Tuesday, 01-01-2019



Just finished What We Can’t Not KnowDitto on all of it.  I’m principally a documentary filmmaker, and I include elements of natural law in my Story Workshops.  To connect with audiences, a store’s fictional characters must experience the natural law consequences of their moral decisions, else the audience will disconnect.  It’s not that the audience can explain natural law, but they just can’t not know it. 

But about the broader cultural difficulty we find ourselves in, I was disappointed that the solutions you listed at the end of the book – the three counter-measures, as you call them – weren’t more complete.  They are being implemented here and there in public media, but with little effect, it seems.  Do any of your other writings offer practical solutions in greater depth or breadth?



That’s the sixty-four thousand dollar question.  Though they may not be much, I do have a few reflections about it/

You weren’t asking for a Grand Strategy, but a lot of people in our position do wish for one.  So the first reflection is that we aren’t going to come up with a Grand Strategy.  We’re soldiers.  The only one who sees the whole battlefield is God.

That thought gives rise to a second one.  You suggest that what we do isn’t having much effect, but because we’re only soldiers – and for other reasons, such as the way the secular media dominates reportage of just how much effect we are having, and the fact that “current trends” are not laws of nature but wills o’ the wisp – I don’t think we can say how much or how little effect we are having overall.  All that each of us can tell is whether he is doing his own present duty.  I don’t think Benedict thought he was laying out a Benedict Option.

Third, though I would love to turn around the culture, it isn’t really about the culture.  In both the long and short run, it’s really about individual persons.  C.S. Lewis used to say that cultures are short-lived, but souls last forever.  When the stars are burnt to cinders, souls will just be getting started.  Besides, the culture isn’t going to change until more people do.  It may seem that we’re caught in a loop here, because the culture influences the people who influence the culture.  Yes, but the culture isn’t all-powerful, because it can’t erase conscience, wipe out grace, or change the natural law.

The fourth reflection springs from the fact that you are obviously laboring to do all that you can with your own gifts.  The most important thing, I think, is to motivate more people to do that.

Fifth and last, a person who has one gift can’t very often tell a person with another gift how best to use it.  What we can do is encourage people to figure it out for themselves.

As the saying goes, every bone has to turn in the joint where it’s placed.  I am a teacherly sort of bone, and I am placed in a joint where I can write.  So what I can do lies mostly in helping people think more clearly and perceive what is under their noses.  That’s why I write the sort of books I do.  You make films.  I wouldn’t have any idea how to do that.

On the other hand, people like you and me have to watch out for a certain bias.  Perhaps because we are men, we too easily slip into thinking that doing stuff is more important than becoming holy.  Perhaps because our own sorts of gifts put what we do in front of others, we also tend to think that doing stuff means doing things that everyone can see -- writing books (like me), making films (like you), producing television, passing laws, carving sculptures, and all that sort of thing.

We tend to overlook the fact that the most important work is often small and quiet.  For example, raising good and faithful children is a work of cosmic importance.  The Father arranged for even the Son to have human parents, who never wrote a book or made a film.
If this hasn’t been as helpful as I would like it to be, take a look at the strategies of face-to-face cultural apologetics that I discuss in the final chapter of an older book of mine, The Revenge of Conscience: Politics and the Fall of Man Perhaps those might be suggestive.

Thanks again for writing.  God bless your New Year.


From his response:

You’ve encouraged me.  I am ambitious -- at times to a fault.  Although I am always working productively, I am never satisfied.  Secular news depresses me.  But your response was great:  We’re soldiers.

I’ll read the book.  One further thought.  To motivate more people to labor with their own gifts is a Grand Strategy!


My further reply:

You’ve got me – it is!  Doing that will be my New Year’s resolution.  Thank you.


“Mere” Christianity – Which One?

Monday, 12-31-2018


The noble intention of C.S. Lewis’s famous book Mere Christianity was to defend not this sect or that sect, but rather those teachings which had been held by almost all Christians in almost all times and places.

Though Lewis himself proceeded differently, the idea itself goes back to a criterion of orthodoxy proposed by St. Vincent of Lerins in his famous Commonitory.  Here are St. Vincent’s own words:

“I have often then inquired earnestly and attentively of very many men eminent for sanctity and learning, how and by what sure and so to speak universal rule I may be able to distinguish the truth of Catholic faith from the falsehood of heretical pravity; and I have always, and in almost every instance, received an answer to this effect: That whether I or anyone else should wish to detect the frauds and avoid the snares of heretics as they rise, and to continue sound and complete in the Catholic faith, we must, the Lord helping, fortify our own belief in two ways; first, by the authority of the Divine Law, and then, by the Tradition of the Catholic Church.

“But here someone perhaps will ask, “Since the canon of Scripture is complete, and sufficient of itself for everything, and more than sufficient, what need is there to join with it the authority of the Church's interpretation?”  For this reason — because, owing to the depth of Holy Scripture, all do not accept it in one and the same sense, but one understands its words in one way, another in another; so that it seems to be capable of as many interpretations as there are interpreters.  For Novatian expounds it one way, Sabellius another, Donatus another, Arius, Eunomius, Macedonius, another, Photinus, Apollinaris, Priscillian, another, Iovinian, Pelagius, Celestius, another, lastly, Nestorius another.  Therefore, it is very necessary, on account of so great intricacies of such various error, that the rule for the right understanding of the prophets and apostles should be framed in accordance with the standard of Ecclesiastical and Catholic interpretation.

“Moreover, in the Catholic Church itself, all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all. For that is truly and in the strictest sense Catholic, which, as the name itself and the reason of the thing declare, comprehends all universally. This rule we shall observe if we follow universality, antiquity, consent. We shall follow universality if we confess that one faith to be true, which the whole Church throughout the world confesses; antiquity, if we in no wise depart from those interpretations which it is manifest were notoriously held by our holy ancestors and fathers; consent, in like manner, if in antiquity itself we adhere to the consentient definitions and determinations of all, or at the least of almost all priests and doctors.”

However, attempts to define a “mere” Christianity by building on that phrase “everywhere, always, by all” may go in either of two directions

One is the way intended by St. Vincent, which keeps the phrase in its ecclesiastical context.  For when St. Vincent wrote “all,” he was referring to the priests and doctors of the Catholic faith, and when he wrote “always,” he was referring to the consensus of antiquity.  Taken in this sense, plenty has been believed everywhere, always, and by all.  Taking the criterion in this way, mere Christianity would appear to be Catholic Christianity.

The other way, Lewis’s, is ecclesiastically relativist – which is a little surprising, because in other ways Lewis was light-years from relativism.  But when Lewis wrote “all,” he meant all or almost all of those who have called themselves Christians, and when he wrote “always,” he meant all times whatsoever.

I don’t think Lewis realized that in his sense, nothing really has been believed everywhere, always, and by all.  Taking the criterion in this way, mere Christianity would appear to be no Christianity.

If Lewis’s book is a great book – and it is -- the reason is that Lewis was better than his method.  Had he really followed it, he would have had nothing to say.  But he didn’t; and so he did.


The Beautiful Conversion

Monday, 12-24-2018


“This is our present Festival; it is this which we are celebrating today, the Coming of God to Man, that we might go forth, or rather (for this is the more proper expression) that we might go back to God -- that putting off of the old man, we might put on the new; and that as we died in Adam, so we might live in Christ, being born with Christ and crucified with Him and buried with Him and rising with Him.

“For I must undergo the beautiful conversion, and as the painful succeeded the more blissful, so must the more blissful come out of the painful.  For where sin abounded grace did much more abound; and if a taste condemned us, how much more does the passion of Christ justify us?

“Therefore let us keep the Feast, not after the manner of a heathen festival, but after a godly sort; not after the way of the world, but in a fashion above the world; not as our own, but as belonging to Him who is ours, or rather as our master's; not as of weakness, but as of healing; not as of creation, but of re-creation.”

-- from a Christmas homily of St. Gregory of Nazianzus


The Turning of the Gyre

Monday, 12-17-2018


One of the ministers at an Episcopal church I attended in the ‘eighties confessed to the congregation in a homily, of all things, that he could was “no longer able” to believe in the Resurrection.  I have mentioned this before, but I keep coming back to it about it over the years.

It puzzled me how he could still call himself a priest.  Though I didn’t ask him that question, I did ask him how he could recite the Creed with us every week.  He replied, “I do it as an expression of solidarity with the community.”

Originally, then, his end was faith, and solidarity among believers was a means to that end.  Having given up the faith, he had now made solidarity an end in itself.

But having made solidarity an end in itself, I think he would have had a new problem, for the sort of solidarity which the Creed expresses is solidarity in the faith.  Solidarity without the faith would have required different means and expressions.

Moreover, this sort of thing doesn’t always stop at the first turn of the gyre.  There is certain fatal loop, which goes something like this:

1.  Give up the end.

2.  Reconceive the means to the abandoned end as an end in itself.

3.  Develop new means more suited to the new end.

4.  Go back to step 1.


Why I Can’t Talk about Integralism

Sunday, 12-09-2018



What do you think of the Catholic movement called integralism?



You won’t like this, because if you frame the question that way, I can’t answer it.

Integralism is supposed to be an opinion concerning the proper role of the Church vis-à-vis the state.  But it is also said to mean the rejection of certain other isms, the embrace of something called the “throne and altar” view, and lots of other things, and the various definitions are not consistent.

The most important thing I can say to people on all sides of these debates is that we need to argue more carefully.  It is extraordinarily difficult to state precisely either what either integralists are for, or what their opponents are against, because crucial distinctions are so often overlooked – almost always by non-Christian scholars, but often by Christian scholars too, both Protestant and Catholic.

For example, concerning the status of the Church in the modern state, it is one thing to ask whether it would be good for the state, while protecting religious liberty, to recognize in some sense the divine mission of the Church (yes), but quite another to ask whether under all circumstances the Church must seek such recognition (no).

Concerning the use of law, it is one thing to ask whether the law may be used to force persons into the faith (no), but quite another to ask whether the law may be an instrument of friendly cooperation with it (yes).

For that matter, the very phrase “recognition of the divine mission of the Church” may mean different things.  Are we speaking of declaring Christmas a national holiday, inventing a new national holiday called Thanksgiving, inscribing a cross on the coinage, requiring that the Decalogue be taught in public schools, requiring that its divine origin be taught along with it, forbidding blasphemy, or what?  These are very different kinds of things.

The same goes for terms such as “coercion.”  All law coerces, but not in the same way.  Are we thinking of making people do something, forbidding them from doing something, telling them that if they do it then they must do it in a certain way, commanding public officials not to forbid people from doing it, or something else?

We sometimes try to cut these knots by saying “I just believe in separation of Church and state,” but people mean different things by separation too.  Does it mean that citizens should not consider their faith when they vote?  (Bad.)  That the state should not subject candidates for public office to a religious test?  (Good.)  That firemen may not put out fires in churches?  (Bad.)  That the state may not tell the Church what to teach?  (Good.)  That the Church may not condemn evil and unjust laws?  (Bad.)  That priests are not magistrates?  (Good.)  That magistrates are not priests?  (Good.)

Sometimes the use of “ism” words is unavoidable – I use them myself -- but in a case like this one, I try to avoid them.  Instead of expressing an opinion about integralism – a term which means too many different things -- I prefer to say “Here is what I think about the proposition that ....”


Slaves and Masters

Monday, 12-03-2018



Currently, I am preaching through Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.  I find myself at the tail end of the “household code” in chapters 5 and 6, which teaches the duties of husbands and wives, children and parents, and slaves and masters.  I have arrived at slaves and masters.

My congregation may be described as a typical small American church with no slaves or masters in sight and a strong belief that slavery is a great moral evil.  I want to listen to the text on its own ancient terms. I particularly like the notion of Joseph Capizzi, who wrote that in the mind of the apostle “slaves and masters are judged by their behavior, not their status.” Such a thought is radically countercultural today, of course, and I would like to go deeper in my understanding of it.

Do you think it is possible to be faithful to the text of Ephesians -- which clearly does not take an abolitionist approach -- while also showing rationally that Paul’s ethics are both in harmony with those of Jesus, and acceptable to the dictates of a well-formed conscience?  Any help would be much appreciated.

I notice that St. Thomas regulates slavery virtually out of existence, in much the same way that we would like to be able to regulate abortionists out of existence.  I also read Aristotle as implying that slavery could be morally permissible only if slave and master were friends – but I cannot imagine how they ever could be.



You are surely right about the household codes.  Their precedent was the Stoic household codes, which were addressed to persons of higher rank and merely mentioned persons of lower rank.  However, the New Testament household codes are radically different.  In the first place, they not only mention persons of lower rank, but address them personally.  Moreover, New Testament codes always list social roles in pairs -- husband and wife, parent and child, master and slave.  Although the duties in each pair are not identical, nevertheless they are reciprocal, based on the love of each person for the other member of the pair.  Nothing like this appears in Stoic teaching, where the main concern is not that I make myself a servant, as Christ did, but that I maintain the dignity of my position.

St. Paul’s letter to Philemon is very much in line with the New Testament household codes, because Philemon and his runaway servant Onesimus are now expected to view themselves as brothers.  Although Paul doesn’t place Philemon under command, it would be difficult for Philemon to read the letter without concluding that he should manumit Onesimus.  Tradition holds that this is the same Onesimus who later became a bishop and a saint.

I can imagine a sort of friendship between a master and a bondservant.  Homer depicts deep mutual faith between the returning Odysseus and his old bondservants, the shepherd Eumaos and his aged nurse Eurkyleia.  She is the first to recognize him when he returns to his home incognito; the scene is portrayed in today’s image.  I don’t think this touching mutuality was intended as fantasy, but as something the possibility of which Homer’s listeners would have recognized.  We also see that in European history, vassals sworn to give their lives to protect their royal master were sometimes called his “Companions.”  That is how they were regarded, and that is how they regarded themselves.  It was considered a privilege to be able to say to one’s lord, “Command me!”  And this ought to be our attitude toward God.

What else can I say?  Not much, I’m afraid.  But I do have a few small reflections.

As we know, people prattle about how the Bible “condones slavery.”  But “condones” is a sneaky word.  The Bible “condones” slavery only in the way it “condones” revenge.  We have to view even divine law in a developmental context, because the Old Testament law was not just law, but also pedagogy.  The people were not yet ready to be told that they should not take revenge or hold slaves.  Yet wherever possible, Torah moderated such practices.   Revenge was limited to equivalent damages.  Slaves were to be freed in jubilee years, and this is but one of the many restrictions on bondservice.

In the same way, the Fathers of the Church thought that when Jesus explained that Moses permitted the Israelites to divorce their wives “because of the hardness of their hearts,” he meant that if they had not been permitted to divorce them, they would have killed them.  Perhaps slavery should be viewed that way too.  If the Israelites had not been permitted, say, to makes regulated slaves of those taken in war, they might have practiced barbaric cruelties upon them and then cut their throats.

This must be the sort of thing St. Thomas Aquinas has in mind when he argues that the law must lead people to virtue gradually rather than all at once, lest they break out into even graver evils.  Quoting from Proverbs, he reminds us that “He who bloweth his nose violently bringeth forth blood.”

We also forget today that ancient slavery was not all one thing.  Being a slave in the mines must have been very like being in hell.  On the other hand, some ancient slaves occupied such positions as secretaries, tutors, and estate managers.  Negotiated hostages, kept by both sides to guarantee adherence to treaties, were not slaves, but they were not free to leave either.

In our own day too, we need to make distinctions among various kinds of bound service.  Draftees are in a condition of indentured servitude.  For that matter, so are those who voluntarily enlist, and those who sign contracts with private employers committing them not to change jobs within a specified period of time.  Convicted criminals who are compelled to perform labor are in penal servitude.

I suspect that much of our difficulty in accepting what the New Testament says and doesn’t say about slavery arises not from our being morally elevated, but from our not being elevated enough.  We quickly judge the sins of other times, such as slaveholding, but not the sins of our own time, such as abortion and exploitive sexuality.  We do not really believe that one can be inwardly free regardless of his legal or exterior condition.  Even the Stoics knew that this was possible; it is shameful to think that we Christians, who ought to know better, cannot even rise to the Stoic level in this respect.  And although nothing is more common than to give lip service to carrying our crosses, we do not want to believe that submitting to suffering really conforms us to Christ.  When we read the passage in which St. Peter encourages those who are treated unjustly to be patient, we are likely to think he is “blaming the victim” – which rather misses the point.


Defying the Natural Law


Why Calls for Free Speech Get So Little Traction

Monday, 11-26-2018

See the website maintenance notice at the end of this post!

According to the so-called harm principle, most actions that cause no harm to others should be permitted by law.  This may be true, if we don’t take it as a definition of morality.  But even if it is only about the law, it settles fewer questions than one might think.

I pointed out in a previous post that the harm principle is ancient.  Contrary to popular belief, it was not invented by John Stuart Mill.  He invented only a particular brand of the principle, according to which almost nothing counts as harm.

In Mill’s view, harm to which a person consents is not harm; destroying one’s abilities to fulfill his duties to others is not harm; seduction to evil is not harm; and so on.

Today we see that those who are wrapped up in racial and sexual identity politics have their own brand of the Harm Principle, one according to which a great many things count as harm.

In their view, having their feelings hurt is harm; having their identities questioned is harm; having to take notice that others disagree with them is harm; and so on.

We might call Mill’s brand the “get out of my space” harm principle, and the identity politics brand “don’t tread on my snowflake” harm principle.

 Sometimes people imagine that if only we follow the harm principle, we don’t need an agreed-upon standard of morality.  Actually, without an agreed-upon standard of morality, we can’t agree about which brand of the harm principle to use either.  The brand we deploy becomes a stalking horse for deeper moral views – often not openly expressed -- which tell us what harm is.

This is why protests about the violation of free speech get so little traction in the public square.  No matter how repressive one is, one can always define harm in such a way as to paint the other fellow as the true enemy of liberty.  I’m not harming him.  He’s harming me!


The Branding of John Stuart Mill

Gentle Readers:

As you may have noticed, The Underground Thomist is undergoing some maintenance and repairs.  Consequently, from time to time during the next few weeks, you may have trouble reaching it, or it may look a little odd (for example, an image may be missing, or a line of computer code may appear at the top of the screen).  If this happens, just keep trying, and eventually the site will return to its normal condition.

All this will pass.  I am grateful for your patience and your interest.