The Infant’s Voice

Sunday, 12-25-2016

 

Yesterday I displayed a few gems from a Christmas Vigil sermon by Bernard of Clairvaux.  These are from a pair of his sermons for Christmas Day.  I have taken a few liberties with the translation, which is a bit dated.

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Christ is born in a stable, and lies in a manger.  Yet is He not the same that said, The earth is mine, and the fullness thereof?  Why, then, need He choose a stable?  Plainly that He might repove the glory of the world, that He might condemn its empty pride.

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I have already said that He preaches to you even in His infancy:  “Do penance, for the kingdom of God is at hand.”  The Stable preaches this penance to us; the Manger proclaims it to us.  This is the language which His infant members speak; this is the Gospel He announces by His cries and tears.

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And lest thou should say even now, I heard thy voice, and I hid myself, behold, He comes as an Infant, and without speech, for the voice of the wailing infant arouses compassion, not terror.  If He is terrible to any, yet not to thee.

More Than Long Ago

Saturday, 12-24-2016

 

These rubies are from a Christmas Vigil sermon by Bernard of Clairvaux.

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Let no one be so indevout, so ungrateful, so irreligious, as to say:  This is nothing new; it was heard long ago; Christ was born long ago.  I answer:  Yes, long ago and before long ago.

No one will be surprised at my words if he remembers that expression of the Prophet, in aeternum et ultra, “for ever and ever,” or “for ever and beyond it.”  Christ, then, is born not only before our times, but before all time. ...

That this mysterious Nativity might to some extent be made known, Jesus Christ was born in time, born of flesh, born in flesh, the Word was made flesh.

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Tomorrow, therefore, we shall see the majesty of God, but with us, amongst us, not in Himself.  We shall see Majesty in humility, Power in weakness, the God-man. ...

He chose a stable and a manger – yes, a despicable hut, a shed fit only for beasts – that we may know that He it is “Who raises up the poor one from the dunghill” [and] Who said, “Unless you be converted and become as this little child, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”

Off With Their Heads!

Tuesday, 12-20-2016

Two small errors turned up in the hardcover edition of my Commentary on Thomas Aquinas’s Treatise on Law.  Although they were corrected in the paperback, a reader suggests that I post the corrections here too.  Good idea.

The first error is rather funny:  On the cover, the word Commentary was spelled with three M’s.  If you have one of those copies, better hold onto it:  Odder things have become collectors’ items.

The second error was on page 28, in the discussion of Question 90, Article 2, “Whether the Law is Always Something Directed to the Common Good?”  St. Thomas’s answer is “Yes,” but the Article begins with three Objections – reasons why someone might think the answer “No.”  Right after the paragraph beginning with the words “More broadly,” the text and paraphrase of Objection 1 were omitted.  Here is what the Objector says:

The omission is now fixed, and everything else was where it should have been.  To show how it all goes, here is my line-by-line commentary on Objection 1 (which of course is only a small part of the Article):

“The Latin expression [the Objector] uses here for the shared or common good is bonum commune, which can equally be translated ‘the good of the community.’  He is thinking of the community not merely as an aggregation of individuals who may be at odds with each other, but as a true partnership in a truly good life.  To further develop the idea, however, we need to distinguish between two senses in which a good can be common.

“In the weak sense of the term, a good is common merely when it is good for everyone, like pure water.  Different people in the community may enjoy different amounts of goods that are common in this weak sense.  In fact, if one person grabs more of a weakly common good, then other people have less.  For example, I might divert part of the river away from your property and onto mine.

“In the strong sense of the term, though, a good is common when one person’s gain is not another’s loss, so that our interests literally cannot diverge. For example, the goods of character are strongly common -- I do not become less wise, or less just, or less courageous, just because my neighbor becomes more so.  Another example of a strongly common good is the security of the community -- if you and I are fellow citizens, and our country is invaded by a hostile power, then it is invaded for both of us.  It is impossible for our country to be invaded for you but not for me.

“Sometimes [St. Thomas and the Objector] use the expression ‘common good’ in the strong sense, but sometimes only in the weak.  One must pay close attention to keep from getting mixed up.  Consider his discussion of distributive justice in II-II, Q. 61, Arts. 1-2.  Distributive justice is the allocation of certain things to members of the community according to what is due to them.  Now it is good for the community as a whole that its greatest benefactors attain the highest honors and offices; everyone is better off as a result.  This shows us that distributive justice is a strongly common good.  But St. Thomas also calls the honors and offices themselves ‘common goods.’  What kind then are they?  Since some citizens receive a greater share of them than others, obviously they are not common in the strong sense; they are merely things that anyone may see as good.  We see then that although distributive justice is a strongly common good, the things that it distributes are only weakly common goods.

“More broadly, the aspect of justice that concerns the common good is called ‘general’ justice.  Special justice is doing good and avoiding evil in relation to my neighbor, with a view to what I owe him.  But general justice is doing good and avoiding the opposite evils in relation to the community, or to God.  [II-II, Q. 79, Art. 1; compare II-II, Q. 58, Art. 6.]

[1] [The Objector] does not mean that the law only commands and forbids; as he explains later, in Q. 92, Art. 2, its acts also include permitting and punishing.  Commanding, forbidding, permitting, and punishing are direct acts of law.  Doesn’t it accomplish other purposes as well, such as directing, rewarding, and encouraging?  Yes, but these purposes are achieved indirectly, mainly through commands and prohibitions, backed up by punishments for failure to comply.  For example, the law directs traffic through forbidding excessive speed, and it rewards acts of valor through commanding that soldiers who have performed them be awarded medals.

“It might seem that permitting is not so much an act of law as the omission of an act, because we take anything not explicitly forbidden to be permitted.  However, certain kinds of permissions must be made explicit, because they provide individuals with ways to modify the legal obligations they would otherwise have.  For example, the law encourages home ownership and construction through explicitly permitting homeowners to deduct mortgage interest from personal income taxes.  By taking advantage of this permission, homeowners alter the amount of taxes they would otherwise be commanded to pay.

[2] Individual goods are goods of particular individuals.  Sometimes the law issues commands like ‘No one may steal the property of any other person.’  This is quite different from a command like ‘No one may pollute the community water supply,’ because the other person is not the community as a whole, and his property, unlike the water supply, is an individual good, not a common good.  From this, the Objector concludes that law does not always aim at the common good.”

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The Object of Uttermost Longing

Monday, 12-12-2016

Query:

What would you say is the single most compelling, prima facie argument for God?

Reply:

The argument I find most compelling is sometimes called the Argument from Desire.

At the very beginning of the Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas says that “To know that God exists in a general and confused way is implanted in us by nature, inasmuch as God is man’s beatitude.”  What does this mean?  We naturally long for beatitude, for that complete and utter happiness which would leave nothing further to be desired.  But “nature makes nothing in vain” – thirst is quenched by water, hunger is filled by food, and in general, for every basic desire there is something that can satisfy it.  So there must be Something that could satisfy the longing for beatitude.  That Something, that supremely loveable object of the longing for beatitude, is God.

Ah, but how far short of knowing what God is such knowledge falls!  If we know God only as the mysterious object of the longing for beatitude, and if we mistakenly suppose beatitude to lie in some merely natural good – say, pleasure, beauty, or erotic love – then we will mistakenly take that good as our “god.”  So can we go further?

Fortunately, we can, because experience shows that every natural good leaves something further to be desired.  In fact, the totality of all natural goods leaves something further to be desired.  The world is so achingly beautiful, and yet it keeps breaking our hearts.  We keep asking, “Is this all there is?”

It follows that if the longing for beatitude really does have an object, it must lie not within nature, but beyond it. 

Taken together, the various arguments for the existence of God tell us quite a bit about Him:  For example, that He is the First Cause of all things and the Source of all Good, and that there is only one of Him.

That isn’t enough, is it?  Not even all the philosophical arguments together can tell us that He has come among us, shared our burdens, and atoned for us.  For that, we must consult testimony of witnesses -- which is to say, the Gospels.

Even so, the philosophical arguments do faith a great service.  They are preambles to faith, because they show it to be reasonable to believe in the sort of God of whose deeds the Gospels teach.

The emeritus Pope has remarked that Christians used to say to pagans that the God whom we worship is not some god of myth, like theirs, but the God of whom the philosophers spoke -- but whom they did not worship.

They knew Him only as a theorem.  We know Him as Immanuel, God with us.

You might be interested in this little riff on the Argument from Desire.  It was my pre-Christmas post two years ago:

“God Rest Ye Merry, Melancholics”

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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.