Quasimodo Sunday

(This post by contributor Jake Tawney from 2012 is a perennial favorite and thus I am rerunning it today.)

In the new Roman Missal, the name of the Second Sunday of Easter has been recast as “Sunday of Divine Mercy,” promulgated by the now Blessed Pope John Paul II.  A great feast it is indeed, yet “Sunday of Divine Mercy” is not the first name to have replaced the generic “Second Sunday of Easter.”  Before John Paul II promulgated Divine Mercy, the Second Sunday of Easter was known as “Quasimodo Sunday.”
Why?  Quite simply: for the same reason that Gaudete Sunday and Latarae Sunday are called so during their respective seasons of Advent and Lent.  Gaudete (Rejoice!) is the first word of the Introit (Opening) Chant for the third Sunday of Lent:  Gaudete in Domino semper (Rejoice in the Lord always).  We find a similar occurrence in the Introit for the Fourth Sunday of Lent: Laetare Ierusalem (Rejoice, O Jerusalem).  In the days when these Introits were sung (or in the rare parish where they are still sung today), the very first word of the Mass heard by the faithful would have been a resounding “Gaudete” (or in the case of Lent, “Laetare”), and the “name” of the day would be immediately obvious.
These chants are part of what the Church calls the “Proper” texts of the day.  They are written specifically for each celebration of the year, much like the Collects and other prayers of the day.  It is a shame that these texts have been ignored by virtually every parish for the last several decades, replaced with generic hymns that have little or no resemblance to the designed chant.  Monsignor Andrew Wadsworth, executive director of ICEL, stated in a speech last year:

Maybe the greatest challenge that lies before us is the invitation once again to sing the Mass rather than merely to sing at Mass. This echoes the injunctions of the Council Fathers in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy and reflects our deeply held instinct that the majority of the texts contained in the Missal can and in many cases should be sung. This means not only the congregational acclamations of the Order of Mass, but also the orations, the chants in response to the readings, the Eucharistic prayer and the antiphons which accompany the Entrance, the Offertory, and the Communion processions. These proper texts are usually replaced by hymns or songs that have little relationship to the texts proposed by the Missal or the Graduale Romanum and as such a whole element of the liturgy of the day is lost or consigned to oblivion. For the most part, they exist only as spoken texts. We are much the poorer for this, as these texts (which are often either Scriptural or a gloss on the Biblical text) represent the Church’s own reading and meditation on the Scriptures. As chants, they are a sort of musical lectio divina pointing us towards the riches expressed in that day’s liturgy.

For this reason, I believe that it is seriously deficient to consider that planning music for the liturgy ever begins with a blank sheet: there are texts given for every Mass in the Missal and these texts are intended for singing.

With that brief digression behind us, let’s returns to the to the topic at hand: Quasimodo Sunday.  The name of the day comes form the first words of the Mass, the Introit Chant:  
Quasimodo geniti infantes, alleluia: rationabiles, sine dolo lac concupiscite, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.
Lest people think these chants a lost reality to the “old rite,” a form of the text appears in the Novus Ordo as well for the Second Sunday of Easter (Sunday of Divine Mercy):
Quasi modo géniti infántes, rationábile, sine dolo lac concupíscite, ut in eo crescátis in salútem, allelúia.
In its new English translation, it appears in the current Roman Missal :
Like newborn infants, you must long for the pure, spiritual milk, that in him you may grow to salvation, alleluia.
The word quasimodo is a compound of two Latin words (split in the Missale Romanum), quasi and modo, meaning “almost” and “the standard of measure.”  Thus, the combination means “almost the standard of measure,” which in the new translation is reduced to “like.”
The quotation takes its cue from 1 Peter 2:2, which in the RSV reads, “Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation.”  (Incidentally, the Latin in the Vulgate reads, “Sicut modo geniti infantes, rationale sine dolo lac concupiscite, ut in eo crescatis in salutem.”)
It is fitting for this time of year, as we have come to the joyous realization that our salvation has been won, but through an act of pure grace, not as something that we deserve.  We drink of this grace with the only posture fitting of a gift: that of humble and docile reception.  The imagery of a child’s dependent reception is reminiscent of Archbishop Schneider’s observation in his book/essay Dominus Est:
[T]he attitude of a child is the truest and most profound attitude of a Christian before his Savior, who nourishes him with his Body and Blood … The word of Christ, which invites us to receive the Kingdom of God like a child (see Luke 18:17), can find its illustration in that very beautiful and impressive manner of receiving the Eucharistic Bread directly into one’s mouth and on one’s knees. This ritual manifests in an opportune and felicitous way the interior attitude of a child who allows himself to be fed, united to the gesture of the centurion’s humility and to the gesture of ‘wonder and adoration’ (Schneider, 29).
Given the promulgation of the “Sunday of Divine Mercy,” the image of childlike reception becomes even more prominent.  Mercy can only be shown to him who is childlike enough to receive it.
However, when one hears the term quasimodo, I would imagine the first thing to come to mind is not the Second Sunday of Easter, but rather the Hunchback of Notre Dame, the 1831 novel by Vitor Hugo (or some later film variant).  The name Quasimodo is given to the abandoned and deformed baby found by Claude Frollo, the Archdeacon of Notre Dame, on the steps of the Cathedral.  Frollo bestows the name of the child because of the day on which he was found: the Second Sunday of Easter, none other than Quasimodo Sunday.
While a good literary reference is always appreciated, perhaps it is time to rescue the name quasimodo and restore to it its original liturgical significance: Quasimodo Sunday, Sunday of Divine Mercy.
To contribute but a small part to this effort, I give to you two versions of the Introit for today, the first using a male vocalization, and the second using a female one.



Social Justice, Francis, Benedict, and Other Things Tragically Misrepresented

Overheard upon the election of Pope Francis: “Finally ‘social justice’ won’t be a bad word anymore.”  It is astounding how many misconceptions can be packed into nine short words.

First, there is this constant misperception that Francis, because of some stylistic differences, is somehow light years apart from Pope Benedict XVI in substance.  Actually, a comment like the one above somehow suggests that Francis is radically different from most, if not all, of his modern predecessors.  Here’s the rub: when people are asked to present evidence that Pope Francis is somehow “different,” they simply fall flat.  They fall flat because there is no evidence.  Even if one were to reach back into his days as Cardinal Bergoglio, the evidence of continuity piles up left and right (pun intended).  I will resist the urge the quote extensively from Benedict, John Paul II, and others to demonstrate the continuity, mostly because I am getting weary of the task.  The more I talk with people who adhere to a sudden jolt of discontinuity brought about by the Bergoglio pontificate, the more I think that the onus of proof is on them.  Those who see Francis as “different” or a “breath of fresh air” or as someone who will finally “bring the Church into the modern liberal world” owe us some evidence of the fact.  They owe us a rational argument and examples of such a claim.

However, the opening quotation is about more than a perceived discontinuity.  It is also about a mistaken understanding of “social justice” in the Church, on two accounts.  The first account is that “social justice” is somehow limited to poverty, immigration, the environment, and universal health care.  “Social justice” is much broader than just these issues.  If we break down the two terms, “social” refers to man living with his neighbor, and “justice” refers to the classical virtue.  Therefore, anything involving the dignity of the human person would fall under this category.  “Social justice” would then also include the right to life from conception to natural death, upholding the traditional definition of marriage, and issues of cloning and fetal stem cell research.  Quite frankly, in its broader sense it would also include basic issues of morality such as the Church’s teaching on contraception.  On that note, I return to the point in the previous paragraph.  One who claims that Francis is or will be different from his predecessor on any of these issues should be required to demonstrate an argument complete with examples.  I have dedicated most of my spare reading time to the writings of John Paul II, when he was pope, and Benedict XVI.  I can tell you that both men tirelessly stood up for the poor, called Catholics to personal action in this regard, defending the dignity of life at all stages, spoke about the challenges and abuses regarding immigration, taught us that basic health care is important for all of mankind, vehemently resisted efforts to change the definition of traditional and sacramental marriage, encouraged us to protect the environment, and spoke out against human cloning and fetal stem cell research.  They also reaffirmed the Church’s teaching on difficult issues of morality such as contraception.  They did so because they were Catholic.  They did so because they were relentlessly dedicated to the truth.  Pope Francis has shown in his time as Cardinal Bergolgio and his opening month as Holy Roman Pontiff complete continuity with regards to the Church’s teaching in all of these areas.

The second account of how the opening quotation misconstrues “social justice” is how it collapses the difference between principle and implementation to the latter.  When it comes to moral principles, theologians distinguish between what the concept is (principle) and how best to achieve it (implementation).  For instance, an individual cannot in good conscience be a practicing Catholic and not adhere to the principle that we are responsible for taking care of the least among us.  Christ clearly calls every individual to be concerned with the poor.  That is the principle.  The implementation is something altogether different, and people of good will can disagree on the best way to bring about the call to help those in need.  Is it through major government programs, is it through private charitable giving, or is it through some mix between the two?

There are, however, some moral teachings in which the principle is the same as the implementation: abortion, for instance.  There is no other way to implement the moral principle of the right to life except to protect it at all stages.  Any law that does not seek full protection is unjust insofar as it fails in this regard.

Here is where we return to the crux of the issue.  “Finally ‘social justice’ won’t be a bad word anymore.”  Social justice was never a bad word, or a bad pair of words to be precise, within the Church.  Those who get frustrated when the term “social justice” is thrown around carelessly do so not because of the term itself, nor because of their own personal commitment to the Church’s teaching, but rather because of its misuse, because of how it is pigeonholed into a platform for the political left.

We are all called to seek justice in every area of Catholic moral teaching, just as we always have been.  There is nothing that has changed in the transition of Pope Benedict to Pope Francis in this call.  In order to understand this properly, however, we must be able to distinguish principle from implementation.  The Church calls all of us as individuals to do what we can to help the world’s poor.  However, this is something altogether different that looking to government to solve the problem for us, to take the onus off the individual.  This has always been the crux of the issue.  I would have severe words for the “Catholic” who says, “The poor are not my problem, and my time and money will not be wasted trying to solve this issue.”  Yet I would have equally severe words for the person who thinks that government programs are the solution to the nation’s poverty.

If the Church has learned anything from the centuries-long bad press she received regarding the Galileo debacle, it is that she should tread very lightly in speaking outside of her area of expertise.  The Church should and will point out instances of economic injustice, but providing specific economic solutions is something that she leaves to those governing the nations.  Instead, the Church stays at the level of the human heart.  She calls every believer to serve the poor, but she does not call believers to support specific government solutions.  Pope Francis is an outstanding example of this.  He states the principle, and then he does it.  But he most emphatically does not say that we can pass off our personal responsibility to government programs.  Rather than calling up the Italian government to dictate how they can best take care of and rehabilitate the imprisoned youth of the country, he – he himself – washed their feet.  The call of the Gospel is a call to the human heart.  It is not a call for any one government program.

This is where some issues of social justice are different than others.  Some allow for disagreement among people of good will when it comes to the implementation.  Others do not because the principle is the same as the implementation.  We saw this play out in the last Vice Presidential debate between two Catholics.  On the one hand there was the Republican Paul Ryan who, when criticized for his economic plan, stated clearly, the the plan did not violate Catholic principles, but rather it is because of Catholic principles than he supports the plan.  Congressman Ryan was interviewed on EWTN and allowed to explain this in more detail.  He said in no uncertain terms that he has a deep compassion for the poor, one that is formed by his Catholic upbringing, and then he outlined precisely why he thinks that fiscal conservatism is the best way to help the poor.  One is free to disagree with the Congressman on the level of economics.  For my own part, I readily recognize that I am not an economist, and so I have little to add on whether or not Ryan’s plan will work.  I can say that the entitlement programs of the left seem to not have produced near the results that they promised since their inception.  What I do know is that Ryan is well within Catholic social teaching in his explanation of his fiscal policies.  He might be dead wrong on an economic level, but he is clearly approaching this as a well-formed Catholic.  On the other hand we had Vice President Joe Biden who, when questioned about his stance on abortion, stated,

My religion defines who I am, and I’ve been a practicing Catholic my whole life.  And has particularly informed my social doctrine. The Catholic social doctrine talks about taking care of those who – who can’t take care of themselves, people who need help. With regard to – with regard to abortion, I accept my church’s position on abortion as a – what we call a de fide doctrine. Life begins at conception in the church’s judgment. I accept it in my personal life.  But I refuse to impose it on equally devout Christians and Muslims and Jews, and I just refuse to impose that on others, unlike my friend here, the – the congressman. I – I do not believe that we have a right to tell other people that – women they can’t control their body. It’s a decision between them and their doctor. In my view and the Supreme Court, I’m not going to interfere with that.

The problem is that one cannot hold this position and be a Catholic in good conscience.  This is because when it comes to abortion, the principle is the same as the implementation.  One cannot hold in principle that every life has a dignity and should be afforded protection from the first moment of conception and then claim the best way to implement this is to not protect it.

“Social justice” is not a bad word, but these two principles must be kept in mind when properly discerning the Church’s teaching in matters of social justice.  First, “social justice” is bigger than the “left” and on the “right.”  It includes a whole range of issues.  Second, many of the issues are stated as principles, but details of implementation are left up to the prudential judgement of national leaders.  The Church will only speak out of issues of national implementation when a specific system has demonstrated utter incompatibility with Church teaching, as when she condemned socialism.

It seems to me that Pope Francis understands social justice quite well, just as did his predecessor and his predecessor’s predecessor.  There will not be a change in Church teaching with the new Pope, no matter how much the left wants to co-opt Pope Francis for their own political agendas.


The Example of Hungary: Christian Roots Coming Alive

My dearest son, if you desire to honor the royal crown, I advise, I counsel, I urge you above all things to maintain the Catholic and apostolic faith with such diligence and care that you may be an example for all those placed under you by God and that all the clergy may rightly call you a man of true Christian profession.  Failing to do this, you may be sure that you will not be called a Christian or a son of the Church. Indeed, in the royal palace after the faith itself, the Church holds second place, first propagated as she was by our head, Christ; then transplanted, firmly constituted and spread through the whole world by his members, the apostles and holy fathers. And though she always produced fresh offspring, nevertheless in certain places she is regarded as ancient.


However, dearest son, even now in our kingdom the Church is proclaimed as young and newly planted; and for that reason she needs more prudent and trustworthy guardians lest a benefit which the divine mercy bestowed on us undeservedly should be destroyed and annihilated through your idleness, indolence or neglect.


My beloved son, delight of my heart, hope of your posterity, I pray, I command, that at every time and in everything, strengthened by your devotion to me, you may show favor not only to relations and kin, or to the most eminent, be they leaders or rich men or neighbors or fellow-countrymen, but also to foreigners and to all who come to you. By fulfilling your duty in this way you will reach the highest state of happiness. Be merciful to all who are suffering violence, keeping always in your heart the example of the Lord who said: I desire mercy and not sacrifice. Be patient with everyone, not only with the powerful, but also with the weak.


Finally be strong lest prosperity lift you up too much or adversity cast you down. Be humble in this life, that God may raise you up in the next. Be truly moderate and do not punish or condemn anyone immoderately. Be gentle so that you may never oppose justice. Be honorable so that you may never voluntarily bring disgrace upon anyone. Be chaste so that you may avoid all the foulness of lust like the pangs of death.


All these virtues I have noted above make up the royal crown and without them no one is fit to rule here on earth or attain the heavenly kingdom.

(From admonitions to his son by Saint Stephen, Office of Readings for August 16, the Memorial of St. Stephen of Hungary.)

With the election of John Paul II many eyes turned towards Poland, a nation that was persecuted under both the Nazi’s and the Communists during much of the last century.  Both of the persecutions sought to destroy not only the state of Poland, but also the nation and the culture.  While Poland has a unique place in the geography of Europe, its story of occupation and persecution is played out in several other neighboring regions, one of the most prominent is Hungary.  While it is not my intent to give a full history of this nation, some details from the twentieth century can help set the stage.

In 1918, Mihaly Karolyi came to power as the Prime Minister, eventually becoming the president of the first republic of Hungary.  Unfortunately, he ordered the disarmament of the Hungarian army, which essentially left the nation without any viable defense.  This led to the occupation of various regions of Hungary: Romania took control of much of the eastern regions, Czechoslovakia occupies the north, and both Serbia and France took over the south.  All of this led to the significant decrease of the sovereign land.

In March of 1919 the Communists took power in Hungary, which was declared the “Hungarian Soviet Republic” just a month later.  The communist leader, Bela Kun, was ousted from power in June of that year, and new borders were set under the Treaty of Trianon in which Hungary lost 71% of its territory and 66% of its population.  The ethnic Hungarian population became minorities in the neighboring countries that were awarded Hungarian land under the terms of the treaty.

When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, Hungary joined the effort and formally joined the side of the Axis Powers.  However, the friendship would not last very long.  When Hungary suffered major losses in 1943, it sought to negotiate a surrender with the Allies.  In opposition to the proposed surrender, the German army occupied Hungary in 1944.  At this point, Hungary finds itself between a rock and a hard place.  When they tried to withdraw from the war, the Germans replaced their government with a mock government, essentially any functioning government in the country and making them a puppet for the Nazi regime.  Later in 1944 the Soviets invaded Budapest, with Hungary suffering devastating losses.  The loss of life was not the only result of the war.  Hungary also lost nearly 60% of its economy.  On February 13, 1945, Budapest surrendered unconditionally.

As in Poland, when the Nazis withdrew, the communist troops occupied all of the country.  The Hungarian Revolution, a heroic response to the post-was government, occurred in 1956.  By October 30 of that year, the Soviet Army withdrew from Budapest, but not before inflicting a severe loss of life on the revolutionaries, many of whom were peaceful demonstrators.  The Soviets did not withdraw for long.  They returned on November 4, 1956, and with a vengeance, sending troops numbering in the 100,000 – 200,000 range.  An estimated 20,000 people were killed, and 250,000 people left the country.

The last part of the 1980’s brought a fundamental shift in the structure and governance of Hungary.  Due to a series of protests and a changing global political climate, the country began a shift towards a multi-party systems, a free market economy, and a change of political power.  By May of 1989, Hungary began taking down the barbed wire fence along the Austrian border, the first hole in the Iron Curtain.  The events accelerate at this point.  East German refugees are allowed to go to the West (the exodus of which had no small part to play in the fall of the Berlin Wall), Hungary is declared a republic, free elections return, and the conservative party wins big in 1990.  By 1991 the last Soviet troops quietly withdrew.  With the new economic conservatism, there was a decrease in the standard of living as the government subsidies were removed, so for a brief time, the Socialist party was restored in the election of 1994.   Currently, however, the President, Prime Minister, and Speaker of the National assembly are all members of Fidesz, the national conservative political party.

All of this is a millennium after the letter of St. Stephen of Hungary, who ascended to the throne in 1000 AD with a crown sent by Pope Sylvester II.  Stephen embodies the character of the Hungarian nation, which somehow survived, much like Poland, despite the non-existence of the Hungarian state through much of the last century.  St. Stephen remains one of history’s rare monarchs who combined energy, holiness, and practicality.  Because of this, he was largely responsible for the conversion of the native tribes to Catholicism.  In a recent article by Christopher Gawley in New Oxford Review, the king-saint is described as follows: “Imagine Charlemagne’s administrative brilliance combined with St. Louis IX’s sanctity.”

While the challenges of Hungary are not a few, most pressing being the dismal population replacement rate of 1.25, this small a formidable nation still has something great to offer the world.  Countries that were founded on Christian principles have rapidly been losing their Christian identity in the last half a century.  There are new attempts every day to remove words like “God” and “Creator” from national mottoes, anthems, and founding documents.  Despite this unfortunate tendency, the small nation of Hungary managed something quite remarkable in its new Constitution that took effect on January 1, 2012.  In not only imbued the document with a Christian character, but it also codified many of the human dignity issues that continue to suffer under bad interpretations of constitutions in other nations of the modern West.  Said more forthrightly, the abortion and marriage debates that are raging through our country and much of Europe (though in many places the “debates” seem disastrously more settled than in others) would be far easier to defend constitutionally had the founders written them directly in to the Constitution itself.  While I firmly believe that honest Constitutional arguments will come down on the Christian side on most every issue, the presence of any ambiguity whatsoever gives the left an opportunity to highjack the “intent” of the codified law.  Perhaps after watching this process play out in much of the developed world, the hindsight Hungary enjoys has allowed them to “do things differently.”

Right under the title of the Constitution we read, “God bless the Hungarians.”  Immediately following is the “National Avowal.”  In writing this, I tried unsuccessfully to cut it down.  While long in print, it is succinct on content, and the remarkableness it enjoys deserves to be quoted in its entirety.  I will put the more impressive parts in bold.

 WE, THE MEMBERS OF THE HUNGARIAN NATION, at the beginning of the new millennium, with a sense of responsibility for every Hungarian, hereby proclaim the following:


We are proud that our king Saint Stephen built the Hungarian State on solid ground and made our country a part of Christian Europe one thousand years ago.  We are proud of our forebears who fought for the survival, freedom and independence of our country.  We are proud of the outstanding intellectual achievements of the Hungarian people.  We are proud that our people has over the centuries defended Europe in a series of struggles and enriched Europe’s common values with its talent and diligence.  We recognize the role of Christianity in preserving nationhood. We value the various religious traditions of our country.  We promise to preserve the intellectual and spiritual unity of our nation torn apart in the storms of the last century. The nationalities living with us form part of the Hungarian political community and are constituent parts of the State.  We commit to promoting and safeguarding our heritage, our unique language, Hungarian culture, the languages and cultures of nationalities living in Hungary, along with all man-made and natural assets of the Carpathian Basin. We bear responsibility for our descendants; therefore we shall protect the living conditions of future generations by making prudent use of our material, intellectual and natural resources.  We believe that our national culture is a rich contribution to the diversity of European unity.  We respect the freedom and culture of other nations, and shall strive to cooperate with every nation of the world.  We hold that human existence is based on human dignity.  We hold that individual freedom can only be complete in cooperation with others.  We hold that the family and the nation constitute the principal framework of our coexistence, and that our fundamental cohesive values are fidelity, faith and love.  We hold that the strength of community and the honor of each person are based on labour, an achievement of the human mind.  We hold that we have a general duty to help the vulnerable and the poor.  We hold that the common goal of citizens and the State is to achieve the highest possible measure of well-being, safety, order, justice and liberty.  We hold that democracy is only possible where the State serves its citizens and administers their affairs in an equitable manner, without prejudice or abuse.  We honor the achievements of our historical constitution and we honor the Holy Crown, which embodies the constitutional continuity of Hungary’s statehood and the unity of the nation.  We do not recognize the suspension of our historical constitution due to foreign occupations. We deny any statute of limitations for the inhuman crimes committed against the Hungarian nation and its citizens under the national socialist and communist dictatorships.  We do not recognize the communist constitution of 1949, since it was the basis for tyrannical rule; therefore we proclaim it to be invalid.  We agree with the members of the first free Parliament, which proclaimed as its first decision that our current liberty was born of our 1956 Revolution.  We date the restoration of our country’s self-determination, lost on the nineteenth day of March 1944, from the second day of May 1990, when the first freely elected body of popular representation was formed. We shall consider this date to be the beginning of our country’s new democracy and constitutional order.  We hold that after the decades of the twentieth century which led to a state of moral decay, we have an abiding need for spiritual and intellectual renewal.  We trust in a jointly-shaped future and the commitment of younger generations. We believe that our children and grandchildren will make Hungary great again with their talent, persistence and moral strength.  Our Fundamental Law shall be the basis of our legal order: it shall be a covenant among Hungarians past, present and future; a living framework which expresses the nation’s will and the form in which we want to live.  We, the citizens of Hungary, are ready to found the order of our country upon the common endeavors of the nation.

There is explicit mention of the Christian character of the nation, and the character is demonstrated in the subsequent statements.  There is also a national pride that comes through loud and clear.  Yet the “Avowal” is only the beginning.  The Christian principles are codified in the rest of the document.  Foundation, Article L reads, “Hungary shall protect the institution of marriage as the union of a man and a woman established by voluntary decision, and the family as the basis of the nation’s survival.  Hungary shall encourage the commitment to have children.  The protection of families shall be regulated by a cardinal Act.”

Freedom and Responsibility, Article II reads, “Human dignity shall be inviolable. Every human being shall have the right to life and human dignity; embryonic and fetal life shall be subject to protection from the moment of conception.”

Article VII says, “Every person shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include the freedom to choose or change religion or any other persuasion, and the freedom for every person to proclaim, refrain from proclaiming, profess or teach his or her religion or any other persuasion by performing religious acts, ceremonies or in any other way, whether individually or jointly with others, in the public domain or in his or her private life.”

Article XVI reads, “Every child shall have the right to the protection and care required for his or her proper physical, mental and moral development.  Parents shall have the right to choose the type of upbringing they deem fit for their children.  Parents shall be obliged to look after their children. This obligation shall include the provision of schooling for their children.  Adult children shall be obliged to look after their parents if they are in need.”

The document is credited in large part to the leadership of prime minister Viktor Orban, who correctly recognized that the current economic and social crises of Europe are due entirely to the loss of Christian identity and commitment to Christian values.  He recently said, “A Europe governed according to Christian values would regenerate.  The European crisis has not come by chance but by leaders who have questioned precisely those Christian roots” (quoted in Gawley’s article).

It is no surprise that the Hungarian Constitution has caused much consternation among the political left in both Europe and the United States.  For me, it is a sign of great hope (both the Constitution and the liberal response).  While the Catholic Church, under the leadership of Cardinal Peter Erdo, has some work cut out for it, the adoption of the Constitution demonstrates that a significant number of people are hungering (“Hungary-ing”?) for an end to the failed experiment of liberal permissiveness, hollow multiculturalism, and an inorganic break from the past.  The “National Avowal” demonstrates that a nation committed to moral renewal, beauty, national pride, the dignity of human life, authentic culture, freedom for excellence, honor for God, a conscious connection with heritage and history, children, family, virtue, and dare I say it, faith, is still not only possible, but is actively sought out and welcomed.  I’m not claiming that the United States is anywhere close to something like this, but I am saying that there is a substantial portion of our population that would rejoice over such ideas.  Maybe it is not out of the question.  Maybe with enough efforts, sweat, tears, and most importantly prayer, the ideas enshrined in the Hungarian Constitution can take root in nations across the world, nations that already have the historical roots necessary for such change.

Until that day comes, we plead, St. Stephen of Hungary, ora pro nobis.


The Liturgical Direction of Pope Francis: A Diatribe Against the Diatribes

In my initial post on the election of Pope Francis, I concluded with a mild chastisement of those who have take on a spirit of uncharity with regards to the liturgical decisions of the new Holy Father.  To be clear, I have never suggested that papal decisions are beyond criticism.  Pope’s are not perfect in every matter.  Some will have strengths in one area and weaknesses in others.  Pope John Paul II was not a very strong liturgical pope, but he will inevitably be numbered among the Church’s “Great” Holy Fathers for more reasons than we can count.  Pope Benedict was a masterful liturgist, but his management of those in the Secretary of State’s office left something to be desired.  Even someone like Pope Paul VI, who was largely responsible for the tragic liturgical rupture of the last century, managed to produce Humanae Vitae, arguably one of the most important Catholic moral documents in recent memory.  I am also not suggesting that we put on rose colored glasses and assume that Pope Francis will “come around” to the liturgical stylings of his predecessor.  It is likely he will not.  This pope seems to be entirely committed to simplicity in both his private and public actions.  That being said, respectful conversation about liturgies, papal or otherwise, are not only appropriate, but also encouraged.  Pope Benedict XVI believed firmly in a “bottom up” liturgical reform.  The new liturgical movement will not be driven off course in the least by the actions of this or that pontiff.  It will continue to bear fruit so long as it is done in charity and with a spirit of filial love for the Holy Father.  This last point is essential.  The liberal factions within the Church who have been calling for things such as women’s ordination will never be taken seriously, and not simply because they are asking for the reversal of infallible teachings, but also because their tactics are often tactless.  While the new liturgical movement has on its side the history of the Church, the argument from beauty, and the backing of many within the magisterium, I can assure you that the day we abandon the virtues of charity and obedience is the day that we surrender our right to be taken seriously.  It is also the day that, as individuals, we put up barriers to our personal sanctification.  Without charity, there can be no holiness.

With that, there are a few points I wish to make as we go forward.  First, Vatican Information Services reported on March 14, “The director of the Holy See Press Office commented on the Pope’s first public appearance yesterday evening, greeting the crowd gathered in St. Peter’s Square. He noted a few significant gestures that characterized the simplicity and serenity of that encounter, beginning with the Pope’s request that the faith pray for him and his choice of vestments” (emphasis added).  The Holy Father has made deliberate decisions regarding his vestiture, but he has done so by asking for our prayers.  Since when do we not take men at their word?  There are those who have tried to cast Pope Francis’ humility as anything from “misplaced” to “disguised arrogance.”  While we can agree or disagree on the choice of vestments itself, and while we can have respectful dialog about what “simplicity” means within the Roman Rite and papal liturgies, it is entirely inappropriate to judge what is in the pope’s heart.  He has said that he wants to bring a spirit of humility and simplicity to the papacy and the wider Church, and we owe him the benefit of the doubt that this is his true intention.  To assume arrogance and pride in another man’s hear, especially the pope’s, is not our place.  He deserves to be taken at his word.  He also deserves the prayers for which he has asked.  We are Catholic, folks.  We pray.  We pray, and we abandon ourselves to the will of God.  Rather than vitriol, we should exhibit virtue.  Before we jump on a website to level our criticisms, perhaps we should take an hour to pray both for our own dispositions and for the Holy Father.

Second, there has always been a tug between the simple and the ornate within the Church.  The Roman Rite itself has always been by its nature simple and less ornate than many of the eastern rites.  Even within the Gospels we have Jesus presented as somehow both.  We have the scene at Bethany where he allows the woman to pour the expensive oils on his feet despite the objections from Judas that the oil could be sold and the profits could be given to the poor.  And yet we can’t ignore the fact that Jesus was a humble and relatively poor man who lived a life that was as simple as can be.

Look, those who have known me for years know full well what side of the liturgical coin I prefer.  Like the oil at Bethany, I think that no expense is too much when it comes to the worship of the almighty God.  I believe whole heartedly that the liturgy does not belong to anyone, including this or that pope.  I believe that the most important thing for our time is to recover the essence of the sacred liturgy and to restore a spirit of continuity with our past.  I know deep within me that the liturgy is the key to reviving Catholic identity, and identity is key to evangelization and the universal call to holiness.  I rejoiced in the beauty of the Benedictine liturgies, from the vestments to the chant to the altar arrangements.  I will miss them tremendously, for my heart tells me that they will very much not be present in the Franciscan liturgies to come.  It is okay to say that I side with Benedict on this.  It is even okay to say that new liturgical movement will push ahead despite the decisions of Pope Francis.  But it is not okay to throw the baby out with the bath water, and it is certainly not okay to resort to childish tirades over a man we barely know.

In other words, if we can adopt the humility called for by our beloved Holy Father, we can and we will learn something from him.  As I said from the beginning, every pope has his strengths and weaknesses. To ignore the former because we are preoccupied with the latter is a disservice to ourselves, to the pope, and to the Church.  If we focus too much on the liturgical rupture of Paul VI, we will miss Humanae Vitae.  If we zoom in on some of the misplaced ecumenism of John Paul II, we will fail to recognize the brilliance of his writings on faith, reason, and the nature of the human person, not to mention the part he played in bringing down communism.  If, like the media, some see only the failed management of certain curial departments under Benedict XVI and are consequently blinded to the importance of his liturgical legacy, they are equally to blame.  How is it that the fans of Benedict’s liturgies so readily understand this last example but fail to see the flip side of the coin in the previous two examples?

Pope Francis does have something to teach us, and I firmly believe it is a lesson that much needed in the world: a call to simplicity and personal poverty.  I don’t mean here personal destitution, but rather that call to Gospel poverty clearly spelled out in the Sermon on the Mount.  It strikes me when reading Luke’s account of this monumental sermon that the beati of the poor is the only one that bears a present promise.  All the others guarantee some future reward (you shall be filled, you shall laugh, etc.).  Yet when it comes to being poor, the promise reads, “Yours is the kingdom of God.”  There is blessing in simplicity, yet the world in which we live is not at all conducive to this call.  Despite this, it remains true that in this call to simplicity we will find God.

Please don’t get me wrong.  I am very much of the camp that our worship of the almighty God in the Sacred Liturgy is something the deserves both great attention to detail and an aesthetic that conveys the reality of heaven-com-down-to-earth, or perhaps the other way around.  Yet the beauty that we should portray in our liturgy should be in stark contrast to the simplicity found within our own lives.  Before we decry the liturgical decisions of Pope Francis, we would do well to get our own houses in order.  The possessions we have, the gourmet food we eat, the expensive clothes we buy, the cell phones we carry, and the very computers that we use to type out the anti-Francis diatribes … all of this bears asking, “Is it really necessary?”  When it comes to the things of the world, there is nothing neutral.  Every thing we own, every activity we do, every medium we consume … it either does or does not contribute to our own holiness.  The lesson from the first days of the Franciscan pontificate is simple: we must take a spiritual inventory of our own lives, and we need to divest ourselves of those things that are not helping our sanctification.

Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.  This pope has much to teach us, even if we disagree with him on things liturgical.  Dialog.  Discuss.  But do so in a spirit of prayer and humility, and dare I say it, charitable obedience to our new pope.  He deserves our love.  He deserves our respect.  He deserves our prayers.  He deserves our filial devotion.  And he does so because he is the Vicar of Christ on earth.  He is our Holy Father.


Will the Real Curia Please Stand Up?

There has been much written about curial disfunction under the reign of Pope Benedict XVI (and perhaps even in the waning years of John Paul II).  Not to minimize problems that exist within Vatican governance, but it is worth pointing out that, much as there was the “real” Second Vatican Council and then the “Council of the Media”, so too is there a “real” Curia and the “Curia of the Media.”  As my good friend Mark from A Dei in the Life points out, “The ‘Curia’ imagined by the press does not exist, though the idea makes for dramatic stories.”

The Curia is a collection of a number of different offices, and it is worth pointing out that the most important offices such as the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith seem to be without scandal altogether.  I mention these as the most important offices because they deal directly with those task that are specifically and forever assigned to Holy Mother Church: they are part of what makes the Church what she is.  Contrast that with something like the Secretary of State.  While the tasks assigned to the Secretary of State may be important, they are not in and of themselves essential to the nature of the Church.  On the other hand, protection of the Sacraments and the Doctrine of the Church is essential to its nature.  It is a curious curial conundrum that the more more “worldly” and non-essential offices are the ones currently plagued with mismanagement.  The far more important ones seem to be functioning just fine.  While we would certainly like to see a Curia that is managed well in all aspects, it at least seems clear that both John Paul II and Benedict XVI had their priorities straight.  They have good men in charge of the most important offices.  The press, on the other hand, has these priorities turned upside down.

Mark puts it this way:

[T]he problems associated with the “Curia” most likely do not involve offices such as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, the Apostolic Signatura, the Congregation for Clergy, the Congregation for Bishops, or various others.  These make up a significant portion of what constitutes the Curia.  The problems (and problematic figures) seem to be more closely associated with the Vatican itself, such as the Secretary of State’s office, the Pontifical Household, etc.

He goes on to say that because the Curial disfunction is not Curial-wide, the Cardinals are savvy enough to know the difference, and thus the “aversion” to a papal candidate coming from the Curia, properly understood, is a construction of the media and not based in reality.  Mark ends with a refreshing note of sobriety:

[T]he point is clear enough, and the response should be too.  Let’s just relax a bit and not worry so much.  The “Curia” imagined by the press does not exist, though the idea makes for dramatic stories.  In reality, God is in control of this process, most of the cardinals are in tune to that, and we’ll have the pope of the Holy Spirit’s choosing soon enough.  For our part, all we need do is pray and wait.

The rest of Mark’s piece is well done, so please go read it in its entirety.


Can (Should) the Pope Influence the Election?


This is a topic that I have been pondering ever since Pope Benedict announced his resignation.  The media, being ever so wise, has insisted that the Holy Father refrain from doing anything that could remotely be considered as giving a particular candidate the papal nod.  It strike me, though, that this deserves a great deal more consideration.  It is not entirely obvious to me that it would be “wrong” for the current Holy Father to attempt to influence the election.  In order to understand this, though, it is helpful to make several distinctions.

First, Church law is quite clear that the Pope has the power to determine how his successor is elected.  Virtually every pontiff in recent memory has modified the process to greater or lesser degrees.  Universi Dominici gregis (John Paul II) reinforces the age old teaching in no uncertain terms: “It is in fact an indisputable principle that the Roman Pontiff has the right to define and adapt to changing times the manner of designating the person called to assume the Petrine succession in the Roman See. This regards, first of all, the body entrusted with providing for the election of the Roman Pontiff.”  In other words, the Pope can set rules even to the extent of who gets to cast a vote.  That being said, the role currently belongs (and has belonged for quite some time) to the College of Cardinals: “Confirming therefore the norm of the current Code of Canon Law (cf. Canon 349), which reflects the millennial practice of the Church, I once more affirm that the College of electors of the Supreme Pontiff is composed solely of the Cardinals of Holy Roman Church” (UDG).  Yet this doesn’t change the fact that it is always subject to change.  Regarding the conclave itself, John Paul II reiterated that it not of itself necessary: “[T]heologians and canonists of all times agree that this institution is not of its nature necessary for the valid election of the Roman Pontiff” (UDG).  He then confirms his desire to see it continue: “I confirm by this Constitution that the Conclave is to continue in its essential structure.”  So once more we see that the conclave is something that could be changed or even eliminated if any sitting pontiff so desired.

The fact is simple: the Pope can lawfully determine who is to vote for his successor and he can lawfully determine the manner in which such an election is to take place.  While I am no canon lawyer, it seems within the bounds of the Petrine Office (with appropriate modifications of canon and special law) that the Holy Father could even do something absurd, perhaps saying: “I hereby declare that the election of the Holy Father in the case of a vacant See be entrusted to Cardinal Burke and Cardinal Canizares.  They alone, by majority vote, will determine the successor of St. Peter.”  Of course, such a specific naming would be imprudent, for if the individuals named were to pass away before the vacancy and the special law were not modified, the Church would find herself in a real pickle.  But it does demonstrate the the Holy Father is given a great amount of latitude in influencing who will succeed him.

It is not even clear whether an election proper is necessary for valid succession.  It seems that the Pope in theory could simply name his successor (again with the proper changes in canon and special law, all within his powers as a reigning pontiff).

Of course, I am not suggesting that these sorts of thing would be prudent by any means.  Numerous problems could arise from such specifics, both practical and political.  But it does make the point that the Holy Father most certainly has the right to influence an election.

Next, we should note that even under current law, the Holy Father does influence the election.  For instance, John Paul II changed the “80 years old” cutoff date from the time of the conclave to the time of vacancy.  This means that there is at least one cardinal (Cardinal Kasper) who will participate in the conclave and yet would not have under the rules of Paul VI.  When the make up of the body of electors is changed, the election has been influenced.  Pope Benedict reinstated the long tradition of a necessary two-thirds vote to decide a runoff election in the case of serious deadlock, whereas under John Paul II’s rule a simple majority would have been sufficient.  This most certainly can influence the election, and if it indeed progresses to the point of a runoff, it likely will influence the election.

Let us also not forget the obvious point that the voters are appointed by the Pope himself.  Benedict has already appointed over half of the cardinal electors, and every cardinal elector has been appointed by either Benedict XVI or John Paul II.  In the appointing of the college, the Pope clearly influences the election.

Finally, though perhaps more subtlety, there is the fact that Pope Benedict has resigned office, and in doing so he has necessarily placed the election of the next pontiff during a time when the former pontiff is still alive.  It is naive to think that this will not enter the minds of the cardinals.  Pope Benedict will influence this election and will do so without having to speak a word to anyone.

So the answer to “does the Pope influence the next papal election” is emphatically “yes.”

Of course the media, and others who are terrified of a new pope who is in continuity with the current Holy Father, recognizes these influences.  Some have even accused the pope of deliberately trying the extend his pontificate in the act of resigning.  Outside of the obvious influences, the claim is, “Once the rules are set and the players are named, the Pope should simply stay out of it.”  People would throw an absolute fit if the Pope were to say, “I really think y’all [can you say y’all with a German accent?] should look at that Burke guy, or maybe the cardinal from Sri Lanka.”  I can hear it now, “How could he!  This is so irresponsible.  The decision should be left with the cardinals, and the pope-emeritus should not try to meddle with it.”  And yet I don’t think it is that simple.

First, in the secular world this happens all the time.  Sitting presidents and former presidents often endorse replacement candidates, both in primaries and general elections.  (How I wish President Obama would have endorsed a replacement candidate.)  It is such a normal part of politics that one never hears cries of “tampering” or “meddling,” even from within the political parties during the primaries.  In fact, the media waits with baited breath to hear who a particular political figure will endorse.

Why is it different for the Pope?  Why would it be so tragic if Benedict were to endorse a particular cardinal?  It certainly wouldn’t invalidate the election.  While he is pope, he certainly has the right to direct the future of the Church, and as we have seen he has the explicit right to decide how the next pope is named.  The media’s notion that the pope has no right to influence the next pontificate is both a double standard that they don’t apply to any other election and, quite frankly, is an absurd misunderstanding of the role of the sitting pontiff.  Of course the pope has the “right” to do so.  In fact, it is an explicit right granted to him by Church law.  (By the way, I have a feeling that if the Pope were to endorse a Cardinal Mahony or a Cardinal Danneels, the American media would miraculously lose their objection to meddling and applaud the pope for his courage.  The media objects to the pope’s influence only because they know what that influence means.)

But shouldn’t the election of the Pope be the result of listening to the Holy Spirit?  The answer is emphatically “yes,” but it also requires an understanding of how the Holy Spirit works.  More often than not, the Spirit works through the thoughts and actions of men.  This is why it is no contradiction to say that the Holy Spirit works through the conclave process even though it involves fallible men casting votes.  (Let us not forget, however, that the Spirit can only work if the cardinals themselves are open.  This is precisely why we pray for the cardinals.  There is a guarantee that the Holy Spirit will speak, but there is no guarantee that the Cardinals will listen.)  Who is to say that the Spirit, who is quite capable of working through a body of electors, is not also capable of working through a current pontiff?  Perhaps the Spirit wants to work through a current pope specifically endorsing a candidate, or dare I say it, even naming a candidate and getting rid of the entire conclave process.  As absurd as it sounds, this is exactly why “it is in fact an indisputable principle that the Roman Pontiff has the right to define and adapt to changing times the manner of designating the person called to assume the Petrine succession in the Roman See.”

Thus far this has been a theoretical question.  In theory the pope can influence, even directly, the election of his successor, and it is unjust to claim that it would be “wrong” for him to do so.  It is an entirely different question as to whether or not it would be prudent for this pope, Benedict XVI, at this particular point in history, to explicitly tap the next pontiff.  I fully recognize that a papal election is something altogether different that a national political election.  The irony, though, is that the media seems to not grasp this difference, except when it is convenient.  That being said, if only because of the massive media fall out the would follow, it is probably not a good idea to make such an explicit endorsement.  We would be dealing with claims of election fraud (erroneous claims, but claims nonetheless) for the entire next pontificate.  Further, I am one that believes in organic growth in all things Catholic, and a sudden change from conclave to something resembling specific influence would be a rupture in the history of papal elections.  We are already dealing with the historical anomaly of a papal resignation.  Keeping all else in continuity in the past is most certainly the prudent course of action.  If the Holy Spirit is to guide the Church is making such radical changes to the papal election process, it will be slowly and deliberately.
Can the pope influence the election?  Yes: he is specifically granted this power in church law.  Does he influence the next election?  Yes: he names the cardinal electors and sets the rules by which the next pope is elected.  Will this specific pope influence the election once he is no longer pope?  No.  Should he influence the election explicitly?  Probably not, but this is an answer that deserves the above enormous qualification.

An Irony in the Conclave

In 2005 the media did a fabulous job of putting forward liberal candidates to replace Pope John Paul II.  In fairness, they had a mixed slate of candidates that spanned the theological and political spectrum’s.  In doing so, they gave an exaggerated picture of a mixed college of cardinals.  On the far left was a cardinal from Belgium named Cardinal Godfried Danneels.  Cardinal Danneels was appointed a cardinal in 1983 by Pope John Paul II.  In the course of his career, the cardinal has urged a decentralized church that relies more on consultation with the world’s bishops.  He has promoted a more flexible approach to pastoral and doctrinal problems, suggesting a rethinking of issues ranging from the shortage of priests to the status of divorced and remarried Catholics, as well as the Church’s way of evangelizing, ecumenism, collegiality, the possibility of ordaining married men, world peace, ecological responsibility, and the relationship between rich and poor countries.  He once said that the Church must take its proper place in society “with its witness, its message and its commitment to the poor.  Everything else is decorative.”

He did, however, have an ironic prediction which turned out to be accurate in its content though inaccurate in its subject. Cardinal Danneels was among the first to say that he believed Pope John Paul II would resign for the good of the church if he were unable to bear the burdens of the papacy.  As we know, no such resignation occurred, at least for Pope John Paul II.

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Papal Picks

Several people have been asking who I would like to see elected once Pope Benedict steps down.  This is always a delicate question, for numerous reasons.  First, it is quite clear that I do not, nor should I, get a vote.  Whatever opinions I hold are simply that: my  opinions and hopes.  Second, should someone “off my list” be elected, I would not want people to think that I “disapprove.”  Just like everyone else, I have various qualities that I would like to see in the new pope, but I also will pledge my undying fidelity and unceasing prayers to whoever occupies the Chair of St. Peter.  Third, if the last several elections have taught us anything it is that old adage rings true: “He who walks into a conclave a pope comes out a cardinal.”  In other words, these things are notoriously difficult to predict.

Nevertheless, because I am human and because I get all geeked out about these things, it should come as no surprise that I have “a list.”  Before we get to it, however, it is worth giving you (1) the criteria the media seems to be using for choosing contenders, (2) my sense of the criteria that the cardinals will actually use, and (3) the criteria I am using.

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Why it is Worth Worrying: On the Brink of a New Pontificate

Along with one billion other Catholics, I have been consumed with reading about and thinking about the news of yesterday.  After getting over the initial shock and having some time to reflect on the weeks ahead, I have noticed a trend among many Catholic commentators.  It is best summed up with the recently re-popularized British World War II slogan, “Keep Calm and Carry On.”

Granted, the slogan is often accompanied by sound theology, typically phrased as, “The Holy Spirit will guide the Church through this,” or, “The Church will continue.  We have the promise of Christ that it will survive.”  All of this is true, of course.  We do believe that the Holy Spirit will work through the conclave, and we certainly believe the the Church will stand the test of time and endure until the end.  Nevertheless, I think it is slightly naive to think that there is nothing about which we should worry.  On the contrary, I think there is quite a bit of legitimate concern.  To understand this, however, we need to make a distinction between the supernatural virtue of hope in those things eternal and a natural hope in those things temporal.

Authentic Christian hope is the theological virtue by which we find solace, comfort, and confidence in the fact that the outcome of the spiritual war in which we are engaged is already known.  Christ has conquered evil and death, and has done so definitively.  We know where all of this is headed, and so there is no reason for despair.  If we accept our vocation and work for personal holiness and the holiness of those with whom we have been entrusted, then we will assuredly play our part and will be welcomed into the victory that is the beatific vision.

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HHS Revisited: The New “Compromise”

While anxiously awaiting a response from the USCCB to the new “modification” announced by the Obama Administration on Take-Out-The-Trash Friday, I found myself looking back at the initial set of thoughts that I put together almost a year ago to date.  I thought it worthwhile to revisit the concerns I had about the initial HHS Rule and the USCCB response to see if they still apply.

However, let me start with the term “accommodation.”  My fear that our country has been employing a “Leap Forward, Hop Back” strategy with most contemporary issues is illustrated perfectly in this health care debate.  The strategy is to make an absurd leap forward that is very difficult for a large portion of the population to swallow, and then to take a small hop back to “make up for it.”  The long term impact of this is the rapid accumulation of the forward motion and the acceptance of it by the American people under the guise that those in power have “compromised” by taking the small hop backwards.  What they forget is the the initial large step was no compromise in the first place.  It is worse than the old frog-in-boiling-water lesson.  You know the old wisdom: if you place a frog in boiling water it will jump out immediately, but if you place it in cool water and gradually increase the temperature, it will happily boil to death.  While others have applied this old adage to the current debate, I think it is actually worse than what it seems.  The “leap forward, hop back” is even more devious than the gradual-temperature-increase.  Instead of slowly boiling the frog so that he doesn’t realize it, this strategy is like raising the heat on the frog rapidly and just before it gets to the point of jumping out, drawing the heat back a little.  In this way, the frog not only boils to death without complaint, but it actually periodically thanks you for those brief moments of cool relief that you so generously offered.

The mere notion that the White House has “expanded the number of accommodations” to the HHS mandate is absurd in and of itself.  Since when is an “accommodation” for religious purposes even necessary?  The very language of “accommodation” makes the Administration seem so benevolent – it is the periodic cooling down of the frog.  What is continually lost on the President and his supporter is that the fundamental right to religious freedom guaranteed in our Constitution is prior to the faux right to free “health care.”  If the two were to be in conflict, it would be the latter that need accommodated, not the former.  (Now would be a good time to cynically remind ourselves that the President is a Constitutional Lawyer.)  The so-called “right to health care” is mentioned nowhere in the Constitution and should thus, under the Tenth Amendment be left to the States and be subject to those rights that are federally guaranteed, including those in the First Amendment.  Notice that I am not saying that people should not have access to affordable health care, only that this is not the role of the Federal Government.  This act of “generosity” by the Administration is nothing of the sort.  It is essentially a concession that, “We promise to violate the rights of a smaller number of people than we intended before.”  An accommodation should not be necessary as religious freedom is guaranteed to all citizens.

With that, let’s turn to my comments from a year ago.  I made three points – the original text is in bold

1.  Religious Liberty is an Individual Freedom.

It seems to me that the focus of the national Catholic conversation has been on the Obama administration’s violation of the freedom of religion by forcing Catholic institutions such as hospitals and universities to provide employees with contraceptives and sterilizations, a practice that is in clear contradiction to the teachings of our faith.  While this is certainly deplorable and the most overt violation of the First Amendment, what has been relatively missing from the dialog is that religious liberty is not merely a liberty granted to religious organizations.  First and foremost, religious liberty is an individual liberty.  Each and every citizen of our nation is guaranteed under the Constitution the freedom to practice one’s religion both publicly and privately and to not be coerced into violating our consciences by acting in a way contradictory to the tenants of one’s faith.

Thus, the HHS rule is not simply a violation against specifically religious organizations.  It is also a violation of the religious liberty of the individual business owner, Catholic or otherwise.  As a Catholic, the owner of a private business cannot, under the Constitution, be compelled by the government to pay for “medical” services that violate his or her faith, including contraceptives and sterilizations.  This applies not only to those companies that have a religious mission, such as EWTN or the Knights of Columbus, but also to the owner of a chain of restaurants, a manufacturing form, or an publishing company.  Further, it also applies to the faithful Catholic owner of a medical insurance company.  Forcing the insurance company to provide coverage for these services despite religious beliefs, is a clear violation of the protection guaranteed under the First Amendment.

My fear is simple.  If the conversation focusses exclusively on those organizations for which Bishops have direct involvement, we may very well see further “compromise” between the Obama administration and the USCCB, but tens of thousands of other Catholic business owners will be lost in the shuffle.  In fact, I will go so far as to say that even if the HHS does a complete 180 on the current issue, i.e. incorporating Catholic hospitals and universities in the exemption clause without the bogus compromise that forces the insurance companies to cover the costs and services … even then, the fight is not over.  Because even then there will be thousands of businesses who are not included in the exemption clause because business activities have no specifically religious purpose.  Yet these owners too have the right to practice their religion, and hence should not and cannot be compelled to act in a way contrary to their faith.

Looking back, my fear seems well-founded.  The cynic in me believes that the Obama Administration is not offering a “compromise” but rather clearing the legal playing field of all competition.  While I am not a lawyer, it seems likely that Notre Dame, EWTN, schools and hospitals may now be exempt under the revised accommodation and therefore not have standing in court.  A more sophisticated legal analysis will flush this out, but it seems abundantly clear that the private for-profit business owner will still not be exempt and will be forced to violate their moral consciences.  And the problem of the Catholic owner of a medical insurance company still remains a very large problem, hitherto unaddressed in the national conversation, for under the law they are forced to comply with this mandate in a manner altogether different, and more directly than the employer.  (Here is where I would love to see the Knights of Columbus, who have a history in the life insurance industry, begin to offer medical insurance and refuse to sell plans that cover contraceptives and abortion services, if only to give them standing in court.)

I understand why the USCCB rhetoric focusses on specific arms of the Catholic Church (schools, universities, parishes, dioceses, hospitals, etc.), which presumedly was because these are the easiest legal battles to win.  However from the perspective of moral philosophy, the emphasis seems misplaced.  A moral conscience is something possessed by an individual.  The reason why the mandate for a Catholic University is unjust has less to do with the fact that the institution is formally associated with the Catholic Church and more to do with the fact that the individuals who run it and make decisions of what health insurance to purchase are Catholics who feel that they cannot comply without violating the moral code.  While an institution, religious or otherwise, can be said to have some sort of “collective conscience,” this is only by analogy to an actual conscience possessed by an individual.  Further, it is the individual that is protected by the Bill of Rights.

Granted, the interference of the government in an official religious institution brings with it a whole different set of problems and violations of the Constitution, so I am not necessarily faulting the bishops on their focus on this aspect of the mandate.  However, they will certainly need to revise their rhetoric, and they now risk looking like the “side that refuses to compromise with a very measured and reasonable President.”


2.  There is a Silver Lining.

The felix culpa effect never ceases to amaze me.  God can bring good out of the most heinous evils, the case and point being the crucifixion.  The silver lining to the current HHS tragedy is the unified effort of the Catholic Episcopacy.  While the thought that the Obama administration feels that it can abuse its power in this manner terrifies me, the response by the Bishops has given me great cause for joy.  When the Bishop’s letter was read from the pulpit two weeks ago, the congregation applauded.  It is a powerful moment for the Church.

In hindsight, while I still applaud the bishops for their effort, we now have the results of the national election to help frame their response.  It is clear that the American political scene as well as the 50% of Catholics who still voted for President Obama that the bishops are not being taken seriously.  I think that they have underestimated the effects of a decades-long silence, something that cannot be broken in a single election cycle.  While they are to be commended for stepping up to the plate, they are not miraculously immune from the cement that has been allowed to dry and and cure for nearly half a century.  They will eventually be able to break it apart, but it cannot be done in one summer.  They will need to continue chipping away at this in order to regain credibility among the Catholic faithful.  Until that happens – until an election can actually be influenced by the episcopacy – the Democratic party has no reason to change course, and the “leap forward, hop back” strategy will continue to be highly effective.


3.  “Health Care” is being Redefined.

My final point has been mentioned by several others, but it warrants reiteration.  There is a not-so-subtle redefinition of “health care” in this whole debate.  There is a certain amount of irony that under the president’s health care bill and the accompanying HHS ruling, I will not be able to receive Tylenol or toothpaste for free, but women will be able to receive birth control and abortifacients for free.  Tylenol is a drug that actually tries to cure something that is “wrong” with the body, and toothpaste is authentically “preventative” in terms of dental health problems.  Yet birth control and abortifacients have little to do with the health of the body.  In fact, they are often used for reproductive systems that are otherwise heathy.  They are designed to take a perfectly healthy and well-functioning bodily system and stop it from functioning how it should.  Since when did fertility and pregnancy become a disease?  Since when is birth control more “preventative” than toothpaste and abortifacients more of a “cure” than Tylenol.

Looking back, the Democratic party has been marvelous in recasting this issue.  The Sandra Flukes of the world have become the mouthpieces for this rebranding.  People genuinely believe that contraceptive services are a part health care.  What is perhaps most amazing, however, is how the Obama Administration has not only managed to classify contraception as health services, but they have actually managed to give it a priority even over actual health care.

From what I understand, under the revised accommodation, if an employer is “generously” exempted from the mandate, the organization will be permitted to purchase a health care plan that does not include contraceptive services.  In this case, however, the insurer will be required to offer a separate plan to the employees that does provide such services (and here’s the kicker) at no cost and with no copay.  It continues to amaze me how the Administration has been able to convince the American people that something can actually be free.  So long as a product involves resources, material or human, it literally cannot be free.  So the question is: who is actually paying for the service?  It won’t be the insurance company, for their bottom line will simply incorporate the cost into the original plan, or spread it out over everyone’s plans.  We have then come full circle on the original problem: an exemption is an exemption in name only – the employer is still paying the cost of the contraceptives.  It reminds me of the clothing company which advertises “buy one suit get one free,” when all they have done is to double the price of suits.  So the consumer is still paying the same amount, but they have been coerced into purchasing two suits rather than one.  (This, by the way, is illegal and considered false advertising, yet when applied to the HHS mandate it is seem as a “compromise.”  Leap forward, hop back.

The real absurdity, however, is in the “no copay” clause.  When I go to the doctor for pneumonia and get an antibiotic, we have a copay.  When my kid gets a breathing treatment for his asthma, we have a copay.  When my wife gives birth to a child, we have a copay.  Yet under the Obama plan, contraceptives must be offered with no copay.  Thus, not only have contraceptives been successfully cast as health care, but they have actually been cast as health care that is so essential that it should not even have a copay.  It has been prioritized over those things that actually are clear examples of health care.  So it seems that being able to have sex without consequences is more important than whether my three-year-old can breath properly.

The genius of this Administration lies in its rhetoric and manipulation.  They have begun the conversation with such an absurd proposal, that most of the American people will now not only accept the compromise, but also applaud the President for his ability to “meet in the middle,” and all the while the main issues are being eclipsed by meaningless details.  Undoubtedly, those of us, which may very well include the USCCB, who still find fault with the HHS proposal will be cast as ideologues unwilling to compromise.  Indeed, I think the President very much had us in mind during his inauguration address when he said, “We cannot mistake absolutism for principle.”

The Democratic genius: leap forward, hop back.


Is a Concealed Carry Law Necessary?

In 2004, the State of Ohio became the thirty-seventh state to pass some form of concealed carry legislation, under which persons may carry concealed firearms.  Shortly after, William Michael, an attorney from Columbus published an article in the Akron Law Review.  His thesis is simple.  While some gun rights advocates endorse concealed carry legislation, this demonstrates how far we have come from the original intent of the Second Amendment.   “Given the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution, such legislation appears unnecessary since individuals have a constitutional right to carry firearms.”

Mr. Michael lays out a simple and logical argument in three steps.  After reciting a litany of positions contrary to the idea that every American has the right to own a firearm, the Columbus lawyer begins his own argument by examining the actual text of the Second Amendment.

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

The text itself suggests two fundamental questions.  (1) What is the right protected?  (2) Whose right is it?  Regarding the first question, a plain reading of the text indicates that right being protected is the “right to keep and bear Arms.”  Regarding the second question, the text indicates that it is specifically “the right of the people.”

As simple as it sounds, this is a critical starting place because it is not uncommon for legal scholars to claim that the right protected under the Second Amendment is a collective right that only belongs to “the Militia,” which moreover is given existence only after being organized by the State.  Thus, “who” is protected under the Second Amendment is only organized Militia, and in some authors’ legal analysis only those Militia that are organized by the State.

Michael offers several arguments in addition to the straightforward language of the Amendment itself.  First, the meaning of “the people” as individuals has never been questioned in the FIrst, Fourth, Ninth, or Tenth Amendments, so there is no reason to question it in the Second.  Thus, even though scholars and courts have argued that the Second Amendment protects only the rights of States or collective rights of certain groups, “collective rights are antithetical to the familiar notion of individual rights in the United States.  They very inclusion of the right to keep and bear arms in the Bill of Rights indicates that the framers of the Constitution considered it an individual right.”  The Bill of Rights is a clear listing of individual rights, and since the Second Amendment is included in this document, the phrase “the people” should be interpreted in a manner consistent with the rest of the document.  That is to say, if the understanding of “the people” in the First, Fourth, Ninth, and Tenth Amendments is individual Americans, then so too should the phrase be interpreted in the Second Amendment.

Of course, some will still adamantly argue that the inclusion of the clause “a well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State” is enough to mitigate the definition of “the people.”  Yet the whole tenor of the Bill of Rights, as well as similar grammatical structures found throughout the Constitution, dictates that we understand this clause not as a modifier to “the people” but rather to be an indication of why individuals have the right to keep and bear arms.

There are also contrary opinion of how to understand the phrase “a well regulated Militia.”  Jack Rakove (cited by Michael) asserts that “any reader of Article I, Section 8 [which empowers Congress to call forth the Militia to execute the laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions] would find it hard to deny that the text there considers the militia not as an unorganized mass of the citizenry but as an institution subject to close legislative regulation” (emphasis added).  However, Michael levels two criticisms against this.  First, the clause suggests that the militia exists before being called to defend the country, and therefore individuals do not become a militia only when employed and organized by the country.  Second, Article I, Section 8 also gives Congress the power to “provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia,” which indicates further that the Militia exists before organization, otherwise the power to organize and discipline it would be superfluous.  Finally, because the Tenth Amendment already delegates the power to maintain state militias (because is is expressly not delegated to the federal government), a reading of the Second Amendment as one that gives States the power to organize militias would be redundant and unnecessary.  Clearly something else must be going on the Second Amendment, which is precisely the individual right to keep and bear arms.

The second step in Michael’s argument is to examine the intent of the Framers of the Constitution.  Madison’s original version, which he proposed to be put in Article I, Section 9, read: “The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed; a well-armed, and well regulated militia being the best security of a free country.”  The revision cycle that the Article went through demonstrates that the intent, which in its original wording clearly spells out an individual right, does not change with the reordering of the clauses.  The very fact that Madison wanted to place this in Section 9 is even more evidence, for this is one of the few places in the original Constitution that protects individual rights.  Further, the Senate rejected a proposal to add the phrase “for common defense” after “to keep and bear arms,” which demonstrates that the Senate did not want to narrow an individual’s right to keep and bear arms to only those situations that provide for the “common defense.”

The context in which the Constitution was written also demonstrates the Founders’ intention of maintaining an individual right to keep and bear arms.  They were quite skeptical of government’s potential to become tyrannical, and they believed that an armed citizenry would protect against such tyranny.  Perhaps the most entertaining line of the Michael article comes at the end of this section: “Daniel Polsby once asserted that no ambiguity at all surrounds the attitude of the constitutional generation concerning the right of the people to keep and bear arms.  To put the matter bluntly, the Founders of the United States were what we would nowadays call gun nuts.”

The final step for Mr. Michael is to examine the right to concealed carry as a right protected under the Second Amendment and therefore in no need of State legislation.  The argument boils down to the deliberate distinction between “keep” and “bear.”  To “keep” arms means to have passive, custodial possession of them, such as keeping them in the house.  To “bear,” however, implicates a more active conduct, which suggests the “active, exhibitory use of arms.”  Michael offers examples such as “he came bearing gifts.”  Thus, there are two rights being spelled out in the Second Amendment, the first being the right to essentially own firearms, and the second being the right to carry them, which Michael extends to concealed carry.

The author laments that much of the dialog and scholarship about the Second Amendment devolves into questioning authorial motives and a debate over the Constitution as a document that is “living” or one that is to be read in accordance with the original intent.  However, “such critiques reveal a weakness in the argument of those opposed to gun ownership – if the text and history of the Second Amendment supported their position, they would not resort to the living constitution argument.”

I will let Mr. Michael have the final word:

Concealed carry statutes appear to presuppose that individuals cannot carry concealed weapons but for the statutes. As described herein, such a presupposition may be inconsistent with the Second Amendment’s text. If it is, concealed carry statutes should be viewed as regulation of the preexisting, constitutional right to carry concealed weapons and, accordingly, should be subject to judicial scrutiny with the same level of vigor as any other statute regulating a constitutional right.



The Controversies of the Permanent Diaconate

I read.  I read a lot.  I like to think that I have a decent working knowledge of contemporary discussions within the Church.  And yet more often than not, I am humbled when I run across a topic or debate that has been ongoing for years, but I am just now reading about it.  It just goes tho show that the more a man knows, the more he knows how much there is that he doesn’t know.

It happened most recently this past weekend.  I got wind of a debate about the permanent diaconate and decided to read up on it, when what to my surprise, the debate is almost a decade old.  Of course I knew that there have been several contentious conversations surrounding the topic of the permanent diaconate.  One the one hand, some have never fully accepted its reinstatement.  One the other hand, enthusiastic proponents of the institution refuse to recognize the complications and confusion that come from a married man with one foot in world of clergy and the other in the world of the laity.  For my own part, I readily recognize that Holy Mother Church has granted us the reality of the permanent diaconate, and I thus take an initial posture of humility and obedience.  And yet the whole thing has always been a bit confusing for me.  When some have suggested that I pursue the diaconate, I have had trouble reconciling the “dual vocation” nature of the whole thing.  Perhaps this is indicative of the aforementioned confusion, or perhaps it simply means that I am not called to such a state in life.

Nevertheless, there is a particular debate regaining some steam based on a Canon Law article from the well-known canon lawyer, Dr. Edward Peters.  The article was written back in 2005, but I get the impression that he has been defending his thesis ever since.  As I stated from the start, for whatever reason, I am just now getting wind of it, and I have to admit that topic is fascinating, which probably speaks more to my being a geek than it does to the topic itself.  The question is simple:

According to Canon Law, when a married man is ordained a deacon, must he refrain from martial intercourse for the rest of his life?

The question itself is provocative, with my initial reaction being, “Well, of course not.”  In fact, it was provocative enough that I thought of titling this post something like, “Deacons and Sex,” just to see if it would generate more hits.  I took the high road, however.

I immediately read Dr. Peters’ article, and I have poured through many of the irate responses written since 2005.  When all is said and done (though I suppose this matter remains somewhat open, so all is not in fact said nor done), I have three observations to make.  First, Dr. Peters is on to something.  His argument is compelling, cohesive, and comprehensive.  Second, most people are mischaracterizing Dr. Peters’ argument.  Third, those that are responding to Dr. Peters have not yet provided a reasoned response.  This of course doesn’t mean that one is out there yet to be discovered and/or written; it simply means that I have not yet found it.

What I would like to do here is to present a very trimmed down outline of Dr. Peters’ argument, indicate where most people seem to have misunderstood or mischaracterized the argument, and address the one counter argument I have found that even comes close to a refutation of Dr. Peters’ position.
Let’s begin with a few definitions.  We must distinguish between continence,celibacy and chastity.  By continence we mean the refraining of all sexual relations.  By celibacy we mean refraining from marriage itself.  By chastity we mean the conforming of one’s sexual actions with the moral law within the context of one’s state in life.  We will be concerned mostly with the first two definitions: continence and celibacy.
Of course all of God’s people are required by the moral law to practice chastity.  For an unmarried person (ordained or otherwise) this would require continence, or the abstaining from all sexual relations.  For married people this may require periodic continence if for serious reasons they do not wish to conceive a child.  Similarly by reason of the moral law this same reason, celibacy (not being married) also requires continence (not engaging in sexual activity).
We should also note what is not being debated here or even generally within the current discussion: can an ordained deacon subsequently marry, if he has never been married, or re-marry if his spouse passes away?  The answer to this question is certainly, “No.”  Canon Law is quite clear in this regard, and no serious person is debating that point.  There are those who think it should not be this way, but do so with specific knowledge that Canon Law stipulates otherwise.
With that, let’s outline the argument of Dr. Peters.
The central Canon for Peters is #277:

Clerics are obliged to observe perfect and perpetual continence for the sake of the kingdom of heaven and therefore are bound to celibacy which is a special gift of God by which sacred ministers can adhere more easily to Christ with an undivided heart and are able to dedicate themselves more freely to the service of God and humanity” (CCC 1983, c. 277).

Note first that deacons most certainly fit the definition of “clergy,” and so they are seemingly included in this call to “perfect and perpetual continence.”  (Recall that this means the refraining of sexual activity.)

 What follows is a list of Dr. Peters’ major points:

1.  There is a deliberate distinction between celibacy and continence: both are mentioned for good reason.  In the case of the married deacon, celibacy (refraining from being married) is not applicable by the very definition of celibacy.  In the case of a priest, continence is redundant.  (By the moral law, any many who is not married would be bound by continence.)  Thus, the canon seems to be stressing both celibacy and continence separately, and in its wording holds continence as the “higher” good that is surrendered, with celibacy being presented as a secondary good.

2.  The first point is made clearer by reference section 2 of this same canon (#277): “Clerics are to behave with due prudence towards persons whose company can endanger their obligation to observe continence or give rise to scandal among the faithful” (emphasis added by Peters).  Here there is a mention of continence, but not of celibacy.

These two points serves to illustrate that continence and celibacy are two separate concepts, and they are not necessarily joined together in all cases.

3.  Canon 288 specifically exempts permanent deacons from a variety of obligations (such as the inability to hold political office and the requirement to wear clerical dress, among other obligations), and it makes no attempt to distinguish between married and non-married permanent deacons.  There is no mention of continence among the exemptions.

4.  Canons 1042 and 1037 deal with the exemption for celibacy among permanent deacons.  (1037 is where we find the requirement that unmarried men who become ordained to the diaconate are bound not only to continence, but also to celibacy; that is, they cannot get married.)  Neither canon specifically dispenses the permanent deacon from the requirement to observe continence.

These two points serve to illustrate that Canon Law has ample opportunity to specifically exempt married deacons from the requirement of continence, but in fact does not.

5.  Canon 1031 requires that a married man obtain the consent of his wife before being ordained to the diaconate.  Peters argues the fact that spousal consent is required provides a strong argument that the intent of Canon 277 is that married deacons are bound to continence within their marriage.  He asks, “To what is the spouse consenting, and why is her consent necessary?”  Peters argues that if the consent is not because of the required continence, then no-one has been able to provide a reasonable answer to its necessity.  Vague attempts are made at claiming that the wife is consenting to the pressures that may be put on the marriage because of this new commitment, but Peters sees these arguments as quite weak: in no other Sacrament does one need the permission of the spouse in order to receive it.  One does not, for instance, need to permission of a non-Christian spouse in order to receive Baptism, even thought this could very much put pressure on the marriage.  The requirement of spousal consent would only make sense if the wife was being asked to forgo one of her own rights guaranteed by her state in life, i.e. the sexual union with her husband.

6.  The 1917 Code of Canon Law does not distinguish between the requirement of continence and the requirement of celibacy (no such distinction would have been necessary since all clergy was to be unmarried, and all unmarried men, regardless of particular state in life, are called to continence by the moral law).  Yet available commentators on the 1917 Code, in discussing dispensations from the Vatican for married clergy, were unanimous: a married man who is ordained would be required to forego sexual relations with his wife.  This is important because in reinstating the permanent diaconate, Pope Paul VI said explicitly, “We must confirm all that is said in the [1917] Code of Canon Law about the rights and duties of deacons, either those rights and duties which they have in common with all clerics or those proper to themselves, except where We here state otherwise, and We decree that these rules are to apply to those whom are to be permanent deacons as well.”   The exemption from celibacy is “state[d] otherwise,” and yet nowhere is there an exemption from continence.  This, it seems that the intent of the Holy See at the time when the permanent diaconate was reinstated was explicitly not to remove the exemption of continence from married deacons.

7.  The final argument comes from the revision history of the pivotal canon 277.  Peters notes that the paragraph underwent two signifiant changes.  The first version had the following statement immediately after the first section.  “Men of mature age, promoted to the stable diaconate, who are living in marriage, are not bound to the prescription of section 1 [which imposes both celibacy and continence]; these however, upon the loss of their wife, are bound to celibacy.”  What is significant here is that the language is vague enough to suggest that all of canon 277 section 1 would not apply to married deacons.  It seems to dispense with the entire section, which could then be read as exemption married deacons from both celibacy and continence.  The second version revised the very same sentence as, “Men promoted to the permanent diaconate, living in marriage, are not bound to the prescription of section 1.”  This is even more vague as it seems to not only exempt married deacons from continence, but could also be understood to allow a deacon to re-marry upon the death of his spouse.  What is significant here is that neither version of the sentence made it into the final promulgated Code of Canon Law.  The history suggests that the authors knew that these statements were vague and could be misconstrued to exempt marriage deacons from continence.

These three points positive evidence that the intent of those writing the canon was to specifically retain the requirement of continence for married deacons, (the first being the reference to Pope Paul VI found above).

After this (not so) brief review, I think it is important to state clearly what it is that Dr. Peters believes, but more to the point what he doesn’t believe:

A.  The 1983 Code of Canon Law, after careful examination from a variety of angles, imposes upon married men who want to be ordained as permanent deacons a requirement of continence.  That is, married men who are ordained to the diaconate are to refrain from sexual relations.  Such a drastic requirement is precisely why spousal consent is necessary.

B.  [CURRENT DEACONS, PLEASE READ.]  Those who have been ordained to the permanent diaconate already and have not been made aware of this requirement are not bound by it.  Under Canon Law, no one can be bound to surrender a right unless they were made aware of it at the time of their ordination.

It is important to note that Dr. Peters very much sees the current situation as one that is irregular.  What’s more, he doesn’t even seem to take any one specific position on how to rectify it.  More to the point, I cannot find anywhere that he suggests that married deacons should have imposed on them a requirement of continence.  He is simply stating that Canon Law does in fact make such an imposition.

Peters offers four solutions for rectifying the current situation:  (1) reaffirm the unbroken tradition of continence for all clerics, including married deacons – from this point forward begin enforcing the requirement with newly ordained men, (2) reaffirm the practice for priests, but abandon it for married clergy, (3) change the requirement to a temporary continence for married clergy, or (4) abandon any expectation of continence for married clerics.

Dr. Peters’ thesis is simple: practice and Canon Law are not in conformity.  One of the two (or both) needs changed.  Either rewrite or otherwise clarify the current Code or change the practice to confirm with the Code.  Those who have come out in violent opposition to Dr. Peters seem to have missed this point.  While I am sure that Dr. Peters has his own personal preference within the four options, I cannot find anywhere that he oversteps his bounds as a canon lawyer: he merely states that something needs done, and he offers the list of possible solutions.

Finally, we have the various attempts at debunking Peters’ argument.  Most of these are not worth considering, as they have missed the point altogether.  Some have attempted a historical study on the presence of married clergy within the Church, but this is altogether irrelevant.  Peters is making an argument from Canon Law.  Whether married deacons were required to observe continence throughout all of history is not relevant; Peters is claiming that they are required to do so now.

Others has cited the widespread ignorance of the law itself as proof of Peters’ erroneous reading.  In other words, “Surely if thousands of married men have been ordained by bishops without knowledge of this requirement, something must be wrong.  Surely Peters’ reading must be erroneous.”  The problem here is (1) there is no attempt at why canon 277 should not be read according to Peters, but only states that it is “not being read according to Peters,” and (2) Peters himself has nowhere suggested what the practice should or should not be, only that it is not in conformity with Canon Law.

The only argument worth dissecting is the one that claims an implicit exemption from continence based on the explicit exemption from celibacy.  In other words, it is clear that married men (by definition) are exempt from celibacy.  Further, because part of being married included the natural right to engage in marital intercourse, the exemption from continence is implied.  First, this is quite weak.  Peters goes to great lengths to (1) show the numerous places where the exemption could have been made explicit but is not, and (2) offer at least three positive arguments for the intent of retaining the requirement of continence (the necessity of spousal consent, the explicit intent of Paul VI in reinstating the permanent diaconate, and the history of revision of canon 277).  The whole of this counterargument seems to be, “I don’t like this requirement, so I am going to claim an implied exemption.”

There is one author that has at least attempted a logical argument similar to this.  He begins by stating that the canon is equivalent to a logical if-then statement.  (I’ll spare you all of the formal logic language.)  He then offers what is a well-known law of logic: the law of contrapositive.  The law of contrapositive states that “If then q” is logically equivalent to “If not then not p.”  We can see this by example.  The statement “If a number is greater than 2, then then number is positive” can be re-written as, “If a number is not positive, then it is not greater than 2.”  The author then proceeds to go through canon 277.  He claims that “Clerics are obliged to continence and therefore are bound to celibacy” is equivalent to, “Clerics who are not bound to celibacy are not therefore obliged to continence.”  The author then applies the latter to married deacons.

This seems to have merit on the surface, and yet one feels a sleight of hand, or perhaps a sleight of words.  His argument only works if canon 277 intends to present a true logical if-then statement.  In other words, it only works if (1) canon 277 can be rewritten as, “If a cleric is obliged to continence, then he is obliged to celibacy,” and (2) this if-then statement is true.  Regarding (1), this is debatable, as the example below will illustrate.  Regarding (2), it is simply a restatement of the very issue at hand.  Dr. Peters says that the expressed exemption of deacons from celibacy later in Canon Law is precisely the counter example that renders such a statement false.  In fact, notice the careful rewording of the contrapositive above: it no longer speaks in terms of absolute requirements, but it instead uses the relative pronoun “who.”  A more accurate contrapositive would be, “Clerics are not bound to celibacy and therefore are not obliged to continence.”  If the author is correct, then it would seem to imply much more than married deacons being exempt from continence and celibacy, but rather all clergy.  This is clearly not correct.

Finally, we can see a parallel in the Confiteor in which we profess, “I have greatly sinned, and therefore I ask Blessed Mary … to pray for me.”  It is because I have sinned that I ask others to pray for me.  The author above would have us believe that this is equivalent to saying, “Those who do not ask for the prayers of others have not sinned.”  This is clearly false and it comes not from an error in logic, but from an imprecise translation of an English statement into formal logical statements.  In other words, “therefore” (or “because of this”) as used in the English language is not equivalent to the  “If … then …” of formal logic.

Of course, one thing that could resolve this debate is some clarification form the Vatican.  I have not yet been able to find any, but I am happy present it if someone wants to pass it my way.
*          *          *
I intended this to be short – I have failed miserably.


By What Right?

The ongoing health care debate, specifically the mandate by Health and Human Services that Catholic employers provide insurance coverage that includes artificial contraception, has spurned a renewed discussion of basic human rights.  On the one hand, the Catholic Church claims that the fundamental right to religious freedom is being violated by the current administrative order.  On the other hand, the government claims that people have the right to basic affordable health care, and that an employer who refuses to provide services that fit the definition is in violation of this right.  The Church then rejects the idea that contraception is part of “basic human health care.”  The administration disagrees.  And the conversation hits a stale mate.  The whole debacle fails precisely insofar as it ignores the discussion of rights in general.  The discussion, rather than being stranded in a limbo of competing “rights,” should begin by revisiting the very question of rights themselves.  What is needed is a complete rethinking of this question, and in some way, a return to a past that was not marred by the modern rights language that has led to this whole debate.

Perhaps the most adamant proponent of the position that rights have no real place in medieval or ancient philosophy is the French jurist Michel Villey.  While Brian Tierney1 has called his work “idiosyncratic,” there is no doubt that Villey has made great contributions to our understanding of legal history.

“The modern idea of subjective rights, Villey asserts, is rooted in the nominalist philosophy of the fourteenth century, and it first saw the light of day in the work of William of Ockham.  Ockham inaugurated a ‘semantic revolution’ when he transformed the traditional idea of objective natural right into a new theory of subjective natural rights.  His work marked a ‘Copernican moment’ in the history of the science of law” (Tierney, page 14).

Villey begins his presentation by examining the Latin word ius, which roughly translated can mean “right.”  However, in the classical world, ius was never a power possessed by an individual, as in the right to own personal property.  Rather, to the classical mind, ius was a thing, a legal thing in fact.  It was the proper end to the virtue of justice.  It was that reality towards which a jurist strives.  Villey’s somewhat well-known example comes from the writings of Gaius.  The ancient legal writer speaks of a ius altius tollendi, or “the right of building higher.”  This is in reference to the right of raising a house and blocking the lights of a neighbor’s house.  At first glance, it seems that Gaius is in “Locke” step with the modern understanding: a man has the right to add to his house if he so desires.  This might be true but for the subsequent ius non extollendi.  What could it mean to have a right not to build a house higher lest a neighbor’s house be blocked?  Rather than seeing a right as something inhering in a subject (in this case a homeowner), Gaius is simply pointing out the obvious: in some cases what is fair and just (“objectively right”) is for a homeowner to add a story to his house, while in other cases what is fair and just is the opposite.  It is the role of the judge to exercise the virtue of justice in specific cases.  The object of his decision is ius, “the right.”

Ius, as the root of the word justice, is first that which is rendered as the object of justice, or the just due given to an individual, rather than a power enjoyed by a particular subject.  This is why Ulpian, when speaking of suum ius cuique tribuere (“to render each his right”), gives the example a parricide who had the “right” to be sewn up in a sack of vipers and thrown into the Tiber.  This is hardly the kind of right envisioned by modern human rights commissions.  As Ralph McInery2 puts it, “It is difficult to imagine a Human Rights Commission coming to Lizzie Borden’s aid to insure that she be given her rightful sackful of snakes and a dip in the river.”

Aristotle understands the term ius (dikaion in Greek) in two ways.  The first is as the object of a virtue, an act proper to the human person.  The other is as an “objectively right state of affairs” (Tierney, page 22).  Neither of these are equivalent to the modern concept of inalienable rights possessed by an individual subject.  Much of this stems form the fact that Aristotle sees the universe as ordered towards a particular harmony.  It is the virtue of justice that brings about this harmony.  Human society, too, is intended to be ordered towards this harmony, and it is the moral virtue of justicethat allows humanity to accomplish this.  For Aristotle, then, and we will see the same thing in Aquinas, ius is defined primarily as a thing in terms of relationship rather than a personal power held by an individual.

“The just, what’s fair, the dikaion or iustum is a thing, a relation or proportion, out there, to be objectively determined by the judge so that the contentions of the parties to a suit are adjusted” (McInery).

It should be noted here, as pointed out by Tierney, that Villey criticized many of the early Christian Church Fathers, who he saw as distorting the classical sense of ius into something of a divine command, effectively equivocating it with lex (law).  In Villey’s opinion, it was Aquinas who rescued the concept.  “[Villey] thought that one of the great achievements of the Dominican master was to restore for a time the objective, classical meaning of ius, a meaning that would be lost again by Ockham and the nominalists” (Tierney, page 23).

Villey is not alone in his critique of subjective rights.  Alasdair MacIntyre3 too has expressed reservations about their existence.  MacIntyre’s argument is different though.  He claims that the existence of a right apart from human relationships conceives of a human person existing prior to such relationships.  But for MacIntyre, such an individual does not exist.  All human persons exist within a particular social narrative.  In other words, the human person does not exist apart from social relationships.  Even in traditional natural law theory, we are talking about man in relationship, specifically in relationship to God.  This is why the virtue of justice (what is “right”) is a virtue of relationship, not a particular power possessed by an individual.

“Lacking any such social form, the making of claim to a right would be like presenting a check for payment in a social order that lacked the institution of money” (MacIntyre, 65).

Aquinas continues the work of Aristotle, though as expected, he frames everything within a Christian perspective. Like Aristotle, ius is a thing for Aquinas, not a power possessed by an individual subject.  Aquinas sees it as either quod iustum est (what is just) or ipsam rem iustam (the just thing itself).  Even in his derivative meanings of ius we find nothing of a subjective definition.

While there is always the danger of pulling a particular question from Aquinas out of context from the holistic structure of the Summa, we feel fairly safe in examining Question 57 from the Secunda Secundae as representative of Aquinas’ presentation on ius.

The first article addresses whether or not “right” is the object of justice.  From the start it is clear that Aquinas’ answer is the affirmative.  In one of his replies, he outlines the three uses of the term.  “The word ius was first of all used to denote the just thing itself, but afterwards it was transferred to designate the art whereby it is known what it just, and further to denote the place where justice is administered [a court of law].”

As a side note, the last definition provides some insight into how Thomas might envision a “court of law.”  In continuity with his ancient forerunners, it seems to me that the place where justice is administered and the manner in which it is administered would look very different from the modern court (at least at the highest levels) of law focussed around rights and their violations.  “The task of the jurist is to establish just relationships among persons and between persons and property – not to affirm absolute rights, but to determine what is objectively right” (Tierney, page 21).

Nowhere is a “right” presented as something possessed by an individual subject.  In fact, while ius is framed in terms of relationship (justice, after all is a virtue of relationship), his presentation focuses more on the moral agent and how to act rather than a claim made by the agent.  In other words, Aquinas’ conception of right looks more like an imperative placed on the moral agent, i.e., “it is right to not take the property of another,” rather than some sort of entitlement claimed by a subject, i.e.,  “I have the right to possess personal property.”  As with anything framed in terms of virtue, the presentation propels man towards good action rather than allowing him to rest on the laurels of some preexisting entitlement.  This is all to say, ius is known primarily as belonging to a relationship among parties and as the object of an obligation imposed by natural law.  From the perspective of the moral agent, it is not something I claim for myself.  It is instead something that directs my actions toward the virtue of justice.  Further, as a virtue, ius must be learned and developed in habit. In this way ius is not self-evident as is claimed by post-enlightenment “self-evident truths.”

While Aquinas doesn’t draw out this distinction, which serves to indicate that the modern sense of the term right is unknown to him, his examples throughout the question make his position clear.  For instance, a husband’s ability to beget children to his wife is an example of what is naturally “right.”

For Villey, however, it is not enough to point out the lack of connection between the modern theory of rights and ancient/medieval philosophy.  He also argues against the very existence of rights in the modern sense.  Villey describes three fundamental problems with the modern formulation.  It is Utopian, arbitrary, and sterile.  We turn to Tierney once again:

“It is Utopian because the supposed absolute rights are fictions; they usually do not exist in actual law or in real life.  Rights theories are arbitrary because the rights claimed are ultimately based on subjective whim; they lead on to a debased understanding of justice as ‘nothing but a label you attach to your own subjective preferences.’  And modern rights theories are sterile because they cannot form the basis of a coherent jurisprudence.  The rights that people assert conflict with one another” (Tierney, page 21).

We begin with the notion that modern rights are Utopian.  In this claim, Villey questions the very existence of rights seen as a subjective powers held by individuals.  Consider as a first example the claim of a right to religious freedom.  Worship, as understood by Aquinas, is a virtue of justice.  It is rendering unto God what it due to God.  Thus, worshiping God as God wants to be worshiped is the “right” thing to do.  But man emphatically does not have the “right” to worship how he sees fit anymore than man has the “right” to worship a God other than the one true God.  In other words, as with any moral situation, man does not have the “right” to act wrongly, to act contrary to objective truth.  Freedom of religion, posited as an inalienable right, implies that man, according to his nature, has the either the right to worship God, or not to worship God, or to worship a god that is something other than the one, true God.  The problem is that only the first of the three is an exercise of justice.  Since ius (right) is the object of justice, only the first of the three is, classically understood, “right.”  Lest I be misunderstood, we might agree that the best way to organize society is to prevent government intrusion into religious decisions.  We might agree that the more prudent course of action is to separate the exercise of religion from the State.  We might even agree that the best course of action is to allow man to discover and adhere to the truth of being unimpeded by human authority.  Thus, we could support a legal right to religious freedom.  We could even agree that prudence dictates a teaching motivation by proposition rather than imposition.  It is something altogether different to claim an inalienable right to religious freedom, which somehow suggests that man is entitled to believe whatever he wills, even if those beliefs are models of untruth.  In fact, seen in light of Aquinas and the ancients, man does not have the “right” to worship how he sees fit.  He only has the right to worship as God sees fit.  Anything less is a violation of the virtue of justice.

Even that most fundamental right championed by our Constitution’s Preamble, the right to life, is worth examining.  Does man have an inalienable right to life?  If so, is God in violation of this right when he takes a man’s life?  Seen through the lens of virtue, we can emphatically claim that it is a grave violation of justice for one man to take an innocent human being’s life.  Yet from the perspective of the divine, God has given us our life gratis, and when he decides that our time on earth is done, it is well within the bounds of justice for him to end that life.  In fact, given that the wages of sin are death, the entire Paschal mystery is an act of mercy and grace that transcends the virtue of justice.

Second, Villey claims that the modern presentation of rights is arbitrary.  It will inevitably lead to moral relativism, and the right to religious freedom is case in point.  If man has an inalienable right to religious freedom, then by what measure do we evaluate religious truth?  If the right is inalienable, then the exercise of the right to pursue something objectively true is indistinguishable from the exercise of the right to pursue something objectively false.  Further, there is no mechanism by which we can decide whether or not a particular claim actually is a right.  Some authors, McInery included, have tried to ground the concept of rights in the natural law tradition.  Granted, if we are to adopt a rights-language, then it must be grounded in the nature of the human person.  However, the nature of the human person includes being a creature, which brings us back to the first point: as creature, we do not possess any power by way of entitlement, but rather by an act of grace.

Third, Villey notes that modern rights are essentially sterile, that they cannot form the basis of a coherent jurisprudence.  When rights are seen as objective, inviolable powers possessed by individual subjects will inevitably lead to competing rights.  This makes sense if “I have the right to x” is indistinguishable from “I desire x.”  What I want will inevitably come into conflict with what someone else wants.  The most recent example of this is the one with which I opened: the conflict between the right to religious freedom and the right to affordable health care.  Yet we could brainstorm countless hypotheticals in which two rights come into conflict.  In the perennial paradox of the father who steals bread to feed his family, the right to own personal property conflicts with the right to life.  The right to bear arms conflicts with the right to a safe environment.  In the classic case of the crowded theater, the right to free speech conflicts with the right to safety.  Even the most fundamental rights can come into question.  The abortion debate is essentially a debate about the right to life conflicting with the rights that women have over their own bodies.  In fact, there are even cases where a right can come into conflict with itself.  Take for instance the right of a parent to educate their kids in the way that they see fit.  If Parent A’s ideal educational environment is in the home, but Parent B’s ideal environment includes being in a classroom with all the neighborhood kids, including Parent A’s kids, we have a conflict.  There are only two ways to resolve these conflicts.  The first is to prioritize the rights, which is essentially what most modern systems of jurisprudence do.  Yet this contradicts the very definition of rights as inalienable.  The second is to question whether one or both of the claimed rights are in fact rights in the first place, but then we have come full circle to the first issue. Rights discussion will necessarily come to an abrupt halt when such conflict arises, and the conversation is rendered sterile.

We should pause here to recognize that the Church has, in modern times, adopted the language of rights in some of its teachings.  “As a devout Catholic, Villey could not have missed the way in which such documents of Vatican II as Gaudium et Spes and so many other magisterial documents employ without hesitancy the language of human rights” (McInery).  While I would never want to presume to question the prudence of the Church in her official statements, I will simply point out two things.  First, the manner in which the Church uses the term “right” is founded on the Thomistic notion of natural law.  Utterly absent from its discussion are any hints of moral relativism.  Second, the infallible truths of our faith in no way rely on the language of natural rights, and can all be framed in terms of natural law.  In other words, rights language is in no way necessary for the Church.  Quite the contrary: she functioned perfectly well for 1500 years with it.  This would be the fourth adjective that I would add to Villey’s critique of modern rights language.  It is quite unnecessary for a functioning system of jurisprudence.  History has produced thousands of years of political organization without the need of subjective rights.  It is helpful to repeat that the modern notion of rights was utterly absent from political philosophy until Ockham’s innovations.

In fact, the Church herself, while recently more sympathetic to the notion of rights language, has also issued extreme caution.  Pope Pius VI called attention to this very problem when decrying the madness of the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man.  He said, “This absolute freedom is established as a right of man in society.  It not only guarantees him the right to no be disturbed because of his religious opinions, but it also gives him license to think, speak, write, and even print with impunity everything which the most unbridled imagination can suggest about religion.  It is a monstrous right which seems nonetheless to the Assembly to result from the innate quality and freedom of all men … a chimerical right … contrary to the right of the supreme Creator.”

Without rights, then, what does the moral conversation look like?  That is, if we don’t cling to something like religious freedom, how shall we frame our response to the HHS mandate?  More specifically, if we dispense with the language of natural inalienable rights, will the conversation deteriorate into relativism?  Not only is the answer emphatically negative, but what’s more, it is the undefined and ambiguous language of subjective rights that has us in this mess of relativism to begin with.  The language itself has no defense against relativism.  If one person claims a right, another person will claim a different right, and the process will inevitably spin out of control.

However, it seems to me that Aquinas and his forerunners have given us a viable framework: natural law.  To be clear, natural law is something distinct from natural rights.  Aquinas actually begins with the concept of eternal law (lex aeternae).  This law is of God’s making and is coeternal with His own nature.  It is promulgated from time immemorial by the act of creation by which creatures are endowed with a spontaneous inclination to move towards their own perfection and the cohesive perfection of the universe.  For humans, who can either accept or reject this law, the eternal law is received from within.  When humans act in a manner consistent with God’s eternal law, they are not inventing laws of their own, but rather discovering this law and appropriating it for themselves.  This, for Thomas, is the natural law (lex naturalis).  It is our participation in the divine law held in the mind of God.

Of course, for Aquinas natural law is much broader than ius.  Natural law commands the practice of all the virtues, whereas ius concerns only the virtue of justice.  It begins with a couple self-evident principles.  First, anything good must be pursued and anything evil must be avoided.  From this first and most basic principle we derive others such as, “bodily health, knowledge, and friendship are good to be pursued, and their opposites are evils to be avoided.”

In addition to the natural law, we have positive human laws to help in the organization of society.  However, any human law must be in conformity with the natural law.  If it is held to be in violation of it, that law must be struck down or otherwise disobeyed as an unjust law.  If it is not in violation of it, then the virtue of prudence serves as the mechanism for determining whether or not a particular law advances the organization of society and its purpose: to maximize the possibility of all men being able to advance in virtue.  This distinction, by the way, is precisely the distinction made by the Catholic Church on the “non-negotiable” issues (abortion, marriage, etc.) and matters of prudential judgement (how best to reduce poverty, etc.)  The former collection contains violations of the natural law.

The HHS conversation must begin here.  To what degree does the regulation implement or negate the natural law?  It is not my intent to answer this question in this article, but instead to properly frame it as we go forward.

The point of this article, rather, is to reframe these questions in terms that are more familiar to our philosophical patrimony.  To the degree that we claim for ourselves inalienable rights, we become a people of entitlement.  Instead, we are called to recognize that everything we have, everything we are, we receive by the grace of God.  We don’t deserve any of it.  Virtue-based ethics and natural law theory is a much more robust framework to promote this understanding.



1.  Brian Tierney, The Idea of Natural Rights: Studies on Natural Rights, Natural Law, and Church Law, 1150-1625 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997).

2.  Ralph McInery, “Natural Law and Human Rights,” American Journal of Jurisprudence vol. 36 (1991).

3.  Alisdair MacIntre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981).


A Heresy in Education (or An Education in Heresy)

“In this world nothing is certain but death and taxes.” Eloquent though he may be, Benjamin Franklin would have done well to add “heresy” to his infamous pair of unavoidable realities.

Philosophical preconceptions once condemned by the Church have an odd way of rearing their ugly heads. Take Manichaeanism for example. Battled by the great St. Augustine of Hippo, the Manichaean school taught the profound separation of soul and body, a dualism that has been condemned by the Church more than once throughout the centuries. With two equally powerful deities, one good and the other evil, the human person of this heresy becomes the battleground for their contest of power, with the body being the domain of evil and the soul being the domain of the good. The Christian faith, of course, has taught the contrary, the inseparable union of body and soul, both good because of their creation by the one God who is pure goodness.

I was a high school teacher of mathematics and computer science for nine years, and Manichaeanism is only one of the many heresies I see deeply imbedded in modernity, particularly amongst adolescents. In the years I spent in the classroom, the cases of academic dishonesty had noticeably gone up. What is perhaps more noticeable, however, was the change in students’ reactions when the dishonesty is exposed. There was a time when the remorse was authentic, but more recently, when present at all, it seemed more like mere regret over being caught.

I found myself repeatedly in conversations about how students view the act of cheating. A colleague of mine once remarked, “I honestly do not think that the students see it as wrong.” On the contrary, the students’ actions do not reflect any moral confusion. After all, students will go to great lengths to see to it that they are not caught, and when they are, they will craft the most elaborate of stories to exonerate themselves. I once had a student who plagiarized a computer program off of a university professor’s web site. When confronted about it, he claimed, with a great deal of confidence and conviction, that he would like to meet the professor who stole his code to post on the university web site. While the creativity is remarkable, the same cannot be said for character.

What, then, is at the root of the issue? While teachers generally recognize this as a growing and problematic trend in the education environment, they are often at a loss to explain the trend, and therefore end up remarking, “I honestly do not think that the students see it as wrong.” The truth is that students do understand the difference between right and wrong, and they do understand that cheating is a morally impermissible action. The problem is not in their ethics; the problem is in their anthropology. Students are Manichaeans.

The heart of the matter is that adolescence often do not understand the profound connection between body and soul that the Christian faith has always taught. Quite the opposite, students have a tremendous ability to keep a rift between body and soul. Said differently, these adolescents do not see a connection between their actions and their personal character. While they know and understand that certain actions are morally unacceptable, they do not see these actions as reflective of their person. They sincerely believe that they are good people and that this goodness cannot be tarnished by any action.

What adolescents fail to understand is that the human person is not only the source of his actions, but is also a product of his actions. What we do is reflective of who we are, and who we are will influence what we do. Philosophically, we would say that the human person isconstituted by his actions. There is no rift between the actions of our body and mind and the state of our soul. Body and soul are mutually interpenetrating. This is the essence of the Catholic teaching on mortal sins. Because there is an indestructible link between the body and the soul, there are certain actions that can affect the very state of the soul, remove it from the state of God’s grace.

We are how we act. A thief is nothing more than one who steals, and a lair is nothing more than one who lies. Similarly, a cheater is a person who cheats, and it is impossible to cheat without at the same time becoming a cheater. The student, however, does not see himself as a “cheater”; instead, he sees himself as a “good person” who happened to cheat, but the action of cheating is not reflective of his character. How is it that they are able to maintain this disconnect? It is simple: they are Manichaean. How is it that they are Manichaean? That is also simple: modernity is Manichaean, and this is perhaps the greatest heresy of our time. It is a heresy that is not only at the heart of academic dishonesty in the schools, but also constitutive of the greed and avarice in the market place, the sexual permissiveness in the media, and the utter disregard for the sanctity of life in the abortion industry.

Being a heresy, however, I have a feeling that it, like death and taxes, is inevitable. This does not mean we give up an authentic education in the virtues. It does not mean that we neglect to expose the lies for what they are. But it does mean that, while the battle has already been won on the Cross, the enemy of heresy is as certain in this world as death and taxes. Perhaps, though, heresy has more in common with death and taxes than its inevitability. “In this world” certain the trio may be; yet in the next it is certain that all three will be abolished.


On Farmers and Subsidies

I recently had the pleasure of observing a panel discussion of several areas farmers.  It was part of a county leadership program, and this particular event was designed to give the “class” some background on the agriculture industry in the area.  The discussion and subsequent tours were nothing short of fascinating.  (If you have a chance to look up “precision farming” involving GPS, it is a real marvel of technology.)

At one point, someone in the audience asked what the panel members thought of government farm subsidies.  I don’t know what was more interesting: the answer or the fact that each of the seven panelists responded immediately with both unanimity and laughter.  Once the initial reaction subsided, one of the farmers explained it in a single sentence, “Subsidies only subsidize those who don’t pay taxes.”  For my own part, I was intrigued, so I couldn’t help but ask what the farmer meant by this.  Another panel member offered a a more detailed explanation.

Suppose that we can farm a product for $200 an acre.  When the product is new, prices may fluctuate.  Eventually, however, after this farmer and that farmer starts to charge less in order to be competitive, the price stabilizes for, let’s say, $300.  In other words, farmers don’t drop below this price because they can’t drop below this price and still make a living.  We need $100 an acre just to support our family and earn a respectable income.  Looking at our modest $100 profit, the government kindly decides that us hard working farmers deserve more, so they institute a $50 subsidy.  It sounds good at first.  We get $100 profit for each acre plus the $50 hand-out from Uncle Sam.  We have more income, yes?  Here’s the problem.  It only takes one farmer to think, “I don’t need to sell my crops for $300 an acre.  I was doing just fine on a $100 profit.  If I charge $275 an acre, I can undercut the competition and still earn $125 an acre ($75 “pure” profit plus the $50 subsidy), which is more than I was getting before.”  You can see where it goes from here.  The new competitive price becomes $275 per acre … until the process repeats.  Eventually, the market kicks in and the farmers end up selling their crop for $250 an acre.  They won’t drop below this, of course, because at this level they are making, with the government subsidy, the minimum $100-per-acre profit ($50 pure profit plus the $50 subsidy) needed to support the family.

Now, while the subsidy had a net change of $0 on the farmer’s well being, it was not entirely neutral.  It did produce a product that is now on the market for $50 less than it was otherwise.  (Before the subsidy, the crop went to market at $300/acre, and afterwards it went for $250/acre.)  The consumer benefits from this subsidy, correct?  Well, says the farmer, not all consumers benefit.  The $50 per acre came from somewhere, because, contrary to popular belief, the government cannot simply create money out of nowhere.  (These were his words, not mine.)  In the end, it comes from the tax payers.  Thus, if you are someone who pays federal income tax, then you essentially break even in this deal.  The only people that actually benefit in the end are those who don’t pay any federal income tax.  Thus, in the words of the first gentleman, “Subsidies only subsidize those who don’t pay taxes.”

Admittedly, the economics is probably a bit more complicated than this.  For one thing, those who pay federal taxes are not all in the same tax bracket, so a pro-rating of sorts would probably be appropriate to figure out who comes out ahead.  Second, the farmers’ “minimum price for supporting a family” is not the only economic force at work in this equation.  There is also the amount of crop produced in a given year, the maximum price people are willing to pay for an individual product, etc.  On the other hand, we should figure in the bureaucratic overhead involve in collecting and processing the taxes needed for the subsidy, a figure that is often notoriously high for the federal government.  Nevertheless, the farmers have a point: subsidies are often not all they are cracked up to be, and the best way to handle market forces is to simply let the market work.  The free market will work on its own to drop the price of commodities, but it will do so through innovation rather than compulsory subsidies.  Attempts at interference rarely make a difference – at best they offer a compelling illusion.  (Unfortunately, it is often compelling enough to win votes.)

The follow up question from the audience was predictable: if subsidies make not difference, then why do you take them?  “Ah,” says the concise farmer, “It only takes one to accept them, and then we all have to.”  In other words, once individual farmers accept a subsidy, they can then produce the product at a much lower price than those who are not accepting them, effectively putting the second group, those that want to earn their money honestly, out of business.  Ain’t government grand?


Where We Go From Here: Republicans and a Changing Demographic

There has already been endless commentary on where we go from here after the recent election.  For my own part, I can only offer a few thoughts.

If the numbers are correct, the Republicans didn’t lose the election because of failure to convince their own.  By many measures, Romney out performed both McCain and George W. Bush in the Republican Party stronghold subgroups.  Consider that Romney took upwards of 59% of the white vote, while McCain garnered 56% and Bush took 57% and 56% in each of his election years.  (Source:  Gallup).  On the other hand, numerous sources have documented the decline in the Hispanic vote for Republicans of the last several decades.

The reason for the lost election, in part, is the changing demographics of the nation.  The subgroups in which Republicans have performed, and continue to perform well, are declining in their representation as a percent of the American people, whereas the demographic subgroups in which the Democrats typically perform well are experiencing an increase in their percent share of the population.  The dilemma, it seems, is that these demographic changes are on a trajectory that seems unlikely to change, which spells a particular problem for the Republican Party in years to come.  Mitt Romney lost the popular vote by less than three million votes, but ABC news reported on election night that if the percent of vote for each party in the various demographic subgroups stays the same, the Republicans will lose the 2020 election by more than fourteen million votes.

What this suggests is that the Republicans need to think carefully about how to attract votes on which they have not yet had to rely.  As Catholics, this should concerns us, because a very real possibility is that some within the party will push for a more relaxed stance on social issues, particularly abortion and same-sex marriage.  It doesn’t help that President Obama, after insisting in 2008 that abortion need not be a divisive issue and that we can all agree about the need to reduce the number of abortions, made it the issue of the closing weeks in the election cycle.  If the Republican Party puts forth a candidate that is in favor abortion and same sex marriage, Catholics who are interested in following teachings of the magisterium will be left without a candidate for whom they can cast a vote.  There will inevitably be a third party, but for many of us, this is not at all desirable.  Indeed, there was a time in the 2008 primary when we thought this would happen, had Rudy Giuliani maintained his early momentum.

It could also be that the party will become softer on religious freedom.  As American becomes more and more secularized, what was once a “fundamental right” will no longer be seen as important.  When the country was founded, virtually everybody had a vested interest in having their religious freedom both codified in the Constitution and defended in the public square.  But “times are-a-changin’,” and there are a growing number of people who are militantly opposed to organized religion.  It used to be that the atheists would keep to themselves and be content to simply laugh at us, but now they are going more and more on the offensive.  If there aren’t enough people who care about the freedom to practice their religion, then it will be difficult indeed to defend against attacks that seek to dismantle that liberty, particularly if the attacks are cloaked in the pursuit of a perceived greater freedom.

I propose that conservative Catholics be proactive in this regard.  Rather than waiting for suggestions that we bend on social issues, it is time that we put forward our own: it is time to take up the issue of immigration.  Now, I am the first to admit that this is an issue where people of good will can disagree, that the implementation of the principle differs from the principle itself, which is why it is not considered one of the “non-negotiables.”  However, we all know that this is the one area that we take the biggest hit from the American episcopacy.  Further, I really believe that this is low hanging fruit in some regards.  I think we can push forward with a reform agenda without compromising basic principles.

However, and I cannot emphasize this enough, it simply will not do to wait until four years from now.  We cannot hope to convince the nation of our seriousness to address this issue just months before an election. We cannot even wait until the midterm elections.  The time is now, and here is what I propose to our Republican representatives in Congress:

The financial cliff about which we have read so much in the last couple months is just around the corner.  The Bush era tax cuts are on the line.  The Republicans rightly want to renew all of these cuts, whereas the Democrats only want to renew those that don’t affect the wealthy.  I am not an economist, so I am not equipped to fully discuss the impact of each position.  However, it seems to me that the Democrats have enough political capital at the moment to push their agenda through.  I suggest that the Republicans in Congress recognize this and make a deal with the President.  We (meaning the Republican leadership) will accept his plan for the Bush era tex cuts, but we want assurance that (1) the very first issue tackled after the new year is a serious immigration reform package, and (2) we want to be a part of it.  We want our ideas heard, and we want credited with them.

From that point on, the Republican need to maintain both commitment and compassion as the package is assembled.  They need to stand up for the principle of basic human dignity and not appear to the stonewall the process.  The Republicans have been successfully portrayed by the opposition as the “Party of ‘No.’”  That image needs to be disassembled methodically and meticulously.

It may involve some compromise, and the reforms that are put in place may not be perfect by Republican standards.  However, if we don’t put forward this area as one in which we can grow and one in which we can take some leadership, there will be pressure from others to “compromise” on other issues, and these will be ones that will violate our Catholic consciences.


What’s Done Is Done . . .

Now that the polls are closed in the great swing state of Ohio that I call home, I am more reserved than I was all day.  Except for the counting, the re-counting, the hanging chads (electronic or otherwise), and the law suits that no doubt have already been drafted and need only be filed … what’s done is done.  The winner has been picked and only needs revealed.  As I, along with the nation, anxiously await the results, a thought struck me, not like a ton of bricks, but more like a whispered prayer.

The great miracle of history is how the God of the universe manages blessing in all situations.  This is obvious in cases where good triumphs over evil.  Yet the contradiction of the Cross demonstrates blessing even in the darkest moments of humanity.

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A Lesson on Election Principles from the Left: Did Wright Get it Right?

I saw the following quotation this morning on Facebook:

I wish my moderate Republican friends would simply be honest. They all say they’re voting for Romney because of his economic policies, and that they disagree with him on gay rights. Fine. Then look me in the eye, speak with a level clear voice, and say, “My taxes and take-home pay mean more than your fundamental civil rights, the sanctity of your marriage, your right to visit an ailing spouse in the hospital, your dignity as a citizen of this country, your healthcare, your right to inherit, the mental welfare and emotional well-being of your youth, and your very personhood.” It’s like voting for George Wallace during the Civil Rights movements, and apologizing for his racism. You’re still complicit. You’re still perpetuating anti-gay legislation and cultural homophobia. You don’t get to walk away clean, because you say you “disagree” with your candidate on these issues.

– Pulitzer and Tony winning playwright Doug Wright

In the quest for finding a grain of truth amidst even the most confused of statements, I think Mr. Wright has something to offer my Catholic friends who lean Democrat.  Granted, “fundamental rights” has been misunderstood and misrepresented by the playwright.  For instance, health care and the “right to inherit” seem at the very least questionable as “basic human rights.”  Alas, such is the problem with modern rights language to begin with.  French jurist Michael Villey argued that the understanding of rights as a subjective entitlements was an innovation of the nominalist revolution and that it is Utopian, arbitrary, and ultimately sterile.  We see the fruits of this language every time someone like Doug Wright invents a so-called “right” out of thin air.  Then there is the misunderstanding of the nature of marriage, along with the misidentification of life choices with “personhood.”

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The Unconscionable Conscience of Joe Biden


There is probably no clause more misinterpreted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church than the conscience clause.  CCC #1790 states:

A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself. Yet it can happen that moral conscience remains in ignorance and makes erroneous judgments about acts to be performed or already committed.

“There,” some will say, “The Catechism says I am always to obey my conscience, and my conscience tells me that [insert heresy here] is okay.”  Of course, there is significant danger in tearing #1790 out of context from the other 19 paragraphs that surround it.  These are pretty important paragraphs, as it turns out.  They say things like:

Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment. . . . For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. . . . His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths (#1776).


Conscience must be informed and moral judgment enlightened. A well-formed conscience is upright and truthful. It formulates its judgments according to reason, in conformity with the true good willed by the wisdom of the Creator. The education of conscience is indispensable for human beings who are subjected to negative influences and tempted by sin to prefer their own judgment and to reject authoritative teachings (#1783).

and then the is this:

This ignorance can often be imputed to personal responsibility. This is the case when a man takes little trouble to find out what is true and good, or when conscience is by degrees almost blinded through the habit of committing sin. In such cases, the person is culpable for the evil he commits (#1791).

and finally

A good and pure conscience is enlightened by true faith, for charity proceeds at the same time from a pure heart and a good conscience and sincere faith (#1794).

So here’s the deal in short.  We are in fact called to obey our conscience, but we are also called to make sure that our conscience is formed according to the mind of the Church.  There is a spectrum between the formation of conscience and an act itself on which one can fall.  The best place to be, of course is to form one’s conscience properly and then act in accordance with that conscience.  One could also fail to form the conscience, and then act in accordance with the malformation.  This is tragic, and certainly sinful if the choice to not inform the conscience was deliberate, but it is not the worst place in which one can be.  The worst scenario is one who forms their conscience according to the mind of the Church and then deliberately acts against it.  This is a grave sin indeed, and its perpetrator puts his soul in serious danger.

This is where Vice President Joe Biden falls on the conscience spectrum, at least according to his response in the recent debate as to how his Catholic faith informs his politics.  Here are the Vice President’s words:

My religion defines who I am, and I’ve been a practicing Catholic my whole life.  And has particularly informed my social doctrine. The Catholic social doctrine talks about taking care of those who – who can’t take care of themselves, people who need help. With regard to – with regard to abortion, I accept my church’s position on abortion as a – what we call a de fide doctrine. Life begins at conception in the church’s judgment. I accept it in my personal life.

But I refuse to impose it on equally devout Christians and Muslims and Jews, and I just refuse to impose that on others, unlike my friend here, the – the congressman. I – I do not believe that we have a right to tell other people that – women they can’t control their body. It’s a decision between them and their doctor. In my view and the Supreme Court, I’m not going to interfere with that.

Of course, we don’t know exactly what is in Joe Biden’s head – that is between him and God – but we do have his words in front of us, and we give the Vice President the benefit of the doubt that he expected this question, so he was not caught off guard.  His response, therefore, is both premeditated and an accurate representation of his position.

If we can cut through the prose, the key points are two: (1) Mr. Biden accepts the teaching of the Church that life begins at conception, and (2) he refuses to implement this in his public policy.  In other words, the Vice President has formed his conscience according to the Church and is actively going against it.  We return at this point to CCC #1790:  “A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself.”

The response will undoubtedly be that there is a difference between the principle and the forcing of the principle on others.  For instance, while I believe that it is a mortal sin for a Catholic to miss Mass on Sunday, I would not support a law in which Catholics are yanked out of their beds on Sunday morning by the local police in order to force them to attend their local parish, (as entertaining as that may be).  The implementation of the principle is something distinct from the principle itself.

The problem is that this does work on issues of life.  For these issues there the implementation is the same as the principle itself.  In order to see this, imagine if Joe Biden had continued to use the phrase “murder” in his response.  After all, he has admitted his acceptance of the de fide teaching of the Church on when life begins.  His response would look something like this:

I accept my Church’s teaching that life begins at conception, and therefore that abortion is the murder of an innocent human life.  However, I refuse to impose that view on others.  The decision to murder an innocent human life is a decision between a woman and her doctor.

It simply doesn’t work.  In fact note that the above argument could easily replace the word “abortion” with infanticide and remain relatively unaffected.  In other words, if Joe’s argument is valid for life in the womb, then why can’t it be applied in the proverbial fourth trimester:

I accept my Church’s teaching that life begins at conception, and therefore that taking a three-month-old’s life is the murder of an innocent human life.  However, I refuse to impose that view on others.  The decision to murder an innocent human life is a decision between a family and their doctor.

Joe is trying to play the old, “You can’t legislate morality” card.  The problem is, we always legislate morality.  This is why theft, murder, and fraud are illegal.  Where Joe runs into real trouble, though, is when he leads off with his acceptance of the Catholic position.  At least the politician who claims that life’s beginning is an unsettled question is only guilty of bad science.  Mr. Biden is guilty of far more than that.

The Vice President’s final problem is that he does not actually present the Church’s teaching accurately.  He states only that the Church believes life begins at conception.  He misses the other important parts.

1.  Life begins at conception.

2.  Therefore, abortion is a grave moral evil.

3.  Laws must protect life at all stages.

4.  Laws that conflict with the divine law must be opposed.

That is the Catholic position, and the Vice President, in his comments at the debate, is guilty no only of the sin of violating his own conscience, but also of the grave sin of scandal by misrepresenting the Catholic position.
Finally, I can’t resist pointing out the irony of Biden: while he is so adamant about not forcing his abortion stance on the public, he seems to have no problem taking his position on free contraceptives and forcing on Catholic employers.  Odd, right?

The Delaware Legislature Needs a Good Spanking

By now, most are aware that the State of Delaware has passed a piece of child welfare legislation that, in effect, criminalizes the act of spanking a child.  The language is subtle, but is general enough to be disastrous for a parents’ right to raise and discipline their children.  The key passage in question is actually a definition:

“Physical injury” to a child shall mean any impairment of physical condition or pain.

The synopsis provided by the legislature near the bottom of the bill reads:

This bill establishes the offense of Child Abuse. These new statutes combine current statutes and redefine physical injury and serious physical injury to reflect the medical realities of pain and impairment suffered by children. A new section provides special protection to infants, toddlers and children who have disabilities. The statute also expands the state of mind necessary for certain offenses against children allowing for more effective prosecution of parents who subject their children to abuse by others and fail to protect their children. The bill also re-numbers the definitional section making clear that the definitions apply to all crimes in the subchapter.

What are the implications of beating one’s children?  Well, that depends on their age.  According to the Home School Legal Defense Association:

Under the new law, a parent causing “physical injury” (e.g., pain) to a child under age 18 would be guilty of a class A misdemeanor and subject to one year in prison. A parent causing pain to a child who was 3 years of age or younger would be guilty of a class G felony and subject to two years in prison.

Of course many a blogger will be up in arms, and rightfully so, over the passage of this bill.  I will let those who have more of a aptitude for jurisprudence to dismantle the constitutionality of the legislation.  Actually, I would love for someone skilled in this area to address the possibility of “pain” eventually being interpreted in a general enough manner to include psychological pain, something we often deal with in the fight against abortion and clauses to include “the health of the mother.”

For my own part, I have only two things to offer.

First, this language is so ridiculous as to be entirely unenforcible.  Any time I cause my children pain I am guilt of a class A misdemeanor?  Do you have any idea how many times I violate this statue during a sixty-minute Mass?  A pinch here, a squeeze there, and yes, even the occasional smack upside the head.  In the course of a single Mass, under Delaware State Law, I could probably be issued somewhere between three years and three centuries of prison time depending on the weekend and sitting arrangement of my six kids.  And it gets worse for my three-year-old, in which the misdemeanor is elevated to a felony.  Good Lord, I wouldn’t stand a chance!  The weekend when I found the little booger dropping my keys behind the radiator, squeezing an entire bottle of hand sanitizer on his sister’s school work, microwaving his plastic blocks, and standing on the sink so her could see in the mirror … let’s just say that I wouldn’t get out of prison until somewhere between hell freezing over and the day the Browns win a Super Bowl.

Second, I thought the dialog with my nine-year-old daughter was entertaining:

Daughter:  What are you guys taking about?

Dad:  The State of Delaware has passed a law saying that parents can’t spank their kids.

Daughter:  That’s silly.

Dad:  Why?

Daughter:  Parents need to spank so their kids will behave.

Dad:  What do you think will happen if parents can’t spank their kids?

Daughter:  The kids will probably end up voting for Obama.


Can the Private Sector Support What the Public Sector Claims To? (Part III)

This is the third part in a three-part series.  Part I can be found here, and Part II can be found here.

The Philosophy

Once the numbers are put to rest, the rest of the argument in favor of private giving over compulsory giving via a system of taxation is easy.  The philosophical argument can be broken down into two parts: one based on human teleology and the second based on a phenomenology of gift.

First, all being is in the process of becoming.  That is, all being has a certain perfection, a telos, towards which it tends.  A chair has the natural tendency to tend towards being that perfect chair after which it was designed.  Aristotle called this the final cause, and noted its place of prominence among the four causes of being, the other three being the material, the formal, and the efficient.  Humans, however, are unique in the material universe in that we can actively choose whether or not to tend towards that perfection of being fully human.  This is the gift of freedom that we are endowed with.  Of course, this freedom is not to be seen as merely the ability to choose between contraries, but rather as a freedom for excellence, as the ability to choose the good.  One might say that the ability to choose the good is part and parcel of what it means to be human.

When a human person acts charitably he is acting in a way fully consistent with that call to freedom.  It is the virtues that perfect the human person, and charity is among the most important of the virtues.  The curious thing about the virtues is that the only way to acquire them is to practice them.  They are habits.  The only way to become courageous is to act courageously, and the only way to become charitable is to perform acts of charity.  Thus, when a person acts freely in performing an act of charity, he is not only helping out his fellow members of the human race, but he is also serving to become a better person himself.  Further, the free act of giving has an impact on the recipient that extends past the offered resources.  The recipient recognizes the act of charity for what it is, and that act in turn becomes a model of charity in his own life.

In contrast to this, compulsory giving has nothing of the benefits shared by a voluntary act.  The agent, being forced to offer the money or service, is not acting in freedom, and thus it has no impact on his life of virtue.  Similarly, beyond the actual dollars and cents, the recipient of the tax dollars comes to see the funding as an entitlement rather than a freely offered act of charity.  Obligation replaces virtue, and the obligatory acts freezes both parties at the level of obligation, not allowing them to advance in virtue.  It should come as no surprise that modernity find these ideas difficult to understand.  Ever since William Ockham and his fellow Nominalists, even general morality has focussed exclusively on obligation rather than virtue.

Yet the perfection towards which a human person must strive is experienced in the human heart as a call to gift.  The deepest desire of the human condition is to give one’s self away and to receive another who is called to do the same.  In a paradoxical manner, we find our fulfillment by emptying ourselves to one another.  This call to become gift explains a myriad of human experiences like falling in love, risking one’s life for a person in danger, and acts of selflessness that seem to come naturally.  It explains the natural institution of marriage, the begetting of children, and dying for a cause.  We seek forever to give ourself away.

This is precisely why crowd our rates are not dollar for dollar.  Economists may refer to this as the “warm glow” effect, suggesting that people give because they receive some psychological benefit, an injection of happiness if you will, from the act of giving.  While there is a grain of truth to this, it is not the whole picture.  People give because they were made to give.  They become fully human in the very act of giving.  Private charitable giving is completely consistent with this call to be gift to one another, both for the giver and the recipient.  It is also why compulsory giving in the form of taxation never settles well with the one being taxed.  Deep down, people want to give – they don’t want to forced into virtue.


The Theology

The call to charitable acts is prevalent throughout the Gospels, and indeed the entire collection of Scriptures.  As a member of the Universal Church, one cannot dispense with the obligation to assist those less fortunate among us.  Yet the call to charity can never be disassociated from the call to spread the Gospel to the four corners of the earth.  Pope Benedict XVI tells us in Deus caritas est:

“The increase in diversified organizations engaged in meeting various human needs is ultimately due to the fact that the command of love of neighbour is inscribed by the Creator in man’s very nature. It is also a result of the presence of Christianity in the world, since Christianity constantly revives and acts out this imperative, so often profoundly obscured in the course of time … For this reason, it is very important that the Church’s charitable activity maintains all of its splendour and does not become just another form of social assistance …

“We are dealing with human beings, and human beings always need something more than technically proper care. They need humanity. They need heartfelt concern. Those who work for the Church’s charitable organizations must be distinguished by the fact that they do not merely meet the needs of the moment, but they dedicate themselves to others with heartfelt concern, enabling them to experience the richness of their humanity …

“[C]haritable activity must [not] leave God and Christ aside. For it is always concerned with the whole man. Often the deepest cause of suffering is the very absence of God. Those who practise charity in the Church’s name will never seek to impose the Church’s faith upon others. They realize that a pure and generous love is the best witness to the God in whom we believe and by whom we are driven to love. A Christian knows when it is time to speak of God and when it is better to say nothing and to let love alone speak. He knows that God is love (cf. 1 Jn 4:8) and that God’s presence is felt at the very time when the only thing we do is to love. He knows—to return to the questions raised earlier—that disdain for love is disdain for God and man alike; it is an attempt to do without God” (paragraph 31).

Private giving is free to be an act rooted in the call to follow Christ and preach His word.  This also raises the practical problem of government funds applied to social causes.  When giving becomes compulsory, there enters the possibility, and perhaps even the inevitability, of the funds being used in a manner contradictory to the consciences of individual taxpayers.  Herein lies the debate about tax dollars being used to fund abortion and contraception.  Yet these two issues are not the only ones on the table.  Nearly everyone has a list of causes that would be objectionable to their conscience, and natural outrage would be expressed if they were to be forced to donate to these causes through the tax system.  This reality is often used as an argument for taxation: if we left it to the individual giver, would there not be causes that would go unsupported?  It is an illusion to think that taxes ensure a baseline of morality.  Instead, they merely reflect the opinions of those in power, those elected officials tasked with budgeting the tax dollars.

Yet it remains true that the purpose of politics is justice as well as charity.  Is not the function of government to maintain some level of fairness and equality?  True, but it would be a mistake to think that this comes in a manner contradictory to charity.  The virtues are never in conflict, but rather support and strengthen one another.  Blind redistribution of wealth through compulsory giving, i.e. taxes, fails to incorporate man’s call to charity.  Even if it would lead to a more just economic reality, the picture would be incomplete at best, for as St. Paul reminds us, without charity, we are nothing.  Yet this takes us full circle to the mathematical argument in the first section that suggests that the monies available to a social cause are not increased by government subsidies, but all things considered, they are actually decreased.  It is really a loose-loose situation.  On the other hand, if we keep charity first and allow private giving to do its thing, justice follows as well.  This flip side is a win-win situation.

Finally, to echo the philosophical argument of person-as-gift, Pope Benedict offers the following:

“Saint Paul, in his hymn to charity (cf. 1 Cor 13), teaches us that it is always more than activity alone: ‘If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but do not have love, I gain nothing’ (v. 3). This hymn must be the Magna Carta of all ecclesial service … Practical activity will always be insufficient, unless it visibly expresses a love for man, a love nourished by an encounter with Christ. My deep personal sharing in the needs and sufferings of others becomes a sharing of my very self with them: if my gift is not to prove a source of humiliation, I must give to others not only something that is my own, but my very self; I must be personally present in my gift” (34).


The philosophical and theological arguments are clear: the world and mankind are better off if social causes such as poverty are funded through voluntary private giving.  Man is made to be gift, and he fulfills his destiny insofar as he gives of himself freely.  The only argument that could stand up against this is the practical argument that private giving would be unable to fund social causes: mankind, poisoned as he is by original sin, would fail to selflessly give what is necessary to solve the problem.  Whether or not a cause can be completely funded is not the issue.  There are many social causes that will never be solved this side of heaven.  The issue is whether or not government taxation has an actual positive effect on the particular social cause – this is where the mathematical arguments from part one become so important.  It seems that compulsory giving through taxation actually serves to decrease the amount of funds actually available to a cause.  Once the economic argument falls, it seems that there is nothing left to justify government involvement in social programs.

Can the Private Sector Support What the Public Sector Claims To? (Part II)

This is the second part in a three-part series.  Part I can be found here.  Part III can be found here.


Crowding out on its own can never make a case for the privatization of social services.  Even with government crowd out, the total amount of money raised for a particular cause is higher with government involvement (or equal in the case of total crowd out).  For instance, if a cause is funded entirely by the private sector, say at $100, and the government steps in with a $50 subsidy.  Supposing the crowd out rate is 60%, the private donations drop by $30 because of the $50 government “donation.”  However, the total gift to the charity is now $120 (the government’s $50 plus the private sector’s $70), which is higher than the purely private $100.

However, this doesn’t take into account the efficiency contrast between the private and public sector.  Here is where my model begins to take shape.  For starters, suppose that the government operates with a 30/70 split and the private sector operates with a 70/30 split and a modest crowd out rate of 60%.  Let’s follow that tax dollar collect by the government.  Suppose that the government collects and budgets $1 in taxes for a social cause.  The amount of money actually going to the cause, after the deduction for administrative expenses, is $0.30.  However, that tax dollar also causes a crowd out of 60%, or $0.60 in private giving.  No, in fairness, the private giving also has its administrative expenses, so the actual causes experiences only 70% of the $0.60 in decreased funding, which amounts to $0.42.  The end result is that the extra $0.30 injected by the government is more than counteracted by a drop in $0.42.  Thus, the government involvement actually causes a drop in funding for the actual cause.

One is free to play with the numbers, of course.  We were conservative in our estimates of private giving efficiencies and crowd out rate.  If we continue to hold the private efficiency rate at 70/30, it turns out that the crowd out rate can drop to around 43% before we hit the break even point.  This is a comfortably low number by all accounts in the literature.  Yet even this assumes a modest 70/30 private giving efficiency.  If we adjust this to the median, which is closer to 90/10 (10% administrative costs), we find that the crowd out rate can fall as low as 33% before we hit the break even point.  What this tells us is that for more than half the charities, there is a substantial decrease in actual available funds when the government raises taxes to subsidize the programs.  Were such a reality to be understood and made public, it would cause a fiscal scandal greater than any experience by the few immoral and manipulative bad apples in the world of private charitable organizations.

Now, we should admit that this is based on a definition of “crowd out” that can be unclear in the literature.  Many authors use the term without defining whether the crowd out percentage is a function of the taxed dollar ($1) or the final injection after administrative costs are factored out ($0.30).  We assumed the later because in the two mathematical models (Krause and Andreoni) we were able to follow actual variables, and it was the taxed dollar that resulted in the crowd out.  However, is a subsequent paper, Andreoni himself seems to be leaning towards the later definition.  If that is true, the situation changes*.  It turns out that total available post-administrative funds is increased by government involvement in all cases (and only breaks even if private giving is perfectly efficient and crowd out is 100%), but the increase is such a small percentage of the total taxes collected (between 10% and 13% using the same efficiency and crowd our assumptions), that the expenditures become difficult to defend from any reasonable moral perspective.  Such a reality, even in this case, would cause a public scandal if it were explained to the average voter.

If their are economists among us who can clarify this definition with a solid reference, I would be more than grateful to hear an answer.  I have at least ten papers from economics journals on my desk, none of which are specific enough on the definition of crowd out to decide this point.


 * In the case that crowd out is defined as a function of the money spent on the actual cause by the government rather than the taxed dollar, the mathematical exercise is a bit more complicated.Out of the dollar collected via taxation, only $0.30 of it is going to make it through the bureaucratic structures of the government.  When the $0.30 is injected into the cause, it results it a decrease of $0.18 (60% of of $0.30) of private giving due to crowd out.  Of course, this is a decrease in $0.18 of giving, not of actual money to the cause.  In fairness, even the private charity has its administrative costs.  Thus, the decrease is private funding is only 70% of the $0.18, or $0.126.  Nevertheless, the total difference made by the government $1 is the $0.30 decreased by the crowded out $0.126, which comes to $0.174.  Therefore, it is a mistake to think that he government gets even its 30% of the dollar for the social cause.  The net gain experienced by the cause is only 12.6%.  Think about this on a larger scale.  In order for the government to make a $1,000,000 difference in a cause, it must collect $5.75 million in tax money.

One is free to play with the numbers to see the impact of combining efficiency and crowd out rates.  Our experiment was based on a conservative 70% private giving efficiency and a modest 60% crowd out.  If we assume the median private giving efficiency of 90% and Andreoni’s 70% crowd out rate, the net government difference on the tax dollar falls to 11.1%.  So to raise that $1,000,000, the government would have to collect over $9 million in taxes.

Notice that the cause is still “technically” better off.  Even in the more extreme case, the cause still gets its additional $1,000,000 in funding.  In fact, this will always be the case.  While the combined rate falls as private efficiency and crowd out rise, even with a private efficiency of 100% and a crowd out of 100%, the government simply replaces every dollar in the social cause.  Yet the replacement come at quite a cost to the taxpayer.  If a private charitable organization were to operate on these dismal percentages, it would make the front page of the New York Times in the most scandalous of manners.

 Read Part III here.

The White House and Sexualityism

While I understand the USCCB’s commitment to framing the HSS Mandate exclusively in terms of religious liberty, I have been, since the beginning, reminding people that it is in fact a contraception issue. Politically it may make sense to focus on religious liberty, but morally, the two are inseparable. Well-known law professor Helen Alvaré has a very well-written piece at the Witherspoon Institute:

It should be noted that sexualityism is no more than a theory about a claimed cause of women’s happiness—i.e., that its growth is directly proportional to women’s ability to express themselves sexually without commitment and without the possibility of children. The HHS mandate stands on this theory. In a world of easy availability of birth control and abortion, the only reason for a federal mandate for a “free” and universal supply is to try to send the sexualityism message. The White House has all but come out and said: “women of America, vote for the incumbent this presidential election year because he supports women’s equality and freedom, which he understands to include at the very least nonmarital and nonprocreative sexual expression.” Why else choose Sandra Fluke—an affluent, single, female law student, who demands a taxpayer-subsidized, 365-day supply of birth control as the price of female equality—as your spokeswoman? While every savvy media outlet understands the political theater going on here with the whole “war on women,” anti-Republicans message, still when the White House uses its powerful bully pulpit to send such a message, cultural damage is done.

Read the rest here.


Can the Private Sector Support What the Public Sector Claims To?

This is the first part in a three-part series.  It raises an issue that I have been thinking about for over three years, and I have finally nailed down some sources and drawn the whole argument together.  I will issue the next two parts over the course of the week.


The Problem

With the pending election there has been a resurgence of discussion about privatizing certain industries, e.g. health care, education, etc.  Further, the Democratic Convention suggests that the Democratic party is the party that cares about a shared responsibility for the collective mankind, establishing a suggested radical individualism present among Republican.  More simply put, the Democrats are often portrayed as the party that cares about the poor, while the Republicans are the party that cares only about themselves.  Paul Ryan has maintained that he is fiscally conservative in part because he does care about the poor.  His prudential judgement has led him to believe that the best way to help the poor is through fiscal monetary policies.

However, when the proposal to privatize any government service arises, alongside we find a familiar, and seemingly difficult to overcome, argument.  Just as an example, let’s take education.  Were we to privatize our education system completely, would that not leave several individuals in a position of not being able to afford tuition.  There are, after all, people in tax brackets that pay less in education taxes than it costs for the government to educate their children, just as there are those who pay more in education taxes than the cost of education.  This is the point of taxes for social services: a redistribution of wealth.  It is misunderstood that those who would defend a privatized system are selfishly attached to “my money” and somehow prioritize the individual over the community.  This is a red herring, though; the discussion is not about the priority of the individual or the community, but rather about the best way to serve the community, through tax dollars or private charitable giving.  Those who cannot afford tuition would be helped in the same way that many are now helped who cannot afford other necessities: through freely offered private charitable giving.  Typically, the next objection is that this is overly optimistic about human generosity.  In other words, the amount of freely offered charity will not be able to sustain the need, and hence compulsory giving, i.e. taxes, is necessary.  My aim is to defend that in most cases a privatized system will out-give compulsory giving  via taxation and that freely offered charity enjoys philosophical and theological advantages over dollars extracted through a tax system.


The Numbers

My thesis is that private funds will be able to account for the drop in funding by eliminating the taxes that current fund the social service.  To see this, we need to discuss two economic realities.

The first is the efficiency with which the government, and by contrast the private sector, provides social services.  Robert Woodson (1989), in Breaking the Poverty Cycle: Private Sector Alternatives to the Welfare State, has calculated that, on average, 70% of the funds collected through taxes dedicated to social services goes not to the social service itself, but instead to administrative bureaucracy.  This means that for every dollar collected by the government, only 30 cents actually goes towards the service.  Michael Tanner corroborates this 70/30 split through several regional studies in The End of Welfare (1998).  In contrast to this, the same administrative/service split in the private sector is reversed.  Only one-third of privately collected monies goes towards administrative services, and two-third goes towards the actual cause.  According to Edwards (“The Cost of Public Income Redistribution, 2007), 70 percent of newer charities, as rated by Charity Navigator, spend at least 75% of their budgets on the programs and services they exist to provide.  90% spend at least 65%, and the median among all charities in the sample was 90.7%.

The reason for this is basic competition.  Private sector charities are under strong pressure to operate efficiently because donors want to know that a large percentage of their gifts go to support the appointed cause.  Programs that operate inefficiently will cease to attract donors and eventually cease to exist.  True, there are some very unethical charities out there that take advantage of donors’ money, but over time and with adequate exposure, competition solves this problem.  In contrast, government lacks the motivation experienced by private charitable organizations to operate at efficient levels.  There is an ironic turn of events in this: according to Edwards,

“Those operating at levels of inefficiency comparable to the average government agency are often prosecuted – by the government (which never applies the same standards or threat to its own agencies – for fraud.  Pressure on private charities to avoid such prosecution, and the bad publicity and loss of public trust resulting, is strong.”

The contrasting levels of efficiency between the public and private sectors means that the government has to raise over twice as much money in taxes as the private sector would have to raise in donations in order to provide the same service (assuming the private sector operates at a 70% efficiency level).  In other words, if a social service costs 21 million dollars, the government would have to extract 70 million dollars in taxes in order to cover the cost.  The private sector would have to raise only 30 million dollars.  This assumes a generous 70/30 split in the private sector.  As stated earlier, the median is closer to a 90/10 split, and in this case the private sector would only have to raise 23.3 million dollars, only a third what the government requires.

The second economic reality is what is known as “crowding out.”  The idea is that, as the government collects tax money and budgets it towards a social cause, private donors become less likely to donate their own funds.  In other words, the government support “crowds out” private donations.  Arthur Brooks in “Is There a Dark Side to Government Support for Nonprofits?” (2000) lists four reasons why crowding out occurs.  The most obvious is that a cause that already receives funding from a third source (government or otherwise) is unlikely to appear as “in need” and therefore unlikely to attract additions donations.  Second, “subsidies to non-profit firms may make them appear to private donors ‘non-mainstream’ and, hence, in need of non-market support.”  Third, private donors often want to know they have some control over the organization they choose to support.  Finally, since government support is taxed-based, it decreases the amount of disposable income that private donors can direct towards charitable causes.  (This last effect is compounded by the relative inefficiency with which government social programs operates.)

Crowd out rates are measured as percentages of a dollar that are “crowded out” for every government dollar added.  For instance, a 70% crowd out rate means that for every tax dollar the government collects for a cause, the private donations are reduced by 70 cents.  “Total crowd out” is a dollar-for-dollar exchange, so for every dollar injected by the federal government, exactly one dollar of private donations is eliminated.  Anything less is considered “partial crowd out.”

The literature that measures crowd out rates falls generally into three categories: real world data, theoretical models, and theoretical controlled experiments.  Unfortunately, crowd out rates based on real world data are across the board.  Brooks summarizes some of the studies which quote real world rates anywhere from 1.8% to 66%.

The theoretical models depend in part on the assumptions made about givers.  In one model, charity is determined exclusively by the need of a particular cause, in which case crowd out rates are total (dollar-for-dollar).  The idea is that a cause only needs a finite amount of money and people are willing to pay to see that finite amount met.  If the government steps in and meets part of the requirement, the private donors, sensing the need has been decreased, will decrease their donations dollar for dollar.  If the government decreases their support, private donations step back in and pick up the slack, again dollar-for-dollar.  The crowd out rate in such cases is 100%.  Other models suggest that people give not simply to satisfy a social need, but also for personal satisfaction, a “warm glow” effect.  James Andreoni is a leading expert in this area, and his models predict a minimum of 71.5% crowd out rate (“An Experimental Test of the Public-Goods Crowding-Out Hypothesis,” 1993).  A third model attempts to consider the effect of giving competition.  The idea is that donors are more likely to give at a particular level based on what their peers are giving.  In this case, Alan Krause (“On the Crowding-Out Effects of Tax-Financed Charitable Contributions by the Government,” 2011) predicts that crowding out may be attenuated by such competition, but the situation is highly unstable.  If even a single person has some motivation to drop their giving, others will follow suit in the face of government subsidies and crowding out rate approaches total.

The third category in the literature is controlled theoretical experiments.  Generally this falls into the mathematical area of Game Theory.  Andreoni is again an expert in this field, and his experiments have corroborated his theoretical rates, in one case 71.5% and in another up to 84%.  Another experiment (“An Experimental test of the crowding out hypothesis,” C. Eckel, et. al., 2003) attempted to separate groups into those who knew that third party funds were coming from tax dollars (“no fiscal illusion”) and those who were unaware of the source of the new funds (“fiscal illusion”).  In the case of fiscal illusion, the authors found no evidence of crowding out, but in the case where donors were aware that tax dollars were subsidizing the cause, crowding was almost total.

In the face of these three categories of results, we are forced to ask: which ones are “better”.  In other words, if were are going after actual crowd out rates, would it not make sense to trust those that are data driven?  No, says Andreoni.  The problem with the data-driven results is that they are incapable of separating out a vast range of influences.  In other words, it is nearly impossible to have a “control” in the real economic world.  For instance, “it is impossible to know whether the incomplete crowding-out found [in the literature] is the result of certain institutional features not captured by the model, or whether it is due to individual preferences that are different than those assumed in public-goods models.”  The purpose of the laboratory experiments is to provide such a control.  Keep in mind that the laboratory experiments are not entirely mathematical – they involve real people making real decisions.  It is also telling that the lab experiments are consistent with the theoretical models developed elsewhere in the literature.

All told, the present author is comfortable in making the assumption that average crowd out rates are at least at the 60% level, that is, for every dollar injected by the government into a social cause, 60 cents is taken out in private donations.  Given the theoretical models and the laboratory experiments, which typically come in around 70%, I feel that this is a generous assumption for my purposes.

Part II can be found here.
Part III can be found here.

Fare Forward

There is an outstanding new publication hitting the press by the name of Fare Forward: A Christian Review of Ideas.  The Editor-in-Chief is named Peter Blair.  While at Dartmouth, Blair ran the campus publication Apologia.  Now that he is a graduate, this is his attempt at furthering the mission of Apologia and taking it national in Fare Forward.  From the website, the publication describes itself:

Fare Forward is a quarterly Christian review of ideas and cultural commentary for young adults launched in the summer of 2012. As undergraduates, the editors of the journal all worked on The Dartmouth Apologia, a journal of Christian thought at Dartmouth College. The success of the Apologia and like-minded Christian journals on college campuses across the country, as well as the sociological research on our generation, inspired the editors to create this journal. Our writers and readers are drawn from the ranks of what sociologists have begun to call “emerging adults”: young people who have graduated from college and begun to enter the work force but who are still facing a period of transition and uncertainty. We aim to provide emerging adults with a space to engage with a thoughtful Christian worldview that provides a framework for integrating faith, reason, service and vocation, and to put this worldview in dialogue with the intellectual and cultural trends influencing our national discussions.

The name ‘Fare Forward’ is taken from “The Dry Salvages”, the third quartet of T.S. Eliot’s masterpiece, Four Quartets. “The Dry Salvages” is a reflection on time, eternity, and humanity’s place in between. We chose our name to reflect this awareness of the transhistorical, incarnational nature of human experience and to affirm our commitment to acknowledging both the richness of Christian tradition and our faith’s vital creativity.

Give Fare Forward a solid look, and consider a subscription during this inaugural year.  While I am committed (for obvious reasons) to electronic media, I am also a fan of keeping printed publications as an integral part of our intellectual culture.

The website can be found here  Subscriptions can be order here.


Anna Karenina

We all have books that imprint a lasting memory on us, not simply for the entertainment value, but rather for the way in which they communicate the truth of the human person.  I just spent the better part of two hours and three cups of coffee with a good friend who described manner of influence that Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisted had upon him.  It seems to me that the profundity of such texts is carried by their characters rather than their plot lines.  True, the development of the characters is always serviced by the plot; but equally true is the direction of such service.  In fact, this is more than likely the primary means by which many modern novels go astray: the characters are at the service of the plot rather than the other way around.  Much of modern writing reads like a movie script rather than a work of literature.

For me, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is an exemplar in character development and as such presents an unparalleled disclosure of the human condition and the effects of both sin and virtue in the life of man.  I read the book five years ago, and I can still quote the opening line: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  There are two ways to read this.  The first is that “happy” is uniform, and in some sense boring, whereas sin is interesting, unique even.  Disfunction is worth writing about, because we, as readers, find it intriguing.  I don’t think this is Tolstoy’s final word on these words, at least in terms of the novel seen as a whole, but I do think he intends the reader to understand something along these lines at the start of the novel.

The story follows four individuals arranged as couple.  The first, for whom the novel is named, is Anna.  When she comes on the scene, she is nothing short of captivating: beautiful and mysterious in every way.  Anna is married, albeit unhappily.  As the story progresses, she falls into an illicit affair with the young Count Vronsky, who pursues her with both intensity and persistence.  The third is a young woman named Kitty.  At the start of the novel, Kitty is simple, even a bit superficial.  In short, I found her utterly uninteresting.  By the end of the story, Kitty is married to a man named Levin.  While their path towards this marriage was complicated, and each did their fair share of soul searching, they are to be the couple who stands apart in virtue from that of Anna and Vronsky, whose sin takes center stage throughout much of the book.

The curious thing is not the evolution of Kitty and Levin, nor the devolution of Anna and Vronsky.  Rather, the curious thing is the interest in which the reader has for each couple.  While Anna begins the story as mysterious and captivating, by the end of her plot line, her path of self-destruction comes to fulfillment, and at her final moment in which she throws herself in front of a train, she has lost all identity due to her sin.  The effect of sin and vice on the human person is reminiscent of Tolkien’s Gollum, for whom the ring (symbolizing evil) has replaced his own sense of self, even to the point where he speaks of himself in the plural.  Something of this sort is present in the New Testament encounters with demons, who also speak in the plural: “We are legion.”  In contrast, Kitty and Levin become much more complex and intriguing by the end.  Their fulfillment in virtue makes them interesting.  The message is clear: vice leads to self-destruction and lack of identity, and virtue leads to self fulfillment.

As I reflected back on the book, I felt, as a reader, towards each character exactly how one should feel in light of Tolstoy’s theme.  At the outset, I was captivated by the Anna and Vronksy plot and bored by that of Kitty and Levin.  I almost found myself (especially in light of the book’s overall length) nearly skimming past the chapters devoted to Kitty.  She was superficial and boring, and I had little patience for her.  Yet by the end, the tables had turned.  I was so tired of the sinful affair and the pathetic nothing of which Anna had become, that I was almost relieved when she finalized her own destruction.  For right or wrong, “It is about time,” was my reaction.  I was much more interested in seeing what would become of Kitty and Levin.

Towards the end of the book, I prematurely felt that I “got it.”  I thought I understood what Tolstoy was trying to do.  Yet, in spite of my Catholic upbringing, I failed to predict the true climax of the book.  It ins’t simply that virtue leads to happiness.  The perfection of the human person is not found only in natural virtue.

Levin, devoted fully to Kitty, senses the same, that something missing.

“When Levin thought about what he was and what he lived for, he found no answer and fell into despair, but when he stopped asking himself about it, he seemed to know what he was and what he lived for, because he acted and lived firmly and definitely; recently he had even lived much more firmly and definitely than before…  He felt something new in his soul and delightedly probed this new thing, not yet knowing what it was.  ‘To live not for one’s own needs but for God.’  For what God?  For God.  And could anything more meaningless be said than what he said?”

Up until this point, Levin is an atheist; he struggles with Kitty’s religion.  Yet he searches, looking for proof, for that “miracle” that will convince the heart.

“‘I and millions of people who lived ages ago and are living now, muzhiks, the poor in spirit, and the wise men who have thought and written about it, saying the same thing in their vague language – we’re all agreed on this one thing: what we should live for and what is good.’”

He is reasoning that man has an inherent sense of both purpose and morality, and the the two are connected.  Why should a sense of “the good” pervade all of human history?  This is the miracle for which he has searched.

 “‘I looked for miracles, I was sorry that I’d never seen a miracle that would convince me.  And here it is, the only possible miracle, ever existing, surrounding my on all sides, and I never noticed it!  Can this be faith?’ he wondered, afraid to believe his happiness.  ‘My God, thank you!’ he said, choking back the rising sobs and with both hands wiping away the tears that filled his eyes.”

Even in his natural state of happiness, the result of virtuous decisions, Levin was not complete.  The human condition finds its perfection in conversion, and it is thus with which the novel ends.  (I have picked and assembled pieces of Levin’s vast monologue –  will leave it to the readers to go through the rest of it.  It is a brilliant philosophical argument in its own right.)

The novel is a perfect exhibition of the three states in which the human can find himself: vice, natural virtue, and supernatural perfection.  Granted, we are never, this side of heaven, purely in one state, but the three states are real nonetheless.  The message of Tolstoy couldn’t be more obsious: vice destroys, virtue perfects, but there is something else even beyond natural perfection, and that can only be brought about by self-abandonment, conversion, and grace.  That being said, the message of grace is utterly Orthodox/Catholic: grace perfects nature – it does not destroy it.

When we understand this, we return full circle with a renewed understanding to the opening words: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  It is not that sin is more interesting than virtue, for by the end of the book the reader is much more drawn into the plot of Kitty and Levin and has decidedly left the sinful affair in its own demise.  However, it remains true that there is only one path to happiness, authentic happiness that is: conversion.  Yet sin is as varied as the sinner.  Variety, however, does not make for interest anymore than simplicity makes for boredom.  God, after all, is perfectly simple, as is he one.

This brings me to the question of why, after five years, I found myself motivated to write about Anna Karenina.  The other day, when perusing upcoming films, I came across a trailer for a new adaption of Tolstoy’s novel, staring Keira Knightley as Anna.  Initially I was excited, but after watching the trailer, something seemed lacking.

First, the entire trailer focusses on the Anna and Vronsky affair.  There seems to be little mention of Kitty and Levin, though they are among the cast list and appear very briefly in the trailer.  Granted, the film, as well as the book, it titled after this character, so the focus on Anna is at the very least understandable.  It is, in fact, something about which I have often wondered.  With the destruction of Anna some fifty pages from the end, the climax of both the book and Tolstoy’s message is found not in her, but rather in Levin and Kitty, who share quite a bit in word count with the Anna/Vronksy sections.  Yet titling the book something other than Anna Karenina seems to detract from the story itself.  It is almost as it Tolstoy wanted to strike up an interest in Anna even before the first page.

What is more distressing about the trailer is that the affair itself is romanticized, something that is the result of a “true love” but finds its difficulties in the unfortunate situation in which the heroine (though in the book that she is not) finds herself.  Think even of the words Anna speaks at the start of the trailer: “I was eighteen when I got married, but it was not love.”  Love, being something about which  one “cannot ask why?” is a passive and mysterious emotion rather than an act about which one has authentic freedom.  The problem is that this is utterly inconsistent with the book itself.  The affair, while initially intriguing, becomes tiresome and shallow.  It is wrong, and the reader knows it is wrong, and the destructive path to which it leads is not only inevitable, but also just.  I have a sneaky suspicion, in a day and age that readily dismisses the permanence of marriage, the film will present Anna and Vronksy with more sympathy than they deserve, missing the first point of the novel.  Her husband will be an antagonist, as will her family in trying to keep her tragically locked in an unhappy marriage.  On this note, the main antagonist will be the Church (in this case the Russian Orthodox Church), which seeks to do the same through her antiquated rules and prudish definitions of marraige.  In this regard, the film will directly depart from Tolstoy.  Consider the following monologue from the conversion of Levin:

 “‘Yes, what I know, I do not know by reason, it is given to me, it is revealed to me, and I know it by my heart, by faith in that main thing that the Church confesses.  The Church?  The Church! … But can I believe in everything the Church confesses?’  He began purposely to recall all the teachings of the Church that had always seemed to him the most strange and full of temptation … And it now seemed to him that there was not a single belief of the Church that violated the main thing – faith in God, in the good as the sole purpose of man.  In place of the Church’s beliefs there could be put the belief in serving the good instead of one’s needs.”

I doubt they will change the end of Anna – it is far to famous a scene to alter or delete.  Yet the tragic end will be more of a horrific shock than a predictable result of her sinful actions.  The tragedy will be that Anna was not allowed to love freely the one whom she so deeply desired rather than the natural self-destruction that results from vice.

I will be completely surprised if the film brings out the second, and more important lesson of Tolstoy, that natural virtue finds it perfection in conversion.  The religious themes will be stripped from the story – Hollywood has little patience for Christianity.  The last fifty pages of Anna Karenina will be seen much as the Scourging of the Shire was seen by the filmmakers of Lord of the Rings: an unnecessary appendix.  And like Lord of the Rings, in choosing to eliminate the ending, the filmmakers of Anna Karenina will have completely misunderstood a major theme woven into the fabric of the story.

Perhaps it is premature for me to render such criticism.  I certainly hope I am wrong – the lessons in Anna Karenina are indispensable for a culture that has all but abandoned the notion of vice and virtue, so I will be among the first to rejoice if the film recognizes and communicates this.  Thus, in fairness, I will withhold final judgement until the film comes out, yet the tenor of trailer leaves me in doubt.


A Not-So-Fictitious Dialog about the First Gay President

I found myself in a Facebook conversation recently with a guy I don’t even know; a “friend” or a “friend: if you will. It got to the point where I invested enough time that I thought, hey, this could be a post.

I should point out that I have altered the conversation in two significant ways. First, I have eliminated all references to anything personally identifiable, which in some cases caused me to reword some sentences significantly – the content, however, remains unchanged. Second, I have actually combine the responses of several people under the general pseudonym of “Respondent.”


Respondent [Original Post]: I think that it’s great to hear President Obama speak up for the rights of all people to get married. This has been quite an important week, politically speaking!

Jake: Just as I am typing this, I fear that I may be deleted and/or misunderstood. I will try very hard to proceed charitably in the same spirit of dialog for which President Obama has so often called.

My problem with this President and events like the recent news conference is that he seems to not fully understand his own position(s). Rather, I should say, if he understands them, then he doesn’t full communicate them.

For instance, he has on multiple occasions said that marriage should not be a federal issue (in his rejection of the Defense of Marriage Act) – that it is, under the Constitution, marriage should be an issue left to the States. Yet in the same breath, he, as a representative of the federal government, makes a statement on proposing the legality of same-sex marriage. It seems to me, and I am happy to be corrected on this, that the President wants to make things federal issues when it fits with his political agenda (health care, for instance, or the national legalization of same-sex marriages), but then play the state’s rights card when it doesn’t (like the enforcement of the federal Defense of Marriage Act). The Democrats are not alone in this – don’t get me wrong – the Republicans do there fair share of selectivity/inconsistency.

The inconsistency of this President continues in his deliberate promotion of himself as a Christian. Now, I am not here to judge who is and isn’t a Christian – thankfully that is left to the infinite mercy and justice of God. However, we are called, as Christians, to point out where and when those who claim the name of Christ stray from His Gospel. We can debate, hopefully with great tact and respect, whether or not homosexuality is sinful, and certainly there are many world religions with differing views on this issue … but it is intellectually dishonest to claim that Christianity does not condemn the behavior. Both Old and New Testament, as well as the oldest writings of Church Fathers are crystal clear on this. Again, though, let me clarify my position lest I be misunderstood. My beef with the President is not solely with his new-found evolution on same-sex marriage, nor is it solely with his self-identification as a Christian. My problem is that he maintains both simultaneously. An honest reading of the Bible, the foundational text for Christianity, simply doesn’t allow for this. I would respectfully ask the President to chose one or the other, and then let the intellectual debate begin. As long as he tries to hold both in tandem, no honest discussion can occur.

My third issue, to add more to the pending firestorm against me, is a very practical concern with the federal government getting involved with marriage. My practical concern is related to the recent HHS debacle. If the Federal government can start mandating health insurance coverage, then the door is wide open for the violation of religious freedom, as evidenced by the recent attempt to force religious employers to purchase medical options that violate their religious conscience. In a similar way, then, if the federal government gets invalid with allowing (nationally) same-sex marriage, then the next step will become to tell specific faiths that they cannot discriminate in their marriage ceremonies and practices. This is the kind of thing that happens when the Federal government starts overstepping its constitutional bounds and wades into issue that are to be left to the States.

Finally, I would point out that for those who are opposed to the President’s position, this is not, and never has been, and issue of equality. At least it is not any more an issue of equality than is the reality that a male cannot give birth. Rather, it is a matter of the objective nature of a particular reality. A man cannot give birth, not because he is in some way less human than a woman, but because it is not in the nature of what it is to be male. The position of those who defend marriage between one man and one woman is much more along those lines than it is along the lines of civil rights, equality, and the like. Marriage has a particular nature to it, and it is the position of those who disagree with the President that it is against the nature of marriage to have it contracted between two men or two women. In other words, it is not that people believe two men (or two women) SHOULD NOT get married; the position is that two men (or two women) CANNOT be married. They can say the words, exchange the rings, but no valid marriage is confected. Obviously there are those that disagree, but the debate needs to happen on this level, the objective nature of marriage and sexuality, rather than on the level of ambiguous and undefined “equality.” Authentic equality, much like authentic freedom, is built upon objective nature.

I think that is quite enough for now. I hope, as I tried to do, that it was charitable. Alas, the difficulty with the typed word is that it never fully communicates nuance, emotion, and a whole host of other things.

Respondent: Hi, Jake, I’ll simply say that the President hasn’t tried to get Congress to introduce legislation about marriage (plenty of other things on his plate at present, I suppose?). He was just expressing his opinion after Biden expressed his own opinion. I think it is good that they have been cautiously thinking about their stance on marriage and listening to the public about it. Many surveys I’ve seen show that the majority of young people in our country support the right of gays and lesbians to marry, perhaps because we grew up with these issues as a daily topic of conversation, I don’t know. Anyway, everyone is entitled to their opinions, and I’m glad that Obama and Biden continue to discuss and to listen before trying to get Congress to introduce legislation about it. Even Cheney endorsed the rights of gays and lesbians to marry (not just civil unions), and it’s probably because Cheney has experienced what his daughter lives with in her walk through life. Even a very conservative guy like Cheney can understand it because the Cheney family has lived through the experience of what a lesbian faces on her path in life. Until we live through an experience, it is hard to really understand it.

I salute the President and Vice President on this. As far as Christianity being crystal clear on homosexuality, the Old and New Testament are crystal clear on many things that even the most conservative of Christians choose to ignore.

Regardless, since we are a secular nation rather than a Christian one, Christian teachings are irrelevant when it comes to civil law. This is not an attack on Christianity, just a statement about how our government functions. Christian teachings are no more relevant to the functioning of our government than are Muslim teachings, Buddhist teachings, or the teachings of any other religion. And as long as we have marriage between two people as part of our civil laws, equality is very much the issue.

I just don’t like to “throw the first stone”. In other words, none of us is perfect, and I don’t know why people like to criticize the way other people live their lives. I’m imperfect, and I would rather try to improve myself, rather than spending time criticizing others. We are only on this earth for a short time, and I’m in favor of helping each other and building each other up.

Jake: I am impressed by the quality of of some of these comments. While I thrive on these discussions, when I write my thoughts down, it does not always come off as positive. I only hope people understand that this is a fault of my inability to communicate, and not what is in my heart. (Another discussion for another time might be how suitable the medium of Facebook is for having these kinds of conversations: a long discussion over a bottle of fine Scotch might be a more conducive environment.) At any rate, I will try, as best I can, to respond to a few items. The risk in these sort of thing is that too many issues are raised that can possibly be dealt with in a reasonable amount of space – but I will try nonetheless.

First, you raise a very good point about the President having not introduced federal legislation about same-sex marriage. Of course, for any sitting President, there are issues they support for which they have not introduced legislation (limits on time, energy, political capital, etc., will influence this), so the “lack of” does not mean he wouldn’t support such legislation. His comments indicate that he would; however, I am well aware that I am speculating – so your point is well taken.

First, let’s deal with the issue of what the Bible says and what it doesn’t say, and how much of what it says has been “overturned” either in other places in the Bible itself or by the various periods in Christian history. The best way to look at this is to note that Christianity claims, and has always claimed, the inerrancy of Scripture only in matters of faith and morals. In matters of science, it most certainly does not. In matter of prescribed worship – this is obviously something that can be changed organically throughout history. But in matters of doctrine and morals, I am not aware of where Christianity has changed its proverbial tune. It has been consistent throughout the centuries. (Now, of course, we will run into the side issue of the various branches of Christianity and their interpretation of Scripture – an issue that most certainly needs more space – but at least in their insistence that Scripture is inerrant in faith and morals, Christians have consistency.) At this point, I would turn those Christian supporter of same-sex marriage to the strong New Testament admonitions of St. Paul, a repeated phenomenon, against such an idea.)

Second, I would point out that, while we are not a nation with an official religion (deliberately so), neither are we entirely secular. The God of Christianity is invoked in the founding documents. Nevertheless, I am in agreement with you that the “laws” particular to Christianity are no more important for our governance than the laws particular to Islam. This is an excellent point, and duly noted. However, the argument I offered (that this is not primarily about “equality”) was not premised on Christian doctrine. It was premised on a philosophy in which we understand that the objective nature of things (either things of matter or things of ideas, in this case marriage) is prior to equality itself. True equality, like true freedom, must be built upon the objective nature of the things themselves. I stand by the example of a male being unable to give birth. Let’s compare this with the right to vote. Being able to cast a rational vote in not something that is inherent to maleness or femaleness (or the color of one’s skin), but rather something that is inherent to (adult) HUMANNESS. Thus, equality built upon this principle would suggest that it is immoral for a government to prohibit a female or an African American from voting. (I would point out at this time the invocation of a morality that supersedes government constructed laws; something is not moral simply because it is written into current law, nor is it moral because it is voted on by the majority of citizens.) Note here that the ability to cast a rational vote is not something inherent to being a child, which is why it is no way a violation of equality when we prohibit a five-year-old from voting. On the other hand, the ability to give birth is something inherent to femaleness, not to humanness. So, in a similar way, it is not a violation of equality to suggest that men do not have the “right” to give birth. (In fact, “right” here is not the correct word – it is too ambiguous.) It would, however, be a severe violation of equality and a moral abomination to suggest that a particular race of women did not have the right to give birth.

The question, then, is where does marriage fit into this scheme? Is the objective nature of marriage limited to one man and one woman, or is its nature broader than that? I understand quite well that many people disagree on the answer to this question. But the only thing I was suggesting in the original post was that the question of marriage law(s) BEGIN with this question rather than an undefined and ambiguous notion of equality. What is the very nature of marriage, and how does one defend this nature? This is where we must begin, and note that neither this paragraph nor the preceding one has mentioned Christianity (oops … until now!). Those who wish to defend marriage as that which is confined to one man and one woman do not do so based solely on Christian (or Muslim, or etc.) principles, but rather on principles of natural law – in a similar way to why we defend the inherent immorality of being able to arbitrarily kill someone or steal from someone.

Finally, I appreciate your comment about not throwing the first stone. We should not cast stones at individuals. I would, however caution against the confusion of throwing stones at individuals (of which I am sure that I am guilty form time to time), and the pointing out of erroneous positions. When I, or others, criticize same-sex marriage, it is no more throwing stones than the original charge of discrimination or implied violation of equality. To suggest that the criticism of gay marriage is a violation of equality and an act of discrimination is a point that one has the right to make, and in no way do I take it as throwing stones. On the other hand, then, when I suggest that a marriage between two people of the same sex is a violation of the nature of marriage itself, it is also not an act of stone throwing.

I would leave readers with this: a concise statement of my position. We should distinguish here between my political position and my moral position. It should be clear by now that my moral position is that the very nature of marriage includes one man and one woman, so marriage between two people of the same sex is not possible. Vows can be exchanged, but a valid marriage is not confected. It is no more a reality than me self-proclaiming that I am still 18 years old. I can say the words, but it doesn’t change reality.

However, my political position is much simpler, and I am curious what others here think about this. The government should have nothing to do with marriage. Why would they bother defining it in the first place? Why would they bother getting into the documents/certification? Nothing good can come of this except a conflict between Church and State. The government should stay out of it altogether and leave it up to private institutions (religious or otherwise). This solves the problem altogether, and then politicians (Democrat or Republican) would have no business making this part of their campaign.

[Note to my American Catholic readers: I am sure there are those who will take issue with me on this. You can see my libertarian bent coming through.]

Respondent: In law, marriage is a commitment between two people that has implications of rights of all kinds, financial implications, etc. There is, in law, no expectation of reproduction. So that “natural law” you refer to is not really of concern in the eyes of the civil union.

I think it would be preferable if the government had never called the civil union a “marriage” because it confuses the religious and the civil sides. If the civil union had always been called just that, and “marriage” left to religious institutions, we wouldn’t have nearly such an issue. But that’s not the way history developed and I can’t imagine we’d have any success going to that now.

So, in light of the fact that marriage has a civil definition, it should not – must not – be up to the government or anyone else to decide which consenting adults can join in such a fashion.

Jake: These are excellent points. Supposing we could reinvent the whole thing, I am wondering if you agree that the government should have never been involved with whole business to begin with? It seems like your argument is, “this is how things have developed, and so …” But what if we could go back? Would it not be better to have the government out of the business altogether?

Further, there is a slight problem with “in the law, there is no exception for reproduction.” You are correct, of course, and this I don’t dispute, but this suggests that the “answer” to the question at hand has in large part to do with what is in current law? Surely we can’t use that as a litmus test, otherwise if the legislature passes an act that in fact does put reproduction as part of the definition, then you would have to join my side (in conclusion, but not argument) by saying, “Well, this is what the law says now.” The question here, I think, is not what the law says, but what it SHOULD say, and laws are in fact based on the natural law, otherwise they have no weight.

Further, if the definition of marriage is expanded past one man and one woman, I would ask where it stops. It must, after all, stop somewhere. If the definition cannot discriminate based on gender, can it discrimination based on number (can three people enter into a union); can it discriminate based on age; can it discriminate based on a definition of “person” (while not identical, in the eyes of the law, a cooperation is a sort of legal “person”, so should an individual be able to marry a cooperation, as absurd as that sounds)? It all gets very sticky, because at some point if the government is to be involved in the institution of marriage, then it must issue some sort of definition.

The larger issue here is the foundation of civil law. If we are not to base it on the natural law, then on what DO we base it? Is it founded on majority vote? Surely that can’t be, or we would have to defend past laws that most of us would consider highly immoral – we would have to defend them with, “Well, that was the sentiment in the country at the time.” And besides, I don’t think people in practice actuality believe this, otherwise we would never enter into these conversations – we would stop the argument simply by quoting current law. The mere fact that people see State laws prohibiting same-sex marriage as unjust and discriminatory laws means that they are using some sort of natural morality as a basis for judgement.

Respondent: What is your definition of natural law? Examples of homosexual pairing are found in species throughout the animal kingdom. Does that make it natural?

If our government gets out of the marriage business altogether, great. I would be happy with that. Let consenting adults do as they will.

Jake: The definition of natural law is that which is in the “nature” of whatever is under discussion. It is broader than the “natural world” (which I take to mean the world of matter) – and this seems to be how you are using the term. Every being by virtue of its existence is equipped with a nature by which it exists. Various beings can act either within or outside of that nature. An overly simplistic example would be a chair serving as a paper weight. It is not in the nature of a chair to act as a paper weight, and while it is possible for it to do so, the object in questing at that moment is acting more as a paper weight than a chair – it is acting outside its nature. My opinion of the matter is that even homosexual pairings that exist in the natural world are not consistent with the nature of sexual union. I know this is confusing, and the confusion has much to do with modern science and its reduction of the four causes to one (the material), so that “nature” is reduced to “that which is in the natural world.” We thus, as you wisely hinted at, must first define our terms.

Humans are different from much of the created universe in that we can actively choose, through an authentically free will, to act in a way consistent with our nature as human persons (or as male and female, if that be the case). While homosexual relations in the broader animal kingdom are, in my view, not consistent with the nature of the animal and its sexual union, the animal in question cannot be culpable for such action for lack of their free will. We, on the other hand, can. We can actively choose to act in accordance with our nature.

Regarding your second statement – I do believe we actually agree!

Respondent: I just think “natural law” is more nuanced and subtle that you seem to.

Jake: It absolutely is nuanced. There is no doubt about it. But this does not mean that it doesn’t exist and that we are not bound to both discover and respect it.

Respondent: So the idea that marriage must be between a man and a woman seems to me to be based on a simplistic view of natural law.

Jake: To the best of your knowledge, what is the nature of marriage?

Respondent: Two people in a loving, committed relationship, agreeing to spend their lives together.

Jake: Now that you have offered a description of the nature of marriage, I would ask you to defend it. (And while we’re at it, we should clarify a couple terms: do you really mean “two” or could it be more? “Committed” means what? How much of their lives are they agreeing to spend together?)


At this point, the conversation dropped off. It has been a few days, and “Respondent” has not responded. I was trying to drive in the end that people will offer their own definition of marriage, but be completely unable to defend where that definition comes from, which leaves it at the ambiguous level of personal opinion. The Christian concept of the nature of marriage is based on numerous things, from biology to theology. While there are those who will disagree with the concept and the argument, we can at least stand firm in being the only ones who seem to be offering an argument at all that rises above the level of opinion.

This is why I tried so hard to keep the conversation on the “lower” level of nature. In the end, the “other side” must offer their own concept of how they understand the nature of marriage, and, more importantly, they must defend it.

UPDATE:  It seems that my interlocutor has finally responded, and it seems that the conversation has come to an end.  Here are the final two posts.

Respondent:  Frankly, I’m losing interest in this thread. But I’d say that whatever we offer/allow for heterosexual couples must be offered/allowed for homosexual couples as well.

Jake:  I understand your loss of interest.  This drives at one of my side points about Facebook and it not being very conducive to these sorts of discussions.  The energy it takes is ten-fold what would be necessary in a face-to-face conversation.  On your own time, I would challenge you to think deeply about the following:  Your final conclusion seems to skirt the issue of the nature of marriage and fall back on an undefined notion of equality. ” Whatever we offer/allow to heterosexual couples must be offered/allowed for homosexual couples as well.”  The problem with this is that it simply CANNOT be.  Examples of such impossibility include the ability to conceive a child through the process of intercourse.  This is “allowed” for a heterosexual couple, but not for a homosexual couple,. This is not for lack of equality but rather for lack of biology. This, then, only begs the original question about marriage and its nature. Is it, by nature, a reality that can only exist between a man and woman, or is its nature broader than that?  This is why I have worked so hard to get people to (1) identify what they think the nature of marriage is, and (2) defend it on some grounds other than, “This is my opinion.”


Georgetown: Final Examinations for the Bishops


There is no doubt that the Church in America is being tried and tested.  Not that she hasn’t been through this before, and not that it is a test isolated to the American prelates – but let not this diminish the current reality in which we find ourselves.  Make no mistake: the American Church is at a crossing point, or rather at the point of the Cross.  If the events of the last four years are not evidence enough, the sufficient proof lies in the unprecedented, stalwart response by our Episcopacy to at least two events: the invitation of President Obama to speak at Notre Dame’s general commencement ceremony, and the recent attack on religious liberty by the Department of Health and Human Services led by Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.
Yet those opposed to the Church (in many cases from within the Church herself) will not relent so easily; it would be naive to think otherwise.  The attacks of the last couple years have not been the first, and they most certainly will not be the last.  While Christian hope teaches us that the battle has been won … while we know ahead of time the outcome of the great cosmic struggle between good and evil … we also know that it will be a battle until the end.  And each of us, as a Catholic faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, must decide what part he will play in the inevitable victory.  So too must each Bishop.  He must listen to the call of our Lord present in his consecration as the successor of the Apostles, and he must stand firm in his role to defend and protect the Church from the onslaught of prejudice, injustice, and violence against the human person.  When we stand before the Lord at the end of it all, we will not be judged on the final outcome of the war – that victory belongs to Christ and His Cross – but we will be judged on what part we played, or failed to play, as individuals to bring about the triumph of the Cross.
“The gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.”  How often have we as Catholics read these words from our Lord?  How often have we rested in the comfort of a promise that speaks to the Church’s indefectibility?  And rightly so, for contained in these words is the assurance that the Church will prevail until the end.  Yet lest we reduce these words to merely a defensive strategy, consider that the Lord did not say, “The gates of the Church shall withstand the attacks of Hell.”  The “gates” of which he speaks are not those that protect the Church from the advance of Hell’s army.  No, the gates in this passage are the gates of Hell, and Christ’s promise is that the gates of Hell shall not prevail against the Church.  These words are words of spiritual warfare, for in them we find more than the Church’s charge to defend herself against evil – we find too a clarion call for the Church to attack the gates of Hell.
The Church finds herself in a time of trial, and the Bishops are to be commended for there defense against evil.  Yet it seems that we are forever being reactive.  Of course, this will always be the case to one degree or another – for the advance of evil will not cease.  Yet perhaps it is time to go on the offensive so we can see the reality of Christ’s promise to Peter, a promise that foretells the crumbling of Hell’s gates.  Perhaps it is time to call a spade a spade, to refer to evil by its proper name, and to stop waiting for events that will eventually require a response.
This is all contextual, of course, for on Friday morning we read that Georgetown University, a Catholic institution, has invited the Secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius, to be a commencement speaks at their Public Policy Institute.  (For the sake of clarity, this is not the university’s general commencement.)  Is this better or worse than the Notre Dame scandal from a few years ago in which President Obama was invited to speak at the general commencement?  I leave that to those who want to attempt a more formal analysis of the two situations.  For my own part, there are at least three reasons why this event at Georgetown stands out even from Obama’s infamous “common ground” speech in which he promised to work with the Catholic Church.
First, this event comes after the Notre Dame speech.  For the first time in a recent memory, the United States Episcopacy spoke out vigorously against a University that would invite a speaker who is in public and direct conflict with the teachings of the Church and the message of Jesus Christ.  The impressive thing about the response was its form, not as a generic letter from the USCCB, but as individual letters from over 80 bishops.  The message was clear: those opposed to basic teachings on life and liberty should not be invited to spread their message at a Catholic institution.  Moreover, they should not be bestowed degrees of honor.  In light of this, there is no other way to interpret Georgetown’s invitation to Ms. Sebelius: this is a deliberate statement that the administration at this Catholic university cares not what the American episcopacy thinks or teaches.  They have no intention of listening to their Church, but rather will continue to act as they see fit.  In other words, they are attempting to usurp the bishops and make themselves a separate magisterium.
Second, Secretary Sebelius’ invitation comes in the context of the HHS debacle.  If the response to Obama’s presence at Notre Dame was impressive, consider that 191 bishops representing 100% of dioceses in the United States issued a personal statement agains the HHS mandate.  To make it worse, the invitation was extended to the individual who is largely responsible for the mandate.  Once more, there is no other interpretation: the Georgetown administration is in direct conflict with the entire American episcopacy, saying to them that the staunch rejection of the HHS mandate matters not.  They are an independent university, and they will invite who they will.
Third, Sebelius is Catholic.  While President Obama’s lack of membership in our Church does not give him license to violate the basic principles of natural law in his private opinions or public policies, the Catholicism of the Secretary of Health and Human Services does seem to add a bit more weight to the scandal.  This is an individual that has persisted in grave, public, and manifest sin by supporting policies in contrary to her own Church, and for this reason she has been instructed not to present herself for communion in both her home diocese of Kansas City and the diocese of Washington D.C.  While she has not been formally excommunicated, what does it say that a Catholic institution would invite to speak an individual who has consciously separated herself from full communion with the Catholic Church?  If Kathleen Sebelius is guilty of scandal, how much more is the administration at Georgetown?
I began with a call to battle, a call to not wait until situations such at these present themselves, but rather to attack them at their root.  Instead of defending the gates of Church against the advance of evil, perhaps the Church should beginning realizing her mission to advance on the gates of Hell.  An positive example of this in recent news is the instruction from the Vatican regarding the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.  In writing about this document, I mentioned how impressed I was with its specific nature.  In particular was the directive that “LCWR programs for (future) Superiors and Formators will be reformed, Speakers/presenters at major programs will be subject to approval by Delegate [Archbishop Sartain].”
Here’s a suggestion: in light of recent failures on the part of Catholic universities to exercise prudence in selecting candidates for large public speeches and the bestowal of honorary degrees, perhaps the American hierarchy should insist that any university wishing to consider themselves Catholic will have their list of speakers subject to the approval of the local Ordinary.  Perhaps they should take this upon themselves before the Vatican requires it, before “local Ordinary” is replaced by “the Delegate.”  Then again, maybe a Vatican response would be more effective.

A Habit (or lack-thereof) of Disobedience

By now, most of the Catholic blogging world has heard of Archbishop Peter Sartain’s appointment by the Vatican.  Whispers succinctly delivers the news:

Citing “serious doctrinal problems” found over the course of a four-year study of the umbrella-group representing the majority of the US’ communities of nuns, the Holy See has announced a thoroughgoing shake-up of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), naming Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle as its delegate to conduct an overhaul of the group.

“Serious doctrinal problems.”  This is either the understatement of the century or … actually, it is the understatement of the century … there is no other way to put it.  The “Doctrinal Assessment” comes to us from the Congregatio Pro Doctrina Fidei at which our dear Holy Father spent much of his pre-papal days.  It is worth reading in its entirety.  Among the highlights are little gems like this:

On the doctrinal level, this crisis is characterized by a diminution of the fundamental Christological center and focus of religious consecration which leads, in turn, to a loss of a ‘constant and lively sense of the Church’ among some Religious.

Or this:

The current doctrinal and pastoral situation of the LCWR is grave and a matter of serious concern, also given the influence the LCWR exercises on religious Congregations in other parts of the world.

Lest we think the critique void of specifics:

Addresses given during LCWR annual Assemblies manifest problematic statements and serious theological, even doctrinal errors. The Cardinal offered as an example specific passages of Sr. Laurie Brink’s address about some Religious “moving beyond the Church” or even beyond Jesus. This is a challenge not only to core Catholic beliefs; such a rejection of faith is also a serious source of scandal and is incompatible with religious life. Such unacceptable positions routinely go unchallenged by the LCWR, which should provide resources for member Congregations to foster an ecclesial vision of religious life, thus helping to correct an erroneous vision of the Catholic faith as an important exercise of charity. Some might see in Sr. Brink’s analysis a phenomenological snapshot of religious life today. But Pastors of the Church should also see in it a cry for help.

And then there is this:

The Cardinal spoke of this issue in reference to letters the CDF received from “Leadership Teams” of various Congregations, among them LCWR Officers, protesting the Holy See’s actions regarding the question of women’s ordination and of a correct pastoral approach to ministry to homosexual persons, e.g. letters about New Ways Ministry’s conferences. The terms of the letters suggest that these sisters collectively take a position not in agreement with the Church’s teaching on human sexuality. It is a serious matter when these Leadership Teams are not providing effective leadership and example to their communities, but place themselves outside the Church’s teaching.

Then one of my favorites:

The Cardinal noted a prevalence of certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith in some of the programs and presentations sponsored by the LCWR, including theological interpretations that risk distorting faith in Jesus and his loving Father who sent his Son for the salvation of the world. Moreover, some commentaries on “patriarchy” distort the way in which Jesus has structured sacramental life in the Church; others even undermine the revealed doctrines of the Holy Trinity, the divinity of Christ, and the inspiration of Sacred Scripture.

And this:

The documentation reveals that, while there has been a great deal of work on the part of LCWR promoting issues of social justice in harmony with the Church’s social doctrine, it is silent on the right to life from conception to natural death, a question that is part of the lively public debate about abortion and euthanasia in the United States. Further, issues of crucial importance to the life of Church and society, such as the Church’s Biblical view of family life and human sexuality, are not part of the LCWR agenda in a way that promotes Church teaching. Moreover, occasional public statements by the LCWR that disagree with or challenge positions taken by the Bishops, who are the Church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals, are not compatible with its purpose.

But one of the best paragraphs comes by way of conclusion:

This action by the Holy Father should be understood in virtue of the mandate given by the Lord to Simon Peter as the rock on which He founded his Church (cf. Luke 22:32): “I have prayed for you, Peter, that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned to me, you must strengthen the faith of your brothers and sisters.” This Scripture passage has long been applied to the role of the Successors of Peter as Head of the Apostolic College of Bishops; it also applies to the role of the Pope as Chief Shepherd and Pastor of the Universal Church. Not least among the flock to whom the Pope’s pastoral concern is directed are women Religious of apostolic life, who through the past several centuries have been so instrumental in building up the faith and life of the Holy Church of God, and witnessing to God’s love for humanity in so many charitable and apostolic works.

Toward the end of the document are very specific directive given to “the Delegate” (Archbishop Sartain).  The “greatest hits” are:

The mandate of the Delegate is to include the following … 2) To review LCWR plans and programs, including General Assemblies and publications, to ensure that the scope of the LCWR’s mission is fulfilled in accord with Church teachings and discipline. In particular: Systems Thinking Handbook will be withdrawn from circulation pending revision, LCWR programs for (future) Superiors and Formators will be reformed, Speakers/presenters at major programs will be subject to approval by Delegate. … 4) To review and offer guidance in the application of liturgical norms and texts. For example: The Eucharist and the Liturgy of the Hours will have a place of priority in LCWR events and programs.

I don’t wish to tie this directly to the HHS debacle; it is, after all, a much wider issue.  However, one can’t help but wonder if the hierarchy, in light of HHS and events such as the Notre Dame scandal from several years back, is finally getting serious about making sure that those who profess to be “Catholic” are actually acting Catholic in public.  Where better to start than with priests and religious?  For my own part, I greet this effort with a resounding, “Amen.”
Roma locuta est, causa finita est.  There was a time when this phrase was respected and venerated by those within the Church, and I deeply believe that it can and will be once more.
I ran across the Washington Post’s web coverage of the Vatican announcement, aptly titled “Vatican: U.S. Catholic sisters, nuns making serious theological errors.”  It too is worth your time reading, but for vastly different reasons than the Vatican statement itself.  It contains excerpt such as this:

[Sr. Simone] Campbell sees the current tension between male and female Catholic clergy as a part of a post-Vatican II democratic evolution within the church, but worries that the male leaders fail to recognize the “witness of women religious.”

Such a claim that the male leaders fail to recognize the witness of women religious is not only irresponsible, it is also ignorant.  Both John Paul II and Benedict XVI have spoken widely about this important witness … but only when it is actually a witness to the faith, and never when it is contrary to the faith.  Yet the phrase that caught my eye was, “the current tension between male and female Catholic clergy.”  The mis-categorization of “female clergy” by the Post is ironically a strong argument in favor of the Vatican’s charge of “serious doctrinal problems.”
Sr. Campell continues,

It’s painfully obvious that the leadership of the church is not used to having educated women form thoughtful opinions and engage in dialogue.

This is a misunderstanding of the the term “educated.”  “Instructed” (albeit improperly) Sr. Campell may be, but certainly not “educated,” at least not in the Catholic faith.  Even a dictionary recognizes that being educated means having been entrusted with intellectual, moral, and social instruction within the field in question.  The problem with the LCWR leadership is that they are distinctly not educated in the Catholic faith, nor are they educated in the authentic and beautiful witness that constitutes Catholic consecrated life, as evidenced by the numerous examples cited in the Vatican document.  They may be educated in something other than Catholicism, but they most certainly are lacking in education, not to mentioned formation, within their own faith tradition.
Sr. Campbell, however, enlightens the Post on the real motivation behind the called-for reform:

“I think we scare them,” Sr. Simone Campbell … said of the church’s male hierarchy.

Actually, for quite some time, I have thought this very same thing, except in reverse.  Why is there so much animosity towards orthodoxy in the last several years?  Orthodoxy is nothing new.  There have been those who have championed for quite some time the very same thoughts contained in the recent Vatican statement.  The reason there is an uproar now is because people are beginning to sense that the tide is turning.  It is the very same reason why people are suddenly outspoken by the extraordinary form of the Mass.  While its presence in the Church has never ceased, even following the Second Vatican Council, people have recently begun to sense that things are changing.  They look at the seminarians coming out of seminary … they listen to the things coming out of the Holy See … they watch the appointments made by the Holy Father … and they know that the tide is turning towards Catholicism (to shamelessly steal from Dave Hartline) … and this terrifies them.
By way of a humorous conclusion, the most amusing part of the Washington Post article was the pictures they chose.  Under the title of “Vatican: U.S. Catholic sisters, nuns making serious theological errors,” we find this picture:

And this one:

Now I don’t want to judge a situation purely by a picture, so feel free to correct me here … but … I hardly think the delightful sisters in the these photos are those being called out by the recent Vatican instruction.  In the first picture we have a group of young, energetic, and full-habited sisters, and at the risk of overgeneralization, the young orders of which I am familiar are orthodox to the very core of their existence!  The second picture depicts a sister receiving communion on the tongue while kneeling … call me crazy, but I don’t think she preparing to deliver a lecture on women’s ordination and homosexuality.  (The tour of examples becomes even more amusing when one flips through the embedded slide show to find images of Mother Theresa, Katherine Drexel, Elizabeth Ann Seton, and a whole array of full-habited sisters.)
So why didn’t the Post choose pictures of Sr. Campbell, or even more familiar names like Sr. Carol Keehan, or Sr. Joan Chittister?  The answer is simple: the reading audience would not recognize them as the “U.S. Catholic sisters” to which the Post title refers.  Forgive the pun, but even those in the secular world are in the habit of recognizing sisters by their … well, you get the idea.

Dominus Est!

We occasionally hold a reading group at our home in which someone brings a selection, and we read aloud.  This past Thursday, we read through a short book (and essay, really) that I obtained back in 2009.  It prompted me to dig up the review I wrote.  Enjoy!


“It is true that if it is possible to receive on the tongue, one can also receive on the hand, both being bodily organs of equal dignity…. Yet, whatever the reasons put forth to sustain this practice, we cannot ignore what happens at the practical level when this method is used. This practice contributes to a gradual, growing weakening of the attitude of reverence toward the Scared Eucharistic Species. The earlier practice, on the other hand, better safeguards the sense of reverence. Instead, an alarming lack of recollection and an overall spirit of carelessness have entered into liturgical celebrations.”

The above words were written by the Most Reverend Malcom Ranjith, the Secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, in the Preface of a timely and concise book called Dominus Est!- It is the Lord! by the Most Reverend Athanasius Schneider. Archbishop Ranjith concludes his Preface, “I think it is now time to evaluate carefully the practice of Communion-in-the-hand and, if necessary, to abandon what was actually never called for in the Vatican II document Sacrosanctum Concilium nor by the Council Fathers but was, in fact, “accepted” after it was introduced as an abuse in some countries.”

This brief 33 page work by Bishop Schneider comes at a time when many in the Church are discussing postures during the Holy Mass. In fact, the publisher of the book muses that one cannot help but wonder whether the text itself had a role to play in the decision of Pope Benedict XVI to return to the traditional mode of distributing Communion at his Masses, on the tongue to kneeling communicants.

In order to answer this question of the correct posture for reception of the Most Holy Eucharist, we must divide the inquiry itself into two more refined questions. The first is, what is the most appropriate bodily response to the reality present in the Sacred Eucharistic Species? The second is, what are the practical implications of the suggested postures in forming our attitudes towards the God of the Universe who is fully present in the Sacrament? As noted in the previous post the fundamental principle of sacramentality is that the sacrament effects what it signifies. Therefore, not only must the postures with which we approach the Eucharist as well as our mode of reception conform to the dignity of the Sacrament itself, but also that same posture and mode of reception will affect the attitudes we form in regards to the Eucharist. In other words, our actions are not only indicative of our person, but also our person is formed by our actions.

Regarding the first question, the most appropriate bodily response to the reality present in the Sacred Eucharist Species, Bishop Schneider takes the reader through a vast array of evidence from the testimony of the Fathers of the Church, the Early Church, the Magisterium, the Liturgical Rites themselves, Holy Scripture, and finally the Eastern Churches and even the Protestant Communities. The tradition of the Church is unanimous in the insistence that the only proper response to an encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ is to fall down on one’s knees.

It is interesting to note that the liturgical norms of the Church require a separate act of reverence and adoration if one receives standing, typically a bow. However, if one receives kneeling, no such gesture is required since kneeling is already a gesture of reverence and adoration. It is true that in the United States, as elsewhere in the world, when a dignitary enters the room, the people give their sign of respect by standing up. However, Jesus Christ is no mere dignitary. The fact that we stand for important persons necessitates that we have a separate, even more dignifying response to the God of the universe.

Regarding reception on the tongue, we begin with the principle that “the attitude of a child is the truest and most profound attitude of a Christian before his Savior, who nourishes him with his Body and Blood” (Schneider, 29). We can then see that,

“The word of Christ, which invites us to receive the Kingdom of God like a child (see Luke 18:17), can find its illustration in that very beautiful and impressive manner of receiving the Eucharistic Bread directly into one’s mouth and on one’s knees. This ritual manifests in an opportune and felicitous way the interior attitude of a child who allows himself to be fed, united to the gesture of the centurion’s humility and to the gesture of ‘wonder and adoration’” (Schneider, 29).

While issues regarding the proper posture of the individual due to the sacredness of the Sacrament, the very practical implication should not go overlooked. That is, it is in receiving on the tongue that we can best minimize the risks of losing even the tiniest particle of the Sacred Host. Quoting St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Bishop Schneider exhorts us to “take care to lose no part of It [the Body of the Lord]. Such a loss would be the mutilation of your own body. Why, if you had been given gold-dust, would you not take the utmost care to hold it fast, not letting a grain slip through your fingers, lest you be so much the poorer? How much more carefully, then, will you guard against losing so much as a crumb of that which is more precious than gold or precious stones?” (34). (St. Cyril lived in the fourth century.)

Regarding the second question, the practical implications of the suggested postures in forming our attitudes towards the God of the Universe who is fully present in the Sacrament, it is time, roughly 30 or 40 years after the practice of communion standing and in-the-hand became widespread, to ask ourselves the inevitable question. Did the experiment work? Have we seen greater Eucharistic reverence, or have we seen an increase in lackadaisical attitudes? Has attendance at Mass gone up or down? Are people better able to explain and internalize the Real Presence in the Eucharist? An honest evaluation of the state of Eucharistic Piety in our time is bound to be dismal and disappointing.

What, then, are we to do? Must we have a long, drawn out process of educating the laity before we can return to the posture and mode of reception that has been far more prevalent in the history of our Church? Perhaps Romano Guardini was ahead of his time in 1965 when he prophetically wrote, “The man of today is not capable of a liturgical act. For this action, it is not enough to have instruction or education; no, initiation is needed, which at root is nothing but the performance of the act” (quoted in Schneider, 47). This is a much more eloquent way of saying that orthopraxy will bring about orthodoxy. Right actions will educate and enliven doctrine. It should be pointed out that the Holy Father, in his return to distributing communion on the tongue while kneeling, seems to have subscribe to the advice of Guardini. He simply made the return, and the people have responded.

While the mode of reception is at the center of Biship Schneider’s book Dominus Est, the book is an inspiring exposition of how to best reverence the miracle of the Eucharistic Lord.


The Human Face of Suffering

About a week ago, I wrote on a article that I read from Slate.com. Having never really been to this site, I have now found myself with the same sort of reaction one has to a horrible car accident … I just have to look. On the bright side, I think that any conservative blogger could find a lifetime of material on which to comment in but a few short days of perusing Slate’s archives.

Yesterday, there appeared a very emotional piece by a mother of a child with Tay-Sachs. My heart and prayers go out to this woman – I can’t even begin to imagine the daily struggles and emotional roller-coasters that she goes through. Yet there is something terribly unsettling with her story. Her opening paragraphs read:

This week my son turned blue, and for 30 terrifying seconds, stopped breathing. Called an “apnea seizure,” this is one stage in the progression of Tay-Sachs, the genetic disease Ronan was born with and will die of, but not before he suffers from these and other kinds of seizures and is finally plunged into a completely vegetative state. Nearly two years old, he is already blind, paralyzed, and increasingly nonresponsive. I expect his death to happen this year, and this week’s seizure only highlighted the fact that it could happen at any moment—while I’m at work, at the hair salon, at the grocery store. I love my son more than any person in the world and his life is of utmost value to me. I don’t regret a single minute of this parenting journey, even though I wake up every morning with my heart breaking, feeling the impending dread of his imminent death. This is one set of absolute truths.

Here’s another: If I had known Ronan had Tay-Sachs (I met with two genetic counselors and had every standard prenatal test available to me, including the one for Tay-Sachs, which did not detect my rare mutation, and therefore I waived the test at my CVS procedure), I would have found out what the disease meant for my then unborn child; I would have talked to parents who are raising (and burying) children with this disease, and then I would have had an abortion. Without question and without regret, although this would have been a different kind of loss to mourn and would by no means have been a cavalier or uncomplicated, heartless decision. I’m so grateful that Ronan is my child. I also wish he’d never been born; no person should suffer in this way—daily seizures, blindness, lack of movement, inability to swallow, a devastated brain—with no hope for a cure. Both of these statements are categorically true; neither one is mutually exclusive.

I want to try very hard to not be callous in my comment, but rather pastoral in the best sense of the word. As I stated from the beginning, this woman’s story is clearly one of great suffering.

That being said, what is the proverbial “missing piece” from this philosophy? I can think of three such pieces that are worth considering.


1. Suffering is Redemptive

There is something drastically “new” about the Christian take on suffering. If we define suffering as that gap between desire and reality (or between what we want and what we have), the ancient east and the modern west have opposite takes on how to close the gap. The ancient east suggests solving the problem by eliminating desires. According to Peter Kreeft:

We suffer because of the gap between what we want and what we have. This gap is created by our dissatisfaction, our wanting to get what we do not have or wanting to keep what we do have (e.g., life, which causes fear of death). Thus desire is the villain for Buddha, the cause of all suffering.


The modern west takes an opposite approach: we attempt to eliminate suffering by bringing what we have up to the level of what we want. This is true in both modern medicine and modern economics.

Although both work in opposite directions, the goal is the same: to eliminate suffering.

Christianity, through the Paschal mystery, takes a radically new approach: it redeems suffering and thus allows us to see it as a value in and of itself. As Christians, we are called to embrace suffering for the redemption of ourselves and of the world. I am reminded of the scene from Passion of the Christ where the Lord has hold of his cross and the soldiers ridicule him saying, “Look, he embraces his cross!”


2. God is the Author of Life – and the Soul is Eternal

It seems to me that this is an essential tenant of the Christian faith. The very first thing we learn about our nature from the Book of Genesis is that we are created. In other words, we are not our own, and nor are we each other’s. God is the author of life, and only God can decide when “it is time” (for lack of a better phrase). None of us ever wants to see an innocent child suffer to the degree that this mother has had to endure, yet even in these difficult cases, it is not our decision to make. Let us not forget, however, that the human soul is immortal. It has an existence well beyond the confines of time. Further, we know for certain that a baptized child not yet of the age of reason will be welcomed into Heaven – so whatever this child suffers here on earth, it will pale in comparison to the joy he will experience when standing for eternity face to face with the Living God.

There is actually something very laudable with the mother’s desire that “no person should suffer in this way.” While we embrace our own suffering, we also should work to a certain extent to minimize the suffering in others. Yet the line is crossed when first things fail to be kept first. The “first thing” in this case is the notion that God is the only one who takes the blessed soul from their suffering and welcomes them into eternal life.


3. God’s Ways are not Our Ways

This is so impossible to fully understand, and every one of us is guilty of crying out for justice, mercy, or some seemingly illogical combination of the two when faced with the hardest moments of our time here on earth. Few of us will experience moments as challenging as this mother’s trials, and virtually none of us will have to undergo the pain experienced by her son. Yet as hard as it is to grasp, the truth haunts us in the quiet of our hearts: as finite beings we are incapable of seeing the “whole picture.” We do not yet know everything that God has planned for both the world and for a particular individual. Only when it is all said and done, and we are granted the opportunity to “understand the whole” will we be able to find true solace in the events of this world.

What is curious about this point is that it is either a source of great consolation or bitter confusion. One either sees in the mystery of a plan not-yet-fulfilled a God who is a great architect that ever so slowly reveals His design, or one sees a tyrannical dictator who hides the truth from his subjects. It all comes down to the fundamental lens through which one sees the drama of life.

Regardless, my heart goes out to this woman. In fact, I can agree with her on not just one, but both of her points, properly understood. As such, I agree that they are no mutually exclusive. I believe with everything I am that she is telling the truth when she says, “I love my son more than any person in the world and his life is of utmost value to me. I don’t regret a single minute of this parenting journey, even though I wake up every morning with my heart breaking, feeling the impending dread of his imminent death.” I also believe that she deeply wishes her poor innocent son would not have to endure the suffering that he has already had to go through let alone that which is to come. Moreover, I too wish that I had it in my power to save him from any more suffering in his life. In fact, I even agree that his “life” would be better if he were already in the presence of God. Nevertheless, I cannot agree that taking a life of which we are not free to take, making a choice that we are not free to make, is a viable option towards such an end. The end can never justify the means.

I have already decided to dedicate a part of my Lenten spiritual reading and preparation to both this mother and her very blessed child, and I encourage others to do the same. Through all the suffering, it is clear that his mother as an authentic love for him, and that is something that many of our “healthy” children lack so desperately.


The Inconsistency of the Left and Required Virginia Ultrasounds

Okay, to be fair, I think this goes both way in American politics.  I’ve always said that everyone is a fiscal conservative until it is “their cause” that gets defunded, and everyone is a fiscal liberal until it is “their tax rate” that gets increased.

Nevertheless, some things ooze such inconsistency that it is almost laughable.  As many are aware, the Virginia state legislature recent passed a bill that requires a woman to have an ultrasound before they may have an abortion.  As you can imagine, the pro-abortion constituency is out in full force over such a perceived “injustice.”  Now, call me crazy, but it seems that such a requirement should at least implicitly be considered under “informed consent.”  And besides, if those on the pro-abortion side are so sure that the fetus growing inside the womb is really just a mass of tissue, then there should be nothing to worry about, right?  Let us not be fooled here – the objection to the ultrasound has nothing to do with the requirement itself – it has much more to do with the fear that this just may actually convince more women that the baby growing inside them actually is a life.

At any rate, an article appeared on Slate.com by Dahlia Lithwick last Thursday that would have had me falling off the couch in hysterics had it not been meant to be actually taken seriously.  It was a great example of how the line between laughter and tears is often fine indeed when reading liberal commentaries.

The first laughable/cry-able moment came when the author implied … no wait, she flat out said it … that such a requirement constitutes an act of rape:

[This] means most women will be forced to have a transvaginal procedure … the law provides that women seeking an abortion in Virginia will be forcibly penetrated for no medical reason. I am not the first person to note that under any other set of facts, that would constitute rape under state law.

Okay, now let’s first note that no-one is forcing any woman to have such an ultra sound; the law merely provides such an action as a pre-requisite for the abortion procedure.  Any woman could alway opt not to have the abortion, and consequently be spare the “violation” of the ultrasound.  The logic here is intellectually dishonest at best, and manipulative at worst.  Under the same logic, we could object to any medical pre-requisite.  Besides, and I am happy to be correct on this, in the event that the individual decides to proceed with the abortion, is not penetration inevitable?  In fact, one could argue that the ultrasound is not a separate procedure but rather the first step in the abortion.

The argument continued,

Evidently the right of conscience for doctors who oppose abortion are a matter of grave national concern. The ethical and professional obligations of physicians who would merely like to perform their jobs without physically violating their own patients are, however, immaterial.

So here we have it … the left refuses to admit that the recent HHS mandate is a violation of conscience for individual business owners and religious organizations, they often even want to eliminate a Catholic hospital’s right to refuse abortion services based on conscientious objections, but now all of a sudden conscience should be a part of the conversation.

Lithwick goes on,

Next month the U.S. Supreme Court will hear argument about the obscene government overreach that is the individual mandate in President Obama’s health care law. Yet physical intrusion by government into the [body] of a pregnant woman is so urgently needed that the woman herself should be forced to pay for the privilege.

Another inconsistency: the Virginia law is a clear overreach of government by requiring an individual to pay to a procedure to which they conscientiously object, yet the ability of the Catholic Church to opt out of paying for practices that they find morally incompatible with its faith is just plain silly.  Am I understanding this right?


You can shame and violate women, while couching it in the language of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s gift that keeps on giving—his opinion in Gonzales v. Carhart. That opinion upheld Congress’ partial-birth abortion ban on the grounds that (although there was no real evidence to support this assumption) some women who have abortions will suffer “severe depression” and “regrets” if they aren’t made to understand the implications of what they have done.

And at the end of the article,

Abortion is still legal in America. Physically invading a woman’s body against her will still isn’t. Let’s not casually pass laws that upend both principles in the name of helping women make better choices.

So, as is commonly stated, nationally legalized abortion is the “law of the land,” so while it is okay for you to personally object to the practice, please don’t try to push that belief on others.  However, even thought the same Court has made the ability of the States to prevent partial-birth abortion the “law of the land” … well, in that case they were just plain wrong.

So which is it, my dear leftist friends?  Is conscientious objection important or isn’t it?  Should individuals be required to pay for procedures they find objectionable or shouldn’t they?  Does the “law of the land” matter or doesn’t it?  It seems to me that the answer depends greatly on the ideology at hand, which in this case is the perceived “right” to abortion on demand.  In other words, we must accept a priori the right to abortion, and then we use any and all arguments available to defend that decision, even if it means speaking out of both side of the mouth at times.

Now, in fairness, it could be asked whether the political right is being just as inconsistent in all three arguments.  Whether this is true or not I leave up to political commentators.  For my own part, I submit that the Catholic position has no such inconsistencies, and here is why.  First, we don’t ground our positions in the law of the land or conscience seen as an unfettered freedom to relieve one’s self from any and all acts.  Rather, we ground our positions in natural law and conscience seen as the freedom to pursue truth and goodness.  Forcing a doctor to perform an abortion is a clear violation of his or her right to act in a way consistent with a belief system.  The act itself is the violation – the Catholic finds the act objectively immoral.  It is not that a Catholic doctor wants to perform abortions in some cases and not in others, it is that he or she never wants to perform them. In requiring an ultrasound for a woman seeking abortions, what act is being found objectively immoral?  Correct me if I am wrong, but an ultrasound, whether external or internal, is a perfectly acceptable medical procedure by both the left and the right.

Second, from a Catholic position, the natural law it the governing principle, not the “law of the land.”  Natural law, inscribed on everyone’s heart, deeply suggests that the taking of a life is intrinsically immoral.  Science has shown over and over again that the “mass of tissue” in the womb of a mother is a life.  Even rudimentary philosophy says that it is a human life.  But returning to the matter of conscience, if we understand that freedom of conscience does not give an individual the right to abstain from any and all acts (for instance, it does not give and individual the ability to refrain from stopping a violent crime taking place before him), then we can see that freedom of conscience does have limits.  The question for the left is: in what do you ground the limits of freedom of conscience?  For Catholics, the answer is clear: natural law.  Therefore, it is a violation of conscience to require the taking of this life.  Yet in supporting the required ultrasound, rather than seeing it as violating conscience, we understand in the greater context of the right to life.

Third, if freedom of conscience is at the service of pursuing truth, then how does giving the doctor and patient more information violate this process?  In other words, if a doctor has the “right” to eliminate the ultrasound from this procedure, the same logic could be used to dismiss all informed consent laws form the books.

Finally, it is always amusing to hear the left decry government regulation in cases such as this.  Somehow the government not only has the right, but the duty, to regulate Wall Street and the Health Care industry in a way that destroys any rational notion of subsidiarity and was never envisioned by the founding fathers, yet when it comes to a required ultrasound before an abortion … well, clearly that is a government overreach.


Religious Liberty: A Council Ahead of Its Time?

So much of the discussion in the public square of late concerns religious liberty.  Not to obscure the other issues involved in the recent HHS rule and its subsequent “accommodation”, for assuredly there is also the issues of natural law, the right to life, and others.  However, it is curious that the issue on the front line for Catholics and non-Catholics alike has been religious liberty.  I say “curious” not to express disapproval; quite the opposite, for I myself think this is the crux of the issue.  I say “curious” because it has caused me to reflect on the Church’s teaching on religious liberty, particularly those of the Second Vatican Council.

In discussions with various groups that are not in full communion with the Church (okay, let’s not beat around the bush – we mean SSPX here), no issue has caused more angst than that of religious liberty and Vatican II (except perhaps the validity of the Novus Ordo).  Now, there is a certain amount of irony to this, because the “conservative” apologists are now clinging (rightfully) to religious liberty in order to combat the rhetoric and actions of the Obama administration, but the “really conservative conservative Catholics” (e.g., SSPX) find themselves in a bit of a pickle.  For it is this teaching of Vatican II that they have rejected publicly.  (See my footnote below for an apology and explanation of my meaningless labels.*)  Yet we have seen in the last month just what happens when religious liberty is not protected.

With that, let’s have a look at what Vatican II said.  The document in question is Dignitatis humanae (“The Dignity of the Human Person”), and paragraph 1 begins,

A sense of the dignity of the human person has been impressing itself more and more deeply on the consciousness of contemporary man, and the demand is increasingly made that men should act on their own judgment, enjoying and making use of a responsible freedom, not driven by coercion but motivated by a sense of duty. The demand is likewise made that constitutional limits should be set to the powers of government, in order that there may be no encroachment on the rightful freedom of the person and of associations. This demand for freedom in human society chiefly regards the quest for the values proper to the human spirit. It regards, in the first place, the free exercise of religion in society … On their part, all men are bound to seek the truth, especially in what concerns God and His Church, and to embrace the truth they come to know, and to hold fast to it … Religious freedom, in turn, which men demand as necessary to fulfill their duty to worship God, has to do with immunity from coercion in civil society.

It seems to me that the USSCB could use this paragraph as it mantra for the battle against the HHS mandate.  But let’s continue … from the next paragraph:

This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.

The council further declares that the right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person as this dignity is known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself.  This right of the human person to religious freedom is to be recognized in the constitutional law whereby society is governed and thus it is to become a civil right.

It is in accordance with their dignity as persons-that is, beings endowed with reason and free will and therefore privileged to bear personal responsibility-that all men should be at once impelled by nature and also bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth. They are also bound to adhere to the truth, once it is known, and to order their whole lives in accord with the demands of truth However, men cannot discharge these obligations in a manner in keeping with their own nature unless they enjoy immunity from external coercion as well as psychological freedom. Therefore the right to religious freedom has its foundation not in the subjective disposition of the person, but in his very nature. In consequence, the right to this immunity continues to exist even in those who do not live up to their obligation of seeking the truth and adhering to it and the exercise of this right is not to be impeded, provided that just public order be observed.

Now this is where SSPX starts to get nervous.  They would claim that no-one has the “right” to adhere to falsehood, and the Second Vatican Council implies otherwise.  As for the first part of the claim, I agree.  I made the point in a previous post that nobody has the “right” to contraception, not just from a constitutional standpoint but also from the perspective of natural law.  However, with regards to “what Vatican II really said,” I read over this section at least three times, as well as the rest of Dignitatis humanae, and I simply cannot see how it implies that people have the right to adhere to falsehood, theological or otherwise.  It does say that religious freedom is essential for man’s search for truth, and that political coercion flies in the face of this necessary freedom, and that “the right to this immunity [from coercion] continues to exist even in those who do not live up to their obligation of seeking the truth and adhering to it and the exercise of this right is not to be impeded.”  Yet nowhere do I see that people have the “right” to adhere to falsehood.

At any rate, I meant not for this post to become an occasion for dialog about the SSPX-Vatican disagreements.  I meant only to point out that the Vatican II “Declaration on Religious Freedom” may turn out to be a very useful document for those of the conservative political persuasion in the current climate, and that there is a certain amount of irony, because it was one of the documents of the Council that was most hailed by the “progressives” in the Church.

Certainly the declaration was written within the context of 1965, the year in which Paul VI promulgated it: a time when the world was still very concerned about the oppressive regimes of Communism and Nazism.  Yet I can’t help but think that (surprise, surprise) the Holy Spirit knew what he was doing, for we may well find in our own era the need for Dignitatis humanae.  The battle currently is in the medical field: the fundamental right to religious liberty being trumped by a fabricated “right” to obtain contraception and abortion services free of charge.  However, the battle lying just around the corner will inevitably involve the issue of homosexuality – here we will see a parallel conflict, but it will be the fundamental right to freedom of speech, either in religious or secular circles, being trumped by a fabricated “right” to live one’s life without criticism.  Consider all that is in front of us together with that which is to come, it warrants asking: was Vatican II a council ahead of its time?


*  I am at loss for labels here (as if this weren’t obvious in my use of “really conservative conservative Catholics.”  I inherently reject using the word “traditionalist” because all Catholic should be traditionalist – our faith is a faith of tradition, built on an original deposit that unfolds slowly overtime.  Yet “conservative” is a political term more than a religious term.  At the same time, politics and religious, while distinguished in concept, are not entirely separate.  (There is a reason why politically conservative people also tend to prefer more “traditional” liturgies.)  I hope that the point is not lost here … it seems obvious to me that the SSPC is a sort of “ultra conservative” group, clinging to a tradition that does not allow for any sort of unfolding, organic or otherwise, but rather is frozen in time (arbitrarily chosen as the middle of the 1900’s).  Then again, I write with a certain amount of trust that I am among friends who will understand the irony which I attempt to disclose, that, despite a lack of appropriate labels, the most “conservative” Catholics (so “conservative” that they have left the Church), are now in need of the one of the very doctrines they reject from Vatican II (the teaching on religious liberty) in order to be “conservative” in our current political battle.


Food, Guns, and Contraception: A Random Followup to Some Random Thoughts on the HHS Rule

Instead of responding to comment on my previous post in the proper place, I decided to do a followup of sorts to clarify two issues and to expand on a few of the initial thoughts and their reactions.  As a starting point, I want to consider the following comment left by “Mary”:

What about an employer forcing their religious beliefs onto their employees? My daughter is a nurse and works at a catholic [sic] hospital. She is not Catholic and feels birth control should be a woman’s decision. The woman has the right to decide when she wants to start a family. She was surprised when she found out that birth control was not part of the insurance program. She has been buying it on her own, and it is not cheap. What about those who can not afford to purchase birth control? Viagra is covered under the insurance program, and that is health care? Don’t think so. I’m not surprised that the article and comments here are all by men. It is not your body and you should not make the decision for women who want to use birth control.

It seems to me that this misses the point I was initially trying to make, and I take responsibility for any lack of clarity in my presentation.  To make up for this, I want to consider Mary’s argument from two perspectives.  Both perspectives will consider Mary’s assertion that women have the right to use birth control.  First, I will temporarily grant Mary this assertion and re-present the argument that it still does not make it right to force Catholic hospitals, Catholic-owned businesses, or Catholic-run insurance companies to cover contraception.  Second, I will challenge Mary’s assertion by arguing that women don’t in fact have the “right” to oral contraceptives.

1.  What if Mary is Right?

What if we temporality lend credence to Mary’s statement that women have the right to use birth control?  At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I will direct you back to my initial analogy of gun ownership.  I firmly believe in the right to bear arms, but this in no way means that I believe the government should purchase a gun for me, still less does it mean that the government to force my employer to purchase a gun for me.  There is a difference between the right to posses and use something and the “right” to have it at no cost to ourselves.  This distinction has been lost in the national conversation.  Even if Mary is correct that women have the right to use oral contraceptives, it still leaves me wondering why the cost for this should come out of the employer’s pocket or the pocket’s of the insurance companies.

Allow me to illustrate this point with another analogy.  I think all of us can agree that the human person has the fundamental right to eat food.  Should our employers then be required to provide us with our weekly groceries?  Should they be required to give us vouchers with which we can obtain meals?  Correct me if I am wrong here, but I thought the point of employment was to provide labors with a fair and honest wage, and the wage earners then get to decide how to spend those wages.  Think here for a minute how you would feel if instead of providing you with a paycheck, your employer gave you vouchers for very specific kinds of food.  Is this not a restriction of freedom rather than its expansion?

Actually, when you see the contraceptive coverage in this light, I think you will come to see that having the employer/insurance company forced to cover it is actually the more inequitable scenario.  Allow me to explain.  First, understand that contraception itself is not “free.”  It is a product, and as such it has a cost associated with its production.  If an employer is forced into providing this coverage for all employees, the cost of the plan will be effected somehow.  I will leave it up to the actuaries to weigh in on how this cost works out, but the fact remains that the cost needs covered in some form or another.  Contrary to popular belief at the moment, money cannot be arbitrarily created out of thin air.  (This is a more complicated way of putting the age-old adage, “Nothing in life is free.”)  Now, once the employer has this cost added to the plan, his budget must take that into account somehow, which will translate eventually into wages in some form or another.

Why is this inequitable?  Because it effectively means that all employees will suffer the economic effects of some people choosing to use contraceptives.  Of course, I am not naive enough to think this is a dollar-for-dollar transaction.  Rather, the costs will be spread out through actuarial means.  Nevertheless, would not a more “fair” system be to not cover contraceptives, to pass on the savings in the form of wages and salaries, and to allow those women that choose to use oral contraceptives under Mary’s claimed “right” to do so?

This is precisely what happens with both food and guns.  The employer pays the employee, and the employee then decides what to spend his or her wages on: food, guns, or oral contraceptives.  I would think that the advocates of “choice” would prefer this system anyway, for in taking money in the form of wages and then making an active choice how to spend the money, is that not a more powerful statement than having an employer (by means of government coercion) tell you how you have to spend your wages?  Said differently, the problem with Mary’s “right to contraception” plan is that is actually takes away the right not to purchase contraception – it results in less choice, not more.  If the insurance plans are forced to cover it, all employees are forced to purchase it, although some will choose to leave their supply at the pharmacy counter.  In effect, Mary’s argument actually reduces choice and freedom.

Two other points are worth considering here.  First, Mary claims that contraception is expensive, and that is why insurance companies should provide it “for free.”  The problem with this is the illusion of “free.”  It is basic economics here, something that seems to be absent from the Obama administration’s manner of administrating.  As I pointed out above, the production of contraceptives costs money, and to think that this cost will not be passed on eventually to the employees is naive at best.  The insurance companies are not going to take this “bottom line” hit – their very bright actuaries will work to makes sure that the cost is covered in the premiums charged.  The employer won’t take the “bottom line” hit either.  They employee likes to think of wages and benefits in two separate categories, but to the employer they are both part of a compensation package, and they both cost money.  Whatever is added to the cost of medical insurance will necessarily be made up for in salaries.  Of course, it won’t be right away, but it will be reflected in future salary negotiations.  Anyone who has been a part of contract negotiations knows that it is never simply about salaries and wages.  The “bottom line” will eventually be covered by all employees.  Thus, Mary’s daughter will end up paying for the contraception anyway through lower-than-would-be salaries.  When insurance plans cover something like contraception, it does not “save” the employee money, it simply forces them to spend some of their money in a particular way.

An analogy here is a local collect some years back that “gave” all entering Freshman an iPod.  On the surface, it seems like a “free and generous” gift.  However, the university is mindful of its finances, which means that the cost of this iPod is somehow or other figured into the cost of tuition.  Seen in this light, it is not a “free gift,” but rather forcing all entering Freshman to purchase an iPod.

Returning to the forced purchase of contraception, even from a women’s dignity perspective, I would think that most would find this reprehensible.  It is as if the government is saying, “We don’t trust that you will spend some of your money on contraception, so we are going to force you to spend it just to be sure.”  Once more, apply this to something like food.  It would be like your employer, under government coercion, withholding part of your wages and instead giving you food vouchers for specific items that the government deems “essential” to “healthy eating.”  (Actually, the more I think about it, the more fitting this analogy is.)  Wouldn’t it be better to have the money passed on in the form of wages to allow the individual the right to choose how to spend it?  Once you understand that you will be paying for the contraception in some form or another, does not the whole thing sound rather insulting?  In fact, I do something similar with my kids allowance: I give them a certain sum of money, and then I mandate that they put a portion of it in the Church basket on Sunday.  Why?  Because without the mandate, they won’t do it.  Why?  Because they are children.  When it comes to the forced purchase of contraception, the government is treating women as if they are children: they don’t trust that you will purchase contraception on your own, so they are going to make you purchase it.  (This is what they are doing with the health care mandate itself, by the way.)

The other more obvious problem is that this also forces women who chose not to use contraception to carry plans that cover it, thereby essentially purchasing it themselves (one the cost of the plan is passed to the employee in the form of not-as-high-as-they-would-be wages).  In this way, then, the whole issue is not about the right to obtain contraception, it is about the right not to purchase contraception.

Further, Mary brings up the idea of Viagra coverage.  There is an obvious difference, pointed out by one commenter, in that Viagra is correcting a bodily system that isn’t functioning as it should (and is thus much closer to actual “health care”), whereas birth control is doing nothing of the sort.  However, I will say that in this case I agree with Mary.  I also think that the government should not force insurance companies to cover Viagra, but that the employer should simply pay salaries and wages to its employees  and allow them to choose how to spend their money.  The difference here is that, to my knowledge, the government is not doing this in the case of Viagra.  In fact, it may help to clarify the outcry over the contraceptive mandate to imagine the vitriol reactions that would surface if the HHS mandate required the coverage of Viagra.

2.  But in the End, Mary is not Right.

All of the previous argument is null and void however, if Mary is not correct in her assertion that women have the natural “right” to use oral contraceptives.  In order to address this, we must first re-think the whole notion of “freedom” and “rights.”  The problem with our pluralistic society is that everything is couched in terms of “rights,” and further that this terms is never fully defined.  Even so, a discussion bases solely on rights, defined or undefined, could never actually be consistent, because “rights,” understood in simple unqualified terms, will necessarily lead to situations of “competing rights.”  In this case, we end up arguing over which has precedence: the “right” to religious liberty or the “right” to use oral contraceptives.  When we find ourselves at the inevitable impasse of unqualified and competing rights, the only thing left to decide a “winner” is pure power.  Whichever “party” finds itself in control will force its priority on the populus, and this is exactly what we see happening with the Obama administration.

The difficulty here is that freedom is not the random ability to choose between contraries.  Rather, it is the ability to choose the good.  Servais Pinkaers gives a great illustration of this in his book Sources of Christian Ethics by giving the example of a well-trained piano player.  An individual who has no respect for the “rules” of music and the instrument is “free” to bang randomly on the keys (a “freedom of indifference”), but a trained pianist who has been taught the “laws” and “nature” of the piano is able to create music, a freedom that is much more authentic (a “freedom for excellence”).

The moral life is not much different than the musical arts.  We are created with a purpose, a sort of definition of what it means to be “fully human”, what the Greeks called a telos.  We are “free” insofar as we act in a manner consistent with what it means to be human.  In a dilapidated view of freedom, we are of course able to act arbitrarily.  But such a view is not authentic freedomAuthentic freedom is found when we act according to our design, according to the natural law inscribed on our hearts.

Understanding the natural law is the only way to avoid the inevitable conflict of arbitrary and competing rights.  The only “right” we have is the right to act according to our design, to act in a way that is authentically human.  Religious liberty falls generally under this one “right” because we know that we need to freely pursue and accept God.  One can never be coerced into faith (even if the “faith” into which they are coerced is objectively “true”).

The question then is, does an individual have the “right” to use artificial contraception?  Does the use of contraception allow an individual to be more “fully human.”  From a Catholic perspective, the answer is clearly, “No.”  Now, it is not my intent here to defend the Church’s teaching on contraception – numerous arguments far better than what I could produce have been written about this already.  My point here is much simpler: we cannot approach this argument purely from some abstract and ill-defined notion of “freedom” and “rights”, but rather must conceive (pun fully intended) of “rights” and “freedom” under their proper telos of natural law.

I will give only one attempt at an argument against the “right” to oral contraceptives.  I mean this not as the only, and maybe not even as the best, but I do think is it the most important one to publicize: oral contraceptives are abortifacient.  It is in the very design of the pill that on the off chance (the measure of which is hotly debated) that fertilization occurs, the lining of the uterus is renders unstable so as to prevent implantation.  In this case, a newly created human person is destroyed – a life is ended.  Now, the fundamental “right”, if we are to speak in these terms, is the right to life.  Understanding the notion of “freedom for excellence,” the path towards fulfillment as a human person, or the ability to choose the good … none of this is possible without the possibility of living in the first place.  (Another “silver lining” to this tragic situation in which we find ourselves is the mere mentioning of this fact on national television by those members of the Episcopacy (un)fortunate enough to land an interview.  It is about time the terrible truth about abortifacients in oral contraceptives gets more press.)

This is not the best argument against the “right” to use oral contraceptives, because it is conceivable (there is nothing worse than the same pun twice in one article) that someday the pharmaceutical companies will develop an effective oral contraceptive that is not abortifacient.  Even then, seen in the light of Catholic teaching, there will still not be a “right” to use such medication to prevent pregnancy, the prevention of which drives a wedge in the very definition of marriage which by its nature is both unitive and procreative.  In doing so, contraception thereby does not allow a couple to strive towards their fulfillment as human persons in their marital vocation.  (For marriage, after all, is a vocation, and hence a “path to fulfillment.”)  Nevertheless, it the abortifacient argument is an effective argument here and now, because oral contraceptives here and now are abortifacient.


Random Thoughts on the HHS Rule

So much has been written about the HHS rule and its “compromise” that I hardly think I have much to add to the conversation.  Nevertheless, there are a few points that I think have been missing form the debate, even in Catholic circles.  Allow me to take a brief moment to give a relatively disconnected trio of issues that just may help to spark some more conversation.

1. Religious Liberty is an Individual Freedom.

It seems to me that the focus of the national Catholic conversation has been on the Obama administration’s violation of the freedom of religion by forcing Catholic institutions such as hospitals and universities to provide employees with contraceptives and sterilizations, a practice that is in clear contradiction to the teachings of our faith.  While this is certainly deplorable and the most overt violation of the First Amendment, what has been relatively missing from the dialog is that religious liberty is not merely a liberty granted to religious organizations.  First and foremost, religious liberty is an individual liberty.  Each and every citizen of our nation is guaranteed under the Constitution the freedom to practice one’s religion both publicly and privately and to not be coerced into violating our consciences by acting in a way contradictory to the tenants of one’s faith.

Thus, the HHS rule is not simply a violation against specifically religious organizations.  It is also a violation of the religious liberty of the individual business owner, Catholic or otherwise.  As a Catholic, the owner of a private business cannot, under the Constitution, be compelled by the government to pay for “medical” services that violate his or her faith, including contraceptives and sterilizations.  This applies not only to those companies that have a religious mission, such as EWTN or the Knights of Columbus, but also to the owner of a chain of restaurants, a manufacturing form, or an publishing company.  Further, it also applies to the faithful Catholic owner of a medical insurance company.  Forcing the insurance company to provide coverage for these services despite religious beliefs, is a clear violation of the protection guaranteed under the First Amendment.

My fear is simple.  If the conversation focusses exclusively on those organizations for which Bishops have direct involvement, we may very well see further “compromise” between the Obama administration and the USCCB, but tens of thousands of other Catholic business owners will be lost in the shuffle.  In fact, I will go so far as to say that even if the HHS does a complete 180 on the current issue, i.e. incorporating Catholic hospitals and universities in the exemption clause without the bogus compromise that forces the insurance companies to cover the costs and services … even then, the fight is not over.  Because even then there will be thousands of businesses who are not included in the exemption clause because business activities have no specifically religious purpose.  Yet these owners too have the right to practice their religion, and hence should not and cannot be compelled to act in a way contrary to their faith.

That being said, there is admittedly a certain advantage in focussing on overtly Catholic organizations like hospitals and universities.  First, they are the most obvious cases of government intrusion in the religious sphere.  Second, they have high profile leaders, i.e. the episcopacy, that will be forced to take a stand.  Yet still, we should not for a minute think that the battle ends with these organizations.  Each and every one of us is entitled to religious liberty as an American citizen, and forcing a Catholic (or other religious) business owners to pay for plans that include contraception and sterilization is very much a violation of this liberty.  The problem is compounded, of course, if the business is a medical insurance company.

2.  There is a Silver Lining.

The felix culpa effect never ceases to amaze me.  God can bring good out of the most heinous evils, the case and point being the crucifixion.  The silver lining to the current HHS tragedy is the unified effort of the Catholic Episcopacy.  While the thought that the Obama administration feels that it can abuse its power in this manner terrifies me, the response by the Bishops has given me great cause for joy.  When the Bishop’s letter was read from the pulpit two weeks ago, the congregation applauded.  It is a powerful moment for the Church.

Our Church, after all, thrives on persecution.  It is precisely in the midst of being “kept down” that we can rise up against tyranny.  Such is the lesson of the Cross.  There is a quote from 2010 that has been circulating recently, in which Cardinal George of Chicago says, “I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison, and his successor will die a martyr in the public square.”  Whether or not the Cardinal is prophetic remains to be seen, but such an “exaggeration” may not be so exaggerated after all.

In light of this, I would encourage those whose Bishop was one of the hundreds that wrote a letter and had it read to send a note of gratitude.  Yes, it was a coordinated effort, but it was the coordination that made it so powerful and effective.  While Friday’s “compromise” is manipulative and nothing really close to a compromise, it seems clear that even this minimal response would not have happened had it not been for the organized outcry.

3.  “Health Care” is Being Redefined.

My final point has been mentioned by several others, but it warrants reiteration.  There is a not-so-subtle redefinition of “health care” in this whole debate.  There is a certain amount of irony that under the president’s health care bill and the accompanying HHS ruling, I will not be able to receive Tylenol or toothpaste for free, but women will be able to receive birth control and abortifacients for free.  Tylenol is a drug that actually tries to cure something that is “wrong” with the body, and toothpaste is authentically “preventative” in terms of dental health problems.  Yet birth control and abortifacients have little to do with the health of the body.  In fact, they are often used for reproductive systems that are otherwise heathy.  They are designed to take a perfectly healthy and well-functioning bodily system and stop it from functioning how it should.  Since when did fertility and pregnancy become a disease?  Since when is birth control more “preventative” than toothpaste and abortifacients more of a “cure” than Tylenol.

Whether we agree or disagree on the morality of birth control is not the relevant question here, nor is whether or not we agree or disagree on the “right” of a woman to take these drugs.  The Catholic Church has always been clear on this, but it seems to me that there is something else at issue here.  Even for those who condone the consumption of these drug, it is a rather large leap to insist that someone else pays for it.

Let me give an analogy.  I believe firmly in the right to bear arms.  However, I do not believe the the government should provide a gun to every citizen who wants one.  Moreover, I don’t believe that my business owner should be forced to provide each of its employees with a gun.  Yet this is precisely what is happening with the HHS rule.  Even if an individual thinks they should have the right to use oral contraceptives, how does that translate to insisting that the government forcing employers and insurance companies to pay for it?  The only answer is to misclassify the contraceptives as “health care.”

I have two clarifications before I sign off, mostly to ensure that I am not misunderstood.  First, I understand quite clearly that oral contraceptives are occasionally prescribed for reasons not having to do with birth control.  This is emphatically not what I am talking about, and such an issue requires a separate conversation.  For my own part, I am of the firm belief that non-contraceptive methods such as NaPro technology have had far more positive results at a cost that is a fraction of many of the contraceptive techniques in dealing with serious medical issues.  Yet again, this is another topic for another time, and is not my intent here.  However, the media has successfully and unfortunately recast the debate in this light, causing a decent amount of public confusion over the issue.  (In a way it reminds me of a person who believes in abortion on demand up until the cutting of the umbilical cord who insists of focussing the debate on the “hard” cases of rape and incest.  In the HHS debate we have people who believe that the government can force employers to cover contraceptive for every purpose but insist of focussing just on those cases where they are not being prescribed for contraceptive purposes.  It is both misleading and disingenuous.)

Second, I am in no way claiming that an individual does have the right to use contraceptives (for reasons of birth control), less so abortifacients.  For my own part, given the objective immorality of such acts, such a “right” would be in direct contradiction of the natural law in which we were created.  My point was only that even if one believes in the right to birth control, it still doesn’t mean that employers or insurance companies should be forced to provide it anymore than they should be forced to provide their employees with firearms.

The main point is simple: birth control is not health care because fertility is not a disease.


The Triple Meaning of Epiphany

The Visit of the Magi

The Feast of Epiphany is preceded in importance by only three other feasts during the liturgical year. (As a good exercise, see if you can name the three feasts in order of their liturgical importance.) The connection between Epiphany and Christmas is not only in the fact that it is twelve days after the celebration of Christ’s Nativity, but also in its modern emphasis on the visitation of the Magi to the Christ Child. Historically, however, the connection is stronger still. Laurence Paul Hemming, when describing the history and theological significance of Epiphany in his book Worship as Revelation, reminds us that the feast of Christ’s birth was originally celebrated on January 6th rather than the current date of December 25th. “[F]ollowing the arguments of Sextus Julius Africanus … the actual birth of Christ was redated to December 25th …. So important was the date of the feast of the 6th January, however, that the established feast of that date remained, in both the East and the West.”

The Wedding at Cana

Once the feast was redated, what was the purpose of reserving January 6th as a day of particular reverence? It might seem at first that the date of January 6th was kept for purely historical or nostalgic reasons. On the contrary, Hemming indicates that the Feast of Epiphany originally had a triple significance: The Nativity (together with the visitation of the Magi), the Baptism of the Lord, and the commemoration of the Wedding at Cana. Thus, even with the transference of the Nativity to December 25th, there were two remaining significations of the feast of Epiphany: the Baptism of Jesus and the commemoration of the Wedding at Cana. Interestingly enough, “[t]he least of the significations of the feast (so much so, that it gets no mention in the liturgies of the East) is the appearance of the wise men of Magi from the East, the so-called ‘three kings.’”

The connection between these three significations is evident in many elements of the liturgy, but perhaps the antiphon for the Benedictus on Epiphany shows this most clearly: “Today the Bridegroom claims his bride, the Church, since Christ has washed her sins away in Jordan’s waters; the Magi hasten with their gifts to the royal wedding; and the guests rejoice, for Christ has changed water into wine, alleluia.”
The Baptism of the Lord

The connection the Nativity shares with the Baptism of the Lord is more profound when we recall that the sacrament of Baptism is a celebration of heavenly birth. While Christmas Day is the celebration of the Incarnation, the earthly birth of Jesus, the Baptism of the Lord (as seen by Origin) is a celebration of the heavenly birth of the Savior, not in a temporal sense of course (because the Second Person of the Trinity is an eternal procession from the Father), but in an eschatological sense. There is, then, a connection between the Christmas-Epiphany cycle and the hypostatic union. The Christmas-Epiphany pair celebrates the union of the divine and human natures in the one person of Jesus Christ. Liturgically, we hear this celebration of the hypostatic union and its importance in our own lives in the Opening Prayers from Christmas, Epiphany, and the Baptism of the Lord.*

From Christmas – Mass of the Day: 

O God, who wonderfully created the dignity of human nature and still more wonderfully restored it, grant, we pray, that we may share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.

From Epiphany: 


O God, who on this day
revealed your Only Begotten Son to the nations
by the guidance of a star,
grant in your mercy, that we, who know you already by faith, may be brought to behold the beauty of your sublime glory.
From the Baptism of the Lord:


Almighty ever-living God,
who, when Christ had been baptized in the River Jordan
and as the Holy Spirit descended upon him,
solemnly declared him your beloved Son,
grant that your children by adoption,
reborn of water and the Holy Spirit,
may always be well pleasing to you.
The last example is reminiscent of the silent prayer the priest offers when pouring a drop of water into the chalice filled with wine: “By the mystery of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” With the wine representative of divinity and the water representative of humanity, the connection between the wine and water of Cana and Christ’s hypostatic union is made explicit.  (For a more detailed explanation of the signs involved at the Wedding at Cana, see a this commentary on the thought of Fr. Robert Barron.)
It should now be clear that “[t]he central importance of the Feast of the Epiphany is that liturgically we are brought to see the connections between the Incarnation and the Resurrection” (Hemming). In a certain sense, this feast recalls for us the entire Paschal Mystery. It is for this reason that in Rome (and in many other church’s throughout the world) it is on this day, the Feast of Epiphany, that the Deacon, after chanting the Gospel solemnly proclaims in sacred chant the dates of the next Ash Wednesday, Easter, the Ascension, Pentecost, Corpus Christi, and the following First Sunday of Advent.
The Feast of Epiphany, then, calls us to contemplate our own creation and its orientation to our new creation in Christ Jesus. While we may at first be drawn to thoughts of the three gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, the true gift of Epiphany is Christ’s gift of himself for our salvation. Therefore, the three gifts offered by the Magi should only be representations of our own gift of self to the Lord. As proclaimed in Gaudium et Spes (24), “[M]an, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.”
The universal call to holiness means that the mystery of Christ must become the center of our own existence. As with all things liturgical, the event of Epiphany effects what it signifies. While signifying our own divinization, the liturgy also brings about that divinization. Truly, through our Eucharistic participation in his incarnation-death-resurrection, we do “come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” However, like all sacramental effects, we must dispose ourselves towards the reception of the grace offered. Our attitude towards our Creator must first and foremost be that of openness to the gift, an attitude that recognizes the transcendent reality beyond us, that sees with the eyes of faith that we are actors in the great drama being played out in the cosmos. Let us pray for this disposition so that Jesus Christ might become an Epiphany in our own lives.


My Official Protest – A Two Part Announcement

Part I.  In gratitude for the authorial opportunity granted to me by The American Catholic, I would like to use this forum to host my official “Announcement of Protest.”  Let it be forth known that from this point forward, I am protesting.  The status quo has become too much of a status, and as for the quo … well, who knew what that ever really meant.  Yes, I am protesting, and as such, I am a protester.

Part II.  I would now like you to all join me in a round of congratulations.  Growing up in small-town Ohio, I never in my wildest dreams thought I would be named Time Magazine’s “Person of the Year.”  It is humbling, of course, to be in the company of George W. Bush, Pope John Paul II, and Henry Kissinger.  When I receive my plaque from Time, I will be hosting a party, and all of you are invited.

Part II(B).  As an added bonus to using an online forum for my official announcement, it turns out I have post facto been named “Person of the Year” for 2006.  This secondary plaque will be occasion for a separate, but equally elaborate, celebration, to which all of you are also invited.

Part II(B)(iv).  It is unclear at this point whether or not I won the same award post facto for the 1969 prize.  While certainly a “Middle American,” I was not yet born.  I have sent a request for clarification to the good folks at Time.  I will await the official word before scheduling the third celebration.

Part II(B)(iv)(e).  My MacBook Pro is under the impression that it should receive the 1982 prize.  I tried to tell it that this was just plain silly, but now it is officially protesting me, thereby potentially qualifying it for not one, but two prizes.  It has sent a clarification Tweet to Time.  In the event that it is correct, the computer can plan its own darn party.


Catholic Identity and the New Translation

The Collect for this Sunday should give us pause and a moment to think about Catholic identity.  Before giving you the new text, let’s take a gander at what we heard this past year:
fill our hearts with your love,
and as you revealed to us by an angel
the coming of your Son as man,
so lead us through his suffering and death
to the glory of his resurrection,
for he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Now, we could go through the Latin and point out the deficiencies in this translation, but there is something larger at stake here.  To see it, let’s look at the Latin, but more importantly the new translation.  The Latin text reads,
Gratiam tuam, quaesumus Domine,
mentibus nostris infunde,
ut qui, Angelo nuntiante,
Christi Filii tui incarnationem cognovimus,
per passionem eius et crucem 
ad resurrectionis gloriam perducamur.
Some people may already see the connection I am hinting at.  For the rest of us, myself included, reading the new translation brought the whole thing to light:
Pour forth, we beseech you, O Lord,
your grace into our hearts,
that we, to whom the Incarnation of Christ your Son
was made known by the message of an Angel,
may by his Passion and Cross
be brought to the glory of his Resurrection.
Who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.
The Angelus (1857–59) by Jean-François Millet
The above is the familiar prayer from the close of the Angelus.  The Angelus is the prayer of the Incarnation that has been recited by Catholics throughout the centuries three times daily: 6:00 am, noon, and 6:00 pm.  The prayer itself goes back at least 700 years, but probably even to the eleventh century or earlier.  In times past, it was one of the most familiar and celebrated prayers in our Catholic heritage, and as such it provided a distinctive mark of Catholic identity.  A priest friend of mine has often recalled the story of his family’s restaurant/bar on the east side of Columbus.  Growing up, every day when the noontime bells rang out from the Catholic Church across the street, everyone in the bar dropped what they were doing and said the Angelus.  Even those who were not Catholic sat in silence during the recitation of the prayer because they know if they didn’t, they would not be served.  This story is an illustration of Catholic identity.  If the same bells were to ring today, how many Catholics would know why, let alone be able to rattle off the words to the Angelus?
Having the Collect from the last Sunday of Advent taken from this timeless prayer is important for establishing the link between the ritual liturgy and the lived liturgy.  In the spirit of lex orandi, lex credendi, if congregations were to hear the Angelus Collect in the context of Mass, those familiar with it would be immediately placed in the presence of the three-times-daily ritual.  Conversely, if the Collect were to be used, more people would become familiar with the Angelus prayer itself.
Unfortunately, until now, the prayer has been disguised beneath a mistranslation.  I am someone who is very familiar with the Angelus, yet I never realized that the Advent Collect was one and the same.  Of course, there are others who have.  It only took a quick Google search to turn up and article from Fr. Zuhlsdorf written in 2004 (and reprinted in 2006) on precisely this issue.
I am not one to debate these chicken-and-egg questions.  Has the mistranslation led to an abandonment of the Angelus, or was the Angelus abandoned long before, and therefore the “retranslating” of the traditional words for the purpose of the Mass Collect was not seen as such a big deal?  Quite frankly, it is probably both.  Nevertheless, the fact remains that the loss of the Angelus is both a symptom and a cause of the loss of Catholic identity, and recovering the translation in the Roman Missal can go a long way towards the process of its restoration.  At the very least, it provides an impetus for a stellar homily.  (Imagine, actually, if the priest on this Sunday were to give a homily that begins with the Angelus and ends with an explanation of the term “consubstantial.”)
Let’s put it this way.  When I read the words for the corrected translation of the Collect from the First Sunday of Advent, my eyes “perked” up from line one: “Pour forth, we beseech you, O Lord…”  Imagine how much more will my ears do the same when, blessed be God, they hear the glorious recitation of this prayer this Sunday.  Who knows, maybe they’ll even hear the ever faint echo of the Angelus bells accompanying the text.

A Funeral of Sorts: The Last of the Old Translation

Last year on the First Sunday of Advent, I wrote a piece about the passing of the Propers in the soon-to-be-defunct translation of the Roman Missal.  While we had an entire year to say goodbye to the current Ordinary, each Sunday for the past year has presented us with a set of Propers that would never be heard again.  As we have journeyed over the course of the last fifty-two weeks through the new translation of the Ordinary, we didn’t give nearly as much attention to the once-a-year texts.  Yet these prayers, belonging mostly to the priest, are some of the most exquisite and exciting changes in the new translation of the Missal.

Today is the very last Sunday of the lame-duck translation.  Never again will we hear the translation with which most of us grew up.  While many parishes have already incorporated the people’s Ordinary into their Sunday celebrations, this weekend marks the end of the rest.  (Of course if you are one for “long goodbyes,” there is always the opportunity to go to Mass during this week for a series of last hurrahs.)

It seems timely, then, to visit the Collect (or the “Prayer-formally-known-as-the-Opening-Prayer”) for the very last Sunday in the liturgical year: The Solemnity of our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe.  The current rendition reads:
Almighty and merciful God,
you break the power of evil and make all things new
in your Son Jesus Christ, the King of the universe.
May all in heaven and earth
acclaim your glory and never cease to praise you.

As far as these things go, it is not all too bad.  Yet the new and improved version does quite a bit more to emphasize the majesty of our Lord and of this great celebration:
Almighty ever-living God,
whose will is to restore all things
in your beloved Son, the King of the universe,
grant, we pray,

may render your majesty service

that the whole creation, set free from slavery,
and ceaselessly proclaim your praise.  

May we, too, be set free from the slavery of a translation that was in desperate need of being cleansed of its iniquities, and may we ceaselessly praise our Lord and Savior, the King of the universe, through this great gift that has been given to us: The New Translation of the Roman Missal.

As a complementary bookend to this last Sunday of the last year of the old translation, I give you the article written, nearly a year ago, on the first Sunday of the last year of the old translation:


A Funeral of Sorts … every Sunday for the Next Year
November 28, 2010

I feel like each Sunday this year presents a funeral of sorts … a passing of Mass texts that will never be heard again.  Rather than mourning this passing, my heart finds solace in the assurance that these texts will rise again in a more perfect form with the “advent” of the new translation.  While we have a full year to pay our respects to the passing Ordinary, there is a rejoicing of sorts that the current Propers have reached the end of the proverbial line: their days are numbered, their time has passed, and blessed be God for that.

Today, the First Sunday of Advent, provides the first example of such a passing.  The Collect, in Latin, reads:
Da, quaesumus, omnipotens Deus,
hanc tuis fidelibus voluntatem,
ut, Christo tuo venienti iustis operibus occurrentes,
eius dextrae sociati, regnum mereantur possidere caeleste.
The current, Lame Duck Translation (to borrow the phrase from Fr. Zuhlsdorf) … what we all heard at Mass this morning … reads:
All-powerful God,
increase our strength of will for doing good
that Christ may find an eager welcome at his coming
and call us to his side in the kingdom of heaven.
The new translation will read,
Grant your faithful, we pray, almighty God,
the resolve to run forth to meet your Christ
with righteous deeds at his coming,
so that, gathered at his right hand,
they may be worthy to possess the heavenly kingdom.
The Mickey Mouse rendering of 1973 lacks a certain dignity when compared with the more new and improved translation.  The later is more faithful to the Latin, but more importantly, it has an aesthetic quality that leaves the Lame Duck version grounded, or perhaps six feet less than grounded.
Let us not prematurely break into the Dies Irae for the passing of the old, decrepit, 1973 translation, for while it seems to have met its certain death with the passing of today’s Sunday liturgy, it pains me to say that its ghost will live on.

Those who regularly pray the Liturgy of the Hours know that the Collect from Mass is often used in the Proper of Seasons and Proper of Saints for the Divine Office.  This is done deliberately, of course, and provides the faithful a perfect opportunity to unite the sanctification of the day found by saying the Liturgy of the Hours with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the source an summit of the liturgy.  If one is faithful to all the hours, the Collect for the First Sunday of Advent is recited four times today (Office of Readings, Lauds, Daytime Prayer, and Vespers), as well as once yesterday (Vespers for the Vigil).

Once the new translation takes effect, there will be a disconnect between the Collect from the Sunday Mass and the Collect found in the breviary.  I sincerely hope that the Bishops allow the new translations to be used during public recitations of the Liturgy of the Hours in order to remedy this disconnect.  Is it possible that new breviaries are printed?  Possible, yes.  Plausible, no.  In the absence of a new printing, a supplement of Collects could be printed to be used alongside the Psalms and Readings from the breviary until such a time that ICEL decides to retranslate the Liturgy of the Hours.  (Don’t hold your breath, by the way.)

All things considered, however, this should not distract us from the burial of these texts that we experience this year.  At least in terms of the Holy Mass, the 1973 “Opening Prayer” for the First Sunday of Advent has met its maker, kicked the bucket, bit the dust, bought the farm, breathed its last, and indeed … croaked.  This is not a cause for mourning, but rather a looking forward to the day of resurrection; for the Latin soul of this prayer is indeed filled with grace, so when it rises again as the 2010 Collect, it will be gloriously triumphant.  We could, in fact, say that that new translation renders the prayer “worthy to possess the heavenly kingdom.”

One Sunday down, 51 more to go.   UPDATE: 51 Sundays down, 1 more to go.

The Paradoxes of Economic Measures

I am not an economist, and I don’t claim to have anything close to useful knowledge in the area.  However, like many areas in which I have little knowledge, I find that I have lots of question.  Economics is a particularly interesting field in that two “experts” can examine the same problem and come up with solutions that seem diametrically opposed.  I put “experts” in quotes because I sense that the discrepancy of opinions lies more in politics than it does in the discipline itself.  By its very nature, the science of economics intersects the arena of politics, hence the phrase “economic policy.”  The down side of this is that even the “orthodox” positions, those on which nearly all economists agree, can be colored for political purposes.  In general, it seems that any social science has something of this.  For whatever reason, the “hard” sciences produce less public controversy.  Perhaps this has to to with the relative ease of experimentation in the hard sciences when compared with the social sciences.  Perhaps it has to do with the fact that the social science have as their subject the human person, which by nature cannot be reduced to overly rationalistic or mechanistic behavior.  Not being an expert in either hard sciences or social sciences, I can only speculate.

Yet despite my near total lack of experience and absolute total lack of expertise, it strangely enough doesn’t seem to hinder me from thinking about paradoxes in the field, or at the very least “perceived” paradoxes.  One such paradox that has kept me up at night, (well, let’s not go that far), is the obsession that political economics has with using GDP/GNP for measuring the health of the nation’s economy.  Now, let’s not go off the deep end here; I am not saying to toss the measure out the window altogether.  But consider the following relatively useless mental exercise.*

We all have household tasks to perform: mowing the lawn, washing the dishes, cooking meals, even watching our children.  We do perform these tasks willingly, and no one pays us to perform them.  The services themselves don’t contribute to the GDP.  Now, one day, my neighbor and I become concerned about the GDP and decide to do something to help it out.  We agree to take some of these services, say mowing the lawn and washing the dishes, and hire each other to do them.  I pay him $20 to mow my lawn and an additional $30 to wash my dishes every week.  Thus, I am hiring him for $50 a week, or $2600 per year.  Now, let’s be honest, with five kids, I can hardly afford to pay someone to do these menial tasks for me, so I get my neighbor to agree to pay me $50 per week to mow his lawn and do his dishes, coincidentally just enough to cover my new annual $2600 expense.  In total, we have collectively contributed $5200 per year to the GDP.  Yet our lives have not changed in the least, neither in income or standard of living.  Further, our workload has not really changed at all.  Yet we have now contributed to the GDP.

To make the mental exercise even more absurd, after a month of doing this, we decide that it is a real inconvenience.  My neighbor simply doesn’t want to walk across the street to mow my lawn and do my dishes.  However, he doesn’t want to give up his new-found $2600 profit.  He decides to subcontract this work out to a poor soul who will be willing to do the work for half the price, $1300.  That poor soul ends up being me.  In other words, I am paying my neighbor $2600 a year to mow my lawn and do my dishes, and he in turn is paying me $1300 to do this work for him.  I, in turn, play the same game with him.  He pays my $2600 a year to mow his lawn and do his dishes, and I hire him for $1300 a year to do his own work.  The net result of this is as follows.  We have added $5200+$2600 = $7800 a year to the GDP, yet the net change to my fiscal situation is $0 (likewise for my neighbor), and the net change in my workload is 0.  (I am mowing my own lawn and doing my own dishes, just like I was before we had our brilliant idea.)

To exaggerate this even further, because we have now become obsessed with our own brilliance, my neighbor and I decide to up the ante by multiplying all of our payments by 1,000,000.  (Of course, we will have to take out loans for this, but once the banks recognize our raw intelligence and entrepreneurial spirit, they will be fighting to give us loans.)  We have now contributed to the GDP $7,800,000,000, or 7.8 billion dollars, all for mowing our own lawn and doing or own dishes.

While I am admittedly unclear on the exact accounting of such an experiment (for instance should the subcontracting fees be deducted from the profits), something of this already exists when trying to compare the GDP in the United State over long periods of time.  In the last two-hundred years, the GDP in our county has grown enormously, yet the figure overstates the growth in production over the that time period.  Two-hundred years ago, far more people (most people?) produced their own food and many of their own possessions (clothing, etc.).  As self-produced, these activities and products were “off the ledger” of the GDP, so to speak.  Perhaps the biggest change came when many women moved from the home into the workforce.  Activities once done for no monetary exchange were now part of the GDP calculation: housekeeping, child care, cooking, etc.  The affect of this was essentially one of accounting: much of this activity moved from “off the ledger” to “on the ledger.”  The activity itself didn’t necessarily change, nor did the production of goods and services (yes, this oversimplifies the situation), yet the GDP was grossly affected by the accounting move.

The same sort of game can be played with unemployment rates.  The unemployment rate is calculated by dividing the number of unemployed individuals by the size of the labor force.  An “unemployed individual” is defined as someone who is not currently working by is willing to work for pay.  In the midst of our recession/double-dip-recession/ whatever-the-experts-are-calling-the-current-situation, no number has been tossed around the news media more than the unemployment rate.  However, this number is just as easily manipulated.  For instance, let’s take every household in which one of the two parents stays home decides simultaneously, “I want a job.”  All of a sudden, even though the financial situation of the country has not changed, the unemployment rate goes through the roof.

On the other hand, suppose every one of these parents decides to engage in a deal such as between me and my neighbor.  Maybe they decide to pay each other to watch their own children for the day.  Now we have the opposite effect: the unemployment rate goes down.

In the interest of attempting some sort of pseudo-rational analysis, I suppose that these numbers are not entirely absurd if only because people don’t act in ways proposed by my two mental exercises.  Nevertheless, it does make one question how much stake we put into a system that relies almost solely on quantifying economic behavior, which is essentially human behavior.  I want to be careful here to once again separate the discipline of economics from the politics of economics.  I cannot in good conscience speak for a discipline of which I have so little experience, but I can speak to the way in which numbers such as GDP and unemployment rate are used (and abused?) by the news media which makes its way into my living room.

In the interest of giving the discipline itself the benefit of the doubt, I will assume that it has as its goal to both measure and increase the well-being of citizens.  (Actually, does not every discipline have this as a sort of telos, each with its own methodology?)  If so, should not the measure of economic well-being somehow take into account how well the beings actually are?  And surely this is a larger question than one of just exchange of dollars and cents.

Further, even if the discipline limits itself to the question of economic well-being (however that is defined), surely the two mental experiments show that the current methods are not at all adequate, despite their preferential treatment in popular conversation.  I have a sneaky suspicion that respectable economists realize this in their theoretical work, yet because it is theoretical and altruistic (I use that word as a compliment), the message is drowned out in the overly-pragmatic popular press which likes to grab on to easily digestible but often misunderstood or misused measurements such as GDP and unemployment rate.

In the current climate in which we find ourselves, there seems to be an inherent contradiction in terms.  More than any other time in my short history, folks are talking about not spending money, about being responsible with their finances.  In short, people are quite concerned about being economical with their resources, financial or otherwise.  Yet according the measure such as GDP and unemployment rate, acting in a way we deem “economical” is one of the most un-economic things we can do.  I speak here not form the level of an individual consumer, for the act of “not spending” often involves investing, even if it be in something as simply as a savings account, which by any measures grows the economy.  As a good friend wrote to me, “Rather than focusing on wisdom, responsibility, and prudent management of resources, the popular discussion focusses single-mindedly on improving questionable measures of national well-being;  As a result, gimmicks rule the conversation and common-sense gets lost in the commotion.”**

I beg you not to misconstrue my point – I am not suggesting that there is no place for numerical measures in the life of the economy.  I am not even saying that there is no place for the specific measures of GDP and the unemployment rate.  Rather, I am suggesting that such measures not “rule the conversation.”  The conversation should instead be ruled by solid philosophy.  And as a good Aristotelian, I suggest we begin with the highest ideas, such as the “happy life”, or “fulfillment.”  Rather than measuring raw dollars and percent growth in spending/income, perhaps we should be thinking about how fulfilled people are, how much closer (or farther?) are they from being “fully human”, and how economic policy can work to bring about the “happy life”.  Did not the philosophers of old define a good society as one in which the greatest number of individuals are able to achieve their telos as human person?  Surely economic measures and policies should keep the proverbial end in sight if they are to be anything that remotely resembles a success?


Soap box abandoned.


*  This exercise was not of my own creation.  It is a modified version of a situation describe by Joseph Pearce in Small Is Still Beautiful: Economics as if the Family Matters.

**  I am highly indebted to Bill M. for reviewing this post for me.  Unlike myself, Bill actually does have some background in economics, and my ideas, while more than likely still flawed, are at least clearer because of his input, much of which made its way into the final version.  In some cases, I have used his wording.  Nevertheless, any errors in perception or thinking are still mine and mine alone.


Calculating Divorce

Several days ago, Creative Minority Report posted a video interview with comedian Steven Crowder on the state of marriage in our country.  Before I get on with my own comments, I should say that Crowder makes several good points, and overall his spiel is very pro-marriage.  Give it a watch if you haven’t already seen it.

The “myth” that caught my attention is the one about a 50% divorce rate.  If it is indeed a myth, then I have certainly been taken in by it.  For, not only have I believed it for several decades, but I have found myself irresponsibly quoting it without having an actual source.  (Such is the case with myths, yes?)  I suppose the purpose of this post is not much better, because still don’t have a source.  However, the mathematician in me go to thinking about how one might go about “measuring” the rate of success in marriage at a given point in time.  Rarely do numbers lie, but people (and people’s lack of basic statistical understanding) often lie with numbers.  I made a similar point a while back with the the myth of the “99% effectiveness” of Natural Family Planning.

In other words, studies are often perfectly clear on their methodology, but most people have no idea what the studies actually measure, and they misapply the end results.

Let’s think about two different methods one might use to measure the current “divorce” rate.

The first method is the obvious one.  It is entirely accurate, but altogether impractical.  If we want to know the divorce rate for marriage that occurred in the year 2011, we take all those who were married and wait until one of two things happen: the couple divorces or one of the spouses passes away.  The marriage in which a couple passes away are deemed “successful”, whereas the ones that divorce are not.  With a simple division, we have our divorce rate.  Unfortunately, this means we have to wait until at least a half a decade in order to report on the success of marriage in any one given year.  For, although it is unlikely that a couple who is married past fifty years will end up divorcing, we cannot be sure – so we must wait it out.  (Of course, at any given moment, we could count the number of divorces and say, “The divorce rate for 2011 is at least x%.”)  This method seems to assume that divorce is a product of cultural attitude at the time of marriage.  In other words, we blame the failure of marriage on the year in which the marriage occurred.

The second method is the flip side of the first method.  It is quite easy to do, but perhaps not all that accurate.  We count the number of marriages that occurred in 2011, and we count the number of divorces that occurred in 2011, and we divide.  The upside is that all the information is available at the close of the year.  The down side is that we are comparing apples to oranges.  (Additionally, in theory very strange results could occurs, such as divorce rates above 100% .. unlikely, of course, but in this scheme, theoretically possible).  This method assumes that marriages fall apart based on current cultural attitudes, not on the attitudes in the year in which the couple was married.  Perhaps that is better, yet there still seems something wrong with counting divorces and marriages with an entirely different set of couples and then attributing the result to that particular year.

To illustrate how these calculations might differ, let’s come up with some hypothetical data.  I admit that I am over-simplifying the situation, but the goal is to point out the difference that results between the two calculations, not to give an accurate description of divorce in our country.  Because it is easier to begin with method one, we will assume that we have a 40% divorce rate that never changes.  Further, we will assume that 10% of the marriages end within the first year, 10% in the second year, 10% in the third year, and then 5% per year in years 4 and 5.  After year 7, no more divorces occur for that cohort.  (We attempt here to model the phenomenon that marriages that last tend to last!)  We will also assume for the sake of simplicity, that the number of marriages climbs by 10% every year.  Finally, we have a hypothetical starting data for the year 2000.  In order to compare results, we will need to wait through at least one cohort length, but we will extend it to two cohorts, or ten years.  Thus, our data looks like this

(My apologies for the small image.  Open it in a new window to see the full calculations and results.)

I have only totaled the years after 2004 because this is the first year we have all the divorce information (due to our assumption that no divorce takes place after five years of successful marriage).

Let’s look at the year 2005.  We know from our assumption that Method One yields a 40% divorce rate.  What does Method Two yield?  Method two suggests that we divide the number of divorces by the number of marriage in that year.  This gives us 505,510/1,610,510 = 31.4%.  There is quite a difference, yes?  (An 8.6% difference to be precise.)

Let’s see what happens as we progress through 2010.  Remember, we decided to keep a constant “Method One” divorce rate of 40%.  It turns out, and I’ll leave the reader to check this, that the 31.39% rate continues into the subsequent years.   (As a challenge, can you prove that a constant “Method One” rate yields a constant “Method Two” rate?)  Why is Method Two lower?  Because it is counting divorces with a higher cohort than might be appropriate – a number that ends up in the demoninator.  Of course, this is because the number of marriages is increasing throughout the years.  (Again, as a challenge, can you prove that if the number of marriages stays constant, there is no difference between the Method One rate and the Method Two rate?)  If the number of marriages decreases, then the Method One rate is less than the Method Two rate.  As an example, suppose that the number of marriages decreases by 10% rather than increases.  The Method One rate is still 40%, but the Method Two rate comes out to be 53.2%.

If you are savvy with a spreadsheet or a programming language, you can play around with the Method One rate and the way in which it is broken down (I broke 40% into 10%, 10%, 10%, 5%, and 5%) to see just how far apart the two method can get.  For instance, when I broke down the 40% into 10%, 10%, 5%, 5%, 5%, 1%, 1%, 1%, 1%, and 1%, the Method One 40% rate came out to a Method 2 rate of 30.1%.  The farther into a marriage that divorce is allowed to go in our model, the farther apart the two calculations get.  (Incidentally, that was with a 10% growth in marriages every year.  With a 10% decline, the 40% rate led to a 57.4% Method Two calculation.)

There are, of course, all sorts of auxiliary points.  For instance, the comedian seemed to suggest that people were afraid to get into marriage at all, in which case the rate we are really interested in is the divorce rate for first time marriages.  This will clearly be different than when we take into account all marriages.  Further, while it might be true that divorce numbers (in any calculation) might be dropping, let us not conclude that this means that marriage itself is becoming more successful.  It could mean that the number of marriages itself it dropping (or at least not growing as much as it once was).  With an increase in cohabitation, I would have to imagine that we are experiencing less marriage than perhaps would have been predicted given the rate of growth of population.  More to the point, those who chose not to get married are also those that would have been more susceptible to divorce.  (This is my intuition, not the result of actual data.)

Completely tangental, perhaps a more interesting number, especially as an educator, would be to look at the percent of the population who are the children of either a divorce or an out of wedlock relationship.  Conversely, this would mean looking at the percent of the population whose parents are either still together or have suffered the loss of a spouse.  If we are talking about the impact of divorce on future society, this seems like a valuable number to know, and the calculation is much more straightforward the the divorce rate.

I can’t say that I have read the research in front of me that proposes a near 50% divorce rate.  Likewise, I haven’t seen the research that backs up the numbers quoted by Steven Crowder.  What I can say is that it is not altogether unthinkable that both numbers were arrived at in scientific papers, each calculating the rate of divorce differently.  What this means for our casual conversation is this: try to understand what a statistic means before quoting it, and I include myself in this docile chastisement.


The Holy War: Mac versus DOS

With the resignation of Steve Jobs as CEO of Apple Corporation, it seems timely to revisit a classic piece of prose from Umberto Eco.  Many have seen this, some have not.

For my own part, I have always been an Apple guy at heart.  My family’s first computer was an Apple IIGS, purchased in 1986, retailing at just under $1000.  My first personal computer was a Power Macintosh 5260 during my Freshman year at college.  (By the way, had I taken my $2000 and invested it into Apple stock rather than buying the computer, it appears that the stock  today would be valued over $100,000.)   Shamefully, I admit that I went through a three year stint on a Sony Vaio that I obtained as a gift.  To this day I still question the decision that a free PC was better than a paid-for Apple.  Nevertheless, I returned to Apple when the Vaio crashed and burned, and needless to say, Steve took me back with open arms and a big smile of forgiveness.  Yes, folks, I am a revert.

Umberto Eco wrote “The Holy War: Mac versus DOS” on September 30th, 1994, for the Italian weekly publication Espresso.  I altered his title in my post as we are seemingly past the point where the three letters D-O-S mean anything to the average consumer.  His piece, however, is brilliant, and confirms what I have always suspected.  Moreover, with the stepping down of Apple’s “pope” and the “election” of his successor, Tim Cook, the nostalgia of this article that I read years ago was fueled by its recent mention by Whispers.  (Yes, I am well aware that I am taking the analogy entirely too far.)  Enough of all that, though.  Without further delay … Umberto Eco:

The Holy War: Mac versus DOS

by Umberto Eco

Friends, Italians, countrymen, I ask that a Committee for Public Health be set up, whose task would be to censor (by violent means, if necessary) discussion of the following topics in the Italian press. Each censored topic is followed by an alternative in brackets which is just as futile, but rich with the potential for polemic. Whether Joyce is boring (whether reading Thomas Mann gives one erections). Whether Heidegger is responsible for the crisis of the Left (whether Ariosto provoked the revocation of the Edict of Nantes). Whether semiotics has blurred the difference between Walt Disney and Dante (whether De Agostini does the right thing in putting Vimercate and the Sahara in the same atlas). Whether Italy boycotted quantum physics (whether France plots against the subjunctive). Whether new technologies kill books and cinemas (whether zeppelins made bicycles redundant). Whether computers kill inspiration (whether fountain pens are Protestant).

One can continue with: whether Moses was anti-semitic; whether Leon Bloy liked Calasso; whether Rousseau was responsible for the atomic bomb; whether Homer approved of investments in Treasury stocks; whether the Sacred Heart is monarchist or republican.

I asked above whether fountain pens were Protestant. Insufficient consideration has been given to the new underground religious war which is modifying the modern world. It’s an old idea of mine, but I find that whenever I tell people about it they immediately agree with me.

The fact is that the world is divided between users of the Macintosh computer and users of MS-DOS compatible computers. I am firmly of the opinion that the Macintosh is Catholic and that DOS is Protestant. Indeed, the Macintosh is counter-reformist and has been influenced by the ratio studiorum of the Jesuits. It is cheerful, friendly, conciliatory; it tells the faithful how they must proceed step by step to reach — if not the kingdom of Heaven — the moment in which their document is printed. It is catechistic: The essence of revelation is dealt with via simple formulae and sumptuous icons. Everyone has a right to salvation.

DOS is Protestant, or even Calvinistic. It allows free interpretation of scripture, demands difficult personal decisions, imposes a subtle hermeneutics upon the user, and takes for granted the idea that not all can achieve salvation. To make the system work you need to interpret the program yourself: Far away from the baroque community of revelers, the user is closed within the loneliness of his own inner torment.

You may object that, with the passage to Windows, the DOS universe has come to resemble more closely the counter-reformist tolerance of the Macintosh. It’s true: Windows represents an Anglican-style schism, big ceremonies in the cathedral, but there is always the possibility of a return to DOS to change things in accordance with bizarre decisions: When it comes down to it, you can decide to ordain women and gays if you want to.

Naturally, the Catholicism and Protestantism of the two systems have nothing to do with the cultural and religious positions of their users. One may wonder whether, as time goes by, the use of one system rather than another leads to profound inner changes. Can you use DOS and be a Vande supporter? And more: Would Celine have written using Word, WordPerfect, or Wordstar? Would Descartes have programmed in Pascal?

And machine code, which lies beneath and decides the destiny of both systems (or environments, if you prefer)? Ah, that belongs to the Old Testament, and is talmudic and cabalistic. The Jewish lobby, as always….


Why the Youth are Rioting

I beg your patience over my absence, and I ask for your prayers.  In June I accepted an administrative position with a new school district.  While this is a very good opportunity in so many ways, I have never in my life found myself so overwhelmed.  I can only say this: teaching was so easy!

At any rate, while this post is not original by any means, I couldn’t help but share the content of an article I ran across today.  The liberal left often likes to pin social unrest on the ills created by the conservative right.  You know how the goes … the economy is in the pits because of right wing policies put in place by George W. Bush … because people don’t have jobs they become socially discontent … because they are socially discontent they rise up “against the man”, so to speak.  Rarely are people actually held accountable for their actions.  Instead, we live in a culture that seeks to pin people’s actions on something external to the human will, something other than sin (dare I even use the word).  Actually, this is nothing new.  It is merely a modern version of ancient Christian heresies that seek to separate the body and soul, in this case to separate the external actions from the internal person.  How often as a teacher did I hear a student explain their dishonesty with, “I know I cheated, Mr. Tawney, but I am not a cheater.  I am a good person.”  The danger in separating our actions from our persons will be catastrophic for the world.  The Christian principle of sacramentality, understood here in its most general sense, says quite the opposite: the external is a reflection of the internal, and at the same time the external forms the internal.  This is true whether we are talking about the words of consecration (which are externally symbolic of the underlying reality and are simultaneously efficacious in bringing about the internal reality) or whether we are talking about the moral act.  Friends, we are how we act, and we act how we are.  When we stand before God, we will not be able to pin our sin on the social policies of one party or another.

I have rambled enough … more than I intended.  With that, I give you the motivation behind these thoughts: an article on the London riots.

The depressing truth is that at the bottom of our society is a layer of young people with no skills, education, values or aspirations. They do not have what most of us would call ‘lives’: they simply exist.

Nobody has ever dared suggest to them that they need feel any allegiance to anything, least of all Britain or their community. They do not watch royal weddings or notice Test matches or take pride in being Londoners or Scousers or Brummies.

Not only do they know nothing of Britain’s past, they care nothing for its present.

They have their being only in video games and street-fights, casual drug use and crime, sometimes petty, sometimes serious.

The notions of doing a nine-to-five job, marrying and sticking with a wife and kids, taking up DIY or learning to read properly, are beyond their imaginations.

Read the rest here.


Catholic Christianity and the Millennium: Frontiers of the Mind in the 21st Century

The past couple weeks I posted a summary and brief commentary on an address given by Francis Cardinal George at the Library of Congress in June of 1999.  While it didn’t spark that much debate, several people have written to me asking if I could upload the document, which appears to be absent from the internet as it stands.  (Yes, it is hard to believe, but there are some things that are not yet on the internet.)  I was, and still am, apprehensive about violating any copyright laws, either in letter or spirit.  While I am fairly confident that it is okay for me to post this, I wish also to make it publicly known that if Cardinal George, or any other who claim rights to this fine essay, wish it to be removed, I will do so immediately and with sincere apologies.

That is the “fine print,” if you will.

What follows is the speech in its entirety:  Catholic Christianity and the Millennium: Frontiers of the Mind in the 21st Century, an Address at the Library of Congress on June 16, 1999, by His Eminence, Francis Cardinal George.


Catholic Christianity and the Millennium: Frontiers of the Mind in the 21st Century


Fiat voluntas tua sicut in caelo et in terra, Secunda pars

The following is the second part to this post. It is recommended that you read the first part before reading the second part.  There has been some request for the original address given by Cardinal George.  I have been unable to locate it on the web and have not gotten around to scanning it in.  As soon as I get a chance, I will try to get to up and available, barring any unforeseen copyright issues.  For now, my humble comments and summary will have to suffice.


While the time from Augustine to Aquinas embodied a realization of Cardinal George’s incarnation metaphysics, things began to take a turn for the worse with Duns Scotus, a contemporary of Thomas. Scotus radically separated God from the world, and in so doing separated grace from nature. Instead of a metaphysics of participation, Scotus promulgated that, “God is no longer that generous power in which all things exist but rather that supreme being next to whom or apart from whom all other beings exist” (George, 15). Scotus begins what Descartes (through philosophy) and Luther (through theology) would complete. “In both its Lutheran and Cartesian manifestations, modernity assumes a fundamental split between the divine and the non-divine and hence implicitly denies the participation/communio metaphysics that had shaped the Christian world thought the ancient and medieval periods” (George, 16).

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Fiat voluntas tua sicut in caelo et in terra, Prima pars

The following is the first part of a gloss on an article I recently received from a friend. The second part will appear in a few days. I apologize for not having the full reference for it, but it appears to be an address by Francis Cardinal George given to the Library of Congress on June 16, 1999, titled “Catholic Christianity and the Millennium: Frontiers of the Mind in the 21st Century.” In light of the missing reference, the citations below are paragraph numbers rather than page numbers. I apologize ahead of time for those who have read or plan to read the article. While I have tried to give the Cardinal credit where due, a reading of his paper will reveal my blatant plagiarism.

The Thomistic scholar Etienne Gilson describes in The Unity of the Philosophical Experience the inevitable demise of a philosophy that ignores the highest question of being, i.e. metaphysics. In “Catholic Christianity and the Millennium: Frontiers of the Mind in the 21st Century,” Cardinal George argues for a specifically Christian metaphysics, or an “incarnation metaphysics.” This metaphysics begins with the “provocative claim” that is at the heart of Christianity. “In Jesus Christ, God has become a creature, without ceasing to be God and without compromising the integrity of the creature he becomes” (George, 3). The radicality of this Christian claim is evidenced by the history of heresies, most of which denied either the divinity or humanity of Christ, or in some cases, both, by arguing for a quasi-divine and quasi-human nature in the incarnated Lord. At least two Ecumenical Councils (Chalcedon in 451 and Nicea in 325) upheld the hypostatic union, the fact that, “in Jesus, the divine and the human unite without competition or compromise” (George, 3).

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The Beatitudes from the Gospel According to Luke, Tertia Pars

This is the third and final part of a three-part piece. The first part is found here, and the second part is found here.

4. Commentary on the Kingdom and Poverty

There are two goals for this final section. The first is to investigate what is meant by Christ’s phrase, “the Kingdom of heaven,” and the second is a reflection on why the here-and-now-ness of the kingdom has particular relevance for the blessing of poverty in Luke’s Beatitudes.

As stated in the previous part, Christ’s promise, “yours is the kingdom of heaven” immediately harkens back to His own proclamation, “The Kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the Gospel” (Mark 1:14-15). We have already seen the interpretation given by Origen/Pope Benedict, but let me diverge for a moment and examine one other interpretation. During the later half of the 20th century, a particularly secular view (held mostly in Catholic theological circles) of the Kingdom of God gained considerable ground (Benedict, 53). This position is motivated by the desire to apply Christ’s supposed message to the widest possible audience. It is a slow process of moving from any kind of specificity with regards to God’s people to a meaningless generality. Beginning with the rejection of Judaism in general (for in Judaism the focus is on a specific people), Christ, it is claimed, came not for a chosen subset of people, but for the individual; he came to establish a Church that is inclusive of all people. This desire for an all-inclusiveness is seen as violated by the Church in her so-called “pre-Vatican II nature,” a nature that was guilty of “ecclesiocentrism.” Thus, to continue this search for all-inclusivity there was a move towards “Christocentrism” (and away from the Church herself) which strived for a less “divisive” message. However, the next two steps were quick to follow. Since Christ belongs exclusively to Christians, perhaps we should be concerned only with the general idea of God, hence a “theocentrism.” The final step was a surrender of the very idea of God, since even God can be a cause of division among people and the various religions of the world. In the end, we are left only with man, and in this stripped down theology, the “Kingdom” is simply a name given for a world governed by “peace, justice, and the conservation of creation” (Benedict, 53). The task of religion, it is held, is to work in harmony to bring forth this kingdom on earth.

On one hand, this seems laudable; it finally allows all people to enjoy Christ’s message in harmony, to appropriate it in their own belief systems and world views. On the other hand, there is not much left of the message itself; it has been stripped down to what amounts essentially to secular humanism.

To rescue Christ’s message from such deprivation, we must first recognize that the Lord never preaches simply a “Kingdom” but instead preaches the “Kingdom of God” or the “Kingdom of Heaven.” “When Jesus speaks of the Kingdom of God, he is quite simply proclaiming God, and proclaiming him to be the living God, who is able to act concretely in the world and in history, and is even now so acting…. The new and totally specific thing about his message is that he is telling us: God is acting now – this is the hour in which God is showing himself in history as its Lord, as the living God, in a way that goes beyond anything seen before. ‘Kingdom of God’ is therefore an inadequate translation. It would be better to speak of God’s being-Lord, of his lordship” (Benedict, 55-56). This is consonant with the prior observation that the Hebrew word malkut and the Greek word baseleia are action words. It is also consonant with the use of the present tense in Luke 6:20.

To further our understanding of Christ as the Kingdom of God incarnate, let us examine Saint Thomas Aquinas’ observation that man’s final cause is identical with his efficient cause, i.e. from God we have come and to God we must return. Our fulfillment, our telos, is in nothing other than God himself. In order to be fully man, we must give our entire existence back to the very source of our existence. Man is unique in the world in that he alone can actively strive away from his proper telos. That is, man can, by the gift of free will, choose not to give himself back to God. To do so is to be in-human, to remain unfulfilled. Given that man’s proper end is God himself, we can understand why Vatican II says, “Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to himself and makes his supreme calling clear” (Gaudium et Spes 22). Finally, if what it means to be human is to give of ourselves to God and to possess God deep within our souls, and if the Kingdom that Christ promises is none other than His very self, we can conclude that the promise, “Blessed are ye poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven” can be understood as, “Blessed are ye poor, for yours is Christ,” or rather, “Blessed are ye poor, for you have already within you what it means to be fully human.” When understood this way, if it is true that the poor already possess within their being their own fulfillment, then is is abundantly clear why they are “blessed.” *

It remains now to try to come to grips with why poverty brings with it such blessing. What is it about poverty that is so authentically human? We must first make a critical distinction between poverty and destitution. All human beings are entitled to have their basic needs met. The fact that millions are living in our world in the state of destitution, where hunger and disease ravage entire cultures, is a great sin against humanity, and it cannot be ignored that Christ was relentless in his call for a preferential option for the destitute. Every time we withhold our cloak from the naked or our food from the hungry, we perform sin not only against the human person, but also against Jesus himself. Poverty, on the other hand, is not identical with destitution. The Latin word used in the Nova Vulgate is pauperes. It is true that this is best translated as “poverty,” but what is perhaps more noticeable is that the Gospel does not use the word egenus or the word inops, both of which could be translated as destitute (though inops is more often rendered as “helpless”). Nor did the author use a form of the verb destituo (forsaken). Poverty (pauperes), as opposed to destitution, is the state of having only what one needs. It is this state of simplicity that Christ calls “blessed” and to which he attaches the promise of the kingdom of heaven.

As the Fathers of the Church unanimously observed, to advance in the life of virtue, poverty must come first. This is due to the ontological difference between God and the world. It is the unique Christian distinction that God is absolutely other to the world. God is not part of the world, nor is the world as a whole equivalent to God. Because of this distinction and because of our call to return to God, this world becomes God’s gift to us to be used as a means for this return. Simply put: God is the end; things are means to this end. On one hand, when one is deprived of the basic needs of life, this physical state of destitution necessarily brings with the challenge of spiritual destitution (for the human person is a body-soul unity). This is precisely why we must work to eliminate destitution in the world, not primarily because of the physical sufferings, but first and foremost to allow God’s people the freedom to worship Him in health of body, mind, and soul **. On the other hand, the possession of goods beyond that of basic necessity brings with it the risk of using goods as ends in themselves. It is interesting that, while Christ cured the sick, made the blind see, made the deaf hear, to my recollection, he never once made a poor man rich.

Christ, in this first beatitude, does not say, “To those who are impoverished, I say to you, do not think that this most unfortunate state is permanent, for the day will come when I will relieve you of this poverty and make you rich.” Instead, he says, “Blessed are you poor.” Poverty itself bring with it blessing, or rather sanctity. If the possession of goods beyond that of basic needs bring with it the risk of treating this excess as an end in itself, then it follows that the more we possess, the further we find ourselves from pursuing our proper end: God. The further we are from our proper end, the less human we find ourselves. We are now in the position to reason our main thesis.

In proclaiming, “Blessed are ye poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven,” Christ is making an ontological observation. Poverty brings with it the simplicity to give oneself to God, which is the final cause of all of humanity. In other words, poverty provides a more authentic human experience. In this, there is blessing.

Of course, all of this is more pressing given the large percentage of humanity that are living in the state of destitution, a state that potentially hinders their ability to know, love, and serve God. It becomes all the more crucial for us to divest ourselves of our excesses to satisfy the basic needs of others. However, we must be careful to avoid misrepresenting the Gospel as a kind of call for a distributive justice. Virtue is always performed in the heart of the individual. We cannot expect political agendas and government policies to force virtue upon the hearts of its citizens. To do so ignores the authentic freedom that is at the core of the dignity of the human person. The ends of such policies can only be atheistic ends, as history has demonstrated. This does not mean that charity and generosity cannot be cultivated among groups of people, but the Church has consistently and wisely taught the principle of subsidiarity, that things are best handled by the smallest competent authority.

In summary, I would be remiss if I did not clarify one last thing. The state of poverty is not purely material; material poverty alone does not bring salvation. Recall Basil’s comment from the second part, “For many are poor in their possessions, yet most covetous in their disposition; these poverty does not save, but their affections condemn.” On the other hand, neither is poverty is purely spiritual. There are those who want to reduce Christ’s call to poverty to the mere detachment from goods. This too is a distortion of the Gospel message. Recall also from the first part the two critical Greek manuscripts (Papyrus 75 and Codex Vaticanus) deliberately avoid the phrase “poor in spirit” and instead opt for simply “poor.”

Finally, there are many other aspects of the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount that could enrich this discussion, such as the connection the Beatitudes share with the presentation of the Ten Commandments. Many writers far more learned than myself (Pope Benedict, Servais Pinkares, and Thomas Dubay to name only but a few) have already done so; thus, I humbly leave the reader to take up the various texts on this topic for further spiritual reading.


* As a side note, the present possession of our eschatological fulfillment is at the heart of the Christian virtue of hope. See Pope Benedict’s second encyclical letter Spe Salvi for a more lengthy discussion of this.


** In Pope Benedict’s first encyclical letter, Deus Caritas Est, he warns against separating the preaching of the Gospel from humanitarian efforts to alleviate people from their sufferings. Primarily, we are called to preach Christ crucified.


The Beatitudes from the Gospel According to Luke, Secunda Pars

What follows is the second part of a three-part piece. The first part can be found here.



3. Patristic Background from the Catena Aurea

Latin for “The Golden Chain,” St. Thomas Aquinas’ Catena Aurea is the Angelic Doctor’s compilation of commentaries by the early Church Fathers on each of the four Gospels. What follows is a gloss of the provided commentaries for Luke 6:20-23.

We begin with Ambrose. While I have not said much about the first part of verse 20 (“And he, lifting up his eyes on his disciples”), Ambrose asks, “What is lifting up the eyes, but to disclose a more hidden light?” Christ is calling his hearers to a deeper understanding of God and His plan for mankind. If I could, allow me to briefly return to the Greek for the word “Behold” (idou). An alternate translation of the imperative is “Look!” or even “See!” While Luke is using a common Greek word, this command to “See!” is reminiscent of Christ’s observation, “they have eyes but cannot see.” The Lord is not simply calling us to pay attention, but rather he is calling us to see with the eyes of faith. He is speaking directly to the heart of man. In a way, he is telling his listeners, “My friends, you have heard the Prophets, you have read the Scriptures, but you know not their fullness. I will, if you let me, show you the fullness of the heavenly mysteries. Everything you think you know is only the beginning. You have heard the ethic in the Ten Commandments, but I call you to the ethos of these Beatitudes.”

Ambrose next observes that Luke mentions only four blessings, while Matthew eight. Nonetheless, “those eight are contained in these four, and in these four those eight.” He ties each of the blessings in a specific way to a particular virtue. Poverty yields temperance because it “seeks not vain delights.” Hunger leads to righteousness in that he who is hungry suffers with the hungry, and this brings righteousness. In weeping, man learns to weep for those things eternal rather than those things of time, which requires the virtue of prudence to distinguish between the two realms. In “Blessed are you when men hate you,” one has fortitude, a fortitude which allows one to suffer persecution for faith. These virtues are then paired with Matthew’s Beatitudes in order to demonstrate continuity between the two Gospels: “temperance therefore brings with it a pure heart; righteousness, mercy; prudence, peace; fortitude, meekness. The virtues are so joined and linked to one another, that he who has one seems to have many.”

In both cases, each evangelist has placed the blessings of poverty first. For Ambrose, this is indicative that “it is the first in order, and the purest, as it were, of the virtues.” In other words, the subsequent blessings depend on the condition of being impoverished. If one is overcome by the desires of the world, he “has no power of escape from them.”

In a similar fashion, Eusebius observes, “But when the celestial kingdom is considered in the many gradations of its blessings, the first step in the scale belongs to those who by divine instinct embrace poverty. Such did He make those who first became His disciples; therefore He says in their person, ‘For yours is the kingdom of heaven.’”

Cyril agrees: “After having commanded them to embrace poverty, He then crowns with honor those things which follow from poverty.”

While Basil is consistent in placing the primacy of the blessings with that of poverty, he also warns that the blessing is not automatic but requires the correct disposition. “[N]ot everyone oppressed with poverty is blessed, but he who has preferred the commandment of Christ to worldly riches. For many are poor in their possessions, yet most covetous in their disposition; these poverty does not save, but their affections condemn. For nothing involuntary deserves a blessing, because all virtue is characterized by the freedom of the will. Blessed then is the poor man as being the disciple of Christ, Who endured poverty for us.” Perhaps this is why Cyril notes that in Matthew’s Gospel, the Lord says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”  I have noted above the textual variants in this regard, but it should be recognized that the Fathers in no way see “poverty of spirit” as mere detachment that can exist even in the absence of actual material poverty. Instead, they see material poverty as a pre-requisite for poverty of spirit, a disposition that must be had to convert the pre-existing material poverty into a blessing.

Each of the Fathers then shows how poverty leads to the other blessings in Christ’s sermon. Cyril says, “It is the lot of those who embrace poverty to be in want of the necessities of life, and scarcely to be able to get food.” Continuing, “[P]overty is followed not only by a want of those things which bring delight, but also by a dejected look, because of sorrow. Hence it follows, ‘Blessed are you that weep.’” Finally, Theophilus indicates, “He then who on account of the riches of the inheritance of Christ, for the bread of eternal life, for the hope of heavenly joys, desires to suffer weeping, hunger, and poverty, is blessed. But much more blessed is he who does not shrink to maintain these virtues in adversity. Hence it follows, ‘Blessed are you when men shall hate you.’ For although men hate, with their wicked hearts they cannot injure the heart that is beloved by Christ.”

This gloss of the Catena Aurea is sufficient for examining the portion of the Beatitudes dealing with poverty. It is evident that each of the represented Fathers sees poverty as having a place of primacy among the beatitudes. This is indicated by both Gospel writers in their placement of the virtue first in their respective lists, lists that are renderings of the very words of Christ. However, we must not ignore the second part of the beatitude: “for theirs is the kingdom of God.” For patristic background on this, we depart from the Catena Aurea and take up Origen.

Origen referred to Jesus as the autobasileia, that is, the Kingdom in person. In other words, for Origen, the kingdom is not a geographical location; Jesus himself is the Kingdom, or rather the Kingdom is Jesus. Pope Benedict XVI in Jesus of Nazareth insists (in light of his reading of Origen) that the phrase “Kingdom of God” is a “veiled Christology.” The Holy Father states, “By the way in which he speaks of the Kingdom of God, Jesus leads men to realize the overwhelming fact that in him God himself is present among them, that he is God’s presence” (Benedict, 49). Delving deeper into the linguistic nuances of the word “kingdom,” Pope Benedict (quoting Stuhlmacher) says, “The underlying Hebrew word malkut is a nomen actionis [an action word] and means – as does the Greek word basileia [kingdom] – the regal function, the active lordship of the king. What is meant is not an imminent or yet to be established ‘kingdom,’ but God’s actual sovereignty over the world, which is becoming an event in history in a new way” (Benedict, 55).

It should be noted that the Holy Father is not actually speaking of the Sermon on the Mount when he makes these linguistic observations. Instead, he is engaged in exegesis of Matthew 1:14-15, when Jesus says, “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the Gospel.” Nonetheless, the Greek word basileia that is used in Matthew 1 is the same Greek word found in Luke’s first beatitude. Therefore, not only are the linguistic observations still relevant for the current project, but establishing the connection (both spiritually and linguistically) between Christ’s Proclamation of the Kingdom and the Sermon on the Mount will be of prime importance in the final part. I will have more to say about Pope Benedict’s thoughts in this matter, but this mention of Origen and his interpretation of the phrase “kingdom of God” as the person of Jesus is sufficient for this section on patristic background.


The Beatitudes from the Gospel According to Luke, Prima Pars

My life has been insanely crazy lately as I am in the middle of a major career change.  This in part explains my absence from these pages.  My apologies, but hopefully the following three-part piece will be of interest to the readers of American Catholic while my work schedule settles down into something more manageable, or at least something that allows for more time dedicated to writing.


1. The text and an introduction.
Luke 6:20-26

20. And he, lifting up his eyes on his disciples, said: Blessed are ye poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.

21. Blessed are ye that hunger now; for you shall be filled. Blessed are ye that weep now, for you shall laugh.

22. Blessed shall you be when men shall hate you, and when they shall separate you, and shall reproach you, and cast out your name as evil, for the Son of man?s sake.

23. Be glad in that day and rejoice; for behold your reward is great in heaven. For according to these things did their fathers to the prophets.

24. But woe to you that are rich; for you have consolation.

25. Woe to you that are filled; for you shall hunger. Woe to you that now laugh; for you shall mourn and weep.

26. Woe to you when men shall bless you; for according to these things did their fathers to the false prophets.

Thus begins the greatest sermon ever composed. These blessings are commonly referred to as the Beatitudes, which stems from the Latin word beati, meaning “Blessed.” Servais Pinkares writes, “[T]he sermon on the Mount has been one of the chief sources of spiritual renewal known to the Church through the ages. Its fruitfulness is amply attested by its constant reappearance. There are few passages in Scripture that touch the Christian heart more surely and deeply, or that have a greater appeal for nonbelievers. Then Sermon on the Mount was one of Ghandi?s favorite texts; he reproached Christians for their neglect of it” (The Sources of Christian Ethics, 135). As familiar as the words are to Christians and non-Christians alike, there is one word in particular that can very easily go unnoticed: is. In verses 21-23, every blessing promises a future reward for a present circumstance. Consider the first half of verse 21: “Blessed are ye that hunger now; for you shall be filled.” This indicates that those who experience hunger during their earthly time will be filled in the eschaton. The first beatitude (verse 20), however, seems to deliberately use the word is: “Blessed are ye poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”

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