Saturday, June 30, 2012

Competing Social Values, the Historical Contingency of Politics and Economics, and the Eschaton

The Vox Nova thread on alleged "changes" to "Church teaching" continues, and I made some more comments there which I though were worth sharing:
As far as I can tell, all the areas commonly pointed out as areas of “change” or “reversal of teaching”…are in the realm of politics/economics. This alone is something to consider very carefully when it comes to discussing these issues.

Slavery, usury, religious liberty vs burning heretics, the divine right of kings, etc etc…none of them are, in essence, questions of personal individual morals.

Oh, you could argue they are inasmuch as an individual participating is sinning by doing so. But are you really willing to condemn absolutely the benign slave-holder in an age where social immobility and inherited (mutual) obligations was simply the political/economic order of the day?

No, it seems to me, all of these “changes in teaching” are about political/economic system or structure. About the rights or obligations of the State or the State’s bastard-child Money, and about the relation of these to the community/society and the Church or religion.

As such, I would first of all say this makes it simply invalid to imagine the same idea of change being extended to personal individual morality, such as sexual morality, let alone dogmatic questions like women’s ordination or the necessity of auricular confession. It really isn’t comparable at all. 

No all these questions of alleged change, as far as I can tell, would have fallen under the realm of “social teaching” and not personal morals. (Which raises interesting questions for those who treat specific concrete applications of Social Teaching as absolute or infallible today).

That also raises my second point, which is that the fact that all these things are political/economic questions…really should make one question how much they are really absolute moral questions at all, or how much they are just a reflection of the political/economic order of a given age. And what it means (for one’s philosophy) to promote them (whether then or now) as absolutes when His Kingdom is not of This World.

A progressive value judgment regarding the change in economic/political order is something foreign to the Church’s system, which has no notion of historical progress or ascendency in the political/economic order. Then again, the Church also has no official notion of "Golden Age" or of historical degeneracy either. Things are different in different eras, but they're not absolutely better or worse from a moral/spiritual perspective.
Which is what I question, though: is this really a matter of “either we were right then, or we’re right now?” On these political/economic questions…the Church has seemed to just basically endorse a certain docility to whatever the political/economic values of the current age are, yet always tempering them with a warning (something along the lines of Paul’s advise to Onesimus and Philemon: “Onesimus go back and submit, but Philemon welcome him as a brother.”) 

So is it really a question of one being wrong and one being right? I doubt it. The Church endorsed feudal values during feudalism, and liberal democratic values during liberal democracy, and if we ever find ourselves in feudalism again, I bet you’ll see a “resourcing” of the old feudalist literature/”teachings” in order to deal with that situation. (I find it unlikely the Church would, after a couple centuries, keep insisting on liberal democratic stuff as absolute values in a world that simply didn’t work that way anymore, just like they no longer insist on Christendom in a world that isn’t.)

I (with Cardinal Dulles) tend to think this is a question of, as it were, “balancing” values that are in some sense “competing.” This is why the social sphere is different than private morality. In private morality, we can always (in some sense) expect perfection of ourselves, we can always hold ourselves to the true Ideal.
When it comes to social questions, however, because of the Fall…we often have to emphasize one value over another, because we are always going to be dealing, demographically at least, with human sinfulness as a social reality.

For example, when it comes to religion, we might imagine a spectrum between two values. There is the value of freedom, yes, but there is also the value of religious hegemony in society (or whatever you want to call that other “pole.”)

In the eschaton, we can have both in perfect harmony. Everyone will be Christian and everyone will be perfectly free without any sort of pressure. Both values are “right” or the ideal, and the Church upholds both.

However, in a Fallen world, you can’t really have both. If you emphasize freedom more, you will lose religious hegemony because some people will invent heresies and follow them. And if you emphasize religious hegemony…you won’t be able to have full freedom, because it takes active intervention or pressure of some sort to sustain hegemony.

So it’s a question, in a given social situation, which to emphasize. In Christendom, with a hegemony already in place…the maintenance of that hegemony was considered simply less costly and more realistic. One of the two value “poles” was always going to be limited, and in that case limiting liberty was the lesser evil. That doesn’t mean liberty wasn’t always good or really a value, but it was something like an eschatological one. Trying to maximize liberty would have caused hegemony to collapse and been chaos (and, indeed, we saw the horrors of the Revolutions, etc).

The reverse situation is true today. The revolutions being an accomplished fact, in a pluralist society, the value we can now maximize socially vis a vis religion is freedom or liberty. That doesn’t mean we’ve given up the ideal of religious hegemony (indeed Vatican II “leaves intact the traditional Catholic teaching on the moral obligation of individuals and societies toward the true religion and the one Church of Christ”) but it is now the “sacrificed” or eschatological value of the two, because it is unrealistic to try to reimpose hegemony by force, and would probably “cost more than it was worth” (just like the shift over to freedom did in the first place.)

I guess my point is, it’s not a matter of one value being right and one being wrong. Religious liberty and religious social hegemony are both real values. Furthermore, it’s not a matter of one taking absolute priority, as if it is always correct for hegemony to bow to freedom (or freedom to bow to hegemony.) Rather, which value takes priority will be based on maximizing the common good in a given social context.
But that also implies: given that we can’t ever maximize both values at the same time this side of heaven, we can’t condemn absolutely either World Order for having to sacrifice one or the other.

So we should look with a certain tragedy upon the burning of heretics. That such a thing happened was not positively good, anymore than any execution (or, indeed, imprisonment, fine, etc). But, likewise, the Medievals would be correct to look with an at least equal degree of tragedy upon our loss of a hegemonic Christendom. Both, however, would (or should) recognize in each other the real value each model does represent too, even if along with something along the lines of “necessary evil,” unideal but not to be absolutely condemned, exactly because the ideal is impossible prior to the eschaton where both are in harmony, which is the ideal Christians should "live towards" and keep alive in our hearts, even if it can never be perfectly implemented politically in this life.

Friday, June 29, 2012


The Sermon from Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:

Remember only thy last things and thou shalt not sin for ever - words taken, my dear little brothers in Christ, from the book of Ecclesiastes, seventh chapter, fortieth verse. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

We are assembled here today, my dear little brothers in Christ, for one brief moment far away from the busy bustle of the outer world to celebrate and to honour one of the greatest of saints, the apostle of the Indies, the patron saint also of your college, saint Francis Xavier. Year after year, for much longer than any of you, my dear little boys, can remember or than I can remember, the boys of this college have met in this very chapel to make their annual retreat before the feast day of their patron saint. Time has gone on and brought with it its changes. Even in the last few years what changes can most of you not remember? Many of the boys who sat in those front benches a few years ago are perhaps now in distant lands, in the burning tropics, or immersed in professional duties or in seminaries, or voyaging over the vast expanse of the deep or, it may be, already called by the great God to another life and to the rendering up of their stewardship. And still as the years roll by, bringing with them changes for good and bad, the memory of the great saint is honoured by the boys of this college who make every year their annual retreat on the days preceding the feast day set apart by our Holy Mother the Church to transmit to all the ages the name and fame of one of the greatest sons of catholic Spain.

Now what is the meaning of this word retreat and why is it allowed on all hands to be a most salutary practice for all who desire to lead before God and in the eyes of men a truly christian life? A retreat, my dear boys, signifies a withdrawal for awhile from the cares of our life, the cares of this workaday world, in order to examine the state of our conscience, to reflect on the mysteries of holy religion and to understand better why we are here in this world. During these few days I intend to put before you some thoughts concerning the four last things. They are, as you know from your catechism, death, judgement, hell, and heaven. We shall try to understand them fully during these few days so that we may derive from the understanding of them a lasting benefit to our souls. And remember, my dear boys, that we have been sent into this world for one thing and for one thing alone: to do God's holy will and to save our immortal souls. All else is worthless. One thing alone is needful, the salvation of one's soul. What doth it profit a man to gain the whole world if he suffer the loss of his immortal soul? Ah, my dear boys, believe me there is nothing in this wretched world that can make up for such a loss.

I will ask you, therefore, my dear boys, to put away from your minds during these few days all worldly thoughts, whether of study or pleasure or ambition, and to give all your attention to the state of your souls. I need hardly remind you that during the days of the retreat all boys are expected to preserve a quiet and pious demeanour and to shun all loud unseemly pleasure. The elder boys, of course, will see that this custom is not infringed and I look especially to the prefects and officers of the sodality of Our Blessed Lady and of the sodality of the holy angels to set a good example to their fellow-students.

Let us try, therefore, to make this retreat in honour of saint Francis with our whole heart and our whole mind. God's blessing will then be upon all your year's studies. But, above and beyond all, let this retreat be one to which you can look back in after years when maybe you are far from this college and among very different surroundings, to which you can look back with joy and thankfulness and give thanks to God for having granted you this occasion of laying the first foundation of a pious honourable zealous christian life. And if, as may so happen, there be at this moment in these benches any poor soul who has had the unutterable misfortune to lose God's holy grace and to fall into grievous sin, I fervently trust and pray that this retreat may be the turning point in the life of that soul. I pray to God through the merits of His zealous servant Francis Xavier, that such a soul may be led to sincere repentance and that the holy communion on saint Francis's day of this year may be a lasting covenant between God and that soul. For just and unjust, for saint and sinner alike, may this retreat be a memorable one.

Help me, my dear little brothers in Christ. Help me by your pious attention, by your own devotion, by your outward demeanour. Banish from your minds all worldly thoughts and think only of the last things, death, judgement, hell, and heaven. He who remembers these things, says Ecclesiastes, shall not sin for ever. He who remembers the last things will act and think with them always before his eyes. He will live a good life and die a good death, believing and knowing that, if he has sacrificed much in this earthly life, it will be given to him a hundredfold and a thousandfold more in the life to come, in the kingdom without end - a blessing, my dear boys, which I wish you from my heart, one and all, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen!

[...]At the last moment of consciousness the whole earthly life passed before the vision of the soul and, ere it had time to reflect, the body had died and the soul stood terrified before the judgement seat. God, who had long been merciful, would then be just. He had long been patient, pleading with the sinful soul, giving it time to repent, sparing it yet awhile. But that time had gone. Time was to sin and to enjoy, time was to scoff at God and at the warnings of His holy church, time was to defy His majesty, to disobey His commands, to hoodwink one's fellow men, to commit sin after sin and to hide one's corruption from the sight of men. But that time was over. Now it was God's turn: and He was not to be hoodwinked or deceived. Every sin would then come forth from its lurking place, the most rebellious against the divine will and the most degrading to our poor corrupt nature, the tiniest imperfection and the most heinous atrocity. What did it avail then to have been a great emperor, a great general, a marvellous inventor, the most learned of the learned? All were as one before the judgement seat of God. He would reward the good and punish the wicked. One single instant was enough for the trial of a man's soul. One single instant after the body's death, the soul had been weighed in the balance. The particular judgement was over and the soul had passed to the abode of bliss or to the prison of purgatory or had been hurled howling into hell.

Nor was that all. God's justice had still to be vindicated before men: after the particular there still remained the general judgement. The last day had come. The doomsday was at hand. The stars of heaven were falling upon the earth like the figs cast by the fig-tree which the wind has shaken. The sun, the great luminary of the universe, had become as sackcloth of hair. The moon was blood-red. The firmament was as a scroll rolled away. The archangel Michael, the prince of the heavenly host, appeared glorious and terrible against the sky. With one foot on the sea and one foot on the land he blew from the arch-angelical trumpet the brazen death of time. The three blasts of the angel filled all the universe. Time is, time was, but time shall be no more. At the last blast the souls of universal humanity throng towards the valley of Jehoshaphat, rich and poor, gentle and simple, wise and foolish, good and wicked. The soul of every human being that has ever existed, the souls of all those who shall yet be born, all the sons and daughters of Adam, all are assembled on that supreme day. And lo, the supreme judge is coming! No longer the lowly Lamb of God, no longer the meek Jesus of Nazareth, no longer the Man of Sorrows, no longer the Good Shepherd, He is seen now coming upon the clouds, in great power and majesty, attended by nine choirs of angels, angels and archangels, principalities, powers and virtues, thrones and dominations, cherubim and seraphim, God Omnipotent, God Everlasting. He speaks: and His voice is heard even at the farthest limits of space, even In the bottomless abyss. Supreme Judge, from His sentence there will be and can be no appeal. He calls the just to His side, bidding them enter into the kingdom, the eternity of bliss prepared for them. The unjust He casts from Him, crying in His offended majesty: Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels. O, what agony then for the miserable sinners! Friend is torn apart from friend, children are torn from their parents, husbands from their wives. The poor sinner holds out his arms to those who were dear to him in this earthly world, to those whose simple piety perhaps he made a mock of, to those who counselled him and tried to lead him on the right path, to a kind brother, to a loving sister, to the mother and father who loved him so dearly. But it is too late: the just turn away from the wretched damned souls which now appear before the eyes of all in their hideous and evil character. O you hypocrites, O, you whited sepulchres, O you who present a smooth smiling face to the world while your soul within is a foul swamp of sin, how will it fare with you in that terrible day?

And this day will come, shall come, must come: the day of death and the day of judgement. It is appointed unto man to die and after death the judgement. Death is certain. The time and manner are uncertain, whether from long disease or from some unexpected accident: the Son of God cometh at an hour when you little expect Him. Be therefore ready every moment, seeing that you may die at any moment. Death is the end of us all. Death and judgement, brought into the world by the sin of our first parents, are the dark portals that close our earthly existence, the portals that open into the unknown and the unseen, portals through which every soul must pass, alone, unaided save by its good works, without friend or brother or parent or master to help it, alone and trembling. Let that thought be ever before our minds and then we cannot sin. Death, a cause of terror to the sinner, is a blessed moment for him who has walked in the right path, fulfilling the duties of his station in life, attending to his morning and evening prayers, approaching the holy sacrament frequently and performing good and merciful works. For the pious and believing catholic, for the just man, death is no cause of terror. Was it not Addison, the great English writer, who, when on his deathbed, sent for the wicked young earl of Warwick to let him see how a christian can meet his end? He it is and he alone, the pious and believing christian, who can say in his heart: O grave, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?

[...]Hell has enlarged its soul and opened its mouth without any limits - words taken, my dear little brothers in Christ Jesus, from the book of Isaias, fifth chapter, fourteenth verse. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Adam and Eve, my dear boys, were, as you know, our first parents, and you will remember that they were created by God in order that the seats in heaven left vacant by the fall of Lucifer and his rebellious angels might be filled again. Lucifer, we are told, was a son of the morning, a radiant and mighty angel; yet he fell: he fell and there fell with him a third part of the host of heaven: he fell and was hurled with his rebellious angels into hell. What his sin was we cannot say. Theologians consider that it was the sin of pride, the sinful thought conceived in an instant: non serviam: I will not serve. That instant was his ruin.

He offended the majesty of God by the sinful thought of one instant and God cast him out of heaven into hell for ever.

Adam and Eve were then created by God and placed in Eden, in the plain of Damascus, that lovely garden resplendent with sunlight and colour, teeming with luxuriant vegetation. The fruitful earth gave them her bounty: beasts and birds were their willing servants: they knew not the ills our flesh is heir to, disease and poverty and death: all that a great and generous God could do for them was done. But there was one condition imposed on them by God: obedience to His word. They were not to eat of the fruit of the forbidden tree.

Alas, my dear little boys, they too fell. The devil, once a shining angel, a son of the morning, now a foul fiend came in the shape of a serpent, the subtlest of all the beasts of the field. He envied them. He, the fallen great one, could not bear to think that man, a being of clay, should possess the inheritance which he by his sin had forfeited for ever. He came to the woman, the weaker vessel, and poured the poison of his eloquence into her ear, promising her - O, the blasphemy of that promise! - that if she and Adam ate of the forbidden fruit they would become as gods, nay as God Himself. Eve yielded to the wiles of the archtempter. She ate the apple and gave it also to Adam who had not the moral courage to resist her. The poison tongue of Satan had done its work. They fell.

And then the voice of God was heard in that garden, calling His creature man to account: and Michael, prince of the heavenly host, with a sword of flame in his hand, appeared before the guilty pair and drove them forth from Eden into the world, the world of sickness and striving, of cruelty and disappointment, of labour and hardship, to earn their bread in the sweat of their brow. But even then how merciful was God! He took pity on our poor degraded parents and promised that in the fullness of time He would send down from heaven One who would redeem them, make them once more children of God and heirs to the kingdom of heaven: and that One, that Redeemer of fallen man, was to be God's only begotten Son, the Second Person of the Most Blessed Trinity, the Eternal Word.

He came. He was born of a virgin pure, Mary the virgin mother. He was born in a poor cowhouse in Judea and lived as a humble carpenter for thirty years until the hour of His mission had come. And then, filled with love for men, He went forth and called to men to hear the new gospel.

Did they listen? Yes, they listened but would not hear. He was seized and bound like a common criminal, mocked at as a fool, set aside to give place to a public robber, scourged with five thousand lashes, crowned with a crown of thorns, hustled through the streets by the Jewish rabble and the Roman soldiery, stripped of his garments and hanged upon a gibbet and His side was pierced with a lance and from the wounded body of our Lord water and blood issued continually.

Yet even then, in that hour of supreme agony, Our Merciful Redeemer had pity for mankind. Yet even there, on the hill of Calvary, He founded the holy catholic church against which, it is promised, the gates of hell shall not prevail. He founded it upon the rock of ages, and endowed it with His grace, with sacraments and sacrifice, and promised that if men would obey the word of His church they would still enter into eternal life; but if, after all that had been done for them, they still persisted in their wickedness, there remained for them an eternity of torment: Hell.

Now let us try for a moment to realize, as far as we can, the nature of that abode of the damned which the justice of an offended God has called into existence for the eternal punishment of sinners. Hell is a strait and dark and foul-smelling prison, an abode of demons and lost souls, filled with fire and smoke. The straitness of this prison house is expressly designed by God to punish those who refused to be bound by His laws. In earthly prisons the poor captive has at least some liberty of movement, were it only within the four walls of his cell or in the gloomy yard of his prison. Not so in hell. There, by reason of the great number of the damned, the prisoners are heaped together in their awful prison, the walls of which are said to be four thousand miles thick: and the damned are so utterly bound and helpless that, as a blessed saint, saint Anselm, writes in his book on similitudes, they are not even able to remove from the eye a worm that gnaws it.

They lie in exterior darkness. For, remember, the fire of hell gives forth no light. As, at the command of God, the fire of the Babylonian furnace lost its heat but not its light, so, at the command of God, the fire of hell, while retaining the intensity of its heat, burns eternally in darkness. It is a never ending storm of darkness, dark flames and dark smoke of burning brimstone, amid which the bodies are heaped one upon another without even a glimpse of air. Of all the plagues with which the land of the Pharaohs were smitten one plague alone, that of darkness, was called horrible. What name, then, shall we give to the darkness of hell which is to last not for three days alone but for all eternity?

The horror of this strait and dark prison is increased by its awful stench. All the filth of the world, all the offal and scum of the world, we are told, shall run there as to a vast reeking sewer when the terrible conflagration of the last day has purged the world. The brimstone, too, which burns there in such prodigious quantity fills all hell with its intolerable stench; and the bodies of the damned themselves exhale such a pestilential odour that, as saint Bonaventure says, one of them alone would suffice to infect the whole world. The very air of this world, that pure element, becomes foul and unbreathable when it has been long enclosed. Consider then what must be the foulness of the air of hell. Imagine some foul and putrid corpse that has lain rotting and decomposing in the grave, a jelly-like mass of liquid corruption. Imagine such a corpse a prey to flames, devoured by the fire of burning brimstone and giving off dense choking fumes of nauseous loathsome decomposition. And then imagine this sickening stench, multiplied a millionfold and a millionfold again from the millions upon millions of fetid carcasses massed together in the reeking darkness, a huge and rotting human fungus. Imagine all this, and you will have some idea of the horror of the stench of hell.

But this stench is not, horrible though it is, the greatest physical torment to which the damned are subjected. The torment of fire is the greatest torment to which the tyrant has ever subjected his fellow creatures. Place your finger for a moment in the flame of a candle and you will feel the pain of fire. But our earthly fire was created by God for the benefit of man, to maintain in him the spark of life and to help him in the useful arts, whereas the fire of hell is of another quality and was created by God to torture and punish the unrepentant sinner. Our earthly fire also consumes more or less rapidly according as the object which it attacks is more or less combustible, so that human ingenuity has even succeeded in inventing chemical preparations to check or frustrate its action. But the sulphurous brimstone which burns in hell is a substance which is specially designed to burn for ever and for ever with unspeakable fury. Moreover, our earthly fire destroys at the same time as it burns, so that the more intense it is the shorter is its duration; but the fire of hell has this property, that it preserves that which it burns, and, though it rages with incredible intensity, it rages for ever.

Our earthly fire again, no matter how fierce or widespread it may be, is always of a limited extent; but the lake of fire in hell is boundless, shoreless and bottomless. It is on record that the devil himself, when asked the question by a certain soldier, was obliged to confess that if a whole mountain were thrown into the burning ocean of hell it would be burned up In an instant like a piece of wax. And this terrible fire will not afflict the bodies of the damned only from without, but each lost soul will be a hell unto itself, the boundless fire raging in its very vitals. O, how terrible is the lot of those wretched beings! The blood seethes and boils in the veins, the brains are boiling in the skull, the heart in the breast glowing and bursting, the bowels a red-hot mass of burning pulp, the tender eyes flaming like molten balls.

And yet what I have said as to the strength and quality and boundlessness of this fire is as nothing when compared to its intensity, an intensity which it has as being the instrument chosen by divine design for the punishment of soul and body alike. It is a fire which proceeds directly from the ire of God, working not of its own activity but as an instrument of Divine vengeance. As the waters of baptism cleanse the soul with the body, so do the fires of punishment torture the spirit with the flesh. Every sense of the flesh is tortured and every faculty of the soul therewith: the eyes with impenetrable utter darkness, the nose with noisome odours, the ears with yells and howls and execrations, the taste with foul matter, leprous corruption, nameless suffocating filth, the touch with redhot goads and spikes, with cruel tongues of flame. And through the several torments of the senses the immortal soul is tortured eternally in its very essence amid the leagues upon leagues of glowing fires kindled in the abyss by the offended majesty of the Omnipotent God and fanned into everlasting and ever-increasing fury by the breath of the anger of the God-head.

Consider finally that the torment of this infernal prison is increased by the company of the damned themselves. Evil company on earth is so noxious that the plants, as if by instinct, withdraw from the company of whatsoever is deadly or hurtful to them. In hell all laws are overturned - there is no thought of family or country, of ties, of relationships. The damned howl and scream at one another, their torture and rage intensified by the presence of beings tortured and raging like themselves. All sense of humanity is forgotten. The yells of the suffering sinners fill the remotest corners of the vast abyss. The mouths of the damned are full of blasphemies against God and of hatred for their fellow sufferers and of curses against those souls which were their accomplices in sin. In olden times it was the custom to punish the parricide, the man who had raised his murderous hand against his father, by casting him into the depths of the sea in a sack in which were placed a cock, a monkey, and a serpent. The intention of those law-givers who framed such a law, which seems cruel in our times, was to punish the criminal by the company of hurtful and hateful beasts. But what is the fury of those dumb beasts compared with the fury of execration which bursts from the parched lips and aching throats of the damned in hell when they behold in their companions in misery those who aided and abetted them in sin, those whose words sowed the first seeds of evil thinking and evil living in their minds, those whose immodest suggestions led them on to sin, those whose eyes tempted and allured them from the path of virtue. They turn upon those accomplices and upbraid them and curse them. But they are helpless and hopeless: it is too late now for repentance.

Last of all consider the frightful torment to those damned souls, tempters and tempted alike, of the company of the devils. These devils will afflict the damned in two ways, by their presence and by their reproaches. We can have no idea of how horrible these devils are. Saint Catherine of Siena once saw a devil and she has written that, rather than look again for one single instant on such a frightful monster, she would prefer to walk until the end of her life along a track of red coals. These devils, who were once beautiful angels, have become as hideous and ugly as they once were beautiful. They mock and jeer at the lost souls whom they dragged down to ruin. It is they, the foul demons, who are made in hell the voices of conscience. Why did you sin? Why did you lend an ear to the temptings of friends? Why did you turn aside from your pious practices and good works? Why did you not shun the occasions of sin? Why did you not leave that evil companion? Why did you not give up that lewd habit, that impure habit? Why did you not listen to the counsels of your confessor? Why did you not, even after you had fallen the first or the second or the third or the fourth or the hundredth time, repent of your evil ways and turn to God who only waited for your repentance to absolve you of your sins? Now the time for repentance has gone by. Time is, time was, but time shall be no more! Time was to sin in secrecy, to indulge in that sloth and pride, to covet the unlawful, to yield to the promptings of your lower nature, to live like the beasts of the field, nay worse than the beasts of the field, for they, at least, are but brutes and have no reason to guide them: time was, but time shall be no more. God spoke to you by so many voices, but you would not hear. You would not crush out that pride and anger in your heart, you would not restore those ill-gotten goods, you would not obey the precepts of your holy church nor attend to your religious duties, you would not abandon those wicked companions, you would not avoid those dangerous temptations. Such is the language of those fiendish tormentors, words of taunting and of reproach, of hatred and of disgust. Of disgust, yes! For even they, the very devils, when they sinned, sinned by such a sin as alone was compatible with such angelical natures, a rebellion of the intellect: and they, even they, the foul devils must turn away, revolted and disgusted, from the contemplation of those unspeakable sins by which degraded man outrages and defiles the temple of the Holy Ghost, defiles and pollutes himself.

O, my dear little brothers in Christ, may it never be our lot to hear that language! May it never be our lot, I say! In the last day of terrible reckoning I pray fervently to God that not a single soul of those who are in this chapel today may be found among those miserable beings whom the Great Judge shall command to depart for ever from His sight, that not one of us may ever hear ringing in his ears the awful sentence of rejection: Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels!

[...] This morning we endeavoured, in our reflection upon hell, to make what our holy founder calls in his book of spiritual exercises, the composition of place. We endeavoured, that is, to imagine with the senses of the mind, in our imagination, the material character of that awful place and of the physical torments which all who are in hell endure. This evening we shall consider for a few moments the nature of the spiritual torments of hell.

Sin, remember, is a twofold enormity. It is a base consent to the promptings of our corrupt nature to the lower instincts, to that which is gross and beast-like; and it is also a turning away from the counsel of our higher nature, from all that is pure and holy, from the Holy God Himself. For this reason mortal sin is punished in hell by two different forms of punishment, physical and spiritual.

Now of all these spiritual pains by far the greatest is the pain of loss, so great, in fact, that in itself it is a torment greater than all the others. Saint Thomas, the greatest doctor of the church, the angelic doctor, as he is called, says that the worst damnation consists in this, that the understanding of man is totally deprived of divine light and his affection obstinately turned away from the goodness of God. God, remember, is a being infinitely good, and therefore the loss of such a being must be a loss infinitely painful. In this life we have not a very clear idea of what such a loss must be, but the damned in hell, for their greater torment, have a full understanding of that which they have lost, and understand that they have lost it through their own sins and have lost it for ever. At the very instant of death the bonds of the flesh are broken asunder and the soul at once flies towards God as towards the centre of her existence. Remember, my dear little boys, our souls long to be with God. We come from God, we live by God, we belong to God: we are His, inalienably His. God loves with a divine love every human soul, and every human soul lives in that love. How could it be otherwise? Every breath that we draw, every thought of our brain, every instant of life proceeds from God's inexhaustible goodness. And if it be pain for a mother to be parted from her child, for a man to be exiled from hearth and home, for friend to be sundered from friend, O think what pain, what anguish it must be for the poor soul to be spurned from the presence of the supremely good and loving Creator Who has called that soul into existence from nothingness and sustained it in life and loved it with an immeasurable love. This, then, to be separated for ever from its greatest good, from God, and to feel the anguish of that separation, knowing full well that it is unchangeable: this is the greatest torment which the created soul is capable of bearing, poena damni, the pain of loss.

The second pain which will afflict the souls of the damned in hell is the pain of conscience. Just as in dead bodies worms are engendered by putrefaction, so in the souls of the lost there arises a perpetual remorse from the putrefaction of sin, the sting of conscience, the worm, as Pope Innocent the Third calls it, of the triple sting. The first sting inflicted by this cruel worm will be the memory of past pleasures. O what a dreadful memory will that be! In the lake of all-devouring flame the proud king will remember the pomps of his court, the wise but wicked man his libraries and instruments of research, the lover of artistic pleasures his marbles and pictures and other art treasures, he who delighted in the pleasures of the table his gorgeous feasts, his dishes prepared with such delicacy, his choice wines; the miser will remember his hoard of gold, the robber his ill-gotten wealth, the angry and revengeful and merciless murderers their deeds of blood and violence in which they revelled, the impure and adulterous the unspeakable and filthy pleasures in which they delighted. They will remember all this and loathe themselves and their sins. For how miserable will all those pleasures seem to the soul condemned to suffer in hellfire for ages and ages. How they will rage and fume to think that they have lost the bliss of heaven for the dross of earth, for a few pieces of metal, for vain honours, for bodily comforts, for a tingling of the nerves. They will repent indeed: and this is the second sting of the worm of conscience, a late and fruitless sorrow for sins committed. Divine justice insists that the understanding of those miserable wretches be fixed continually on the sins of which they were guilty, and moreover, as saint Augustine points out, God will impart to them His own knowledge of sin, so that sin will appear to them in all its hideous malice as it appears to the eyes of God Himself. They will behold their sins in all their foulness and repent but it will be too late and then they will bewail the good occasions which they neglected. This is the last and deepest and most cruel sting of the worm of conscience. The conscience will say: You had time and opportunity to repent and would not. You were brought up religiously by your parents. You had the sacraments and grace and indulgences of the church to aid you. You had the minister of God to preach to you, to call you back when you had strayed, to forgive you your sins, no matter how many, how abominable, if only you had confessed and repented. No. You would not. You flouted the ministers of holy religion, you turned your back on the confessional, you wallowed deeper and deeper in the mire of sin. God appealed to you, threatened you, entreated you to return to Him. O, what shame, what misery! The Ruler of the universe entreated you, a creature of clay, to love Him Who made you and to keep His law. No. You would not. And now, though you were to flood all hell with your tears if you could still weep, all that sea of repentance would not gain for you what a single tear of true repentance shed during your mortal life would have gained for you. You implore now a moment of earthly life wherein to repent: In vain. That time is gone: gone for ever.

Such is the threefold sting of conscience, the viper which gnaws the very heart's core of the wretches in hell, so that filled with hellish fury they curse themselves for their folly and curse the evil companions who have brought them to such ruin and curse the devils who tempted them in life and now mock them in eternity and even revile and curse the Supreme Being Whose goodness and patience they scorned and slighted but Whose justice and power they cannot evade.

The next spiritual pain to which the damned are subjected is the pain of extension. Man, in this earthly life, though he be capable of many evils, is not capable of them all at once, inasmuch as one evil corrects and counteracts another just as one poison frequently corrects another. In hell, on the contrary, one torment, instead of counteracting another, lends it still greater force: and, moreover, as the internal faculties are more perfect than the external senses, so are they more capable of suffering. Just as every sense is afflicted with a fitting torment, so is every spiritual faculty; the fancy with horrible images, the sensitive faculty with alternate longing and rage, the mind and understanding with an interior darkness more terrible even than the exterior darkness which reigns in that dreadful prison. The malice, impotent though it be, which possesses these demon souls is an evil of boundless extension, of limitless duration, a frightful state of wickedness which we can scarcely realize unless we bear in mind the enormity of sin and the hatred God bears to it.

Opposed to this pain of extension and yet coexistent with it we have the pain of intensity. Hell is the centre of evils and, as you know, things are more intense at their centres than at their remotest points. There are no contraries or admixtures of any kind to temper or soften in the least the pains of hell. Nay, things which are good in themselves become evil in hell. Company, elsewhere a source of comfort to the afflicted, will be there a continual torment: knowledge, so much longed for as the chief good of the intellect, will there be hated worse than ignorance: light, so much coveted by all creatures from the lord of creation down to the humblest plant in the forest, will be loathed intensely. In this life our sorrows are either not very long or not very great because nature either overcomes them by habits or puts an end to them by sinking under their weight. But in hell the torments cannot be overcome by habit, for while they are of terrible intensity they are at the same time of continual variety, each pain, so to speak, taking fire from another and re-endowing that which has enkindled it with a still fiercer flame. Nor can nature escape from these intense and various tortures by succumbing to them for the soul is sustained and maintained in evil so that its suffering may be the greater. Boundless extension of torment, incredible intensity of suffering, unceasing variety of torture - this is what the divine majesty, so outraged by sinners, demands; this is what the holiness of heaven, slighted and set aside for the lustful and low pleasures of the corrupt flesh, requires; this is what the blood of the innocent Lamb of God, shed for the redemption of sinners, trampled upon by the vilest of the vile, insists upon.

Last and crowning torture of all the tortures of that awful place is the eternity of hell. Eternity! O, dread and dire word. Eternity! What mind of man can understand it? And remember, it is an eternity of pain. Even though the pains of hell were not so terrible as they are, yet they would become infinite, as they are destined to last for ever. But while they are everlasting they are at the same time, as you know, intolerably intense, unbearably extensive. To bear even the sting of an insect for all eternity would be a dreadful torment. What must it be, then, to bear the manifold tortures of hell for ever? For ever! For all eternity! Not for a year or for an age but for ever. Try to imagine the awful meaning of this. You have often seen the sand on the seashore. How fine are its tiny grains! And how many of those tiny little grains go to make up the small handful which a child grasps in its play. Now imagine a mountain of that sand, a million miles high, reaching from the earth to the farthest heavens, and a million miles broad, extending to remotest space, and a million miles in thickness; and imagine such an enormous mass of countless particles of sand multiplied as often as there are leaves in the forest, drops of water in the mighty ocean, feathers on birds, scales on fish, hairs on animals, atoms in the vast expanse of the air: and imagine that at the end of every million years a little bird came to that mountain and carried away in its beak a tiny grain of that sand. How many millions upon millions of centuries would pass before that bird had carried away even a square foot of that mountain, how many eons upon eons of ages before it had carried away all? Yet at the end of that immense stretch of time not even one instant of eternity could be said to have ended. At the end of all those billions and trillions of years eternity would have scarcely begun. And if that mountain rose again after it had been all carried away, and if the bird came again and carried it all away again grain by grain, and if it so rose and sank as many times as there are stars in the sky, atoms in the air, drops of water in the sea, leaves on the trees, feathers upon birds, scales upon fish, hairs upon animals, at the end of all those innumerable risings and sinkings of that immeasurably vast mountain not one single instant of eternity could be said to have ended; even then, at the end of such a period, after that eon of time the mere thought of which makes our very brain reel dizzily, eternity would scarcely have begun.

A holy saint (one of our own fathers I believe it was) was once vouchsafed a vision of hell. It seemed to him that he stood in the midst of a great hall, dark and silent save for the ticking of a great clock. The ticking went on unceasingly; and it seemed to this saint that the sound of the ticking was the ceaseless repetition of the words - ever, never; ever, never. Ever to be in hell, never to be in heaven; ever to be shut off from the presence of God, never to enjoy the beatific vision; ever to be eaten with flames, gnawed by vermin, goaded with burning spikes, never to be free from those pains; ever to have the conscience upbraid one, the memory enrage, the mind filled with darkness and despair, never to escape; ever to curse and revile the foul demons who gloat fiendishly over the misery of their dupes, never to behold the shining raiment of the blessed spirits; ever to cry out of the abyss of fire to God for an instant, a single instant, of respite from such awful agony, never to receive, even for an instant, God's pardon; ever to suffer, never to enjoy; ever to be damned, never to be saved; ever, never; ever, never. O, what a dreadful punishment! An eternity of endless agony, of endless bodily and spiritual torment, without one ray of hope, without one moment of cessation, of agony limitless in intensity, of torment infinitely varied, of torture that sustains eternally that which it eternally devours, of anguish that everlastingly preys upon the spirit while it racks the flesh, an eternity, every instant of which is itself an eternity of woe. Such is the terrible punishment decreed for those who die in mortal sin by an almighty and a just God.

Yes, a just God! Men, reasoning always as men, are astonished that God should mete out an everlasting and infinite punishment in the fires of hell for a single grievous sin. They reason thus because, blinded by the gross illusion of the flesh and the darkness of human understanding, they are unable to comprehend the hideous malice of mortal sin. They reason thus because they are unable to comprehend that even venial sin is of such a foul and hideous nature that even if the omnipotent Creator could end all the evil and misery in the world, the wars, the diseases, the robberies, the crimes, the deaths, the murders, on condition that he allowed a single venial sin to pass unpunished, a single venial sin, a lie, an angry look, a moment of wilful sloth, He, the great omnipotent God could not do so because sin, be it in thought or deed, is a transgression of His law and God would not be God if He did not punish the transgressor.

A sin, an instant of rebellious pride of the intellect, made Lucifer and a third part of the cohort of angels fall from their glory. A sin, an instant of folly and weakness, drove Adam and Eve out of Eden and brought death and suffering into the world. To retrieve the consequences of that sin the Only Begotten Son of God came down to earth, lived and suffered and died a most painful death, hanging for three hours on the cross.

O, my dear little brethren in Christ Jesus, will we then offend that good Redeemer and provoke His anger? Will we trample again upon that torn and mangled corpse? Will we spit upon that face so full of sorrow and love? Will we too, like the cruel jews and the brutal soldiers, mock that gentle and compassionate Saviour Who trod alone for our sake the awful wine-press of sorrow? Every word of sin is a wound in His tender side. Every sinful act is a thorn piercing His head. Every impure thought, deliberately yielded to, is a keen lance transfixing that sacred and loving heart. No, no. It is impossible for any human being to do that which offends so deeply the divine majesty, that which is punished by an eternity of agony, that which crucifies again the Son of God and makes a mockery of Him.

I pray to God that my poor words may have availed today to confirm in holiness those who are in a state of grace, to strengthen the wavering, to lead back to the state of grace the poor soul that has strayed if any such be among you. I pray to God, and do you pray with me, that we may repent of our sins. I will ask you now, all of you, to repeat after me the act of contrition, kneeling here in this humble chapel in the presence of God. He is there in the tabernacle burning with love for mankind, ready to comfort the afflicted. Be not afraid. No matter how many or how foul the sins if you only repent of them they will be forgiven you. Let no worldly shame hold you back. God is still the merciful Lord who wishes not the eternal death of the sinner but rather that he be converted and live.

He calls you to Him. You are His. He made you out of nothing. He loved you as only a God can love. His arms are open to receive you even though you have sinned against Him. Come to Him, poor sinner, poor vain and erring sinner. Now is the acceptable time. Now is the hour.

Cardinal Dulles Is Right

In my last post, I discussed why progressivist notions that imagine that somehow "we know better now" (on questions like religious liberty and slavery) are wrong, and why the Church is not ever going to unequivocally repudiate her own past in the progressive/revolutionary manner some seem to desire. That thread on Vox Nova continues, and I've added some more thoughts on what interpretation of development is correct if the progressivist narrative is not:

This question won’t be resolved, ever, by a recognition that “we were wrong in the past” exactly because there are many still who will defend the thought of the past. And so the Church will go on tolerating both opinions as prudential questions.

The Church can, perhaps, reconcile itself to something like religious liberty today. But people are very misguided if they think the Church is ever going to anathemize the past (or already has), or suddenly call people heretics who are merely holding what it was allowed, and even almost obligatory, to support in the past (Think, for example, if an SSPX reconciliation were to take place, etc.)

The best the Church can say, then, is something along the lines of “Neither is dogma, this turned out to be a prudential question of casuistic contingency, Catholics are free to judge either approach better (even if the institutional Church is, currently, using the more modern approach.)”

One can question the prudence, or the casuistic application of principles. But it will never recant such things on principle, because that would require making “new heresies” of things that never were before, and would require making heretics of many Catholics who do defend the old ways (or who at least, like me, argue that they are equally as tolerable as the current approach.) We might say, then: the Church can "baptize" values of the liberal democratic (pluralist, secular, laicist, etc) order...but it will never "canonize" them.

For example, Avery Cardinal Dulles treated this sort of question skillfully in 2005 in this article before his death. I would consider myself, generally speaking, an adherent to the “Dulles interpretation” of these changes (which we might, indeed, call a "hermeneutic of continuity.")

What I see in that Vox Nova thread, however, are progressivists licking their lips hoping that the magisterium will somehow deliver a final definitive blow anathemizing the past, beyond just recognizing a sort of “adaptation of the same principles to new social/political/economic circumstances” (like usury, say; I’d identify the principle as “credit is social rather than private” rather than a condemnation of all “interest” in se, though in pre-modern economies the latter surely transgressed the principle) or recognizing a distinction of things that are unideal/undesirable but not intrinsically evil in all hypothetical circumstances (like slavery, say; I don’t think it’s possible to come up with an internally consistent definition of "slavery" that would make it absolutely evil, covering all historical instances while at the same time being different in nature, and not merely degree, from any other system of labor we can imagine this side of the eschaton.)

However, I’m confident the Church won’t actually do that. They are not going to ever declare Cardinal Dulles’s interpretation of the matter to be heretical and dogmatize the “we simply were wrong then and know better now” progressive interpretation. While the new values may be baptized, they will never go so far as to canonize them. If there is one lesson we have learned, it is that dogmatizing socio-political values of the current world order is actually a terrible idea; if we appeared to do that for something like feudalism or monarchy, we should not make the same mistake with liberal democracy. His Kingdom is not of this world.

In fact, I suspect, beyond just being tolerated, the official hermeneutic will continue to be (and in fact will move closer towards) something like the “Dulles interpretation”…not a progressivist “we know better now.”

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Why Progressive Notions Are Wrong

There's a rather execrable post on Vox Nova essentially proposing that the Church needs to figure out an epistemology of "infallibility" that accounts for "the fact" that Church teaching has changed in certain areas. "Religious liberty" is the test-case here, but one can imagine the usual litany of concerns: slavery, usury, burning heretics, etc, blah blah blah. It's funny how it's always these socio-political-economic teachings which are the subject of alleged "change" (or calls for further change); something I'll address in this post.

In itself, I have no trouble conceding that the approach has changed on many of these questions. Everyone notices. It is only the neoconservatives who pretend there is a total constancy (in the ossified sense) when there isn't. Both trads and liberals alike (and especially renegade trads!) recognize that the Church's stance towards, say, liberal democracy and pluralism changed markedly at Vatican II. I have always said this didn't bother me, because the change is one of prudential approach. It really isn't supposed to be a change in principles or absolute values, so much as a change in how we engage the world. And so when the circumstances/situation change, the approach changes. In many ways, these "changes" just amount to being realistic about the practical situation on the ground in the world.

Where it gets concerning is when these natural (if not always well-advised) changes in approach based on changes in the situation of the world...are blended with a progressive narrative about those changes in the socio-political-economic sphere in order to conclude that (under the assumption that modern world arrangements are "better" than those in the past and represents an upward social/political/economic "evolution") the values or emphases or approaches adopted by the Church in order to engage the more recent situation are likewise "better" or represent moral or spiritual "progress." I think this is very dangerous, and so I wrote the following which I've expanded on here:

The problem is that the “humility” of “we were wrong (then)” is actually just equivalent to the arrogance of “we know better now.”

This sort of progressive narrative is ultimately groundless, because we have to ask something like “Where exactly is this ‘new knowledge’ coming from?”

Has there been new Revelation? No. 

Where then is this “better understanding” coming from, and by what standard can we be sure it is “better” as opposed to simply different?

Generally, the issues in question are those of morals (as opposed to “faith”/dogmatic questions). The latter can indeed develop by increasingly precise formulations or the evolution of concepts (like the Immaculate Conception) that nevertheless can be "discovered" implicit in the logic of the original axioms. This development can be compared, I suppose, to the development of pure Mathematics by way of proofs.

However, moral issues are a different category. Morality cannot be said to develop like Math along some sort of road of greater and greater synthesis and discovery from axioms and basic logic. If there are things the Church has only taught explicitly later in the dogmatic sphere (say, defining transubstantiation), it’s never like she taught the opposite before hand. Things weren’t as advanced in the past, but they certainly weren’t contradictory.

Yet this sort of contradiction is exactly what is proposed in a "progressive" narrative about moral issues. “We know better now.” It’s not just that you’re saying we didn’t know as much as in the past, but that somehow something in our knowledge changed.
The analogy here, then, seems to be less the development of Mathematics, and more the development of the natural empirical sciences which proceed with the gathering of experimental data. But this analogy seems problematic to apply to the moral sphere as well. Is does-not-equal Ought, so in moral questions…what sort of “experimental data” could really advance our knowledge? 

 Revelation could. But there has been no new Revelation since Christ and the Apostles. Maybe I could concede that there could be progress in spiritual consciousness, in theoria, along the lines of greater achievement in holiness and contemplation and mysticism that would lead to new moral awareness.

But I hardly think that's the sort of empirical input that the progressives are claiming has led to the "evolution" or "advancement" of moral knowledge (that's certainly never the sort of evidence they cite!) For one, it’s pretty clear that mysticism and contemplative life was a much more widespread phenomenon in the Middle Ages, say. And I really think a notion of greater holiness in later ages of history is faulty; there is spiritual progress for the individual, not for the race as a whole, exactly because the spiritual project is "designed" in such a way that divinization is approachable in a single human lifetime, exactly because when it comes to sanctification, the individual is irreducible and holiness is incommunicable. It would be that sort of arrogance once again, and naïveté, to imagine that we are living in an Age of Saints more than any other in history, or to act as if we somehow inherit, merely by living later in history, some sort of "rolling snowball" of holiness.

And yet, it seems to me, there must be some concrete change which would justify a change in the moral beliefs. If someone is going to claim that a previous hypothesis or theory or idea has been disproven, there has to be some reason. Something that disproves it.

Yet, as we have shown, when it comes to moral questions it cannot be simply greater progression along some sort of pathway of mathematical-style proofs (which would deepen knowledge, but never contradict the past.) We know it's not new Revelation. And I really have a hard time buying the notion that somehow sheer experience (ie, empirical data) has “disproven” our old hypotheses, because the only sort of data that could even possibly prove a moral “ought” (mystical experience) has not in fact increased or become more widespread.

So what do we know now, that we didn't know then, that makes it impossible to hold the values they did in the past? What new information or data do we have that is incompatible with the old hypotheses? It's not that we discovered flaws in their logic (indeed, you can read the medieval justifications for the heretic-burning order of Christendom; they knew, and answered, the potential objections with perfect logic.) It's not that we got new Revelation. It's not that we reached deeper levels of contemplation than their Saints. It's not that we learned that burning makes people suffer (trust me, they knew that!) 

So what is it? I challenge any progressive to tell me what new data we have gained or new syllogism we have demonstrated which makes the old values impossible or "superceded" in a clearly unidirectional irreversible (ie, progressive) way.

I hate to sound like a Marxist…but it seems to me that the only “new information” on which this alleged “knowing better now” is based is simply the evolution of socio-political structure, which is itself based on evolution of the economic structure/means of production, which is based, in turn, on mere technological progress.

But that hardly seems the grounds for making an absolute value judgment that is anything other than historically contingent. As I said above, trying to apply the progressive principle of empirical knowledge (which, indeed, does only tend to increase and build-on and supersede itself) to the moral highly problematic, as (because "is" is not "ought") only a certain type of experience (namely, Revelation, and possibly mystical experience) can be said to provide any sort of experiential data for moral knowledge. And yet the arrogance of the progressivists would place the grounds of our "knowing better now" simply in the values that arise ambiguously from our social structure. 

Of course, they'd never admit this context-contingency. To them, even if the moral "progress" can be shown to coincide with and merely mirror the alleged social "progress" (ie, the evolution of political/economic system), they think they are actually discovering "better" values that remain "more advanced" in an absolute way (in many ways, it seems, just because they come later in history and thus are defined as "more evolved.") And yet, even if we accept the analogy of "evolution"...greater complexity is not always good. The modern world certainly is more complex and larger in scale, but that could just mean magnified evil. This is the premise of dystopian literature (and there is no better dystopian piece than the Book of Revelations.)

It is quite a leap to assume that just because a given socio-economic-political order corresponds to a more advanced stage of technical knowledge...this means that this order is, in itself, also "more advanced." And to make the further leap to judging the same thing about the values that suggest themselves from this structure seems the height of folly. Perhaps, prior to heaven, the "best" stage of technology, temporal polity, and spiritual value or moral development... do not, in fact, coincide, but rather happen at three different times. Maybe the latter two "peak" well before the former (and maybe do not have their "golden age" at the same time as each other either; the moment when temporal society or happiness is maximized may not be the moment moral development was maximized.)

And indeed, in the biological world, "evolution" does not always even mean greater complexity. There are known cases of creatures which have towards forms we might think of as "more primitive," and yet this, of course, involves a value judgment that even the scientists who study evolutionary biology reject (they would caution against a reading of evolution as "progress" or "advancement"). It would be mistaken, I think, and the very definition of Secularism, to read a sort progressive "teleology" into the playing-out of natural history. Ours is a God who bursts into history with radical intervention at certain points (specifically, the First Coming and the Second Coming) but other than that there is no moral or spiritual "advancement" for mankind as a whole. At the very least, this idea is not CatholicThe Catholic position is "Save yourselves from this corrupt generation."

Indeed, by buying into the “we know better now” narrative which reaches certain premises (like “religious liberty” in the Liberal sense) based simply on the form of economics (in this case, for example, I think the resonance is pretty clear: The Good is privatized ideologically in a marketplace of competing ideas because goods are privatized materially in a marketplace of competing products)…one actually winds up being “chained” to The Age as much as our forebearers, and may wind up being just as “superceded” when the substructure once again changes.

The “progressive” narrative about human moral development thus actually winds up simply serving whatever the current regime is.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

His Wrath

As many of you know from another recent post of mine, I have recently been concentrating very much on God's Wrath and Hatred and Vengeance. I have come to think that, throughout Revelation, this is the primary mode by which He reveals Himself to us.

Oh, you might say, that's not true; maybe that's how He did it in the Old Testament, but not the New, the New is all about Love and stuff. And yet isn't the most terrifying and violent and monstrous image we have of God actually found at the very heart of the New Testament: the God who demands His completely innocent Son to suffer and die horribly on a Cross to, essentially, satisfy His blood-lust. Albeit, it's an entirely just "blood-lust," yet one which can only be satisfied by the suffering of an Infinite Victim. Not even satisfied really; it's not like people stopped suffering afterwards, and indeed God is said to still desire more oblations in the form of martyrs (of which their have been millions in the past century). 

So personally I cannot see the New Testament as a switch to a "nicer" God; rather, it is a switch to a God who has ceased to be satisfied with the blood of animals and who now has a taste for human sacrifice. From a God who seemed concerned (if obsessively so) mainly with mundane aspects of ordinary life and merely sent dead shades to a vague afterlife in the limbo of a God who is revealed to make life itself nothing but a high stakes game for either Heaven or Hell, an extremely difficult contest for either infinite reward or infinite pain that totalizingly requires vigilance at every moment of waking life, with no way to opt out, with the playing field utterly unlevel from the start, and with Him just waiting for someone to slip up and entertain an impure thought so that He can have them hit by a bus and then cast them into the furnace forever.

And so today, with all these terrifying (and, indeed, almost repulsive) thoughts about God in mind, I was thinking about the Crucifixion. Now, there are two ways to interpret the Crucifixion in light of God's Wrath, and I realized that in the end they boil down to the same thing.

The first, of course, is that the Crucifixion is something like the supreme image of God's Wrath: here is His Justice, His Anger, His Violent Rage towards humanity...all played out on the stage or canvas of the Broken Human Body, the entire vehemence of His Hatred for The Flesh and The World expressed in just wailing on this Suffering Innocent One like a cosmic punching bag. (This is more in line with a sort of Anselmian atonement model.)

Then there is the second way to look at the Crucifixion in light of God's Wrath, the one that concentrates more on the depravity of human beings and how wicked and pernicious humanity is: we did this. Both concretely (in the form of the Roman corruption and Jewish perfidy of the representatives of our worthless race on Calvary), and abstractly (because it is all of our sin which nailed Him there.)

So which is it? Did we wrought this horrible spectacle of violence, or did God? Is the Cross a sign of how evil humans are, that we would torture and kill God? Or is it a sign of how angry God is, that He would torture and kill Man? I think the great paradox of Christian life is that it's both. 

The Cross is both the Crime and the Punishment. This truly unspeakable thing we've done, the murder of God by all humanity, is its own Punishment. Forget the melodramatic eclipses and earthquakes and torn veils; God's Wrath upon mankind for the Crucifixion is nothing other than the Crucifixion itself. It stands there convicting us. 

Likewise looking at it "the other way around." We can ask "What could we have possibly done so horrible to warrant God expressing His temper so violently against even the most perfect and innocent representative of our race?" And the answer is likewise to be found in nothing other than the Cross itself. Yes, individual sins form the remote explanation, but that merely begs the question: why is sin so bad. So the only answer that ultimately suffices is that we deserve God's Wrath for nothing other than unleashing His Wrath.

This may be hard for us to understand. But I think of a wolf standing in a cage. The keeper warns a child not to make a funny face at the wolf. The child makes the face nonetheless, and the wolf reaches out and mauls the child. I would say the child deserves this. Not because the mere act of making the funny face, in itself, warrants such a harsh result. No, the funny face was just the means or the vessel, but the real substance of the child's transgression is nothing other than the act itself of provoking the wolf. And the consequence, quite naturally, is that the wolf is provoked!

We see this likewise in the story of the Fall. Eating a fruit isn't so bad, it's the disobedience it involved. God said, "Do that and I'll be pissed." The serpent convinced them this was unreasonable, that God had no business getting mad at something silly like that. And yet, that's ultimately irrelevant. If you know someone will get angry at you for doing something, however unreasonable you may find that temper, you certainly can be blamed for the provocation if you know your action will in fact provoke them (assuming, of course, there is no pressing need or obligation to do it). And so, in a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy, at that point you actually do deserve the response provoked.

This, I think, is something of the dark-side of Eckhart's "the eye with which I see God, is the eye with which God sees me." That God's ultimate punishment on us for killing His Son, is nothing other than the killing of His Son. Sin is it's own punishment. The death of God is the punishment that God inflicts on us for killing God. And yet, of course, He's still in control. By the very fact of infusing sin with the meaning of "punishment for sin," He thus has us carry out His own punishment on ourselves by the very fact of the sin. And by the very fact of taking the agency in His own murder by us like that and so turning it back around on us as the expression of His Anger, He is "become sin," has descended into Hell, and so triumphed over both. 

A triumph achieved by taking the very thing which is the occasion of His Wrath, the Cross, and identifying it also with the expression of His Wrath. So that "where sin abounded, grace did more abound." This is why there must needs be a certain nihilism at the heart of religious experience: because we meet God as a negation. In our sin, which is to say our meaninglessness, we encounter Meaning's Wrath in the very fact of meaninglessness. Yet the very fact of that Wrath in the nihilism implies meaning is still there, and is in fact not incompatible or mutually exclusive with meaninglessness, but are rather two masks of the same reality, like the illusion of the young and old woman:

This is where I find real appeal to the Eastern Christian insight that God, in His essence, is beyond all dualities, even the being/non-being duality. God is even, we might dare to say, beyond the God/Not-God duality. This is, perhaps, the "things contain their opposites" idea (though I prefer just to think of the old phrase "two sides of the same coin.") 

In fact, we might define sin as the privileging of either above the other. So in atheism or a fetishized "object theism." In the rejection of absolute meaning, yes, but also in an insistence on worshiping an "absolute" meaning-idol made of stone (rather, I think, we must remember something along the lines of "the only constant is change...") I think one would find that all the categories of sin condemned (and rightly so) in the Christian tradition boil down to this paradox.

This reminds me of something I read from Rowan Williams once, on this Vox Nova post, in which he refuted certain modern theologians who would question God's immutability from the perspective of either Creation or the Incarnation (claiming that either introduced essential change into God's nature). Rather, Dr. Williams explains:

God must be such as to make it possible for divine life to live in the heart of its own opposite, for divine life to be victorious simply by ‘sustaining’ itself in hell. But this directs us clearly to the conclusion that the divine identity cannot be a straightforward sameness or self-equivalence. God’s freedom to be God in the centre of what is not God (creation, suffering, hell) must not be grounded in an abstract liberty of the divine will (such a contentless liberty would only divide the divine will from any coherent account of divine consistency and thus personal dependability), but in the character of God’s life. If God can be revealed in the cross, if God can be actively God in hell, God is God in or even as what is other than God (a dead man, a lost soul). Yet that otherness must itself be intrinsic to God, not a self-alienation. [...] Once again, we cannot think of God’s presence in the otherness of death and hell as if God initially lacked something which could be developed only through the process of Jesus’s experience.
Perhaps this is why I am sympathetic to a certain type of Kierkegaardian Christian Existentialism in my Faith that can only leap absurdly. For we might even say something like "Atheism is at the heart of Christianity, and Christianity at the heart of Atheism." For "the divine identity cannot be a straightforward...self-equivalence." So nihilism is at the heart of faith, and so faith and the heart of nihilism. Meaninglessness is at the heart of meaning, and so meaning is at the heart of meaninglessness. God's Wrath is at the heart of His Love, and His Love at the heart of His Wrath. Hell is at the heart of heaven, and so heaven at the heart of hell, and thus it is the soul that clings too much to happiness who will find herself in heaven, and the soul that descends into suffering who will find herself in heaven.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Friday, June 22, 2012


Another case of more heat than light. Apparently a lesbian couple has sued a self-insuring Catholic hospital where one of them works for discrimination for not extending benefits to the partner, now a legal "spouse," under the assumption that the Federal Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional (or hoping to have it ruled such.)

I don't want to beat this issue to death, as I've done a few posts on it lately. I am ambivalent about the labeling question, and don't want to get into that discussion again so soon. I do support civil recognition of partnership relationships (in themselves good) of all types, but I'm also ambivalent about the government regulating how private employers deal with their employees in general (especially when it's a religious employer, as a Catholic hospital most certainly is.)

I really am ambivalent about government regulations like that. For example, if a privately owned restaurant doesn't want to serve a certain race, I'm not going to say that must be illegal. But then the restaurant shouldn't be surprised when a bunch of people even from other races (including me) choose to boycott that restaurant! At the same time, I don't really care if the government does make it illegal (in fact, I'm mildly supportive of such laws); I'm not some sort of libertarian purist who thinks the Civil Rights Act was bad. Whatever works, I say. Still, no one has a right to eat at a certain restaurant, but no one has a right to operate a restaurant either, nor to expect customers, so it's hard for me to see either case as about "rights."

So I guess my view of these things is something along the lines of the Catholic view of grace. When we're talking about things that nobody has a right to in the first place (and I don't think anyone has a strict right to any sorts of benefits from their employer unless their is a contract in place)...I don't think claims of discrimination make any sense. God makes it to rain on some fields and not on others, and if certain privileges (not rights) are available to some people, other people shouldn't complain (like the workers in the vineyard.) Likewise, if the State chooses to protect some privileges and not others, or to only prosecute certain criminals, etc...the motives may be wrong, but there is not necessarily any right to have equal access to what no one had a right to in the first place!

So when it comes to the lawsuit itself, I suppose my feelings are on the side of the Catholic hospital and the federal law. As a religious employer, especially, they should be able to discriminate however they want. And same thing with the federal government in this case. If it wants to extend privileges (not rights, mind you) to only one group, it really doesn't matter if the boundaries of that group are totally arbitrary (or even based on a biased criterion). However, that's only the legal question. When it comes to my practical sympathies, they are more towards the side of saying that arbitrary exclusion or irrational distinctions are bad. In other words: I don't necessarily think they violate justice, but they most certainly violate charity.

Anyway, the main thing I wanted to point out here in this vein was the absurdity of this statement:

The suit illustrates what Roman Catholic bishops warned would happen last year when the Obama administration, calling the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional, said it would no longer defend it in court. Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, the Roman Catholic archbishop of New York, wrote to President Obama to contend that steps toward legalizing gay marriage could push Catholic social service organizations to shut down, rather than violate their moral beliefs.
Now, maybe I'm just dense, but I'm really not sure what Catholic belief would be violated here. If they were suing to force us to pay for her abortion, that would be one thing. But I hardly think it can be called a Catholic belief that we're not allowed to extend certain financial benefits to certain people. I mean, I can't find anything objectively wrong here. Rather, the complaint seems to be something along the lines of being forced to "recognize" a lesbian marriage. But that isn't really true except as a sort of legal construct that we could easily escape by simply taking all notion of "spouses" out of the healthcare plan and simply allowing each member to appoint one "significant other" (no questions asked about the specific nature or content of that relationship) to share the benefits.

So, while I don't think there is necessarily an obligation in justice to extend such benefits to anyone, nor that it is a violation of justice to exclude certain people even arbitrarily...I do believe the exclusions as the exist are pretty arbitrary, are more about semantic obfuscation (and possibly saving money, ala Steubenville's inconsistent health plan decision), and I think it's incredibly disingenuous to act as if it is "against our teachings" to give certain people shared insurance benefits, tax breaks, hospital visitation rights, etc, as if those things are some how intrinsically linked to the immoral sex acts that may or may not be taking place between the pair in question. 

It's not as if they're being asked to directly facilitate anything objectively immoral here. There is nothing in itself controversial about giving someone insurance or whatever. They object to the official "reason," but the official "reason" is nothing more than a legal fiction or construct. Like I said, the Church could say that our reason for extending it is not because they recognize a "marriage," but because we extend benefits to all significant others, or to all civil partners under the law (even if disagreeing with how the law labels it and how the culture associates that civil arrangement with immorality.) 

So the disagreeing with the proposed reason itself does not seem a sufficient cause to refrain from a morally neutral act (since, really, we determine how we construct the motive). A boss sleeping with an employee may present some serious conflict of interest problems, but it is not, in itself, prostitution just because they're having sex and money is being exchanged between the two, as long as the two transactions are intentionally unrelated. There are plenty of ways to extend benefits to partners without construing this as a recognition or approval of or enabling of anything immoral. 

But this notion only makes sense to people who understand that such relationships are abstractable from any immorality they might contain and, so abstracted, are valuable in many ways in themselves. Ways which could form the basis of a totally non-controversial concession of benefits. Of course, most conservative Catholics these days can't make that abstraction, identify sin with relationship itself as if they were totally equivalent, and so don't understand this logic. It's sad.