Wednesday, April 02, 2008

"To the popemobile...!"

A belated April Fools'...

In response to security concerns arising from recent al Qaeda threats to the person of the Holy Father, and equally to the alarming news that the number of Moslems worldwide has just exceeded (for the first time) the number of Catholics, researchers at the Vatican’s high-tech Apostolic Institute for Experimental Laboratories—a Jesuit congregation founded in 1692—have announced plans to “update and entirely re-imagine” the rather homely, bullet-proof “Popemobile” in use since the 1980s. Archbishop Arlecchino de Favole, S.J., secretary of the Congregation told the Italian edition of L'Osservatore Romano this Sunday.

“While the current design will deflect most modern munitions, including armor-piercing bullets, it leaves the Holy Father vulnerable to shoulder-fired missiles, grenades, and biological attacks,” said the 78-year-old physicist, a veteran of Charles De Gaulle’s successful quest for an independent French nuclear deterrent.

“And that is simply unacceptable.”

Read it all

Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Terrible Silence of Jesus Christ

The Passion Sunday reading of Christ's judgement and execution contains a vignette eerily relevant to our times. Pontius Pilate is confronted when Christ claims to have come into the world to bear witness to the Truth. His answer is the response of a devastated intellect: "The Truth. What is that?"

Jesus' answer to Pilate was silence, and this is a cause for wonder. Jesus was asked many questions during His public ministry, and there is no other record of Him refusing to answer. Often His answers opened up wider and higher vistas than the questioner expected, but were always to the point. But in this case, not so much as a word. Why?

In his response, Pilate speaks for the nihilism prevalent in the late classical period, and which also dominates modern philosophy. The artist Frank Pash once remarked that some people feel sorry for Pilate, but he didn't: "He would have crucified anyone who gave him a headache". Though it wasn't Pilate who said "it is better for one man to die than the nation be destroyed", he was an exemplar of the means-justifies-the-end functionaries who dominate the public forums of late modernity, and who give us a US political race between an Abortion Party and a Torture Party. It's more common than we realise.

Writing in his encyclical Fides et Ratio, John Paul II warned that modern philosophy "rather than voicing the human orientation towards truth, has wilted under the weight of so much knowledge and little by little lost the capacity to lift its gaze to the heights, not daring to rise to the truth of being."


There is such a thing as intellectual vice, a fixed deformation of intellect that is the consequence of a persistent habit of thought. The intellect deformed by the false humility of nihilism is incapable of even acknowledging a truth to be approached. Ultimately, this vice leaves us self-blinded, incapable of repairing our own capacity for knowing, and cutting us off from the truth that saves: "If thine eye be darkened, thy whole body shall be full of darkness". The properly formed intellect sees the true and the good clearly, and orders its conduct accordingly. But the deformed intellect, blind to the true and good, sees no intrinsic moral order beyond the arbitrariness of power. The false humility both masks and empowers an arbitrary will.

To such a person, no answer will suffice because no answer can really be heard. Humanly, this person has passed the point of no return. The contemplation of this hellish state might lead us to despair of the person so trapped.

The grace of God transcends our notions of possibility, but the terrible silence of Jesus Christ reminds us that we cannot take this grace for granted. We do not know if Pilate later came to repent of his hardness of heart. But, at least on this occasion, God chose not to intervene.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Nobody but us

At the Lion and the Cardinal:

"God has entrusted the care of his Church in this world until the parousia to humanity. It is by building it in the territory of the enemy that we participate in the action of Providence in history, and are sanctified. God certainly can assist in extraordinary ways; the remarkable resiliency of the Church at times can only be explained by divine intervention. But nothing of Justice demands that God raise up a new group of saints and heroes and geniuses to fix everything as a matter of course.When the Church needs saints and heroes and geniuses, it may have nobody but us. And most of us are too damnably proud of our false humility to even attempt heroic sanctity. "

Do we really want to love others with the love that would make us saints or heroes or even geniuses? Do we even have the courage to be loved?

Or do we settle with being merely comforted?

Forgetting what it means to remember

Anthony Esolen, Dante translator and professor of English at Providence College, on the Catholic Church's crisis of confidence:

"For the fathers of the [Second Vatican] Council did not see that they could not have undertaken their task in a less promising time. They mistook the signs of that time. They thought that they had to scale again the promontory of wisdom, to renew for the people of their day the insights into a truth that is everlasting. But they could not see that those same people were rapidly forgetting what it means to remember; theage was not replacing one culture with another, but culture itself with nothing, with the anarchy of individual choice, which becomes little more than the managed chaos of mass entertainment and humanly pointless work. For we were finally rich enough to afford the ceaseless idleness of a hamster on his wheel.

"In such a time, the task was not to enculturate the Church, because there would in fact be no culture for the Church to leaven. It was to preserve, by and in the Church, the precious memory of culture itself."

If we were in a new Dark Age, would we notice? Does a barbarian recognise his barbarism?

Saturday, March 08, 2008

In the Name of the Father


I have observed with dismay the recent controversy over the Vatican’s ruling on baptism. What has dismayed me is the profound theological ignorance amongst Catholics that this affair has exposed.

The doctrine of the Trinity is the foundation of Christian belief. Therefore, a failure to grasp this doctrine undermines the entire intellectual content of faith. In the failure of many to understand why the ruling was necessary and indeed essential to preserve a genuinely Christian belief, we have also exposed the rottenness of our catechesis.

Certain parishes, many in Australia, have been baptising in the name of "The Creator, Liberator, and Sustainer" or similar neologisms. This has been in place of the traditional formula "The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit" which dates back to the time of the Apostles.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has recently ruled that all baptisms conducted with these new formulations are invalid. This means that these baptisms were ineffective, and that persons so baptised are not members of the Catholic Church. They are therefore ineligible to receive the other sacraments, and any sacraments they may have participated in (such as Confirmation) are also invalid.

Why does this formula matter so much? Because our understanding of the Trinity, expressed in the formula “Father, Son and Spirit”, is the foundation of Christianity.

The three Persons of the Trinity are each God in His fullness. Each lacks nothing of the divine nature. In this sense they are all the same. They only thing that distinguishes the Persons from each other is the nature of the (asymmetric) relationships between them. The nature of these loving relationships is the only thing we can know about the Persons of the Trinity. And our knowledge of this internal life is the crucial difference between Christianity on the one hand, and Judaism and Islam on the other. Other key Christian beliefs such as the Incarnation and Catholic ecclesiology only make sense in the light of this revealed knowledge.

This has a profound consequence: when change our understanding of the relationships between the Persons, we change our understanding of the Trinity, and we alter the content of every Christian belief.

The Trinitarian nature of God is a fact that we could never know without God's revelation of Himself. This revelation reached its completion in Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity. And we know from His own words that the nature of the relationship between the Himself and the First Person is best described as that between a Father and a Son. This knowledge is His gift to us, and is not something made or discovered by us.

Something is dramatically changed when we abandon the idea of Father, Son and Holy Spirit for the idea of Creator, Liberator and Sustainer. A Father, a Son, and a Holy Spirit that intrinsically proceeds from them, are intrinsically related. Just as importantly, they are related only to one another, and their internal relationships are entirely sufficient to define them. God’s independence from His creation, which he needn’t have created, is clearly acknowledged.

But a Creator, a Liberator and a Sustainer are not intrinsically related, and are three different persons with three different natures. The internal nature of the Trinity has been denied. They bear no obvious relation to one another at all. Instead, these persons are defined in relation to the created world. For clearly, a Creator is defined by what it creates, a Liberator is defined by the one whom he liberates, and a Sustainer is defined by the one he sustains. This formula is an expression of tritheism, and these three gods are only defined in relation to a creation on which they are now intrinsically dependent. The theological implication is a drift away from Trinitarianism, and towards polytheism and pantheism.

A typically modern (or hyper-modern) response is that any insistence on a particular formula is “magical thinking”. But this response is an intellectual dead end. If formulas don’t matter, then it is perfectly permissible to baptise in the name of Larry, Moe and Curly. The evident absurdity of this formula springs from our immediate recognition that Larry, Moe and Curly have no saving power, and that it would be ridiculous to call on them to save us from Sin.

In the real world, words are not meaningless. Father, Son and Holy Spirit simply do not mean the same thing as Creator, Liberator, and Sustainer - or Mother, Daughter and Spirit for the matter.

But at least Larry, Moe and Curly really existed. How absurd would it be to baptise in the name of a divine threesome who, thanks to revelation, we know never existed at all?
UPDATE: Caught in the media headlights, Fr Jim Spence in Brisbane gets it wrong:
"It doesn't mean it's invalid, it just means it's illicit", he said. "It doesn't
mean that it didn't happen, it means that it shouldn't have happened.
Wrong. The question that the Congregation addressed was whether these irregular baptisms were VALID. The answer was an unqualified negative, meaning that the baptisms were completely ineffective. If priests can't tell the difference between invalid (completely ineffective) and illicit (effective, but shouldn't have been done), what hope is the laity supposed to have?

Monday, February 11, 2008

"...we all fall down!"

David Schutz at Sentire Cum Eccelsia has a fascinating vignette from the past: Time Magazine's analysis of the 1968 Catholic revolt over the encyclical Humanae Vitae. He will be posting excerpts from the article over the next few days, and asks us to note the names in the article, "experts" who are singing the same tune forty years later.

I think it is even more instructive to note the language and underlying positions that inform the article and the critics' position. The revolt of 1968 was the consequence of centuries of erosion of the authentically Catholic concept of freedom, one which related freedom and authority and gave meaning to both.

The key assumption is embedded in the title of the article: "Catholic Freedom v. Authority". This dualistic understanding of freedom is a prime part of the heritage of the modern world. Freedom is defined negatively, as always against something, as an absence of constraint. According to this conception, the enemies of freedom are the triple authorities of reason, nature and revelation. Overthrow these, in society and your own life, and you are free.

But what does such a freedom mean? Taking this conception literally, the ultimate freedom is pure arbitrariness, stripped of any relation to a normative authority. What should I do with this freedom? Freedom conceived in this way is literally meaningless, and the "free" person is paradoxically a slave, trapped in a kind of moral Brownian motion.

In practice, this meaninglessness is too stark, too hard to bear. So we cling to the remaining fragments of Christian morality, reduced to a sub-Christian moralism. Or resort to a crude mathematical calculus of utility. Or we seek meaning elsewhere, in the "authority" of our lusts and desires. Or we mix them as it suits us, reproducing the shattered moral world in our own lives.

Once we have taken on the modern mind, and internalised its negative concept of freedom, it is almost inevitable that we will bridle at the demands of genuine obedience to God.

Importantly, this revolt was not confined to the Church. This was the year of the great student protests and the revolt of Czechoslovakia against Communist domination. The worm-eaten structures of authority across the globe fell, restored temporarily in a few cases (like Czechoslovakia) by brute force, but allowed to fall in most other places for want of an alternative. And we still live in the ruins.

The way out? Certainly not to reimpose some kind of compulsion - that would reduce Christian morality to an exercise of power, and play according to the rules of the modern mind. What is needed is a renewed experience, a re-cognition, of the Person who is already both our Freedom and our Authority, and who has already done so much for us. To the person who has this recognition, who knows His look of love, obedience is not something to fear or to revolt against. His yoke is easy and His burden light.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Talking past each other

The Archbishop of Canterbury has generated a firestorm with his suggestion that a place must be found for Sharia law in modern Britain.


Despite this, it's important to note that his comments on the application of Sharia law in a multicultural society seem reasonable from one perspective, namely a political perspective. In politics, an acceptable compromise is typically the order of the day, and some kind of compromise between Western and Sharia law is a political solution.


But this raises the question: are the divided loyalties of those who owe their allegiance to other forms of law really a political problem? Or is the problem better thought of as a theological one? If so, Rowan is wrong to seek compromise, and truth is the appropriate test to apply. Truth is a pre-political principle, not a political one.


But I wonder if we have the stomach for a genuinely theological discussion on the basis of our legal commitments? Or will the jealous demands of the hidden metaphysics of modernism, which brook no rival, prevent us once again from a reasoned defence of Western law?


Personally, I think they will. And the West and Islam will continue to speak from their own incommensurate assumptions, incomprehensible to one another. There will be neither compromise nor conversion. Which is why the Archbishop is, unfortunately, wrong.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Culture: what you know without thinking about it

"You don't even really think about why," Mike Minor said. "Just any time you think about the word Friday and dinner, you think of fish."

H/T to Diogenes

Thursday, January 17, 2008

From La Sapienza to La Ignoranza

The Pope's cancellation of his planned speech at La Sapienza in Rome is a revealing event, for a couple of reasons.

First, this incident is almost a mirror image of the reaction to his Regensburg speech. A tiny minority has wilfully extracted a non-existent offence from the Pope's critical use of a scholarly quote. In this case it's a speech on Galileo that Benedict gave back in 1990 in which he actually defended Galileo against Feyerabend's criticism.

The difference this time is that the critics are Western postmoderns rather then Islamic fundamentalists. But these two groups surreptitiously share an underlying assumption - the rejection of the true role of reason. Both reduce reason to a purely instrumental role, severing it from the pursuit of ultimate truth. For them, this is the very definition of "reason" - that it should not touch on anything other than the material world, and has no role in the discovery of the spiritual.

Second, and most cheering, is this: criticism has rained down from every quarter, and some of the academic signatories to the letter rejecting the Pope are backing away from the vehemence of their original stance. It is la Sapienza, not the Pope, that has been embarrassed by the cancellation. And this is an indication of where moral and intellectual authority now rests.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

"Our hearts are restless, until they rest in Thee"

"... the Western world has come to cultivate a seemingly positive, though superficial, concept of restlessness. Work, valued almost exclusively for the sake of income, claims all of man's energies... Man is ever more tantalized by the idea of moving ahead and upwards, keeping the door open to any change of job, city, country or interest that may be required. To keep the same occupation, as our parents or grandparents were accustomed to do, is now considered stultifying. Change is good; it signals a permanence of youth. One has to keep going, transforming "old age" into a sort of permanent adolescence that is blind to it own mortality.

"This restless spasmodic search for an increasingly exciting novelty, however, is an appalling index of man's absence from himself. Having vacated his own self, man can no longer find a dwelling place in which time and meaning are reconciled, a place, that is, in which he can be fully present to himself and others and thus rest...

"[T]his conception of restlessness, which is dominant in the postmodern world, not only prevents the formation of culture and of humane living, but more importantly originates in a human existence that is radically disengaged from itself and from history. To say that one is disengaged from oneself, however, means that this restlessness results above all from having abdicated one's sonship.

"The human being, seen in this light as ultimately an orphan, seeks either to possess without measure, or to wander in willful ignorance of his own paternal origin."

Antonio Lopez, On Restlessness, from Communio 34 (Summer 2007)

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Political religion

John Roskam of the Institute of Public Affairs has an excellent op-ed piece in the Age newspaper today, entitled "Politicians find religion a cross to bear". I have met John, and he is a thoughtful chap. His topic is the role of religion in politics, and the current effort to de-legitimise the opinions and political involvement of Christians and other believers. He singles out the verbal rough-housing of Tony Abbott over the last few years (fortunately, Tony is a pretty tough character), and highlights Tony Blair’s recent revelation that his Christian beliefs had to be concealed during his political career.

Roskam’s article references a major debate in modern political philosophy. On one hand, defenders of liberalism claim that liberal democracy, unlike other forms of government, is neutral towards different ideas about the best form of life, treating all equally. They claim that its emphasis on autonomy leaves individuals free to pursue the good as they see fit, and does not impose any single conception of the good. Indeed, it forbids such imposition, and it is on this ground that religiously-based arguments are ruled illegitimate. Only purely secular, “reasonable” arguments should be heard. This view is closely associated with the 20th century philosopher John Rawls.

Liberalism’s growing band of critics argue that its claim of neutrality is bogus. They point out that liberalism’s emphasis on autonomy contains a hidden idea about the best kind of life: the autonomous life, free of the encumbrance of relationship or commitment. This is coupled with a narrow concept of “scientific” reason that de-legitimises other forms of knowing, particularly revelation.

As David L. Schindler points out, the identification of freedom with choice (and we could add, reason with science) so ingrained that we almost automatically assume these definitions. This is particularly true in English-speaking countries. But there are other, wider ideas of freedom and reason that liberalism discounts.

I think that the critics are right. I don’t accept the liberal claim that politics can be separated from moral and metaphysical claims. What we believe about human nature and truth will matter to our political ideas.

This debate is not just theoretical. In Britain, the Parliament has already taken steps against funding of Catholic adoption agencies, effectively shutting them down, and is threatening to take further steps against Catholic schools, on the grounds that these institutions embody non-neutral "doctrinaire" beliefs. But their pretence of neutrality is false. They have their own beliefs that they wish to impose, and they control a machinery of state that is so pervasive that few can resist its power.

Those who argue that religious voices shouldn’t be heard in the public square are pulling a fast one. They ask us to accept up front that our own views are not politically acceptable. But at the same time they expect us to allow them to impose their own concept of good and right.

This deceptiveness often masks the robust anti-Catholicism that is never far from the surface of the liberal English-speaking world. We shouldn’t be too worried by this, partly because the disease seems less common in Australia than in Britain, but mainly because Jesus told us not to worry: “I have conquered the world”. At the same time, we should not be na├»ve. There are plenty of people in our political system who do not regard us as legitimate. We must employ all wits to deal with them, and retain our place in the political process.