Selective Bewilderment

Thursday, 10-14-2021


“He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

Once upon a time, years ago, a churchgoing man in his thirties who had attended a discussion of a fairly straightforward passage in the Gospels told me afterward that he couldn’t understand it.  I thought he meant that he was puzzled about some specific point.  No, that wasn’t it.  Though intelligent, educated, and generally able to understand and communicate in speech and written text, he could make no sense of the passage whatsoever -- not a paragraph, not a sentence, not a phrase.  He told me afterward that he understood the words that it contained, but that they didn’t add up to any meaning.  It wasn’t that he disagreed with the passage, but that he couldn’t grasp it.  Not even the simplest explanation could reach him.  It was as though the words were on one side of a grating, and he were trapped on the other.

His inability to understand distressed him, though not so much as one might have expected.  Thinking that another approach might be helpful, I tried several other ways to convey the passage’s meaning.  No dice.  The English of the translation remained Greek to him.  He went on to tell me that he had the same problem whenever he tried reading the bible.  Not when he read other books, mind you.  Just this one.

I learned months later – you may call this unrelated, but I am not so sure – that certain aspects of his life were coming apart at the seams.

In retrospect, the only thing unusual about the man’s highly selective confusion concerning the things of God was that it was so extreme.  Milder cases are as common as fleas.  Perhaps a physician would suspect a brain lesion or other neurological problem.  That sort of thing is far beyond my competence to identify, but in the years since talking with the man I’ve discovered that there can be other causes.

Here’s one.  It is most unlikely for our lives to fall into disorder because we can’t understand the simplest guidance.  But no matter how intelligent we are, we often find the simplest guidance baffling because our lives are disordered, and this applies to divine guidance above all.


Misbegotten Males?

Monday, 10-11-2021



For my senior seminar this week I assigned Thomas Aquinas.  One student, who apparently did not actually do the reading but read some hostile secondary sources, claimed that Aquinas -- a "raging sexist" -- questioned whether women should have been even created.  He said it is a shame we are even reading his work.

Though what my student seems to have read is a distortion of what St. Thomas actually said, this alarming attitude itself seems to be spreading.  I think it is an outgrowth of identity politics.

Still, it seems that a fair critique could be leveled about St. Thomas’s language about the woman as a “misbegotten male.”  Have you had to deal with this sort of objection?  How would you handle it?



When students complain about the views supposedly expressed in texts they haven’t read, I give no quarter:

I can understand why you might think the author believes that, if you haven’t done the reading and have read only belligerent secondary sources.  However, that’s not a good approach to learning.  It’s also unhelpful to read the classical writers only for confirmation of your own ethnocentric opinions, as though you had nothing to learn from anyone outside your own time and place.   And it’s even worse not to read them because you’ve been told that they disagree with you.

I then go on to explain what the author really did say.  So what did St. Thomas say?

As to the notion that he thinks women are misbegotten males:  Although the English word “misbegotten” does appear in the most widely used translation, it is incorrect and misleading.  The Latin word is occasionatus, which means merely that the female course of development is a deflection from a path of development that would have been taken had another cause not intervened.  Sometimes the phrase used is deficiens et occasionatus, but deficiens in this context doesn’t mean “deficient,” but merely incomplete.

Now St. Thomas’s embryology does turn out to be mistaken.  But the kind of argument he makes is precisely the kind today’s biologists make – in reverse -- when they tell us that the Y chromosome, which only males have, may be viewed as an incomplete or even “shriveled” X chromosome, so that male development is a deflection from what would otherwise have been a female developmental path!

Some radical feminists draw from contemporary embryology the conclusion that males are misbegotten females.  But contemporary embryology doesn’t imply that there is something wrong with men -- any more than the Angelic Doctor’s embryology implies that there is something wrong with women.

St. Thomas always speaks of women with respect.  When he is discussing biology, he emphasizes that nature intends that women be born.  It merely produces one sex as a variation on how it produces the other.  And it does – just not in the way that he thought.


How to Call a Bad King to Account

Saturday, 10-09-2021


The old system was that one could challenge criticize and punish the king's subordinate officials for their wrongdoing, even if they were following orders of the king, but that the person of the king was sacred.  One got at a bad king through his helpers -- not lying, but allowing the appearance to persist that he did not really originate the wrongdoing but was surrounded by bad advisors.  In the case of a king of weak judgment, or one surrounded by flatterers, it might even be true.

This system had its points.  It put pressure on the king to change his ways without destroying the regime.  It also allows for the fact that in any political order – even a very good one -- the respect of the citizens for the law will be founded mostly on habit rather than reflection, something not to be carelessly imperiled.  And a bad king is not just by that fact not the king.

One might even argue that the system is still applicable.  Even in a day of republics and pretended republics, there are domains of life – not all of them political -- in which authority either is, or should be, monarchical, and in which the king either cannot be, or should not be, removed.  But perhaps I have said enough.


The Most Idiotic Statement by a Cardinal This Month

Thursday, 10-07-2021


You would never know from his press coverage, but President Joe Biden is the most radically pro-abortion president who has ever held the office.  That’s all right with Cardinal Peter Turkson, prefect of the Vatican’s dicastery of Integral Human Development.  The Cardinal says the president should not be denied Holy Communion because "If you say somebody cannot receive Communion, you are basically doing a judgment that [he is] in a state of sin."

The office of the bishop is to teach the Catholic faith.  According to the Catholic faith, anyone who promotes abortion is committing a grave sin.  Nor is the idea just some eccentricity of the Church, because the wrong of deliberately taking innocent human life is a fundamental of the natural moral law.  So what is going on here?

The Cardinal says that withholding Holy Communion from someone who promotes killing babies turns the sacrament into a “weapon.”  But the proposal here is not to score political points, but to uphold the spiritual integrity of the sacrament.  Let the political chips fall where they may; it isn’t the Church’s fault that mortal sin is part of the president’s platform.  According to Canon 1398, anyone who “procures” abortion incurs excommunication latae sententiae, which means that he excommunicates himself by the very act of doing so.  It would be strange if promoting it and boasting that one has done so didn’t count as procuring it.

We are told that it would not be “pastoral” to chastise those who promote slaying innocents, but let’s think about that too.  St. Peter, our first pastor, wrote “Be sober, be watchful.  Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.”  It is hardly sober and watchful to stand by and let one’s president and those influenced by his bad example be devoured.  A shepherd does not reassure the sheep that there is no harm in the jaws of lions.  He warns them and tries to rescue them.

We are even told that it would be harsh and unkind to deny holy communion to the president.  Actually it is unspeakably cruel not to deny it.  As St. Paul explains in his first letter to the young church in Corinth, whoever receives the Body and Blood of Christ unworthily is in deadly peril.  This isn’t candy we’re talking about.

What then could this false shepherd have been thinking?  In suggesting that we can’t condemn the promotion of abortion, was he saying that we can’t see the state of Biden’s heart?  We can’t, but we can’t see anyone’s heart; invisibility of the heart does not imply invisibility of the sin.  By an invisibility standard, no one should ever be barred from communion, and not even the Cardinal holds that position.

Was he saying that abortion is not wrong?  Probably not, although his words give that impression.

Was he saying that abortion is not very wrong?  He did say that Communion should be withheld only in “extreme cases,” but I don’t think he meant that abortion is not very wrong, but that licensing and encouraging abortion is not very wrong.

Now we are getting close.  Was he saying that the blood of the deed darkens only the hands of those who wield the knives, not those who procure them and sharpen them?

Ah.  I suspect it was something like that.

We have heard this before.  I didn’t rob the bank.  I only kept the motor running while I was waiting for my friend.  I didn’t cut the guy’s throat.  I only held him still so that you could.  I didn’t support the murder of the Jews.  I only voted for the people who thought they should be murdered.

There are many famous parallels.  Stephen A. Douglas wasn’t pro-slavery.  He was only pro-choice about slavery.  Pontius Pilate didn’t command Jesus’ execution.  He only gave official permission for it.

As though one could authorize evil without sharing in the guilt of it.

A good thing not only for the president to think about, but for the Cardinal.

I entertain no hopes that this foolish, negligent, and morally confused shepherd will be removed from his office.  On the contrary, he will probably be praised for helping make straight the path.  Many would like the Abortion President himself to be invited to the Vatican.

“For the time has come,” said St. Peter, “for judgment to begin with the household of God.”  One trembles to think what the judgment may be for tolerating the promotion of bloodshed in mercy’s name.


High Tech Child Abandonment

Monday, 10-04-2021


Sperm donation is a perverse and inadvertent form of eugenics, one that selects for men who have the vanity to broadcast their germ plasm among women whom they neither know nor love, to produce children whom they will never help to nurture, in order to spread their genes through the population (and get paid for it).  The practice mixes features of polygamy and child abandonment, all without the trouble of marrying anyone.

If the selection effect is strong enough and goes on long enough, then over time we can expect an increase in the proportion of the male population that has whatever other predispositions men like this tend to have.


The Self-Esteem Movement’s New Mascot

Thursday, 09-30-2021


After years of focus-grouping, the self-esteem movement has settled on a new mascot.  I think they’ve nailed it.  No one, and I mean no one, has more self-esteem than this handsome guy.


The Sociopathy of Government

Monday, 09-27-2021


Like other governments, republics don’t fray and weaken by accident.  One of the greatest hazards in politics is to act without understanding the passions and motives by which decadent political classes are driven.

We may suppose that members of the political classes seek government action in order to deal with crises.  But they may crises in order to have reasons for government action.

We may suppose that they make individuals and families dependent as an inadvertent effect of trying to help them.  But they may seek methods of so-called help in order to make them dependent.

We may suppose that they fashion laws and regulations to serve the public good.  But they may overhaul their concept of the common good just to have a reason for more laws and regulations.

We may suppose that they try to manage the problems assigned to them.  But they may seek to make the problems worse in order to prove their own importance.

We may suppose that they intervene in economic institutions in order to correct market failures.  But they may court market failures as an excuse to intervene.

We may suppose that they allow outrages to acquire the force of precedent because they misunderstand the requirements of justice.  But they may be unwilling to do justice because they cherish continuity more.

We may suppose that they hope to do great deeds to do in order to bask in the sun of public notice.  But if notice is all their desire, then provided they go unpunished, they may value infamy almost as much as fame.

We may suppose that they try to uphold public order.  But at last, at long last, there may come a time when it better serves their interests to aid and abet those who undermine it.  And then the end is near.

Such motives, though not universal, are far more common than one may think.  I don’t say that all who are driven by them understand their real aims, though some do.  Nor do I say that all who cooperate with those who do understand their aims understand their own complicity.  As in every age, the greater number are so called useful idiots, who take for granted the framework within which they are working.

One should desire to be useful – but to whom or what?  It would be cruel to write about idiocy if there weren’t a cure for it.  There is a cure, a hard one.  “Does not wisdom call, does not understanding raise her voice?”  It would be a good thing to listen.