Thursday, June 30, 2011


Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Timeless Time and Placeless Place

As I lay in bed last night, my mind turned back to the concept, or rather the emotion, of sehnsucht that I have discussed before.

I think it was a confluence of a variety of things going on in my life lately that have made this pop up recently in several different contexts. For example, I recently went to see The Tree of Life with my father, and I was talking with him afterward about how the movie had to be set in a 1950's suburbia, because this is what has been seared, for whatever reason, in the American imagination as the sort of "default" "timeless" manifestation of Americana. It wouldn't have worked in the 1980's, and I frankly doubt that anywhere near so many movies will be made "retro" back to the 80's as they have been to the 50's ever since that decade occurred.

This got me thinking about an essay I wrote in my undergrad days for a class on the Grimm's Fairy Tales, tangentially part of my medieval studies program. I wrote:

A modern author of historical fiction usually takes the time to do research to ensure that, though the specific events are fictional, the general atmosphere of the world at the time is accurate. Technology, dress, attitudes, and many details of practical life are matched to how they would have been in a given era. Fairy tales on the other hand attempt no such painstakingly meticulous verification. The Grimms’ fairy tales mostly seem to take place in a pseudo-medieval world where kings and queens still reign in castles, where there are vast mysterious forests filled with magic creatures, evil witches and benevolent magicians, and peasants in cottages.

The very romantic feeling of fairy tales is the sense of timelessness they are perceived to have. They are set in a world where there is generally neither history nor geography. Which kingdoms are involved is not specified, and no one attempts to fit all the tales into some interrelated chronology. Each fairy tale stands alone, self-sufficient, in a dreamy medievalesque world that has been removed from the concrete facts of history. This virtual world, however, is not the only one imaginable. Why should the medieval be taken as the default or neutral human (or even just European) state? There is nothing intrinsically special about the medieval social structure or level of technology that should lead to it being made the stage of the timeless events of fairy tales.

An explanation may be found in the fact that the Grimms were Romantics with significant suspicion of the modern ways and were attempting to recapture a golden age of the Germanic past, which they placed in the Middle Ages. Freud says, “it is extremely probable that myths, for instance, are the vestiges of the wishful phantasies of whole nations, the secular dreams of youthful humanity.” The Fairy Tales the Grimms collected seem to fulfill this role regarding the medieval origins of modern nations.

However, in doing this, several tricky operations are preformed. First, the Middle Ages are essentialized and abstracted from any actual historical context, portrayed as the timeless time. Then they are thus conflated with the golden innocence of Europe’s childhood, especially of the German nation. In the process, a German Black Forest sort of landscape is made into the place-less place where fantasy happens, and this has persisted in the fantasy genre to this day. The vagueness created helps the fairy tale world to become a virtual dream world outside the details of history. However, one must be careful to realize that the choice of the Middle Ages and Central Europe for this allegedly “generic” setting is culturally conditioned, and that the symbols and tropes associated with it are not some sort of intrinsic human archetype.
There a few periods in history which, for various peoples to which I belong, have developed this role as a sort of "timeless time," being seen as a golden glory period of a civilization, and which are revisited in literature much more often than other settings. Times and places which, though specific, come to be seen as "generic" at least inasmuch as they are taken to capture the "essence" of some culture or civilization and Age.

And civilization is, indeed, the process I believe this phenomenon is related to: though the "placeless places" usually given as the setting in such romanticizations are often on the semi-periphery rather than the core, there is usually also a major city associated with the civilization in question, a city which becomes a "world city," a place that everyone who has any sort of education in the literature of the civilization feels familiar with from then on, even if we've never been there ourselves, according to a notion something like the translatio imperii et studii.

So it is that as an American, I have this nostalgia for 1950's suburbia and a connection to New York. As an Anglophone, I have this nostalgia for Victorian country manors and colonies and a connection to the London of that era. As a Western (or, perhaps, just as a Christian, or a Caucasian, or something like that) I also romanticize the medieval fantasy-scape and have an archetype in my head of medieval Paris.

And then, I thought, perhaps just as a human being (though that may also be a Western, Christian bias)...I also have an eternal Form of the golden age of the Roman Empire under Augustus and Tiberius, seated at Rome, "when the whole world was at peace."

I think it is also only during these immortalized times, in their archetypal representations, that we can imagine magic really happening. Like I said, I see little romance in the 1980's, and any book that set great spiritual awakening or supernatural happenings in the 80's would likely seem, to me, a one-off gimmick, not truly able to be timeless, in the end doomed to be "dated."

Perhaps it is the "golden" status these "special," universalized times and places have been given that allows me to put (or find) my own sehnsucht in them. There were these various "Pax" moments; the Pax Romana, the Pax Britannica, the Pax Americana (and the medievals, of course, had their Pax Dei), and maybe that's a social construction, a historical contingency with no reality to it.

And yet, I can't help but thinking, going back to the first of those, that "in the 5199th year of the creation of the world, from the time when in the beginning God created heaven and earth; from the flood, the 2957th year; from the birth of Abraham, the 2015th year; from Moses and the going-out of the people of Israel from Egypt, the 1510th year; from the anointing of David as king, the 1032nd year; in the 65th week according to the prophecy of Daniel; in the 194th Olympiad; from the founding of the city of Rome, the 752nd year; in the 42nd year of the rule of Octavian Augustus, when the whole world was at peace, in the sixth age of the world: Jesus Christ, the eternal God and Son of the eternal Father, desiring to sanctify the world by His most merciful coming, having been conceived by the Holy Ghost, and nine months having passed since His conception was born in Bethlehem of Juda of the Virgin Mary, having become man."

So, as much as I may be a medievalist, a 50's-nostalgia buff, and a Victorian fanboy, in the end I realized that the sehnsucht of mankind as a whole...can only possibly take us "back to Galilee."

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Another Chicago Shout-Out

Just throwing this out there again, as I likely will do every so often until it happens:

We're going to have some sort of gathering for readers and allies in Chicago later this summer. We were thinking a Sunday in late July, it now may be early August. Email me if you're interested:

Whether or not you can come, I'd like to hear from Chicagoland readers.

Monday, June 27, 2011

High Fructose Corn Syrup

Some of you may be aware that, for some time now, the Corn Refiners Association has been issuing little commercial spots trying to defend high fructose corn syrup against its detractors. There are several of these out now (and many more rather hilarious spoofs on youtube, check them out!) and one gets the sense that any thinking person will see they miss the point entirely and are deliberately misleading one from the real issues.

For example, this one. It concentrates on the fact that the sugar in corn syrup is biochemically indistinguishable from any fructose, basically. One can only think: and? The point isn't that corn sugar is categorically different or worse than any sugar, it's that it's injected into frickin' everything!!!! Into foods that normally wouldn't have so much sugar content. Look at the ingredient lists on your foods.

I, for one, am convinced that processed foods (and, especially, the addition of HFCS to everything) are a huge part of the obesity crisis. A crisis with no end in sight. Yet various economic interests (it always goes back to corn, no? They're the ones behind ethanol subsidies too) are trying to assuage people into accepting their fattening of America.

I remember last year Mark Shea had a series of articles (the original has been re-posted here) wherein he made a long tedious analogy between being overweight and being homosexual (he pushed a tongue-in-cheek "Jolly" identity to match that of "Gay") which basically was to make fun of the narrative of gay-victimization by showing how absurd certain claims would be if the obese claimed the same thing (about condemnations of gluttony, about no fat characters on TV, etc).

However, while I got his intended point, I could really only be struck by the fact that, in reality, the obese don't face the same obsession from the Church that homosexuals do. So his whole analogy falls flat. Conservative Christians spend a lot of time focusing their concern on lust, yet very little on gluttony. And certainly no one is bothering to call an overactive appetite for food, if restrained by self-control and temperance, "disordered."

Even though over two-thirds of people are overweight now and one-third morbidly obese. One would think that the latter, at least, would be indicative (and visibly so!) of grave sins of gluttony. Yet Christians aren't engaged in a witch-hunt against the fat the same way they are against gays. There is no Seminary Instruction excluding the "Jolly," and no one is protesting outside McDonald's for promoting the obese lifestyle (and if all sorts of cable exploitation shows are any indication, obesity is a lifestyle).

My point isn't that I approve of either sexual immorality or gluttony. I don't. My point is that obesity is a crisis that can be traced back to sin like any other, that is having visible effects on our health, which is accountable for billions of dollars of healthcare costs, even when people in the Third World are starving...and yet I've never heard a Catholic source seriously address this issue except maybe one-word mentions in lists of all the different ways our society is decadent (albeit it is).

Yet they'll cry "the sky is falling" all day and tell you that sexual immorality is a threat to society, of which there is little evidence (it has always been around). That's a sociological judgment they really aren't competent to make, after all, not a moral or spiritual judgment. Nor do medical arguments (usually very specious, if just a little safety is practiced) have any place in a moral argument. Something doesn't need to affect the temporal order or physical health to be immoral (though overeating clearly is doing both). Catholics aren't required to believe histrionic predictions about gay marriage causing the imminent collapse of society (I think it's much more likely just a symptom) in order to nevertheless hold to the moral teaching.

People seem to understand that, though the problem is economically structural, the obesity crisis can only probably be solved at this point by individuals making, individually, the right choices, even as the corn syrup people try to make a political campaign of the question. And yet the conservatives are so willing to turn around and politicize their pet issues (even though these also likewise probably won't be solved politically) and to invoke alleged medical and sociological consequences that are far from scientific, as simply scare-tactic ammo in their scattershot arguments. It really does make it seem like the primary identification of the conservatives is political rather than religious. That their real goal is political victory, to "win" the debate, rather than actually converting anyone.

Gluttony and sloth are both sins too. Obesity is a spiritual crisis, not just a medical one. Catholics: eat healthy, fast rigorously, and get out there and exercise. And, for God's sake, avoid high fructose corn syrup as much as possible.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Bread, [Wine,] and Circuses

Oh, I love being Catholic; it's so entertaining!! This Fr. Corapi scandal has so many threads to pull, it's great!

Now, there's no doubt I think he's gone off the deep-end with this whole "Black Sheep Dog" thing and that his bizarre rants, released as audio files (what is this, Al-Qaeda??), are both self-aggrandizing and uncharitable (besides being all over the place and sounding sort of crazy...)

But, some conservative reactions regarding his resignation from priestly ministry in the face of this...are rather nuts too. For example:
If, on the other hand, the allegations against Father Corapi are completely untrue, then the action that he took on "both Trinity Sunday on the Catholic liturgical calendar and Fathers' Day on the secular calendar" is, in some ways, even worse than what he was alleged to have done. Drug abuse could destroy his health and affect the people around him; having (presumably consensual) sexual relations with several women would be a violation of his vows and affect his spiritual life and theirs.

But in leaving the priesthood (and, in so doing, bringing the investigation into the allegations against him to a crashing halt), Father Corapi is breaking the most important promise he has ever made, the vows that he took at his ordination. And by doing so publicly, and by publicly damning the ecclesiastical authorities that even he acknowledges have "the right to govern" as they see fit, he not only places his own soul in danger but encourages distrust, anger, and even hatred of Church authorities in his many followers, putting their souls at risk as well.
Really?? Leaving is a worse sin than even the sex and drugs would be?!? I'm sorry, but there is no evidence that he is breaking any vows right now. From what we know now, he's planning to go through licit channels to get dispensed from his vows and either seek laicization or at least dispensation from active priestly ministry. The question of obedience is perhaps legitimate, but the "obedience" the neocon ecclesio-fascists apparently expect is well beyond what canon law actually envisions wherein priests do have legal rights.

No doubt, it makes me highly suspicious that Corapi called it quits after just a few months of investigation; why not ride out the process?? But if he really felt that people in power were going to use this as a pretext to just silence him and then leave him in a state of limbo forever (that sort of passive bureaucratic career assassination
has been carried out on people before, like Bugnini's now-almost-proverbial "promotion/banishment" as papal nuncio to Iran)...then he has every right to, through licit channels, resign from active ministry and seek various dispensations.

As he himself says
on his website, "the only thing I know for sure is that I’m not going to disobey the Church and attempt to 'minister' as a priest." Now that would be disobedient: to go on functioning sacramentally or claiming to represent the Church publicly even while suspended. Seeking dispensation, though, is nothing to be ashamed of, if you go through legitimate channels. I think the stigma of the "fallen priest" needs to be gotten rid of among conservative Catholics. Although my friend was once told by a vocation director, when he asked about the possibility of laicization, that this was not even something that should be discussed because it's "the death of a priest!" reality, these processes exist for a reason in canon law, are licit and legitimate. Priests are not "trapped" by ordination as slaves of the Church or anything like that, and should not feel that way if things really aren't working out for them.

Likewise, the speaking out Corapi's done about the process and the bishops seems self-serving and uncharitable and may contain falsehood or at least dishonest exaggeration, but I would only critique it on those grounds. People critiquing it merely on the grounds that it is, in fact, speaking out critically about bishops and church policy at all...apparently want a church where our leaders are beyond accountability, questioning, or criticism. And that scares me.

Others have criticized Corapi for saying, basically, that since his ministry consisted largely in simply preaching, and outside the context of liturgy at that, then really he doesn't need the priesthood to continue 90% of the things he's been doing:
"I didn't do very much of that quite honestly in the twenty years that I did minister," he says, adding, "90 percent of what I did in the past did not require ordination. Speaking through social communication—radio, TV, so forth—that's not ministry, strictly speaking. My particular mission was speaking, writing, and teaching—not so much in the sacraments, but outside of them, in conjunction with them. So what I'm going to be doing in the future is pretty much the same thing."
This article, for example, criticizes this on the grounds that: "Any one who has been given the great gift of Holy Orders knows that ordination is not strictly about what we do, but about what we are, and what we become. And yet, a priest becomes, by sacred ordination, alter Christus, another Christ."

While I don't want to reduce the priesthood to mere functionalism, I think Corapi's analysis is actually true from a pragmatic perspective. Maritain had the same complaint, as I've discussed before; the other is essentially a clericalist theology of the priesthood ("The sacrament of Holy Orders does not constitute the priest in a state of sanctity any more than baptism constitutes an ordinary Christian in such a state. The state of life of the priest, Maritain maintains, 'is the same as that of most ordinary members of God's people' and a clear distinction must be maintained between this state of life and the priestly function.")

What Corapi is pointing out here is, basically, the other side of the coin to what I've said for a long time: strictly speaking, you only
need to be a priest to confect the eucharist, absolve, and anoint the sick basically. And it's not rocket science (from the practical standpoint) to read words out loud, wave your hands over things, or rub oil on someone's head. Expecting men to basically give up their whole lives to fill just these basic ritual functions (especially now that a class of lay volunteers does many of the other traditionally, but non-essentially, clerical functions) even when there is a shortage of people willing to work full-time at such a part-time no model for a successful Church in the 21st century.

You don't really need to be a priest to speak and teach and advise and counsel on theological or spiritual matters and, on the flip-side, we don't necessarily need priests to do much more than confect the sacraments for us (which could be done on a part-time unsalaried basis by married men from the parish, if they could be ordained). Perpetuating in the modern world a clerical caste, with a hazing---oops, I mean "human formation"--- that lasts four or five or more years in the creepy and unnecessary seminaries, just isn't working.

Anyway, I also have some serious questions here about what happens next. SNAP seems to think the allegations were credible, but who knows:
David Clohessy, who directs the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, known as SNAP, issued a statement which read: "We have spoken with one of Corapi's victims and find her very credible, and our hearts ache for her and her family because of the pain Corapi and a few of his misguided loyalists have inflicted on her. We have mixed feelings. We are grateful Corapi has quit, because he'll have less protection and access to vulnerable Catholics outside of the priesthood. But we're sad because it now seems less likely that those he exploited will ever see justice."
Apparently, now that he's stepped down, they simply stop the church investigation!? At the time this first all came out they said:
"Based on the information we have received thus far, the claim of misconduct does not involve minors and does not arise to the (level) of criminal conduct. Consequently, this matter will be investigated internally, and unless and until information suggests otherwise it will not be referred to civil authorities."
But now that he's gone or no longer their employee, what happens? Is he really able to "get away" with it (if it happened) just by resigning? The investigation stops and he's allowed to keep claiming his innocence? If I were them, I'd keep investigating any former employee anyway just for the sake of justice in the form of a fair record of the truth, and to expose him publicly if it did turn out true. I'm not saying for sure he's guilty, but if he's seems stupid that the entire process can apparently be short-circuited by making pre-emptive statements (in fact, Corapi himself is the one we're getting most of our info from, not the Church authorities, bizarrely) and resigning. The Church then has no recourse and just lets the whole thing die and stops pursuing the matter? Something does seem broken about this whole process and system, but not necessarily in the way he's claiming.

To sum it up, I think what this article (a very perceptive analysis in general) says at the end is very true:
Some want a good priest, a victim-priest, to say or do something to the make last decade feel like a bad dream.

That might sound a little too pat, but I remember when Corapi first announced his suspension, how many commenters on various Catholic blogs brought up the Dallas Charter. The Dallas Charter established norms for handling priests accused of abusing young people; the accusations against Corapi involved consensual sex with a grown woman. Nothing about the Dallas Charter covered his case, yet many observers were happy to throw it all in the same basket.

That kind of knee-jerk response, with the Dallas Charter behind it, makes me fear Catholics are recoiling so violently from the shame of the sex-abuse scandal that the Church will end up right back at square one. That is, accusers will again be at a disadvantage, and wrongdoers will be given an endless series of second chances. Some in intellectual circles are already feinting in that direction.

Take Thomas G. Guarino's essay "The Priesthood and Justice," which ran in First Things in January of this year. Guarino argues that the Dallas Charter, with its zero-tolerance policy concerning the abuse by priests of minors will vacate the theology of the priesthood. Bishops will regard priests as at-will employees [I think regarding priests a little more like at-will employees rather than men we're stuck with no matter what might not be such a bad thing], not—as St. Ignatius of Antioch proposed—like "sons and friends." He also predicts that the "paradigm shift" will foster "adversarial" relations between bishops and priests.

"First, in judging the sinning priest," Guarino writes, "should not the Gospel be the absolute norm? Are we allowing room for repentance, forgiveness, and for the change of life promised by the Gospel of grace? Or are we simply responding to lawyers who insist that bishops must reduce their legal (and financial) exposure?"

I'm no theologian, so it's possible I'm talking past Guarino's points, rather than addressing them head-on. Nevertheless, I find it outrageous he hasn't considered that 1) generosity to degenerate sons and friends goes by names like "cronyism" and "nepotism," neither of which is very flattering; 2) forgiveness and a role in priestly ministry are two separate things; 3) leniency toward abusive priests might mend fences among the clergy but it will exacerbate the adversarial relationship that already exists—the one between the clergy and the laity; and 4) fear of exposure cuts both ways: many of the most lenient bishops were acting from horror of scandal. No one's cornered the market on heroism.

I raise these objections not because I think they're particularly daring or original, but because they are, or should be, obvious. Though, certainly, some who feel moved by arguments like Guarino's must be acting from an admirable desire to protect innocent priests, falsely accused, I have to wonder whether another force might be at work. When I saw the number of people defending Corapi and attacking his critics—including the one who threatened me with grievous bodily harm—I catch a whiff of plain, self-interested denial. Better we should overlook bad behavior than find ourselves agreeing with Maureen Dowd [LOL!!]

This strikes me as a terribly misplaced set of priorities. But it might not be so widespread after all. Every once in a while, amid the more obviously partisan responses to reports on Corapi, I saw one that said something like, "I used to be a fan of his, until . . ." followed by the mention of some warning sign. It was very encouraging.

So maybe, hopefully, Barnum's favorite equation deserves a reworking. If every minute a sucker is born, maybe during the same minute, another sucker dies, to be reborn as a shrewd consumer. The world's due that kind of break.

Friday, June 24, 2011

In A Similar Vein...

I was more partial to this one:

Thursday, June 23, 2011


I was going to have a post this week over how I don't really like these "Idea Feasts" (like Trinity Sunday and Corpus Christi) that started encroaching on the Temporal Cycle in the late Middle Ages.

I mean, Trinity Sunday seems practically like a "Feast of St. God," what next: A "Feast of the Notion of the Unbegottenness of the Father"??? A "Feast of the Human Will of Christ"??? A "Feast of the Infallibility of the Pope"???

But...I never got around to it, and it seems rather Scrooge-like now. I didn't really have much more to say other than "Boo on Idea Feasts!" And I wouldn't even really get rid of Trinity Sunday and Corpus Christi (given how many centuries tradition they have behind them now), nor even Sacred Heart (given how it was recommended in a vision).

I might re-title the former two to make them concentrate on the Triumph of the Orthodox Dogma of those concepts (ie, a historical event, like the East's "Orthodoxy Sunday") but I wouldn't get rid of them at this point. Christ the King, Maternity of Mary, Holy Family, etc...are another question entirely; I think they're late enough in history to chuck without seriously compromising the stasis of tradition.

But, anyway, Happy Corpus Christi to all, and belated for Trinity Sunday.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

New Point on the State and Just Laws!

A friend of mine, in the comments on the first part of this discussion, has brought up an interesting point that I think gets to the heart of why I'm reconsidering my position on the burning of heretics.

The standard argument for defending the practice, which I discussed in the first part, is that the secular State was punishing heresy not as an ecclesiastical crime or sin (already carried out by the Church in excommunication) but as a form of treason or sedition given how heresy threatened even the temporal order of civil society in Christendom.

When asked why the State could do this for civil order against heretics, but not against Catholics (in, say, a country based on some other religion or ideology where Catholicism itself would be a threat to social stability)...I could only answer that it was just in one case but not the other simply because Catholicism is true and actually morally obligatory on its members in a way that no other religion is (objectively speaking). Claims of "conscience" making this untenable didn't seem to work, as the rights of even conscience are clearly circumscribed by public order and safety (for example, the State would still obviously have a right to stop someone even if they were convinced that human sacrifice was a binding religious obligation of theirs).

However, the point brought up in the comments was this: why, then, can't the State punish Jews and Muslims (and other infidels, etc) for not converting as long as it could make an argument that them not doing so was against the common good? If it can enforce the Truth on heretics for the "common good" (under the presumption that Catholicism is indeed the Truth), why couldn't it enforce the Truth on Jews and Muslims, etc??

Now, of course, many countries did expel the Jews during the Middle Ages for the sake of such hegemony (and, usually, to get the king out of debt). But, nevertheless, the Church has never admitted any right for the secular State to kill Jews or Muslims in the manner it seemed to approve of for Christian heretics.

The usual argument floated is that the Church has jurisdiction over the baptized, but has no jurisdiction over the non-baptized. True enough. But when it comes to the common good...if error has no rights, why should the State have to worry about whom the Church has jurisdiction over? If enforcing the Truth is allowed as a question of sedition against the temporal common good, assuming Catholicism is the Truth, why does it matter whether it's being enforced on people the Church already has jurisdiction over or not, if we're claiming this was a matter of State authority, not Church? The Church's jurisdiction may be limited to the baptized, the State's is not.

Claims of "conscience" don't seem to work, as the heretics probably have valid claims in conscience too. Sometimes you see an argument that the heretics, by their baptismal vows, have a "contract" to obey, but that argument seems flimsy too, especially given how many were baptized as infants.

So I'll ask again: if the standard of what makes a law "just" cannot be simply a utilitarianism, cannot be simply "whatever it takes to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number" (which might end up involving inhumanities against innocents), but isn't limited by the moral law or conscience either (as counter-examples easily demonstrate)...then what is the standard by which laws may be considered just??

The State and Just Laws?

Burning heretics is an objection lobbed against the Church very often from all manner of Her enemies, be they Protestants who see the heretics as peers and heroes, liberal secularists and atheists who see it as proof of the danger of organized religion (or of any ideology with an Absolute anchoring meaning), or even (and perhaps especially) dissenting Catholics who want to make fallacious arguments about how the Church has changed teachings before and so can change again or about "primacy of conscience."

I have usually dismissed such arguments as simply symptoms of how people have made an idol of our modern regime of democratic pluralist relativist secularism (which itself has more blood on its hands then any other system in history, not to mention an infinity of corrupted souls). To judge the Church by some external meta-value is to make it clear that ones loyalties, in the end, lie with The World, and that religious identity has been compartmentalized as something less than totalizing, that God has not been given one's whole heart after all (which can only ever mean denying His transcendence and boxing even His meaning, at last, into the enclosed context of Self).

However, always trying to keep the "renegade" balance that I attempt (and fail often at), I have also expressed in the past a concern about the wrong sort of totalism in religion, a malignant fundamentalism, leading to a suffocating institutionalism of the mind that isn't healthy for the individual or society.

Nevertheless, as a medievalist by training, I have remained inclined to see capital punishment for heretics as at least theoretically justifiable on principle in at least hypothetical historical contexts (though the prudence or necessity of each individual case or in each actual historic and geographic context is certainly up for debate). I certainly see the imposing of our modern secular values onto the past as suspicious; I, for one, do not believe in a sort of morally progressive narrative where mankind "knows better now." I simply look around me and see that this isn't true. I have to agree with historian Paul Johnson who said, "There is something repellent, as well as profoundly unhistorical, about judging the past by the standards and prejudices of another age."

Of course, either way it would not actually effect the infallibility of the Church or anything; it remains a question of the prudential application of certain principles to concrete situations, and that certainly isn't dogmatic. Still, I have grown accustomed to pointing out that the Church never executed anyone; they knew its power was limited to the spiritual and that excommunication was the most grave punishment it could issue, the Church made no claim over the body. It handed heretics over to the "secular arm" and thus, whatever injustice may have arisen in individual cases, that the State, in Christendom, was punishing heresy as temporal crime, as a form of treason or sedition threatening the unity and stability of a society that was based, even in its civil order, on Catholic hegemony. And thus was as justified as any State is for punishing treason or sedition or lesser crimes.

No Catholic can deny that the State has a right to use coercive force on its members, even to the point of death for the guilty, for the sake of the common good. And so, if it could even be just imagined that heresy could ever threaten the temporal common good in any hypothetical case (even if you don't think it actually did historically)...then, at least hypothetically, the burning of heretics would have to be admitted as not intrinsically wrong on principle even if one disagrees that it was actually ever just or prudent as it actually occurred in history.

To me, this seemed pretty clear. The major premise is that the State can use coercive force, including capital punishment for the guilty, for the common good. The minor premise was that heresy could at least be imagined to threaten the common good in some cases (and really, almost anything could be imagined to threaten it in some case). The syllogism seemed pretty simple.

However, recent conversations have sewn a little bit of doubt about this conclusion for me on several grounds, have made a few things seem a bit "off" about this conclusion, and so I'm going to be throwing some thoughts out here now and ask my readers to be a sounding board. I have some questions for which I am not yet quite sure of the answers.

The first and most obvious objection to the "logic" I have argued is that, indeed, almost anything could be imagined to threaten the common good in some case. Including Christianity itself. There is no doubt that there are some societies based on other ideologies in which Christianity would be the subversive thing, in which its spread would lead to the sort of chaos that one saw in the religious wars following the Reformation. What is faulty, exactly, about Red China's claim to see the underground Catholic Church as subversive of their social stability and common good as a nation?

My initial inclination was to answer that heresy against Christianity is actually, in the objective order of the universe, a sin. Objectively speaking at least [it would be hard to determine the subjective culpability of people convinced of the truth of some other religion or ideology], the State can only punish people who are actually morally guilty of something. But there is no sin, objectively, in not being Communist or Muslim or anything like that. And even for the common good, the State can't punish what isn't objective wrong. So, yes, there is a double-standard, but it's one that comes from the fact that, objectively, Christianity is right. Error, on the other hand, has no rights. It's not a double-standard from a Catholic frame-of-reference not tainted by pluralism.

However, a friend recently made me realize, the State makes laws about lots of things that aren't, in fact, intrinsically sinful or morally obligatory but which it nevertheless feels, in context, are best for the common good: laws against jay-walking, having a drinking age, safety regulations, collecting taxes, etc. The State seems to be able to legislate against not only things sinful in themselves, but against neutral things and even optional good-in-themselves things if they are seen as harming the common good.

Well, this opened up a different can of worms for me mentally, which is what I'm asking about here basically: namely, if the State is allowed to make a crime out of actions which are not intrinsically sinful, such as not paying the government a certain amount of money (ie, taxes), or jay-walking, or drinking under 21, under the determination that these things are threatening the common good...what's to stop the government from turning socially inconvenient innocent people into civilly guilty people by passing a law against some neutral activity they engage in under the argument that it threatens the common good?

Who gets to determine whether a given (otherwise morally neutral) act does indeed constitute a threat to the common good except the State itself? But, then, what if the State says something as trivial as playing with toys or whistling is a threat to the common good? Who has a right to question that? And, unless conscience positively compels us to do these things, aren't we still bound to obey such laws?

I think of Prohibition in the US. Sometimes people (exaggeratedly anti-puritanical Catholics especially) speak as if this law was "unjust" and that people were thus free to ignore it. And while I do tend to agree now that Prohibition was not achieving the common private citizens really have the right to make that determination privately by themselves and thus ignore such laws? If someone felt it was part of a positive obligation in conscience to drink (as, say, part of a religion) that would be one thing. But arguing for private judgment of whether a law was really necessary would seem to be a slippery slope leading to people being absolved for not paying their taxes if they disagree that the current tax-rate is best for the common good...

But then, outside morally obligatory things, are we to admit that the State has an unlimited right to outlaw bad, neutral, and merely optional good things as long as it is under the pretense of being a threat to the common good?

What is the relation of conscience to the State, then? Obviously, there are limits to the freedom the State can provide conscience. If someone believed human sacrifice was a morally binding part of their religion, the State would not have to protect this, and could punish or execute that person if they did it. The "solution" in the internal forum to their claim of conscience is simply that, if they really believe it is morally obligatory, then they should do it and then submit to the consequences. That's exactly what the Christian martyrs did.

But then let's go back to a situation like a Communist state, where opposing Communism might really cause an entire social breakdown and collapse and even more deaths (in a manner analogous to how heresy threatened the very stability of Christendom). Is it still unjust for the State to punish opposing communism? Or must we say in such a case that the law is unjust because it goes against something a higher law (the Divine Law) has made obligatory?

Well, that's easy enough for us Catholics to say. But the Communists themselves certainly aren't going to understand it that way, and there are some religions where communism may be perfectly compatible with them. Is it just to make members of those religions adhere to communist principles if the State decides that is best for the common good? What are the limits on what the State may illegalize or require under the pretense of "common good"?

Or take the example of a man who has some mutation that means he could be used to cure all manner of diseases. The only problem is he'd have to be killed to get it. What's to stop the State from killing him for the sake of the common good? Presumably, because he's not "guilty" of any "crime." But if "crime" is only relative to the "common good"...what's to stop this man's continued living from being called "criminal" in light of how it detracts from the common good?

Does "crime" have to involve a free choice to be punishable? But what of the State's power to restrain the violently insane? Surely they make no free choice, and yet are still a threat and thus restrainable.

Basically, I'm asking, given that intrinsically neutral or even optionally-good actions can be made illegal, by what standard can laws be judged "just" which does not reduce to simply a utilitarianism regarding the common good? A circular definition wherein the justice of a law is determined only relative to whether it secures the most good for the most people seems to lead to this sort of utilitarianism. And I've been wondering today whether maybe the justification of the State punishing heretics, even if to prevent chaos or social collapse, isn't simply this sort of utilitarianism. But then, by what other standard than maximizing the common good can a law be said to be just? Not simply the moral law, as the State can illegalize things which aren't immoral. What is the standard then?

What line is drawn to prevent sacrificing the individual in an instrumental manner to the collective? Without denying the obvious fact that the State does, in fact, have the right to exercise physical coercion over its members for the sake of the common good? At what line do the rights of the individual outweigh the good of all the rest? Or, rather, what line is the bare minimum that must be crossed for an individual to be considered to have forfeit his rights in the face of the common good?

"Conscience" doesn't seem to work as a category here, as (considering the human sacrifice example) we know such a right is not absolute, it too bows legally in the face of the common good. Is the common good really found in a hierarchy of individual goods or rights, where the higher rights of an individual can never be sacrificed even for the lower good even of a great number of individuals (say, the right to property will always bow to the right to life; so someone can steal to not starve to death, and no one can kill a person simply to protect things)?

But then what exactly is the hierarchy? The good of "tolerance of religion" would seem to bow to the right to life if the human sacrifice example is any indication, and so killing heretics to protect society from total collapse would seem justified. Except, would the freedom of Christian religion bow to the right to life in these cases? I wouldn't think so, that seems pretty absolute of a value. Then must we distinguish between freedom of Catholics and the tolerance of others on the hierarchy of what goods must bow to which? We're left there with the same argument that I'm fine enough with, but which understandably looks like a double standard to some...

Thoughts?? Answers??

Monday, June 20, 2011

Mauvaise Foi

I am not an existentialist. At least I keep telling myself that; it's funny how often I find myself invoking some of the concepts at the fuzzy edges of my own "air-tight" thought-world. If I am, I am certainly Keirkegaard and not Sartre; I do believe there is a God, a transcendent signifier on which we can (and "should") ultimately hang all meaning, rather than all of it being self-enclosed constructions of value based purely on what we choose to value.

However, for a variety of reasons, I have been thinking about Sartre today. Specifically his concept of mauvaise foi or "bad faith," really the one existentialist "sin" (for he would reject such a notion otherwise, of course) in opposition to the one pseudo-virtue of authenticity.

As I said at the start, I am no existentialist, nor have I read more than selections from Sartre. But the description of the concept that has been disseminated is relatively standardized. It's funny, one wonders sometimes why these philosophers feel the need to write huge tomes on their concepts which other people, then, seem able to sum-up in a fairly consistent manner in just a few paragraphs.

One of the major themes emphasized in existentialism is, of course, the inherent anguish involved in free will. The common example given is how people are troubled when walking along a cliff by the knowledge that, at any moment, they could choose to throw themselves down to their deaths. And we could. An authentic person recognizes this terrible responsibility.

One of the premises of this sort of existentialism is that "existence precedes essence" meaning, basically, humans fundamentally are free subjects and so are not mechanistically determined in our actions by a "nature" in the manner that say, an apple or a lamp is, or even an animal (whom existentialists would apparently agree are just "organic robots," as it were, driven by instinct and circumstance in a deterministic manner).

But humans are not objects at the mercy of their nature physically interacting with material circumstances, humans always have more than one option regarding what to do, what to become, even when some options are not possible due to our facticity (for example, I could not choose to fly right now because I don't have wings). We may not choose the choices circumstances present to us or the options available to us in those situations, but we do make the choice when the situation is presented, and there is always more than one option.

To deal with the angst or anguish of this terrible responsibility of freedom to which we are doomed, Sartre proposes that many people use the defensive tactic of bad faith. Bad faith involves the paradoxical choice to deny one's own power to choose. For example, one might hear a shy boy looking admiringly at a boisterous peer acting spontaneously and say, "Oh, I could never do that, I'd be too embarrassed" or some such excuse.

The truth is, there are no physical limitations on his ability to do the exact same thing. He is choosing to value the avoidance of embarrassment over his wistful longing for the spontaneity. In itself, this can still be perfectly authentic as long as he owns that choice and admits it to himself. Though I think there is a tendency for people to be less likely to admit to themselves that they are choosing to value mere pleasure or pain-avoidance over more noble possibilities.

As such, many take the bad faith approach the shy boy did here: they objectify themselves and deny their own freedom by acting as if they are bound by a value whose precedence is undeniable and, as it were, imposed externally. The boy has alienated his own freedom and objectified himself by treating his decision to value avoiding embarrassment over acting spontaneously as something deterministic, as simply part of some nature of the self that has been imposed on him in an unchosen manner.

One sees examples of this all the time, I think. "I can't do that, I'd be too afraid," "I can't do that, it isn't me," "I cannot risk my life, because I must support my family," "I can't decide right now, I'd be plagued by doubt or what-ifs without more information," "I can't live right by the Church, I'm divorced and remarried," "I could never steal, that's immoral."

The truth is, all of these can'ts and could-nevers are lies and self-deception. Any of these choices could be made, and it is in bad faith to deny that a choice is already being made, in these very statements or decisions, to value avoiding the bad consequence over the good that would also result. Yes, we could throw ourselves off the cliff. Every moment of every day we are, essentially, choosing not to kill ourselves (and to not do many other things). But this is terrifying. If it all depends on a constant application of free will, and not some sort of stable essence or nature acting deterministically, then there is a terrible responsibility on us. Then, if we do fear an idea, the idea that we could nevertheless someday choose it...can be dreadful.

Even if 99% of the time we choose to stick to our chosen existential "project" and, say, value life...if we slip up even 1% of the time (and freedom always can on a whim!) we might go on a shooting spree and kill everyone! The thought is dreadful, and people prefer to essentialize or objectify themselves in such a manner that such a choice is simply "impossible."

Sartre was suspicious of external systems of morality for this reason. He believed that in choosing to follow a pre-made moral code, people were projecting their own responsibility onto the code. "I have to act this way, my values or morals require it" hides or denies the fact that we ultimately choose the values or moral code we will follow. Of course, I would counter personally, one can admit this and still choose a pre-made system. In fact, according to Kierkegaard, this is what we should do vis a vis Christianity; follow it even while admitting it is a free leap and not something imposed.

I'd argue that the Catholic epistemology surrounding Faith would actually agree with this; we choose to cooperate with the grace of supernatural Faith when offered, or to value the motives of credibility that can be offered by natural Reason, but there is always this element of choice, we never are compelled to believe as if it were intuitive like a syllogism. And though Faith provides infallible certainty, we could also choose to throw it away at any moment in favor of some other good. Of course, the opposite is true too: no circumstances ever force someone to act immorally. If someone is holding a gun to our heads, we cannot claim we were "forced" to do something. We could have just as easily accepted getting shot.

Finally, today, my mind returns to the second of the two classic examples often cited from Sartre of bad faith. A woman is on a date, and the man takes her hand, or rests it on her leg under the table or something like that. She pretends to ignore it or not to notice, she does not rebuke the advance, but she does not reciprocate either, they do not discuss it but continue their dinner conversation. By taking this passive approach and pretending it represents the "default" non-choice, the woman is objectifying her hand or leg as simply an object in the world whose "natural" state is just the inertia of the status quo.

But of course, the "choice not to choose" is no such thing, that's a paradox. To remain passive and pretending as if nothing has changed is just as much a choice as to withdraw her hand, or to discuss it with the man, or to make a move herself. Unless she admits to herself "I'm actively choosing to just leave it there and say and do nothing. I enjoy the affection, but am choosing to value the avoidance of the negatives that would accompany either confrontation or further escalation over the positives that might also accompany them," she is shirking her own responsibility.

I am not sure any of this is necessarily incompatible with the Catholic Faith if one takes a more Kierkegaardian stance that there is in fact an absolute value in the universe that will naturally fulfill us, that there is a final and ultimate good (in the Beatific Vision) which the will chooses infallibly, not because it has been made unfree, but because the very nature of the will is to choose the Good. And while on earth there are many, as it were, fragments or reflections of the good and thus so many to choose between, the actual object is The Good itself. But since The Good Itself is not available to our intellect in this life, before Heaven, we do have to make an existential leap to choose goods in conformity with the abstract notion of such a transcendence good and happiness, to choose to value that unseen value out of all the various alternatives available.

As such, I could see a big difference between a Catholic who "owns" his choice to be Catholic and adopt that moral code, and one who, in bad faith, convinces himself that he "must" as if this is an external compulsion. Even the threat of Hell does not compel us, even if it were known with infused certainty, as we would still be choosing to value the absence of that pain over whatever good sin could offer us, and indeed we do this all the time.

But, still, I'm not an existentialist. Maybe.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Road to Hell

I found this article today citing the work of St. John Fisher. The insights of this "Seven Steps to Killing a Conscience" are very true and verifiable in experience. Much of what goes on in our culture and within our Church today can be explained by the power of sin darkening the intellect and weakening the will, and by people putting enormous effort into numbing there own cognitive dissonance; the Sin Against the Holy Spirit, which by the very denial of sin, makes sin unforgivable.

Is this not the very essence of decadence? It is a very good warning for all of us. Perhaps it would have been better for Lent, but God works in His own good time:

An elderly French couple, having retired after long years of work, were enjoying a tranquil, bucolic existence in a cottage outside of Paris. While rocking on the porch one evening, they were discussing what the other would do if one of them died. After some thought, the husband said, "Well, if one of us dies, I'll move back to Paris."

How human! It's always easier to think of others dying, rather than ourselves. You'll die and you'll die and you'll die, but I won't die. Something of the same mind also shows up in our attitude toward sin and sinners. It's easy enough to see other's faults and sins but not always easy to see our own. It's not that we cannot see them but just that we don't have the courage to look at them. They hurt our pride, or make us uncomfortable or dissatisfied with ourselves. We prefer to live in a fool's paradise of denial instead of tackling the exertion to get rid of them.

As with dying, it's easy to philosophize about sin and evil in the world and to cluck the tongue about the wickedness of this generation and be scandalized by it. It's so easy to make up a litany of social sins like injustice, dishonesty, graft, mugging, big industry pollution of water and the atmosphere, violation of so-called animal rights and sexism. But it is not so easy to face our personal sins, their causes and consequences. We don't want to look straight at that inner self which we struggle to bury in our subconscious.

Actually, each of us has three selves. First the public self which functions while we are in the presence of others, as on a stage. We're always trying to make a good impression, wondering what others are thinking of us and how we are impressing them. We are putting on a show. But a time comes when we leave the stage and slam the dressing room door behind us. We find ourselves alone. Then our private self takes over. We do things we would never do if others were looking at us: checking the waistline from the side, trying to get a look at the bald spot, making faces in the mirror, checking the cavities in our teeth. There's no need here in private to put on a show or be on display.

But besides these, each of us has a third self, our inner self. That's the one we don't want to face up to. That's where, if it happens, we take a good hard look at what we really are before God and why. Generally, we abhor confronting this self, so we constantly try to distract ourselves when it rises up into our consciousness. We wake in the middle of the night and it looms and disturbs us so we snap on the radio to see what's going on with the talk shows. When awake, we can't stand being alone, because that vision of what we really are might show up again, so we must get with the crowd, change into the fast lane, find some distraction.

This is why today, when the world does evil, it's the fashion to ignore and forget what's done, or to excuse it, to call it a mistake. Anything but sin. Our behavior is socially unacceptable or we're not relating properly to others. Moreover, it's always easy to look around and see that what I did is no worse than what others do.

But the top of the line brand of rationalizing and shirking responsibility, a practice that enjoys a booming popularity today, is not only excusing one's misdeeds and sins but actually defending them and maintaining they are simply not sins. They are my right; they are necessities of life; they are manifestations of freedom and not misdeeds at all. Besides, everyone's doing it. They are only reasonable allowances that must be made for life in the 21st century. After all, there is such a thing as exaggeration and losing one's sense of proportion. Thus each person becomes his own pope, do-it-yourself pontificating. But if each one is his own judge, who will be condemned? What spawns such a state of mind? A few centuries ago, St. John Fisher described the successive steps of the tragic process which leads to a such a dead conscience.

First Step

The English martyr bishop once preached a Lenten course to the Court of Henry VIII when Henry was still a true defender of the faith. In that series, the bishop traced out what he described as seven steps to the development of a bad will or dead conscience. The first step on this road, he claimed, has one wrestling with a temptation to do an evil or sinful act. The evil appears to him under the guise of a good, to do which promises pleasure, satisfaction or reward of some kind. For example, he might be tempted to rob a bank or to seduce a friend's wife or to some other sinful aberration from God's will, the gravity of which is testified to ultimately by the ordinary Magisterium of the Church. If the act promised no satisfaction or enjoyment, obvious there would be no temptation. No one was ever tempted to sneak a dose of castor oil, like an alcoholic snatching a furtive drink for the kick involved. Pleasure, satisfaction, titillation are essential to temptation. At this stage, of course, there is no question of the person sinning no matter how strong the temptation might be, provided the temptation is resisted.

St. Paul recalls even the Lord, like us in all things except sin, was subject to temptation in the desert. So there can be no guilt in the mere appearance of the sin to the mind, with all its enticement to anticipated pleasure or satisfaction. Moreover, God graciously permits no one to be tempted beyond his power to resist. "My grace is sufficient for you."

Second Step

On the other hand, should the person succumb to the temptation and decide to do the evil deed, that is, to grab the proffered satisfaction or pleasure, he thereupon takes the second step of the process. He has, at that moment, voluntarily committed the sin internally. "Whoever looks after a woman," in the sense in which Jesus spoke, "has already committed adultery in his heart." He has committed his will and incurred the guilt of the sin which, in the proposed example, would be serious or mortal and break his relationship of love with God.

Third Step

After incurring the guilt of the sin internally consenting fully to the temptation, should he continue down the steep ladder, he takes the third step of the process as proposed by St. John Fisher. All three synoptics described this step as it was taken by Judas Iscariot in betraying Jesus. After he had dickered with the Jewish chief priests and officers, it is written that he took the money and "then kept looking for an opportunity to hand him over without creating a disturbance" (Luke 22:6, emphasis added). Thus, the unfortunate dupe in our horrible example schemes and searches out the means to put his already determined plot into action. He "cases" the bank site, plans the location of a getaway car, discovers the least busy time at the bank; or, in the other case, he devises plans for contacting his friend's wife at the most opportune time and place. By taking this third step, he has increased his malice, guilt and culpability of his sin, since he has more firmly determined his will to externalize what was previously solely an internal sin.

Fourth Step

Having decided on the means he will use, if he persists in this resolve, he moves on to the fourth step. He de facto actualizes the sin by doing the evil act in the external forum. He robs the bank. He violates the other man's wife, or whatever. His sin has now further grown in gravity since it has accumulated the added guilt of the concomitant injustices to the bank depositors who have lost their money, or the insurance company which must raise its rates to subsidize the loss; or, in the other case, because of the hurt and injustice accruing to the husband and/or family of his seduced victim.

The culprit has now put himself into a state of more serious mortal sin than before he acted. But he can still hope for the grace of repentance and conversion in the normal course of God's dealing with his children. Jesus insisted that he had not come to call the self-righteous but sinners. "Those who are well need not a physician." Thus the person, while in a state of grave sin, has reason to hope that God's grace will ultimately bring him to repentance. In his inner self, when he faces it, his conscience still realizes the evil of his ways and the seriousness of his condition, however he may try to stifle it. While he is sick spiritually, it is possible for him to recognize that fact along with his need for the divine physician.

Fifth Step

But having externalized the evil act to which he was tempted, and having felt the pleasure or benefits of the sin, he can find it so appealing and satisfying that he is led to move on to the fifth step of the process. He can so forget the love of God and the God who loves him that he slips quite easily into repeating the sin again and again, i.e., robbing other banks or seducing other's wives until he develops a habit of bank robbery or seduction. Thus, he reaches a point where he has confirmed his will in habitual evil or mortal sin. His conscience is numbed.

But even at this tragic point, he can still hope for repentance and salvation in the ordinary operation of God's grace. Despite his habit of mortal sin, which he commits easily, with pleasure and without effort (a second nature), he still acknowledges in his inner self or conscience, when he faces it, that what he is doing is wrong. His conscience continues to function correctly though feebly and he is still amenable to the light of grace bringing truth to his mind and strength to his will. Thus, God can lead him to repentance and conversion even while he pursues his acknowledged evil.

Sixth Step

He continues in his condition until one of two things happens. He decides he can no longer live that way since he has no true peace, and so he repents and is reconciled with God. Or, if reconciliation does not happen, he then plunges into the next curve of the downward spiral leading to total confirmation in evil. When that happens, he has taken the sixth step of the process which effectively puts him in a condition of hopelessness.

The essence of this step is that he starts to tell himself seriously that, for him, these sinful acts, in which his will is habitually confirmed, are not sinful. He convinces himself that robbing banks or seducing married women or homosexual acts or contraception or abortion is all right for him. Circumstances make them acceptable and justifiable in his or other's cases. Those who say nay just do not understand the ramifications of the times or social conditions, or what people in general are doing. They should wake up and get with it, and slough off their "hangups." In a word, he has become a full-fledged dissenter from, at very least, the teaching of the ordinary Magisterium, the guardian of Christian morals, a teaching which demands religious consent and conformable conduct.

St. John Fisher insisted that at this point the sinner had reached a state of being practically hopeless for heaven because he has closed off every avenue by which truth can reach his person. First, his will is confirmed in a habit of mortal sin from constant repetition. Now, by taking this latest step of self-deception, he has blocked from his intellect the light of truth and the influence of the Holy Spirit. He is saying that wrong is right. There is no way for God's truth to reach him and he has willfully put himself into a condition of unavailability to the Spirit. His conscience is dead and he has killed it.

Note that the Holy Spirit, in influencing persons, does three things, if his operation is not resisted. First, he conveys truth to the mind. Then he moves the mind to grasp and understand the truth he makes known. "He will bring to mind all things I have told you." Finally, he moves the will to "do the truth in charity," as St. Paul says. That is, he moves the person to believe God's word as made known and guaranteed, ultimately by the magisterium of the Church, and moves his will to do God's will as he has made it known. All these operations, of course, are not coercive and require free acceptance and cooperation by the recipient.

However, by repeatedly resisting God's grace and refusing to listen to the Holy Spirit, one actually loses the ability to accept his love and mercy on his terms. This is the unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit, who never ceases to offer his love and grace. This individual has confirmed himself in a crass, erroneous conscience and is reduced to calling black white and saying no is yes.

Pope John Paul II interceded for such types in his Marian prayer at Los Angeles. He prayed for "all those who are confused about the truth and are tempted to call evil good and darkness light." St. John the Evangelist puts it this way: "If we say we are free of the guilt of sin, we deceive ourselves; the truth is not to be found in us. But if we acknowledge our sins, he who is just can be trusted to forgive our sins and cleanse us from every wrong. If we say we have never sinned, we make him a liar and his word finds no place in us" (1 John 1:8-10).

So, by ignoring St. John's cautions and denying his sin, the subject has put himself in the state of being unavailable to God's action and, in effect, has made himself unforgivable. He commits moral suicide, doing tremendous damage to himself and others by blasting out the very foundation of hope, which is faith. He has reached the depths of infidelity, the loss of faith, which, by its nature, implies commitment to the will of God who is believed by faith. Such confusion in one's life finally produces a condition of slavery. Pope John Paul, on his visit to New Orleans, made it clear to any unfortunate who might find himself in such a state and would listen: "Even though you can come and go as you like, and do what you want, you are not free if you are living under the power of error or falsehood, deceit or sin." As the TV commercial used to say, "You can't fool mother nature."

The author of the epistle to the Hebrews described this state in even more frightening terms:

For when men have once been enlightened and have tasted the heavenly gift and become sharers in the Holy Spirit, when they have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, it is impossible to make them repent again, since they are crucifying the Son of God for themselves and holding him up to contempt." (Heb. 6:4-6).

Such a person has left no access for God's grace to come to or operate in him, for the Holy Spirit will never force his acceptance. No power on earth, in heaven or in hell can possibly coerce the free will of a person to accept or act on the impulse of God's grace. No external cause or factor can produce faith. Nothing within a person can generate what is above the powers of nature. Thus, only a miracle of grace can bring about the conversion of a resisting heart.

But to expect such a miraculous conversion in the natural order exceeds the ordinary mode of operation of God's grace. To hope for such a miracle at the end of life or at any other moment, for that matter, is the sin of presumption in its purest form, for God is not mocked. Moreover, such a state, being completely incompatible with supernatural hope for heaven and the vision of God, can never produce true inner happiness, even on this earth.

Seventh Step

The first sign that habitual sinning and perversion is a disastrous turning off the road to God is sadness. Nature is relentless and ultimately strikes anyone who acts against her. As with the law of gravity, one can deny sin but he never escapes the effects of sin. Archbishop Sheen used to tell the story of the Spartan boy who stole a fox and hid it beneath his toga. While he was denying the theft, the fox was eating away at his entrails. The first warning of sadness springs from within, from the inner self and it remains because, though dull and subtle, it is persistent and inexorable.

Now, because no one likes to be the only one miserable, (misery loves company), a person confirmed in a habit of sin which he has foolishly convinced himself is not sin, boldly strides to the seventh and final step to spiritual destruction. He proceeds to pull out all the stops to convert others to adopt his convictions, to persuade them to think and act the way he thinks and acts. He wants to make others as unhappy as he is. His joy is to "debunk" others and try to free himself from guilt by projecting it onto others. He wants to make others as unhappy as he is.

Thus, he and his ilk take to shouting their conclusions and theories from the rooftops, whether they are about pornography, contraception, abortion, homosexuality or whatever is the blue plate special of the day. They resort to bitter, desperate self-defense to protect themselves in their own eyes against nay-sayers. They strive to indoctrinate others in their errors, seeking their approval. As St. Peter warns in his second epistle, "They will eagerly try to buy you for themselves with insidious speeches, but for them the Condemnation pronounced so long ago is at work already, and Destruction is not asleep" (2 Pet. 2:3, J.B.). So they are welcomed on Phil Donohue or Oprah or Sally or other TV or radio talk shows. Like magnets, they attract cliques at cocktail parties and spew their venom against the Holy Father and the Church's teachings; they write letters to editors; they join demonstrations; they carry signs to try in any way possible to get others to adopt and act on their views. Chicago Tribune Columnist Mike Royko stands up and psycho-babbles for the whole group: "I stopped being a Catholic many years ago (my family didn't want somebody like [Card.] O'Connor telling us how many children to have)." Like young boys whistling their way past a cemetery on a dark night, they pump up pseudo-courage to continue on their perilous path.

"After all, what does that old bachelor in Rome know about life; what does he know about marriage and love and contraception or homosexual activity? It is by Beelzebub that he is trying to cast out these practices he calls devils."

Thus, as a modernized version of St. John Fisher would have it, some put themselves in a state of unforgiveableness because they refuse to accept Gods' conditions for forgiveness, i.e., the willingness to admit their wrong doing. If a person is sick and admits it, there is some hope that the cause of his sickness can be discovered and remedied. But if a person is sick and insists that he is well, if he refuses to acknowledge that he might be ill, there is not much the Divine Physician can do for him. The worst thing in the world is not sin. It's the denial of sin by a false conscience. The unforgivable sin is the denial of sin.

Thus, objectively, confirmed dissenters from the Church's moral or dogmatic teaching cannot bring themselves to act contrary to the self-justifying conclusions of their own minds. Such resent the very authority upon which faith rests. If the truth is not run through the computer of their own judgment, they fear restraint of their liberty, the height of intellectual pride. Acceptance of truth on faith in God seems to them a reflection on themselves, an indignity to their human nature whose autonomy they regard as the primary operational principle. The truth is, submission by faith to the authority of God is not an insult, not a humiliation, not a degradation. It is rather a liberation from the five-barred cage of the senses, a guarantee that one will not be misled or tricked.

After all, the Catholic Church is a voluntary community and in deliberately choosing to remain part of it, all Catholics, clerical and lay, must provide "submission of mind and will" to the Church's ordinary magisterial teaching on faith and morals. The Church cannot force moral decisions on anyone since such decisions are made in the internal forum which is not subject to external forces.

According to St. John Fisher, one at this stage has reached the condition of hopelessness, because by infidelity, the opposite of faith, he has destroyed any basis of hope he may have had. He cannot really hope to be with one in whom he has no functioning faith. In the spiritual realm, such dissent is a disaster comparable to AIDS in the physical order. It threatens more than the physical life. "Do not fear those who deprive the body of life but cannot destroy the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both body and soul in Gehenna" (Matt.10:28).

Obviously there are many whose activity, objectively, indicates a dead conscience, because they have completed the seven steps described by St. John Fisher. They are what Mother Teresa calls the poorest of the poor of this world, however prosperous they may look, no matter what posh suburb they may inhabit. They must be the first concern of the Church in pursuing its fundamental option for the poor, and should be the object of unceasing prayer by all Catholics. When the Apostles asked Jesus why they could not expel a certain demon, he replied, "This kind you can drive out only by prayer" (Mark 9:29). There but for the grace of God go I.

By Rev. Philip E. Dion, C.M.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

To Confuse Children With Angels

I usually don't update more than once per day, so unless I find some sort of song or video I feel like sharing (after all, "I've got to cross over to see my Lord"), there's really no need for any of you to check my blog multiple times per day.

However, today I will do two posts, just because.

We may be through with the past, but the past is not through with us...

The Unravelling

When Fr. Corapi was first suspended, I didn't want to say anything. At the time I was inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt; he's had crazy accusers before, and some information indicated this woman was mentally unstable. And, I'll admit, being on guard against my own schadenfreude. My own agenda regarding the sort of neoconservative authoritarian clericalism that he represents (and which characterizes so much of the institutional church these days) had me smelling blood with Corapi, who would be another high profile scandal like Euteneuer or Cutié, and I didn't want to unjustly jump to conclusions based on my own biases and hastiness like that.

However, things have taken a bizarre turn now in a way where it no longer really matters whether Corapi is guilty of this particular crime or not. He's release a bizarre video that Mark Shea himself is calling a "world record" for "most passive-aggressive manipulative self-aggrandizement ever squeezed into 8 and a half minutes." He's leaving the priesthood, calling the whole system unfair, and expecting his followers to continue financially supporting him as something called "The Black SheepDog." This going rogue is possibly the strangest and most pathetic thing I've ever heard and, trust me, I've dealt a lot with strange and pathetic attempts at self-justification over the past year.

We should pray for him and some of his almost cultish followers, of course, and maybe he's had a mental breakdown or something under the weight of false accusations or the investigation dragging on and on. But the way he paints himself as the victim (the church was still supporting him, for crying out loud, he just wasn't being allowed to preach publicly for a few months) and is abandoning everything so quickly is very strange.

There was stuff going on behind the scenes, of course, some of which might emerge, others of which we might never know. Corapi did seem to be something of a lone wolf, and I could imagine him having a tense relationship with peers and superiors (for all his talk of humility and obedience...) Still, combined with the way he's still pushing himself as a figure to "follow" and to buy his products...well, either the accusation was sticking, or he's some sort of megalomaniac. Or both. All very sad.

And all more evidence that these sorts of clerical cults of personality and the whole authority fetish are really quite the sham. There is something profoundly sickly about the Catholic clergy and hierarchy right now, and this is just another high profile case, albeit one of the biggest fish so far, I'd think. The crazy trads are likely to say it's because he wasn't a trad, the neocons are likely to blame it on Satan attacking him so hard because of all the good he was doing. Neither are likely to see it as more evidence for the need to drastically change the psycho-sociological make-up and structure of the clergy. Their status quo preservationism is, I think, far too deeply engrained for that.