Did He Really Say That?

Tuesday, 04-28-2015

When I show my students the following passage, some of them are unable to take it in.  They think the author must merely mean that pregnancy increases the risk of certain illnesses.  No, that is not what he is saying.  Read it again carefully.  I’ve added boldface for emphasis.

The foregoing discussion should allow us to abandon the erroneous assumption that pregnancy is per se a normal and desirable state, and to consider instead a more accurate view that human pregnancy is an episodic, moderately extended chronic condition with a definable morbidity and mortality risk to which females are uniquely though not uniformly susceptible and which:

-- is almost entirely preventable through the use of effective contraception, and entirely so through abstinence;

-- when not prevented, is the individual result of a set of species specific bio-social adaptations with a changing significance for species survival;

-- may be defined as an illness requiring medical supervision through (a) cultural traditions, functional or explicit, (b) circumstantial self-definition of illness or (c) individual illness behavior;

-- may be treated by evacuation of the uterine contents;

-- may be tolerated, sought, and/or valued for the purpose of reproduction; and

-- has an excellent prognosis for complete, spontaneous recovery if managed under careful medical supervision.  [He means the woman gives birth to the child.]

Accordingly, the open recognition and legitimation of pregnancy as an illness would be consistent with the individual self-interest of those experiencing pregnancy, good standards of medical practice, and the continued survival of human and other species.

This is the entire conclusion of an article by abortionist Warren M. Hern, M.D., "Is Pregnancy Really Normal?"  But his opinion is not really unusual; he merely states it more bluntly than most people who think his way do.

Tomorrow:  Is and Ought Again


Mortification of the Flesh

Monday, 04-27-2015

Mondays are for student letters.  This student writes from the University of Chicago.


I am emailing regarding what I consider to be a rather disturbing practice -- mortification of the flesh.  I was wondering what you thought of it and what the Catholic Church teaches about it.  I find it abhorrent, or at least, I find what I know of it to be abhorrent.  It seems to be a direct attack on the body as a gift from God, and against the created order as a whole.


The term “mortification of the flesh” refers to ascetical practices in general.  The body and the rest of the created order are good, but they are also in disorder.  So the idea of mortification isn’t to despise the body, but to make the body an obedient servant instead of being ruled by it.  

One form of mortification is giving something up – for example, fasting on Fridays or abstaining from meat in order to battle one’s propensity to intemperance.   A sterner form of mortification is bodily penance, which means voluntarily submitting to something uncomfortable or even painful.  This is the one that bothers you, as I know from the original, longer form of your letter.

It’s odd that we admire athletes and Navy SEALS for practicing uncomfortable disciplines for earthly purposes, but consider them morbid when Christians practice them for spiritual purposes.  But aren’t we to be athletes and warriors of the Spirit?

Even so, the Church doesn’t teach that one has to practice these particular forms of mortification; it teaches that one is allowed to, but with warnings, to make sure the practice is not abused.  To give something up or submit to discomfort is allowable; to damage or injure the body is a heresy.  Since such practices can be abused, why would the Church allow them at all?  Simply because through the ages, many people have found them helpful – and these many include many Protestants.

True, among Protestants they are presently out of favor.  One reason may be that Protestants tend to be minimalists.  If a particular practice can be abused, or a particular doctrine can be misunderstood, then Protestants prefer to do without it.  For example, some Protestant denominations reason that because wine can be used to excess, it is better not to use it at all, even in Holy Communion.

Catholics, by contrast, incline toward maximalism.  Why miss out on anything good?  If a practice can be helpful when not abused, the Church tends to allow it but forbid the abuse.  If a doctrine is true but can be distorted, the Church teaches it but warns against the distortion.  We fast so that we can trust ourselves to feast.

Perhaps a thought experiment might help.  Imagine a young man who desires a deeper appreciation of the Passion.  As he meditates on the Crowning with Thorns, for several minutes he lightly presses his fingernails into his forehead.  As soon as he stops, the discomfort ends, and the marks of his fingernails fade away.  He prays in wonder, “O, Christ, if even these few minutes of slight discomfort have been difficult for me, what must You have suffered for my sake!  Conform me to Yourself.  Allow me to identify more completely with what You have done for me on the Cross, and keep me from being a slave to all my comforts.”

Has the young man done wrong?  I can’t see how.  Might what he has done have been spiritually helpful to him?  It seems that it was.  Should he be careful?  Of course he should.  Has he been careful?  Obviously.

Tomorrow:  Is and Ought Again

Faith and Reason

Sunday, 04-26-2015

“It is idle to talk always of the alternative of reason and faith.  Reason is itself a matter of faith.  It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all.”

-- G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

Tomorrow:  Mortification of the Flesh


Straw Men and Other Silly Arguments

Saturday, 04-25-2015

Natural teleology is the doctrine that natures – including the one which concerns us most closely, human nature – are suffused with indwelling purposes.  In rational creatures these purposes correspond with inbuilt meanings.  The classical natural law tradition holds among other things that such facts about us have moral consequences, and that to dishonor our natural teleology is to dishonor ourselves.

Cartoonish arguments against natural teleology abound.

You’re just making things up, like those fellows in the old days who thought the purpose of foxes was to give pleasure to the English lords in hunting them.

If anyone ever did say that, he was probably joking.  But would it be so ridiculous to ask what role the fox plays in the ecosystem to which he belongs?

I cannot believe what I am hearing.  Haven’t you ever been taught that there are no natural purposes?  Purposes are in the eye of the beholder.

I was taught that.  But do you suppose we are imagining things when we say eyes are for seeing, lungs are for breathing, and the mind is for deliberating and knowing?  Is it just a social convention that husbands and wives call the marital act “making love”?

Surely you don’t suppose that an IS can imply an OUGHT.

If it can’t, then I suppose it doesn’t matter whether I use my lungs to breathe or to sniff glue.  You may live by that philosophy if you wish, but I don’t advise it.

Come now.  Purposes can’t be in things.  Purpose can only be in minds.

Purposes are in one sense in things, in another sense in minds, and in yet another sense in the mind of God.  Of course these senses aren’t identical – the heart isn’t thinking, “I had better pump” -- but they are analogical.

If you really believed nature should never be violated, then you would never diet, since you would be cutting back on what you would call the nutritive purpose.

No, the fact that eating is for nutrition doesn’t imply that I have to be eating all the time; rather it tells me how to eat if I do eat.  Don’t you think there would be something disordered in eating six courses, purging, then returning to the table for more?

But surely if you believed that, you wouldn’t fly in an airplane.

What part of my natural teleology would I be undermining if I did so?  No part that I can see.  Nor am I prohibited from using hammers just because my hands aren’t shaped like hammerheads.

Maybe not, but you could never use eyeglasses, or fill cavities in your teeth.

On the contrary, it is because I respect the natural purpose of my eyes and teeth that I try to restore them when they are damaged or impaired.  But I wouldn’t blind myself to play the title character in Oedipus Rex, sharpen my teeth to look fierce, or pull them all out because lisping happened to be in fashion this season.

You wouldn’t?  Why, in that case, you’d probably say it was inappropriate to drill decorative holes in yourself.  For instance in your lips and tongue and – other things.


Tomorrow:  Faith and Reason

Private Service and Public Selfishness

Friday, 04-24-2015

Why do we assume that business firms are engaged in the “pursuit of self-interest,” but that government bureaucracies are engaged in “public service”?

Far be it from me to suggest that businessmen don’t pursue their interests.  Of course they do.  They want greater profits, a larger market share, and higher stature.

But so do government bureaucrats.  They want greater budgets, a larger number of clients, and higher prestige.  They too build fiefdoms and empires.

To achieve their goals, both businessmen and bureaucrats provide goods and services.  In this sense, both do something for the public (or anyway, for someone).  But how well do they do it?  Unless they have monopolies – which are difficult to preserve without government collusion -- businessmen have to provide goods and services at a reasonable price, or they will be squeezed out by other firms.  For bureaucrats, efficiency is a much smaller concern, because the price of what they offer is hidden in taxes, and they don’t have to compete.

We rightly turn over certain functions to the government, because there is no sensible alternative.  National defense, for example, must be provided by public authority; so must the making of laws.

But not many goods and services meet this criterion, and to think that earning a living in business is selfish, but that earning it from government is virtuous, is simply absurd.

Tomorrow:  Straw Men and Other Silly Arguments

The Permanent Advantages of Good and Evil

Thursday, 04-23-2015

Adapted from this book

          As the web-weavers of mendacity twine ever new word-tangles of confusion, ever-changing ways to deceive, it is necessary to find ever new ways to explain old truth.

In one way this is like an arms race:  As each side adds new weapons to its arsenal, the other side tries to counter.

In another way it is different from an arms race:  The assumption of equivalence fails to hold.  Each side has certain permanent advantages in resources, and certain permanent disadvantages as well.  When I say "permanent," I mean as to the duration of this world.

          To the permanent advantage of evil is that it can rationalize.  To its permanent disadvantage is that it must -- for it has no good reasons, only sham ones.

To its further advantage is the fact that the ordinary people who oppose it are equally tempted to make nests for their sins in the spreading branches of moral law.  So often it seems just to do wrong.  But to its further disadvantage is this:  That the ordinary people it ensnares are equally loved by God, and cannot by any magic but free will be placed beyond the possibility of redemption.

          Those who seek good have a permanent advantage in the ultimately inescapable facts of the human moral design.  They have a greater advantage in the indestructibility of that part of the design called synderesis or deep conscience, which, like a signal buoy, keeps rising.  And they have an illimitable advantage in the Designer Himself, who is not a remote intelligence but a God who hears their prayers:  Who cannot be defeated, cannot be caught by surprise, and acts beyond apparent defeats in ways they do not see.

          Perhaps the greatest permanent disadvantage of those who seek good is that through the sheer horror of devastation, their opponents can tempt them to despair.  This is a burden.  But they have a permanent advantage in the virtue St. Paul calls hope, for their confidence, unlike the bravado of their opponents, is not presumption; it does not rest in their own small strength, but in the strength of the One whom they serve

 I am reminded of a debate in which the pro-abortion speaker grew impatient.  "Don't you people understand that you've lost?" she demanded.  "The fat lady has sung."  Her opponent replied, "It's not over when the fat lady sings but when the angel blows his horn."

          This sort of thing will not get into any course on rhetoric; it is not about tropes and forms of argument, important as those are.  It turns on the structure of the universe.

Tomorrow:  Private Service and Public Selfishness

The Staircase of Lies

Wednesday, 04-22-2015

Adapted from this book

The increasing filthiness of our national politics brings to my mind a question put to me a long time ago by one of my own teachers.  "Don't you think there is more lying in politics than there used to be?" he asked.  "Why do you think that this is happening?"

At the time, young oaf that I was, I thought his question silly.  But after thinking lo these many years, I would like to try to answer it.

Our statesmen do lie more, and for the same reasons that most of us lie more.  There are seven degrees of descent on the downward staircase of mendacity.  Not all of us are at the bottom, but most of us are at a lower stair than we admit.

The first and topmost stair is simply sin.  The greater our trespasses, the more we have to lie about.  We lie about money, sex, and our children, because we sin about money, sex, and our children.  A turning point in both public and private life came in the early seventies, when we legalized the private use of lethal violence against babies yet unborn.  The justification of such staggering betrayal takes more lies than there are words to tell them.

The second stair is self-protection.  Lies are weaklings; they need bodyguards.  Even the smallest prevarication needs a ring of perjuries to keep from being seen.  But each new lie needs its own protective ring.  Pretty soon the liar is smothered in layers of mendacity, as numerous as onion shells, as thick as flannel blankets.

Third down is habituation.  We make habits of everything; it is part of our nature.  Courage and magnanimity become habits, and so does the chewing of gum.  In time lying too becomes a habit.  After you have lied awhile for need, you begin to lie without need.  It becomes second nature.  You hardly notice that you do it.  Asked why, you can give no reason.  You have crossed the border between lying and being a liar.

Underneath the previous stair is self-deception, for beyond a certain point, a person starts losing track of truth.  Your heart cannot bear to believe that you lie as hugely as you do, so to relieve the rubbing, itching, pricking needles of remorse, you half-believe your own fabrications.

Rationalization follows next in order.  As your grasp on the truth continues to weaken, you come to blame its weakness on truth itself.  It's so slippery, so elusive, who can hold it?  It changes shape, moves around, just won't sit still.  Not at all fair of it, but everything is shades of gray anyway.  How silly to believe in absolutes.  Truth is what we let each other get away with, that's all.

Sixth comes technique.  Lying becomes a craft.  For example, you discover that a great falsehood repeated over and over works even better than a small one.  Nobody can believe that you would tell such a whopper; therefore, you have a motive to make every lie a whopper.  This technique, called the Big Lie after a remark in Hitler's Mein Kampf, is not a monopoly of totalitarian dictators, or even of politicians; probably no one uses it in public life before he has practiced it in private.  Our American variation on the Big Lie works by numbers instead of size.  If you lie about everything, no matter how small, nobody can believe you would tell so many lies.  The whistleblowers exhaust themselves trying to keep up with you, and eventually they have blown their whistles so many times that people think that they must be the liars.  By the time a few of your lies are found out, the virtue of honesty has become so discredited that no one cares whether you are lying or not.  "They all do it."

The seventh and bottommost stair is that morality turns upside-down.  Why does this happen?  Because the moment lying is accepted instead of condemned, it has to be required.  If it is just another way to win, then in refusing to lie for the cause or for the company, you aren't doing your job.

This is where we are, and this is who we are becoming.  The problem is not just in our politicians, for they came from us and we elected them.  How serious are we about Truth?  Do we dare finally yield our hearts, words and deeds to to be scraped, scoured and made honest until they can give back His light?

Tomorrow:  The Permanent Advantages of Good and Evil