Thursday, December 24, 2015

Book Review: To the Martyrs, by Cdl. Donald Wuerl

Cdl. Donald Wuerl
Emmaus Road Publishing
Cover Price: $22.95
Recommended

 Anti-Christians condemn Christians for their hypocrisy. However, not a single Christian martyr has ever suffered persecution by non-Christians for failing to live the gospel message perfectly. Rather, Christians were and are persecuted just for associating themselves with the gospel message in the first place. Imperfection of religious practice has hardly been a barrier to execution, imprisonment, maiming, rape, or torture by those who hate Christianity and that for which they think it stands.

This is the first thought that occurs to me after reading To the Martyrs: A Reflection on the Supreme Christian Witness by Cdl. Donald Wuerl. The title reflects both the title of a letter by the Church Father Tertullian and Wuerl’s own personal fascination with, and dedication to, the millions of martyrs and confessors who have been “the seeds of the Church” over the last two millennia. It’s a “reflection” as well in that it’s obviously not an exhaustive treatment of martyrdom intended for scholars and Church historians, but rather a brief overview for the ordinary layman. Written in a very accessible style, it has just enough footnotes to show that the good archbishop didn’t rely on his own memory or make things up as he went along.

As one reads To the Martyrs, though, a theme recurs. G. K. Chesterton famously noted that the Christian ideal hadn’t been “tried hard, and found wanting,” but rather had been “found difficult; and left untried.” However, as Cdl. Wuerl shows, the centuries of persecution didn’t come from people who found the Christian ideal too difficult to live up to, but rather from people who found that ideal too challenging, too uncomfortable to live with.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Welcome to the (Dysfunctional) Catholic Family!

Image source: thecatsdiary.com
So you’ve completed the RCIA program, been confirmed (possibly baptized, if you weren’t before), and have even got your first rosary, bottle of Holy Water, and collection envelopes. Congratulations, and benedicamus Domino! You’ve joined the Catholic Church! Like the song in The Music Man says, “So what the heck, you’re welcome; glad to have you with us, even though we may not ever mention it again.”

It’s theoretically possible that you were comatose for the last twenty years and, like Rip Van Winkle, just woke up before you began the conversion process. Or, you could be young enough to not remember the scandals of the “Long Lent” of 2002 (and haven’t seen Spotlight yet) — was it really that long ago? In any event, I’ll trust you decided that the people of the Church don’t have to be perfect in order for the Church to teach the fullness of Christ’s truth. Many former Protestants and non-Christians convinced themselves of the truth of the Church’s doctrines, through self-directed study, even before they registered for the classes.

If we were perfect, we wouldn’t need the Church to begin with. “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. ... I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:12-13).

Monday, November 16, 2015

“Safe Spaces” and the Fear of Growing Up

Protesters at Amherst College. (Twitter via Daily Beast)
On Thursday, November 12, Amherst College in Amherst, Massachusetts joined the list of institutions that have suffered student protests. According to MassLive, the protest “was sparked by the shared experiences of students who felt discriminated against on campus ..., as well as recent incidents on campus, like the papering-over of ‘Black Lives Matter’ posters with anti-abortion messaging that said ‘All Lives Matter.’”

“The turning point and why it got so large is that multiple students of all sorts of background recognized a feeling of feeling marginalized, or feeling invisible or  feeling isolated in some important way,” [organizer Mercedes] MacAlpine said. “It really took off just being to come together and talk about those experiences.”

What began as a sympathetic sit-in strike in support of the protests at Yale and the University of Missouri took an uglier turn when signs appeared claiming that freedom of speech was the “real victim” at Mizzou. In a response freighted with irony, the protesters demanded that Amherst president Biddy Martin issue a statement saying that Amherst would not tolerate the actions of the students behind the “All Lives Matter” stickers and the “Free Speech” posters, and that said students could be punished and re-educated in “racial and cultural competency”.

Devin Foley, in a post on Intellectual Takeout, asks what’s the matter with kids these days. “At the same time some students are flexing their political muscles (with the help of some professors) at the University of Missouri, Yale, and other schools demanding ‘safe space’, we’re treated to an increasing number of stories about the lack of resilience and overall fragility of many college students.”

This juxtaposition of intolerance and delicacy isn’t as oddly self-contradictory as it appears on the surface. The need for “safe spaces” is individual, while the strong-arm tactics belong to the group: “safety in numbers”, as the saying goes. However, it’s clear more is happening on our campuses than an increase in racial tensions and student political activism. The safety the protesters seek is far less from physical assault than it is from fear itself: more and more students are demanding that colleges rescue them from everything that causes them the least anxiety or unhappiness, from racism and sexism to bad break-ups and failing grades.

Leftist politics has found its home in the children of helicopter parents.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Absolution, excommunication, and abortion

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

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

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

Monday, August 17, 2015

Altruism Without a Chest

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

Pascal’s Mugging

Explains Matthews:

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

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

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

Thursday, August 6, 2015

The Chittister Challenge

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 30, 2015

An Irish Catholic’s Look at White People—UPDATED

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Progressive fundamentalism and gay wedding cakes

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

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

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

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Apologetics Toolbox: Sin, forgiveness, and reconciliation



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

Sin is not a private matter

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

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

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

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Apologetics Toolbox: Catholic Answers for Slick Questions


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

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


Monday, July 13, 2015

The Benedict Option: Building a Catholic counterculture—UPDATED

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 11, 2015

The foolishness of Western secular morality

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The end of the American experiment

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 29, 2015

Book Review: Billy Joel biography “a hyperextended Rolling Stone article”

In my younger days, Billy Joel was one of those performers whose music you either loved or hated, mostly depending on your tribal affiliations, your musical expectations, and the depth of your musical exposure. Put simply as possible, if you were really only familiar with the cuts that made it to the Top 40 rotation, or were suspicious of anything the sweaty masses liked, or expected your music to defy musical conventions, or any combination of the three, you most likely hated him.

... At least until you lost some of your snobbish pretentiousness, became more familiar with his catalogue, and grew more appreciative of his craftsmanship.

Going to one of his shows would most likely shift you off your base. By the 1980s, Joel was already acknowledged an electric performer who could pump up the audience with his energy and showmanship. Now in his mid-sixties, Joel may not be able to do back-flips off a Steinway, and may be a little more careful about crowd-surfing or climbing the lighting gantries … but he can still rock the house down to the ground, bringing a fan base that now spans two generations jumping and screaming to their feet.

In a sense, then, how you appreciate Billy Joel: The Definitive Biography, by Fred Schruers (New York: Crown Archetype, 2014; $29.00), depends on your expectations of biography. If all you’re looking for is a recital of some facts of Joel’s life, his interpretation of those facts from his perspective in 2014, and some relation of his music’s lyrics to various events (particularly his failed romantic and business entanglements), Schruer’s work will suffice. If, however, you expect biography to expose the development of the subject’s character and craft, on that level Billy Joel fails; it’s little more than a hyperextended Rolling Stone article.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

The smile on the lips of martyrs

I suppose we Catholic writers are socially expected to have a massive episode of cognitive dissonance over the news of the significant drop in religious affiliation over the years 2007 to 2014. Because, of course, this sort of thing has never happened before (he said while rolling his eyes melodramatically).

Religious revivals come and go. So do intellectual fads and ideological fashions. Leftist progressivism has been in the ascent in the last few decades, and irreligion has been riding its coattails as it’s risen. As I pointed out in my very first post on this site, neither atheism nor agnosticism offers us better arguments than they did a hundred years ago. However, the bar has been lowered. Scientific advances haven’t made Christianity indefensible; rather, pedagogical innovations and ideological indoctrination in the classrooms have left fewer Christians able to defend it.

When you’re not satisfied with an answer, it doesn’t take much to change your mind. Many if not most former Catholics didn’t leave the Church so much as they formalized a separation that had been there for many years, even from childhood. There’s now almost no social cost to abandoning religious practice; in some circles, irreligion is not only tolerated but expected. And, to be perfectly frank, the Church in the West made it easier by decades of poor religious education, clerical malformation, and episcopal cowardice.

By the same token, when you find an answer that satisfies you both intellectually and emotionally, the argument against it has to be very powerful in order to change your mind about its truth. No one has yet made an argument to Catholicism’s falsehood that I find remotely persuasive, let alone convincing. Indeed, many people seem more committed to mocking, berating, and shaming me out of my illusions than they are to showing me that they are illusions.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Murphy’s Law and Jesus in Hell

Okay, if we’re all done laughing about #SalonChristianitySecrets ….

The problem with clickbait headlines is that, all too often, they don’t entice you to read the story. Rather, they become the story. More often than not, the link is shared with other people, to be ridiculed or praised whether anyone actually reads the copy or not; their joy and outrage is sparked solely by the one or two deliberately misleading lines at the top of the page. Not even the lede gets a glance. Moreover, if someone does read the copy, their understanding is front-loaded by the headline, giving false strength to weak evidence and arguments.

Such was the case with Ed Simon’s “Jesus went to hell: The Christian history churches would rather not acknowledge”. Contrary to Simcha Fisher’s impatient dismissal in her National Catholic Register blog, Simon did do some research on Jesus’ descent to Sheol, and showed some understanding of the teaching. Knowing the teaching, however, isn’t the same as knowing the divisions in modern Christian culture. It’s here that Simon trips up in his analysis, leading himself to the theme from which someone at Salon derived the title, in all its conspiracy-theorist awkwardness … and to all the hoo-hahs of the Twitterverse.

(My two favorites: “BREAKING: Jesus flipped tables in a fit of rage one time. IS THIS YOUR CHRIST?” and “‘I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.’ #JesusMicroaggressions”)

For my own part, I suspect Simon is a Christian, even possibly one of an Eastern Orthodox communion. However, I suspect that he was raised in the West, and therefore infected by the materialism and reductionism in our culture. Certain aspects of Christianity strike him as weird because he expects everything to be rational, which no reasonable person would expect. The simplest, most readily-available cure for such an odd view of the world is to consult the many permutations of Murphy’s Law.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Indiana RFRA and the torn-down forest


As of this writing, it appears that the Indiana state government is taking steps to undermine its own Religious Freedom Restoration Act. According to the Associated Press, Gov. Mike Pence has called for legislation “clarifying that [the RFRA] does not allow discrimination on his desk by the end of the week ... to address concerns that the law will allow businesses to deny services to gays and lesbians.” Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, facing similar pressure, has already preemptively called for changes to an RFRA bill on his desk.

Nineteen states have RFRAs. Of these, eleven have non-discrimination laws at the city or township level, and two (Illinois and New Mexico) have state laws protecting gays, lesbians, and bisexuals. Another eleven have RFRA-like restrictions based on SCOTUS decisions. (Source: Daily Signal.) On the surface, the problem with Indiana’s RFRA is that it’s loosely written; critics claim that businesses can refuse gay people’s business, and that the civil-rights legislation and decisions of the last sixty years have determined that “you don’t have the right to choose who gets to sit at the counter.”

The truth of the matter, though, is that the other states all caught the RFRA wave at the right time, before SCOTUS’ decision in Lawrence v. Texas (539 US 558, 2003) made it “okay to be gay”. Now that wave has long passed; the LGBT lobby has command of a sizeable chunk of the culture factories, as well as the allegiance of the majority of our celebrities and politicians.

This makes the conditions most favorable for anti-RFRA moral posturing, along with its attendant obliviousness. For instance, the Daily Caller reports, “Connecticut Gov. Dannell Malloy will issue an executive order on Monday calling for a ban on state-funded travel to Indiana” … conveniently forgetting that Connecticut has an arguably more restrictive RFRA. Oops.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

“A climate in which belief may flourish”

Austin Farrer. (Image source: bbc.co.uk)
Recently, my friend Devin Rose, who works for Fr. Joseph Barron’s WordOnFire.org and runs St. Joseph’s Vanguard, posted this lengthy comment on his Facebook page (edited for format):

Have you ever had an idea, one that is strong and meaningful but tough to articulate, and then you stumble upon a quote that brings it into sudden focus? Such a quote flashes like lightning around the idea, illuminating it and allowing you to see it clearly for the first time.
I had the experience tonight after discovering a remark by Austin Farrer, an Oxford scholar and close friend of C.S. Lewis:
For though argument does not create conviction, the lack of it destroys belief. What seems to be proved may not be embraced; but what no one shows the ability to defend is quickly abandoned. Rational argument does not create belief, but it maintains a climate in which belief may flourish. [in Jocelyn Gibb, ed., Light on C. S. Lewis (1966)]
I’ve spent hundreds of hours over the last couple years exchanging arguments with all sorts of unbelieving friends — atheists, agnostics, and other labels I didn’t know existed. Some fellow Catholics have warned me that, “Nobody has ever been argued into the Church,” or that, “Evangelization is more about the way you live than the arguments you give.” Neither sentiment ever rang true with me, at least not completely, but I couldn’t explain why.
Then I discovered Dr. Farrer’s quote, which affirmed two key convictions that have brewed within me during these many encounters. First, without arguments or good reasons to believe in God, most Christians will abandon their faith — especially while they are young. Religious experience and devotion can only carry people so far. Most of the atheists and agnostics I engage were raised in Christian homes, but ones that provided no intellectual support.
Second, Christianity is not even a viable option for most non-believers if, to them, it lacks respectable arguments. It’s not that they won’t find the Gospel compelling without good, supporting reasons; it’s that they won’t even consider it. Without a strong intellectual basis, they’ll pay Christianity as much attention as Scientology or Hinduism.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

How I Work

So Thomas L. McDonald, the tech-and-history guru of God and the Machine, decided to post a couple of series based on Lifehacker's "How I Work", the other one being "How I Pray", featuring other bloggers. After posting his most recent (as of this writing), featuring The Curt Jester's Jeff Miller, Tom foolishly extended an invitiation to his Facebook blogger friends to write "How I Work" posts

How could I pass up an opportunity to engage in shameless self-promotion? (Except self-promotion isn't one of my strengths; I tend to overdo the false humility.)

*     *     *

Location: Denton, Texas

Current Gig:
Managing editor, Catholic Stand. Oh — you mean paying gig? None at this writing.

One word that best describes how you work:
Squirrel!

Current mobile device:
HTC EVO 4G Android phone; MID M729B Android tablet.

Current computer:
Compaq CQ5600Y with AMD Athlon II 2.0 GHz processor, 2 GB memory (practically brain-dead by today's standards), 500 GB hard drive, Windows 7 OS; Compaq S2022 series LCD monitor.

What apps/software/tools can’t you live without? Why?
Microsoft Office, specifically MS Word, MS Excel, and MS Outlook; Faith Database; Photoshop and Photoscape in tandem; browser.

Microsoft Office: Besides my personal use, they're the office apps I encounter most frequently when I do work. Since I'm not a hard-core user, I don't do a lot of shopping around or experimenting unless I'm forced to (as I have been recently with browsers). I'm almost expert level with MS Word; MS Excel gives me pretty much all my spreadsheet and database needs; and MS Outlook does alright as an organizer/email tool. I picked up OpenOffice some time ago, but haven't gotten around to playing with it.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Paul Krugman Believes His Own Eyes—UPDATED

Photograph by David Levene/eyevine via Redux.
Tim Worstall’s recent Forbes.com piece, “Paul Krugman’s Amazing About Face On The Minimum Wage”, reminds me very much of the old joke that either came from or found its way into the musical Chicago: The woman who comes home to find her husband in bed with another woman. In the middle of protesting his innocence, the cad asks his angry spouse, “Who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?”

Worstall’s piece is all about the differences between “good Krugman”, who in September 1998 published an article derisively dismissing minimum-wage arguments (because “the amorality of the market economy is part of its essence, and cannot be legislated away”), and “bad Krugman”, whose March 2 NYT op-ed “Walmart’s Visible Hand” made a devastating concession: “… [E]xtreme inequality and the falling fortunes of America’s workers are a choice, not a destiny imposed by the gods of the market. And we can change that choice if we want to.”

Old Krugman said that Walmart paying higher wages might lead to less turnover, better morale and higher productivity. But only at Walmart because the operative part was “higher wages than other employers”. And that’s the one thing that a general rise in wages, for example a rise in the minimum wage, cannot accomplish.
New Krugman tells us that a rise in the minimum wage will accomplish exactly that thing that Old Krugman tells us is impossible.

What might be the difference between Old Krugman and New Krugman? Seventeen years of observation? The intervention of a recession which exposed underlying fallacies in free-market thinking? Oh, no: according to Worstall, the difference is a paycheck from that “hotbed of liberal ideology,” the New York Times.

And that, my friends, is pretty much the full substance of Worstall’s refutation of Krugman: He writes for “Hell’s Bible”.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Fourth Sunday in Lent: The Babylonian Exile

Image source: conformingtojesus.com.
Responsorial: Psalm 137:1-6
Second Reading: Ephesians 2:4-10
Gospel: John 3:14-21

The first reading recalls the fall of the kingdom of Judah, the southern half of the Davidic Kingdom of Israel, in 586 BC. The northern half, which had retained the name of Israel, had fallen to Sargon II in 722 BC, and had been redesignated an Assyrian province with the name Samaria. Now, with the twin invasions of the Chaldeans and Idumeans, the original Kingdom of David and Solomon was no more.

Moses had given the Hebrew people God and His Law. Nebuchadnezzar gave them their identity as Jews. The seventy years of the Babylonian Exile[*] had done more to make the Jewish people monotheists than had over four centuries of self-rule. The Hebrews had had an alphabet and a written language since at least David’s time; now they began to gather such records as they had and compile their oral traditions, to redact the beginning of what would eventually become the Tanakh — the Hebrew Bible.

This period, in which Jewish identity was being crystallized, also gave us Psalm 137 [136], a song of heartbreak and loss: “How could we sing a song of the Lord in a foreign land?” Not included in the reading of the psalm is the anger:

Remember, Lord, against Edom
    that day at Jerusalem.
They said: “Level it, level it
    down to its foundations!”
Desolate Daughter Babylon, you shall be destroyed,
    blessed the one who pays you back
    what you have done us!
Blessed the one who seizes your children
    and smashes them against the rock.
Thus was forged in the minds and hearts of the Jewish people the iron triad of God, the Law, and Zion, to which they have clung with stubborn fidelity for over 2,500 years.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Taking offense and taking action

Protest march at OU. (Photo source: Legal Insurrection.)
When an unapologetically über-conservative man and a hard-core leftist woman agree on a point, you can almost bet your life savings the truth is in the opposite direction. Especially when the topic is “offense discourse”.

Steven Crowder’s argument is about machismo more than anything else. “Both men and women respect men who take ownership, men who take action. Choosing to ‘be offended’ is the epitome of inaction. Today’s ‘offended’ men are seen as wimpy simply because they are. Instead of harnessing whatever affront is facing them, instead of facing it head-on, dealing with the problem and coming out the other side a stronger man, the ‘modern’ male chooses to sulk, to whine, and inevitably call Gloria Steinem.” Plus, “chicks dig it” when you take action.

I’m not sure Katherine Cross would agree with that last assessment … or, for that matter, to being called a “chick”. However, she does agree that “offense discourse” leads to inaction:

It has to be one of the most significant rhetorical own-goals of the Left since the 1960s: allowing the word ‘offend’ to become the go-to way of describing the harms of prejudice. “This content offends me,” “your words are offensive,” “his conduct gave offence to x,” etc. What this has always facilitated is the commonplace reactionary response to such moral injunctions, defending some imagined noble right to give offense lardered [sic] with smug Stephen Fry image macros. Cue “free speech”’ arguments ad nauseam that resolve into garrulous nothingness. … It is the deeds that flow from words which concern us, and which cannot be contained by the concept of offensiveness.

Of the two arguments, Cross’ is the more fully developed. Crowder’s post amounts to little more than a couple of chest-thumps and an admonition to “put on your big-boy britches and deal with it”. Both arguments, however, are simply wrong, or at least not fully to the point.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Second Sunday in Lent: Generosity and Sacrifice

The Sacrifice of Isaac, by Juan de Valdes Leal (1659).
Responsorial: Psalm 116:10,15-19
Second Reading: Romans 8:31-34
Gospel: Mark 9:2-10

In today’s Gospel reading, Mark gives us an account of Jesus’ transfiguration in the presence of Ss. Peter, John and James. A lot is packed into this theophanic moment: Moses, the Teacher and Lawgiver, sitting with Elijah, the greatest of the Prophets, both in conversation with the Word of God Revealed — not quite in his fullness of power and glory, but in a manner (somewhat) comprehensible to the three disciples. Moreover, they are conversing: neither Moses nor Elijah is a mindless shade, as many Mediterranean cultures conceived of the dead:


Who will sing praises to the Most High in Hades,
      as do those who are alive and give thanks?
From the dead, as from one who does not exist, thanksgiving has ceased;
      he who is alive and well sings the Lord’s praises.


So wondrous is this revelation that Peter, speaking from his heart, offers to build sukkoth for them. Sukkoth, on the one hand, were temporary shelters, walled with leather and roofed with palm fronds, such as field workers and religious pilgrims used; on the other hand, just such a tabernacle had been the temple of the Hebrews as they sojourned in the desert with Moses — a holy place that was wholly portable. God had “tented” with His people in the desert, in the Ark of the Covenant, just as His Word “tabernacled” among humanity in the flesh of Christ (cf. John 1:14 LXX, eskēnōsen).

Sunday, February 22, 2015

First Sunday in Lent 2015: Spring Cleaning the Conscience

First Reading: Genesis 9:8-15
Psalm 25:4-6,7-9
Second Reading: 1 Peter 3:18-22
Gospel: Mark 1:12-15

In the first reading, God makes a covenant with every mortal being on earth through Noah: “Never again shall all creatures be destroyed by the waters of a flood.” (Genesis 9:11) In the second reading, St. Peter tells us this flood “prefigured” the sacrament of Baptism, “not as a cleansing of dirt from the body, but as an eperōtēma of a good conscience to God, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 3:21)

The meaning of eperōtēma is uncertain. The Vulgate, following St. Jerome, translates it as interrogatio — a question, an interrogation, a cross-examination, perhaps even an argument or syllogism. The New American Bible, Revised Edition notes that it could also be rendered as pledge; “that is, a promise on the part of Christians to live with a good conscience before God, or a pledge from God of forgiveness and therefore a good conscience for us.” And Thayer’s Lexicon argues that “As the terms of inquiry and demand often include the idea of desire, the word thus gets the signification of earnest seeking, i.e. a craving, an intense desire ….

So what did St. Peter mean by calling Baptism an eperōtēma? It helps us to step backwards, not only in the epistle, but also in Genesis.


Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Pope Francis, Humanae Vitae, and Margery Eagen’s devastating fallacies—UPDATED ALREADY?

Filipinos at Pope Francis’ Mass in Manila, Jan. 18.
(Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe.)
You would think that a writer billed as a “spirituality columnist” for a website that professes to cover “all things Catholic” would have some familiarity with Catholic teaching, especially the most controversial doctrines. However, Margery Eagen, writing for Crux, talks about Pope Francis’ recent speech at the Mall of Asia as though her only knowledge of Catholicism came from Planned Parenthood.

Although he has not lived it himself, I had thought [Pope Francis] understood something about good people living real lives in real marriages. I had thought he even understood something about the beauty of sex in marriage, the need for sex in marriage.

I was wrong.

In the United States, his words will have little practical impact. Most Catholic women have used birth control for decades. There are no more families with 12 and 14 kids in the Sunday morning pews. But his words do reveal a heartbreakingly backward perspective: that the highest calling of married women is sacrificing all to rear children, as many as come along, no matter those women’s talents or skills or dreams.

These aren’t the words of a person who’s well-educated in Catholic doctrine, let alone someone who should be discussing Catholic spirituality. These are the words of a journalist content to work with the straw-man “Catholic beliefs” constructed for her by second-wave feminism, the kind of nonsense which led Elizabeth Dias at TIME to write that “the mainstream media has nearly no understanding of the Church.”

In fact, Francis’ words reveal no such chauvinist nonsense. To be sure, he offered a doughty defense of the goodness of family and childrearing against “ideological colonization”, a branch of “cultural imperialism”. Eagen’s criticism presents us with the kind of false dilemma demagogues love: you’re either for contraception or you’re against women working outside the home.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Talking smack about the Pope

It’s been over a week now, and certain people still haven’t gotten over the spanking Maureen Mullarkey received for her rather slanderous attack on Pope Francis. And a spanking it was; R. R. Reno, the editor-in-chief of First Things, not only washed his hands of her post but offered his own rebuttal to it, calling her criticisms and caricatures of Francis “overdrawn and ill-tempered”.

Oh, wait a minute — that’s not the spanking they’re not over. Rather, they’re not over the explosion from the Patheos blog, Catholic and Enjoying It, written by The Blogger Whom I’m Damn Well Going to Name for Just This Once, Mark Shea.

You see, Shea had just written the day before about the Catholic right’s pre-dismissal of Francis’ yet-to-be-completed encyclical on climate change; and lo and behold, out comes Mullarkey’s hit piece. (You could almost hear him yelling at the clay pigeon launcher, “Pull!”) So he unloaded on Mullarkey, as well as her First Things combox followers, calling it a “festival of crazy contempt for Francis” and a “revolting (in every sense) smear job”.

Christopher Ferrara at The Remnant promptly got upset on Mullarkey’s behalf, deploying even more right-wing buzzwords and straw men, along with a healthy dollop of radical-traditionalist contempt for “neo-Catholics”. (Apparently, Francis “kissed the Koran” when he posed for that shot holding the anti-fracking T-shirt.) Nevertheless, we might have been able to walk away from the shindy — certainly it doesn’t appear Shea’s given the matter any further attention — had not my Catholic Stand colleague Donald R. McClarey weighed in with further acid, preceded with the biggest straw man of them all:

“…[C]riticism of this Pope is verboten in the eyes of some bloggers.”