Saturday, September 5, 2015

Absolution, excommunication, and abortion

Photo credit: Giampiero Sposito/Reuters.
Welcome to another edition of What Did the Pope Really Say? Today’s confusion is over Pope Francis’ recent letter to the President of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, Abp. Salvatore “Rino” Fisichella. Specifically, what did the Pope command to be done about abortion for the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy year that is not already being done in parishes throughout the world? Did the Pope declare abortion to not be a sin? Were women unable to be absolved of the sin before? What gives?

In this case, the normal amount of mainstream-media misinformation is compounded by what Edward Peters calls “the pervasive ignorance of canon law among rank-and-file faithful brought about by fifty years of ecclesiastical antinomianism.”[*] Abortion is not only a sin in traditional Christian moral doctrine; in the Code of Canon Law it’s also a delict, analogous to a tort in civil law, with a defined punishment. Per Canon 1398, “A person who procures a completed abortion incurs a latae sententiae excommunication.”[†]

The confusing part of Pope Francis’ letter is his stated decision “to concede to all priests for the Jubilee Year the discretion to absolve of the sin of abortion those who have procured it and who, with contrite heart, seek forgiveness for it.” Boston archbishop Cdl. Seán O’Malley reinforces the bewilderment when he tells us, “Under the provisions of canon law, absolution of certain serious sins, including abortion, was reserved to the diocesan bishop. For many years in the United States, including in the Archdiocese of Boston, diocesan bishops have granted their priests the faculty to absolve the sin of abortion.” [Bold type mine.—ASL] In all fairness, canon law is a recondite subject, and neither Francis nor Cdl. O’Malley were educated as canon lawyers.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Altruism Without a Chest

© United Feature Syndicate.
It almost sounds like the plot of an absurdist comedy written by the team that brought us Revenge of the Nerds: Computer scientists gather to combat global poverty, only to become increasingly obsessed with interstellar travel and potential artificial intelligence-driven doomsday scenarios. Yet that’s what Dylan Matthews of Vox found at the Effective Altruism Global conference at the Google Quad campus in Mountain View, Calif., a couple of weeks ago — a convention of (mostly) white males more worried about a Terminator-like Götterdämmerung in a speculative future than about the homeless in present-day Los Angeles.

Pascal’s Mugging

Explains Matthews:

Effective altruism (or EA, as proponents refer to it) is more than a belief .... It’s a movement, and like any movement, it has begun to develop a culture, and a set of powerful stakeholders, and a certain range of worrying pathologies. At the moment, EA is very white, very male, and dominated by tech industry workers. And it is increasingly obsessed with ideas and data that reflect the class position and interests of the movement’s members rather than a desire to help actual people.
In the beginning, EA was mostly about fighting global poverty. Now it’s becoming more and more about funding computer science research to forestall an artificial intelligence-provoked apocalypse. At the risk of overgeneralizing, the computer science majors have convinced each other that the best way to save the world is to do computer science research. Compared to that, multiple attendees said, global poverty is a “rounding error.”

In a review of Jeremy Beer’s The Philanthropic Revolution: An Alternative History of American Charity, philanthropist Fred Smith muses, “I often wonder if philanthropy is one of those words that has either lost its traditional definition (love of mankind) or never should have been used to describe giving in the first place.” Certainly, a preference for saving 1052 estimated future lives rather than improving the lives of 3 billion existing people who live on less than $2.50 a day (2013) speaks more of a love of numbers than a love of mankind.

The mathematics by which the EA Global nerds justify this preoccupation with existential risk is a kind of “Pascal’s Mugging”, creating a false risk-reward analysis by slapping high probability values on events which are too hypothetical to give honestly estimable odds. Even within the often-repugnant calculations of utilitarianism, a life five generations from being conceived has no claim on us equal to that of a life currently being lived.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

The Chittister Challenge

(Image source: Single Parenting.)
Sister Joan Chittister, OSB, is arguably the Church in America’s best-known “Spirit of Vatican II” relic, a visible reminder of why so many orders of nuns are failing. The Limousine Left loves Sr. Joan not only because she’s a programmatic liberal but also because she’s an exponent of the “primacy of conscience” argument, which is the Catholic left’s favorite fig leaf for its divergences from orthodoxy. Nevertheless, occasionally, like a broken clock, she’s right every once in a while.

Some years ago, Sr. Joan said (to the delight of the pro-abortion establishment):

I do not believe that just because you’re opposed to abortion, that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. And why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want any tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is.

A person on Facebook asked a question that The Blogger Who Must Not Be Named reprinted: “Would you accept a 50% income tax if it ensured that no woman would ever feel compelled to have an abortion because of financial worries?” It’s the same question Sr. Joan asks from a different angle — how far is the pro-life movement prepared to go to diminish the incidence of abortion?

Despite what Leslie Salzillo of the Daily Kos thinks, there are plenty of pro-lifers who support government safety-net programs, especially those geared toward poor single mothers. Contrapositively, there are also those who plug abortion to save tax money paid in welfare; so it’s not as if the pro-life movement has a monopoly on anti-tax tightwads.

Still, as Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig points out, “If a woman considers herself too destitute to care for a child, there is no transvaginal ultrasound demoralizing enough and no accompanying narration excoriating enough to make her decision [to abort] seem any less plausible.” So are we prepared to pay higher taxes if by doing so we could see a reduction in abortions?

Thursday, July 30, 2015

An Irish Catholic’s Look at White People—UPDATED

Jose Antonio Vargas with two unnamed men. (© 2015 MTV.)
At first, I was reluctant to watch the MTV documentary White People. I’d seen a trailer for it a couple of weeks before, which gave me the impression that a good portion of it was white college kids simply regurgitating the “privilege” narrative. Besides, it was an MTV project; whatever else you expect an MTV program to provoke, thought is not usually one of them.

It was better executed than I thought it would be. This was largely due to Jose Antonio Vargas, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and filmmaker who did the interviews and asked the questions. Throughout the film, Vargas is charming, receptive, and avoids all appearance of being accusatory or condemnatory. Although he takes one occasion to change minds, for the most part he simply looks on and asks questions as young people struggle to break through the barriers to openly talk about racial perceptions.

That’s not to say the documentary is, shall we say, without its moments. A young man in a “privilege workshop” talks about “never having to represent your race to other people.” My first reaction on hearing that was: “You’re a kid. You’ll get your chance soon enough.”

One of my sharpest memories is of a discussion I had twenty years ago with a coworker and her fiancé about mixed couples. My coworker noted that black parents seemed to welcome such couples, while white parents didn’t, then turned to me and said, “Why are they like that, Tony?” The only thing I could tell her is that my previous girlfriend had had an opportunity to meet my dad and his wife, and that she had ducked out. I’d been called upon to explain white people, as if we were all of a piece.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Progressive fundamentalism and gay wedding cakes

On July 17 on the Patheos blog Unfundamentalist Christians, a blog dedicated to repackaging Christianity for greater feminist and LGBT friendliness, guest contributor April Kelsey’s bio proclaims her goal to be “to put the final nail in fundamentalist Christianity”. Well, everyone should have a goal in life, although it’s far more probable that progressive Christians like Kelsey will cease to be Christians even in name long before fundamentalist Christians cease to be fundamentalist.

However, Kelsey is unaware that she, too, is a fundamentalist, albeit one who skews her reading of the Bible leftward rather than to the right. Indeed, the last line of her post “Your ‘Deeply-Held Belief’ Isn’t Biblical” — “… [I]f it isn’t in the Bible, I don’t have to believe it” — is the most common expression of one of the “two pillars” of Christian fundamentalism: sola scriptura, “only Scripture”.[*] I too would like to see the end of Christian fundamentalism, because I’d like to see the end of Christian disunity, which sola scriptura helps to propagate.

Now, if you want to stop being a fundamentalist, you have to reject sola scriptura (and there are many reasons you should do so). There are really only three ways to accomplish this. One is to stop being Christian altogether. The second is to regard the Bible as fallible and make Christ your ideological sock puppet, like Jimmy Carter. The third is to become Catholic, or at least Eastern Orthodox, and let the apostolic tradition guide your understanding of Scripture. Whichever way you do it, you can’t say, “I only believe what I read in the Bible,” and still pretend you’re not a fundamentalist. Fundamentalist does not equal politically conservative.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Apologetics Toolbox: Sin, forgiveness, and reconciliation

Pope Francis hearing a confession.
(Image source:
The Catholic doctrines surrounding the Sacrament of Reconciliation (aka Confession, aka Penance) present a challenge to many Protestants, especially those of the free-church/Evangelical lineage. “Why,” the Protestant asks, “must I go to a priest to have my sins forgiven? Why can’t I just pray to Jesus directly? After all, my sins are between me and God!” If the Protestant is an Evangelical of the “once saved, always saved” stripe, he may even say, “Jesus has already taken away all of my sins, past, present, and future! Why would I need to ask?”

Sin is not a private matter

I’ve already discussed the assurance of salvation elsewhere; if you need to, please consult that post first. The rest of the discussion will assume that a mere assertion of faith in Christ is not sufficient in itself to achieve salvation, that we can lose our salvation through our own fault.

Sins don’t occur in a vacuum or a void space. In all cases, there is at least one person other than God who is offended by a particular sin — namely, the sinner himself, even if he fails to recognize it. Most of the time, there is at least one direct victim of the sin; there are often witnesses. Many sins hurt the community, even when they’re not illegal. And sins done in public cause scandal in the classic sense: they testify against the Church and the Faith to non-Christians. Moreover, we know just from watching the news that many sins done in secret become public knowledge due to circumstances beyond the sinners’ control, becoming scandals in the common sense. How could you ever think that your sins are “just between you and God”?

So we’ve assumed that an assertion of faith, even a “conviction of salvation”, doesn’t of itself secure salvation, because “if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries.” (Hebrews 10:26-27 NASB)[*] Only those who “persevere to the end” (Matthew 24:13), who “[do] the will of My Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21), will be saved. How then, does a Christian repair the damage and put himself back on the path?

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Apologetics Toolbox: Catholic Answers for Slick Questions

A Facebook source led me to a page titled “Questions for Roman Catholics”, by Matt Slick of the Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry. “The responses [I get],” Slick states, “vary from defensive tradition to ignoring them and hoping to go away. Some of the questions are easier for Roman Catholics to respond to, and others are not. I hope that these might be helpful in your dialogs with the Roman Catholics as you try to present to them the true and saving gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Well, it depends on the context in which Slick presents the questions; some are pretty intrusive. But overall, some of the questions are no-brainers, some misrepresent Catholic doctrine to some extent, and some just show how little Slick himself understands what he’s attacking. The overall presentation is supposed to lead the Catholic to question his faith and the Church. But it’s by no means an infallible (*ahem!*) wrecking ball. Here I present it with fearful fidelity, including Slick’s misspellings, along with the answers. (Note: Questions rendered irrelevant by the answer to a previous question — or, in the case of the oral tradition questions, based on a fallacious notion — are presented in strikeouts.)

Monday, July 13, 2015

The Benedict Option: Building a Catholic counterculture—UPDATED

Rod Dreher. (Photo: John Zak.)
Saturday, on the suggestion of Brandon Vogt, I read fellow Metroplex resident Rod Dreher’s “Critics of the Benedict Option”, in which Dreher attempts to further articulate what he confesses is “an inchoate phenomenon”. It's inchoate because, while the name is taken from St. Benedict of Nursia, the idea is not a return to the great monastic period.

Indeed, Dreher doesn’t really have anything specific in mind, which is why it drives poor John Zmirak crazy. Zmirak is trying to treat as a defective syllogism what is patently a hazy vision (and therefore can’t be logically proven or disproven).

The springboard for Dreher’s idea is a passage at the end of After Virtue, written by the late Alasdair MacIntyre in 1981. MacIntyre, Dreher writes, “described the state of contemporary moral discourse as irresolvably chaotic — irresolvably, because we have no common source of moral behavior anymore, and have decided, as a culture, that moral truth is something one arrives at by feeling.” Here is the part of the passage from the end of After Virtue which to me is truly relevant in discussing the Benedict Option:

A crucial turning point in [the late Western Roman Empire] occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead — often not recognising fully what they were doing — was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. [Bold font mine.—ASL]

And thus the Benedict Option: Christian enclaves, like Front Royal, Va., or Ave Maria, Fla., existing to mutually reinforce the faith in the new Dark Age.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

The foolishness of Western secular morality

Greek philosophers. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons.)
The victory of the LGBT bloc in creating the right to “same-sex marriage” is simply the most recent and most potentially devastating consequence of a tectonic shift in Western morality. Like the culture that produced it, though, the morality which shattered the traditional definition of marriage is something of a cyborg — a half-organic, half-artificial construct produced by combining an intemperate worship of the natural with an equally unrestrained desire to dominate the natural through technology and social engineering.

Consider, for instance, the bill New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently signed into law extending the state government’s “yes means yes” rules to include private schools and universities. The “yes means yes” standard has more potential for court-clogging legal action than the older “no means no” because — theoretically, at least — the least unconsidered, not-previously-agreed-to touch could be interpreted as sexual assault.

However, the standard has become so widespread that, as Heather Wilhelm reports, one group has launched a “Consent Conscious Kit” which features breath mints, a condom, and (of all things) a sex contract by which college kids can lay out the terms and conditions of their sexual contact with each other. Thus, the “Sexual Revolution” degrades from “kicking the government out of the bedroom” to the state-sanctioned micromanagement of affectionate touching, even while maintaining the fiction that sexual restraint is neither possible nor desirable.

As another example, this past Thursday the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution calling for the protection of the family as a fundamental unit of society, a resolution the US and most Western European countries opposed, by a vote of 27-14. The paradoxical nature of the opposition is highlighted by a sentence in a statement issued by the Sexual Rights Initiative: the resolution didn’t “[acknowledge] the harms and human rights abuses that are known to occur within families, or [recognize] that diverse forms of family exist.” Families are bad; yet a diversity of family types is good. The cognitive dissonance is deafening.

Before going further, let me make it clear that secular morality, as I use it in this post, refers to certain moral propositions that differ from traditional Judeo-Christian teachings (religious morality). Taking the whole of the moral sphere into consideration, there are arguably more points of contact between religious morality and secular morality than there are points of separation. Where secular morality separates from religious morality, religious and irreligious people can be found to some extent on both sides. Secular morality, then, should not be construed as held in full or part by all the irreligious, or rejected in whole or part by all the religious.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The end of the American experiment

I had to take my time with my reaction to the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges (576 US __ [2015]), because there were some comments and criticisms that led me to suspect it was worse than I thought it would be. The suspicion was confirmed.

As expected, Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy authored the decision, which is the latest in the logical progression from Lawrence v. Texas (539 US 558 [2002]) through United States v. Windsor (570 US __ [2013]), the majority opinions of which Kennedy also wrote. Also as expected, Kennedy premissed his opinion on the dubious concept of “substantive due process”, the pre-eminent rationale for judicial legislation, and invoked the “equal protection” clause without bothering to explain — as, indeed, none of his decisions explain — how homosexuals qualify as a “protected class”. (Sorry, neither “Well, duh!” nor “Because I said” is a valid legal argument.)

In its way, Obergefell was an even greater assertion of SCOTUS power than was Windsor. As I explained at the time, Kennedy justified striking down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) by arguing that the right to define marriage lay with the States, not explaining how the State’s authority to confer State benefits could rob the Federal government of its authority to decide who gets Federal benefits. Now, however, the States can exercise their authority only until the Court develops a “better informed understanding” (slip opinion at 19), at which time it can impose a school solution on everyone.

For Alexis de Tocqueville, the great French commentator on early America, the great danger of democracy was “tyranny of the majority”; i.e., the insufficiency of institutions to protect individual rights. The problem for the last few decades has been exactly the opposite — aristocracy, the rise of a self-selected élite willing to frustrate the democratic process, distort the plain meaning of the Constitution, and violate long-standing political rights in order to impose its superior mores. Obergefell signals the triumph of that élite and the functional advent of limited self-government.