Archive for April, 2009

Condoms and HIV

As I’ve noted before on this blog, the public discourse on sex is remarkably full of willful ignorance or just plain hypocrisy. Here is another example, this time from the pen of Joseph Bottum, who is now writing the “While We’re At It” blurbs for First Things. From the May 2009 Issue:

Our friend Dimitri Cavalli writes to say that the outrage over the pope’s claim in Africa that condoms makes things worse brings to mind a story about the late Dr. Theresa Crenshaw. A sex therapist, she attended the 1987 World Congress of Sexology in Heidelberg—and asked the audience of eight hundred professionally trained sexologists, “If you had available the partner of your dreams and knew that that person carried HIV, how many of you would depend on a condom for your protection?” No one raised a hand. She then chided the audience for giving ordinary ­people advice that none of them would follow for ­themselves.


Communion with Christ and Each Other

mother-teresa-with-her-peopleIn his 1938 work, Catholicism, Henri de Lubac begins by stressing the theme of communion that runs throughout the whole of Christian doctrine. From the doctrine of the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ to the Sacraments to our final destiny, the theme of uniting a fallen humanity stands out. At the very beginning of the book, de Lubac points out that because we are all created in the one image of the one God, we are inexpressibly bound to one another.

For the divine image does not differ from one individual to another: in all it is the same image. The same mysterious participation in God which causes the soul to exist effects at one and the same time the unity of the spirits among themselves. Whence comes the notion, so beloved of Augustinianism, of one spiritual family intended to form the one city of God.

This is not to deny individuality in man, but it highlights our familial bond. Whereas in an earthly sense, our family bonds are signified by bloodline, in a spiritual sense our bond is much more real in that it is through the imago Dei. This is a view that found much favor in the early fathers of the Church. De Lubac also notes that this familial bond via the imago Dei was ours in its full meaning in the Garden of Eden. Only with the fall was this spiritual bond corrupted by sin and the end result mankind becoming dis-united. Our communion was broken. It is with the coming of Christ that this communion is once again restored, and this communion will reach its fulfillment at the end of time; but that is getting ahead of ourselves.

It is well known what the Catholic Church teaches regarding herself as the “Mystical Body of Christ,” so I will not dwell on that too much here. Suffice it to say, the theme of unity and communion runs throughout the Church’s teaching regarding herself. In this one Body, Christ gathers all those who abide in Him. This communion is real, such that if one member suffers, the entire body suffers. If one member rejoices, so to does the entire body. This is an idea that runs throughout the writings of St. Paul as well as the early Church fathers. In passing I will note that in contemplating what it means for an earthly Church to be the Body of a divine Christ, de Lubac writes that the Church is at once stained by sin and the spotless bride of Christ; at once human and divine. De Lubac likens this to man himself, in that we are undeniably sinners, yet redeemed by grace. We are at once sinner and saint; so to is the Church.

In the sacramental life of the Church we too find the mark of communion. In Baptism, we are incorporated into the One Body of Christ. Baptism in this respect is seen as bringing one into the family of God; it is a re-unification brought about through the regenerative work of Christ. The Sacrament of Penance (Confession) is seen in the same light. In fact, the Catechism of the Catholic Church calls this sacrament, among other things, the Sacrament of Reconciliation. By our sins, we separate ourselves from this Body. Remember that humanity was given a special communion by being created in the imago Dei, and that it is through sin that this communion is broken. In the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we are brought back into the Body of Christ through the forgiveness of our sins. The sins that are forgiven are the very sins that brought about a dis-unity; but we must not think of this dis-unity as merely a dis-union which each other. It is truly a breaking of union with Christ; Christ as the one who is one with the Father, and Christ as the one who is present in His Body the Church. It is in both senses that we are reconciled in this sacrament. De Lubac also notes that this is seen very clearly in the practice of public penance in the early Church. Since grave sin was seen as a breaking with the Body of Christ, only a public repentance in front of those with whom we have broken communion will suffice to restore us to the One we have hurt by our sins. Likewise, the Sacrament of the Eucharist is also seen in this light. The way in which we commonly refer to this sacrament as “communion” will show this clearly enough. From St. Paul to the early Church fathers, the same note of this sacrament as communion with the Body of Christ is struck. It is in this sacrament that the Head and the Body are united in a very real way. We are united with each other and with Christ, when we partake of the One Bread and the One Cup, confessing the one faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.

Even with regard to the last things and our final destiny is this mark of unity in communion seen. What is heaven, but the full re-unification of the Body of Christ with its Head? Within the first millennium of the Church, a theology was ever present that said none will see the beatific vision of God until the whole of the Body of Christ is united at the end of time. De Lubac does not seem to concur (at least fully) with this line of thinking, but he uses it to underscore the importance placed upon untiy in the early Church.

If it was possible to believe – mistakenly – that the soul could not arrive at the beatific vision before the end of the world, was it not, in part at least, because it was held, and rightly, that the salvation of the individual could only be obtained within the salvation of the community? In these ages men’s outlook was primarily a social one, and was related only secondarily to the individual. They loved to think of the Church entering heaven after she won her victory. As long as she was the Church militant, so it was more or less vaguely supposed, none of her members could enjoy the fullness of triumph.

This is a note struck in Joseph Ratzinger’s Eschatology. Salvation of the individual only comes about in the salvation of the whole; the whole Body of Christ (those who have been incorporated into Christ) that is. So it was with Israel, so it is with us.

This vision of Christianity is one that breaks down all national, social, and economic barriers. Our unity is found in Christ, and our incorporation into His One Body, the Church. Ratzinger further makes this point of union in and with Christ from an eschatalogical point of view in his book Eschatology: the line of demarcation is not between those who are alive and those who are not. The line is between those who are in Christ, and those who are not. With this in mind, the necessity of the doctrine of the communion of the saints becomes clear. All who are in Christ are in communion with Him and with one another. Not even death can prevent such a communion brought about by the One who has conquered death.

Have a happy and blessed Easter!


* all quotations are taken from the 1988 Ignatius Press edition of Catholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man, translated by Lancelot C. Sheppard and Sister Elizabeth Englund, O.C.D.

Final Judgement

Joseph Ratzinger writing in his 1977 work, Eschatology, puts forth his view on the final judgment. In the end, it is not Christ who condemns, but we ourselves.

Christ inflicts pure perdition on no one. In himself he is sheer salvation. Anyone who is with him has entered the space of deliverance and salvation. Perdition is not imposed by him, but comes to be wherever a person distances himself from Christ. It comes about whenever someone remains enclosed within himself. Christ’s word, the bearer of the offer of salvation, then lays bare the fact that the person who is lost has himself drawn the dividing line and separated himself from salvation.

Behind the apparent diversity of ideas; patient investigation can discern a unified fundamental perspective. In death, a human being emerges into the light of full reality and truth. He takes up that place which is truly his by right. The masquerade of living with its constant retreat behind posturings and fictions, is now over. Man is what he is in truth. Judgment consists in this removal of the mask in death. The judgment is simply the manifestation of the truth. Not that this truth is something impersonal. God is truth; the truth is God; it is personal.

Catholic University of America Press, 1988

What is Authority?

And I thought I was finished writing for the weekend, but not so fast. Here is some food for thought from the great Protestant theologian, P. T. Forsyth. Writing in The Principle of Authority, Forsyth explains the nature of what he calls “religious authority.” I am sure I am putting this poorly, but by religious Forsyth means that which is the subjective apprehension of the objective truth of faith – God’s work in us. The last line is, of course, the famous quote from Cardinal Newman.

In the last resort, therefore, the only religious authority must be some action of God’s creative self-revelation, and not simply an outside witness to it. For instance, as to Christ’s resurrection, if we had signed, sealed, and indubitable testimony from one of the soldiers at the tomb who saw him emurge, it would have a certain value, of course; but it would not be a religious authority. It would not be equal in that respect to Peter’s or Paul’s, though they did not see Him rise. It would be more historisch and scientific, but less geschichtlich and sacramental than theirs. It would not prove that the Saviour rose in the triumphant power of His finished work over the world of nature as well as of man. It would only prove re-animation; so that He might, perhaps, get over His first failure as Saviour and try again. It would be no part of God’s self-revelation through apostolic souls whom the risen and indwelling Christ taught with regenerative and final power. The soldier would be but a bystander of an event, not an agent of revelation, nor a subject of it. Men are an authority to us, to our conscience, not as they may be able to stand cross-examination by historical and critical research, but as they are made by the power of God, the Christ, Who reveals Himself in His regeneration of their souls. The Apostles are authorities of Christ only in so far as Christ made them so, not as infallible chroniclers but as elect souls. And even these men fade into the rear when they have done their work; and they may crumble and dissolve, like the sacramental bread – so long as they have brought us to direct communion with God, with Christ, as His own voucher, and stirred the evidence of His Spirit’s action and power in our soul’s new life. The best documents are human sacraments. Holy men are the best argument of the Gospel, short of the Gospel itself, short, i.e. of Christ’s real presence with us in the Holy Ghost as our active Saviour. And when men have done their proper work, when they have introduced us personally to God and left us together, it is not fatal if we find flaws in their logic, character, or faith. There is so much spritual truth as that in the Roman principle that defect in the priest does not destroy the effect of his sacrament. Defects in Church, Bible, or apostle, defects in the logic of creed, or inconsistencies of conduct in Christian people, need not destroy the real religious witness they bear on the whole, their sacramental mediation of the Gospel to us. Secure in the God to Whom they led us, we turn at our ease and leisure to examine their flaws with a quiet and kindly mind, knowing that they do not cost us our soul’s life. “A thousand difficulties do not make one doubt.”

Coplestone’s “A History of Philosophy”

It is well known that in many ways St. Augustine was influenced by Plato, whereas St. Thomas Aquinas was more influenced by Aristotle. Though the distinctions of influence are not so stark, it is true that each “baptised” the thought of these two great Greek philosophers in their own way. That said, I have found it very helpful to know a little about the philosophy of Plato when reading Augustine, and the same goes for Aristotle when reading Aquinas. The Summa was in many ways a confusing labyrinth of philosophical jargon and nonsense until I came to understand (in part) the thought of Aristotle. Once I had a grasp on the Aristotelian distinctions of form and matter, St. Thomas opened up before me in all it’s grandeur. Perhaps that is putting it too dramatically, but something like that surely happened.

In an endeavor to more fully understand the philosophical underpinnings of my Christian faith, not to mention trying to better understand my own existence and the world around me, I have been slowly making my way through Frederick Coplestone’s A History of Philosophy. There are 9 volumes in all (for us in the United States), and I have just made my way into Volume 2. The first volume deals with ancient Greek and Roman philosophy and is perhaps the most important volume for understanding great Christian thinkers like Augustine and Aquinas, as it goes through in good detail the thought of both Plato and Aristotle. Volume 2 picks up with the philosophical influences of the early church fathers, which acts as a prelude to the first great Christian philosopher, St. Augustine. It should be noted that Coplestone is fully aware that the early fathers did not make distinctions between philosophy and theology. Therefor he readily admits of the dangers inherent in untangling a philosophy (his work is after all one of the history of philosophy) from the theology of those who saw no such distinctions. Nevertheless, clear influences of neo-platonism and, to some extent, stoicism can be traced in the thought of these early Christian thinkers such as Justin Martyr, Origen, Tertullian, and John Damascene. Likewise, these influences can be seen in the two great minds of the Western Church, Augustine and Aquinas.

In all, the 2nd volume of Coplestone’s work will cover the philosophy of the early Church through St. Augustine, and on to St. Anselm, St. Bonaventure, St Albert the Great, St Thomas Aquinas, and Duns Scotus; a period that spans 1,300 years. Coplestone covers all of this under the heading of “Medieval Philosophy” though he recognizes that he uses the term losely and that no period ever remains distinct from that which precedes it or comes after. I happily detect a note of Christopher Dawson’s influence! Volume 3 will pick up where volume 2 left off and go through what Copleston refers to as “Late Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy.” This 3rd volume will begin with William of Ockham and go through to Francis Bacon and the dawning of a Renaissance philosophy with Francis Suarez.

The first 3 volumes of Coplestone’s A History of Philosophy will serve as an introduction to his much more lengthy treatment of modern philosophy. As Coplestone notes, you can’t understand modern philosophy without understanding what came before. As the famous dictum has it: all philosophy is but footnotes to Plato. This may be a slight overstatement, but the whole of philosophy can certainly be seen as a working out of the issues raised by Plato nearly 2,500 years ago. It’s just that in this working out, there are some outright rejections of parts of Plato’s thought if not all of it. Nonetheless, these rejections have no basis without Plato and those that followed him.

As I said, Volume 4 of Coplestone’s A History of Philosophy begins his lengthy treatment of modern philosophy. The next 6 volumes will cover everything from Descartes to Hume to Kant to Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche, all the way through to the philosophy of the last century with Bertrand Russel, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Jean-Paul Sartre; what is now known as post-modern philosophy. Of course, everything in between is covered as well, and this is primarily whyI have chosen to read through Coplestone’s intimidating 9 volume work. For reasons unknown to myself, I have a keen interest in modern philosophy, but I recognize the need for understanding the philosophy of the ancient Greeks and the classical Christian thinkers of the Church’s first millennium. The fact that Coplestone will give me a grounding in the “pre-modern” philosophers before plunging me into the thought of Descartes and beyond is something that I truly appreciate.

Having never taken a university class in anything resembling philosophy or theology – my university studies were more along the lines of calculus and advanced physics – I am self taught in matters pertaining to philosophy and theology. While the journey is fascinating, being self taught comes with its own very real limitations. I know plenty of “stuff” but not having the advantage of a classroom and a professor with whom to interact, I find it hard to synthesize all that I have learned. I know Plato taught X and Aquinas taught Y and Nietzsche taught Z, but I have hardly a clue on how X, Y, and Z are related or why Nietzsche taught Z in stark contrast with Plato’s X. This is where Coplestone comes in. By going on a journey from Plato to Sartre, I hope this synthesization – which is indeed a higher faculty of reason – will begin to materialize.

Coplestone’s A History of Philosophy comes highly recommended by many in the academic world. While Coplestone was a Jesuit and writes from a clearly Christian and Thomist point of view, his massive work also enjoys the support of secular philosophers. The blurb on the back of the book probably says it best, although keep in mind this is a blurb from the publisher so the danger of exaggeration is always present.

Conceived originally as a serious presentation of  the development of philosophy for Catholic  seminary students, Frederick Copleston’s nine-volume  A History Of Philosophy has  journeyed far beyond the modest purpose of its author to  universal acclaim as the best history of  philosophy in English.

Copleston, an Oxford Jesuit  of immense erudition who once tangled with A. J.  Ayer in a fabled debate about the existence of God  and the possibility of metaphysics, knew that  seminary students were fed a woefully inadequate diet  of theses and proofs, and that their familiarity  with most of history’s great thinkers was reduced  to simplistic caricatures. Copleston set out to  redress the wrong by writing a complete history of  Western philosophy, one crackling with incident and  intellectual excitement — and one that gives full  place to each thinker, presenting his thought in a  beautifully rounded manner and showing his links  to those who went before and to those who came  after him.

The result of Coplestone’s prodigious labors is a history of philosophy that is unlikely ever to be surpassed. Thought magazine summed up the general agreement among scholars and students alike when it reviewed Coplestone’s A History of Philosophy as “broad-minded and objective, comprehensive and scholarly, unified and well proportioned… We cannot recommend [it] too highly.”

After having read some 600 pages into the multi-thousand page work, I can add my recommendation as well. It may take me 10 years to complete all 9 volumes, but I have decided that is just fine with me. As I get older, I am learning the fine art of patience, a virtue I have lacked my entire life. If the good Lord blesses me with many more years I will enjoy learning more and more about philosophy, a topic I find so fascinating. If I do not make it through all 9 volumes that is ok too. There are far more important things in life, and my relationship with my Lord and Saviour is all that really matters in the end. Reading Coplestone (and Chesterton, and von Hildebrand, and C. S. Lewis, and Emil Brunner, and Ratzinger, and…. oh I could go on) is just icing on the cake of life.

I hope to quote more from Coplestone in the future of this blog. Not that the history of philosophy is oh so exciting (although, to me it kind of is), but one of the purposes of this blog is to help me think through the things I have read. In fact, that may be the real reason this blog exists. I find that as I quote verbatim from the authors I read, and write about the things they are saying, I am much more apt to remember the things I have learned. Whether or not anybody else actually reads what I write or quote is completely secondary (no offense!). I just recognize that others may benefit from what I read and write as well. All that to say, look for some quotations from Coplestone in the future, although don’t expect uber excitement unless your a bit of a philosophy dweeb like myself.

Until next time, have a very blessed Holy Week!

Philosophy on the Pitch

I know I haven’t been doing many serious posts lately, but no worries; with this post the trend will continue!

That has to be one of the funniest videos I have ever seen. Germany vs. Greece. Philosophy Futbol!

“And here come the Greeks, led out by their veteran center, Heraclitus… Let’s look at their team. As you’d expect, a much more defensive line up. Plato’s in goal. Socrates, the front runner there, and Aristotle as sweeper…. Aristotle, very much the man in form”

Simply brilliant.

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