Archive for May, 2008

Love Thy Neighbor

A humorous little piece by Fr. Neuhaus from the “While We’re At It” section of the June/July edition of FIRST THINGS:

  • Of course we are to love everybody, but, as we have all too many occasions to remember, that does not mean that we have to like them. Take Steven Pinker, experimental psychologist and poster boy of pop-­science writing, for instance. If you haven’t read them, you’ve undoubtedly seen references to his books. There is The Stuff of Thought: Language Is a Window into Human Nature, and The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language, and The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. Pinker is like the brightest little boy in fourth grade who polished apples for Miss Woodward because she agreed with him that he is a genius. I admit it: Steven Pinker gets to me. But then, a lot of people get to me. It’s something else to get to Leon Kass. Kass, who for years headed up the President’s Council on Bioethics, is a man of moral gravity and admirably tranquil disposition. As a master teacher, he has spent a lifetime patiently eliciting from preening fools a recognition, or at least a suspicion, of the abysmal depths of their ignorance. But, with respect to Steven Pinker, he has clearly had enough. In a Commentary essay a while back, Kass wrote about the limits of scientific explanations of human experience. Pinker wrote a blistering letter in response, to which Kass had this to say: “While esteeming the findings of these exciting new fields in science, I argued that the knowledge they provide must always be incomplete, owing to ­science’s chosen conceptual limitations. No science of life can do justice to its subject if it does not even inquire into the nature, character, and meaning of our ‘aliveness,’ with its special inwardness, awareness, purposiveness, attachments, and activities of thought, while believing that it has ‘explained’ these richnesses of soul by reducing them to electrochemical events of the brain. Because of these limitations, and because, as I argued, the biblical account of our humanity can be affirmed even in the age of science, I suggested, against the zealots on both sides, that biblical religion has nothing to fear from science, and that, conversely, scientists still in touch with their humanity have nothing to fear from scriptural religion. . . . In the course of my critique of reductionism, I accused Steven Pinker of arrogance and shallowness. I am tempted to say that his letter provides further evidence for the charge, especially as it progresses quickly from science (about which he knows a lot) to philosophy (about which he knows a dangerous little) to the Bible and religion (about which he knows less than the village atheist).” One detects a certain impatience with Steven Pinker.
  • Pinker had written: “The supposedly immaterial soul can be bisected with a knife, altered by chemicals, turned on or off by electricity, and extinguished by a sharp blow or a lack of oxygen. Centuries ago it was unwise to ground morality on the dogma that the earth sat at the center of the universe. It is just as unwise today to ground it on dogmas about souls endowed by God.” To which Kass responds: “One can hardly be blamed for thinking the man a simple materialist. Someone who boasts, even for rhetorical effect, that ‘the supposedly immaterial soul can be bisected with a knife’ simply does not see that thought and awareness, like all powers and activities of living things, are immaterial in their essence and therefore cannot be carved. This is not because they are the work of ‘ghosts in the machine’ or because materials are not involved, but because the empowering organization of materials (the vital form), the powers and activities it makes possible, and the ‘information’ it manifests and appreciates are not themselves material.”
  • Kass concludes with this: “Leaving aside the simplemindedness of his moral views, I would remind Mr. Pinker that ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ is a ­central teaching of biblical morality, promulgated centuries before his tepid and banal scientistic translation. It did not require the discovery of the human genome, because that ‘Iron Age tribal document’ already understood and proclaimed our common humanity, based on the recognition of our equal god-likeness. Moreover, the Bible, unlike Mr. Pinker, understood that such a teaching had to be commanded, because it went against the grain of native human selfishness. In this respect, as in so many others, the Bible understands human nature in ways much richer than a ­science that sees man only through his genetic homologies and brain events. And it teaches us more wisely than homilies drawn from DNA analysis, embellished by naïve and wishful thinking.” Steven Pinker, drop that knife.

Avery Cardinal Dulles on Dissent

With specific reference to the issue of women’s ordination, this is how Avery Cardinal Dulles ends his April 1996 Laurence J. McGinley Lecture at Fordham University:

In view of the force of the convergent argument [from scripture, tradition, theology, and magisterial pronouncements] and the authority of the papal office [John Paul II 1994 apostolic letter, Ordinatio sacerdotalis], Catholics can and should give the full assent that the pope has called for.

Because the official teaching runs against the prevailing climate of opinion and because plausible objections have been widely publicized, it is inevitable that a significant number of Catholics, in a country such as our own, will fail to assent.

Those who disagree with the approved teaching, while they are entitled to propose their difficulties, should refrain from treating the question as doctrinally undecided and should abstain from strident advocacy. Pressures for doctrinal change at this point would be futile and even detrimental, since they would provoke countermeasures on the part of Church authorities. The net result would be to divide the Church against herself.

The pastoral leadership of the Church, recognizing the complexity of the theological issues and the inevitability of dissenting views, should be patient with Catholics who feel unable to accept the approved position. While assuring the integrity of Catholic doctrine, the bishops should show understanding for dissenters who exhibit good will and avoid disruptive behavior. Such pastoral consideration, however, should not be taken as license to contest or call into doubt the tradition of the Church, confirmed as it is by recent pronouncements of exceptional weight.

Perfect. It’s worth a second, careful reading. Cardinal Dulles’ cogent analysis of ecclesiastical issues is always welcome. A reading of the entire lecture, entitled “Priesthood and Gender”, is highly recommended. Where can you find this lecture? The above is quoted from the recently released collection of Cardinal Dulles’ complete set of Laurence J. McGinley Lectures, called Church and Society (Fordham University Press, 2008).

Avery Cardinal DullesBiographical Note: After retiring from The Catholic University in America in 1998, Avery Cardinal Dulles was offered and accepted the newly formed Laurence J. McGinley Chair in Religion and Society at Fordham University. One of the duties of the Laurence J. McGinley Chair is to deliver a public lecture each semester (two per year). Cardinal Dulles still holds the Chair, although it is widely rumored he will be stepping down soon due to health concerns. The Cardinal is almost 90 years old and unable to speak, but as they say, his mind is as sharp as ever.


Pope Benedict XVI
Excerpt from the Encyclical Letter, Spe Salvi, paragraph 22

First we must ask ourselves: what does “progress” really mean; what does it promise and what does it not promise? In the nineteenth century, faith in progress was already subject to critique. In the twentieth century, Theodor W. Adorno formulated the problem of faith in progress quite drastically: he said that progress, seen accurately, is progress from the sling to the atom bomb. Now this is certainly an aspect of progress that must not be concealed. To put it another way: the ambiguity of progress becomes evident. Without doubt, it offers new possibilities for good, but it also opens up appalling possibilities for evil—possibilities that formerly did not exist. We have all witnessed the way in which progress, in the wrong hands, can become and has indeed become a terrifying progress in evil. If technical progress is not matched by corresponding progress in man’s ethical formation, in man’s inner growth (cf. Eph 3:16; 2 Cor 4:16), then it is not progress at all, but a threat for man and for the world.

Understanding Hope in Eternal Life

Pope Benedict XVI
Excerpts from the Encyclical Letter, Spe Salvi, paragraphs 10-11

But then the question arises: do we really want this—to live eternally? Perhaps many people reject the faith today simply because they do not find the prospect of eternal life attractive. What they desire is not eternal life at all, but this present life, for which faith in eternal life seems something of an impediment. To continue living for ever —endlessly—appears more like a curse than a gift…

Obviously there is a contradiction in our attitude, which points to an inner contradiction in our very existence. On the one hand, we do not want to die; above all, those who love us do not want us to die. Yet on the other hand, neither do we want to continue living indefinitely, nor was the earth created with that in view. So what do we really want?… Saint Augustine, in the extended letter on prayer which he addressed to Proba, a wealthy Roman widow and mother of three consuls, once wrote this: ultimately we want only one thing—”the blessed life”, the life which is simply life, simply “happiness”. In the final analysis, there is nothing else that we ask for in prayer…. But then Augustine also says: looking more closely, we have no idea what we ultimately desire, what we would really like…. We do not know what we would really like; we do not know this “true life”; and yet we know that there must be something we do not know towards which we feel driven.

…This unknown “thing” is the true “hope” which drives us, and at the same time the fact that it is unknown is the cause of all forms of despair and also of all efforts, whether positive or destructive, directed towards worldly authenticity and human authenticity. The term “eternal life” is intended to give a name to this known “unknown”.

To The Winter That Was

For those of us who live in the colder regions of the United States, and had to live through that miserable winter of previous months, here is a wonderfully succinct poem from the latest issue of Dappled Things.

April Error
Sister Mary Catherine Vukmanic, OSU

A robin sang “April.”
My heart did the same,
And a calendar hailed
The month of that name.

But Nature, distracted,
Mismanaged things so;
She sent with the springtime
Not flower, but snow.



Science vs. Religion

It’s almost become a cliche’ in the Catholic world – faith and reason, fides et ratio. The two are not in conflict. To the contrary, it is often said, faith and reason must go together. For faith without reason leads to tyranny of religion, and reason without faith leads to nihilism. This is most certainly true, and is something that we should never tire of saying. Although finding new and refreshing ways to say it is always beneficial.

Being one who is often late to the conversation, I just read the much discussed 2005 New York Times article by Cardinal Schönborn (pictured above), and the subsequent exchange that took place in FIRST THINGS between the good Cardinal and Stephen Barr. The argument of Cardinal Schönborn can be summed up by fides et ratio. All he seems to be saying is that science has it limits (i.e. it can’t hypothesize about a first cause) and that science can never (or will never) contradict faith. His New York Times article is, by his own admission, a bit inadequate. The Cardinal’s argument is from a philosophical viewpoint, but you don’t get that in the first reading of the article. In his rebuttal in FIRST THINGS, Cardinal Schönborn makes it clear that his argument is not theological or scientific as Barr supposes. You can read the exchange for yourself, but in the end I don’t think the two are in disagreement.

The New York Times article, here.

Stephen Barr’s response in FIRST THINGS, here.

Cardinal Schönborn’s rebuttal to Stephen Barr, here.

Stephen Barr’s opinion column in FIRST THINGS, acting as a further rebuttal to Cardinal Schönborn, here.

G.K.C.’s Lepanto Set to Song

via Maria Lectrix – a pretty cool blog featuring audio books of a Catholic persuasion.

The famous poem, being set to song, was written by English journalist and author, G.K. Chesterton. As the title suggests, the poem is about the 1571 battle of Lepanto between the Holy League and the Ottoman Empire. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the poem (shame on you!), this is a good way to get acquainted with it. If your history is a little rusty, or you’re completely unfamiliar with the battle of Lepanto, it may serve you well to learn a little about it before listening to the poem (or reading the poem, for that matter). Wikipedia has a nice write up on the battle, here.

It’s not a very long poem – consequently it’s not a long “song”. Listen to it here.

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