Wednesday, May 25, 2016

I Believe … But I Don’t Understand

Image source: gospelcoalition.org.
On Monday, May 23, Patheos published an article by Rebecca Bratten Weiss on suffering and “the clamor of insufficient explanations”. By “insufficient explanations”, Weiss means not only the myriad of clichés we Christians inflict on the suffering and despairing (“If God brings you to it, He will bring you through it;” “God shapes the back to fit the burden”), but also the assertion, “It must be God’s will.”

The Challenge of Suffering

The problem of suffering is the single most potent argument against Christian theology and cosmology, because it cuts past the dry hairsplitting of philosophy to pose a direct challenge to the heart. As Weiss puts it, “The fact that we need to suffer to be well is a symptom of a fallen world, but to suggest that the suffering itself comes not from the darkness of nature but from God on high is horrifying, sadistic.”

In Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, the atheist brother Ivan refuses to believe in a God who allows the suffering of children, and says that even if there is some inexplicable benefit to be derived from this, he will not have it. “I respectfully return the ticket” he says. I sympathize. I respectfully return the ticket to whatever fun-house or extravaganza somehow necessitates this terrible suffering. I would rather join Ivan and deny God outright, than believe in a God who is up there pulling all the strings that lead us to torment and loss, because this was the only way, the best of all possible worlds. [N.B.: Weiss has not abandoned the Faith, either formally or informally.]

We can’t escape the challenge by blaming the darkness of nature; for if Nature is dark, it can only be by God’s Will. And it’s not even the best of all possible worlds (cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I:25:6 ad 3). Whether God manipulates all events directly, or simply sits back and watches everything play out by itself, or some combination of the two, the buck stops at His desk.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Choosing Classical Education Over Common Core

Students at St. John Bosco, Rochester, NY
(Photo source: stjohnbosco.org.)
On April 28, the National Catholic Register published an article by Peter Jesserer Smith on the growing number of Catholic schools and systems converting from conventional progressive education to classical — or perhaps we should say neo-classical — liberal arts education. While one hundred American sees, just over half, have elected to conform to Common Core, widespread rejection of the controversial curriculum is creating greater demand for an alternative to homeschooling, leading to more charter and non-profit startups.

The Problem of Education

Catholics aren’t the only ones returning to the trivium. Philip Kilgore, director of the nonsectarian Hillsdale College’s Barney Charter Schools Initiative, told Smith that “[parental] dissatisfaction with contemporary education has been driving the demand for a return to the classical tradition.” Says Kilgore, “I speak with so many people from every corner of this land who are eager to do something about the problem of education.”

Many people from various ideological backgrounds agree that American K-12 education is failing. Some, like Prof. Jack Schneider, would contest this, pointing to tests of limited scope, like the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS) test, that purport to show American schools as doing well. Others, like Frederick M. Hess of the American Enterprise Institute, seem to recognize the problem only insofar as it affects the production of hire-ready future employees, as if the only worthwhile goal of education were to generate Homo oeconomicus.

The most commonly-perceived problem, however, is that the current systems produce moral and cultural illiterates, that the systems have abandoned teaching children how to think in favor of teaching them what to think. Writes Patrick J. Deneen:

We have fallen into the bad and unquestioned habit of thinking that our educational system is broken, but it is working on all cylinders. … Our students are the achievement of a systemic commitment to producing individuals without a past for whom the future is a foreign country, cultureless ciphers who can live anywhere and perform any kind of work without inquiring about its purposes or ends, perfected tools for an economic system that prizes “flexibility” (geographic, interpersonal, ethical).

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Timothy Egan and the Reverent Subject of Sex

Timothy Egan. (Photo: Barry Wong.)
The last few days, I’ve been focused on the hyperventilating by Catholic radical traditionalists over Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis’ overlong summation of the work of the last two Synods on the Family. The reactions from the left were, for the most part, entirely predictable — some despaired because it didn’t go as far as they thought it should, while others rejoiced because they thought it went farther than it did. Of the latter category, we have Timothy Egan of the New York Times, who penned what Phil Lawler has called “surely ... the dumbest column published on the topic.”

“Sex was Dirty”

Egan, Lawler states, “rolls out the stale complaints of the 1970s about the Bad Old Church, opening and closing his column with citations from the late comedian George Carlin. The reader will look in vain for references to any other authority. Nor is there evidence that Egan has paid attention to Catholic writers who have reflected on the Church’s approach to human sexuality more recently, and just maybe more profoundly, than Carlin—such as, just for example, St. John Paul II.”

Actually, Egan does worse than go without authoritative references: he cites the Baltimore Catechism in such a way that it appears to support the tropes.

Sex was dirty. Sex was shameful. Sex was unnatural. Thinking about it was wrong. Premeditation itself was a sin, and so was flirting. Sex had one purpose: procreation, the joyless act of breeding. “The sixth commandment forbids all impurity and immodesty in words, looks and actions,” was admonition No. 256 in the Baltimore Catechism, the standard text used to teach the faith from 1885 to the late 1960s.
No. 256 [sic; the actual answer number is 257] also warned about the dangers of “sinful curiosity, bad companions, drinking, immodest dress and indecent books, plays and motion pictures.” If that sounds now like the dynamics of a good dinner party, you can also see this pope joining the fun at the table.

In my post on Amoris Laetitia, I spoke of the distinction the Church makes between the doctoral (“What do we teach?”) and the pastoral (“How do we integrate this teaching into parish life?”). The same kind of distinction ought to be observed between doctrine and indoctrination: religious formation, also known as catechesis. What the Catholic Church teaches is one thing; what Tim Egan and George Carlin “learned”, however, is another thing entirely, and may not be entirely their fault for not paying attention in class.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

What Did the Pope Really Say? (The Amoris Laetitia Edition)

Image source: ancoraonline.it.
On Friday, as I’m sure most of you know, the Vatican Press released Pope Francis’ post-synodal exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love). Predictably, everyone who foresaw sweeping changes in Church doctrine and practice were proved wrong, though that didn’t stop The Usual Gang of Radical Traditionalists from proclaiming it a heretical disaster.

Amoris Laetitia Not a Wrecking Ball

If you’re going to read it, be prepared: at 264 pages (closer to 245, if you take out blank pages and such), it’s longer than any encyclical I’ve ever read, including St. John Paul’s Evangelium Vitae, longer even than Laudato Si’. It’s a wide-ranging and somewhat undisciplined ramble, as Francis occasionally breaks from the main line of his thoughts to directly address sections of his readership. For example, in paragraph 212, in the middle of discussing short-term preparations for marriage, he offers some quick advice to the engaged couples. But while fully half of the text is enclosed in quotation marks — three-quarters of one of the longest paragraphs consists of one extensive citation of a sermon given by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. — still Francis’ irrepressible enthusiasm comes through.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that Amoris Laetitia is an apostolic exhortation, not an apostolic constitution nor a motu proprio. Very early on, Francis defines his purpose: “to gather the contributions of the two recent Synods on the family, while adding other considerations as an aid to reflection, dialogue and pastoral practice, and as a help and encouragement to families in their daily commitments and challenges.” (AL § 4)

Since Francis’ focus is pastoral not doctrinal, no doctrine has been upset, no dogma contradicted, no norm disestablished. While Dave Armstrong exaggerates its importance to the life and future of the Church (“Francis’ ‘Humanae Vitae moment’”? Seriously?), it’s certainly not the wrecking ball many feared it would be.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Michael Lind’s Lifeless Conservativism

Russell Kirk (via Wikimedia).
That the Republican Party must reform or become irrelevant is increasingly obvious to most people. The hardest fact to deal with is that the voter base has shifted leftward over the last thirty-six years; the attitudes, values, and beliefs that appealed to many boomers doesn’t appeal as much to Gen-Xers and even less to millennials. If the GOP is to remain the American analogue to Britain’s Conservative Party, it follows that conservatives themselves must define what it means to be conservative in the 21st century.

Conservativism vs. Utopianism

“Can the American right free itself from the utopianism of the post-Reagan era?” asks Michael Lind in The National Interest.

The question would have seemed strange to mid-century American conservative thinkers like Peter Viereck, Russell Kirk and Robert Nisbet. In their view, conservatism was anti-utopian by definition. In different ways, they identified “conservatism” with a suspicion of radical schemes to revolutionize America and the world.
But today’s orthodox conservatism consists almost entirely of radical utopian schemes to revolutionize America and the world. So-called “movement conservatism” or “fusionism” in its present form is, in fact, an alliance of three distinct utopian movements in economics, domestic policy and foreign policy. All three crusades are doomed to fail in the real world.

A modern realist, I find, is very often one who, having despaired of the real world ever meeting the standards of his ideals, goes on to conclude that we should have no ideals. Lind, a modern realist, therefore plunks for a bare-bones conservativism, one that seeks merely to preserve the status quo rather than strive for a better nation.

Unfortunately, Lind doesn’t tell us why the status quo is to be preserved, or why change is unnecessary. He merely defines three particular efforts as “utopian” and derides any attempt to achieve them through politics as “madness”.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

God, Galileo, and the Transgendered

On February 27, Melinda Selmys, a self-described “queer convert to Catholicism”, wrote a post for her blog on Patheos titled, “Does God Make Mistakes? (And are Trans People One of Them?)” There are two ways, Selmys asserts, that trans identities could be “real and valid” without using a fallible God as an explanation. The first is the fallen nature of man; the second is that the binary model of sexuality is too simplistic.

Here Comes Galileo (Again!?)

I have a lot of respect for Selmys. C. S. Lewis said once that he didn’t talk about homosexuality as a rule because it wasn’t a problem in his life; he wouldn’t tell someone how to fight a battle he’d never fought. Likewise, never having thought of myself as anything but a male, I’m in no position to tell people with gender-identity disorder how to overcome it, nor can I fault them if they fail. In fact, as I understand it, GID is an almost intractable problem; even sexual-reassignment surgery is unreliable as a palliative. (See my post in The Impractical Catholic on sex changes.)

As I say, I respect Selmys, and don’t wish to impugn her fidelity to the Church. However, in defending her second postulate, instead of stepping through the common arguments in support of Church teaching and calling them into question, she drags Galileo into the argument to serve once more as the sine qua non of magisterial error. Poor, abused Galileo! Never simply allowed to rest vindicated, his shade must be constantly conjured up to bolster weak arguments: “Well, the Church has been wrong before. Just look at Galileo!”

Why, O why does Selmys, who is capable of so much better, reach for such a hackneyed and intellectually lazy comparison? Well, because apparently the Church hasn’t formally instituted the “binary model” as dogma:

How does this relate to the transgender question? Well, today we know that various bodies with lower levels of authority (lower, in many cases than the Inquisition of 1616) have condemned transgender identities. We know that Popes have offered indirect criticism (though Christmas greetings and Papal homilies are not official dogmatic pronouncements any more than airplane interviews are.) We know that the weight of theological tradition falls on the side of a strict male-female binary, and we know that Genesis 1:27 and Matthew 19:4 are traditionally interpreted as excluding legitimate variation from this scheme.
We also know that nothing about transgender or intersex conditions has been promulgated at a level of authority that meets Vatican I’s criteria for infallibility. This means that there remains open the possibility of developments in doctrine that will reveal a space within the order of creation for those who do not fit neatly into binary categories [bold type mine.—ASL]. The basic teaching — that we are created male and female in the image and likeness of God — could be compatible with the idea that there is some admixture of both the male and the female in certain individuals (an idea which, in fact, has roots in some ancient Jewish interpretive traditions.)

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Republican Fixation on Sanders’ Socialism Misses the Point

Governments were intervening for the common good before
the first socialist theories were invented.
I know many of you Republicans right now are fixated on the awful prospect of Donald Trump becoming the party nominee for President. It may be of some comfort that the Democrats are also displaying cracks in their unity along much the same lines: they too are going through a revolt of the Populists against the Optimates. The only difference is, their Optimate candidate, Hillary Clinton, is in a much better position to steal — er, win the nomination than is the Republicans’ Optimate, Jeb! Bush. (However, if Clinton gets the nod, Republicans have a better chance of winning in November.)

Sanders Still Viable

Right now, though, explaining how we got to this point is of less interest than considering how we get out of this mess … or, at least, how we avoid repeating it four years down the line. Bernie Sanders is still a viable candidate, despite the poor turnout in Nevada; if he pulls off the nomination, the GOP will likely lose the White House no matter who they nominate.

This fact doesn’t seem to register with Republicans: Optimate Democrats are much less concerned about Sanders than Optimate Republicans are scared (yes, scared) of Trump and Cruz. There are fewer Democrats who would never vote for him than there are Republicans who would never vote for Trump or Cruz.

I hate writing about Sanders’ candidacy again so soon after my last post on the topic. However, in thinking about it, my last post was too indirect, too reflective. What needs to be said, has to be said bluntly:

Republicans, wake the [deleted] up. You’re missing the point.  You’re not paying attention, and that’s going to cost you every other November until you get the hint. Here’s why:

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Requiescat in pacem, Antonin Scalia

Oddly enough, according to a couple of sources, Associate Justice Antonin G. Scalia’s best friend was AJ Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Said Marcia Coyle on PBS NewsHour Weekend, Scalia, who passed away Saturday at the age of 79, “was widely liked ... a very colorful writer, and in person ... a consummate gentleman, ... could be very funny. He is going to be missed ... especially by Justice Ginsburg, with whom he had a special friendship — they called each other best friends — and with whom he went to opera and ... to India.

“He does not write like a happy man”

To hear Scalia described as “widely liked” and a “consummate gentleman” may sound improbable to people who only knew of him through his strident, hectoring argumentation on the bench, especially to liberals and progressives who came to hate him as a conservative obstructionist. (One gay man of my acquaintance sneered, “My condolences to the Koch brothers for their loss.”)

Because Scalia’s opinions coincided often with conservative interests, it was all too easy to claim his originalism was merely intellectual cover for his political views — in fact, so easy that more substantive legal criticism often went lacking. His dissents — and he wrote plenty of dissents in his nearly thirty years’ tenure on the SCOTUS bench — often sacrificed detailed analysis of the legal principles involved in favor of sarcastic fiskings of the majority opinion and fervent homilies on the wider implications of the decision; e.g., his dissent in Obergefell v. Hodges (513 U.S. ___ [2015]; pp. 69 ff.). So acidic were his opinions that, as Conor Clarke observed in Slate, “Scalia’s opinions read like they’re about to catch fire for pure outrage. He does not, in short, write like a happy man.”

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Bernie Sanders, OWS, and the Children of Allentown

Bernie Sanders. (Credit: AP/Rich Pedroncelli.)
Does anybody remember Occupy Wall Street? As nutty and quixotic as it was, it grew out of real social problems and concerns. And the improbable success of Bernie Sanders as a presidential candidate is a reminder that the problems didn’t go away just because the protesters did.

“We Are the 99%”

To refresh your memory: OWS never had a single public list of demands, although several people posted lists on their website which the press then published as “official”. Nevertheless, Roger Lowenstein wrote in Bloomberg.com, “the overall message is reasonably coherent. They want more and better jobs, more equal distribution of income, less profit (or no profit) for banks, lower compensation for bankers, and more strictures on banks with regard to negotiating consumer services such as mortgages and debit cards. They also want to reduce the influence that corporations — financial firms in particular — wield in politics, and they want a more populist set of government priorities: bailouts for student debtors and mortgage holders, not just for banks.”

This “reasonably coherent message”, give or take an exaggeration or two, could just as easily be Sanders’ platform.

Even near the end, OWS had support from about one-third of American voters, finding some little support even among Republicans, according to Public Policy Polling, while just over half the Democrats responded favorably. The cry “We are the 99%”, as inapposite as it was, found resonance with a significant percentage of the people; Paul Taylor of the Pew Research Center told Scott Horsley of NPR that it was “arguably the most successful slogan since ‘Hell no, we won’t go,’ going back to the Vietnam era. … [It] certainly triggered a lot of coverage about economic inequality.”

Monday, January 11, 2016

Defining the “Disappearing Middle Class”

Michael J. Perry
(Image source: sacbee.com.)
On December 30, 2015, economist Mark J. Perry published in his American Enterprise Institute blog Carpe Diem a couple of charts purporting to show that the American middle class, so far as it can be said to be disappearing, is doing so into higher-income households. Said Perry:

Over the last nearly 50 years the biggest gain for US households has been the 16.6 percentage point increase in the share of high-income households earning $100,000 or more per year, which accounts for the declining share of low-income and middle-income households (by two different measures). Yes, the middle-class has been disappearing over the last generation or more, but they have moved into higher-income categories of household income, not moving down into lower-income categories of household income.


“Cooking the Books”

Of course, Perry is a recognized economist, and I’m just a smart-aleck with a computer and three credit-hours in Econ 201. But I’m also a son of a bookkeeper, and have seen many interesting tricks people can play with numbers. Science is heavily dependent for its effectiveness on the honesty by which it applies numbers to phenomena, and is therefore vulnerable to anyone who knows how to “cook the books”. And the “dismal science”, like the others, tends to suffer when the numbers collide with policy preferences.

The picture Perry paints is of a middle class that was better off in 2014 than it was in 1967 — at the very least, that said middle class is making more money even after inflation is taken into account. However, to get an apples-to-apples comparison, he has to account for inflation. And here’s where the problem begins: there are a number of tools an analyst can use for inflating and deflating number … but none of them are 100% accurate. (For a comparison of four common price indexes used in policy analysis, see this post in The FRED Blog.)