Friday, December 31, 2010

Some Local Folk Religion

Or: how I learned to stop worrying about the triumph of superstition and love Darwin...

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Interesting Comments from a Bishop

A reader referred me to these comments by a bishop.

I obviously would disagree with him totally regarding the implication of a necessary connection to traditional liturgy and all-male liturgical ministry. As far as I know, the abusers were not disproportionately conservative, and certainly not disproportionately traditionalist. Yet (part of the whole point of this blog), it is obvious that in traditionalist circles there is too often a conflation of triumphalism and clericalism and authoritarian ideology with the beauty of the traditional liturgy.

And such attitudes clearly lead many "good Catholics" to put on rose-colored glasses when it comes to dealing with the very human bureaucracy which is the institutional church. So what he has to say about clericalism is interesting coming from a bishop (though I'd argue that an all-celibate institutional sociology does go hand-in-hand with it structurally...):
For priests who offended, I'm not sure that their abuses grew out of the rule of celibacy; abuse happens within otherwise good families too. I'm more convinced that it grew out of the clericalism of the past. That clericalism risks raising its head today among those who again are looking for identity in status, not service. They want to be treated differently. There are those who set high standards of morality for lay people, while they blatantly violate those same standards themselves. There are those who go to extremes to express the Mass in a particular way, whether it is in the Ordinary Form or Extraordinary Form, in a so-called Vatican II rite or Tridentine Rite, through the "People's Mass" or the "Priest's Mass". Some want to put the priest on a pedestal, whilst the people are consigned to be privileged spectators outside the rails. Flamboyant modes of liturgical vestments and rubrical gestures abound. Women are denied all ministries at Mass: doing the Readings, the serving, the Bidding Prayers, and taking Communion to the Sick. To many in our Church and beyond, this comes across as triumphalism and male domination. This clericalism conceals the fact that the Church as an institution has often acted in collusion with what I can only regard as structural sinfulness. It has paid dearly for it and is untrue to its humble Founder, Jesus Christ. This underlying culture of clericalism has to end and never happen again.
Still, I wonder if he'd go so far as to support the structural reforms necessary to deconstruct that clerical culture, namely: eliminating the idea of the priesthood as always a full-time salaried profession (as opposed to possibly a part-time volunteer ministry), opening the secular priesthood to married men, and de-institutionalizing priestly training in the monasticized seminary system.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Fight the Future!

I've warned you before about the dangers of technology! Listen to the Space Pope!! (In all seriousness, there's actually a big grain of truth here, and it doesn't just apply to robots...)

One Year

Well, this blog has been up for one year. 475 posts! (Because I [used to] have no life...)

Now it's slowing down quite a bit, obviously. Partly because I've said a lot of what I wanted to say, have fleshed out my own opinions, my personal philosophy on all this, partly because I've come to terms with the status quo, know the ideal I'm fighting for and the justice of this cause, and thus don't have to worry about its immediate materialization. That I've made peace, for now, with a career (and, in some sense, a sort of ministry even) outside the mainstream institutional Church helps too in that regard (though if they think they're rid of me, they've got another thing coming). They can't take my relationship with God or my personal spiritual development away from me, bad liturgy and a dysfunctional clergy or not.

The best thing about the past year has probably been the friendships I've made networking with people through the blog, the conversations with my own friends that have inspired my posts (or, conversely, conversations inspired by my posts), and the wonderful diversity I've found hiding behind the facade of the "conservative" monolith. I sometimes like to imagine it as my own little flock, except no one is "in charge," we're all a Society of Sinners shepherding each other as best we can under the protection of the Good Shepherd.

We aren't so alone after all. There is clearly still an incredible interest in Catholicism and tradition, and not just the crazies, not just the neocons and traddies. God is very much alive. There is an incredibly rich dialogue taking place among at least some people, facilitated no doubt by this wonderful Internet we now have at our disposable, and I'm always excited to see it even when I also disagree or have a face-palm or eye-roll moment reading some of it, even when I get frustrated or exasperated. The attempts by certain factions to monopolize the conversation...have been a monumental failure, Deo gratias!

I would like to thank my readers who have continued to read and support me. I still have ideas left, and get new ones all the time. Not all of them are fully-formed enough yet to make posts, but I'm always thinking and I doubt my ideas are through developing yet, though I have pretty strong sense of vision (if you couldn't tell!) I'll continue commenting on things when I feel like it and recommending good things other people write too (because there is a ton of good stuff being produced these days, it's an exciting time in the Church). And you'll probably have to put up with some more of my eccentricity, inside humor, musical tangents, and personal esoterica (you know who you are!) which you've all been so patient with in the past and indulged me in.

So we'll see how this evolves in the next year. By then, I should have some disposable income and would like to actually start doing something constructive and concrete with these ideas and this growing network of supporters, so any ideas on that are appreciated, I intend to keep up my correspondence with readers who contact me privately, and I hope people keep reading even if I'm in sort of a dry stretch busy with outside life. I have nothing but hope and optimism that, if we avoid ultimate philosophical cynicism (perhaps the greatest temptation for our "type" of thinker), great things are going to happen in the future. I've seen too many miracles already.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

196 Million!!!

A Very Merry Christmas indeed!

At least for those of us who depend on the the high of hope and delusional fantasy from lottery ticket to lottery ticket each week in order to keep us going.

When we don't win on Tuesday, however, it will be quite the crash. Such is life. Ah, but today it is good!

O Great Mammon! The Advent of Thy expectation is everlasting!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Catholic Rabbis?

I just had a thought. I'm not sure if it's an important one, but I'll mention it. A while back, I did a long post on the new "Lay Clergy" that seem to have emerged (yet without being actually ordained), and about problems with this dynamic.

However, I just realized, that Judaism had/has this same distinction, doesn't it? Jewish Rabbis are not Jewish Priests. Priests were a caste set apart for Temple worship, from one tribe, whereas the rabbinical class was not so limited and by Christ's time had become the real authorities within Judaism, based on their learning rather than birth. Christ Himself was the ultimate Rabbi who wasn't a Priest (at least, not of the Aaronic priesthood).

What this means for a division between the Catholic priesthood and the Catholic "lay clergy"...I don't know. But it's interesting.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Sad, But a Good Sign?

Quite an interesting ethical debate has broken out in the comments on this Vox Nova thread over the St. Joseph's Hospital case. Originally I was quite adamant that no argument could be made to justify what happened, but the arguments presented in the comments have made me see that it isn't at all as black-and-white as some are making it out to be.

I think I still ultimately agree with the bishop about this case since, as far as I can tell, the baby was torn apart while still alive, and I think the arguments of the "independently hired moral theologian" that "since the baby was already dying" this didn't make the death of the child part of the moral object...are horribly wrong.

But, on the other hand, I could perhaps now see an argument that if the fetus had been removed alive and intact, and if they had then done everything possible to save it outside the womb too (though it almost certainly wouldn't have worked, since artificial wombs haven't been invented yet) that it may then have been possible to separate "removing the child" to take stress off the woman's pulmonary system from "killing the child" as a moral object (in fact, for me, that's one of the greatest purely secular arguments against post-viability abortion: after viability, a right to "not be pregnant" and "killing the child" are two different questions, as then the baby could be delivered and cared for alive).

However, that's not how it was in fact carried out, and it's not even really the point of this post to try to sort out the ethical arguments here. My main point is that many people probably see such arguments as symptomatic of something wrong with Catholic morality. That such splitting hairs over means while winding up with the same ends, or arguing over such distinctions as direct and non-direct, intended end and proximate end, "double effect" and "lesser evil" somehow reducing the real world to theory and abstraction for armchair philosophers to mentally masturbate over, representing the concrete collapse of a moral system in the practical face of the most obscure cases like the dependence of child on mother which are unlikely to apply in our interactions with people in day-to-day life.

But I would argue that this attitude of scorn is entirely wrong. It actually is right and proper, (meet and just), that these cases, above all others, should receive so much attention from us. Firstly, just because it is a sort of proving-ground for the distinction between intent and consequences on the one hand, and moral object on the other, which has been lost in much of modern moral thought (reducing all morality to a base utilitarianism or situation ethics). These cases demonstrate just how important to human dignity such distinctions really are.

But, more importantly, because far from being "obscure" or representing a special case, the dependence of unborn child on mother and the moral obligations imposed on her actually, perhaps, the ultimate and foundational type of all of our dependence on each other and the obligations imposed on us because of it.

Indeed, we are our brother's keeper. Human beings are not independent and self-contained beings with some sort of right to self-determination and utter autonomy within even our own private existence, who may do what we want as long as it doesn't infringe into anyone else's boundaries. Because the fact is, our boundaries all overlap anyway. Even into the "private" matters of the heart, we are all completely connected and intertwined with each other, affecting each other, dependent on each other, with mutual obligations towards each other. Yes, "mankind is my business."

I think it is especially fitting to remember this at Christmas; that in a world where we have so forgotten this and are inclined to view the Individual as autonomous...the relationship between the mother and the unborn child remains a sign of contradiction to that lonely view, the ultimate reminder of all of our compenetration. And what that means for how we should act certainly deserves (and more!) all the energy and thought and words invested in it in such cases as these, and it is heartening to see that people seem to know that instinctively (if the energy, and thoughts, and words they invest in it are any indication).

Article on "Personal Issues"

A reader recommended this article to me a while ago, from an Orthodox source. I've been quite busy, as you may have noticed, but I thought this made some very good points:

The title of this post is quite misleading – for in proper theological language – there are no “personal issues.” Our culture is quite fond of issues – both the politico-entertainment industry – and many individuals. It is a word and a phenomenon that has been baptized by the culture such that “being concerned with the issues” makes someone sound as if things matter to them in a significant way. The Orthodox response to the issues should generally be – not to respond.

The true “issue” of our time and of all times is the salvation of our souls. And, it is important to note, this is not a “legal” or “forensic” issue, but a matter of the deep healing of the spiritual disease that infects us, and, through us, all the world around us. We do not see things as they are (we are spiritually blind); we do not think as we ought (we are spiritually ignorant); we do not feel about things in a proper way (we are spiritually disordered in our emotions). Coming to grips with the passions and their disordered state (which effects our mind, emotions and our body) is very difficult work. It requires insight and honesty and a deep commitment to the Truth of Christ, through Whom we may alone find healing and salvation.

In the meantime it is possible to avoid all this by concerning ourselves with issues. Some concern themselves with political issues, particularly if those issues carry a moral component. But it is as possible to take the “right” position on a political issue as a wretched sinner as it is to take the “right” position on a political issue as a saint – though saints often have a strange way of not being involved in “political issues.”

Others set their sights in other places and concern themselves with theological issues or local issues such as the goings-on in a parish.

I would offer a brief definition of “issue” as I am using it here: any subject or situation with which we may concern ourselves, that having been addressed, leaves ourselves and others involved no closer to our salvation than when we began (and perhaps farther away).

The transformation of the world will not come about through the successive addressing of issues. It will, according to the Fathers of the Church, come about through the transformation of human persons, whom, having been restored to the proper image and likeness of Christ, are able to restore others and creation around them. It is thus that the “movers and shapers” of our world may never be acknowledged by the world itself.

It is significant that the world admires Christ as a moral teacher – for He was not a moral teacher. Christ, the God-Man, was an is the Mediator between God and man, the means by which our distorted selves may be restored and transfigured and all creation set free. That transformation is simply impossible through “moral” effort.

Classical monastic spiritual teaching would speak instead about the purification of the passions and the illumination and deification of man. More recent Orthodox writers and teachers, such as St. Silouan and the Elder Sophrony have addressed the same teaching in terms of personhood. However, in both cases the nature of our salvation is described in the most profound terms of the inner life.

Orthodoxy is a seamless garment. The sacramental life and the ascetical life are not two separate compartments. Both have to do with the healing of the soul. It is for such a reason that communion in the Orthodox Church is always linked with fasting and confession, however the discipline is applied. Communion is the “medicine of immortality” in the words of St. Ignatius of Antioch. But that same medicine must be received by a heart that has prepared itself through fasting and repentance. As Christ Himself proclaimed, “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” So too, we approach the Kingdom in the Cup of Christ, and our hearts must greet it with repentance.

Our issues are not intellectual or political – but existential. Our brokenness is at the very level of our existence.

Some years ago I heard the abbot of a monastery describe the young people who came for retreats during the 60′s and early 70′s. “They were so angry about peace,” he said. He added this thought: “The contemplative need go no further than his own heart than to find the source of all violence in the world.”

This, indeed, is the issue.

Dostoevsky, the great 19th century Russian writer, spent his early adulthood deeply involved in a group of semi-revolutionary writers, artists and intellectuals. As a group, they were deeply committed and involved in the issues of the world. The reform of the Russian state – and in some corners – the reform of the Russian Church was an all-consuming passion. The Romanticism of the 19th century – its belief in the perfectibility of man, if only the proper state and economic system were employed – yielded the various experiments of the 20th century – with generally disastrous results.

Dostoevsky’s own existential crisis occurred when he and a small group of similar conspirators were arrested for sedition and sentenced to death. At the last moment their sentences were commuted to short terms in the Tsar’s Siberian prison system. It was in the few minutes that preceded his commutation – during which the great writer had opportunity to ponder death and his short life – that an inner change occurred. It is not that he saw everything in a flash – but rather that the issues moved away from an intellectual stage and into the deepest parts of his heart.

In what are perhaps his two greatest novels – the heart of man is revealed in the crime of murder. In Crime and Punishment a young man, Raskolnikov, convinces himself that only the will to power matters, and that he should be able to rob and kill a wretched old woman because he would put her money to better use. He succeeds in killing her only to discover that his “philosophy” is bankrupt. Utility (what works) is insufficient for the human soul. He finds salvation in prison through the unrelenting love of God.

In The Brothers Karamazov, murder again is at the center of man’s “issues.” Again it becomes the catalyst for a crisis in which the truth of God is revealed. The moral reform of the characters of the novel is a non-issue. Indeed, the most “moral” of the Karamazov brothers is arguably the unbeliever, Ivan. But Ivan, interestingly, is the devil. It takes little character to argue about justice and to be concerned with fairness. In my experience, even unredeemed humanity is born with an instinct for such arguments.

Most of us do not see ourselves as murderers and are thus content with lesser “issues,” none of which will push us to the point of repentance. I often think that Jesus asked those who sought to follow Him to give everything to the poor precisely to bring them to the point of crisis. To give away everything in the name of Christ raises the question about the name and nature of Christ to its proper place. Either He is worthy of such an action or He is not worthy of any action. The Kingdom of God is never found in half-measures, or in carefully measured actions of any sort. Anxiety and care cannot map the road into the Kingdom.

I am not suggesting that we cease to care about people or the things that effect them. I am suggesting that our concern for “issues” falls far short of actually caring about people and the things that effect them. It is possible to love humanity and actually hate people. I have seen it far too often and have done it myself.

It is much easier to trust someone who wants to “save the world,” if they have also bothered first to “save themselves” (yet another paradoxical statement). It shouldn’t take an arrest by the Tsar to bring us to our senses – though for Dostoevsky it seems to have helped. Perhaps it would be sufficient if we would recognize that we ourselves are murderers and that no amount of moral reform will return the life we have taken. Nothing short of resurrection will present us with the medicine for which our souls thirst.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Winter Distractions (and Schadenfreude)

Just want to send out special thanks to St. Anthony. Hoping everyone's holiday preparations are going well. Had an amazing day yesterday and want to praise the Lord for that!!

Friday, December 10, 2010

Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam: On Moral Foundations

I think it is fair to say that a terrible job has been done in the Church explaining to people our moral system or its relevance to them, let alone how it applies to specific questions. This becomes most obvious when it comes to various "hot-button" issues (which in modern times have usually been sexual), but these occasions usually reveal a more general collapse of notions of morality into varieties of positivism. I would like here to lay out some thoughts in a more or less disorganized and wandering fashion on the foundations of Catholic morality, and expect to write more about it as time goes on. I don't claim total coherency for all this as I myself am just getting into this surprisingly neglected branch of theology, but I've learned some very helpful things so far.

Popular understandings of morality seem to usually revolve around either a sort of libertarianism, or else a Divine Command understanding. There is a sort of utilitarian ethic too. Which is to say, either an understanding that "If it doesn't hurt anyone, why not?" (which reduces all morality to external justice), or else a notion that some acts are bad because God has forbidden them arbitrarily or inscrutably and we have to avoid these so He won't swoop down and punish us in His wrath.

Sometimes there is also an "is-ought" confusion. I tend to think of all the silly arguments about sexual morality based on the design, purpose, or telos of organs; these arguments are flimsy inasmuch as they explain why something should be used one way, but don't particularly tell us why it shouldn't be used any other. They offer no explanation for why we can't adapt beyond primary purposes like we do with everything else (am I sinning against my nose by using it to rest my sunglasses?) But it works both ways too: arguments that "everyone" contracepts so it "must be okay" are likewise unsupportable. "Is" and "ought" are two different things, and neither should be confused with the other.

I would argue that the basic presumption underlying all these theories is that human life is essentially amoral. That most things are "neutral" and that they become good or bad only in special cases. Hence the "It should be assumed allowed if there isn't good reason to believe it is forbidden" attitude among so many, which probably leaves the list of "forbidden" things looking indeed rather arbitrary.

However, from the traditional Catholic perspective, these are extremely sickly notions of morality. The Catholic position is so much more optimistic, so much more all-encompassing, so much more immediately relevant to the human person. For Catholic morality does not view morality primarily in terms of what makes certain things bad, but what makes things good. Evil is not a substance of its own, it is only a relative property, the lack or privation or disordering of goods.

So I think one foundational moral principle of Catholicism to be remembered is the truth that: everything that exists is good, and everything is good to the degree that it participates in Being. A metaphysical proposition, to be sure, but one which has great relevance for morality.

Another thing that absolutely must be emphasized is that morality is essentially personal. By which I mean, internal. Mere external events, mere arrangements of matter...have no particular moral character. Virtue is a characteristic of a human person, and sin is only ever the disorder of the will. It may cause or be related to external things, but the moral character of actions is related to the spiritual life of the human subject and is ordered, therefore, ultimately to to his benefit or detriment. A world of philosophical zombies would be amoral indeed. It wouldn't matter if they killed each other or did whatever, then that would just be matter floating around.

The reason that persons (human or angelic, I suppose, but we're talking about humans here) have a moral character is that the question of morality ultimately comes back to the ends of human life and existence in general. And that end is, of course, in the last consideration: the Glory of God. We were created to know God and love Him, and being known and loved (by His Trinitarian Self, and by His creatures) is that in which His glory consists. Which is to say equivalently, perhaps, in which His Being consists. For to exist means simply to be known and loved, the difference between reality and non-reality is whether a possibility is available to affect consciousness, to terminate in a conscious subject, and God is ultimately the absolute standard by which things are said to exist through His knowing and loving them into being.

Morality is then a question of human beings fulfilling this purpose. The good news about this is that morality is thus a question of human fulfillment. What is man's last end? The Scholastics answered (rather non-controversially, I'd think) that it is simply happiness or beatitude, the resting of desire in the good which draws it. And, ultimately, of course, our final good is The Good, the vision and love of God, which will eternally fulfill all our desire, all our natural faculties, for He is the immediate purpose of our existence, and happiness or fulfillment is nothing more than the fulfillment of our nature. As "rational animals," meaning creatures with both a spirit (intellect/consciousness and free will) and a body, both of which are directed at the end of glorifying God.

So morality must be remembered as simply a question of being a good or bad human being, which is to say, fulfilling our purpose, our nature (and thus being happy) or not. So Catholic morality is both a form of eudemonism (happiness-based ethics) and natural law theory (morals based on the fulfillment of human nature).

We fulfill our nature when we orient our faculties towards the good and thus put ourselves on a trajectory towards The Good. But there is more good news: we can only desire the (at least apparent) good. The will cannot choose evil, it can only pick among goods, is only drawn towards good, it is like a good magnet. We do not have the immediate apprehension of Infinite Good in this life which would give us our eternal happiness (which would draw our will irresistibly), so we are free to orient ourselves toward it by choosing among temporal goods that give us temporal happiness. But any real good orients us towards The Good. Sin, then, can only consist in putting our last end in something other than the good (which can only be to say, something which doesn't exist), which still must be an apparent good (or else the will could not choose it). Man cannot desire misery or evil as such.

Under this view, the idea that most acts are neutral or amoral falls apart. The eternal and natural law humans are bound to follow becomes (again, I think rather non-controversially) "Do good, and avoid evil." So there is a positive obligation for our acts to be good, not merely "non-evil" (which notion would perversely seem to turn good into merely the lack of evil instead of vice versa).

And everything about the act must be good: intent, object, and circumstances must all be good. Those three. As the Catechism says: "The object, the intention, and the circumstances make up the 'sources,' or constitutive elements, of the morality of human acts." That whole section (it's very short) might actually be very good for people to read when it comes to the foundations of morality (though their lack of concrete examples, I think, confuses people). The point is, evil in any of them makes the whole act evil; the ends don't justify the means.

People often confuse "moral object" with "intended end" so an example from here might be helpful for seeing what I mean:
"A physician intends to relieve the suffering of his patient, and so he chooses an act (giving a medication) that is inherently directed at the same end (its moral object), which is the relief of suffering. But suppose that the physician intends to relieve the suffering of his patient, by choosing an act of euthanasia (e.g. by an overdose of a medication). He is deliberately choosing an act which is inherently ordered toward the deprivation of life of an innocent person. The intended end and the moral object now differ; the intended end is good, but the moral object is evil."
It's sort of like...intended end is the "why," moral object is the "how." Take self-defense and murder which make look exactly the same externally. In murder, the intended end may be to satisfy one's own taste for vengeance, and the object (also called the proximate end) is to injure them fatally. In self-defense, the intended end is to save one's own life, and the moral object is to disable them from harming you while being attacked. Even if this means a fatal wound, yet the fatality is accidental to the chosen object of "disabling them from harming you" which is directed toward the good of preserving life. If one were, however, to choose as a moral object actually "killing the person" (even if the intended end was still saving your own life), then this would be an evil object.

Every human act thus becomes a moral act, either good or bad. There is no "neutral." Assuming the act is freely chosen and not just reflexive (and much of what we do throughout the day on routine may be), then it is a moral question because it is a voluntary human act. I'm not saying we are eliciting an act of the will at every moment, but even for those acts that are basically on auto-pilot, we are in some sense responsible for their morality too, "not because we exert deliberate volition at each step, but because they are free in causa, because we have either freely initiated them, or approved them from time to time when we adverted to their ethical quality, or because we freely acquired the habits which now accomplish these acts."

This is the nature of human acts properly so called:
"St. Thomas and the scholastics in general regard only the free and deliberate acts of the will as human[...]A free act is voluntary, that is, it proceeds from the will with the apprehension of the end sought, or, in other words, is put forth by the will solicited by the goodness of the object as presented to it by the understanding[...]Besides, they are moral. For a moral act is one that is freely elicited with the knowledge of its conformity with or deformity from the law of practical reason proximately and the law of God ultimately. But whenever an act is elicited with full deliberation, its relationship to the law of reason is adverted to. Hence human acts are either morally good or morally bad, and their goodness or badness is imputed to man."
Amoral human acts do not exist. Or perhaps we might say, since everything is good inasmuch as it exists, immoral acts can only ever be amoral. There is, in that sense, no such thing as immorality inasmuch as evil is not a substance, but merely an absence or lack. Therefore, immorality always really has the character of amorality and vice versa. The will cannot actually choose evil; sin is only ever internal disorder of goods, relatively.

Man's last end is beatitude or happiness, in other words, the fulfillment of desire in the good. Our ultimate beatitude which alone can satisfy our nature and all its desires and faculties forever is the vision of God. But, not having access to that in this life, we orient ourselves to the eternal Good through our choice of other temporal goods which, existing and being good, provide us with temporal happiness and fulfillment, and which participate in The Good and orient us towards it, on a trajectory as it were. But this trajectory does have to be implicit in all our actions. To turn aside from it is to no longer have heaven as our destination. Grave sin:
"is equivalently the direct and positive shutting out of that reference to our last end which must be found, at least implicitly, in all our actions. At the same time it must be noted that there is no obligation to formerly and explicitly have before one's mind a motive which will immediately relate our actions to God. It is enough that such an intention should be implied in the apprehension of the thing as lawful with a consequent virtual submission to Almighty God."
The ultimate meaning of human life is the glory of God, that is the purpose for which we were created and to which all our faculties tend at least remotely, to which they all contribute, and toward which our all our free acts must at least implicitly be ordered (though it obviously doesnt have to be immediate in every act! Any good will do.) Our last end is happiness, desire resting in the good (and we can only desire at least apparent goods), so human fulfillment and morality are by definition the same thing. We orient ourselves toward The Good by choosing the good.

Catholic theologians have often enumerated five primary goods or purposes subsidiary to the glorification of God by human nature, and all human acts should ultimately be traceable back to one of them. In other words, if you can trace an act back to one of these primary purpose of human life (which are derivable even from our natural faculties themselves) without harming any other, then that act's connection to the glory of God is assured: preservation of life, procreation, society [those two might be reducible to the same thing], knowledge, and worship.

Note, importantly: this isn't saying that no one can ever lay down their life for a cause, that everyone must procreate or that every act must include that end, that no one can be a hermit, etc. It is merely saying that these things are the primary natural human goods that contribute to the glory of God (through His being known and loved). But you can choose any one at any given time and don't have to include the others as long as you don't positively harm them somehow.

Preserving life allows people to continue to know and love God in their other faculties (human nature is only complete as a soul and body, both glorify God, hence our belief in the general resurrection). Procreation creates new people to know and love God. Society, as I said, might be seen as an extension of procreation, inasmuch as that is the foundation of our nature as social beings and procreation is never to be separated from the unitive. Society also supports the other goods (we are better able to preserve our life, gain knowledge, and worship in company), and means loving others and so helping them glorify God too by desiring their fulfillment, which is His glory. Knowledge (which includes truth and beauty, ie, aesthetic experience is included here) orients us towards The Good inasmuch as everything that exists is good and our personal consciousness is the defining human faculty by which we partake of the good, and thus know God. And Worship, the loving of God, as a good and end resulting from that knowledge is pretty self-explanatory and direct in that regard.

The Law of Love is pretty clearly also a statement of this same general principle inasmuch as it lays out charity as the virtue which directly inclines us towards these transcendent goods (and thus salvation), loving God with all our heart and mind (worship and knowledge) and our neighbors (society and procreation) as ourselves (life).
On a similar note, it should be pointed out that Charity itself is defined as loving ourselves and others not for their own sake, but for God's own sake.

I'll keep musing about this later. For now, the important parts are that the final end of existence is the Glory of God, that the eternal law is "Do good and avoid evil," that the natural law by which humans enact this eternal law is the fulfillment of our own natural faculties in the natural human goods of life, procreation, society, knowledge, and worship. That if we accomplish our end by orienting ourselves to the Good through (at least some of) these goods we are good humans, by definition, if we don't we are bad humans. Something is only good or bad inasmuch as it accomplishes the end of its nature (a refrigerator is a bad refrigerator if it can't keep things cold. It may be a good shelf still, but it's a bad refrigerator, meaning its being as a refrigerator is deficient, since it isn't serving an essential purpose of refrigeration).

The good news is that humans are made to desire these goods naturally (I will do another post soon on the moral character of desire), are built with faculties that tend toward them (even when confused in sin), that even our temporal happiness is in their temporal fulfillment (I will likewise write about the unique moral character of pleasure and enjoyment), and that our eternal happiness is in their final and immediate fulfillment in heaven and at the general resurrection, in eternal life with the communion of saints in the immediate vision and loving of God.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Not Even Heaven

A friend briefly mentioned euthanasia today. It got me thinking about the difference between Catholicism and certain forms of extremist Islam, for example. In those sects, suicide can be seen as a means of glorifying God because, well, you're going to paradise anyway, and it's a way to get there. Under this logic, however, we might just baptize infants and then slaughter them. More souls to glorify God in heaven, right? But no. Because we do believe in merit and in degrees of heavenly glory, and an infant who dies without any personal meritorious actions does not, on the objective level, glorify God as much as a great saint with a lifetime of charitable deeds. And yet, in letting them live, we are risking that they go to hell.

This is where I think Catholic teaching about life is really beautiful, that even though we speak of heaven as the state of glorifying God immediately in vision, we still may not sacrifice a lesser good, ever, to obtain the greater. We can forgo them passively, but we cannot actively destroy, for to destroy any good is to destroy The Good in general. We do not kill the baptized child, for the chance of even a single kind deed in a lifetime is worth more than all the risk of hell. We do not allow euthanasia or suicide so that suffering people can go off and glorify God directly in heaven, because the value of being grateful for even one more moment in body cannot be destroyed. Far from diminishing the value of this life and putting it all on the next world, we say that a kind deed or a sunset is incomparably and non-transferably valuable, that not even heaven itself is worth destroying or rejecting the possibility.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Oh The Irony...

So, the delightful Helen Thomas has made some more comments that have gotten her into hot water once again. But does anyone else notice the irony here?

Okay, here's what happened:
Thomas, 90, told a workshop on anti-Arab bias in Dearborn, Mich., that Jewish influence made it impossible to criticize Israel in the United States.

"Congress, the White House and Hollywood, Wall Street are owned by the Zionists," Thomas said on Thursday. "They put their money where their mouth is."
Then, this was the result:
Wayne State University has terminated its Helen Thomas Spirit of Diversity in Media award after the former White House correspondent claimed that the United States is controlled by "Zionists."


The university yanked the award Friday and denounced her comments.

Wayne State "strongly condemns the anti-Semitic remarks made by Helen Thomas," the university said in an e-mailed statement, according to The Associated Press.

Wayne State's Journalism Institute for Media Diversity has given the Helen Thomas award for work that promotes diversity. The award "is no longer helping us achieve our goals," Matthew Seeger, an interim dean, told The Detroit Free Press.


The Anti-Defamation League blasted Thomas on Friday and said her latest comments tarnished her legacy as a journalist.

"Helen Thomas has clearly, unequivocally revealed herself as a vulgar anti-Semite," ADL National Director Abraham Foxman said in a statement. "Her suggestion that Zionists control government, finance and Hollywood is nothing less than classic, garden-variety anti-Semitism."

Robert Cohen, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Metropolitan Detroit, applauded Wayne State's decision to withdraw the award.

"I think it was just very ironic that she made these comments at an event, the purpose of which was to address stereotyping," Cohen told the AP. "And it was very disappointing to know that she received a standing ovation from that audience."

Thomas's words also drew criticism from members of her own profession. In a New Republic article titled "Helen Thomas Lets The Mask Slip," Jonathan Chait wrote that she has a problem with Jews.

Chait previously said Thomas' comments about Jews in Palestine were anti-Zionist, rather than anti-Semitic.

"I prefer to hold off on imputing motives of bigotry without strong proof, but there's not a whole lot of doubt remaining here," Chait wrote in The New Republic.

The ADL called on all institutions that have presented Thomas with awards to withdraw them. Thomas has been honored by the Society of Professional Journalists and holds more than 30 honorary degrees, according to the ADL.

"Through her words and deeds she has besmirched both herself and her profession," Foxman said. "This is a sad final chapter to an otherwise illustrious career."
Hmmmmm. Noticed the irony yet? Here's a hint: she said that you can't criticize Israel in the US and that Zionists control the media and put their money where their mouth is. And what happens? She criticizes Israel, and immediately a bunch of Zionists in the media put their money where their mouth is and essentially revoke her public standing and credibility in one fell swoop. Yet, isn't that the sort of thing her very statement implies would happen? Reacting like this makes it seem like it actually is impossible to (credibly) criticize Israel in the United States and that the media is controlled by Zionists, which is exactly what she's getting in trouble for saying!!! Ironic.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Encouraging Signs

I did a day of observations for my teaching program at a Catholic high-school in the city on Wednesday, and saw several things I think are good indications.

First, at the beginning of a US History class, the teacher brought up the recent news about Don't Ask, Don't Tell being (imminently) repealed. And while from all the other indicators these were "conservative" Catholics, the boys (it's a boys school) all seemed to support the idea of letting homosexuals serve openly in the military, even while making clear their personal moral disapproval of homosexual activity. But they all seemed to agree that if someone feels the need to hide something, that is going to hurt "unit cohesion" much more than being open about it. One boy said something to the effect of, "I may not accept his lifestyle, but the guys need to be able to trust each other with their darkest secrets like that and accept each other unconditionally" which the policy obviously doesn't help, and which I thought was an extremely mature understanding from someone that age.

Then in a PoliSci class the teacher brought up the recent story about Civil Unions in Illinois. And, again, while briefly expressing their personal moral beliefs against homosexual acts and "gay marriage"...they were all pretty much in support of civil unions (for anyone) and basically seemed to be of the opinion that the government ought to get out of the "marriage" business completely, rather than creating discriminating categories (which one boy pointed out seemed to be a sort of "separate but equal" notion).

Finally, in a religion class, again by all accounts orthodox...they were nevertheless discussing (and passionately disapproving) of discrimination against Muslims, thought the Ground Zero mosque was fine (against the fear-mongering of certain neocon Catholics), etc, were very much for tolerance of people even if not positive approval or affirmation of their beliefs or actions. Which is, of course, exactly where I think we should stand.

From my perspective, it was very heartening to see these boys apparently adhering to orthodoxy confidently, almost casually or taken for granted (ie, not self-consciously), while also vehemently rejecting the politicization of it so common these days among the ideologues and fundamentalists of the culture wars (which, I think, is probably the self-consciousness of their beliefs expressing itself).

It gives me great hope that regular Catholic laity who aren't necessarily the "die-hards" or all that intellectually invested...can still be orthodox (but in a non-self-conscious manner) even while being tolerant and just and rejecting the sort of fundamentalism emerging among the self-appointed "lay clergy" in some quarters. It's only thinking about it too hard and self-awaredly that makes people crazy. But if these boys are any indication, not thinking about it too hard does not have to mean ignorance or heterodoxy or non-thoughtfulness or lack of intellectual robustness either.

The key seemed to be that these boys did have a shared horizon or assumption of Catholicism created by the school, by having all their friends and peers shaped together in this setting that took Catholic orthodoxy as a given. But it wasn't a ghetto either (though the neighborhood may have been in the more modern sense, lol). This was an urban school, these weren't crazy home-school isolationists. Students talked about having Muslim friends outside school, or knowing gay people, etc, in these conversations. It was clear that they didn't segregate themselves from mainstream society or shelter themselves from pop culture or the media in order to maintain their Catholicism.

And yet they didn't have to be self-conscious about it either. Because they clearly felt a meaningful sense of belonging to an orthodox Catholic community even
in the world. They didn't need to withdraw from the world. The people who affect kids most after a certain age, it has been shown, (who affect all of us most perhaps), are our peers. And the network of peers and friends shared by these boys (through the school) was Catholic, in the school it was (to risk sounding corny) "cool to be Catholic," and so that is where they placed their values just naturally while otherwise remaining normal teenage boys of all the various social types and personalities you'd expect in any high school. It wasn't the palsied self-conscious identity-craft as "counter-cultural" that so many of us malcontents originally embraced (and in the end, it's really not hip to be square); it was simply the culture of their peer network.

So the solution for those of us who feel our Catholicism is too self-conscious may then be, ironically, to get more involved with Catholic community in the world, rather than to withdraw either into paranoid cliquishness or else a dangerous individualism (which are both just even more self-conscious). It's not orthodoxy nor even the amateur philosophizing that sours it all; orthodoxy is good (at least as long as orthodoxy doesn't become "an orthodoxy"), thoughtfulness is good, and the philosophizing can be fun for us nerds! Rather, it's the self-awareness of it, the self-absorption. Trapped in ones own head (or our collective head), the need to think really hard about it and repeat reassuring mantras to maintain the facade of having no doubts...just leads to more doubt and likely a sort of rigid dogmatism.

It is only by coming outside ourselves and our self-absorption in real communities, in real relationships, of shared values (thus able to be more just in the background) that we can let go of such self-conscious mental posturing and maintain orthodoxy and orthopraxy without a special psychological effort. The only problem is finding such communities that aren't cliques (a big difference). This high school was the best example I'd ever seen (the Newman Center where I lived during my undergrad was also doing okay in this regard, though it was already somewhat self-conscious in the conservative/"counter-cultural" way).

Either way, building such communities is
one of the things I have advocated in terms of reforming parish structure, perhaps using the "small group" model, being favorable towards the idea of Secular Institutes, etc, and I am now more convinced than ever. The answer isn't some Inquisition to enforce orthodoxy. It's building relationships to build Catholic communities where it is taken for granted. And these manifestly don't have to be whole cultures or societies or civilizations. If they did, we should despair right now. And some people seem to have already. But no, they can be formed completely within the larger pluralist World, and not on a monasticized "withdraw from it" model either. These boys showed me that.