Archive for January, 2009

A Hymn for Evening Prayer

The following hymn, based on the famous passage in Philippians 2:6-11, is sung every other Saturday evening for Sunday vespers. It also happens to be one of the better hymns in the Psalter. I should also mention that the passage in Philippians, likely a hymn itself in the (very) early Christian church, also serves as the Canticle for the same vespers every week. Introductions aside, here is the hymn from the Psalter:

At the name of Jesus
Ev’ry knee shall bow,
Ev’ry tongue confess him
King of glory now;
‘Tis the Father’s pleasure,
We should call him Lord,
Who from the beginning
Was the mighty Word.

Humbled for a reason,
To receive a name
From the lips of sinners,
Unto whom he came,
Faithfully he bore it,
Spotless to the last,
Brought it back victorious,
When from death he passed.

Bore it up triumphant,
With its human light,
Through all ranks of creatures,
To the central height,
To the throne of Godhead,
To the Father’s breast;
Filled it with the glory
Of that perfect rest.

In your hearts enthrone him;
There, let him subdue
All that is not holy,
All that is not true;
May your voice entreat him
In temptation’s hour;
Let his will enfold you
In its light and power.

Brothers, this Lord Jesus
Shall return again,
With his Father’s glory,
O’er the earth to reign;
He is God the Savior;
He is Christ the Lord,
Ever to be worshiped,
Always blest, adored.

Cowboy Logic

Yesterday’s scripture reading from the Morning Prayer made me think about that cowboy logic: I came into this world with next to nothing, and by God’s grace I still have most of it. There is something beautifully simple about it.

The scripture is taken from Job 1:21, 2:10:

Naked I came forth from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall go back again. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord! We accept good things from God, and should we not accept evil?

Aquinas on Happiness

thomas-aquinasThe greatest benefit to owning the Summa Theologica by St. Thomas Aquinas is not that you get to read it from front to back; cover to cover as it were. I can’t imagine a more grim prospect. I mean Aquinas is great, but that’s some fairly dense reading for a layman such as myself. No, the great benefit of owning the Summa is to have it as a handy reference anytime you want to see what Aquinas has to say on a particular subject. And what Aquinas has to say on any subject is worth reading.

This morning as I was perusing what Aquinas has to say on the subject of virtue, I was lead to see what he had to say on the subject of happiness. For virtue is that by which we fulfill our potential as man created in God’s image, and in practicing virtue man finds himself in a state of happiness as he slowly progresses toward that which is his final happiness – what Aquinas calls “perfect happiness.” So the question may be posed. In what does man’s happiness consist? What do we mean by a final state of perfect happiness? Here is how Aquinas answers (PII, Q3, A8):

Final and perfect happiness can consist in nothing else than the vision of the Divine Essence. To make this clear, two points must be observed. First, that man is not perfectly happy, so long as something remains for him to desire and seek: secondly, that the perfection of any power is determined by the nature of its object. Now the object of the intellect is “what a thing is,” i.e. the essence of a thing, according to De Anima iii, 6. Wherefore the intellect attains perfection, in so far as it knows the essence of a thing. If therefore an intellect knows the essence of some effect, whereby it is not possible to know the essence of the cause, i.e. to know of the cause “what it is”; that intellect cannot be said to reach that cause simply, although it may be able to gather from the effect the knowledge of that the cause is. Consequently, when man knows an effect, and knows that it has a cause, there naturally remains in the man the desire to know about the cause, “what it is.” And this desire is one of wonder, and causes inquiry, as is stated in the beginning of the Metaphysics (i, 2). For instance, if a man, knowing the eclipse of the sun, consider that it must be due to some cause, and know not what that cause is, he wonders about it, and from wondering proceeds to inquire. Nor does this inquiry cease until he arrive at a knowledge of the essence of the cause.

If therefore the human intellect, knowing the essence of some created effect, knows no more of God than “that He is”; the perfection of that intellect does not yet reach simply the First Cause, but there remains in it the natural desire to seek the cause. Wherefore it is not yet perfectly happy. Consequently, for perfect happiness the intellect needs to reach the very Essence of the First Cause. And thus it will have its perfection through union with God as with that object, in which alone man’s happiness consists, as stated above (AA[1],7; Q[2], A[8]).

The Problem With Birth Control

baby-with-puppyBecause I think controversial topics are often the things most worth talking about, I offer this reflection. It should come as no surprise that reading G. K. Chesterton has sparked what follows. In one of his essays contained in The Well and the Shallows (Ignatius 2006), Chesterton puts forth three reasons why he “despises” birth-control. His first reason takes issue with the term itself.

I despise Birth-Control first because it is a weak and wobbly and cowardly word. It is also an entirely meaningless word; and is used so as to curry favour even with those who would at first recoil from its real meaning. The proceeding these quack doctors recommend does not control any birth. It only makes sure that there shall never be any birth to control.

Chesterton believes “Birth-Prevention” would be the far more honest term to use. Of course, he is right. And here we come to one of the objections to the Catholic Church’s position on birth-control in particular and contraception in general. Why is it that the Church allows for the prevention of birth via approved means, commonly known as “natural family planning”, while condemning the exact same result (birth prevention) through other means, such as the pill? On the surface this is a perfectly legitimate question and one that should be dealt with squarely. However, I am afraid that in the end this question is guilty of a blurring of distinctions between the two methods in question. As the dictum goes: distinctions! distinctions! distinctions! We must mind our distinctions!

The Catholic Church is not against the prevention of birth per se. There may be very legitimate reasons why a couple may put off having a child. These reasons are primarily between that couple and God (and possibly a spiritual director), and as such the Church cannot (and does not) make a blanket judgment in these matters. We are only to be “open to life”, but this does not entail that every sexual act is to produce a child. It is well known that the Church distinguishes between the two aspects of sexual intercourse: the unitive between husband and wife, and the life giving which produces a child. These two aspects are to always be respected, but the former may be present without the latter, assuming a legitimate reason ascertained (hopefully) through serious prayer and competent spiritual direction.

So again the question remains: why is one method of birth prevention permitted and the other is not? To put the matter simply, the answer lies in the fact that one method is in accordance with nature (i.e. the natural law) while the other is not. One method requires communication and respect between partners, the other does not.  Preventing birth through natural means requires the couple to practice the virtue of temperance and restraint during the fertile periods, which requires the aforementioned communication and respect between the husband and wife. Preventing birth through unnatural means (i.e. the pill) requires no such virtue. In fact, evidence is mounting that birth control has lead to the practice of vice. A husband may look upon his wife as a sexual object who can satisfy his animal-like urges upon command. Restraint is not necessary. A young man may now have sex with a young lady and no longer fear the consequence of a child. The result is that sex is no longer sacred. It is free in the commercial sense of the word, and being free, it is cheap.

The preceding may be unconvincing to many, but, in my experience, most have not even begun to engage the arguments put forth by the Church. At any rate, the necessary distinctions are drawn and must be dealt with squarely, as the Catholic must squarely deal with the question first proposed. For a Christian – Catholic, Protestant or otherwise – the reasoning of the Catholic Church must be taken very seriously. Christians are a people of life, and as such we must be continually open to life. But if we find it necessary to delay the birth of a child, God has given us natural means to do so. What grounds do we have to reject these means in favor of other means that so easily lead to vice?

Chesterton’s second problem with birth-control is that it is a cowardly, dishonest, and ineffective form of Eugenics; and we must remember that birth control came out of the eugenics movement. His thoughts on this matter are worth quoting in full.

Second, I despise Birth-Control because it is a weak and wobbly and cowardly thing. It is not even a step along the muddy road they call Eugenics; it is a flat refusal to take the first and most obvious step along the road of Eugenics. Once grant that their philosophy is right, and their course of action is obvious; and they dare not take it; they dare not even declare it. If there is no authority in things which Christendom has called moral, because their origins were mystical, then they are clearly free to ignore all difference between animals and men; and treat men as we treat animals. They need not palter with the stale and timid compromise and convention called Birth-Control. Nobody applies it to the cat. The obvious course for Eugenics is to act toward babies as they act toward kittens. Let all the babies be born; and then let us drown those we do not like. I cannot see any objection to it; except the moral or mystical sort of objection that we advance against Birth-Prevention. And that would be real and even reasonable Eugenics; for we could then select the best, or at least the healthiest, and sacrifice what are called the unfit. By the weak compromise of Birth-Prevention, we are very probably sacrificing the fit and only producing the unfit. The births we prevent may be the births of the best and most beautiful children; those we allow, the weakest or worst. Indeed, it is probable; for the habit discourages the early parentage of young and vigorous people; and lets them put off the experience to later years, mostly from mercenary motives. Until I see a real pioneer and progressive leader coming out with a good, bold, scientific programme for drowning babies, I will not join the movement.

This brings us to Chesterton’s third problem with birth-control: those mercenary motives. The reasons for putting off children are usually selfish in nature: we want to have enough money to travel; we want our freedom to enjoy each other; we want to finish college, etc. It is with these reasons that Chesterton says his “contempt boils over into bad behaviour”.

What makes me want to walk over such people like doormats is that they use the word “free”. By every act of that sort they chain themselves to the most servile and mechanical system yet tolerated by men…

Now a child is the very sign and sacrament of personal freedom. He is a fresh free will added to the wills of the world; he is something that his parents have freely chosen to produce and which they freely agree to protect. They can feel that any amusement he gives (which is often considerable) really comes from him and from them, and from nobody else. He has been born without the intervention of any master or lord. He is a creation and a contribution; he is their own creative contribution to creation. He is also a much more beautiful, wonderful, amusing and astonishing thing than any of the stale stories or jingling jazz tunes turned out by the machines. When men no longer feel that he is so, they have lost the appreciation of primary things, and therfore all sense of proportion about the world. People who prefer the mechanical pleasures, to such a miracle, are jaded and enslaved. They are preferring the very dregs of life to the first fountains of life.

It is for these reasons, among others, that I, along with Chesterton, think the Catholic Church is wholly correct in her stance toward the modern notion of birth-control. Others are free to disagree, but one should not do so based on contemporary trends of public opinion. If you are following the sheep, you ought to discern who is your shepherd. And certainly one should not disagree and dissent for selfish motives. If one wishes to contend with the Church’s notion of the beauty of life and the sexual act, he or she should do so reasonably while engaging the arguments put forth by the Church.

Pope Approves of Holocaust Denials

Or so the news report would lead you to believe…

It’s nothing new to say that journalism in our day isn’t very good. I’m not sure it ever was. If you read any bit of history from the dawn of the newspaper age to ours, you’ll see that news outlets have always been prone to pushing one agenda or another, sometimes with a passion. I’m not so sure that’s a bad thing; it would just be more honest to admit it. The idea of objective journalism, to my mind, is a completely false notion. How someone could ever manage to not bring their views and inherent biases into their work is beyond me, and I think it is foolish to pretend otherwise. Having said that, what irks me about today’s journalists is that they pretend to be fair and balanced (Fox News!) when it is obvious that they are not. Intellectual honesty is far too uncommon.

One of the worst news organizations, when it comes to religious news, has to be Fox News. For some time now I have watched as they have reported one bizarre “religion” story after another, usually with the obvious insinuation that they are putting the spotlight on religious intolerance. Now to be fair, Fox News is hardly alone in this. All of the so-called mainstream media outlets do this, but Fox News seems to be given to sensationalism more than the others.

This morning, as I happen to have the TV on, I see Fox News is reporting a scintillating story about a holocaust denying bishop being welcomed back into the Catholic Church by Pope Benedict XVI!

*gasp*

It seems that some bishops of the traditionalist variety (i.e. Lefebvrists) have had their excommunication lifted by Pope Benedict recently. And it happens to be the case that one of these, a Brit, has historical difficulties with the holocaust as an actual event. They have him on tape saying the darndest things.

As I’m watching this, I’m thinking to myself. Looks like we’ve found another nitwit. Our Church has its allotted share, and unfortunately some are bishops (although, I am happy to say, far less than is often imagined). Apparently, this shocks some people. It makes for a good news story, at any rate.

As I keep listening to this fascinating report, the Fox News reporter lets us know that “this is just the latest incident between the Jewish Community and the Vatican”

!

I’ll leave that one alone. The cable news outlets don’t do nuance. It’s not good for ratings.

Now, I know very little about this story; but the first thing that should be said, and it is embarrassing to have to point this out, is that one is allowed to hold incredibly wrong-headed opinions about any number of things and remain a Catholic in good standing. I can believe the earth is flat, that blacks are thugs, or that women belong in the kitchen, and it doesn’t have any bearing whatsoever on my canonical status in the Catholic Church. It just makes me a bloomin’ idiot. And, thankfully, idiots are welcome in the Church, as are hypocrites. Imperfection (and sin) is not a barrier; it is a regrettable fact of humanity and the basis for the doctrine of Original Sin.

Not knowing an awful lot about this story, my guess is Pope Benedict knew about this bishop’s views and that it had no bearing on his decision to lift his excommunication. Now, I am no canon lawyer, but, to put it too simply, the very basic condition for excommunication is a persistent and obstinate denial of the Catholic faith in all the ways in which that can manifest itself. As a point of reference, Fr. Hans Kung has never been excommunicated, but I dare say there are many who think he is or has been. At any rate, it seems our dear Pope knows his canon law better than the Fox News reporter, but we can hardly fault the reporter for that.

It’s frustrating to be a Christian and read (and watch) all of the horrendous news coverage there is out there regarding our faith. It seems the stupidity is only heightened when the topic is the Catholic Church. Far too many news outlets seem to be writing the next storyline for Dan Brown rather than intelligently reporting the news. This is not to say there are no good instances of religious news coverage. The death of Pope John Paul II with the subsequent election of Pope Benedict XVI come to mind, but the exception only proves the rule.

I am usually not a complainer or a whiner (or so I tell myself), so to make up for the preceding rant, I will be on the lookout for journalists that cover religious news well. I know they are out there. Thomas Peters of the American Papist blog has pointed them out on occasion, while also noting the egregious reporting in other cases. It should also be noted that some very good priests are religion correspondents for several of the major TV news outlets, not to mention George Weigel’s good work with NBC News and Newsweek. Then there is Peggy Noonan at the Wall Street Journal.

There. I feel better already.

Parting Words from Fr Neuhaus

I did not know this, but it seems toward the end of his life Fr. Neuhaus and his close friends knew the end could be near. As Joseph Bottom said in the EWTN interview they had hoped for more time, but it was not to be.

Many of you First Things subscribers may have already read this, but I finally worked my way through Fr. Neuhaus’ “While We’re At It” section of the latest issue of FT (Feb 2009). The very last blurb is the following from Fr. Neuhaus asking for our prayers. I am sure he would still welcome those prayers, albeit in a different context.

As of this writing, I am contending with a cancer, presently of unknown origin. I am, I am given to believe, under the expert medical care of the Sloan-Kettering clinic here in New York. I am grateful beyond measure for your prayers storming the gates of heaven. Be assured that I neither fear to die nor refuse to live. If it is to die, all that has been is but a slight intimation of what is to be. If it is to live, there is much that I hope to do in the interim. After the last round with cancer fifteen years ago, I wrote a little book, As I Lay Dying (titled after William Faulkner and John Donner), in which I said much of what I had to say about the package deal that is mortality. I did not know that I had so much more to learn. And yes, the question has occured to me that, if I have but a little time to live, should I be spending it writing this column. I have heard it attributed to figures as various as Brother Lawrence and Martin Luther – when asked what they would do if they knew they were going to die tomorrow, they answered that they would plant a tree and say their prayers. (Luther is supposed to have added that he would quaff his favored beer.) Maybe I have, at leat metaphorically, planted few trees, and certainly I am saying my prayers. Who knew that at this point in life I would be understanding, as if for the first time, the words of Paul. “When I am weak, then I am strong”? This is not farewell. Please God, we will be pondering together the follies and splendors of the Church and the world for years to come. But maybe not. In any event, when there is an unidentified agent in your body aggressively attacking the good things your body is intended to do, it does concentrete the mind. The entirety of our prayer is “Your will be done” – not as a note of resignation but of desire beyond expression. To that end, I commend myself to your intercession, and that of all the saints and angels who accompany us each step through time toward home.

Satan, The Tool (of God)

C. S. Lewis, after speaking of the good that can come from human suffering and pain, has this to say:

Quoted from The Problem of Pain (Harper Collins 2001):

Offences must come, but woe to those by whom they come; sins do cause grace to abound, but we must not make that an excuse for continuing to sin. The crucifixion itself is the best, as well as the worst, of all historical events, but the role of Judas remains simply evil. We may apply this first to the problem of other people’s suffering. A merciful man aims at his neighbour’s good and so does ‘God’s will’, consciously co-operating with ‘the simple good’. A cruel man oppresses his neighbour, and so does simple evil. But in doing such evil, he is used by God, without his own knowledge or consent, to produce the complex good – so that the first man serves God as a son, and the second as a tool. For you will certainly carry out God’s purpose, however you act, but it makes a difference to you whether you serve like Judas or like John. The whole system is, so to speak, calculated for the clash between good men and bad men, and the good fruits of fortitude, patience, pity, and forgiveness for which the cruel man is permitted to be cruel, presuppose that the good man ordinarily continues to seek simple good. I say ‘ordinarily’ because a man is sometimes entitled to hurt (or even, in my opinion, to kill) his fellow, but only where the necessity is urgent and the good to be attained obvious, and usually (though not always) when he who inflicts the pain has a definite authority to do so – a parent’s authority derived from nature, a magistrate’s or soldier’s derived from civil society, or a surgeon’s derived, most often, from the patient. To turn this into a general charter for afflicting humanity ‘because affliction is good for them’ (as Marlowe’s lunatic Tamberlaine boasted himself the ‘scourge of God’) is not  indeed to break the Divine scheme, but to volunteer for the post of Satan within that scheme. If you do his work, you must be prepared for his wages.


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