Full Circle

Monday, 12-05-2016

Men think they may do as they please.

In order to limit them, among other things the law of Moses prohibits disproportionate revenge:  One may take an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but not a life for an eye or a limb for a tooth.

To men who have been successfully shaped by that wise law, Christ explains that in fact, the God Who gave it does not desire men to take revenge at all.

Some centuries later, theological revisionists argue that if revenge is really wrong, then the law of Moses is defective.

Still later revisionists conclude that if the law of Moses is defective, then Divine Revelation is illegitimate.

In that case the revelation of Christ is illegitimate too.

Men think they may do as they please.

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Mean Moralists

Monday, 11-28-2016

I am glad to say that after receiving my response, this fellow made a gracious reply.

Query:

I've begun your guide because even as an atheist I believed in abiding universals and liked Epictetus and Cicero.

I have a complaint with you. I've known women who had abortions who were deeply mournful but their situation was desperate.  They were abandoned and couldn't care for themselves.  Why don't you moralists do something about the dire conditions children could be born into and are why they're aborted?

Another culture issue is same sex marriage. There has always been a small minority of homosexuals and to finally let them love without being thrown off a roof is only decent.

Law should not be some imaginary ideal. If people can't do it it isn't moral.

Reply:

Cicero is one of my favorites too, and I'm glad you recognize that there are abiding universals, though I suggest that a few are missing from your list.  Since there is a certain edge to your tone, I don’t want to correspond back and forth.  However, you do ask several serious questions, so I will take a chance and respond just this once.

“I have a complaint with you.  I've known women who had abortions who were deeply mournful but their situation was desperate.”

Would you have written that you’ve known women who have killed their toddlers and were deeply mournful, but their situation was desperate?  Of course you wouldn’t have, because there are no situations that can justify the deliberate killing of weak and innocent human beings.  But unborn infants are also weak and innocent human beings.  You don’t suppose those are dogs or porpoises in there, do you?

Nor are you doing distressed mothers any favors by encouraging them to kill their own children.  Of course they mourn, for the trauma of having been responsible for the death of one’s son or daughter far exceeds almost any imaginable sorrow.  They will always remember that if they were unable to care for their children, even so they might have loved them enough to put them up for adoption, and instead they took their lives away.  How greatly they and their children need the mercy of God.  Your mercy is cold ashes, because you make no effort to dissuade them.

“They were abandoned and couldn't care for themselves. Why don't you moralists do something about the dire conditions children could be born into and are why they're aborted.”

Really, you should find out the facts.  There are thousands of crisis pregnancy centers across the United States alone, staffed mostly by volunteers.  These are but a fraction of the pro-life organizations that help women in trouble.  Typically, they offer a wide variety of services.  The one closest to me offers baby furniture, diapers, baby clothing, child rearing classes, and help with enrolling for social services, among other things.  A pro-life shelter I know took in pregnant women who had no place to live, and afterward helped with all kinds of practical needs so that they could get on their feet.  If you think that isn’t enough, you might ask yourself what you do for these poor women.

“Another culture issue is same sex marriage. There has always been a small minority of homosexuals and to finally let them love ... is only decent.”

Would you have written so approvingly of incest?  No?  Then you agree that the law must make distinctions.  Even so, no one is trying to keep anyone else from having loving affection for anyone.  I think perhaps you believe that sex makes every kind of love better.  A moment’s thought shows that this is false.  There are many kinds of love -- between brothers and sisters, soldiers in trenches, parents and children, teachers and students, husbands and wives, and so on -- and only the last one is consummated by sexual intercourse.  The other kinds it harms.

“... without being thrown off a roof ...”

If you do know of anyone sponsoring a law to throw people off roofs, please let me know.  I would be very surprised.  The usual question is not whether anyone should be thrown off a roof, but whether the law should classify a sexual relationship between two people of the same sex as a marriage.  To answer that question, one must consider why there are marriage laws in the first place.  The reason is that the well-being of society depends on the well-being of children, and marriage is the only social institution that gives kids a fighting chance of having a mom and a dad.  A relationship between two men or two women isn’t a marriage because it has nothing to do with bringing children into the world.  The law doesn’t define my relationship with my fishing buddy as a marriage either, for the same reason.

“Law should not be some imaginary ideal.  If people can't do it it isn't moral.”

Certainly it should be possible to obey the law.  However, you write as though the law were trying to force persons who suffer the misfortune of same-sex affections to do something they can’t do, like flapping their wings and flying.  I am not aware of any such law.

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A Little Talk

Monday, 11-21-2016

 

This is the text of my acceptance talk for the Pope Pius XI Award for Contributions to the Building Up of a True Catholic Social Science, at October’s annual meeting of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists.  I had hesitated to post it, but my advisors think it would be interesting to many of my readers.

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How precious is the esteem of friends and comrades.  My friends and comrades in Christ, I thank you for your fellowship, and I return your esteem.  A part of me accuses myself of being a fake and a fraud, and thinks that I should refuse the compliment that you offer -- since what you are so kind as to compliment is my work on natural law, and as anyone knows who knows anything about natural law, very little of that work is in any way original.  I know I would not have managed even that little bit without the steady encouragement of my blessed wife, Sandra, and of many of you.  But perhaps one part of that little bit is in some way original, and since you are people of good judgment, I assume that you are complimenting that part.

I owe whatever small originality that part may possess not to any merit of my own, but to the redemption of a large blot of idiocy.  St. Paul famously called himself the “first of sinners,” by which I think he meant, not that he was the worst of sinners, but that, by God’s patience, he was a pioneer of the sinners redeemed by Christ.  In a much smaller way, and all these many centuries later, I think that I too am in the first wave of something.  As a reformed nihilist, I am in the first wave of redeemed moral idiocy – of those who once denied truths that it would not even have occurred to the pagans to deny – but who, by God’s patience, have been made pioneers of the lunatics redeemed by Christ.

Now how could anything even a little bit original come from such deplorable beginnings?  First let us recall what we are talking about.  Natural law, you remember, is what St. Paul called the law “written on the heart,” the moral law woven into the very fabric of our nature and into the deep structure of the human moral intellect.  There came a time, after God had drawn me back from apostasy, when I realized that during those years when I had denied Him, when I had denied the very difference between good and evil, when I had even denied my own reality and my responsibility for my acts, I had actually known deep down that these things that I denied were altogether true.  I had only lied to myself about not knowing them – which is just what one should expect, if the law really is written on our hearts.  I further came to realize that the hypothesis of moral self-deception explains much more about the insanity abroad in our times than the hypothesis of honest moral ignorance does.  Yes, it is true that God’s law is written on the heart.  That is why we speak of moral universals.  But there are two universals, not one.  Not only is a certain very basic moral knowledge universal, but the determination to play tricks on moral knowledge is universal, too.  A law really is written on the heart of man, but it is everywhere entangled with the evasions and subterfuges of men.

Now you may ask, so what?  In the end, don’t moral self-deception and honest moral ignorance come to the same thing?  Not at all.  Self-deception is much, much worse.  By and large, the sinners of past times admitted that they were sinning and said “the hell with it.”  The sinners of our time take a different approach.  They tell themselves that there is no sin.  “The hell of it” is that they know there really is.

You see, the pagan admitted that there was sin, but he did not know how to find absolution.  So to him, the Gospel came as a message of release.  But the neo-pagan of our day tells himself that the way to have peace is not to have the weight lifted, but to learn not to take it seriously.  “All those guilty Christians!” he thinks.  Having chosen to view the freest people as the most burdened, he naturally views the most burdened as the freest.  “Everyone has done things he regrets,” he says.  “Everyone lies.  Get over it!”

That is how the madness of our time begins.  For if you have a sharp enough razor, you can dig into the flesh of your heart and cut out the law’s letters.  But there in the scar tissue, the letters mysteriously form themselves anew, like the letters that mysteriously formed upon the wall at Belshazzar’s feast.  Mene, mene, tekel, parsin went the Hebrew words – “measure, measure, count, divide” – you have been measured and found wanting, and you will be divided.  So it is today.  You have to escape that burning inscription.  You have to get away from yourself.  And so you do divide yourself.  Not because you can’t read the writing, but because you can.

How do you try to get away?  Here is the one little bit where I might have seen something new.  I think our situation is like that of an automobile driver with a corrupted will.  He drives recklessly, and he gets a ticket.  Again he drives recklessly, and he gets another ticket.  Yet again he drives recklessly, and he loses his license.  Next time, if he is caught, his vehicle will be impounded.  So does he drive more carefully?  No.  When the patrolman sees him speeding, he drives still faster to get away.  When the patrolman follows, he turns the wrong way down a one-way street to evade him.  When the patrolman continues to follow, he leans out the window with a gun and shoots at him.  The warnings and punishments that would have deterred a less stubborn person drive him on to yet greater transgressions, all in a futile attempt to outrun the cop.  He behaves worse, not because there is no patrolman, but because there is.

We do much the same thing in the futile attempt to outrun our conscience.  We behave worse, not because we don’t have a conscience, but because we do.  We sleep with our girlfriends, and they become pregnant.  We deny our responsibility for the children, and abort them.  To justify the abortions -- this part is crucial -- we say that undeveloped human beings aren’t persons.  And then we lose control of the excuse.  To keep up the fiction that they aren’t persons, we are forced to approve infanticide as well; then toddlercide; then general euthanasia.  The blessing of the psalm, “your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house; your children will be like olive shoots around your table,” comes to seem not the expression of a universal aspiration, but almost incomprehensible.  The outburst of Elizabeth to Mary, “blessed is the fruit of your womb,” can hardly be heard except as irony.  Eventually we hold our very nature in contempt, as illustrated by the author who declared in a family planning journal that pregnancy “may be defined as an illness” which “may be treated by evacuation of the uterine contents.”  So do I spit on you, natural law!

What should we make of these facts?  Traditionally the Church has viewed the doctrine of natural law as one of the “preambles” of faith, as one of the things that come before faith, and it certainly is a preamble.  If, with the help of reason, you recognize your sin, then, by the help of faith, you can recognize the offer of forgiveness.  But in our day we are beginning to see that the coin has another side too.  Yes, logically, natural law is a preamble to faith -- but psychologically, faith may be a kind of preamble to friendship with our nature, for even the offer of forgiveness may scandalize us if we are trying with all our might to pretend that there is nothing to forgive.

I am not suggesting, as some of our separated brothers do, that conversation with our secular neighbors about ethics is futile until all of them have been converted.  What I am suggesting is that such conversation is unlikely to achieve its ends unless we on the Christian side are willing, at fitting times, to be frank not only about our philosophy, but also about our theology -- not only about what we think is written on the heart, but also about what we think is going on in it.  We must speak to our secular neighbors of the compelling logic of the natural law, yes!  But we must also speak to them of pain, sorrow, loneliness, brokenness, alienation, mercy, and healing.  These are topics for the doctrine of natural law too.  If we allow ourselves to imagine that moral and cultural apologetics can be carried on in isolation from the new evangelization, we are dreaming, for in the soul, the heart and mind are adjacent.

Some would say that hope for the future is itself a futile dream.  I don’t believe it.  This time will not be like the last time, but God willing, the new evangelization will happen.  The first evangelization proclaimed the Good News among pagan, pre-Christian peoples to whom it came as something new.  We proclaim it to neo-pagan, post-Christian peoples to whom it does not come as new.  The old world had not yet felt the caress of grace; our world, once brushed by that caress, now flinches from its touch.  Yet that from which today the nations flinch remains the Desire of Nations.  The same Christ stands at the door of the same human heart, inscribed with the same writing, restless with the same longing.

The award you are so kindly conferring tonight upon such a foolish person is proof that even fools can be reached.  Sometimes we are afraid -- sometimes I am afraid – because nothing like the new evangelization has been done before.  But then I reflect that there is no need to be afraid, for nothing like the old evangelization had been done before either.  We will not see the end of it in our time.  But the Creator and Redeemer of the heart, the Author of both the first grace and the second, the Key of David, the Dayspring, the Holy One who is changeless and ever-new, prevailed then, and will prevail now.

You have already been patient, but indulge me in a word to the younger scholars present.  You have probably noticed that the situation for Christians in the academy is hard and getting harder.  Most secular scholars still believe in little truths, like the sum of the interior angles of a triangle, but the situation may soon change, because they no longer believe in the very truth of truth, much less in its Source and Fountain.  More and more often, they resent the few who do.  You may wonder whether you are doing any good.  You may wonder what is the point.  But I say you are among them for a reason.

Many young people enter teaching and scholarship just because the life of a teacher and scholar seems pleasant to their taste, and that is fine.  But the purpose for your being there is different.  I do not say that Christ will make the purpose clear to you in this life, and I do not say that you will see the fruits of it in this life.  But not a day, not a glance, not a word, not a lecture, not a single grade awarded, not a single line of scholarly prose will be futile if you offer it to Him.  Nourish such insights as He grants you as though they were pearls.  In one of the more intriguing passages in the Apocalypse of John, the Spirit of God declares that “to him who conquers” -- that means to him who perseveres -- he will give a white stone, with a new name written on it, which no one else knows.  One day you will be told what your name is.  Don’t worry that you don’t know it now.  You don’t have to.  He does.

In the words of St. Thomas Aquinas, may He who is the true Fountain of light and wisdom grant all of us penetration to understand, capacity to retain, method and ease in learning, subtlety in interpretation, and copious grace of expression.  May He who can do all things order the beginning, direct the progress, and perfect the conclusion of our work.  Thank you for the sweet generosity of your friendship.

Advice for the President-Elect

Monday, 11-14-2016

I stoutly hope that I am wrong about how the president-elect will govern.  He has made several appropriate gestures, and he did not use his victory speech to boast and bluster, as he might have.

However, he seems to be laboring under a misconception.  He thinks he won.

No, the other candidate lost.

Most voters considered both candidates unsuitable for office.  They merely considered the other one even more so.

Those who supported him were able to do so only by treating him as a blank slate on which they could write all of their hopes.  As one focus group participant said, “We know his goal is to make America great again.  It’s on his hat.”

Another voter, upset that I had written that I could not support either candidate, wrote to tell me that he did not want to “limit God” by supposing that the Almighty could not use an evil man.  This was hardly an endorsement.

And at this writing, although the president-elect has a solid electoral college majority, he has probably lost the popular vote.

He would do well to remember that his election did not so much represent a “Yes” to him, as a “No” to what preceded him.

One might even recommend humility.

Good news. One of them lost.

Wednesday, 11-09-2016

Have Mercy

Monday, 11-07-2016

One of the principal forms of political discussion in the American colonies in the years before independence was what were called “election day sermons.”  The term “election day” did not mean the day voters went to the polls to choose delegates, as with us, but the day the newly chosen delegates were inaugurated.  According to the practice of the time, each new colonial legislature invited a prominent minister to address its members about God and political duty as they were about to take up their burdens.

In the year of Our Lord 1775, the Massachusetts Bay legislature invited the prominent Congregationalist minister Samuel Langdon to deliver the election sermon.  Langdon, who had taken up the presidency of Harvard University the previous year -- Harvard was not then as it is now -- took as his text the following passage from the first chapter of the book of Isaiah, who was one of the greatest of Old Testament prophets.  I wonder whether we too might find it instructive to consider Isaiah’s words on our own “election day.”

How the faithful city has become a harlot, she that was full of justice!  Righteousness lodged in her, but now murderers.  Your silver has become dross, your wine mixed with water.  Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves.  Every one loves a bribe and runs after gifts.  They do not defend the fatherless, and the widow's cause does not come to them.

Therefore the Lord says, the LORD of hosts, the Mighty One of Israel:  "Ah, I will vent my wrath on my enemies, and avenge myself on my foes.  I will turn my hand against you and will smelt away your dross as with lye and remove all your alloy.  And I will restore your judges as at the first, and your counselors as at the beginning.  Afterward you shall be called the city of righteousness, the faithful city."

Perhaps Langdon did not make sufficiently clear that the Lord of Hosts was speaking to the people of Israel, not to the Americans.  But he was not wrong to hope that God would combine mercy with justice in His dealings with all nations, including ours.

 

What Words Mean

Wednesday, 11-02-2016

Liberalism is said to mean believing in liberality, which is generosity.  Though generosity is a real virtue, it lies between opposite vices.  The interesting question, then, is not whether you are in favor of liberality.  Instead let us ask:  How do you recognize and avoid covetousness on the one hand, and prodigality on the other?

Libertarianism is said to mean believing in liberty.  But there is no such thing as liberty in general; there are only particular liberties, because every claim of liberty P entails denial of some liberty Q:  If grown-ups have the liberty to kill babies, then babies lack the liberty to live.  It isn’t helpful to know that you are for certain liberties, because everyone is.  Which strictly defined liberties are you for?

Conservatism is said to mean desiring to conserve ancient goods.  Yet even after telling us which ancient things are good, as a political stance conservatism is ambiguous.  Is it your aim to conserve the ancient goods by means of the State, or in spite of the state?

Atheism is said to mean denying that God exists.  But no one denies all gods, for in every human life, some object is given unconditional priority, and other things are chosen for its sake.  It might be protested that people choose inconsistently, yet no one is completely inconsistent, for there is always a drift toward pursuing some things in preference to others.  So the question for the atheist is this:  Which gods do you mean to deny, and which one do you mean to affirm?

Agnosticism is said to means believing that the truth about the First Being is rationally unattainable.  But to know God’s rational unknowability would be to know something about Him.  Indeed, it would be to know a great deal about Him.  One would have to know that even if He exists, He is infinitely remote, because otherwise one could not be so sure that knowledge about Him were rationally inaccessible.  One would have to know that even if He exists, He is unconcerned with human beings, because otherwise one would expect Him to have provided the means for humans to know Him.  One would have to know that this hypothetical being is completely unlike the Biblical portrayal of Him, because in that portrayal He does care about us and has already provided such means.  So, in the end, the agnostic must claim to know quite a number of things about God just to prop up his claim to not knowing any.  The question for him is this:  How can he rationally justify his claim to know just those things?

Protestantism is said to mean protesting.  What the Reformers protested is a matter of historical record:  Luther, for example, protested the idea that being right with God requires anything more than sheer faith.  What the latter-day heirs of the Reformers are protesting is far less clear.  So for Protestants, the question is:  What do you still consider so gravely, so certainly, and so irreparably wrong in Catholicism that it requires a continuing schism?

Since Catholicism is not universal in every sense – obviously, not everyone is Catholic -- I had thought of closing this post by asking in what sense Catholics claim catholicity.  Alas for parallelism:  The question would have fallen flat, because the Church has already answered it.

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