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.

    Thursday, November 3, 2011

    Feast of All Souls: The cleansing fire


    Once again, I apologize for posting late. To my embarrassment, I fell asleep in front of my computer while I was in the middle of writing this post, and woke up with just enough time to run an errand before going over to my older brother’s house to celebrate my mother’s 75th birthday. If I’d gotten it done sooner, it probably would have been shorter.

    *          *          *

    Today is the last day of the annual fall reminder of our mortality, a sort of Triduum for our own deaths that complements Easter.

    In many countries, All Souls’ Day functions as a Memorial Day, where people go to visit, clean and maintain the graves of loved ones and have family gatherings in their memories. In Mexico and other Spanish-speaking areas, the “Day of the Dead” (El Día de los Muertos) is celebrated with altars at gravesites and at home loaded with memorial candles and ofrendas (grave offerings); images of skeletons abound, in artwork, tattoos, costumes and Catrinas (models of skeletons wearing traditional dresses), making the Goth subculture look pretty tame and Halloween absolutely pasteurized.

    St. Thomas More tells his daughter Margaret, in Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, “Death comes for us all; even at our birth, death does but stand aside a little. And every day he looks toward us and muses somewhat to himself whether that day or the next he will draw nigh. It is the law of nature, and the will of God.”[1] In the procession of the dead, as well as the old European artistic tradition of the Todtentanz or Danse Macabre, something is retained that the American celebration of All Hallows’ Eve, pounded by commercialization into something bland and uninspired, has lost: Quod fuimus, estis; quod sumus, vos eritis (What we were, you are; what we are, you will be).