Sunday, December 5, 2010

Review: Discovering Mary

Today I got around to reading Discovering Mary, by David Mills. The book is succinctly written--super easy read. It’s also structured very well and simply--chapters that are on target, broken up further into common questions. At one point in the book, David says that the book is adapted from an FAQ he wrote, and it certainly has that feel, which is actually a good thing for this purpose.

If I had to criticize something, it would be that at times his answers/explanations come across as bald assertions, and he doesn’t provide notes to back them up. I’m not saying what he says isn’t true or founded in research, but it would be nice for those who want to dig deeper on specific topics to have the notes with specific references. With that said, he does provide a solid bibliography at the end of the book for further reading, so that’s helpful.

What I did like, apart from the brevity and succinctness, is that I think he hits the crucial common questions and is very honest, saying things like isn’t that stretching things a bit? Honest sentiments that I know Protestants have--and myself, being a convert as well and having had these same thoughts. Heck, I still think that sometimes, but as David rightly points out, sometimes the Church sees better than She can explain. I’m coming up on 10 years as a Catholic this coming Easter, and I have to agree with him that actually living and experiencing the Faith with its Marian dimensions makes a big difference from just reading the propositions, evidence, and argumentation. That’s certainly been my experience with, for example, the rosary.

I was a tad unsatisfied with the devotions coverage. It’s not that he didn’t mention the “issues” we converts have, but that the answers were a bit too superficial for me--at least, I still feel a bit uncomfortable with some of the apparent hyperbolic language that Catholics use in regards to Mary--even though we all know the actual doctrine is sound. As David said at one point, the Church goes to great lengths to reinforce that we should not worship Mary or ascribe her true Divine nature, but at the same time, I still find myself kind of bristling at words like “our life, our sweetness, and our hope,” and I still don’t get “star of the sea.”

That’s just me, though; not sure if there is anything besides living with it longer that will help. I did learn a few things, especially in the titles and devotional chapters. Probably my favorite line in the book--and the one thing to take away from an apologetical perspective, is this:

You can’t love Mary only for herself. It makes no sense.

So compact but so meaningful, so true. Also, I sometimes have to remind myself that we’re talking about Jesus’ mom, and he’d probably be happy for us to compliment her, even if we do get a bit over the top at times.

Good book. Easy read. Covers what he says he’ll cover, well, and concisely. Recommended.

Thanks to the Catholic Company for sharing this book with me. As part of the FTC rules, I have to be clear that they gave this book to me in order to elicit a review. The Catholic Company is also a great source for first communion gifts and baptism gifts.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Speaking of Abominations

Some Christians who have personal problems with homosexuality are all too eager to quote Leviticus 18:22:

You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; such a thing is an abomination. (NAB)

They might shiver with self-righteous titillation as they roll that last word around on their tongue. What they seem to not realize is that it's not the only thing that Holy Scripture presents to us as an abomination. Consider the following:

There are six things the LORD hates, yes, seven are an abomination to him; Haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood; A heart that plots wicked schemes, feet that run swiftly to evil, The false witness who utters lies, and he who sows discord among brothers. (Proverbs 6:16-19, NAB)

So haughty eyes (pride) and lying are also an abomination, as well as troublemaking.. Consider also:

Do you not know that the unjust will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators nor idolaters nor adulterers nor boy prostitutes nor sodomites nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-10, NAB)

See how heterosexual adulterers and fornicators (i.e., those having sex outside of marriage) are grouped along with "sodomites" as well as thieves, the greedy, drunks, slanderers, and, in general, the unjust? Or:

Now the works of the flesh are obvious: immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, rivalry, jealousy, outbursts of fury, acts of selfishness, dissensions, factions, occasions of envy, drinking bouts, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Galatians 5:19-21, NAB)

What? No mention of homosexuality in this list, but it does include simple impurity? hatreds? (By the way, what does abomination mean? Look it up.) Outrage? Acts of selfishness? Any kind of immorality?? That seems a bit harsh, no?

Well, yeah, it would be harsh were it not for the grace of God freely given to us through Jesus Christ, which is the real message of the Gospel. As St. Paul said elsewhere, "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God," but he immediately goes on to say, "they are justified freely by his grace through the redemption in Christ Jesus." (Romans 3:23-4) Likewise, the passage from 1 Cor above immediately continues, "That is what some of you used to be; but now you have had yourselves washed [in baptism], you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God." And the passage from Galatians goes on to list the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control--these are built up in us by the Holy Spirit as we cooperate with the grace of God!

The message of the Gospel--the Good News--is that we can have hope, despite how utterly screwed up we are. It's not a matter of tritely saying "hate the sin; love the sinner." No, if we hate anything, it is all sin, and not because we find it personally distasteful but because we recognize that it pulls us away from our One True End, that is, it is a disorder.

You see, we are rightly and naturally ordered toward God--our End, our Goal--and all sin is by definition that which draws us away, that is, orders us in a direction away from Him. When the Catholic Catechism speaks of homosexuality as intrinsically disordered, this is what it means. In much the same way, it speaks of masturbation as a grave disorder, I might add.

The Catechism goes on to say that "Every sign of unjust discrimination in [homosexuals'] regard must be avoided," which is what I'm driving at here: If you condemn homosexual acts, you should in the same breath condemn selfish acts in general as St. Paul does, which includes any sexual acts that are not ordered towards procreation within the context of marriage. There is no room for special/more intense condemnation of homosexual acts in a rightly considered view of human sin.

But more importantly, Christians need to shift their energies from condemnation, disgust, or even hate and instead invest their energies in exhortation, compassion, and, indeed, charity. Yes, we do need to defend marriage, but frankly, that defense needs to be more encompassing and holistic--towards eliminating cohabitation before marriage, supporting greater fidelity within marriage, supporting people in natural family planning, working to reduce divorce, and generally working to better promote a holistic, positive understanding of human sexuality whose goal is to make people happier and healthier in this life as well as properly ordered toward eternal life with God. (The two go hand in hand.)

A defense of marriage that focuses exclusively on preventing the civil recognition of homosexual unions as "marriage" is almost certainly doomed to fail in the long run, and in the short run, it distorts the Christian Gospel and offers a terribly negative, lopsided, unattractive, and unhealthy view of the essentially positive Christian understanding of sex (and life in general!).

Sunday, July 18, 2010


As a lay Dominican, I am a member of a venerable, 800-year-old Catholic religious order known as the Order of Preachers. This membership indicates a calling, a vocation to live my life according to the Rule of the Lay Fraternities of St. Dominic and in doing so promote accountability for my solemn promise to live that way: to study, to pray, to contemplate--in community--and share what I can with the world. They do not indicate that I speak in an official capacity, either for the Order or for the Church, nor are they any kind of guarantee that what I say is without error.

What I share on this blog and elsewhere is my personal take on all this stuff. If any of it is right or true, it's only because I happen to be correctly representing the truth; if any of it is not, it's because I am imperfect and only see the truth dimly. All I can guarantee is that I do my best to represent what is good and right and true, and hopefully my being a lay Dominican helps me to do that more often than not.


Mr. Ambrose Little, O.P.

(Br. Albertus Magnus, in the Order)

P.S. If you're interested in learning more about being a lay Dominican, check out our province's Web site.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Defending the Indefensible?


This post has been long in coming but has just been delayed cuz I've been too busy. I told Bertrand I'd respond in due time; it's a good thing that can mean basically anything. :)

You see, few months ago, Bertrand Le Roy posted his thoughts on a post I wrote about four years ago that very briefly dealt with the Inquisition (which really is properly called inquisitions as they came and went over a period of several hundred years in different places, but I'll stick with the standard singular for convention's sake). Now, please bear with me because I intend not to get into debating the finer points of the inquisitions; I just need to set up the context for this post.

Apparently, Bertrand didn't read even the rather short article I referenced, by historian Thomas F. Madden, much less consult the book I referred to, but he seems to have just grasped onto the summation I gave, which without the context provided by my references is hard to come to terms with. In fact, although I can't recall my thoughts at the time exactly, I tend to think I was being a bit controversial intentionally to tease people to read the references or, at least, explore the subject more thoroughly than accepting the popular mythos about it.

Since it spawned such a heartfelt response by Bertrand, though, I feel he deserves a thorough response. So prepare yourself for some slow reading!

Chapter I

First of all, let me quote the referenced article by Professor Madden:

When most people think of the Inquisition today what they are really thinking of is the Spanish Inquisition. No, not even that is correct. They are thinking of the myth of the Spanish Inquisition. Amazingly, before 1530 the Spanish Inquisition was widely hailed as the best run, most humane court in Europe. There are actually records of convicts in Spain purposely blaspheming so that they could be transferred to the prisons of the Spanish Inquisition.

Now I've read more than the average person about the Inquisition. But having been trained as an historian (that's what my Bachelor's degree is in, and I graduated summa cum laude), I would by no means call myself a historian of the Inquisition. I've barely scratched the surface, and frankly, using the professional study of history, one could spend a career researching and writing on the topic.

And yet, I do think I've spent more time trying to delve into the reality of the historical situation than most have; plus, my studies in school focused in large part on the high and late medieval period, so I rely on that to further contextualize my understanding of the subject--it's why I can read what I have and think, yeah, that sounds about right for the thinking of the period, and feel relatively confident in the conclusions of these other historians who actually have studied the topic professionally.

As a trained historian, I'm also cognizant of the bias introduced both by earlier Protestant and Enlightenment writers who are largely responsible for the myth as well as that of the Catholic historians who possibly are too indulgent and forgiving while, in my opinion, rightly trying to balance and correct the myth.

On to Bertrand's comments.. I'll cite three paragraphs that I think sum up his position.

No, really, you shouldn't defend Inquisition and pretend it was a benevolent organization. Please, be an adult and recognize when something you or an organization you belong to screwed up. It will elevate you, whereas the defensive position brings you down to the level of the guilty.

I cannot think of a single reason why one would unconditionally support the worst that religion has done and still does today. There are plenty of religious people who embrace humanism as something fully compatible with their faith, and who are not embarrassed to recognize evil when they see it.

Instead of apologizing for the indefensible, you should be the first to forcefully reject the parts of your own religion that are archaic, barbaric and evil. That should only reinforce the core of it, which I understand is supposed to be love.

First off, let me say I appreciate that Bertrand, unlike the militant atheists in the Dawkins and Hitchens crowd, seems to recognize there is goodness in religion, even if it only extends in as much as religious people share his humanistic values. It is good in debate to seek common ground!

Let me say unequivocally that the Catholic faith is a humanistic faith in that we see all of creation as inherently good because it comes from God whom we believe to be infinitely good. One need not go far to see reiterated pronouncements by bishops on the dignity of human life and its inviolability these days in the face of what the Venerable John Paul II termed "the culture of death" that does what Bertrand accuses "three great monotheistic religions" of doing: separating humanity into two categories--those who have full human rights and those who don't ("sub-human").

For The Big Three, Bertrand claims that we use heresy or apostasy as the condition upon which human rights are predicated. I won't speak for Judaism or Islam, but I will say this is not true for Christianity, nor has it ever been--even in the inquisitions.

To judge that a person is deserving of punishment is a matter of justice, not a determination that they are sub-human or lacking in human dignity. The very fact that the accused in the inquisitions were tried--that the inquisitions themselves were courts of justice--bespeaks an implicit recognition of the dignity of the accused and their right to a trial (keep in mind the inquisitions began pre-Magna Carta), a trial that tries, even with imperfect means, to determine truth and mete out justice. Even if you disagree with the premise that religious belief is a matter for public judgment (and the corresponding execution of sentences based on that judgment), it remains that this is not a question of denying human dignity but rather of what is a matter for public judgment.

Furthermore, punishing people, even with capital punishment, is also not a matter of denying human dignity but of determining that the individual has harmed human society and poses so great a threat for ongoing harm to society that their natural right to life must be forfeit in order to serve justice (for the harm done society) and to protect the society going forward from more harm. I happen to be an advocate against capital punishment, but I recognize the rationale behind it and think in certain circumstances it can be acceptable. But the validity of capital punishment as a means of justice is also another debate.

In any case, to suggest this sort of thorough judicial procedure that underpinned the inquisitions is an a priori denial of human dignity is simply wrong.

Take, on the other hand, our contemporaries. I would say that it is rather they in the culture of death who use arbitrary measures to determine if a life bears human dignity, if is "worth living" and thus worth protecting. They use arbitrary and unverifiable criteria based on conjecture--not established judicial procedure by a qualified judge--to determine if a life has human dignity. They use unverifiable conjecture on the perception of pain, self-consciousness, viability, too much pain, ability to be cared for, etc. to determine without due process that a human person does not bear the human dignity that calls for protection.

I don't know where Bertrand stands on life issues, but Catholics certainly are at the forefront in defending human life and human dignity, from conception to natural death. This stems from our belief that creation is good because it comes from God and, more specifically, that human life is good because we are made in the image of God and are called to a special participation in Divine life, a sharing in the love of the Trinity.

For humanists to pretend that belief in the dignity of the human person is an invention of the so-called Enlightenment is just preposterous. At the very foundation of the Christian religion lies a sublime recognition of the dignity of human persons, a dignity so great that God, in his infinite goodness, deigned to make it in his own image and then took on that human nature to more fully bring it into communion with his own being. It's not for nothing that we call the Gospel the Good News!

Chapter II

Which leads me to the second contention of Bertrand's...

I hold the opinion that this is in large part caused by the fact that this organization believes itself to be holy and infallible.

After very tenuously comparing the Inquisition to the Vichy government and then looping in the contemporary specter of the child abuse crisis (after all, what critique of the Church today would be complete without that?), he really gets to the heart of the matter. How can an organization that does things like the Inquisition and abuses children dare to call itself holy and infallible??

The gauntlet is thrown. The evidence is in. It's clear that it is patently moronic to claim such a thing given the indisputable (and self-documented, I might add) wrongs done by "the Church." How can one even begin to defend such a clearly indefensible position?

The answer lies in a not-too-fine theological point. I say that to preclude pretense at dismissing what I'm about to say as theological finery because, trust me, this is pretty straightforward compared to theological finery. When the Church says that it is holy and infallible, it is not without qualification, that is, not without a requisite understanding of what the Church is and how we understand it to be such.

There are multiple dimensions to the reality of the Church. Book upon book upon book has been written about this, so forgive me for my necessary simplification.

The Church is the mystical body of Christ, with Jesus as its head, made up of:

  1. the communion of the faithful living today

  2. the communion of the faithful departed who are being purified (popularly known as "in purgatory")

  3. the communion of the faithful departed who are purified and participating fully (as fully as humanly possible) in the Divine communion of persons known as the Trinity (popularly known as "in heaven")

When speaking of the Church as the corporation of its members, the Church is holy and infallible only in as much as the Church's members are conformed to their head--Jesus Christ. Those living today and in purgatory are being sanctified (made holy) through the grace of God. Those in heaven have been sanctified.

The holiness of individuals living today is not complete nor guaranteed--we must cooperate with the grace of God, and our holiness is not our own doing but a gift of God that we receive and cooperate in effecting. Therefore, speaking of the Church as a corporation of such individuals, it's obvious that it is not possible to speak unqualifiedly about the Church's holiness. Even without the ample objective evidence we have of our imperfection, you can see that our understanding of our nature as living, faithful humans informs us that we are imperfectly holy.

Similarly, infallibility is not an unqualified quality of the Church. No individual possesses it unqualifiedly before "getting to heaven," and we only are infallible in heaven because we see God, who is Truth in essence, face-to-face (what we call "the beatific vision"). So even in heaven, infallibility is not a matter of some arbitrary definition of truth, as is popularly conceived, but simply a seeing and recognition of the Truth that is.

The infallibility granted to the Church on earth is essentially the same--it is a seeing and recognition of the Truth that already is, not a creation of truth. On earth, we see the Truth only partially, and the truth that the Church proclaims infallibly is only what the Church believes it has received from God. The conditions for an infallible definition are actually quite rigorous, and the Church is in practice quite reluctant to define things in such a way.

Papal infallibility is also a gift granted under special circumstances (more on that here). It is never arbitrary (i.e., a whim or personal opinion of the pope) but is a way to formally recognize a truth that is implicit in Divine Revelation. We only have two instances where theologians agree this gift has been exercised, and there have been only twenty-one ecumenical councils (the other way things are definitively proclaimed infallibly) in two millennia.

I say all this about infallibility not so much to dig deep into the subject but rather to impress that it is actually quite unusual for it to be actively exercised and that is not possessed by individuals (bishops nor popes) in an unqualified way nor as a tool for them to shove their opinions down others throats. That's not to say that Catholics are only bound to consent and obedience for infallibly defined dogmas, but that's another discussion.

The important thing here is to realize the very qualified and rare way that definitive, active infallibility is exercised in the Church and, as noted, only there have been only two known infallible definitions by a pope. So there is no burden on the faithful Catholic to defend every proclamation of a bishop or even the pope as if it were infallible.

Especially in matters of discipline (e.g., how ecclesiastical trials are exercised), there is no guarantee of infallibility, so it is entirely unnecessary to defend, for instance, the decision of a pope to authorize torture as a tool in the inquisitions. That, I would argue, is a purely human decision by a human conditioned by his culture and time, and I wouldn't defend it beyond defending any such historical fact or personage--that perhaps in that time and culture it was understandable. Would it have been better had torture not been authorized? Almost certainly, but it would be anachronistic of me to suggest that he should have known better. Surprise! Even popes can be wrong!

Chapter III

So why the heck am I bothering to defend the Church in regards to the inquisition or any other controversial matter? Because too often the facts get severely distorted and generalizations are made that really do strike at the deeper realities of the Church and, worse, endanger others' faith.

When I defend the Church in regards to the Inquisition, the Crusades, the priestly abuse crisis, etc., it is in no way to defend the evil and abuses perpetrated by individuals--even bishops and popes. The fact that popes and bishops and priests are imperfect does not endanger my faith because I have a right understanding of the holiness and infallibility of the Church. Personally, I am of the conviction that we should recognize and address the serious failings of priests (and bishops and popes), both past and present.

In each controversial situation, there was real wrong, real evil, real suffering caused by members (even leaders) in the Church. THAT is the scandal; that is what we can all agree to decry. While priests and bishops are admittedly "just human," they are called to live a holiness of life that is exemplary to others, and Christian Scripture says that they will be judged more harshly precisely because they are expected to be Christian models and have at their disposal the graces to realize their calling. It is right to expect them to live exemplary lives, and because of this, it is just as right to be more offended when they don't, as compared to other members of human society. (That's why my stomach turns when the defense is made that "there are so many other child abusers out there, why not talk about them??" It's because priests should be better--they're supposed to be examples to us all!)

But to recognize and address the real evils perpetrated does not require one to condemn the whole. Abusus non tollit usum--the abuse of a thing does not nullify the proper use of it. In the case of the inquisitions, as an institution set up in a culture where heresy was a capital offense, where there was little to no regulation of means of interrogation, and where presumption of innocence was not par for the course, it was good (even juridically advanced for the time) to have competent judges who had strict regulations on the methods of interrogation they could use, who had (for their time) very enlightened understanding of ulterior motives of witnesses, who had a deep grounding in theology and Catholic doctrine and could rightly discern real heresy, and who were enjoined to presume innocence and do everything they could to convert and correct a person (rather than, as in the myth, gleefully handing them over to punishment).

Torture, specifically, was recognized as an extremely imperfect means of learning the truth, despite its being authorized. It was not authorized in the beginning, and once it was, as I understand it, the guidelines were to use it rarely, much like we understand the current situation for the U.S.. I'm not defending torture; I'm just pointing out that for those on the front lines in protecting the society, the Inquisition was in its inception as "enlightened" as the policy makers today. Even after all this time and "enlightenment," there are supposedly enlightened people today who still defend it in some circumstances. I am not one of them, nor would I defend it in the case of the Inquisition except to point out what I have pointed out.

Would it have been better for the Church of the time to refuse to cooperate and pressure for a change in societal structure? Maybe. In fact there have always been Christians calling for social reform, even if not always the hierarchy. But if the Church had refused to participate as it did, it seems to me that far worse would have happened. The Church has to work within societal structures that exist, even while working for a more just society in the future. Let's not forget that the goal of a good inquisitor was to establish innocence and bring the guilty back to the Church, even in opposition to the local authorities (who were more than once hostile to the imposition of the inquisition as a regulating "meddling" force in their affairs). This is quite different from the picture painted by comparing it to the Vichy government--just going through the motions to achieve the ends of the state.

And there is something to be said for the fact that the Church at the time was made up of humans at the time who were conditioned by their cultures just like we are. Our culture can either help or hurt our ability to see the truth clearly, and it can certainly hamper our freedom to act on it. In this sense, yes, I agree that from my distant vantage point, it seems like the Church could have done more and advocated against the state more for religious freedom. That the leaders of the time did not fully see or act on what I think is a richer understanding of religious freedom is unfortunate, but from a historical perspective, it is understandable.

In Summary

To sum up, I agree that what is truly wrong and evil--even when done by leaders of the Church--should be decried and not defended. What I defend against is not such real evil but rather the exaggerations, extrapolations, and outright lies brought to bear against the Church, using these lamentable, real evils as a basis.

Do I therefore risk being seen as "defensive" as Bertrand put it? Do I even risk being thought to defend the indefensible, bringing me "down to the level of the guilty"? Obviously! As is evidenced by Bertrand's musings. But for me those are risks worth taking in the love and service of truth, the Church (that holy and infallible Divine institution, rightly understood), and those who might be led astray by those same distortions of truth to their own harm and detriment.

Pax vobiscum!


Tuesday, April 13, 2010

They Just Don't Get It

Sadly Necessary Disclaimer: For those who are uncritically swallowing the media distortions around the Holy Father. I don't expect you to agree with my perspective, but please have some common sense and do not imply that this is some bizarre, backhanded defense of a coverup. I don't believe for one instant that Benedict was involved in a coverup. I know his mind from his writing and speaking pretty well, and I don't believe that mind could or would ever intentionally participate in a coverup. My defense of him should be considered evidence of that.


I just read this seemingly innocuous article (compared to the standard malicious fare hurtling around these days) about Benedict XVI's "record" trying to judge the "success" of his pontificate.

In reading it, I was not so much upset but just bemused and baffled at how off kilter folks can be in the lens they use to interpret the words and actions of Pope Benedict XVI. Even his proclaimed "biographer," John L. Allen, Jr., also makes the same goof, but I suspect that's a product of where he's coming from as a journalist accustomed to trying to interpret for the world in a reasonably fair-minded manner.

The problem is this lens that judges Benedict's actions as if he is acting like a politician, i.e., that he makes choices based on his concern about how history, the media, popular opinion, etc. will judge him. Now to try to not appear totally naïve, I wouldn't say that he takes no thought for these things--in his position, he has to give them some thought, but that doesn't mean he makes choices based on them. In fact, I would say that his record of making apparent blunders reflects a certain lack of concern towards them, that he makes decisions despite these concerns, not because of them.

I've read a lot of Benedict's thought, both from before he became pope and more since. And maybe that's why I'm extra defensive of him--because it's clear to me that, contrary to popular caricatures, he carries the heart of a true shepherd of souls and that this care for souls is what his central motivation is. His concern for Truth, for the Church, for the unity of Christians, and the liturgy are all driven by this--yes, even the seemingly hard things he says and does. (Note this is not saying he's impeccable or never makes mistakes; rather, I'm speaking of his core motivations.)

If you want the key to understanding Benedict, it is true, real faith, true, real love for God, and true, real love for souls. If he thinks in centuries, it because he knows the Truth has stood fast in the Church for centuries and that it's his responsibility to lead the Church during his vicariate so that it can continue for centuries to come.

But I would say he thinks more in terms of eternity--with a view to the salvation of eternal souls. That's his job, what he's dedicated his life to, and he takes it very seriously, to the point of risking alienating those lost awash in our tepid culture of materialistic relativism and even endangering his own person.

I recently watched The Gospel of John, and the actor, Henry Ian Cusick, did a wonderful job at driving home that Christ pulled no punches. He wasn't diplomatic or soft spoken in speaking the truth, even at the risk of alienating the majority of people in the culture prevalent in his day--he didn't even soften the blow when faced with losing those considered to be his disciples (see John 6:60-66).

So yeah, before you ask, I think the Holy Father is right in doing the same, speaking the truth even when it causes a stir and people get upset and even some people use it as an excuse to leave the Church or commit hateful acts of violence and vandalism. I think he's right even when it incenses the pundits and causes them to twist facts and hurl the most vile of accusations based on the slightest evidence contorted in the most ludicrous ways. He's right to do so because innumerable souls would be damaged if he didn't continue to doggedly speak the truth. He's right to do so because those who are estranged because of the truth can indeed only find the Way through the Truth by the Light.

I leave you with this reading from the gospel according to John, without further comment. This is what Benedict and the Church he leads--in its essence, its purpose, its mission--is all about.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him will not be condemned, but whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the verdict, that the light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light, because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come toward the light, so that his works might not be exposed. But whoever lives the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God. (John 3:16-21, NAB)

Friday, March 26, 2010

Pro Abortion People Are Not Monsters

I'm writing this post for two reasons. First, because I, like others, am sick and tired of the vilification and extremism on both sides of the abortion debate. It's gone on for too long and, from my point of view, the pro-life extremists are at least partially responsible for the ongoing legality of abortion because their words and actions have galvanized many people who might otherwise be brought around to see the other side and maybe even change their minds, which is what we all want.

Even many pro abortion folks--even our supposed "most pro-abortion president ever"--have explicitly said that they want abortion to be rare, so that is something to build on. Clearly they acknowledge it is not a desirable solution--they recognize there is something sinister in it if they want to make it rare, so the argumentation needs to revolve around discussing if it isn't even more sinister than they recognize it to be--so sinister that we just can't allow it to remain legal any more than other forms of taking human life are legal.

The second reason is to elaborate and respond to some friends who are pro abortion and I've recently discussing the issue with in bits (e.g., on twitter).

So, I'll try to elaborate some rationale supporting abortion w/o simply vilifying or caricaturing in hopes of helping my anti abortion friends understand and empathize with the thinking a bit more, and I'll consequently respond to each position and explain why I can't see it as viable. Doubtless I'll do an imperfect job at both, so I ask for some indulgence and understanding. I know that I, too, am biased despite my attempts at being fair and deliberate.

As I see it currently in my thinking, the abortion debate boils down to basically two issues.

1) When does human life begin?


2) Does all human life have equal dignity and correspondingly demand equal protection?

This is why phrasing the debate in terms of pro life and pro choice is a terrible mistake and has only led to further galvanize irrational people on both sides. So-called "pro choice" people are no more consciously anti-life than "pro life" people are anti choice. We really should just say pro/anti abortion.

Only a true monster would prioritize a mother's whim over the life of an innocent, defenseless human being in her womb. So, pro abortion folks have to believe that it is not a human life in question. I think this applies to the majority of people who'd classify themselves as pro choice.

The reply to this position is surprisingly simple. The consensus in biology tells us that at conception, a new organism is created that, left uninhibited and given natural nourishment, will divide and develop into a recognizable human body, be born, and mature into adulthood. It has all the genetic information that will make it up, so genetically speaking, once conceived, it is fully its own human life. (Would like to highlight that this has absolutely ZERO to do with religion--we're talking about hardcore science.)

For those who think this through and are attached to the pro abortion position, they must fall back on the second issue--a definition of when life deserves to be protected, i.e., what life is worth living and, correspondingly, worth protecting. Put another way, at what point does a human life gain human rights such as the right to life?

Leaving this delineation up for debate is, in my opinion, a truly frightening proposition, for a number of reasons:

1) For a life in the womb, the judgment of whether or not the life is worth living is based on conjecture. Will the parents have the money, time, or even psychological or social capacity to raise the child well? Will the child become a "productive member of society"? And so on.. even if you buy into the idea that some life is not worth living (which is a very debatable idea), to make that judgment on conjecture about the future is dangerous to say the least. The future simply cannot be predicted--to gamble someone else's life on a future prediction is unconscionable. It's no different from those parents who go crazy because they lost everything in some financial disaster and then kill their whole families because they can't imagine how they can continue to provide for them.

2) Even if we could reliably predict the future, it's axiomatic that perspective is everything. Some people can live in and through the most terrible circumstances and still be joyful, content people, while the wealthiest celebrities seem to have a knack for self destruction. Even if an externally dire life situation were likely, that's no indicator at all as to how happy or fulfilled an individual person might be living it. It's just not right to prevent someone even having the chance to have what they'd consider to be a satisfactory or even happy life.

3) We also know that except for a small minority, people tend to have a very strong urge for self-preservation, so given the choice, most people won't kill themselves, even if they are unhappy. So if the vast majority of people won't choose to kill themselves, who are we to kill them preemptively? Seems obvious that we should assume they will, like most people, want to live, even in unfortunate circumstances.

4) - It all boils down to an essentially completely arbitrary line in the sand as to what constitutes a human life worth protecting, and when you make that line movable based on non-objective criteria, you open yourself up for tragedy like was seen in the 20th century with the many genocides that occurred under the Nazis, the Communists, Rwanda, and elsewhere. And anti abortion folks would indeed also say that the lives taken through abortion is genocide on the grandest scale ever.

In all genocides, someone decides that these certain criteria mean that those who meet that criteria are not fully human and so they can be treated like animals or worse and killed at whim. Under current law that allows abortion on demand, we are saying that we think that parents, sometimes even teenagers, can set those criteria for their children (but only in the womb and usually only to a certain term, oddly enough).

We don't let teenagers vote or drink, but we can let them set criteria for human life worth protecting? We insist that parents educate their children and restrict their choice in regards to their children on a host of other matters (like wearing bike helmets), but we let them decide in the first place if their child's life is worth living? How does that make sense?

Freedom in general and freedom to choose in particular are always constrained in a civilized society. Phrasing the debate in terms of choice is disingenuous; phrasing it in terms of "women's [reproductive] rights" is even more so. It's not about a black and white matter of freedom or choice but whether or not parents should be able to choose if the life of their child is worth living, and given the considerations above--even granting that some human life is not worth life (which for the record I reject)--any reasonable person should see that arbitrarily drawing a line in the sand is an unacceptable option when considering human life and the rights it entails. We have to fix human rights to something more objective, and as noted, that objective thing is biology--we know a human life is genetically fully itself once conceived, and any point after that is an arbitrary judgment related to quality of life, which is simply unacceptable.

So no, pro abortion people are not monsters. I have to believe they just aren't clear thinkers because the reasoning against abortion is simply too strong. I admit it ultimately does boil down to a judgment call considering the various rationales; I just don't see how the other conclusion is viable in the end. To accept the pro abortion position, you have to accept too many unacceptable implications and risk something that is entirely too valuable--human life.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Honest and Fair Public Square

About a week ago, Stanley Fish published "Are There Secular Reasons?" in the NYT op ed section. I read it and tweeted something to the effect that I probably couldn't have said it better, but it assumes that contemporary folks care about being philosophically consistent.

A few days later, one of my buddies on Twitter, Christof Jans pointed me to this response by a fella down under, saying it was an intelligent response, and I just got around to reading that. So enough of the prologue; here's the deal, as I see it.

Not surprisingly, I still think Fish's point stands. In fact, it seems like Mr. Blackford missed the point entirely, or if he didn't he's being disingenuous in his response. First, he starts out by trying to paint Fish as some devious rhetorician, pointing out his use of "apartheid" and "'real' in quotes" as if it's wrong for him to do so. Blackford then goes on to bandy about the ever present propaganda about how when religion is in charge, everything goes badly, tossing out the usual suspects.

He goes off on this tangent, but he still rightly identifies that it was a particular historical backdrop that John Locke and his ilk were coming out of. He also rightly identifies something that he seems to not fully understand the implications of--that deriving policy--the how we ought to live and, consequently, govern ourselves--requires humans to imbue facts and assertions with value, regardless of if those facts and assertions are presented by religion, science, or ideology.

Blackford then returns to the tired assertion that when government tries to enforce a particular religion, it always does badly, conveniently forgetting or ignoring that the greatest atrocities in history were committed under intentionally irreligious. Look back on the 20th century where we have the Nazi atrocities, the Communist atrocities, the purely political great (and small) wars, the socio-political genocides of the 90s, and so on. Compared to these, even the extremely caricatured popular misconceptions of the inquisitions, Crusades, and so-called religious wars of the early modern period pale.

Of course, I'm not going to suggest that the reality of the Crusades, the abuses of the inquisitions, or the wars that took place in the name of religion are justifiable--my point here is just that any assertion that a religiously-based government is inherently worse than a purely secular one is baldly false by any honest historical measure.

All that said, this discussion is a red herring, as far as what Fish was trying to say. His point had no hint of what Blackford puts on his lips: "He needs ... an argument as to why we now live in an era when it is wise to trust the state to decide which religion is correct, and then legislate accordingly." In other words, Blackford, in his apparent anti-religious paranoia that is common among the atheistic élite, dodges Fish's argument and instead attacks the straw man that Fish (or those who agree with him) are proposing a return to theocracy.

We're not. We're merely calling out the ignorance, the dishonesty, or the unfairness of the modern liberals who advocate that religion must be purely a private matter that has no influence in the political arena. The crux of Fish's argument is exactly what, as I said, Blackford admits to but seems not to understand the implications of--that assigning value to facts and propositions must come from a metaphysical foundation.

To say that "everyone doesn't want to die or be raped" or to rely on other "obvious" (or as the Enlightenment thinkers might say, "self-evident") values still requires imbuing those propositions with value and assenting to that value. If those truths are not founded upon some objective metaphysical foundation (e.g., natural law), all they are is wishful thinking, the current popular opinion, or, might makes right. Stripped of such metaphysical foundations, legislating and enforcing these "obvious" values is nothing more than mob rule all gussied up in the pretty clothes of our much lauded democratic republic.

And in fact, we see the realities of this mob rule coming to fruition on critically important social issues like abortion, euthanasia, and the meaning of marriage. The dogma of Progress tells us that we must believe that these changes are for the better, that these are on par with the abolition of slavery, that whatever further "liberties" we gain are inherently good. This is wishful thinking on a grand scale; any student of history knows that history ebbs and flows in terms of good times and bad times.

But I digress, my point in calling this out is not to predict our own civilization's downfall but merely to highlight that history teaches us that not all changes in our society and government should blindly be accepted as "progress," i.e., something good/to be embraced. We need to judge proposed changes to our law by something more substantial than current popular ethos/culture/opinion.

To make such judgments, we are forced to draw on substantive values that, as Fish points out, cannot come from mere scientific, secular investigation or discourse. The truth is, as Blackford does admit, that we do draw on such values with or without recourse to religion. The difference between, say, me, a Catholic, and a contemporary materialist/empiricist/secularist/average Westerner is that I can be philosophically consistent in drawing on these metaphysical foundations while they, as Fish and the author he reviews point out, have to smuggle these values in and try by appeal to the bogeymen of the Enlightenment period and to popular sentiment to assert them as self evident or "obvious."

Now I might agree that, in general, the values of life, liberty, and equality are good values (because I derive them both from natural law and my religion, though not unqualifiedly), even if they are smuggling them in, and if we left it at that, we'd be fine. The objection motivating this critique is not to suggest that we should abandon the secular, pluralistic state or these smuggled values. The objection lies in what Fish calls out through his flowery language--that the secularists need to, first, ensure they're aware they are smuggling, second, that they be honest about it, and third, that they be fair and equitable as a result, realizing that the values they smuggle in are inherently no more or less valuable in a truly secular, pluralistic state than the values explicitly founded in religion.

The fact that my values may be religiously informed does not inherently make them less valuable than values others derive from whatever basis they use to inform their values, and in fact, we're suggesting that whether they want to admit it or not, their values are also ultimately, truly derived from some metaphysical source--we're just being honest about ours.

To put it another way, we are all appealing to certain metaphysical foundation based on our personal beliefs, regardless of if they are overtly religious or based on these implicit metaphysical foundations that secularists "smuggle" in. The consequences of such honesty and fairness is that those who advocate the "naked" public square, who advocate that religion be a purely private matter and be banished from public debate, cannot tenably advocate that--if they are being honest and fair.

A pluralist, free society doesn't mean a society that is free of religion but one in which all religions and non-religious ideologies can freely advocate their values. Otherwise, we end up in a situation no different from a state religion, where a particular ideology is established and others, solely because they are religiously informed, are outlawed. This is precisely the situation that our forefathers fled from. This is freedom from religion, not freedom of religion. It is not honest; it is not fair; it is not free.