The Bare Minimum

Monday, 04-27-2020


"So, J., what do you think is the bare minimum a person must believe for salvation?"

Thus my new friend began our first serious conversation, the moment he passed through my door.  That was a quarter of a century ago.  We were both Protestants.  He still is.

I didn’t mind his question a bit, and I still don’t.  Its quirky abruptness, and his waste-no-time, take-no-prisoners desire not to dissipate the evening in small talk, made me smile.  In seven seconds, his question gave me a sharper idea of his personality than I had been able to form during the previous seven months.  I saw him again not long ago.  He hasn’t changed.

Although his training had been in theology, not philosophy, the minimalism of his question was thoroughly in keeping with the philosophical method of the day, which is also minimalist.

Minimalist how?  We do philosophy as though people can consider reality only one shaved-down proposition at a time.  Sometimes, I think, the very opposite is true.  A single lonely proposition may be difficult to accept just because it does stand by itself.  In order to stand firm, a proposition must have context, as the single stone requires the arch.

My friend’s conversation-starter also brings to mind one of the great differences between the Catholic and Protestant ways of thinking about God.  Protestantism asks how many of all those pre-Reformation beliefs can be jettisoned and still have Christianity.  Except in a certain special context, Catholicism isn’t very interested in how few truths one can get away with believing.  Instead it wants to know all of them.  Tell me everything, everything!  Are there more?

And there are a lot of them!  Creation, Fall, and Redemption!  The three Persons of One God!  The two natures of One Christ!  Not only an Old Testament, but a New!  Not only a natural law, but a divine!  Not only worship, but veneration!  Not only precepts, but counsels!  A covenant with day and night, yet miracles too!  Holy saints!  Bad popes!  Sacraments!  Graces!  Gifts!  Virtues, infused and acquired!  Prophets, priests, and kings!  The Incarnation, Cross, and Resurrection!  A crown of thorns on the brow of God made Man!  A sword through His mother’s heart!  Suffering!  Blessedness!  The beatific vision!  And we are only warming up.

Writing about Christ’s statement to St. Peter that he would give him the keys to the kingdom of heaven, G.K. Chesterton wrote,

“The shape of a key is in itself a rather fantastic shape.  A savage who did not know it was a key would have the greatest difficulty in guessing what it could possibly be.  And it is fantastic because it is in a sense arbitrary.  A key is not a matter of abstractions; in that sense a key is not a matter of argument.  It either fits the lock or it does not.  It is use useless for men to stand disputing over it, considered by itself; or reconstructing it on pure principles of geometry or decorative art.  It is senseless for a man to say he would like a simpler key; it would be far more sensible to do his best with a crowbar .... it is enough to say here that there was undoubtedly much about the key that seemed complex; indeed there was only one thing about it that was simple.  It opened the door.”


Related posts:

Just Like Me

Comfort for the New Year

Why We Converted

Two Things You Will Never See

Does Sola Scriptura Mean “No Natural Law”?

Mortification of the Flesh


Constitutional CYA

Thursday, 04-23-2020


CYA, short for Covering Your Anatomy, is the strategy of choosing one’s course of action in such a way that if it goes wrong, someone else gets the blame.  Dealing with the problem at hand may take second place.

We all know that CYA can affect governmental policy.  What’s not so often noticed is that it can also affect the Constitutional balance of power.

I used to think CYA worked only against the balance of power.  For example, although Congress, not the courts, should make the laws, in some cases legislators are only too happy to let the judiciary set policy, just so they won’t get blamed for it.  This is just the opposite of what the Framers expected, for they thought that each branch would jealously guard its powers.

But I was wrong.  Ironically, CYA can work either for or against the balance of power.

For example, some of the current president’s critics have accused him of following a CYA policy by allowing state governors to decide for themselves when to roll back coronavirus restrictions in order to get their economies moving again.  Whether or not his motive is CYA, in this case it works in favor of the balance of power, because under the Constitution, that really is a state prerogative.

On the other hand, some of the critics of state governors have used them of following a CYA policy by speaking as though the response to the coronavirus depends entirely on federal decisions.  Whether or not their motive is CYA, in this case it works against the balance of power, because it encourages them to shirk their own constitutional responsibilities.

Irony doesn’t usually prompt belly laughs, but isn’t it funny how things work?

Fear and Forbearance

Monday, 04-20-2020


At the beginning, it was said that since it was impossible to prevent all infections, we had to “flatten the curve” of the coronavirus so that the caseload stretched out and hospitals would not be overwhelmed.  Now that the curve has flattened, we hear in some quarters that the country should not go back to work until there are no cases at all, an absurd standard never before proposed for any disease, even smallpox, typhus, and polio.

This is partly a social class bias, since most of those who say such things are secure of their jobs – they are people like me, who can work from home.  Or else, like journalists and politicians, they have something to gain from hysteria.  That we should take precautions goes without saying, but before you join the extremists, put yourself in the place of a poor man thrown out of work for six weeks and wondering how to keep food on the table.

Age has a lot to do with it too.  Unsurprisingly, the very young and healthy are reckless.  Understandably, the aged and vulnerable are anxious.  However, there can also arise quite a gap between the two groups in the middle.

On one hand are people old enough to have outgrown carelessness, but not old enough to have experienced previous episodes of serious public danger.   Many of them are badly frightened.  On the other hand are people old enough to have lived through several previous ends of the world.  Although most of them are cautious, many are also a bit skeptical, and they say so.

Whatever their age or social class, people who do fall into the badly frightened group tend to view all those who are not as frightened as they are as though they were irresponsible teenagers.  Since they view everything through this interpretive lens, nothing can convince them otherwise.

So if you're afraid that your older relatives are going out too much for their health, what should you do?  Call them up.  You can't catch the disease over the telephone.  Don’t scold them.  Find out what they need.  Don't assume that they'll tell you without being asked.  If you live in town or nearby, take it to them yourself.  Stand at the end of the driveway if you're afraid to get close.  Have the grandchildren talk to them through rolled-up car windows if you’re afraid to breathe the same air.

They'll understand.  But you need to understand too.


Now Is the Time to Be Bold

Thursday, 04-16-2020


In view of the efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus, I had thought of writing a post about how pastors, priests, and bishops should be imaginative instead of supine, finding ways to administer the sacraments without having to pack large numbers of people into small enclosed spaces.

Reality has out-distanced me, for yes, some ministers have been more imaginative – and some officials have tried to step on them anyway.

It began with threats, for example when the mayor of New York City warned that he would permanently shut down some churches and synagogues.  Now, in some places, people have been charged with crimes just for worshipping.

Do you think this is just about the coronavirus?  It isn’t.  The coronavirus is an excuse for the oppression of faith -- and the precedents set now will persist.  Public officials may take reasonable measures to protect the health of our bodies, but some of them want to command our souls.

If the matter were not so abominable, it would be ridiculous.  Tell me why it is an acceptable risk to allow a restaurant to offer drive-by takeout of a sandwich, but not to allow churches to offer drive-by distribution of a consecrated wafer.  Tell me how it is that abortion is an essential service that may continue during the epidemic, but Holy Communion is not.

We need to add a new perversion to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.  Some people find the exercise of brute power to discriminate between activities they like and activities they don’t an orgasmic experience.  Unfortunately, such persons are disproportionately attracted into government careers.

Pastors, priests, bishops, I was going to ask you to be bold.  That advice is weeks out of date.  Please continue to be bold.  Be prudent, but be witnesses.  Respect legitimate authority, but do not allow yourselves to be intimidated by threats and arrests.  Lean into them.  Have us worship outside with six-foot gaps between worshippers if necessary.  Set up breezy open-air confessional booths.  Whatever it takes.  But please, do it for us. 


Conversation with a Six Year Old

Monday, 04-13-2020


One of my natural law students told me this week of a conversation with his six-year-old sister.

He had been learning that according to Thomas Aquinas, a command, in order to be a genuine law rather than an act of violence, must be reasonable, for the common good, made by competent public authority, and promulgated to all.

Sister:  "What are you working on?"

Brother:  "A paper about natural law."

Sister:  "I know about laws, you know."

Brother:  "Really?  What do you know?"

Sister:  "Laws are rules that make good things."

Brother:  "Good for you or for everybody?"

Sister:  "Everybody."

Brother:  "Yes!  And do laws have to be reasonable or just whatever somebody wants?"

Sister:  "Of course they have to be reasonable!"

Brother:  "And who makes them?"

Sister:  "The President!"

Brother:  "And who knows about them?"

Sister:  "Well, they have to be known about by everybody."

This adorable little scholar seems to be both an incipient Thomist, and, like most children, a monarchist.


Justin Martyr on the Resurrection

Sunday, 04-12-2020


The utterances of truth we judge by no separate test, giving full credit to itself.  And God, the Father of the universe, who is the perfect intelligence, is the truth.  And the Word, being His Son, came to us, having put on flesh, revealing both Himself and the Father, giving to us in Himself resurrection from the dead, and eternal life afterwards.  And this is Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.  He, therefore, is Himself both the faith and the proof of Himself and of all things.  Wherefore those who follow Him, and know Him, having faith in Him as their proof, shall rest in Him.

-- Justin Martyr, On the Resurrection


Has Common Good Constitutionalism Anything to Do with Constitutions?

Thursday, 04-09-2020


I cannot realistically choose not to be ruled by an elite.  At this point in history I probably cannot even choose not to be ruled by a technocratic elite.  But I do prefer to be ruled by the portion of the elite which is allied with a majority of the population.  That ought to mean a strong role for the elected legislature as contrasted with the unelected bureaucracy and judiciary.  Such constraint, however weak it may be in such times, is helpful, just because it is more difficult for an entire population to lose its common moral sense than for technocrats to lose it.

Complicating the matter is the fact that at present, the legislature is itself divided into two factions.  Both claim to embody popular rule, which in the strict sense is impossible.  But the leftist faction is wholeheartedly allied with unelected technocrats, and wants to employ coercion to displace the traditional morality, while the other faction is merely ambivalent about technocracy and morality.

The idea has been floated that since conservative judges are at last being appointed to the Supreme Court, the conservative commitment to the original intention of the Constitution has “outlived its utility,” and that conservatives should instead adopt something like the leftist idea of a “living” Constitution but turn it to conservative ends.  This seems to imply that originalism was never really about the Constitution but was merely a conservative pretense for gaining power, in the same way that the “living” Constitution has been a liberal pretense for gaining power.

I hope I am reading this new conservative theory incorrectly.  Perhaps no pretense was intended, and if so, I will accept correction.  But I am sure that we should reject pretenses and deceptions of all kinds, even noble lies.

Besides, the notion of a “living” Constitution is hardly more palatable in the hands of conservatives than in the hands of leftists.  It is merely a way to disempower legislatures altogether, so that law is shaped entirely by the executive in alliance with the technocrats.

Granted, it is impossible for a judge not to consider the common good, for if he does, he will be incapable of understanding the considerations of common good that the legislators themselves intended.  And this is important.  But the chief responsibility for considering the common good, along with its relation to natural law, common law, law of nations and the rest of it, lies with those who made the Constitution and laws, to whom, under all but the most extreme circumstances, he should defer.  Judges are not competent to take first place and set policy for the entire country.