Friday, February 25, 2005

Canonicity and the problem of circular reasoning

In this two-part analysis, (1) "Canon to the right of them; canon to the left of them," and (2) "Canon in front of them, rode the six hundred," the Pontificator offers a fine examination of two Protestant criteria for the determination of canonicity, (1) self-authentication and (2) apostolic authorship or authorization. The basic question, of course, centers on the authority to define canonicity. The question of pseudonymity that he treats in his second post is a secondary detail, and I won't address it here. Rather, I wish to comment briefly on the question of circular reasoning that he raises in his second post.

First, the claim is sometimes made that the Catholic Church is circular in appealing to Scripture to support her authority and then claiming the final say in how to interpret Scripture. But there is no circularity here, first, because she does not claim sola scriptura; and, second, because if she has the authority she claims, the case is no different logically from that of the NT writers appealing to the Old Testament (OT) for support while claiming divine warrant for their NT interpretations. Read more.

The question of authority in relation to the biblical canon

Al Kimel, at Pontificator, offers another incisive post on the issue if canonicity, this one entitled, "Canon to the right of them; canon to the left of them." The problem of canonicity reduces to the problem of authority and, for the Protestant, the problem of a bifurcation between the authority of Scripture and that of the Church, which, in truth, should not and cannot be separated. There is little more ironic than the spectacle of evangelicals vociferously defending the infallible divine guidance of the apostles in their inscripturation of God's Word turning, a moment later in conversations with Catholics, to backpedal furiously at the suggestion that God could have extended this infallible guidance beyond the apostles' act of writing to their verbal teaching and that of their authoritatively ordained successors.

Read more.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Da Vinci Code on trial in Italy

Dan Brown deserves far less attention than he's getting in the press these days, except for the fatal combination of (1) beguiling charm and (2) deception that animates his recent work of--I wish people could get this into their heads--FICTION, The Da Vinci Code. My priest tells me that parishioners have been coming to him and confessing in anguish that they are losing their faith because they didn't realize that all these horrible things Dan Brown says about the Catholic Church were "true"! Good heavens, what does it take anymore for people to sort out the difference between chicken soup and chicken spit! I hear there are now tours "Da Vinci Code tours" being offered in Rome to Dan Brown readers, not all of whom realize that his work is a piece of historical deception. And now it's come to this: BBC has announced that a mock trial is now being opened in Leonardo Da Vinci's hometown of Vinci to try to sort out the fact from fiction, in an effort to rebut the lies. The book would be worth none of this attention except for its libellous deceptions that touch basic Christian dogmas concerning Jesus Christ, prominent Christian institutions such as the Catholic Church, and religious organizations such as Opus Dei, and Dan Brown's refusal to come clean about his deceptions. Don't give a dime of your money to Dan Brown, but read on, inform yourself, and, especially, inform others. See my Da Vinci Code Page.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Hunter S. Thompson kills himself at 67

The Denver Post (February 20, 2005) reported that Hunter S. Thompson blew his brains out with a gunshot to the head over the weekend. Pitkin County Sheriff Bob Braudis, a friend of Hunter S. Thompson's, confirmed the author's death. Thompson's son, Juan, discovered his body Sunday evening.

For at least a significant number of us who lived through the seventies, Hunter S. Thompson defined part of what that decade in the United States meant. His book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1972), held down a whole generation for us--a generation of pot-heads, drop-outs, rock-n-rollers, hippies, acid-heads, and wipe-outs. "I wouldn't recommend sex, drugs or insanity for everyone," said Thompson, "but they've always worked for me." In a cinamatic version of the book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas--The Criterion Collection, directed by Terry Gillam (link), Johnny Depp plays the Hunter S. Thompson character, the "gonzo" journalist Raoul Duke, in an endless scenes of substance abuse and the hallucinogenic fallout of a road trip to Las Vegas. In the trunk of their souped-up convertible, dubbed the "Great Red Shark," they stow "two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half-full of cocaine and a whole galaxy of multicolored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers.... A quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls," which they manage to consume during their short tour.

Other books by Thompson include Hell's Angels, The Great Shark Hunt: Strange Tales from a Strange Time, Fear and Loathing in America: The Brutal Odyssey of an Outlaw, The Rum Diary: A Novel, and Hey Rube: Blood Sport, the Bush Doctrine, and the Downward Spiral of Dumbness Modern History from the Sports Desk.

While I appreciate much of the humor of Thompson's writing and concede that it reflects a significant slice of an American subculture in and since the seventies, it's difficulty for me to identify with his world. I rubbed shoulders with this world more often than I would have liked in the seventies, and I feel very little but disgust and pity for those who have inhabited or continue to inhabit it. While it's sad to me that Thompson killed himself, it's not surprising. His world was the absurd world of existentialism gone to seed. Albert Camus asked us to consider as a serious philosophical question why we do not commit suicide. There are two facts, he said, of which he was utterly certain: (1) that he could not live without a meaning in life; and (2) that life has no meaning. He chose to embrace an "absurd existence" and live, though his life was cut short prematurely by an auto accident. The death of Jim Morrison (pictured below, right) of the rock group The Doors by heroin overdose in Paris in 1971 was close in spirit to Thompson's. Morrison had read the philosophical works of the existentialist, Friedrich Nietzsche, and drank deep of its deicidal nihilism. In Soft Parade, one of his last albums, he begins a song with the shout: "You cannot petition the Lord in prayer!" The more recent suicide by shotgun blast of Seattle grundge group, Nirvana's lead singer, Kurt Cobain (pictured below) in 1994 is also spiritually akin to Thompson's. He was found with three times the lethal amount of heroin in his system. Shlomo Sher's account of his life and worldview in "Kurt Cobain's journjals: smells like necrophilia," is quite revealing. His was a "Generation X" version of the same. And now the doyen of sex, drugs or insanity, the duke of fear and loathing himself, makes his grand exit. How sad, a life with no purpose. The so-called "wisdom of Silenus" of ancient Sophoclean tragedy, cited by Nietzsche in his Birth of Tragedy, is that it would have been best never to have been born; and the second best to die as quickly as possible. Neither turns out to have been the case with Thompson. He could have taken his life earlier, but chose to take it only after 67 years of life. Perhaps he enjoyed his sex, drugs, and insanity more than one suspects. Then again, what kind of enjoyment would it be that led ultimately to suicide? The final judgment, of course, is not ours to make, though one fears that someone may be inclined to agree with Silenus in this one point: that when all is said and done, it may have been better for such an individual never to have been born. I, at least, will defer to the divine tribunal on that one.

For further reading:

Indulgences still available!

Our Lutheran brethren may not be aware that although Brother Martin Luther opposed the abuse of indulgences, he was not opposed in principle to indulgences themselves. In his famous 95 Theses, Luther declared not only that those who were licitly commissioned by the Pope to grant pardons (indulgences) and were faithfully carrying out their tasks were to be received "with all reverence," but also that any who spoke against the "truth of apostolic pardons" (indulgences granted with the full authority of the Church) should be declared "anathema and accursed"! Here, in fact, is Luther in his own words from his 95 Theses (pictured below, right):
69. Bishops and curates are bound to admit the commissaries of apostolic pardons, with all reverence.

71. He who speaks against the truth of apostolic pardons, let him be anathema and accursed!

73. The pope justly thunders against those who, by any art, contrive the injury of the traffic in pardons.

91. If, therefore, pardons were preached according to the spirit and mind of the pope, all these doubts would be readily resolved; nay, they would not exist.
It is hardly Lutherans (or other Protestants) alone who may be surprised by this, since many Catholics today are as ignorant of their own tradition as are non-Catholics. How many of us, after all, could give a definition of an "indulgence" if we were asked what an indulgence was? Many myths about indulgences abound. A lot of people probably have some vague notion that it means buying or earning one's salvation or his way out of hell. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Here is the definition of an indulgence found in the Catholic Encyclopedia:
[A]n indulgence is a remission of the temporal punishment due to sin, the guilt of which has been forgiven.
Notice, in particular the words "... the guilt of which has been forgiven" in the last part of the definition. An indulgence doesn't procure the forgiveness of the guilt of one's sins. That is something accomplished once-for-all by the sacrificial death of Christ on Calvary. An indulgence has no bearing on that. An indulgence is concerned with the temporal punishment due to sins that have been already forgiven. The natural question that arises is: "Why should any punishment remain if my sins have already been forgiven?" The answer is simple. Imagine you're apprearing in court after having received a speeding ticket for driving recklessly fast. Let's assume you're sorry for your recklessness, have resolved never to drive in such a manner again, and have already confessed your sin to God (and received sacramental absolution, if you're a Catholic). God has forgiven you. But you still have to face the magistrate in traffic court. You can't simply tell the judge: "Jesus has paid for my sins on Calvary, so I shouldn't be required to pay a fine." Temporal punishments can still follow even after sins have been forgiven. Now what business does the Church have with temporal punishments? When most of us die, we aren't yet perfectly sanctified. We haven't overcome all of our bad habits, paid all our debts, or taken care of all those unresolved issues that we've repressed somewhere in the recesses of our memories. We have stuff that still has to be taken care of, even if Christ has paid for our sins and earned our eternal salvation. The purging of all this remaining garbage in our souls is the business of Purgatory; and this is where the Church has always claimed the authority to grant remission of some or all of one's temporal punishments that would await him in Purgatory provided he fulfills certain conditions for an indulgence (pardon) while still alive. (A nice, clear explanation of Purgatory can be found in Peter Kreeft's book, Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Heaven But Never Dreamed of Asking. He includes an interesting account of C.S. Lewis's belief in Purgatory. See my further discussion of this here.)

A good example of what is involved in indulgences today can be seen in the indulgence currently being granted by the Holy See in connection with the year 2005, which has been declared the Year of the Eucharist. Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University provides the following clarifications about the Year-of-the-Eucharist Indulgence in an interview with Zenit news service:
ROME, FEB. 15, 2005 ( The new indulgence (its decree was published Jan. 14) may be obtained in two ways. First, "each time the faithful participate attentively and piously in a sacred function or a devotional exercise undertaken in honor of the Blessed Sacrament, solemnly exposed or conserved in the tabernacle."

Second, it is granted "to the clergy, to members of institutes of consecrated life and societies of apostolic life, and to other faithful who are by law obliged to recite the Liturgy of the Hours, as well as to those who customarily recite the Divine Office out of pure devotion, each and every time they recite -- at the end of the day, in company or private -- vespers and night prayers before the Lord present in the tabernacle."

This latter norm created some confusion as even the Latin text was not perfectly clear.

One of the advantages of living in Rome is that one can pick up a phone and ask for clarifications. This process resolved several doubts.

One regarded the expressions "at the end of the day." Did this mean that vespers (Evening Prayer) and Night Prayer had to be prayed together one after the other? Another was the doubt highlighted by our reader regarding two plenary indulgences.

The reply was that although both offices must be prayed before the Blessed Sacrament in order to gain the plenary indulgence, they may be prayed at different moments of the evening.

With this point clear, the other followed naturally: We are dealing with a single plenary indulgence that requires two distinct moments of prayer. Hence, the norm that one may obtain only one plenary indulgence a day, applicable to oneself or to a soul in purgatory, remains in force.

No. 1471 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains: "An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints."

No. 1479 adds: "Since the faithful departed now being purified are also members of the same communion of saints, one way we can help them is to obtain indulgences for them, so that the temporal punishment due for their sins may be remitted."

The decree reminds the faithful that to obtain a plenary indulgence it is necessary to observe the "usual conditions":

1. Sacramental confession, usually within a week before or after obtaining the indulgence. One sacramental confession is sufficient for several indulgences.

2. Eucharistic Communion. Unlike confession, only one indulgence may be obtained for each Communion. Although this Communion may be fulfilled several days before or after obtaining the indulgence, it is preferable that this condition be fulfilled the same day. Thus, those who practice regular confession and daily Mass may obtain a plenary indulgence practically every day.

3. Prayer in keeping with the intentions of the Supreme Pontiff. Like Communion, prayer for the Pope's intentions must be recited for the gaining of each plenary indulgence. Although there are no prescribed prayers the condition is satisfied by reciting one Our Father and one Hail Mary.

4. Having the soul completely removed from attachment to any form of sin. This is the most difficult condition as even attachment to venial sin precludes the possibility of obtaining the indulgence. However, note that the condition is not freedom from all venial sin, but from attachment to sin; that is, that there is no sin which the soul is unwilling to renounce.

Apart from the above, here are some of the principal concessions of plenary indulgences within reach of most Catholics.

1. Remain in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament at least half an hour.

2. The participation in the Adoration of the Cross, on Good Friday.

3. Spiritual exercises of at least three days.

4. Those who make their first Communion or who assist at another's first Communion.

5. Praying at least five decades of the rosary in a church or chapel, or else in family, a religious community or a pious association. The conditions are that the five decades be prayed without interruption; meditation on the mysteries must be added to the vocal recitation; and in public recitation the mysteries must be announced according to approved local custom.

6. Celebrating or assisting at a priest's first solemn Mass, or at his 25th, 50th or 60th anniversary Mass. The priest should also renew before God his proposal to faithfully fulfill the obligations of his vocation.

7. Visiting a church or altar on the day of its dedication and praying an Our Father and a Creed.

8. Renewing one's baptismal promises during the Easter Vigil or on the anniversary of one's baptism.

9. Reading sacred Scripture as spiritual reading with the devotion due to God's Word for at least a half-hour.

10. Making the pious exercise of the Way of the Cross. This must be done at legitimately erected stations, which require 14 crosses to which other images or statues may be added.

The Way of the Cross usually consists of 14 sacred readings, to which some vocal prayers may be added.

However, to fulfill the pious exercise it is enough to meditate on the Lord's passion and death, with no need to make a particular consideration regarding each individual station. Thus, one may also meditate on episodes of the Passion that differ from the traditional 14 stations.

It is also necessary to move from one station to the next, although, if during a public celebration the whole group cannot easily move, it is sufficient that the person who guides the stations move from one station to the next.

If someone is legitimately impeded from doing the stations, he or she may obtain the same indulgence through pious reading and meditation on the Lord's passion and death for about 15 minutes or so.

11. Devoutly receiving a papal blessing including those imparted "urbi et orbi" (to the city of Rome and the world) such as is customary at Easter and Christmas, and received through live transmission by radio, television or Internet.

The local bishop may also impart the apostolic blessing three times a year on dates of their choosing, at the end of a specially solemn Mass.

12. Each Friday of Lent a plenary indulgence is granted to those who piously recite the prayer "Look down Upon Me, Good and Gentle Jesus" after Communion, before an image of Christ crucified. This prayer is among those offered in the missal for thanksgiving after Communion.

13. "To the faithful in danger of death, who cannot be assisted by a priest to bring them the sacraments and impart the Apostolic Blessing with its plenary indulgence, Holy Mother Church nevertheless grants a plenary indulgence to be acquired at the point of death, provided they are properly disposed and have been in the habit of reciting some prayers during their lifetime. The use of a crucifix or a cross to gain this indulgence is praiseworthy.

"The condition, provided they have been in the habit of reciting some prayers during their lifetime, supplies in such cases for the three usual conditions required for the gaining of a plenary indulgence.

"The plenary indulgence at the point of death can be acquired by the faithful, even if they have already obtained another plenary indulgence on the same day." (Enchiridion of Indulgences)

Apart from the plenary indulgences, Catholics do well to be aware that most of their habitual prayers, sacrifices and habitual service to others, from the sign of the cross to the Hail Mary, are endowed with partial indulgences which increase their weight before God and give them an opportunity to exercise selfless charity in offering their prayers in benefit of the souls in purgatory.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Best introductions to Aristotle and Thomistic metaphysics

Anyone wishing to master or even gain an elementary acquaintance of Aristotelian thinking or Thomistic metaphysics must begin by learning what amounts to a new language--the language of Aristotle (pictured left), who was the teacher of Alexander the Great. In many ways this is analogous to learning the language of computers, where one must learn about "hard drives," "USB ports," "gigabytes," "CD-ROMs," and so forth. In the case of Aristotle and Thomistic metaphysics, you have to become familiar with the vocabulary that includes words like "substance," "accidents," "quality," "relation," "essence," and so forth.

For my recommendations of the best introductory books for Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas (pictured right), and Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics generally, read more on my blog, Philosophia Perennis (February 19, 2005).

Friday, February 18, 2005

Liberal successor to Cardinal Ratzinger?

Alessandro Zangrando reports in the latest issue of Latin Mass magazine (Winter 2005) that new details are emerging concerning the appointment of Bruno Forte (pictured right), a priest of the Archidiocese of Naples, as bishop of Chieti Vasto, in central Italy. Zandgrando writes:
The prospect of Forte succeeding Joseph Ratzinger as the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is the reason for all the persistent talk about him.
On the one hand, Zandgrando notes that Forte preached the Lenten Retreat to the Pope last year. On the other hand, however, he also notes that as a pupil of the very liberal Cardinal Walter Kasper and a great admirer of Karl Rahner (one of the most influential liberal theolgians at the Second Vatican Council), Forte is looked upon with considerable suspicion in the Vatican Curia. Particularly puzzling is his appointment as a bishop, given the fact that his name allegedly does not appear in any of the possible candidates submitted to the Italian Nunciature and that even his Ordinary, Cardinal Michele Giordano, Archbishop of Naples, reportedly opposed his appointment. No less puzzling is the fact that Cardinal Ratzinger himself served as the Consecrator at last September's ceremony, apparently in an attempt to put to rest a growing controversy over Forte's status. Zangrando observes:
Forte's theology, however, continues to be a problem. In "Gesu di Nazaret, storia di Dio, Dio della storia" (Jesus of Nazareth, history of God, God of history), an essay written in 1994, Forte reveals himself as the standard-bearer of theories so radical as to the point of putting in doubt even the historicity of the resurrection of Christ. The empty tomb, he argues, is a legend tied into a Jewish-Christian ritual performed at the place of Jesus' burial. It is a myth inherited by the Christians from Jesus' early disciples. Therefore, the empty tomb, along with other details surrounding the resurrection, is nothing else but a "proof" made up by the community. In other words, Forte is trying to change an historic event, the resurrection of Christ, into a myth, into a kind of fairy tale that cannot be proven.
Under such circumstances, we are hopeful that best lights of Cardinal Ratzinger and his clear-headed associates working in his secretariat, such as Fr. Joseph Augustine DiNoia, O.P., will prevail in the matter. And we pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the selection of the eventual successor to Cardinal Ratzinger, as well as, when the time comes, the successor to Pople John Paul II. If ever we've needed strong, clear-headed, orthodox leadership, it is now.

The 2005 Catholic Blog Awards

I had no idea that such a thing as these awards existed, but in a comment on one of my posts, Nathan Nelson (whose own blog is entitled Fides, Spes, Caritas) wrote: "Congratulations for your nomination as Most Intellectual Blog in the 2005 Catholic Blog Awards, Dr. Blosser." I was also pleased to see that the official nominations and winners, which is hosted by, also show Christopher Blosser's blog, Against the Grain, as a nominee for "Best Presentation." My own vote would have gone to Al Kimel's Pontifications: Nearly Infallible Musings on the Gospel, Church, and the Catholic Faith, for its consistent quality and depth and substantive discussion of orthodox Catholic issues, except for the little detail that Kimel is an Anglican, not a Catholic. Not yet, anyway; but one can always hope and pray!

Rural pagans, suburban philistines, and urban Catholics

I've heard it said that when the Gospel of Christ began to spread across the Roman Empire, the first significant numbers of converts were found in the cities, not among the rural country dwellers. I've also heard it said--whether or not it is true, I am not sure--that the word "pagan" (from the Latin paganus, meaning "country dweller") first came to be identified with unconverted non-Christian populations for this reason--just as the term "heathen" (from the Old English h[ea]th, meaning those who dwell in the heath, or uncultivated countriside) came to be identified with unconverted non-Christian populations.

This pattern has changed over time, of course, as urban centers have come to be known as centers of secularism and identified, most recently in the United States, with the 'blue' urban centers that voted overwhelmingly for John Kerry and John Edwards, the opponents of traditional pro-life, heterosexual, family values that became the focus of so much attention in the last election. Fans of 'blue' values, such as Michael Moore, tend to despise fans of 'red' values and derisively dismiss them as rural and southern "rednecks" living in benighted ignorance somewhere in the nether regions of "Deliverance" country.

Yet there may be one exception to this pattern. It may be the case, with regards to Catholics, at least, that those most informed and knowledgeable about history, liturgy, theology, and Catholic tradition, are found in the urban centers, and that those most ignorant of these things are found, if not in the nether regions of the rural paganus or heath, in the comfortable suburban communities of SUV-driving bourgeoisie and soccer-mom dominated Catholic parishes. This, at least, is the implicit suggestion of the following brilliant story, which strikes all-too-close to home to be dismissed as entirely fictional:
Mr. Smith-Jones Goes to Washington

by Dred Scott

It was a perfect summer day when Fred Smith-Jones's family left the Midwest for a vacation in the nation's capital.

Fred and his wife, Joyce, both middle-class suburbanites, were excited and had spent several days designing an itinerary. Their two adolescent children--Ashlee and Zodiac--were likewise filled with wonder regarding their first-ever trip east of the Ohio River.

After arriving at the Reagan Airport and checking into their hotel, the family quickly hit the streets. Tour buses took them to the U.S. Capitol, the White House, and Union Station. The family photographed every monument and statue.

On the third morning, the Smith-Jones, who are Catholic, visited the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

They toured North America's largest church in awe. Fred used his camcorder to videotape everything, including the reconciliation chapel where dozens of people waited in line for the Shrine's two confessionals.

The Smith-Joneses maintained an awkward silence. They were surprised by what they saw: People waiting in line for Confession, praying by themselves in devotional chapels, and praying the Rosary as a group.

How different it was from the family's suburban parish, where people chat amiably prior to Mass. The Basilica was filled with altars, statues, and icons. Many altars stood against the walls, and Mr. Smith-Jones thought they must have been installed for decorative purposes.

Meanwhile, the girls wondered why many of the women praying before Mass were wearing pieces of lace on their heads.

Suddenly, as they were sitting in the Basilica's crypt church just before the 12:10 daily Mass, the family was startled by the ringing of a bell. Everyone around them stood up and began speaking in unison as a priest entered and intoned, "The Angel spoke God's message to Mary...."

The Smith-Jonses glanced at one another in confusion. Zodiac whispered to Ashlee, "What's going on?" They were befuddled by the organ hymns and somber atmosphere that followed.

Where were the guitars? Why did the presider begin with the sign of the cross instead of chatty repartee? Ashlee wondered why the young people were not invited to physically surround the altar during the Eucharistic prayer.

Ms. Smith-Jones, for her part, noticed her family's discomfort and gamely fought to reassure them. Mom lifted high the hands of her family during the Our Father, even though few other congregants did.

She and her husband likewise worked hard during the sign of peace, kissing each other and shaking as many hands as possible.

Unfortunately, though, the priest began the Agnus Dei just as Mom and Dad were departing to visit other pews.

After the Mass, the Smith-Joneses filed quietly toward the Shrine's exits. The kids were thinking about an MTV program they might have missed. The parents were thinking wistfully of St. Al's Catholic Community, where the stained glass is free of fire-and-brimstone imagery, where a bright-orange goldfish roams the baptismal pool.

Ms. Smith-Jones recited a favorite "centering prayer" and mentally told herself, "We are Church, we are Church, we are Church."

Suddenly, 18-year-old Ashlee thought of the word "sin." She'd heard the phrase on television, perhaps, or in a book, and wondered how it might apply to--

But the girl's thoughts were interrupted by the cheerful voice of her Mother, proposing a trip to the hotel swimming pool and a visit to the Pentagon City shopping mall before dinner. Soon the Smith-Jones family turned their thoughts and discussion to the items they would buy.
The author, Dred Scott (a pseudonym), writes from Washington, D.C.
[Originally printed in New Oxford Review (January 2005), p. 40. Reprinted with permission from New Oxford Review, 1069 Kains Ave., Berkeley, CA 94706, U.S.A.]

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Plaintiff wins suit against abortion clinic

In a decision of singular significance, Multinomah County (Oregon) Judge Dale Koch has signed the first judgment ever against an abortionist for psychological injury and failure to informa a patient about the increased risk of breast cancer associated with having an induced abortion. [National Right to Life News, February 2005), p. 15] Read more about the links between breast cancer and abortion (as well as the links between breast cancer and the "pill") here.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Students who don't read anymore

Norman Mailer recently addressed the precipitous decline in reading across the nation as a national crisis. In an article entitled "One Idea" in the January 23, 2005 issue of Parade, he writes:
If the desire to read diminishes, so does one's ability to read. The search for a culprit does not have to go far. There are confirming studies all over academia and the media that too many hours are devoted each day to the tube. Television is seen as the culprit, since the ability to read well is directly related to one's ability to learn. If it is universally understood that the power to concentrate while reading is the royal road to knowledge, what may not be perceived as clearly is how much concentration itself is a species of psychic strength. It can be developed or it can go soft in much the manner that body muscle can be built up or allowed to go slack. The development of physical ability is in direct relation to use. Reading offers its analogy. When children become interested in an activity, their concentration is firm--until it is interrupted. Sixty years ago, children would read for hours. Their powers of concentration developed as naturally as breathing. Good readers became very good readers, even as men and women who go in for weight-lifting will bulk up. The connection between loving to read and doing well in school was no mystery to most students.
I've sensed a growing problem in academe for years. In the college where I teach, I ask a couple of students to meet with me after every class for five minutes in order to ask them where they're from, what they're majoring in, what their interests are, and if they have any concerns about the course. The last question I ask them is: "What is the last book you have read for your own enjoyment and not because it was assigned for some class?" Twenty years ago, most of my students had little trouble remembering a book they had recently read; and if they couldn't remember, they were embarrassed and apologetic. During the last ten years, the number of these students has risen precipitously. Not only are they unapologetic. They are not even the least bit embarrassed when the cannot remember the title of a single book they have ever read on their own. They simply respond: "I don't read," as though they were describing their disinterest in a particular sport.

Syndicated columnist E. Ray Walker, in a January 27, 2005 article in the Fort Wayne News Sentinel ("Rx for America: Reading") commenting on a country of non-readers losing its mind, remarks:
Just last summer a National Endowment for the Arts survey found a dramatic decrease in Americans who read literature (novels, plays, poetry, short stories), with more than half -- HALF! -- of Americans not reading for pleasure. The survey found an overall decline of 10 percentage points in literary readers from 1982 to 2002, a loss of 20 million potential readers.

Said NEA Chairman Dan Gioia: "The decline in reading among every segment of the adult population reflects a general collapse in advanced literacy. To lose this human capacity--and all the diverse benefits it fosters--impoverishes both cultural and civic life."

While the NEA survey found reading declines in all demographic groups, it was particularly dramatic among those 18 to 24 years old. Among this group, the decline was 55 percent greater than that of the total adult population. At the current rate of loss among the young, literary reading will virtually disappear in 50 years, the NEA warns. That's not exactly reassuring.
All of this raises all those old questions about the effects of television, which we used to call the "idiot box." One of the first books to seriously question the whole television ethos was Jerry Mander's Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television (1978). Subsequent contributions include Our family has had a policy of not owning a television for decades. I think it has paid off. In fact, we often wonder out loud how people ever find time for television in their lives. Norman Mailer doesn't go so far as to call for the elimination of television. But he does see the rapid-fire ads as a major culprit in the declining capacity of children to concentrate. He concludes his article thus:
If we want to have the best of all possible worlds, we had better recognize that we cannot have all the worlds. I believe that television commercials have got to go. Let us pay directly for what we enjoy on television rather than pass the spiritual cost on to our children and their children.

Yawn ... "The Vagina Monologues" ... again?

Lenoir-Rhyne College Professor Paul Beidler is advertising a reading of Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues for Valentine's Day this year, to be hosted at his house near campus. On the whole the campus tends to be indifferent toward this sort of thing. But I sent Paul the following email, which I here make available as an open letter to anyone wishing to read it:

... sigh ... If it's attention you want, enjoy this, because it's probably all you're going to get in this slough of apathy and indifference. Just what do you think you're doing with this belated celebration of Ensler's Vagina Monologues? The hype over this is "so yesterday," unless you can find something redeeming here for rehabilitating it. What is this, an official school function, or a private invitation to a Beidler family book reading? I couldn't help noticing your posters all over campus. It might have been more exciting if you thought anyone in the administration actually cared enough to be scandalized about it. The part that makes the least sense is your rationale for the event: "to raise awareness of domestic violence." What kind of awareness? One could raise awareness of the national scourge of pornography that fosters images of women as slabs of meat by inviting an audience to a screening of uncut porn. But to what end? Awareness can cut both ways, can it not? It could foster addiction to porn as well as resistance to it. It all depends what your purpose is.

Do you think people are going to seriously think you wish to decry rape and other violence against women? The section of Ensler's book entitled "The Little Coochi Snorcher That Could" celebrates the lesbian rape of a 13-year-old girl by a 24-year-old woman who plies her with alcohol (Coochi Snorcher being the nickname of the little girls's genitalia). Both by statute and by feminist definition, the event is rape. The only difference--and one Ensler celebrates--is that the rapist is not a man. After the event, the molested girl says "I'll never need to rely on a man," declaring "... if it was a rape, it was a good rape." Come on. Why is rape wrong only in a heterosexual context, but when it's commited by a lesbian against a girl who just happens to be 13-years-old it's not only supposed to be excusable but celebrated as though it were a sacrament?

I suppose Ensler's unabashed hatred of men and heterosexuality could get a rise out of some students. Ensler's riff on the word "cunt" could even provide a sufficient rush of excitement among lapsed church-goers near the buckle of the Bible belt to fulfill their craving for feeling naughty. But give me one good reason why I should find this worth supporting. Don't you ever reach a saturation point and just find this stuff a hideous bore?

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Spain's Catholic Church Backs Condoms? Get real! Where are the bishops?

A good friend of mine and former student, now engaged in his doctoral program of studies, forwarded a news release to me recently reporting that "Spain's Catholic Church Backs Condoms." I told him that I'm as sorry that he has to face this sort of rubbish about the Catholic Church in the public media as I'm sorry that we Catholics do. Most readers of such "news releases" (sadly, even many Catholics) won't know enough to see the distinction between what bureaucrats in regional administrative offices of bishops conferences say about local Catholic policies and what is mandated by the Vatican as official Church policy. This is another sad example of bishops not minding the store and keeping faith with the Holy Father to whom they've taken oaths of obedience. Where's a decent protestant reformation when we could use one! Rome says: no condoms for Catholics! A local Catholic bureaucrat says: the Catholic Church approves of the use of condoms for fighting AIDS. Does he mean the Church understands why secular society, which cannot be expected to conform its moral behavior to the Catholic standards, might wish to promote comdomns to prevent the spread AIDS in society at large? It is not clear. Does he mean that the Church approves of Catholics using condomns? It is not clear. Juan Antonio Martinez Camino, the spokesman in question for the Spanish Bishops Conference, met the Spanish health minister as a representative of the church, says the report, adding--note well--"though it was unclear whether he was expressing the official view of the church." Again, it is not clear. Is this not pathetic?! Where is leadership here? Aren't bishops supposed to be shepherds? Meanwhile, the wolves scatter the sheep.

Pope hospitalized

CNN announced that the Pope has been hospitalized with complications
from the flu and bronchitis. Please redouble your efforts to pray
and mortify yourself for his person and intentions. Ask others to
pray, also.

Purgatory revisited

Commenting on my post, Protestant defends doctrine of Purgatory, one of my students asked:
"I wander how the doctrine of purgatory in effect makes a separation between Justification and Salvation, one being "sola gratia" and the other via Sanctification?"
It may be true that Catholic doctrine generally does not effect any separation between justification (as imputational) and sanctification (as actual), or between divine prevenient grace and human obedience. St. Augustine says:
"He who made you without you, will not justify you without you." (Sermons 160.13)
Yet this answer may not adequately address Protestant concerns. It may be helpful that Augustine also wrote this:
"God, when crowning our merits, crowns nothing else but His own gifts to us." (Letter to Sixtus, 45; AD 418)
But what those from Protestant backgrounds are often concerned about is the impression that Catholic doctrines, like Purgatory or Penance, can sometimes give that human beings by their own merits independently of God's prevenient grace are somehow expected to atone for or otherwise pay for their own sins and to some extent thereby earn their passage to heaven under their own steam, as it were.

Peter Kreeft has the gift of simplifying matters, even if on some occasion he may verge towards the precipice (with its concomitant hazards) of oversimplification. Here, though, he may be helpful. In his book Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Heaven, but Never Dreamed of Asking (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990), pp. 62f., he says that Purgatory is:
  1. part of Heaven, not a distinct, third place between Heaven and Hell--thus the absolute antithesis between Heaven and Hell, and its infinite spiritual seriousness, is preserved;
  2. joyful, not gloomy--thus not detracting from the joy and triumph of Christian death (in fact, one of the saints [St. Catherine of Genoa, in her treatise on Purgatory] even says that the pains of Purgatory are incomparably more desirable than the most ecstatic pleasures on earth!);
  3. a place of sanctification, not justification, where sin is not paid for (that was completed on Calvary) but surgically removed. As George MacDonald says, He was called Jesus not because He was to save us from punishment merely, but because He was to save us from our sins;
  4. Purgatory is also a place of spiritual education rather than deeds; thus it is not a "second chance" to pay for sin or merit salvation, but a full understanding of deeds already done during our first and only chace, and a full disposal of all that needs to be disposed.

Protestants are often surprised that C.S. Lewis affirmed the existence of Purgatory:
Our souls demand Purgatory, don't they? Would it not break the heart of God said to us, "It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and not one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy"? Should we not reply, "With submission, Sir, and if there is no objection, I'd rather be cleansed first." "It may hurt, you know."--"Even so, Sir." (C.S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1973), pp. 108-9.)

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Papal Primacy and the Photian Schism of 879-880

I've added a post on my Scripture and Catholic Tradition blog responding to Perry Robinson and others on the question of Eastern (Anti-Western) Orthodoxy, Papal Primacy, and the Photian Schism of 879-880. Read more ...