Is It Blessed or Isn't It?

Monday, 01-08-2024


I don’t like to write about things the hierarchy does badly, for fear of adding to the scandal by drawing attention to them.  It hardly seems possible any longer for Fiducia Supplicans to receive more attention than it already has, so in a small way, let me break my rule.  Once.  I hope.

Let us say this for the document:  It explicitly says that it doesn’t change Church doctrine or approve irregular sexual relationships – which it couldn’t have done anyway.  It also includes several explicit prohibitions which are supposed to make this clear:  For example, blessings for people in irregular relationships must not in any way resemble marriage rituals.  This helps too:  According to what is called the hermeneutic of continuity, ambiguities of expression are always to be resolved in favor of established doctrine, not against it.

Moreover, it was already possible, even before the promulgation of the document, to bless individuals in conditions of grave sin.  A thief who cannot yet bring himself to turn away from theft cannot receive absolution, of course, but he may certainly ask for a blessing so that he might receive grace for the amendment of his life.  Two partners in theft who come to the Church might even be individually blessed.  Sam can be blessed, and Joe can be blessed.  But their partnership cannot be blessed, because theft is its whole reason for being.

It is the same for people in irregular sexual relationships.  Any adulterer can ask to be blessed.  In fact, each of a pair of adulterers can ask to be blessed.  What they cannot ask is to be blessed as a couple, because this amounts to asking the Church to bless the adultery itself.  The blessing is intended to offer the hope of grace for the remedy of sin, not to cheer it on.

But priests were already able to bless people in a state of grave sin before Fiducia Supplicans.  What then does the document allow them to do that they weren’t already able to do?  If it doesn’t allow them to do anything new, then why was the document necessary?  What was it for?

One canonist suggested to me that Fiducia Supplicans was intended in part to rein in certain European bishops whose practices already go far beyond its explicit prohibitions.  All things considered, however, is it likely that these renegades will take it as anything other than a green light?  As, in fact, they are doing.

What could have been expected from the promulgation of the document, other than the scandal and confusion which we are seeing already?

This has been badly done.  It isn’t “pastoral” to confuse people.


There Is Nothing Else

Monday, 01-01-2024


C.S. Lewis didn’t write this as a New Year’s reflection, but it works.

The terrible thing, the almost impossible thing, is to hand over your whole self -- all

your wishes and precautions -- to Christ.  But it is far easier than what we are all trying to do instead.  For what we are trying to do is to remain what we call "ourselves," to keep personal happiness as our great aim in life, and yet at the same time be "good."

We are all trying to let our mind and heart go their own way -- centered on money or pleasure or ambition -- and hoping, in spite of this, to behave honestly and chastely and humbly.  And that is exactly what Christ warned us you could not do.  As He said, a thistle cannot produce figs.  If I am a field that contains nothing but grass-seed, I cannot produce wheat.  Cutting the grass may keep it short:  But I shall still produce grass and no wheat.  If I want to produce wheat, the change must go deeper than the surface.  I must be ploughed up and re-sown.

That is why the real problem of the Christian life comes where people do not usually look for it.  It comes the very moment you wake up each morning.  All your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals.  And the first job each morning consists simply in shoving them all back; in listening to that other voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in.  And so on, all day.  Standing back from all your natural fussings and frettings; coming in out of the wind.

We can only do it for moments at first.  But from those moments the new sort of life will be spreading through our system: because now we are letting Him work at the right part of us.  It is the difference between paint, which is merely laid on the surface, and a dye or stain which soaks right through.  He never talked vague, idealistic gas.  When he said, "Be perfect," He meant it.  He meant that we must go in for the full treatment.

…. This is the whole of Christianity.  There is nothing else.

…. What we have been told is how we men can be drawn into Christ -- can become part of that wonderful present which the young Prince of the universe wants to offer to His Father -- that present which is Himself and therefore us in Him.  It is the only thing we were made for.

-- C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity



Thus Did He Enter

Monday, 12-25-2023


He had no earthly father; He abhorred to have one.  The thought may not be suffered that He should have been the son of shame and guilt.  He came by a new and living way; not, indeed, formed out of the ground, as Adam was at the first, lest He should miss the participation of our nature, but selecting and purifying unto Himself a tabernacle out of that which existed.  As in the beginning, woman was formed out of man by Almighty power, so now, by a like mystery, but a reverse order, the new Adam was fashioned from the woman.  He was, as had been foretold, the immaculate "seed of the woman," deriving His manhood from the substance of the Virgin Mary; as it is expressed in the articles of the Creed, "conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary."

Thus the Son of God became the Son of Man; mortal, but not a sinner; heir of our infirmities, not of our guiltiness; the offspring of the old race, yet "the beginning of the" new "creation of God.” ....

Thus did the Son of God enter this mortal world; and when He had reached man's estate, He began His ministry, preached the Gospel, chose His Apostles, suffered on the cross, died, and was buried, rose again and ascended on high, there to reign till the day when He comes again to judge the world.  This is the All-gracious Mystery of the Incarnation, good to look into, good to adore.

-- From a sermon by St. John Henry Newman on John 1:14


Happier Unhappy?

Monday, 12-18-2023



My students have just finished your book How and How Not to be Happy.  They all really liked it.  Several, some of them atheists, emailed me privately that the book helped them rethink their lives and values in a positive way.  One told his mom to listen to it in the audio version.

However, several did have questions and objections.  In particular, what would you say about people who claim they don't experience the desire for complete happiness?  And what would you say about people who seem to be perfectly happy but are atheists?



I’m glad they liked the book!  Concerning their first question or objection, “What would you say about people who claim they don't experience the desire for complete happiness?”  Let me ask in turn, if they don’t desire that kind of happiness, then what kind do they desire?  Partial, flawed, and precarious happiness?  I don’t believe it.  Complete happiness means happiness so perfect that it leaves nothing further to be desired.  Do they not desire that?  They may not be pining away, saying “More, more, more!”  But I don’t think they are pleading, “Okay, I’m happy enough now!  Don’t make me any happier, I’m begging you!”

Just like everyone else, people who speak as they do desire complete happiness -- but for fear of disappointment, they are trying not to desire it.  They say they “don’t experience the desire for” complete happiness because they are trying to resign themselves to not having all that they could wish.  They think they will be happier if they “settle.”

Concerning the second question or objection, “What would you say about people who seem to be perfectly happy but are atheists?” -- I wouldn’t dream of denying that an atheist might have the partial, flawed, precarious happiness of this life.  The closest formula for that is good character along with good fortune – as I put it in the book, virtue plus luck.  But of course none of us has as much virtue as he needs, and the thing about luck is that it tends to run out.

But really -- perfectly happy?  If anyone did claim that he couldn’t be any happier than he already was, I would say that he didn’t have much imagination.  I don’t even claim perfect happiness for theists in this life, because the happiness of the blessed will not be complete until we see God.  They will be perfectly happy only when we are face to face with the very source of all meaning and happiness, who redeems even our present suffering.  For now, we live in hope and longing.

Maybe that’s a good note on which to end this Advent post.


How and How Not to Be Happy

“God Rest Ye Merry, Melancholics”




Monday, 12-11-2023


Advertisements are well worth analyzing, since they make up so much of our education.  Recently I passed by a billboard showing a photograph of people who had climbed ‘way up into the hills, and now, late in the day, were having a beer.  The motto:  “It isn't worth it unless you enjoy it.”

I’ll bet the flacks who composed the slogan never expected anyone to disagree.

Well, I have been known to have a beer with friends too (I like stout).  But think about that motto.  “It,” I suppose, means whatever one aims to achieve.  Replace that vague word with an actual achievement.  Your pick.

It isn’t worth changing the baby’s diaper unless you enjoy it.  It isn’t worth getting off drugs unless you enjoy itIt isn’t worth learning to read unless you enjoy it.  It isn’t worth being kind to the old lady next door unless you enjoy it.  It isn’t worth driving carefully unless you enjoy it.

Hmm.  How would the philosophy of beerism be expressed as a syllogism?  Perhaps something like this.

1.  Nothing is good except pleasure.

2.  What you achieve doesn’t ever give you pleasure in itself.

3.  Therefore it is pointless to achieve anything unless you are rewarded with some other unrelated pleasure, such as beer.

But really:

Lots of things are good besides pleasure.

Difficult achievements usually do give you pleasure in themselves.

It can be fun to enjoy a beer with friends when you have achieved something together, but it isn’t the beer that makes the achievement worth doing.  And you could have had the beer without doing it.

You aren’t celebrating the beer.  You are enjoying the beer to celebrate the achievement.



Monday, 12-04-2023


Recently I came across this unintentionally revealing statement by actress Drew Barrymore.  “Being with a woman,” she said, “is like exploring your own body, but through someone else".



Where Is Justice in Natural Law?

Monday, 11-27-2023



I am wondering how justice fits with traditional definitions of natural law.  Aquinas mentions five fundamental natural law precepts, namely life, the procreative union of male and female, the education of the young, living in society, and the worship of God.  Most natural law thinkers would also state that justice is a key principle of the natural law.  However, it does not seem to me to be clearly stated within Aquinas’s fundamental precepts or to fit neatly with them.


Very good question, but I think you have this difficulty with St. Thomas only because of a misreading – a common one.

In the place in the Summa theologiae I think you have in mind, he says that the order of the precepts of natural law corresponds to the order of the natural inclinations, and he speaks of three inclinations – the inclination we share with all substances, the inclination we share with all animals, and the inclination which pertains more particularly to our rationality.  You would think, then, that there should be only three fundamental precepts.  The reason there are more than three is that his term “inclination” refers not to particular inclinations, as we would use the word “inclination,” but to broad categories of inclinations.

These categories are pretty broad.  In speaking of what we share with animals, for example, he gives two examples -- sexual intercourse and the education of offspring, as you note – but then he says “and so forth.”  Rightly so, because we share a great many other things with other animals too, such as learning from sense impressions.  Then, in speaking of our rationality, he mentions the inclination to seek the truth, especially the truth about God, as well as the inclination to live in society.  Although this time he doesn’t say “and so forth,” once again these are just examples; they don’t exhaust the set of inclinations we have because of rationality.  For instance, only a rational creature seeks beauty and tries to be witty.

To back up for a moment, it’s pretty obvious how the inclination to know the truth is connected with rationality.  But how is the inclination live in society connected with it?  After all, don’t cows live in herds, and don’t birds live in flocks?  And they certainly aren’t rational.  Upon reflection, though, one realizes that what St. Thomas means here by society isn’t just how cows and birds hang around together, but partnership in a life shaped by truth and rational principle, something the beasts can’t enjoy.

And now things really get interesting, because among the rational principles essential to such a partnership is justice, which is equal treatment of those who are equal in the relevant respects.  So yes, we do have a natural inclination to seek justice -- and doing so is a fundamental precept of natural law.

My correspondent had continued:

I suppose there are two possibilities: one, that Aquinas’s definition needs to be supplemented by an additional precept, which leaves open the possibility that there are additional primary precepts of the natural law. I can imagine that this is an unattractive prospect for someone in the Thomist tradition!  


As you now know, this Thomist thinks there are lots of other primary precepts -- and that the prospect is not at all unattractive! 

To avoid getting St. Thomas wrong, it’s important to keep in mind his fondness for the figure of speech called metonymy:  He often uses the most conspicuous instances of things as placeholders for entire sets of things, and this is what he is doing when he speaks of our inclinations.

My correspondent had again continued:

Another possibility is that justice is inherently related to the precept about human sociability.  Because we have an inherent need to live in society, and we ought to do to others what we would have done to us, it follows that we ought to give every person his due.  From this we could presumably deduce principles about impartiality, procedural fairness, etc. 


Right!  And you know I agree, because your remark anticipates what I wrote a few lines above.


Commentary on Thomas Aquinas's Treatise on Law