Friday, December 2, 2011

My Recent Exchange with Congressman Holt on Abortion

Below is an email exchange today between my Congressman, Rush Holt, and me about abortion. I wonder if he'll reply again. 


Dear Congressman Holt,

Of course you realize how ludicrous it would be to say that the "choice of whether or not to have an abortion should be left up to a woman, her doctor, her family and her religion, not the federal government," if abortion means killing a human being, right?

I ask you, how can you determine when a conceived child becomes a human whose basic right to life should be protected by the government?  At birth? Why--what change in its nature occurs at that point to make a human worth protecting at that point?  Some time before?  Why? Explain at what objective point, based on science, a conceived child becomes a human being.

The only consistent, rational answer is to say that as soon as the child gets its full genetic makeup that makes it its own unique being. And that is at conception. It's a scientific fact, not a belief, not a religious issue.

I am 100% for supporting women's choice, but choice is never an absolute. I should not be allowed to choose to beat my wife, and my wife--or any other woman--should certainly not be allowed to choose to kill her unborn child. What we need to do is give women real choices, choices that are moral--helping them to raise the child or, at worst, facilitating them putting the child up for adoption.  


Mr. J. Ambrose Little, O.P.
An American Citizen and Your Constituent

P.S. If the existing law does what you say it does and makes the proposed law unnecessary, why is it being proposed?

On Fri, Dec 2, 2011 at 12:06 PM,  wrote:

Dear Mr. Little:

Thank you for contacting me about health care. I appreciate hearing from you and I apologize for the delay in my reply.

As your voice in the U.S. House of Representatives, I always strive to represent my constituents' concerns and interests and provide personal service to them. I truly value your input and suggestions on the issues before the House. In a representative government such as ours, it is essential that I know what you are thinking in order to do my job.

I appreciate learning of your support for H.R. 1179, introduced by Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE). H.R. 1179 would amend the health reform law to permit a health plan to decline coverage of specific items and services that are contrary to the religious beliefs of the sponsor, issuer, or purchaser without penalty. This legislation has been referred to the Energy and Commerce Committee for further consideration. I will keep your thoughts in mind as this bill progresses through the legislative process.

As you may know, current law has prohibited the use of any federal funding to be used for abortion services since 1976. Since then the law has been subsequently expanded to cover federal health care programs so that federal government employees who wish to have abortions must pay for them "out-of-pocket". In addition, abortion services are not provided for U.S. military personnel and their families, Peace Corps volunteers, Indian Health Service clients, or federal prisoners. 

You may be interested to know that the health reform law made no changes to existing prohibitions on the use of taxpayer dollars for abortion services. The law further maintains federal conscience rights for physicians and health practitioners. I believe that this amendment to the health care law is unnecessary, and have heard from many constituents who agree.

I believe that there are some matters that should not be legislated, and this is one of them. The choice of whether or not to have an abortion should be left up to a woman, her doctor, her family and her religion, not the federal government. If we are to reduce the 
need for abortion, it is essential that we provide women with the information and services they need to make responsible and educated family planning decisions. 

Although we disagree on this issue, thank you for contacting me. To learn more about my work in Congress, please visit my website at look forward to hearing from you again about this and other issues.

Member of Congress

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Anonymity Means No Accountability

I am trying to be generous and believe that people who say that they want to remain anonymous online because they have "no desire of notoriety or recognition."  I really am. The same topic came up when people started joining Google+ recently, and some folks I am connected with were rubbed the wrong way by Google's insistence on "real names." The loophole for those folks was to just make a more believable pseudonym. :-/

My main objection to this, especially in this online world, is that anonymity means no accountability. You can publicly attack others and impugn their character, orthodoxy, whatever. You can do real damage to them. You can misrepresent truth (intentionally or not), such as Catholic doctrine. You can mislead others as to your identity (and by that, I mean more than just name). You can be a total misanthrope, be hateful, spiteful, and mean. All without any personal accountability.

How unjust is it for anonymous bloggers to tell bishops, for instance, that the bishops need to "stand up for the faith" and "have some backbone," when they don't even have the backbone to identify themselves? How much more when they make sweeping statements impugning the orthodoxy and charity of vast swaths of our bishops today?

When I'm feeling generous (especially with some of these folks I consider friends), I want to believe the stated good intentions. But when I'm feeling less so, it's hard to swallow, especially when I see examples of such vitriol from anonymous bloggers--because it's just too convenient to be anonymous online. You have nothing on the line, no accountability.

So for all those--especially purportedly Catholic (although who could verify it?)--online personalities who proclaim humility in anonymity (or whatever other personal concerns you have), I urge you to search your heart again. Is there any hint of fear that you could be held to account for what you write?  Even if there's not--especially if there is not--you should reconsider because the potential evil and harm to others (through malice or inculpable error) far outweighs the potential danger to yourself, your humility or privacy. Is it not, in fact, an act of charity to do so? To take risk to yourself out of concern for others?  I think our Lord would say so--"no greater love has a man than that he lay down his life for another."

If you can't take that risk and accountability, I'd humbly suggest that perhaps it would be better to not blog, comment, tweet--whatever--online at all.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

About the Hidden Exodus

I really have mixed feelings about this: "The Hidden Exodus". On the one hand, I can sympathize in that my own personal experience of parish life over these last 10 years has been lacking in the sense of family/deep connectedness that I felt both as an evangelical and Episcopalian.

I also understand the tension between adapting church services to be more appealing by contemporary popular standards and our duty to preserve authentic Christian liturgy.

But Fr. Reese of course takes the opportunity to take potshots at the new translation and the Vatican. I also wonder if the survey was framed in such a way as to tend towards those results.

I personally am of the bent that our faith should be challenging us. If it is not, there is something wrong. It is a call to live holier lives, and that's never been easy, certainly not in our culture today.

As a former evangelical Protestant, I can say that I do miss the evangelical bent--tis partly why I have become a lay member of the Order of Preachers, which is evangelical ("apostolic") to the core.

I also agree with the observation that encouraging a love of Scripture is important--we naturally crave the Word of God. Oddly enough, you'll hear more Scripture in the typical mass than you do in a typical evangelical service, but it's instilling a love for personal time with the Word that seems to be missing.

Another point where I think Fr. Reese diverges from the data for his own agenda is claiming that it's not that things are too liberal that draws people away. That probably comes from not having been evangelical Protestant himself--they are basically all conservative and take living the Faith and receiving it for what it is (not manipulating it to suit the zeitgeist) as a key motivating factor in their lives. The 46% who say the Church doesn't take the Bible literally enough--seems to me this is what they're getting at.

I reflect back on the sermons I heard growing up and those I've heard since becoming Catholic, and I can say pretty confidently that a key part of the sermon *every week* was a challenge to ongoing conversion and to go out and LIVE THE GOSPEL. On average in a Catholic homily, my experience has been that few challenge you, few stir that burning in your heart, few have any lasting impact at all. I have heard some, but on average, there is a great difference in this respect between evangelical Protestant and Catholic preaching. I think it's primarily this calling to conversion, holiness, and living the Faith without compromise that people find attractive when comparing these two, and it sounds like the data reflect that, even if framed in different words.

Well, then there are those who do want us to be more in practice like the rest of the world--the "liberal" and "mainline" denominations. I just don't get that approach to Christianity. It doesn't make sense to me at all. Well, I think I understand why people feel the desire to retain vestiges of a religion they feel attached to somehow, but as far as I'm concerned, if I didn't believe what a religion teaches, I just wouldn't join/stay in that religion. It's the only integral thing to do. I don't believe in Buddhism or Islam's creeds; ergo, I am not a Buddhist or Muslim. I don't just pick the things I like that fit with popular culture and say I am.

But as the data reveal--people don't make religious choices based on reason alone (or sometimes at all). I get that. But I digress..

So really, what I wanted to say was that I'm not sure what the right way forward is. A certain amount of adaptation makes sense and has always been the way Christianity has thrived--avoiding syncretism, most of the time. At the same time, Christianity is an historical faith; it is based in real history--a real Person, a real Truth, a real Church that has preserved and handed on what it has received. We can't just reinvent it or whitewash it so much that it looses its true character.

It does seem we maybe erred too much in the Catholic Church these last 40 odd years in the direction of adaptation, so I tend to think that a certain amount of readjustment and alignment, even if a bit awkward, is the right next step. Will the new translation magically make people return to the Faith in droves? Of course not, but that doesn't make it irrelevant or wrong. It is one piece of a big puzzle.

The data are there--we know people feel their needs are not being met. The solution isn't to totally change who we are or adapt the Faith so much that it is indecipherable from modern secularism and popular culture. It seems to me the only right way forward is indeed to recapture and preach the Gospel in its entirety and to practice it as such, in as much as we are able. Sometimes it will align with popular culture, sometimes not, but as long as it maintains its integrity, it will be clear about its value and people will be drawn to it.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Of Theologians and Bishops

I just wrote this up as a comment on this article in which Fr. Thomas Weinandy tears theologians a new one, mostly in response to the unfortunate commenters on the post. I think it's worth repeating here.


There have always been theologians who stray away from the Faith. There's nothing new about it. And yes, sometimes they do get vindicated later on (I'm thinking of Fr. Congar, for example). Even St. Thomas Aquinas was attacked by contemporaries.  Sts. Jerome and Ambrose weren't the best of friends. Theologians don't always agree with each other, nor with the bishops of their time. The bishops are duty bound to be conservative, and theologians tend to push the boundaries.

On the other hand, I have to agree with Fr. Weinandy (and the Holy Father, and many, many saints, including the Church's greatest theologians) in that theology should indeed start from the foundation of faith seeking understanding. What the deposit of the faith is is not so hard to find out as some comments [there] suggest (or I suppose as some theologians try to pretend in the name of "academic freedom").

The study of theology is not like other academic disciplines. In fact, it is fundamentally different; it is the queen of all the sciences because its subject is the Infinite, and because the subject of this field's study is de facto an object of faith, it makes no sense to start from anything but faith.

Further, the saints are unanimous in that there is a certain congruity between a life of prayer and sanctity and a true knowledge of God. To suggest otherwise is to fall outside of Catholic Tradition. You may be okay with doing that, but trying to maintain you are a Catholic theologian while living outside of Catholic Tradition is oxymoronic.

Lastly, all the folks who make this another "let's piss on the bishops en mass due to the sex scandal" need to grow up. This is not about power, or old boys' club, or anything like that. Read the letters of St. Paul. Read the early fathers. Read Ignatius of Antioch. Read Bl. John Henry Newman. The bishops are supposed to secure and pass on the deposit of the faith; it's the job description, not a power grab. If you don't know this basic fact about the Catholic Faith, you really don't have any room to be commenting on or judging them, much less commenting about the nature of theology and theologians. Address Weinandy's points if you take issue and stop with the laughable ad hominems..

P.S. I tend to think the real problem is that the average Catholic today thinks that the group they should listen to are the theologians rather than the bishops. It's fine and normal for theologians to be wandering around and testing boundaries, even inadvertently falling into error (as is their wont). They can duke it out with the bishops--that should be between them and their bishop. If they hold a teaching office, the bishops have a duty to make it known when they stray from the Faith.

But for the Catholic "faithful" to follow errant theologians rather than their bishop is, again, outside of Catholic Tradition and really makes it hard to call them "the faithful." Your bishop is your pastor--your shepherd; you follow him, not your whims or the opinions of even the most qualified theologian.  This is a norm of faith; there can be exceptions--individual bishops have no guarantee to be free from error, but the exceptions do not change the norm.


I should add, read I John 2:3-6, for a Scriptural foundation of the tie between holiness and knowledge of God. 

Saturday, July 9, 2011

On St. Anselm's Ontological Argument

I ran across something yesterday that disputed the validity of Anselm's ontological argument using the original (and long refuted) objection that says "I can conceive of a <insert category/type of thing here> than which no greater can be thought, but that doesn't mean it exists." This was originally proposed as an island by one of Anselm's contemporaries, Gaunilo, and Anselm swiftly refuted it.

When I first learned the argument in college, and the objections, I have to say that it seemed then and still seems now to be sound to me. (BTW, this is one of the best plain-language explanations of it I've found.) That said, I have always felt that the argument lacks compelling force. On the one hand, it seems cogent, and I don't see anything wrong with it in itself; on the other hand, it has a feel of verbal/logical trickery to it. You're left feeling like it makes sense and yet that it doesn't. It's the same sense you have when you see a magic trick, and you know that it's not magic, but you can't figure out how it isn't magic. Bertrand Russell seemed to agree with this, saying that it's much easier to be persuaded that ontological arguments are no good than to say exactly what's wrong with them. I think the reason it feels wrong is that it is so simple and yet the consequences of it being true are so disproportionate to its simplicity--it can't be that easy. But this sense doesn't mean the argument isn't true or that it cannot be compelling. In any case, people have tried and keep trying to figure out if it is indeed valid--and even people of faith differ.

Kant argued that existence isn't a property of a thing, so you can't really "add" it to the concept of that-than-which-no-greater-can-be-thought. That's why he thinks it doesn't work (from what I can tell). The problem I have with this objection is that I don't think he establishes that existence is not in fact something that can be added, even if it isn't a formal property. We all understand the distinction between thoughts and things that exist "in reality," as Anselm himself points out. Kant says that this existence is empirical, something involving the senses that we experience, which is of course a very subjective point of view.

I would say rather that existence is something that can be experienced, and further, even science postulates the existence of things that we as humans cannot experience directly with our senses (e.g., subatomic particles, black holes, cosmic strings, planets in other solar systems, and so on). We can only experience them indirectly and reason about their existence from the observations we make. So things can "have being" without our experiencing them (or even potentially experiencing them) directly.

We implicitly give more value to things that we perceive to have being, rather than just concepts in our heads. So whether or not existence is a proper property or not, it is something that is valuable that not all concepts have. And we think it is better to have this existence than to be thought only. So in this respect Anselm's argument still holds sway.

The other objections I've seen all hinge around disputing the premise or definition of that than which no greater can be thought. One objection, already noted, is applying that concept to things in particular categories--islands, cats, etc. Even though this seems an obvious objection, it is also the most easily refuted. The proposition of the argument is that-than-which-no-greater-can-be-thought without further qualification. It's not the greatest island--we can conceive of something greater than an island. It's not the greatest cat, or human, or computer, or any particular type of thing. It is the greatest thing, across all categories, surpassing all categories. I would suggest saying "infinite good" might help understand why this objection doesn't apply.

Good is what is desirable. Obviously, we each have our own ideas about what is desirable, which is why the infinite qualifier is important--it easily accounts for all of our particular goods that we have in mind and surpasses them. And this ties in with the discussion above about existence--we generally perceive existence as a good, and that's why we can add it to (in a sense) the goodness of the infinite good concept--wouldn't it be better for the infinite good to actually exist? Of course!

The real trouble, if any exists, lies in the assumed definition being a definition of God. Let's set aside the question of God (and all the various ideas we have attached to that concept) and instead just consider the definition Anselm provides as referring to "some thing." Science fiction has done a good job in helping us to approximate this kind of thinking--offering up aliens (like the Q in Star Trek) who are for all intents and purposes like what many conceive of as God (or at least gods). Anyways, the point is that if we can suspend judgment on whether or not the definition pertains to "God" and just consider it at face value, it seems easier to accept the argument as valid, and as such it is not, as Rev. Neal asserts, a faith-based proposition.

On this count, it seems to me that the argument aptly proves the existence of this being, logically speaking. The trouble, as I said, comes when we make the jump from from such a being to any conventional notion of God, or more specifically, the God of the Christian religion. I will not deny that God, in the proper Christian sense, is an object of faith. I would say this is indeed by definition, and dogmatic in the Christian faith. And ipso facto, there are no proofs for his existence. The can be, on the other hand, proofs that lead one to faith in God because they demonstrate truths about him and/or our relationship to him.

This is not irrational, as faith is popularly conceived to be. It is not against reason or without reason--quite the opposite in fact. Faith is an act that uses reason as a launchpad. In function, this is not different from other beliefs that people hold--they are things for which they have little, if any, direct empirical evidence for and yet accept as true, because they seem to make sense in relation to or follow from other things they have experienced, because someone they trust/an authority told them, because it is commonly held by people they know, etc. The difference is in the object--faith is belief in the Divine. Faith can can be based on any or all of these, as well as on the ontological argument.

As for Anselm's argument, it does seem to prove the existence of the being that he posits. For those who do believe in God, they would associate the posited being with God, at least as a way to understand and think about God. For those who do not believe in God, I am not sure how they might grapple with the existence of such a being. For all of us, what bearing does this being have on us? What should our relationship to it be (if any)? Should we ignore it, or should we try to understand it better? How might we understand it better?

If we can accept the existence of such a being, and it seems to me that the ontological argument makes a strong rational case for doing so, then it seems to follow that we need to come to terms with its existence somehow. (Or we can choose to simply refuse to acknowledge the validity of the argument without demonstrating what's wrong with it! ;) ) If we choose to grapple with it, there are further proofs that lead from an initial concept of God such as this to the Christian conception of God, the Trinity, and Faith. I myself have followed them, and they are rational, certainly as rational as any reason I've seen to not believe in God. And in my estimation, the reasons for faith are more compelling, taken as a whole, than those for the lack of it.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Who Cares Who Gets Married?

There are so many different things to talk about in relation to redefining marriage to encompass same-sex unions, but I just want to comment on this one common sentiment in this post. Since the NY law was passed, I've seen people I follow on Twitter saying things like "who cares who gets married?" and "why do you care? mind your own business."

As I commented to one, that's so deliciously paradoxical. Setting aside the rights--rights and privileges that can be enjoyed without extending the meaning of marriage, as exemplified in "civil unions"--the reason that marriage is recognized as a social construct, and indeed why the advocates of same-sex marriage say that "civil unions" are not enough, is they want their unions to be recognized and accepted in our society, just like heterosexual marriage.

In other words, the crux in changing marriage to include same-sex unions is because same-sex couples care what others think about their unions. They want others to care. They want us to recognize. They want us to accept.

So telling opponents of same-sex marriage to "mind our own business" and saying "who cares" just makes no sense at all. Marriage is not a private matter. It is a public matter. That's the whole friggin' point of all this brouhaha.

People who get married want to declare their intent formally, publicly, and legally to their society. They want us to care, regardless of their orientation.

So who cares? Me. And you should, too.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Review: The Little Way of Lent

Another review coming to you courtesy of my wife, Chistiane. This one on a book of Lenten meditations written in the spirit of St. Therese of Liseux. Enjoy.


The Little Way of Lent, by Fr. Gary Caster

Fr. Caster delivers. In The Little Way of Lent, he offers meditations that focus on the mass readings for each day, with quotes from the autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux. Lent, he says, can be a season of joy, if only we will focus on God and His love instead of on ourselves.

What Fr. Caster offers us is the chance to look at Lent in a different way. We shouldn’t be trying to prove ourselves to God, because we can’t. Instead, we can remember, indeed, revel in, our own littleness, as St. Therese did. We can’t make ourselves into what God wants, but He can. We can only offer him our little gifts, our small sacrifices, because we love Him.

In small, daily steps, centering on the mass readings for each day from Ash Wednesday to Easter Vigil, he meditates on prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, but with the focus always on God as the inspiration and source of strength for our actions.

I highly recommend this book for anyone looking for a deeper Lenten experience. Its day by day, small steps approach makes a meaningful, joyful Lenten journey possible for even the busiest Catholic.


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 us in order to elicit a review. The Catholic Company is also a great source for first communion gifts and baptism gifts.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Review: Celebrating Saints and Seasons

This review comes from my wife, Christiane Little, who is a Catholic homeschooling mom of four. She's very crafty (in a good way :) ) and likes to do projects with the kids, so it seemed like a good fit.


Celebrating Saints and Seasons, by Jeanne Hunt

I didn’t really like this book initially. Firstly, this is not a craft book. There are no coloring pages or neat little patterns for ornaments. Instead, there are ideas, ranging from simple, like using flower stickers to create a Lenten countdown calendar, to more challenging projects, like planning a New Year’s campout. Organized by month, the book offers suggestions for seasonal celebrations like Earth Day and Thanksgiving as well as memorials of Saints and other heroes like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King Jr. There’s a wealth of material, a boon to anyone finding themselves short of ideas.   

The book did grow on me after a bit. However, there are features that I find less useful. The “prayers” in each section are basically (sometimes overly flowery) prose poems. They may work well for personal meditation for the parent and educator—a number of them, to be fair, are thoughtful and/or beautiful – but will not appeal to nor be appreciated by most children.

The other feature that I found unappealing was the inclusion of guided meditations and pseudo-liturgies for home and possibly school use. These might work with a group of teens or pre-teens, but I doubt they would be very enthusiastic about them. The points made in the course of these rituals would be more likely to make an impression if presented in a less formulaic way.   

Overall, I’d recommend this volume to anyone looking to plan engaging activities with a Catholic slant for kids and family. It’s definitely geared towards adults, not kids, though. These aren’t ready-made projects; most require some degree of planning. However, with a little imagination, parents and educators will find plenty of ways to use the material presented here to enrich their lives and the lives of the children they work with.


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 us in order to elicit a review. The Catholic Company is also a great source for first communion gifts and baptism gifts.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Tradition Is Progressive

It’s a common misconception that “tradition” and “traditional” is somehow backwards looking or simply conservative. It’s not.

‘Tradition’ comes from the Latin traditio, the noun of the verb tradere, ‘to transmit’, ‘to deliver’. It was a term of ratification in Roman law: for example, the legal transfer of a shop or house was accompanied by the act of handing over its keys, traditio clavium; the sale of a piece of land was accompanied by the act of handing over a clod of earth. Tradere, traditio meant “to hand over an object”, with the intention, on the one hand, of parting with it, and, on the other, of acquiring it. Tradere implied giving over and surrendering something to someone, passing an object from the possession of the donor to the receiver... An equally good simile would be that of a relay race, where the runners, spaced at intervals, pass an object from one to the other...
    from The Meaning of Tradition by Fr. Yves Congar, O.P.

Tradition is not something for your grandparents. It’s not wistful nostalgia for the past. It is, in brief, what enables us to keep moving forward, to keep expanding and enhancing our knowledge about things, to progress--it’s progressive, not conservative. Whether or not you like it, essentially everything you have had taught to you is a kind of tradition, and that is A Good Thing.

Of course, not all traditions are good or perennially helpful. Each of us has to evaluate what is given to us and assign it value, but I’m just saying we shouldn’t discount tradition just because it was handed down to us, i.e., not dismiss things out of hand because they are “traditional.” I would even go further to suggest that we might want to implicitly give traditional knowledge more value than something we discover on our own until we have plenty of evidence to recommend another course precisely because it is something that those who came before us thought was valuable enough to hand on to us.

In other words, I’m suggesting we not reinvent the wheel if we don’t have to. What our parents and grandparents (and theirs and theirs and theirs) hand on to us should have implicit value for us, to help us to not start from scratch, to learn from their experience and mistakes, and to, as Sir Isaac Newton and others have said, see a little bit further than they by standing on the shoulders of giants. We should value tradition because it enables us to be truly progressive.