Friday, December 30, 2011

2011: the 1968 of the New Evangelization

Today it’s time to write the last post of 2011.  On the purely personal level I’m ready to put this year to bed.

On the macroscopic level, it’s been full of events that may define the last twelve months as a watershed time similar to 1968.  While it’s still early to say the culture of death has come to the end of its chain and that Catholicism is firmly on the path of resurrection, our hopes for the return of sanity have pretty firm grounds.

Just over a year ago, a “progressive” nun speaking for a schismatic group called FutureChurch proclaimed, “It is clear that change is happening, and that it is bigger than any of us. … [The positions taken by some bishops in the last decade and a half] have led to more Catholics saying we have to resist this and be about a different kind of church because that’s not working anymore.”[1]  FutureChurch is indeed ahead of its time, applying the thoughts of the mid-Sixties to the Church of the mid-Forties.[*]  By contrast, the evidence pouring in since then indicates that change is happening in the opposite direction, that the movement is towards becoming more faithful to orthodox, traditional Catholicism.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Do religious beliefs matter?

To my dear friend religion is just another personal choice, like who to date or whether to have coffee or tea for breakfast.  It doesn’t matter what religion you choose to follow if it works for you. But that is not what Catholicism is.  It is not just another choice on the buffet of beliefs.  He thinks my stubborn persistence that Catholicism is the True Faith founded by Christ to be nothing more than a desire to be right.  [In the previous paragraph, “He finds it elitist a Catholic’s claim of belonging to the One True Church.”]

What our friend the Crescat is describing, in her post on dating outside the Faith, is described in the old Catholic Encyclopedia as “restricted indifferentism”: “all religions are equally worthy and profitable to man, and equally pleasing to God. … God looks only to the sincerity of intention, and that everybody can serve Him by remaining in the religion in which he has been brought up, or by changing it at will for any other that pleases him [i.e., the worshipper] more.”[1]

This is not an uncommon position to take.  In fact, a very dear friend of mine holds (or at least held at one time) this position almost exactly as stated.  If there’s anything enviable about the position, it allows one the benefit of having religious convictions, even strong convictions, without either the uncomfortable imperative of examining them for flaws or the equally uncomfortable need to challenge the beliefs of others.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Who cares about religious apathy?

The joke example of “mixed emotions” is “Watching your mother-in-law go over a cliff in your brand-new Maserati.”  Well, never having been married, my experience of other people’s mothers-in-law has been nothing but positive.  So I’ll have to settle for this example: reading that Richard Dawkins is a Christmas traditionalist.

In the Christmas issue of the New Statesman, published this week [writes Jennifer Schuessler of the New York Times], the eminent zoologist and author of “The God Delusion” began an open letter to Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain by heartily wishing him “Merry Christmas!,” adding that he will accept no substitutes.
“All that ‘Happy Holiday Season’ stuff, with ‘holiday’ cards and ‘holiday’ presents,” is a tiresome import from the United States, where it has long been fostered more by rival religions than atheists,” Mr. Dawkins wrote.
As a “cultural Anglican,” Mr. Dawkins continued, “I recoil from such secular carols as ‘White Christmas,’ ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,’ and the loathsome ‘Jingle Bells’ [he’s obviously never heard Andrea Bocelli sing it with the Muppets], but I’m happy to sing real carols, and in the unlikely event that anyone wants me to read a lesson I’ll gladly oblige — only from the King James Version, of course.”

Of course, Dawkins’ encomiums for traditional carols and robust, unapologetic references to Christ as part of Christmas merely set up attacks on government support of religious schools, the “faith-labeling” of children, and on PM Cameron’s own religious sincerity.  But the mental picture of him, bundled against the cold, appearing on some Belgravia doorstep and regaling the residents with “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” (perhaps in a barbershop quartet with Sam Harris, Philip Pullman and P. Z. Myers?), does much to alleviate the “after-Christmas blues”.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Have yourself a merry little Christmas ....

What are you doing here?  Listen to the song, then shut your computer OFF and go be with your family!  I'll be back Monday, 12/26.  In the meantime, God bless you all; have a merry, merry Christmas and a happy New Year!


Thursday, December 22, 2011

Awkward science problems

In Harper Magazine’sThe accidental universe: Science’s crisis of faith,” physicist/novelist Alan Lightman, writing for Harper’s Magazine, explains the dilemma that string theory, which posits multiple dimensions and multiple universes, places the discipline of theoretical physics.

On the one hand, it promises a workable Theory of Everything, the Holy Grail of physics, which would finally reconcile general relativity with particle physics in a coherent, mathematically expressible way.  As well, as Steven Weinberg explains, “The multiverse idea offers an explanation of why we find ourselves in a universe favorable to life that does not rely on the benevolence of a creator, and so if correct will leave still less support for religion.”  No need for “fine tuning” here, so sorry, folks; you can pack up your intelligent-designer bags and go home.

On the other hand, with 10500 universes in play, it means that the fundamental principles of our universe are accidental; the whole point of string theory in the beginning was to prove those principles necessary.  Worse, because of technological and financial limitations they can’t prove eternal inflation or string theory true, and won’t be able to for many, many years (if ever):

Not only must we accept that basic properties of our universe are accidental and uncalculable [sic] [; in] addition, we must believe in the existence of many other universes.  But we have no conceivable way of observing these other universes and cannot prove their existence.  Thus, to explain what we see in the world and in our mental deductions, we must believe in what we cannot prove.

Excuse me, I gotta get this out of my system:  BWA-HAHAHAHAHA-AA!  O the irony!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Can’t we just be friends?

I wonder if I even know what constitutes “romance” anymore.

I bring this up because there’s a pretty heavy discussion on Steve Gershom’s blog, where one of the readers is trying to “appeal to finer detail” on gay romance (no sexual contact implied) vis-à-vis Catholic sexual morality. And I don’t mean to appear as though I ridicule the idea, but my unruly mind can’t help but reel under the assaulting image of one man presenting another a bouquet of roses and a box of chocolates.

At one time, to say that something was romantic was to say that it had the air of epic adventure, that it was an Iliad or Chanson de Roland waiting for the right bard to cast it into poetry. Within the context of love, it was love both idealized and realized, having all the required, even scripted, elements yet evoking wonder and beauty, like a performance from Michelle Kwan at the top of her game. (No, I will not turn in my guy card.) The sexual tension was maintained almost perfectly, awaiting the honeymoon for its resolution and consummation.

The postmodern sexual madness always has to find new ways to shock because, wherever it’s occupied territory for awhile, it’s become yawningly banal. While I get that calling an ardent admiration for another person a “crush” is supposed to be funny, as is calling a close male friendship (such as that between Matt Damon and Ben Affleck) a “bromance”, it has all the stale emptiness of too many knock-knock jokes, of hearing somebody say “Houston, we have a problem” as though Apollo 13 just hit the big screen last weekend. “Man-crush” was cliché as soon as it was coined.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Terrorists are criminals, not soldiers—UPDATED

On December 1, the Senate passed S. 1867, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012.  The last action taken as of this date was on December 14, when both houses adopted a modifying resolution which pretty much imports the language of the Senate bill into the House companion bill H.R. 1540, passed back in April.

Originally I had written that the legislative process gives Congress the chance to correct mistakes.  Actually, it appears not; it justs gives a committee power to perpetuate mistakes.  For instance, Section 551(d) of the bill repeals — not "amends", mind you, repeals10 USC 925, Article 125 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice;[1] while the Senate intended to legalize homosexuality within the military, this provision if the bill is signed would also legalize bestiality within military jurisdiction.

Yeah, “oops”.  I seriously doubt our congresspersons are that “progressive”; I honestly believe they were so excited to strike a blow for gay rights that they didn’t do their homework to see what all they were repealing.  Nevertheless, now they’re stuck with the language, since BHO can’t do a line-item veto.

But of greater concern — one that’s spurred Mark Shea to new heights of purple anti-government invective — are Sections 1031 and 1032.[2]  Simply put, these two articles make the category of “people with Constitutional rights” subject to the say-so of the Executive Branch.  Congress has drunk the Kool-Ade.

Monday, December 19, 2011

On the doorstep of philosophy

In his classic concert film Bill Cosby: Himself, the storytelling comedian talks about the natural childbirth of his and his wife’s first daughter, Erika.  Cosby, who has an earned doctorate in education, sets up this story with the wry observation, “Now, we were Intellectuals, mind you … Intellectuals go to class to study things that people do naturally.”

This line popped into my brain after an exchange I had on eChurch Blog with “Simian”, an agnostic to whom I was introduced by Stacy Trasancos and who pops up on Accepting Abundance now and then.  Stuart James’ post was on the need of an objective reality by which we can define sanity; to cut this post to size, I’ll just say that Simian has been playing … er, devil’s advocate. 

In his response to me, Simian’s last lines were, “If we are looking for an external validation of our sanity we surely need look no further than other people around us. Why do we need more?”  More out of mischief than anything else, I replied, “Are the people around you sane by definition?”

Strange as it may seem, that’s the kind of question a philosopher asks in full earnest.  You’re at the doorstep of philosophy when you start to ask questions about ideas and facts that people take for granted.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Hell, Hitchens and unconditional acceptance

I’ve been writing a lot this last year about Catholic eschatology, especially about the doctrine of Hell, and was hoping to move on to pastures new. But two things happened today that changed my mind.

First, I received an email from my cousin Greg, prompted by a post I wrote for Catholic Bandita. Then, while I was writing him back, I got the news that Christopher Hitchens, journalist and one of the Four Horsemen of New Atheism, had passed away from esophageal cancer.

Other writers and Catholic bloggers have written their own eulogies for this brilliant, incisive, angry penman; for pure, touching pathos, I recommend his brother Peter’s valedictory. For myself, I’m hesitant to add to or detract from Hitch’s public wake; I may post something on The Impractical Catholic later. For now, let’s read an excerpt from Greg’s e-mail:

So here’s my take on religion and guilt. I think they very much go hand in hand but I think it's more how it is taught and delivered to us than of the religion itself, regardless of what faith.  I mean, think about it.  How many times are we told, “If you do XYZ, God will punish you.” Part of my issue with organized religion is the mixed messages that are involved. God’s love is supposed to be unconditional providing … and then all of these conditions are laid out.  […]  That is when the “guilt” begins to come into play, in my opinion of course.  

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Tim Tebow and “Christian incrementalism”

If [Denver Broncos quarterback Tim] Tebow wins the Super Bowl, against all odds, it will buoy his faithful, and emboldened faithful can do insane things, like burning mosques, bashing gays and indiscriminately banishing immigrants. While America has become more inclusive since Jerry Falwell​’s first political forays, a Tebow triumph could set those efforts back considerably.

This piece of anti-Christian effrontery by Rabbi Joshua Hammerman, and the op-ed piece it was part of, have been removed from The Jewish Week website. But not before it caught the ire of “Jammie Wearing Fools”, who posted a vicious fisking on Human Events, and the satirical gaze of Mark Shea:

Many Lefty Jews are stuck in some shtetl in Tsarist Russia and have trouble getting what 21st Century conservative Christians are really about. Part of it, as this piece demonstrates, is sheer class snobbery. Evangelicals like Tebow are seen by this snooty elitist as mouth-breathing Hee Haw lovers just about to erupt in mob violence at the slightest provocation. And this is understandable given the outbreaks of mass Christian violence against Jews that came with the release of The Passion of the Christ. Since that horrible terror erupted, leaving in its wake a nation traumatized by zero acts of violence against Jews (a number that has doubled every day since then), you can see why somebody like the author of this piece has grounds for his fears.

Well, not quite “zero” … there have been a couple of synagogue vandalisms since then. The problem is, since there were occasional synagogue vandalisms before, it’s really stretching things to argue that they were uniquely motivated by The Passion of the Christ. Ordinary anti-Semitic idiocy covers them nicely, thank you very much.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Is teaching the doctrine of Hell child abuse?

You don’t have to be a parent to be ripped apart by the sound of a child crying. If there’s anything in you worth calling “human”, then the tears of a frightened, hurt or sad child are the most wrenching thing to witness; it automatically calls forth a response — to heal, to help, to comfort, to defend. And there’s not much worse than to stand by helplessly, knowing there’s nothing you can do.

Of course, sooner or later the little monsters learn this weakness of ours and try to exploit it. If you spend enough time around kids, you learn to tell the subtle differences between authentic tears and the raging screams of a brat who didn’t get his way. In these cases, the worst thing you can do is to give in, to reinforce the expectation.

There are other times, though, when the thing that must be done may — and probably will — make the child cry. For instance, when you have to tell little Johnny that his beloved Papa has gone to heaven. Or when the doctor must set the broken bone, or give little Susie a tetanus shot.

And it’s hard to predict what may frighten a child. The little boy who happily hacks up monsters with a sword while playing with his X-Box may lie awake at night because he overheard his father talking with a friend about a bugbear called “the twi-night double-header”.[*] His father spoke of it as a real thing; why shouldn’t he believe it’s a real beast?

Monday, December 12, 2011

Catholic Moms v. Erica Jong

Back in July, I wrote a reflection on an op-ed piece in the New York Times by Fear of Flying author Erica Jong, titled “Is Sex Passé?” The point of my post was that the Sexual Revolution, of which Jong was a prominent exponent, had done women more harm than good by telling them that they had to have multiple partners, eschew monogamy and put strict limits on childbearing (if not forgo it altogether).

In the article, Jong thought about why so many of the women who contributed to her anthology, Sugar in My Bowl, were “obsessed with motherhood and monogamy”, mostly choosing not to search for the “zipless f***” Jong had celebrated in her first novel.[*] Three-quarters of the way through, what could have been for her a line of thought leading to a massive paradigm shift runs instead into the unyielding wall of ideology:

Punishing the sexual woman is a hoary, antique meme found from “Jane Eyre” to “The Scarlet Letter” to “Sex and the City,” where the lustiest woman ended up with breast cancer. Sex for women is dangerous. Sex for women leads to madness in attics, cancer and death by fire. Better to soul cycle and write cookbooks. Better to give up men and sleep with one’s children. Better to wear one’s baby in a man-distancing sling and breast-feed at all hours so your mate knows your breasts don’t belong to him. Our current orgy of multiple maternity does indeed leave little room for sexuality. With children in your bed, is there any space for sexual passion? The question lingers in the air, unanswered.

Friday, December 9, 2011

The corrupting influence of utilitarianism

Yesterday on The Impractical Catholic, I wrote with some well-merited fury about the Air Force dumping the cremains of 274 or more soldiers in a Virginia landfill, as reported in the Washington Post (“Betrayal: treating soldiers like garbage”). As I said, this act is far more than a lapse of good judgment; it’s a slap in the face, a betrayal not just of those soldiers and their families but of the entire military community, of everyone who wore the uniform with pride and honor.

But I fully expect the Pentagon to rake through their personnel in an ecstasy of ass-covering to produce some desk-jockey lieutenant colonel, whom they’ll sacrifice in the usual way with the usual media connivance. That’s not sufficient, because this isn’t an “oopsie”: several people in the Air Force and DoD civilian leadership, at least one of which had to be flag rank, had to screw this up. Even desk jockeys don’t take that kind of decision on themselves.

This digs into the deeper question: How could this have happened? How could any collection of human beings lose their heads or their hearts so far as to dump the remains of citizens like so much refuse? How could they have lost sight of the fact that the ashes were once people whom other people loved and lost, that they were owed at minimum a decent burial, a dignity we accord even convicted felons … in full justice, burial with bugle and 21-gun salute, their families given folded flags “with the thanks of a grateful nation”?

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Of booties and killing

“Thou shalt not kill.” Seems obvious, right?

It isn’t. Not really. And let me explain why.

As you may have guessed, I’m fascinated with words. I’m not a trained linguist, just a logophile with access to the virtually unlimited resources of the internet and a little too much time on my hands. But I’m also in a continuing study of my own religion, as a revert whose religious formation was spotty and arguably mismanaged, and as person fascinated by the cultural and philosophical richness of the Catholic faith.

As I explained the other day, semantics is calling a spade a spade because it isn’t a shovel. The application of sound to concept may be socially constructed; but it doesn’t follow that you can therefore mean whatever you want with words. In fact, it’s precisely because they are socially constructed that you have to mean what the rest of society means by those words in order to be understood. Failure to do so is failure to communicate your thoughts and emotions, which is what words are supposed to accomplish.

The last couple of years have been full of stories concerning translation, about how specific words and phrases are rendered into good or poor English. The biggie, of course, was the most recent Latin Missal translation, with various people getting into Web donnybrooks about the replacement of “one in being” with “consubstantial” and the reintroduction of “ineffable”. But there have been lesser tempests in smaller teapots.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Testing the soundness of an argument

Formal propositional logic can make your head hurt. It’s higher mathematics applied to language use, and many people are scared of higher mathematics of any kind. In running through every inference, it often has the appearance of belaboring the obvious. Not only is it accessible only to the trained, because of that limited accessibility it’s off-putting to the untrained, as if though the subject in question belonged only to specialists and therefore the unwashed masses mustn’t even hope to participate.

Why go through such a megillah, then?

The rigor. It belabors the obvious precisely because it doesn’t take the “obvious” for granted; not everything that’s obvious to you and me is obvious to everyone else. By forcing the reader through the supposedly unnecessary steps, it demonstrates irrefutably the internal consistency of an argument. Informal logic tests the soundness of an argument by walking the floors and pounding the walls; formal logic supervises the welding of the steel beams and the pouring of the reinforced concrete.

Over on The Impractical Catholic I posted a formal argument demonstrating the infallible reliability of the Church. Reliability, after all, is the crux of the infallibility question: Can the Church be trusted not only to teach the evangelium correctly but also to teach dogmatic propositions that aren’t explicit or obviously implicit in Scripture?

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Garden tools and First Amendment rights

What is semantics? The best way I can put it is: Semantics is calling a spade a spade because it’s not a shovel.

Let me unpack it for you: Semantics is the art and study of words in their variation of meaning, particularly their precise application for the best expression of ideas. For example, if you’re digging a hole in the dirt and you ask for a “shovel”, in ordinary circumstances the person helping you would hand you a spade — laterally-curved blade with an ogive edge — because that’s the appropriate tool for the task. But a true shovel — flat blade with a straight edge — isn’t for digging; it’s for scooping. Especially when the blade is about 2’ wide, shallow and sometimes longitudinally-curved … that is, a snow shovel.

If you want to be understood, precision is your friend, ambiguity your enemy. If, however, you intend to mislead, misdirect or flat-out lie, ambiguity is your shovel.

Now we can look at three words that have been used to describe a certain First Amendment freedom: religion, worship and conscience. Which does the actual text protect? (Cue Jeopardy! music.)

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The risk of being heroes

I’ve made two additions to my blogroll that you should read: Steve Gershom’s Catholic, Gay and Feeling Fine, Thanks and Richard Evans’ Catholic Boy Richard. Although both describe themselves as “gay”, they also practice continence: Steve made his decision almost as soon as he became aware of his same-sex attraction (SSA), while Richard turned to continence after many years as a gay-rights activist.

This leads to two points. First, I’m not sending you over there to clog their comboxes with arguments as to whether they should call themselves “gay” or not. Steve only uses the term sporadically, generally preferring the shorthand “SSA”; I don’t know what Richard’s rationale is, and I don’t intend to beard him on it either. And while I generally reserve “gay” for people who are practicing homosexuals, I don’t insist on it … it’s just not that important.

Second point: I’m not asking you to go over to “get a load of the freak shows” or to make poster boys of them. They’re both truly intelligent, well-spoken people who write things about life in the Catholic faith worth reading. Say to them, “Hi, Tony sent me;” read what they have to say, then comment on what they’ve said. It’s that simple.

The injunction against making tokens or freak shows of these men is especially important. On one of Steve’s posts, which addressed another person’s statement “The best a gay Catholic can get is not-masturbating” (please read the post for the context), one reader, Ron, snorted: “Oh, please ... That shows the bias that all people with SSA are a bunch of sex-always-on-the-brain, ready-to-jump-in-the-sack people. We are capable of so much more than that, capable even of heroism.”

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Teaching sexual stupidity (Part II)

So in a rich, private Quaker school in Philadelphia, an English teacher named Al Vernacchio is also instructing a course in “Sexuality and Society”. While there’s no “show and tell”, and the course material doesn’t go so far as to demonstrate positions from the Kama Sutra, the discussion is frank and often graphic.

Furthermore, Vernacchio abandons abstinence education in favor of promoting “safe sex” in an “LGBT-friendly” manner. And author Laurie Abraham is so taken with his approach that she has written an eight-page encomium in the New York Times Magazine.

In Part I, I conceded that kids do need authoritative education in sex and sexuality. However, using “they’re gonna do it anyway” as a justification for abandoning abstinence-centered sex education is poor pedagogy and dumb policy. The saturation of our media with messages encouraging poor sexual judgment is simply further reason why we need abstinence education, and can provide a myriad of examples of how the media sells an unrealistic expectation of sex without consequences.

Nevertheless, this is the strategy many educators want to pursue: to teach kids to rely on prophylactics and chemicals to minimize the risks of pre- and non-marital sex. In fact, Abraham titled her piece “Teaching Good Sex”, as if copulation within the bonds of a monogamous, permanent marriage open to procreation is by definition unsatisfying or substandard. (I’ve seen this dirty-only-if-it’s-done-right implication before, in a Young Catholics For Choice advertisement, and I remember that our culture’s sexual values are still largely informed by the mindless psychobabble, quasi-scientific research and half-digested Marxism of the 1960s.)

Friday, December 2, 2011

Teaching sexual stupidity (Part I)

We all know that having a lot of money doesn’t mean you can’t in some way be a ninny. (Cue photo of Paris Hilton.) Nor is a post-graduate education a bar to silliness; while I know and admire plenty of people with magisterial and doctoral degrees, some others peddle and gulp theories or policies worthy of Dr. Peter Kreeft’s pungent phrase, “so stupid only a Ph.D. could believe it!”

If you want to go to the land of rich, well-educated idiots, you have to go either west to California, especially the San Francisco Bay area, or east to anywhere within 150 miles of Manhattan. Philadelphia’s Main Line — full of some of the oldest money and bluest blood in the country, and source of many of our nation’s greatest unsung heroes — now seems to be descending into the kind of senescence produced by inbreeding even an uncrowned, unofficial nobility.

Case in point: Friends’ Central School. A private school in Wynnewood run by the Society of Friends (“Quakers”), tuition starts at $13,200/year for nursery and tops out at $27,400/year for the secondary grades. Needless to say, it’s the kind of school ambitious yuppie parents want their kids to go to and the Philadelphia elite stuff full every year. And one of the electives a senior student can select from the curriculum is a year-long course called “Sexuality and Society”.

This course, taught by English teacher Al Vernacchio, who developed the course and sold it to the school’s leadership, is the subject of a rather fulsome, admiring 8-page article in the New York Times Magazine written by Laurie Abraham [H/T to Mark Shea]. Despite Abraham’s effusive praise, the article unconsciously conveys exactly what can go wrong with sex education in schools.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Humans matter; or, Why holiday specials suck

The other day, I had an almost crystal-clear story idea. And since I’m publishing it here, you can tell me if it’s already been done … but you can’t use it yourself. Heh-heh-heh.

Here it is: A man living in a seemingly Utopian materialist future becomes frustrated by the annual commercial madness of the “Winter Holiday”, a holiday whose purpose and origin he doesn’t know or understand. After giving voice to his confusion and irritation publicly, he receives a cryptic message which pushes him into researching this annual headache. The first major plot point, which springboards the rest of his story, is when he finally comes across a clip of A Charlie Brown Christmas — fifty-one seconds that puts his job, his marriage, his reputation and his life in peril.

You know the fifty-one seconds I’m talking about: Linus reciting Luke 2:8-14 KJV.[*]

Let’s face it: Most “Holiday” specials, shows and movies are crapburgers. They’re either too treacly or hooky to be truly heartwarming, or they’re too uneven or crude to be truly funny, or they take a big, grinchy, Scrooge-like dump on Christmas altogether in an obscenity- and blasphemy-laden fillip on “Bah, humbug!” (like A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas). And would somebody please tell me what’s so flipping magical about A Christmas Story that it needs to be shown all bloody day on Christmas Day!?

Above all, only a thimbleful of these shows have the stones to refer to the Nativity … for which A Charlie Brown Christmas is still remarkable.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Religious authority vs. primacy of conscience (Part IV)

Part I covered the problem of having an authoritative doctrinal body in the devastating wake of the primacy of individual conscience. Part II concerned itself with building up the need for religious authority. Part III discussed the proper understanding of the primacy of conscience, put in the light of our common-sense perception of personal responsibility: Religious Authority doesn’t and can’t pull the trigger.

In a sense, the last two posts were meant in part to dispel the myth of the Mind-Controlling Church, that rhetorical bogeyman invoked by critics of the Catholic Church to push the “you’re not the boss of me” button on their audiences. True mind control, or “brainwashing”, is nowhere close to mainline acceptance as a valid psychological phenomenon, which of course hasn’t stopped it from being used as a meme elsewhere. As long as people need to assert and validate their intellectual independence against some Authority, they’ll continue to believe in mind control; here, however, we need not let this pseudo-scientific fallacy detain us further.

So let’s return to where we left off in the first part: Granting that some kind of central authority is needed to distinguish between authentic Christian doctrine and inauthentic or non-Christian doctrine, why must that authority lie with a monarchical Pope? Why can’t it be more like a democracy, with the Pope as kind of a president?

Religious authority vs. primacy of conscience (Part III)

Part I covered the problem of having an authoritative doctrinal body in the devastating wake of the primacy of individual conscience. Part II concerned itself with building up the need for religious authority.

When we left off, we were at a fork in the road: We are either following Christ or we’re simply co-opting some of his teachings for our own. If novelty is all you crave in a philosophy or religion, you should perhaps be a follower of Nietzsche or Rand, or a New Age devoté … not a Christian. By its very nature, Christianity can’t be “new”; people can only say new things about it, or find new applications for 2,000-year-old tenets. By the same rule, you can’t simultaneously hold that Christianity is true and that anything older than 1980 is defective or false; if you’re going to be a chronological snob, your snootiness should at least be consistent.

So I’ve spent the last two posts building up the position of religious authority. However, outside of the occasional sniping comment, I haven’t really said what’s so bloody wrong with the primacy of the individual conscience. After all, isn’t your conscience your best guide? Isn’t handing over your conscience to an Outside Authority immoral … the root of such horrific acts as were seen in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union?

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Religious authority vs. primacy of conscience (Part II)

In Part I, I started discussing the problem of having an authoritative doctrinal body in the devastating wake of the primacy of individual conscience. Simply put, the two are irreconcilable unless the latter means no more than that we bear chief responsibility for our acts. For the decisions of such a body — we postulated a standing ecumenical council or “central committee” — to have any traction, each person must concede three points:

  1. The individual conscience is not infallible;
  2. Human authority is both a practical necessity and an indispensible feature of education; and
  3. Some people are better equipped to decide on matters of faith and morals than others; mere possession of a Bible and ninth-grade reading skills doesn’t make a person an authority on Scripture.

    But before we go further, I should probably shore up my position. Granting that we learn indirectly from others far more than we learn directly from our own experiences, does it still follow that we need a central authority to decide what is true Christian doctrine and what is false? Even if I grant I’m not the sharpest knife in the block, and that I don’t know nearly as much as some others about Scripture, history, patristics, theology and all that rot, since it’s my soul on the line for my actions, shouldn’t I be the one to decide what Christ and the apostles taught?

    Monday, November 28, 2011

    Religious authority vs. primacy of conscience (Part I)

    Thus Kate Childs Graham, writing in the National Catholic Fishwrap almost three years ago:

    ... I am a prochoice Catholic because my Catholic faith tells me I can be. The Catechism [§1776] reads, “[Conscience] is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths.” Even St. Thomas Aquinas said it would be better to be excommunicated than to neglect your individual conscience. So really, I am just following his lead. … Being a prochoice Catholic does not contradict my faith; rather, in following my well-informed [?] conscience, I am adhering to the central tenet of Catholic teaching — the primacy of conscience [??].

    I’ve brought up this piece of rampant intellectual dishonesty before, on at least two or three occasions on this blog alone, because it summarizes so neatly the have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too approach of dissident Catholics that makes them objectionable in a way Protestants — even rabidly anti-Catholic Protestants — could never be. In fact, not only is the primacy of conscience not “the central tenet of Catholic teaching”, it could be called with some justification the single most misunderstood, misapplied and counterproductive concept ever botched up by Western man.

    However, Joe Heschmeyer has a post up on Shameless Popery where he discusses the problem of the visible division in Christ’s body as represented by denominationalism, which as I’ve said before overwhelms any notional “invisible union of believers” to Christianity’s great detriment and the scandal of unbelievers. While C. S. Lewis made an admirable attempt at a definition of a rock-bottom “mere Christianity”, all such attempts inevitably founder on the reef of religious authority. Who owns the trademark? Who has the right to say, “You, sir/madam/small child, are (not) a Christian”?

    Sunday, November 27, 2011

    Roland S. Martin still doesn’t get it

    First, to give you some context, read this example of poor scriptural exegesis by ex-Catholic journalist Roland S. Martin in CNN Opinion. Then read Fr. John Zuhlsdorf’s thorough fisking of Martin’s arguments; if anything, Martin’s column, with its rampant misquotations and misinterpretations, is simply one more example of why sola scriptura is bad doctrine.

    Chris Paulitz, one of Fr. Z’s many followers, tweeted Fr. Z’s post, with the comment: “What am I not thankful for? @rolandsmartin & his ignorance of #Catholicism.” The following (very slightly edited) exchange then took place:

    Martin: I’m not ignorant of Catholicism. Spent 26 years as one. You have ignorance of the Bible. Jesus supersedes the Pope!
    Paulitz: As a Catholic you surely know the Pope is the Vicar of Christ on earth. You may want to pick up a Baltimore Catechism.
    Martin: Jesus tore the curtain so people would have direct access to Christ without a middle person to get to him. Read your Bible!
    Paulitz: So I take it you’ve left the Church? Probably something you should have pointed out in the piece, no?
    Martin: I take it you don’t know jack about Scripture? Go read your Bible and learn the Word!
    Paulitz: I do, yet I’m humble enough to know it’s not every man & his Bible, it’s the Church Christ built on Peter.
    Martin: Nonsense. The Bible says Christ lives in all of us.[*]
    Paulitz: Of course. That doesn’t mean you can properly interpret the Bible on your own, or it’s all moral relativism.
    Martin: Well, clearly you understand there is NOTHING wrong with altar girls. Stop promoting nonsense.

    Tuesday, November 22, 2011

    Unreason, demagogues and the end of the West

    The Blogger Who Must Not Be Named posted A Question from a Reader, who asked why same-sex marriage is such a cause célèbre. MS’ reply touches three basic answers, which I will simply describe here:

    1.      Consent is the sole criterion of the good. The premisses are that the State has no valid interest in what happens inside the social black box labeled “private” so long as no one inside the box is harmed, and that harm is a purely personal judgment. Thus, sodomy and other risky sexual practices can’t be bad so long as either party thinks they’re not.
    2.    Homosexuality is narcissistic. Narcissism isn’t unique to same-sex attraction. However, in the gay-rights movement, it lends itself to a demand for social acceptance such that mere tolerance isn’t sufficient: You. MUST. Approve. Marriage, with its evocation of the spouse, the kids, and the little white house with the picket fence, is symbolic of the goodness of natural affections. Ergo, homosexuals must not be denied this “seal of approval” for the natural goodness of their love.
    3.    The mystery of sin at work in the world. God’s gift of free will implies Man’s ability to pit his will against God’s, the ability to say Non serviam (“You’re not the boss of me!”) and act on it. This necessarily leads to distortion in one’s values, to redefine good and evil according to one’s desires or to enjoy evil in full knowledge and acceptance of its wickedness. It also corrupts virtues, so that the value of one virtue can be inflated beyond proper bounds to the cost of other virtues.

    As thoughtful as these answers are — and, to think about it, the third comprehends the other two — I don’t think they suffice. So let me add to the analysis:

    Pushing the “not the boss of me” button


    My little brother, Bob (God be good to him), was a great guy. If he had one major personality flaw, though, it would be willfulness.

    As in “You’re not the boss of me!”

    Very simply, if there were something he wanted to do, by God, he was going to do it. And the best way to get him to do it was to forbid him to do it at all, or to express doubts that he could get away with it. I don’t know how much trouble — physical, fiscal and social — he got into over the years because he placed independence even over common sense.

    Of course such an attitude has consequences, as does any principle pushed to an absurd extreme. And toward the end of his life he began to realize it. If you beat your head against a brick wall long enough, you’ll eventually figure out it hurts you more than it hurts the wall. “I can do whatever I damn well please” is a stupid, potentially self-destructive rule to live by unless you’re only pleased by Virtue in all its aspects … including humility and obedience.

    It’s always easy to rationalize away a rule you don’t like; but rules don’t exist just to take away your independence of action. It’s easy to ignore or sass back an Authority Figure who tells you something you don’t like; but Authority Figures don’t say “Thou shalt not” and “Thus it is” just to indulge their control freakiness — occasionally, Authority Figures know what they’re talking about, and actually care what happens to you.

    Friday, November 18, 2011

    Thank God for atheists?


    The Russian proverb tells us that “perfect” is the enemy of “good enough”. So it is.

    I’ve argued before that, in our spiritual lives, God demands “perfect” from us in order to get “good enough”, that if we merely shoot for “good enough”, we fall short. He does this for our benefit, not His own, to get us to “be all that we can be”. Athletes don’t compete for “honorable mention” (cf. 1 Cor 9:24-27); actors and musicians don’t settle for a “tolerable” performance; cooks and bakers don’t aim to make their food merely edible. As Richard Nixon (ironically) growled to an aide that suggested he make his administration remembered for “competence”, “Hell, if all we do is manage things ten percent better, we’ll never be remembered for anything.”[1]

    I mention this because in the reality of blogging, as in many other spheres of life, external pressures push us for settling for “good enough”. The more frequently you publish, the more likely your blog will come up on the first page of Google, Bing and Yahoo. To increase your chances of making a difference in one person’s life, you have to increase your readership; that’s the only justification for blogging, as far as I’m concerned … I can do other things to make money.

    This inevitably means that you’ll publish posts that, on re-reading, will disappoint. Only one so far has been so bad I had to delete it. Yesterday’s post said more or less what I mean, but it leaves open a big question: “If atheism is so unattractive and unpersuasive, then why is atheism growing?”

    Of Christmas and myths


    Stacy Trasancos’ post in Catholic Sistas is worth reading for the first paragraph alone (but go ahead and read the rest of it anyway):

    Alright, let’s face it. Is this the time of year, just before Thanksgiving, when you start dreading the impending “Holiday (Don’t call it Christmas) Season?” You know, the season of nightly news stories about how schools won’t allow the display of Christian symbols, the already beginning onslaught of commercialism and advertising, the atheist sloganeering that degrades an event so sacred, and all the politically correct puffery about how to speak of the Holy Celebration of The Birthday – Christ’s Mass – without actually saying it. It’s almost intolerable and almost ruinous, like the odor of the hydro treated petroleum distillates of Goo Gone® invading a warm and apple-cinnamony glowing kitchen. Pew!

    Oh, yes. It would be a much nicer holiday without all that ridiculous stuff about the Nativity, right? Because, of course, atheists would have eventually come up with “peace on earth, goodwill toward men” without the need to intrude angels and other fantasy creatures.

    Okay, okay, sarcasm off. It’s just that there’s no other holiday that brings out the utter futility and despair of atheism like Christmas, despite the rampant commercialization and the mercantile merger into one long “season” stretching from October 1 to February 22 (why don’t we just adopt Oktoberfest and Carnival and be done with it?). Especially the billboard American Atheists posted outside the Holland Tunnel last year that screamed in frustration: YOU KNOW IT’S A MYTH!

    Yes, we know it’s a myth. We also know it’s true history.

    Thursday, November 17, 2011

    Argument by quotation


    If you read my blog frequently, you know one of my favorite Latin maxims is Ab abusu ad usum non valet consequentia, which translates (more or less) as, “An inference from an abuse to the proper use is not valid.” It can also be expressed in a shorter form: Abusus non usum tollit, or “The abuse does not destroy the proper use”.

    My second favorite is Qui tacet consentire videtur [ubi loqui debuit ac potuit], “Who gives silence [when he ought to have spoken and was able] is taken to give consent.” If you’ve read/seen A Man for All Seasons or seen the trial scene in The Tudors, you know this was an essential feature of St. Thomas More’s defense against his treason charge … so much so that, to force his hand, Sir Richard Rich (with or without the collusion of Sir Thomas Cromwell) committed perjury.[*]

    These are maxims, or precepts: succinct statements of rules of conduct or moral principles. It won’t do to call them “clichés”, as these rules are almost hardly remembered and often violated in public discourse. But more to the point, they’re aids to thought and argument, not substitutes. For that, we can drag in any number of famous quotations by famous (or not-so-famous) wits.

    Good men doing nothing


    At least one representative of the MSM hasn’t missed the point of the Penn State scandal. I’m relieved to read David Brooks’ op-ed piece in the November 14 New York Times, “Let’s All Feel Superior”, which skips the easy path of comparison with the Catholic Church’s sex scandals to look at other phenomena:

    First came the atrocity, then came the vanity. The atrocity is what Jerry Sandusky has been accused of doing at Penn State. The vanity is the outraged reaction of a zillion commentators over the past week, whose indignation is based on the assumption that if they had been in Joe Paterno’s shoes, or assistant coach Mike McQueary’s shoes, they would have behaved better. They would have taken action and stopped any sexual assaults.
    Unfortunately, none of us can safely make that assumption. Over the course of history — during the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide or the street beatings that happen in American neighborhoods — the same pattern has emerged. Many people do not intervene. Very often they see but they don’t see.

    Brooks gets it. What’s more, he gets it in a column published in a journal that for some reason is still taken seriously by the chattering classes. It’s not about corrupt power structures or old-boy networks or celibacy (or the lack thereof); these diagnoses were ever supplied by political concerns rather than any human insight.

    It’s about fear. More specifically, about the very common human problem of moral cowardice.

    Tuesday, November 15, 2011

    How tasteless can Harold and Kumar get?


    A few years ago, my friend Larry and I rented Time Bandits. We watched about forty to forty-five minutes of it, breathlessly waiting for it to be as funny as it was when we were seventeen. I’m quite certain I wasn’t stoned when I watched it the first time, so my only explanation is that my sense of humor has changed.[*]

    So when I watched what I could stand of Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, it was with a sense of having been sold a pig in a poke – my older brother’s family insisted it was a scream. What I saw was a crudely overdone remake of Up In Smoke, without the laid-back grace of Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong. The closest I got to actually laughing was when Kumar (Kal Penn) started fantasizing a romantic relationship with a garbage bag full of weed; however, the scene couldn’t squeeze even a chuckle out of my larynx.

    Needless to say, I found no desire to see Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay. There are just some movies that you can tell from the trailers are going be stupidly bad … for instance, if the title begins with American Pie, or if the star is Adam Sandler or Mike Myers (the good thing about the Shrek movies is you can’t see Myers try to act).

    And now we have A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas. Not confident that a dope-smoking Father Christmas, a little girl who snorts coke, and further self-parody by Neil Patrick Harris can justify extending the franchise further, director Todd Strauss-Schulson and writers Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg have gone even further down the low road to cheap laughs and thrown in some anti-Catholicism: lesbian nuns, pedophile priests chasing an altar boy, trashing a statue of the Blessed Virgin and shouting obscenities at Jesus Christ.

    And you thought Mr. Hankey the Christmas Poo was tasteless.

    Friday, November 11, 2011

    MSM still misses point of Penn State scandal—UPDATED

    After almost ten years of having our noses rubbed in the misdeeds of a relative handful of bishops and priests, you’d think we Catholics would be able to heave a sigh of relief. Another major institution is under the public microscope for the sexual misdeeds of its leaders, so we should be left alone, right? Under such conditions, I should be able to write the post full of hope suggested by one of my Twitter followers.

    Except that we’re dealing with the real world, where the evil that men do lives on after them and the good is oft interred with their bones. The news about Jerry Sandusky and Penn State wasn’t two or three days in the news before Cathy Lynn Grossman at the McPaper succumbed to the temptation:

    A trusted adult, respected by the community, offers special programs for vulnerable boys – then sexually abuses them. Word travels up to higher authorities, but no one calls the police. They handle it within ....
    Sound familiar? It’s the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal rewritten on a university campus.

    To be fair, we could exonerate Ms. Grossman by noting that her column was in response to SNAP using the scandal to remind us of their presence. Also in fairness, it appears that Bishop-Accountability.org is finally beginning to look outside the narrow confines of the Catholic hierarchy, linking for example stories from David Virtue about Episcopal Presiding Bishop Kathleen Jefferts Schori and from Dave Pierre about David Clohessy’s hypocrisy.

    Nevertheless, as outlets such as NBC, the New York Times and WaPo have made clear, it will be some time before stories of child molestation by school officials don’t automatically call for references to the Catholic Church.

    Wednesday, November 9, 2011

    On an unfriendly post against spanking


    Just the lede from this post by Hemant Mehta the Friendly Atheist is enough to get on one’s nerves:

    Conservative Christians promote a lot of awful values [yeah, like chastity, fidelity, respect for authority, the innate dignity of human life and a bunch of other reprehensible moral principles], but spanking has to be somewhere near the top of the list. It’s not just the few notable examples of parents who beat their children to the point of death — but parents who spank their kids at all. It makes no sense to think that you could actually “fix behavior” through violence.

    Now, pay close attention: Mehta wants us to associate “spanking” with “beating”, much like associating an Estes rocket with the Space Shuttle. If you don’t walk away believing that a few swats on the tuchas are just as horrific as breaking bones and causing internal injuries, it’s not for lack of his trying.

    But that’s just the setup. The next step is to chuck the whole thing into a pigeonhole labeled “violence”, to use the negative connotations of that tag as both a pat on his morally superior back and as further emotional manipulation.

    Despite the Middle Eastern provenance of his name, Mehta is culturally Western. Only the Western liberal kind of smug parochialism could assume that only conservative Christians spank, let alone ruthlessly batter, their children. And only a Western New Atheist could assume that atheists are above such nonsense.

    Tuesday, November 8, 2011

    Have you no sense of decency, Mr. Cuomo?

    Here’s the lede on a story filed on LifeSiteNews on Oct. 26: “An employee with the New York Archdiocese warned of an ‘impending persecution’ after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo called same-sex ‘marriage’ opponents discriminatory and ‘anti-American’ last week.”

    October 26 … a week and a half ago. And this was on comments Cuomo made “last week”, i.e. two and a half to three weeks ago.

    Where were we when this happened? Was nobody except the Archdiocese of New York awake when Cuomo let this appalling sentiment fly? Why isn’t Cuomo being raked over the hot coals of the religious conservative world?

    I could understand if the New York Times didn’t pick it up; the editors of that fading rag have long since abandoned any pretense of fairness or objectivity. But surely such an assertion should be as damning as Rev. Samuel D. Burchard’s infamous “Rum, Romanism and Rebellion” line that cost James G. Blaine the 1884 election!?

    For the first time in many years, I’m truly surprised. Anyone my age ought to be at least dimly aware of what McCarthyism was, and how long a shadow it cast on American politics. Anyone claiming to be a liberal ought to be especially sensitive to it. That a politician with the national presence of a New York governor can utter the word “anti-American” without pundits making the automatic mental association to “House Un-American Activities Committee” is both bad news and worse news.

    Friday, November 4, 2011

    The super-magisterium of the SSPX


    If you read in the same Catholic blogging circle I do, it must seem that the only Catholic dissidents in the world are political liberals out to make the Church an arm of the Democrat Party.

    This isn’t the case; as Thomas Storck recently argued in The Distributist Review, it’s possible to read in the economic opinions of ostensibly orthodox conservative Catholics a dissent from the Church’s social justice teachings (although, if you follow the combox arguments, Storck may not have picked the best examples). Now into the news comes another reminder that not all dissent comes from progressivist innovators.

    Some background: In 2009, after issuing the motu proprio Ecclesiae Unitatem, Pope Benedict urged the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei to open up talks with the Priestly Society of St. Pius X, a traditionalist organization founded by the late Abp. Marcel Lefebvre in 1970 which has been in formal schism since 1976 and juridical schism since 1988.[*] Later that year, the Commission opened up talks with leaders of the SSPX to try to work out a basis for reconciling the renegade order with the Church.

    On October 7th, according to CNS, Cdl. William Levada, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and president of the Commission, gave Bp. Bernard Fellay, the Society’s leader, a “Doctrinal Preamble” that the SSPX leadership must sign in order for reconciliation to move forward. The other day, the British district superior, Fr. Paul Morgan (according to Ches at The Sensible Bond), wrote a letter stating that the SSPX’s leadership had deemed the Preamble “clearly unacceptable and that the time has certainly not come” to purse methods of reconciliation.