a place for people with heart trouble and all. When the door opened I saw what the problem was: he was burdened with a large oxygen tank and lots of tubes to deal with. I held the door for him and said a Hail Mary for him as I did my business. In the lobby I saw many such people: most of them elderly, all of them frail-looking. I felt like some kind of intruder: what was I doing here? I just ran a half-marathon, for goodness sake! My heart is healthy! I find that I often have to remind myself of that, because both my father and his brother died of heart attacks, and I don't want to continue the family tradition.

Well, to cut to the chase, as it were, the electrophysiologist told me that I do, indeed, have a very healthy heart, and that I could stop taking not only the flecainide, but also the warfarin and the beta-blocker I had been taking for my blood pressure. He told me that the arrhythmia may return, but I should just take two flecainide pills and see if it goes away. He says that there are lots of folks who do this, and that I shouldn't let my arrhythmia define my life. Well, let me tell you, it was as though someone had just flipped a switch, and my quality of life was improved immeasurably, just like that! I felt as though a huge burden had been lifted from my shoulders. On my way out, I made it a point to get a chuckle out of the lady who had checked me in, and I made my way back to Athens.

But in spite of feeling much better about my own prospects, I felt a new burden. I kept thinking about all of the other people in that waiting room, and the man with the oxygen tank in particular. It occurred to me that my wife was right: I had been a remarkably big baby about everything, and that many people--indeed, most sick people--have it far worse than I. If I had bothered to think about it, I would have known this much earlier, because you can't go into a hospital to get weekly blood tests without noticing all of the really badly off people wandering the halls. But at that time, of course, I was so self-absorbed that I didn't really notice them, unless they were ahead of me in line at the blood lab, keeping from getting to my other business as quickly as I would have liked. Now, the quality of my own life had just improved immensely, but what have I ever done to improve the quality of anyone else's life? There would not be a hotel-sized building filled with nothing but cardiologists if there were not a lot of people out there needing extremely complicated and expert care--I'm no cardiologist, but surely there are things I could be doing.

Perhaps one of the first things I can do is to get some perspective on things. I had--still have--a mild and minor problem. A friend of mine from high school has survived breast cancer; another friend from graduate school has survived kidney cancer; one of my colleagues has survived prostate cancer. All of these people have dealt with their difficulties and done some remarkable things--it seems to me that there is a sense in which they have dealt with their major difficulties with more grace than I have with my minor ones, and that should be food for thought.

But another thing that I can do is to be more prospective--instead of getting all scrupulous about my sins of omission I can look forward to the opportunity to make some changes in that regard. Time, in this sense, really is grace: the gift of yet another chance--further proof, if more were needed, of God's merciful kindness and compassion.

Ascension seems to be an essentially forward-looking feast in just this sense: as Christ was taken up from among them, the disciples might have chosen to dwell on the past, to regret the loss of the form of experience that they had enjoyed with the Lord for so long. Instead they looked forward to Pentecost and the continued life in the Kingdom that now is upon us. Now there seems to be plenty of time to go out and flip someone else's switch for a change!

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Stay Tuned

As if to remind me that I do not, in fact, live all by myself in a cave filled with books and jazz cds I have received a number of inquiries from friends and strangers regarding whether I ever intend to write anything else for this, or any other, blog. If they had asked me just three months ago I might have hemmed and hawed and said something like "I've probably already overstayed my welcome". A number of interesting things have come my way since then, however, and some of them strike me as rather blogworthy.

First, the philosophy department here at Ohio University has just finished a three-day colloquium with Bas Van Fraassen, Emeritus professor of philosophy at Princeton University and Distinguished professor of philosophy at San Francisco State University, author of such seminal works in the philosophy of science as The Scientific Image and Quantum Mechanics: An Empiricist Interpretation. His most recent book, Scientific Representation, was the focus for our colloquium and I can honestly say that it is the best book in the philosophy of science that I have read in the last three years, and among the best books in philosophy generally that I have ever read. It is erudite, well-argued, thorough, thought-provoking, and just a plain old-fashioned page-turner. It presents some arguments that, for Van Fraassn, are rather new: he seems to be moving away from some of his older views towards a new, anti-realist view that he calls structuralist empiricism. I hope to discuss some of his arguments in a few future posts.

Second, I've come across a fascinating new book on St. Augustine's theological epistemology in the De Trinitate that has got me to thinking anew about some of the issues that I have explored before in this forum, and as I work my way through a more thorough re-reading of this book, I suspect that I will find that I have more to say along those lines.

Finally, on a more personal note, I have recently begun to explore Benedictine spirituality with some interest, and will be exploring the possibility of becoming an Oblate; in addition I have also answered the call of the Diocese of Steubenville for men interested in serving the Church in the Permanent Diaconate. Both of these steps open up some very new territory for me, and I find that in thinking through each of them, I have made some rather startling discoveries both about my faith and about myself.

So this blog is not yet moribund, as long as one doesn't count sheer boringness as a measure of such things.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Maybe Size Does Matter

I have posted a number of times on what I take to be the nature of the development of doctrine within Catholic Christianity; I would link to the many posts here but there are too many of them--interested readers can use the blog search box to find them by using search terms such as "development".

Now some fellow Catholic bloggers (Michael Liccione, Jonathan Prejean, Elliot Bougis, and Apollonio Latar among others) and I have decided to have something of a blogging party over at Philosophia Perennis on the subject, and I posted something there on the topic a week or so ago. Now Dr. Michael Liccione has posted a major contribution to the topic, and I must say that it seems very impressive indeed. I have only skimmed it quickly tonight, and I intend to read it very carefully over the next few days, but my initial reaction is that he has, as usual, done a remarkably good job of putting his own point and responding to the points put by others.

The essay is rather long, but well worth reading. Indeed, it demonstrates rather nicely that a lengthy essay can nevertheless be a joy to read when it provokes thought in an intelligent way. The topic is probably such that shorter essays will not really do justice to the issue.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Alvin Plantinga vs. Daniel Dennett

Prosblogion has a fascinating account (with many comments posted) of the "debate" (really a philosophical paper with official comment) between Alvin Plantinga and Daniell Dennett on the compatibility of theism and science. Highly recommended reading!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

It's All in Where You Put Your Emphasis

According to a report from, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has hopes that the recession will end later this year:
The economy is suffering a "severe contraction," Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke told Congress on Tuesday. But he planted a glimmer of hope that the recession might end this year if the government managed to prop up the shaky banking system, and Wall Street rallied.
Reuters carried the same story, and relied upon exactly the same statement, to draw a rather different inference:
U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke warned on Tuesday that unless government efforts succeed in restoring financial stability, the nation's recession may not end this year.
H.T.:James Taranto.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Some Notes on Explanations and Inference

In some of the literature in the philosophy of science you can find a term of art that is sometimes alleged to refer to a special variety of inference that is not deductive in form but that is supposedly stronger than mere induction. The term "abduction" is due to Charles Sanders Peirce, a 19th century American chemist, mathematician, and logician who, along with William James, is credited with making seminal contributions to that distinctively American style of philosophy known as pragmatism. Abductions, he maintained, represent a kind of scientific inference involving explanations intended to connect samples to populations. Suppose, for example, that I have a small pond in my back yard, and I decide to do some fishing there one day. I spend the whole afternoon pulling small bass from the pond and putting them into a bucket, and at the end of the day I take my catch home and put the bucket on the front porch. Along comes my buddy Earl, who is in charge of stocking my pond. He sees the bucket and my fishing equipment and reasons to himself, "All of the fish in this bucket are bass; I stocked that pond over yonder myself with nothing but bass, knowing that there were no other fish in it; hence, the fish in this bucket must have come from that pond over yonder."

Peirce claimed that this is not a typical induction, because instead of reasoning from sample to population ("The fish in this bucket are all bass and came from that pond, hence that pond is stocked mostly with bass") or from population to sample ("That pond is stocked mostly with bass, so the probability of pulling bass from it is greater than the probability of pulling other kinds of fish from it, and that's why this bucket is full of mostly bass"), an abduction infers a certain relationship between a sample and a population. Peirce envisioned the scientific method as starting with abductions (basically, the "educated guessing" that goes into hypothesis formation), continuing with deductive inferences connecting an initial hypothesis to possible experimental results given certain initial conditions, and finally to hypothesis modification in light of new evidence. In his mature philosophy Peirce used the word "induction" to refer to this entire methodology.

Now imagine the following scenario. I come into my kitchen one morning to find that the big hunk of cheese I left out last night has little bite marks in it, and there are bits and pieces of it all over the counter, along with tiny little black things that look like the sort of chocolate sprinkles one gets on ice cream. As I stand there looking at the cheese, I hear a strange skittering and scratching sound coming from the kitchen wall. I reason to myself this way: "My little brother is always trying to lamplight me--obviously he has messed around with my cheese and sprinkled little chocolate sprinkles all over the counter and even now he's in the next room scratching on the wall to make me think that there's a mouse in my house." In comes my wife, who looks around, hears the sounds, and says, "We've got a mouse in the house."

Two possible explanations, but presumably they can't both be right, so which one is the "best" explanation? Abduction is sometimes called "inference to the best explanation", since one hopes, when formulating a scientific hypothesis, that one is "guessing" correctly about what will adequately explain the observable phenomena. In the case of my kitchen scenario, there are certain sorts of tests my wife and I could do to try to distinguish the one hypothesis from the other as a contender for the "best" explanation (e.g., see if my little brother is in town; check for mouse holes; see if the "chocolate sprinkles" are really made of chocolate), but to do so would be to move away from the stage of abduction and into the stage of deductive testing. The thing about abduction is that it takes place at the beginning of the investigative process, not in the middle or at the end, so what is the normative criterion at play in an abduction?

By "normative criterion" here I mean, what mark do we use to distinguish a good abduction from a bad one? Notice that in the kitchen scenario the question I posed was about which abduction was the best explanation, not which abduction was the best qua abduction. Presumably, the procedure to find out which abduction was the best explanation would have involved testing; what I'm asking here is, what sort of criteria would go into forming an abductive inference in the first place? It seems to me that in the kitchen scenario, the abduction that I came up with is clearly not as good as the one my wife came up with, but what marks that difference? Why is mine not as good as hers, and how can we know the difference independently of any testing? Someone might say something like "Your wife's abduction was better because it was simpler: it only involves a mouse, which many houses have; it does not involve a weirdo brother trying to lamplight you, which has got to be a lot rarer. In short, in similar sorts of cases, it seems much more likely that the mouse would be the cause than that a weirdo brother would be the cause, since the one cause is far more common than the other."

This sort of answer just reduces abduction to a post-inductive inference based on evidence. That is, it treats an abduction as a case of reasoning from population to sample (in the world overall, there are far more mice than there are weirdo brothers, hence it is more probable that this scenario was brought about by a mouse"). Can the same be said about the fishing scenario? Suppose Earl's brother, Homer, was with him when he found the bucket of fish, and when Earl tried to connect the fish to the pond, Homer responded by saying "No way, Earl, them fish was bought at the Wynn Dixie just this mornin', and they's a settin' there 'cause the boss is fixin' to cook 'em later today on yonder grill." In this case, again, we can imagine methods of testing the two hypotheses (see if Wynn Dixie sold a bucket o' bass recently; ask the boss where he got the fish), but the question isn't about how we can find out which one really is the best explanation, but rather how we can tell, from the get go, which one is better as an abduction, as an attempt to come up with the best explanation. In this case, however, the question is complicated by the fact that both explanations seem plausible in a way that just wasn't the case in the kitchen scenario, where one of the explanations seemed quite possible, while the other one seemed downright nutty, and it was easy to choose between them.

What does any of this have to do with anything? Believe it or not, I've been thinking about this in light of some posting at Sacramentum Vitae and Crimson Catholic on the development of doctrine. Both Mike Liccione and Jonathan Prejean seem to think that when doctrine develops, it does so abductively. Possibly all they mean by this is that, when doctrine develops, what the Church is trying to do is to come up with the "best explanations" for its doctrines. Indeed, Mike explicitly says that this is what he means:
I have long argued that a species of induction, namely "abduction" or "inference to the best explanation," is the standard form of DD's context of justification—as distinct from its context of discovery, which cannot and should not try to eliminate the charismatic element. It is the quality of the abduction, seen in light of the analogia fidei and thus to some extent charismatically, which suggests the difference between mere theological opinions and development of the Church's collective understanding of the DF.
If the "context of justification" means something like the texts that are used to promulgate and explain the church's teachings, as opposed to the actual process by which the content of those teachings is revealed to the church, then there is something of a mystery here, since abduction is not a method of justification in this sense but the beginning point of a method of discovery that seeks to explain. Perhaps the term "justification" is what is giving me trouble: what is meant by it, precisely? I tend to think of "justification" as encompassing such things as the giving of reasons with the aim of proving or "justifying" some claim or other, but this is not what an abduction is. When I posit the existence of a mouse in my house, or decide that a bucket of fish came from a pond, I am not trying to justify anything in that sense, I am trying to figure something out, to put together some pieces of a puzzle that are not linked by any matters of necessity.

Therein lies what I take to be a very important difficulty. Deductive inference always ensures truth when the premises are true; abduction, like induction, can offer no such assurance. Indeed, an abductive inference is as likely to be wrong as to be right unless one makes antecedent assumptions about what is more plausible. A mouse is more plausible than a weirdo brother--who would dispute that? But which is more plausible, a pond or a store, and who determines which is more plausible, who lays down the normative criterion?

Mike suggests a number of healthy criteria:
In general, explanations are evaluated in terms of a certain set of criteria: e.g., consistency (is the explanation consistent with what we already know?), capaciousness (does it cover everything that calls for explanation?), parsimony (does it avoid making assumptions and positing entities beyond what's necessary?) and other criteria depending on the subject matter.
As he quickly notes, however, such criteria are largely subjective. (He doesn't actually use the word "largely", but he ought to have.) Hence, an arbiter is needed even of the applicability of the normative criteria. This faculty he grants to the sensus ecclesiae, a deus ex machina if ever there was one from an explanatory point of view. On this sort of a view, there are almost no constraints on what sorts of "abductions" will count as normatively better than others. I say "almost" because, of course, formal contradictions are ruled out even on a subjective reading of the criteria, since there's really no nuancing that sort of thing. But it's not always all that easy to tell when to assertions are formally contradictory. In the end, Mike may be right about the role of the sensus ecclesiae, but not, I think, in quite the way he intends, if he intends that role to be part of an abductive process.

"When you hear hoof beats in Central Park, don't expect zebras." That piece of advice, sometimes given by Gregory House to his ducklings, seems to sum up the problem pretty well. When it comes to formulating abductive inferences, you have to already know a lot of stuff. You need to know already that there are no zebras in Manhattan, but that there are horses, even though it is a huge urban area with no large game to speak of. You have to know that Central Park is patrolled by police on horseback. In short, you have to already know what the relevant components of the explanation are before you formulate them as an abductive hypothesis. The only reason why "horses" is a better explanation of the sound of hoof beats in Central Park than "zebras" is, is because "horses" is the right answer. But there is literally no reason to believe that it is the right answer, independently of already knowing the facts I mentioned above: there are no zebras in Manhattan, but there are horses, and the cops ride them in Central Park.

Add to this mix the fact that abduction, like induction, is an inference pattern that is aimed at explaining empirically observable phenomena, not at unpacking the meaning of assertions. It is intended to connect observables with hypotheses, not to make clear the semantic content of previous utterances. Furthermore, abduction, like induction, always requires an inference to something new. That is, the conclusion of an abduction, like the conclusion of an induction, is a linguistic representation of a fact that is not contained in the premises. This is one of the principal differences between inductive and deductive inference patterns, and it is why inductions, unlike deductions, can never guarantee the truth of their conclusions--just as abductions cannot.

Suppose we were to take a typical case of what is sometimes called the "development of doctrine", and ask whether the doctrine, as developed, represents the conclusion of an abductive inference. We will see that there are a number of reasons why this should be worrisome. There are many good examples we could choose from--the doctrine of the Trinity, the procession of the Spirit from the Son--but let's look instead at one that is often cited in polemical contexts: the teaching on usury. This is a nice example because most Catholics can agree that God is a Trinity, and that the Spirit proceeds from the Son, but there are some Catholics who think that the teaching on usury has substantially changed over time, and in this they disagree with their own Church, which maintains rather that the teaching on usury has developed over time. So the notion of the "development of doctrine", in this polemical context, must be put up against a notion of "substantial change in teaching" which is somehow quite different from mere "development". If we are to make any sense out of the inferential process by which teachings "develop", we need to make some sense out of what the difference is supposed to be between "substantial change in teaching" and mere "development" of doctrine.

The claim that the teaching on usury has "changed", if I understand it correctly, amounts to the claim that the teaching has not merely new, but different semantic content than it used to have, and that the different content constitutes an explicit, formal contradiction of the old semantic content. That is, when people claim that the teaching on usury has changed, they think that, whereas the Church used to teach x, y, and z about usury, it now teaches either (~x & ~y & ~z) or ~(x & y & z). Either of these latter two assertions would formally contradict the first, so it may not matter which of them a particular critic of the teaching claims in that regard. In order to avoid this sort of thing, the person who claims that doctrine has merely developed must claim that, whereas the Church used to teach (x & y & z), it now teaches [(x & y & z) & p], where p cannot be formally analyzed into further assertions that would contradict x or y or z. To put it less formally, whatever the Church says about usury now, she must say it without taking back any of the things she used to say about it, hence, what she says now must be new and different from but also consistent with what she said before.

This is where the real arguing starts. The Church used to say that charging any interest whatsoever on a loan was usurious and, hence, sinful. Now the Church says that there are certain forms of lending in which it would not be usurious to charge interest, just so long as the interest rate meets certain criteria, hence not all lending at interest is sinful. The critics who claim that the teaching has changed say that the Church went from saying "All lending at interest is sinful" to saying "It is not the case that all lending at interest is sinful", and that is indeed a formal contradiction of the form (p & ~p). The defender of doctrinal development says that the Church now teaches, and has always taught, that "All usurious lending is sinful", but the prudential understanding (not the formal, de fide, teaching) of what the definition of "usurious lending" is has developed in response to the rise of a capital economy beginning in the 17th century. Hence there is no formal contradiction at all, only an explicit recognition of new historical conditions under which usuriousness is present only under certain empirically testable conditions, not all of which include the presence of interest on a loan.

Suppose we want to side with the defender of doctrinal development against the critic of the teaching. Shall we say that this new way of expressing the mind of the Church is "justified" by means of an abductive process? I hope not, because if that is what we shall say then we shall be saying that, upon discovering that lots of people, including many members of the Church, are indeed lending money at interest, the Church found it expedient to redefine "usurious lending" in such a way that it is no longer sinful, just as we decided to say that it was horses that we heard in Central Park rather than zebras when we realized that there are no zebras in Central Park, though there are horses. Since abduction, like induction, requires an empirical component, we are forced to admit that the only strictly empirical considerations impinging on the developed doctrine are the historical facts regarding lending at interest. What we would like to be able to say, by contrast, is that the Church has made her position with regard to the sinfulness of lending at interest clearer: in a capital economy, money plays an entirely different sort of role than the role it plays in a feudal economy, and lending at small rates of interest will not count as sinful because it does not impose anything like the burden that it would have imposed in a non-capital economy. In making our assertion, p, clearer, we never assert ~p. Rather, we assert, either some other proposition, q, which is not inconsistent in semantic content with p but which deals with the same subject matter as p, or we assert some other proposition r, which is derivable, in some sense, from p itself.

The expression, "in some sense", is, of course, hopelessly vague, but whatever else it might mean it certainly cannot mean "via abductive inference", for the reasons I've been rehearsing. Cardinal Newman, in the eighth, ninth, and tenth chapters of his An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, comes closer than anyone ever has, I think, to doing justice to what we need to mean by this expression "in some sense" in this context, in spite of the fact that he was by no means a professional epistemologist. He claims, first of all, that revelation was completed during Apostolic times, and this can mean only that no new doctrines can be taught by the Church; at most, the Church may express old doctrines in new ways. If Newman is right about this, this immediately rules out both induction and abduction as an inferential pattern by means of which the Church may explain her teachings, since both provide conclusions in which something new is asserted, as I pointed out above. However, the inferential pattern need not be strictly deductive, either since, if we again assume that the Church is right to teach that not all lending at interest is usurious in a capital economy, this cannot be something that the Church has discovered by deduction, since at one time the Church taught that all lending at interest was, indeed, usurious (since at the time there was no such thing as a capital economy), and that is a direct contradiction of the proposition that not all lending at interest is usurious. They cannot both be the products of deductions working from the same premises, unless the premises themselves are inconsistent. The premises themselves, being the revealed content of our religion, had better not be inconsistent, or else our religion is just a bunch of hooey.

What has occurred, then, not only in the case of the Church's teaching on usury, but indeed in the case of the Church's teaching on slavery, the Trinity, the Procession of the Spirit from the Son, Papal infallibility, the Immaculate Conception--you name it--is that the Church has clarified the meanings of the premises in such a way as to show how it can be possible for two seemingly disparate teachings (all lending at interest is usurious; some lending at interest is not usurious) can nevertheless follow from the same premise set. Although the motivation for making this clarification arises from empirically observable facts about the world (there was no such thing as a capital economy before; now it is the norm), this process of clarification (reformulation and restatement) is not itself an empirical and, hence, not an abductive or inductive process. Since it is not a formal process, it is also not deductive. This process of clarification does not include admissions on the part of the Church that she just did not understand the premises the first time around, since that would allow for the possibility not only that the earlier teachings were just plain wrong, but also that the present ones are. In short, if there has ever been a time at which the Church herself did not understand the premises, then that time could very well be happening right now, and we have no reason to believe anything the Church teaches on the basis of her claims to authority, including the proposition that Jesus is God or, indeed, that God exists at all. The Church simply must be both infallible and consistent, otherwise the entire religion falls--there is no reason to believe in it at all, other than wishful thinking.

So a fundamental assumption of any Christian must be that the Church has always fully understood the "premises" she has been given, that is, she has always fully understood the content of the divine revelation. What changes is not that content or the Church's understanding of it, but the mode of expression the Church uses to communicate that content to the faithful. Here, by "modes of expression" I mean more than just the language and concepts that the Church deploys in exercising its teaching faculties, though those things are included in what I have in mind. I also mean something a little more complex, however, namely the change in empirically observable circumstances to which I have already alluded in the usury example. I can further illustrate what I have in mind by means of another example. The well-known phrase, extra ecclesiam nulla salus, which can be translated as "outside the Church there is no salvation", dates to the third century, a time when there was no such thing as Protestantism. Some twentieth century Catholics understood the phrase in a very literalistic sense to mean that, if you are not literally inside the Roman Catholic Church (i.e., if you are a Protestant or a Jew or an atheist or what have you), then you have no salvation, you are damned forever. The Second Vatican Council thus found it expedient to make clearer just what this catchphrase really means: it equates the concept of Salvation with the mystical understanding of the Church as the Body of Christ. As Augustine noted, just as being a member of the Church in the pedestrian sense of having been baptized does not guarantee salvation, neither does being outside of the Church guarantee damnation. The phrase means only that the Church and Salvation are one and the same thing: the Church makes Salvation possible simply by being what it is. Some regarded this "clarification" of the doctrine by the Council as evidence that either the Church was changing its teaching on salvation or that the Council was not really an Ecumenical Council--indeed, the two claims usually went together: the Council was not an Ecumenical Council precisely because it was tinkering with the Church's teachings on salvation.

Tinkering is one thing, but changing is something else. The point here is that a mistake was indeed made, but not by the Church. The mistake was made by those literalists who had misunderstood the Church's teaching on salvation in such a way as to think that the teaching demanded full-blown membership in the Church in the sense of being a communicant in good standing of some particular Roman Catholic parish or other. At the time the teaching was first articulated, such a misunderstanding was probably not possible, but whether or not it was possible it did not become a problem until relatively recently, hence the clarification, or "development", if you prefer. In short, the original statement of the teaching was directed at a particular audience in a particular time and place, and the clarification of the teaching is directed at a different audience at a different time and place. The difference is an empirically observable one, but the empirical facts only motivate, they do not enter into the formulation of, the clarification.

The problem is made rather complicated by the fact that sometimes people speaking in the name of the Church can make things seem less rather than more clear, but in the present instance the cases where this has happened only further illustrate the principal I am talking about. Popes and other bishops have said things in connection with this teaching that do, indeed, seem to contradict what the most recent Council has taught. One must then decide (a) whether there is indeed a contradiction and (b) if there is one, whether the voice of a single bishop speaking on his own, even the bishop of Rome, can outrank, as it were, the teaching of an Ecumenical Council. But even in some of the cases where it looks as though things are being made less clear rather than more clear, an argument can be made that things are not as straightforward as they seem because historical conditions are often not parallel to our own. The Bull Unam sanctam of 1302, often cited by enemies of the Council, makes the teaching clear enough. What critics of the Council tend to focus in on, of course, are the words "We declare, say, define, and pronounce that it is absolutely necessary for the salvation of every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff". They take this in a very literal way to mean that, unless you are "subject to the Roman Pontiff" in the sense of being obedient to him as a literal member of the Roman Catholic Church, you are SOL. They don't even consider the possibility that there are different ways of being "subject" to the Roman Pontiff, and that a Protestant or a Jew or a Muslim is de facto subject to him whether they obey him or not, just as the atheist is subject to God whether he believes in him or not.

Was this what Pope Boniface VIII himself meant and intended when he promulgated the Bull? Intentions are notoriously slippery things--it is, in fact, impossible to know what the real intentions of another person are with any certainty, even if he tells you himself what his intentions were, since he may have been mistaken about his own motivation. However, if Unam sanctam is difficult in this way, the words of Eugene IV in Cantate Domino, 1441, are crystal clear: "none of those existing outside the Catholic Church, not only pagans, but also Jews and heretics and schismatics, can have a share in life eternal." It seems difficult to mistake what this fellow intended to say, though he does go on to say that this fate can be avoided if "before death they are joined with [the Church]", but he does not elaborate on what he thinks are the necessary and sufficient conditions of being "joined" with the Church. Presumably he means getting oneself baptized, but he does not say so explicitly, thus leaving himself wide open to all sorts of interpretations. In any case, the polemical purpose of Cantate Domino is such that its entire purpose is open to multiple interpretations. From an empirical point of view, there may very well be historical conditions that inform what interpretation is more likely, which abduction really is the "best explanation" of what the particular fellow was trying to say. But from a doctrinal point of view--a point of view that of necessity must be distinct from such historical conditions precisely because the doctrine was already definitively settled during the Apostolic age--such empirical conditions cannot settle what it is that we must believe, since it is impossible for us to experience the empirical conditions that obtained at that time.

Who is it, then, that has the authority to decide which interpretations--whether of divine revelation or of the Church's own teachings based upon those revelations--are to be regarded as authoritative in a sense that is meaningful to us and to our historical conditions? Only the Church herself can have that kind of authority. If it seems to someone, whether inside or outside of the Church, that the Church is contradicting herself, he'd better have an airtight case. If, per impossibile, he does have such a case, he'd better leave the Church right away if he is in it, or stay away if he isn't, because a case such as that would show that the Church in fact has no authority at all.

Ultimately, then, the method, if it is one, by which the Church develops her doctrines is neither inductive, nor abductive, nor deductive, but merely authoritative. She makes proclamations, and the relationship between the semantic content of her proclamations, when they are authoritative, is always one of consistency, though not always one of full clarity, if by "full clarity" what one means is complete and full understanding on the part of the target audience. That kind of clarity comes through time as the Church articulates and re-articulates the same teachings to different audiences; as audiences change, so too must the articulations of doctrine. What seems clear to us today would not have seemed clear to an audience in Thessalonica in the 4th century, nor will it seem clear to an audience in Brazil in the 25th century. This is merely a feature of the evolution of human culture. But the Church's teachings do not evolve, so they must be explained and re-explained in such a way as to make clear the original intent of the original revelation in terms that can be understood by the faithful who must assent to them.

The work of individual pastors and theologians will certainly, on occasion, take the form of inductions, abductions, and deductions, but such work, all on its own, will never be authoritative and, hence, will never constitute any part of the process whereby the teachings of the Church develop. Instead, the corporate mechanism of the Church's teaching authority, the Magisterium, will incorporate or not incorporate such work as the Spirit moves it. How that happens is entirely beyond me, but I believe that it happens, otherwise I would be acting irrationally to remain in the Church. That teachings such as those the Church proposes must be accepted by faith should come as a surprise to no one; it is a sad feature of human willfulness and pride that it does surprise many to learn that the Church's authority to teach and to interpret must also be accepted by faith.

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 [...