Thursday, November 06, 2008

Electoral fallout

Yes, the tremendous probable increase in infanticide overshadows the civil rights victory we had this week, one that was almost anticlimactic for people too young to remember the 1960s. Yes, I was touched to see Jesse Jackson's emotional reaction to Obama's election, as well as disappointed that it had to be Obama who broke through the white ceiling.

I wasn't following the race that closely Tuesday night, so I didn't hear the official news until Wednesday morning. Although I wouldn't have been thrilled to have McCain as president, I would have been relieved as well as surprised. So I was of uncertain feelings when I got in the car to go to work and put in my CD of the rosary yesterday.

It was Wednesday, though, and I remembered that Wednesday is a day we usually say the Glorious Mysteries.

The Glorious Mysteries. Signs not just of hope, but of victory.

Yes, we suffered a relative defeat at the national level, but not all hope is lost. Proposition 8 passed in California, on the worldly level, and on the supernatural level, the triumph of good has already been secured.

We still have a lot of work to do. We might not be happy. But we should remember that, while we are deep in this vale of tears and can't see where it ends or what's over its rims, we already have a reason for joy.

Monday, November 03, 2008

I didn't end up voting for McCain, but I did vote against Obama.

It is not always and everywhere immoral to vote for a candidate who supports evil policies, as long as we do so in spite of those policies, and if we honestly judge that the other goods he is likely to accomplish outweighs the evils he is likely to accomplish. The only way you can be sure you're not voting for someone you don't 100% agree with is never to vote, and that can be an opportunity for shirking your civic duty (even when abstaining on a particular Tuesday in November is the best apparent choice).

The first thing we have to do is remember that in weighing the hazards and consolations between two unpalatable candidates is that we shouldn't just be trying to rationalize a decision that we want to make but is still bad, the way we justify a sin we like. If you're misinformed, scared and confused, and are being pressured, it can mitigate some of the guilt of having an abortion, but it doesn't allow you to say things like "My abortion wasn't bad; it's a good [and] thing I didn't know what I was doing."

As for me, the reason I will not be voting Democrat at the higher levels of government for the forseeable future is that a big part of the DNC's platform is abortion. The reason I didn't vote Republican this time is that their counteroffer to "more abortion means less grief, and stop complaining about the grief" leaves something to be desired. The GOP has more of a tendency to talk a pretty good game and then make some small pro-life gesture. When Republicans controlled both the Executive and the Legislative, they could have done something more timely to end abortion, but for the most part what we've gotten is some individual candidates with hit-or-miss personal opinions and a few Supreme Court justices who haven't done a lot yet. I'm hopeful that the composition of SCOTUS will tilt in our favor around the time the nationwide opinion on the slaughter of innocents becomes a groundswell, but that won't be anywhere as soon as I'd really like.

Meanwhile, the current rate of abortion is around 3000 per day. I can think of few things--certainly not enough considered aggregately--that counterbalance a loss of innocent life on the scale of 9/11 every day. When people are talking about other social policies that Obama (or McCain, really, but one thing at a time) would promote, ask if whatever social welfare or entrepreneur-supporting program he wants to institute would be better than reducing the abortion rate, or better than not increasing it. If it's not clear, ask if it would be worth paying the price of having another 9/11 every day.

Most people who support him, nominally in spite of his pro-abortion attitude, claim that his work will ultimately end the need for abortion, and that will be better in the long run. That's laudable by itself, but I haven't been convinced that abortion was ever needed. If women think they should have an abortion, then we need to change their minds and hearts as well as the circumstances that lead them to that conclusion, but meanwhile children are dying by the thousands.

But let's say it's possible. Let's say abortion can be ended solely by eliminating the demand for it. It's a reasonable hypothesis--people will stop selling if nobody's buying. What's not reasonable, in my mind, is assuming that someone who would libertinize abortion and expand social services could drive abortion to obsolescence in four years. If not in four, then in eight.

In the one or two terms he would have the opportunity--we shouldn't count on candidates espousing "benign infanticide" indefinitely, because as the Democrats said in 1992 and 2008, sometimes a change is needed--would he at least be able to make enough progress that the abortion rate will be lower when he leaves than when he started?

I'm profoundly skeptical. The first thing Obama has said he wants to do is sign FOCA. That will make abortions cheap and easy to obtain, and will have the immediate effect of increasing the abortion rate. Maybe FOCA won't cross his desk immediately after his inauguration, but if the Democrats control Congress, it would be reasonable to expect it to be sooner rather than later, and it's easier to roll back restrictions on abortion than it is to root out the social ills that lead to it. Bottom line, abortion will increase before it decreases. In the time Obama will have, I doubt that he would be able to make enough of a change to make up the difference.

Let's say abortion, right after FOCA, goes up to its peak 1980s levels, around 5000 a day. Let's assume further that it's come down a thousand a day each decade since then because of better social programs, and that the Republicans aren't doing anything because they want that carrot to dangle in front of us. This assumption implies that the decrease in abortion rate, after the FOCA balloon, will continue more or less consistently as long as Obama and his philosophical peers keep doing what they're doing. At that rate, abortion would be obsolete by 2060. Without FOCA, abortion would drop at its current rate to zero around 2040. Let's note the ridiculousness of assuming that "abortion is a sacrament we shouldn't have to need to receive except when we want to" types will maintain power for another thirty or fifty years and move on.

Restarting at 5000 a day and decreasing at the same rate, by the time we got back down to current levels, an additional 33 million abortions will have taken place. Abortion would have to remain at today's rates, preserved by Republicans for political leverage against Democrats who ostensibly see it as a tragic necessity, for an additional thirty years to make up the difference.

Let's not play the "If the GOP didn't fight what led to abortion, we wouldn't have it" game. We're bound to have some candidates who are going to get elected or not based in part on other issues that people on both sides of the aisle are motivated by. Let's also not pretend that the status quo will only be maintained by the GOP. Pro-lifers are wising up, and whether Palin was a stunt or not, she was also the best sign of hope we've had in some time, that someday we might have someone who will really work to end abortion absolutely and abruptly, not just discourage it.

So ask yourself: Does Obama really have the political capital to change society in the limited time he will have? Do Obama and his successors?

I wouldn't plan that far ahead.

Friday, October 31, 2008

There are some who say we should disregard the negligible effect our vote will have on the election, and instead consider the substantial effect our vote will have on our souls.

I think this is a worthwhile factor to include in the decision making calculus when we go to the polls (or abstain, if that's how you feel), especially when trying to weigh voting quixotically against voting tactically isn't making one candidate stand out. However, I think this philosophy is prone to a few abuses that should disqualify it from being used in isolation.

The first is presuming that the utility of voting is outwardly nil, but the spiritual effect is grave. The former is a reasonable statistical conclusion except in contentious districts, but we never really know how close a race is until the polls close. The latter is true as far as everything we do here echoes in eternity, but in my mind doesn't pass muster because otherwise if we do something, anything, in an attempt to mitigate evil, in a world where remote material cooperation with evil is often (not always, make no mistake) absolutely impossible to avoid, then either committing a particular act out of prudence rather than enthusiastic endorsement cannot be intrinsically grave or everything we do is objectively disordered and there's no point in singling out things that don't have immediate grave effects.

The second is that the primary ends of voting is subverted to the secondary ends, or really the ternary ends. The intent of casting a vote is to participate in the selection of a leader, whether the person is well qualified, relatively well or poorly qualified, or purely unfit for the job. A subsidiary end is to care for the state of our soul. Obviously everything we do should be done with an eye to our spiritual health, but that informs how we do something, not just what we do. For example, the fact that life should be protected and that one person may be too gentle to harm another does not preclude a different person from having the duty and disposition to become a soldier.

Taking our moral priorities as read, then, if we subvert an act's primary end in order to achieve a secondary end, then we commit an abuse of that act, and abuse is always disordered. Just as we are not to dismiss procreation in the marital act in order to pursue pleasure, we should not go to the poll thinking "It doesn't matter whom I vote for as long as I don't endanger my soul." Your soul may be your greatest responsibility, but it is not your sole responsibility, and you even fail in that duty if you are too blithe in disregarding the duty you have to be a conscientious citizen.

This is Catholicism, folks. The dichotomy between CYA and spiritual combat in a communal theater is false.

Maybe there is no good choice, but don't pervert the ends of an act because the effectiveness of achieving one result doesn't seem to scale with another. A safe choice isn't bad but it might not be the best one.

Friday, October 10, 2008

I can't believe how angry some people are getting over the election.

After the bitterness of Gore's supporters when W. was given the presidency, I'm less surprised than I should be, I suppose. What gets me is how personally the race is being taken.

I've been seeing it more from the liberal side, but I don't know if my experience has been representative.

I'll go online and I'll see screeds left and right with the thesis "I hate Sarah Palin." What? She's running for office with the guy you're probably voting against. Maybe she's dangerous to your way of life and thinking, but she's doing a job and trying to do what seems right.

Heck, the guy I'm voting against (not sure whom I'm voting for, but I know whom I'm voting against) not only differs with me on major policy issues, he supports widespread infanticide, as far as I'm concerned, and while that makes his platform overqualified in the heinousness tryouts, I don't hate the man. His positions and campaigning make me angry, but not hateful.

I just can't understand how rational people can find Palin so infuriating. I mean, I'm a pretty low-energy, even-keel person, and I get that some people are a little more volatile than I am, but where does this fully-flowered hate for someone most people had never even heard of until a few weeks ago spring from?

Anyone have any anecdotes they'd care to share that support or contradict my observations?

Sunday, October 05, 2008

"I've yet to detect a liberal bias in the media"

This observation was made either by a guest or by the host (I think it was George McGovern, but there were several unfamiliar voices on the show last week) on "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me," a weekly radio show that riffs on current events. I've noticed more Bush-bashing than Democrat-bashing on the show, and tried to ignore it, even when it wasn't particularly witty, because I didn't listen to the show much when Clinton was in power so I couldn't judge whether they were being nicer to him than to his successor, and because Bush does make for an easy target no matter how you slice his rhetoric. I suppose I just got a bit fed up at one more insinuation that conservatives just aren't all that lucid, after all.

Seems a bit rich, coming from the folks who truck with people who believe that truth is personal--relative--before anything else, but...well, maybe I'll answer that attitude another time.

On the very radio network where this denial of visible bias was made, I sometimes catch parts of All Things Considered on my afternoon commute. For most of the first summer after I moved to where I could get NPR on the drive home and little else, they talked about the horrors of the war--dealing with casualties and ruined infrastructure in Iraq, broken veterans' bodies and families in America. For most of the second summer, they gave a pretty round introduction to the person of Barack Obama, which brings us to now.

That kind of programming content isn't liberal, is it? Surely, if it were, it would confirm the trope that reality had a liberal bias, wouldn't it?

No, not exactly; and no, it wouldn't; in that order.

Covering the tragedy of war is a fine thing. Keeping it from getting sanitized helps make us circumspect when we consider waging war. Covering nothing but tragedy, however, is not news. Nothing against human interest stories, but the majority of the stories presented covered nothing but the horrific side effects of war--the collateral damage, not the accomplishment or failure of the war's actual, you know, goals.

What about Obama? He's a relative unknown, so isn't it fitting to do a sort of expose series?

Yes, generally, but it's odd that the few allusions to his dark horse candidacy (three years ago, Illinoisians were expressing surprise at the sudden rise of their now-junior senator, who has now spent half his national career running for president) have a faintly messianic tone to them that goes largely unobserved.

I'm not saying the coverage of Obama has been unfair, either for or against him. I'm just saying that coverage of the presidential race had been largely exclusive of any candidate who didn't have a D after his name.

In journalism, that's technically called slant, so maybe saying "there's no bias" is really a half truth.

Oh, all right. They did talk about Sarah Palin for a few days after her selection, but they didn't seem happy about it.

"Wait, Ed: what about all the NPR you didn't listen to? Surely your drive home isn't that long! Or 'ATC' isn't representative of all their reporting!"

No, it's not a long drive, but do you honestly think that, over two years, I would always and only catch the current-administration-defaming segment on the program?

"Shouldn't the media take a skeptical attitude toward what they're being told?"

Yes, and I would expect them to dig for the truth, rather than assume the guys they don't like are lying and run with whatever facts corroborate that assumption. That's not skepticism. Sometimes good things happen, too, and sometimes bad things happen that don't fit our preconceptions. Question everything, including what you'd like to be true.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

People who claim to hate the Church don't hate it because it's bad, they hate it because it's easier than seeking the truth.

My mom called me this weekend to ask if I'd heard about the campus chaplain at Illinois's Newman Center being arrested for drug possession, since I had known some people there. I hadn't heard about it, but in reading the news articles online Saturday, I learned two things.

1. Don't go to a public news agency's web site expecting a high level of discourse, no matter how well written the article itself is.

2. To paraphrase Archbishop Sheen, most people who hate the Church, hate it mostly for what they imagine it is.

I'd like to share with you a few of the gems I found while looking through articles about this priest's arrest. Hopefully there's someone out there who might have read those comments and thought "Hey, you know, those are good points" who will now have one more place to go where a lucid rebuttal can be found.

What happens to the baptisms, the weddings blessed, the sins forgiven and the eucharists transubstantiated by this man?

Nothing. A sinful man was ordained a priest because all we have to ordain is men who sin. Even if he's laicized, he would still be able to confect the sacraments; it's just that he wouldn't be permitted to. Sure, we'd all like holy men to be our spiritual leaders, but the Church never taught that sacerdotal efficacy depended on the man being in a state of grace, nor on the magnitude of the sins he commits.

I can't tell if this question is supposed to accuse the Church of some kind of works-righteousness, or if it presumes an uncatholic superstitiousness and a distinction between mortal and venial sins to have its point made.

You have to think outside this box put around you...obedience to men will not get you into heaven.

Who told you that? A man? People outside the Church seem to have a frighteningly higher view of the clergy than Catholics do, and they don't see it when it happens in their own midst. Priests and bishops are not just running a company in the church business, but they're not superhuman, either; they are given a few charisms to aid in the life of the Church, but that's about it.

I won't bother with the related accusations about allegedly extrabiblical practices being unbiblical, which is obviously tautological but hardly ever explained as a truly bad thing. Perhaps another time I will address the atheist's related argument, the accusation that we let the Church think for us; it's been handled quite well by other people, but when I'm in a mood I might just toss in my two cents.

I can't be too uncharitable; I've known many Protestants whose prayer lives are fruitful and every bit as personal as they'd like yours to be when they ask what role Jesus plays in your life. Still, there's so much emphasis on the event of getting saved that it makes me wonder what kind of relationship with Christ they're effectively advocating. Can you imagine how it would look if you talked about a friend you had who was really great, and how other people should be his friend too, and all they needed to do was invite him to their house and he would carry the relationship? Doesn't that sound like it would be lame if you didn't already have a good idea of what Jesus was to us?

And, no, obedience to men is not a sufficient condition for entering the Beatific Vision...but I ask in reply: does being disobedient get you into heaven?

People put too much trust in men in everyday things as well as spiritual (even non-Catholics, as evinced by the plethora of ministers in the world) for this to be a meaningful accusation. Come back when you can tell me why I should listen to you telling me not to listen to anybody. I don't care if it's the Bible, history, or science.

The Catholic Church claims to be the one true church, yet its history says otherwise. What a shame they have not learned from the sex scandals that rocked them now it's drugs and again it's the children that are victims.

What does history say? That there is more than one true church? That there might be one true church, but it's not headquartered in Rome? That it really has no objective judgment on the veracity of Rome's claims?

I've read many comments about the sex abuse scandal, most of them of the "at least he was only selling drugs to college kids" variety. A close second, though, was of the "Drugs and sex? Being an altar boy is the most dangerous job today!" variety. Never mind that St. John's Catholic Chapel is not a community parish, and so is unlikely to have many people at all of that age in attendance. It's much more convenient to associate the whole of hierarchical Christianity, or even the whole of theists depending on your perspective, with whatever timely or unspoken historical corruption you prefer.

Reminds me of Protestants whose sole efforts in apologetics consist of, as far as I can tell, paraphrasing the table of contents of Boettner's Roman Catholicism. As if everyone knows what the real story is behind Rome's failings (just like what everybody knows about Galileo's trial), and we only need the reminder to endorse the accusations.

How very typical! First pedophilia, now drug-dealing! Bunch of perverts, hiding behind clerical robes!

Oh, so we can see now that homosexuals and pedophiles are latent drug users and pushers? Why don't we accuse the Church of working with the CIA to create AIDS, and with NASA to fake the moon landings, too?

Any stick will do to beat a dog, eh?

It is precisely because the Roman Catholic Church has been casting so many stones over the centuries that there is so much understandable and deserving backlash.

Understandable? Sure. Deserving? For the sex scandal, okay, there was too much emphasis on protecting the institution and its appearance in America (where, remember, the problem has been generally isolated), and not enough on protecting the innocent and powerless, but if you're going around misattributing vices to people, that's called calumny, and it prevents you from playing the "At least I'm not a hypocrite" card.

Further, if you really don't know the story behind Galileo, or the motivations and statistics pertaining to the Crusades or the Inquisitions, then maybe you can go the "I'm intellectually lazy, but at least I live up to my own standards" route, although that's not much of an improvement, and it's less than impressive if your standards are so low that you never fall short of them.

Perhaps these things are happening to bring to the public's awareness that ORGANIZED Church religiosity is NOT the answer...How impractical to expect young men and women to live celibate lifestyles. In Europe in the old monasteries, they've found corpses of infants sealed up in the walls...This article doesn't say he's accused of sodomizing and raping.

No, the article doesn't say that, but you're going to bring it up anyway, aren't you?

That first "perhaps" is interesting. It's almost as if a higher power were moving to immunize humanity from God doesn't want us worshipping together? If it's not God, I wouldn't want to be be learning whatever it has to teach us.

And again with the canard that celibacy is virtually impossible. Dawn Eden can tell you more about that than I feel like doing right now. Does anyone have any idea how widespread or isolated the instances of babies hidden in tunnels between monasteries and convents are? I think someone does, but I doubt it's the person who declined to tell us concretely how extensive the problem was.

I suppose it's more civilized for people who can't resist sex to kill their children in the womb and throw them in a dumpster or incinerator like so much suctioned fat or a malignant tumor.

Another prime example of the danger of putting all of your hope & faith in man, in a human being.

Wait, who did that? Those of us who are disappointed? I'm disappointed, but I'm not surprised to learn that the priest has sinned. "People sin" is pretty much axiomatic in Christianity. Expecting better from a priest, even from this priest, isn't what got him into the situation. He got himself into the situation.

Just goes to show you that organized religion is pretty much useless.

If it had been a politician, would we be hearing about how the government is useless? I mean, as if it were proven by the arrest of a politician on drug charges. Do they say school is useless when a teacher is caught fraternizing with students?

Priests if anyone should be held to higher standard of living and exemplary life.

Fair enough--priests more than other people in positions of authority and trust are expected to be on good behavior, even if they are more attractive targets to the Enemy. Still, while it is interesting how many professed unbelievers express disappointment that a man of the cloth has sinned, it strikes me as a peculiar flavor of disrespectful to presume, almost gleefully, a guilty verdict was already all but pronounced (and, yes, most of the "He should have known better" comments I've read were coupled with a foregone conviction of guilt). I'm surprised I haven't already heard jokes about how he's going to enjoy the penal social life.

Monday, September 08, 2008

It's probably good that I don't venture into timely political ramblings very often

Like Mark Shea, I was primed to vote for a third party candidate. I tend to vote Republican these days, but it felt like the time was right to step back and find a third party candidate who better represented my political views, rather than voting for the one out of the two frontrunners who just seemed a little less unrepresentative than the other. I haven't followed McCain's campaign or the associated issues terribly closely, so I didn't develop quite the personally skeptical view of the GOP nominee that Mark has, but I thought it would be as good a time as any to make a sort of implicit vote of no confidence in the GOP. Maybe in the long run, failing to win on an attempted moralist platform against a candidate who wants to ride the fumes of electoral symbolism into utopia is just the wake-up call the GOP needs.

Then McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate.

I started thinking that these incremental but largely unfruited steps toward ending abortion might come a little more quickly with a serious pro-lifer in the White House. I'm not pleased that ending abortion is like turning back the tide, but I'll prefer being thrown a bone in the Supreme Court or someplace on rare occasions to having a real crusader for life never win and hardly even inspire his competitors.

I think McCain-Palin, out of the two teams that have a reasonable chance at the presidency, is the better one. Policies aside, McCain has some leadership experience from his time as a military officer, and Palin actually has more executive experience than Obama. They'd all be new enough to the job that it's anybody's speculation how they'll handle whatever the world abroad and at home throws at them in the next four to eight years, so I'm not sure it's really worthwhile to worry about things that the candidates haven't had to deal with or comment on during the courses of their current jobs. I'm still on the fence about some of the other issues that get dredged up from the candidates' personal and professional histories in order to show inconsistency in their current platforms, but that's always the case, and I've seen more politicians change their minds on their less environmentally protective policies than I have on their less child protective policies after hitting the national stage, so if you're keeping score, add that in.

There are a few other issues on each side that I don't want to get into right now, but suffice it to say things were looking as well as I could expect until I heard that McCain and Palin don't have a problem with intelligent design and think it would be a good idea to have it taught alongside the traditional stuff.

I'm not trying to put a national science curriculum on par with life issues, mind you; the preceding was just so that we may take the life issues as read.

All right, I can't resist one parallel.

We've got another case of "compromise by concession" here. We see it in the abortion debate not infrequently; the pro-choice side, attempting to leverage the label, claims tolerance of women who choose not to abort, and ask why pro-lifers can't extend the same courtesy; the problem is that in trying to split the difference, we still have abortion, which satisfies the pro-choicers, and merely a strong prevent-things-leading-to-abortion-except-the-fact-that-it's-wrong program, which pro-choicers still consider a good thing; meanwhile, pro-lifers get nothing but blame for being too focused on the real root problem (disdain for the dignity of unborn children, and all too often their mothers), and not enough on the superficial root problem (mothers who fall back on abortion because it's easier than giving birth and everything associated with that). It's not all bad; something isn't good or evil based on quantity, but it can be better or worse if there's more or less of it. It's just that one side gets closer to its ideal society, and the other side has to put up with being a stick in the mud for not settling for half a morality.

What's this have to do with science?

ID, I will remind you, doesn't.

There's no place for it in science. ID might even be true--as a theist I will never deny that what exists came to be through the action of an intelligent, powerful entity--but it's not science. Science is about gathering empirical data and repeatability in testing phenomena. The goal is to accurately, to reliably, describe nature. Intelligent design offers no theories that can be proven, makes no claims that can be properly tested and disproven. All it does is point to inadequacies in the state of the art and make an argument from incredulity. It's a parasite on science--it has nothing itself to offer except what it borrows from philosophy or steals from physics and biology.

In good science, the limits of our understanding are openly admitted (if not always with the most sincerity by enthusiastic researchers). In bad science, one is told either "what you cannot measure cannot exist," or more germanely, "science isn't up to the task of answering these questions," even though in some cases it only might not be yet, "so here's something else you can call science to explain what science can't."

If I were a science teacher required to cover ID, all you'd get out of me is "Okay, we don't have all the chemical kinetics down to explain the apparent rate of mutation and speciation; ID draws a black box around this puzzle and calls it God, or at least an Architect; this is a God-of-the-gaps argument, and advances in science on fronts X, Y, and Z would leave ID without a leg to stand on."

I don't mean to rehash the entire ID thing any more than I meant to beat the dead coach team of abortion and prudent voting. Let's take my concerns on the public school curriculum as read, as well, shall we?

I'm kind of back to holding my nose and punching the chads with R's next to them. In eight years Bush hasn't done a lot to compromise biology and astronomy programs in this country, so I can hope that the next four or eight years wouldn't be any worse.

While I hold out that hope, though, should I expect something different with abortion? With ID, opposition was fierce enough that it just couldn't get much traction; the pro-life movement wasn't in much of a different situation.

So here I am, hoping that the pro-life movement will be advanced in the coming decade, at the grassroots level if not at the Supreme Court, while hoping that whatever salient power the White House has in influencing the national science curriculum isn't used to bring about political compromise in the classroom--and I haven't even gotten to global warming.

It's hard to hope that a brilliant political gesture from a candidate is more than just a gesture, and that another political gesture from the same candidate is nothing more than a gesture. That's the essence of trying to make a prudential judgment, I suppose.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Softball Gospel

I will probably be adding to this list from time to time. I used to periodically post on boneheaded homilies and statements as they came up but didn't tie them together, but I think they deserve to be compiled. I will introduce this topic with three items:

  1. The miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fish was Jesus inspiring people to share.

    No, it was the creation of a plenitude of food from a dearth. It doesn't make sense that so many people would show up with so much food but still expect catering, and it doesn't take direct intervention from God to goad people out of hoarding their lunches.

  2. Doctrine X hasn't been defined de fidei by the pope, so we're at liberty to disagree with it.
    According to the Pontificator's Tenth Law, "All dogmas of the Church Catholic are infallible, but some are more infallible than others." In short, it means that we are obligated to hold true whatever the Church teaches, even if it's not one of the few items that has gotten an ex cathedra stamp of approval. For many of us, on a number of issues, the best we can muster is "The Church says X is true; I disagree, but it is the Church's place to make that call, so I will live in obedience and work within the boundaries of the Church to get the issues I have resolved," and that's good enough.

  3. Jesus, the Prince of Peace, came primarily to bring peace to the world. Take anything in the Gospel that sounds like Jesus being authoritarian or hard with a grain of salt. God is, after all, a Nice Guy.
    I like nice guys, I try to be one, but niceness is not the primary quality I want in a God or other authority figure. I didn't always (usually, but not always) think my dad was nice when I was growing up--and really, niceness is in the eye of the beholder--because he sometimes punished me or didn't let me do things I wanted, but it didn't make him a mean person, it just made him a good father--it made him right. I know my feelings are irrational, by definition, so while I like having them respected, I know that there are more important and better things to concern myself with than whether someone is every bit as polite and obsequious as I might like. I wouldn't want a doctor, either, that tried to comfort me by saying I wouldn't have to get some kind of major, risky surgery, but then let me die horribly from disease. So often today, though, genuine goodness is given no higher a definition than "be supporting of and unobtrusive to whatever people want."

This last item deserves a little unpacking. It ties in somewhat with the second item and something I heard during this morning's homily.

What trips people up on the third item so often is that last part--they use their conscience as an excuse to do whatever they want but still claim to be in good standing with the Church. On the surface, it's as silly as refusing to show up to work or badmouthing your product to potential customers and claiming to be an employee in good standing. I'm not talking about when people struggle to make the heroic effort to accept as true everything the Church teaches; it can take a heroic effort just to know everything the Church teaches. I mean that one's conscience is not an escape hatch from obedience. Yes, in principle you should follow your conscience, but if your conscience is properly formed, it will not disagree with the Church, and if you know it is badly formed, you shouldn't follow it in the first place--we see all the time in more secular arenas where people make errors in judgment, and no one bats an eye (okay, these days, not no one) when they're held responsible for their errors instead of being patted on the head and told "we understand, you must have been doing what seemed right for you at the time."

I think it's symptomatic of the "God is nice" school of theology. We see it also when people put an absence of physical violence at a higher priority than justice, or higher than an absence of moral violence--when people are expected to endure everything short of feeling a clenched fist or seeing a gun. We see it when people dissociate Jesus upsetting the moneychangers in the Temple from, well, Jesus upsetting the moneychangers in the Temple.

We also see it with today's Gospel reading:

If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector

The way I used to hear it explained, it was used sort of as a baseline for the practice of excommunication. The way it was homilized (is that a word?) to me this morning, Jesus was teaching His disciples how not to cause excessive harm--basically agreeing to disagree and avoiding situations where you and the person who you think did wrong might be forced together and have to bring the subject back up.

I'm not saying it's a bad practice. When you reach an impasse, all you can do is go away, pray, and try not to be a further obstacle to the other person's spiritual growth. While it's good advice for the laity, however, the Magisterium has additional responsibilities, so the bishops who come out and say "so-called Catholic politicians who support abortion will not receive communion if they present themselves for it" are not out of line. While the bishops who say "Abortion is contrary to Catholic teaching, but what more can we say if they do not listen?" are trying to be inclusive and warm and fuzzy, babies are dying by the thousands. While they're trying to give the benefit of the doubt to the errant member of their flock out of the fear that he might remain willfully in error, talking about how there's nothing more they can say, they are refusing to act to protect the lives of the children the politicians support the killing of (that is, to prevent the politicians from sinning in deed, since they cannot be prevented from sinning in thought), and they are refusing to protect the other Catholics from scandal.

This on the grounds that we are not to judge another's conscience? Please.

I can't judge a particular individual's conscience, but I don't need to be God to be shown a hypothetical person who thinks infanticide is a permissible means to achieving a comfortable economic end to know that the person's conscience is not properly formed. I don't have to try or pretend to look into a real person's conscience to judge that his actions are in fact bad; whether someone commits first degree murder or manslaughter, an untimely death has occurred, and to deny that it is a material evil is to lie, and to lie in order to protect someone's feelings is also evil.

The politician, or whoever, who steadfastly supports abortion has already cut himself off from the life of the Church. There is little harm one can cause a dead thing. We should not try to block any graces God might be sending an erring politician, but telling the unrepentant sinner that his sin is not so great that it needs to be forgiven is not doing him any favors, and allowing him to jeopardize the faith of everyone else who might get that impression does no favors to the Body of Christ, either.

Call me proud, but I'm not quite ready to say a spade's not a spade on the grounds that I am ignorant of the motivations of the digger.

Some look at excommunication as an outdated, barbaric exercise of power on the part of the Magisterium. I would point out that excommunication has been described, by greater Catholic minds than I, as analogous to amputation. Sure, cutting off a limb seems horrifically barbaric, but if the limb is gangrenous and does not respond to treatment, then removing it is necessary for protecting the health of the rest of the body. Neither would we want someone infected with a serious communicable disease to commune with healthy people who might be vulnerable to the disease; certainly, the ill man needs whatever help he can get, but "help" is not the same as "pretending there's nothing wrong and telling him he's fine, even if we find his raspy cough and oozing sores to be a little alarming in appearance."

Some translations don't use "Gentile," they use "pagan." Do we allow pagans to receive communion in the Catholic Church?

No, and we don't look the other way when they say Church officials don't have the right to deny them life in the Church (it is mortal sin that does that, not the Magisterium) and say "Hey, fine, whatever, but let's talk about something besides all the doctrines you don't believe in."

Thursday, August 14, 2008

I think I've landed on what personally bothers me the most about having the tabernacle someplace other than directly in front of (or behind?) the high altar.

I'm not 100% opposed to putting it somewhere else; in small prayer groups, it's nice to be able to get closer to the Sacrament in repose, especially if wandering back and forth in the sanctuary would be disruptive or distracting to others. There might be a canonical solution that can meet this need, as it were, without architecturally denigrating the Eucharist, but I don't know enough about the subject to feel motivated to speculate right now. Or maybe I just don't feel motivated to speculate, but really, I don't know what rules there are that regulate these matters.

Anyway, I just got home from, among other things, attending the vigil mass of the Assumption at one of the churches in town. They have their tabernacle in a niche near the front, visible from most places in the pews, where in older churches of that size you might have found a side altar. I got there early, so I had many opportunities to see people coming and going between the sanctuary, the sacristy, and the music area on the far side of the tabernacle.

What I noticed is that, while people did bow toward the main altar, no one seemed to notice the tabernacle at all.

I'm not saying they should be making some superstitiously repetitive gesture every time they turn or move a little towards it, but more than once I saw people cross the sanctuary, venerate the altar, go to the side podium to rearrange the sheet music or whatever, and then turn around, venerate the altar again, and leave.

Hey! Jesus was right behind you! The altar's just a blessed piece of wood with a relic stone in it!

Maybe this is just habitual neglect peculiar to this church; I don't see side tabernacles get ignored everywhere I find one. Still, it's natural to focus one's attention on things that are placed prominently. When I was young, I used to wonder which I was supposed to venerate if I happened to find myself between the altar and the tabernacle, but then someone explained it to me. These people weren't children, of course, but with Jesus physically moved out of the way, it's easier for Him to be mentally moved out of the way, too, and for little more than the opportunity to put a floral arrangement behind the crucifix mounted above where the high altar would have been.

Maybe the time is ripe for a corollary to Lex orandi, lex credendi: lex aedifici, lex credendi.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Westerners penalized by western governments for preferring western civilization

How long will it be before America completely forgets that a bad idea, one poorly conceived or some slice of misanthropic, is to be countered with open criticism, including calling it what it is and explaining why, so that the truth can soundly box its ears in the public arena?

Not that long ago, Mark Steyn wrote an article for Maclean's saying that al-Islam and Western values do not play well together. One Muslim--or perhaps a professional behalfist --filed suit with the Canadian "human rights commission," demanding punishment for hate speech.

One should wonder how inflammatory just reading the charges against this guy in any detail would be; would it be sufficient to add caveats like "This jerk said thus-and-such intolerable thing," or will it come to the point where folks get offended for hearing scandalous topics discussed, the way some members of my college Bible study group acted as if I were nearly blaspheming by talking about blasphemy?

I'm curious to see what will happen if these self-appointed cultural vanguards screw up the courage to poo-poo folks who happen to mention in public how Sharia has dealt with homosexuals. If they thought the mere recognition of culture shock was uncivilized, they're going to be in for quite a rude awakening when the people they're tolerating get enough political clout to start enforcing intolerance in return.

Or maybe they'll be like the residents of Erik the Viking's Hy-Brasil island, denying that the ground on which they stand is sinking, right until their last breath. If the height of their political reasoning power is the alleged victim of any perceived oppressor is the friend to any other victim of any other oppressor, then maybe there will be no awareness of reality at the last breath, either.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

CPCSM to Nienstedt: "Condone us or we'll scream loudly and stamp our feet!"

I think the folks who promote "gay pride" still have a lot of work to do. When I hear people talking about events like what was going to be held at St. Joan of Arc in Minneapolis, I don't hear about great accomplishments or historical figures like George Washington Carver's many inventions or MLK's principled opposition to segregation and discrimination. Pretty much all I hear is rhetoric about being proud rather than ashamed of their sexuality, and pretty much all I see is public spectacles designed to desensitize us--and maybe them--to acts of perversion (and I'm including the publicity of acts which by themselves, in private, might not be particularly bad things).

I don't think that kind of behavior is is a result of healthy pride. There are plenty of things I'm not this-is-bad ashamed of about myself that have no need to be advertised, and publicizing them would have nothing to do with throwing off the societal yoke of bigotry. If I wanted to shock people I disagreed with into complacency, though, I might go out in public and show people how odd I could be, until everyone got used to it; maybe it's not positive approval, but it would be the tolerance of resignation, and maybe that's a good enough first step.

What would happen to gay pride parades when people reach that point? Would they still go on to spite the memory of traditional values, or just to accommodate people with exhibitionist fetishes?

I know the goal of these kinds of events is to wear down opposition, to get people to give up on opposing publicity and public approval of anything sexual. They might do a lot better if they also provided reasons for their virtue other than sentiments like "You're just like racists opposing the Civil Rights Movement from forty years ago," which is only true superficially and incidentally. As I've lamented before, we don't see gay evangelists going door to door in suits politely making their cases.

There is such a thing as self-esteem. You should value the good that is in you, regardless of whatever troubles or flaws you bear. It is also healthy to recognize the good things that you have accomplished. What do gay pride events usually celebrate? libertinism? Nothing special there; I can see that coming from people of all orientations on any college campus. Is it an inoculation against the disapproving words of people who believe that there is such a thing as sins of lust? Maybe, but homosexuals don't have the corner on that market, either.

They complain that their behavior isn't lauded by the Church and by much of society. Well, too damn bad. My bad behavior isn't lauded either. It just seems like they're picking on homosexuals because the question of homosexuality takes up so much bandwidth in our culture today.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

What's "Progress?"

The word indicates some sort of advancement toward a goal or improvement. In the sense of improvement, a particular goal isn't necessarily implied, but without one, it's difficult to make an objective judgment of the degree or utility of progress. It doesn't always have to be an overarching goal by which we can evaluate the whole of some human endeavor; we can look to science and slap an "understand how the universe works" sticker on it, but for the most part we can only look at how well we're answering specific questions along the way. We may be near the end or the beginning of scientific exploration, but which it is, is more a matter of speculation or philosophy than of empirical research and mathematical modeling.

What about non-scientific progress? I think we have the same problem, but there's no external yardstick or phenomenon to measure "progress" against. We end up taking some values we hold, or inventing some, and plotting a course to follow them, sometimes with little concern for other values, which other people who might have a stake in the matter might hold or which get subordinated to their crusade for inadequately explored reasons.

Let's look at social progress for a few moments.

What do we have? At the forefront is the idea of personal equality and freedom, that a person should be able to do more or less whatever he wants, regardless of circumstances that don't immediately ask for a tempered agenda, like the conflicting rights or desires of another person. Now, equality and freedom are fine things, things we should often err on the side of, but they can also be somewhat empty. Freedom isn't just a matter of "from," but one of "to" as well, and equality unchecked can smear some distinctions that are legitimate.

What we see a lot of in our society is a pattern of identifying social injustices, agitating to eliminate them, and then looking for new injustices. We're at a point now where activists look at the patterns of the past and try to map them onto the future, perhaps more out of a sense of Progress than out of a sense of certain things being just and certain things being unjust. It's a lot more complicated, but Progress itself as we've seen it in our civilization has become the value we use to judge things by, instead of a label for pursuing real virtues. Freeing real or artificial demographics from oppressive (by which I mean "distasteful to some") traditions becomes the primary means for keeping score of our society's virtue, so while achieving legally approved gay marriage and consequence-free sex for children everywhere are themselves lauded, the only price counted is the disappointment of the White Male Oppressors (and a little angsty uncertainty, which is categorized as a healthy disdain for undoubted (not unquestioned--if it'd really been questioned, then some answers might have been considered--authority), and Progress moves on to find the next social power struggle, since it seems to see nothing except demographic conflicts.

I think the problem is right there. For individuals, it boils down to "nobody should be prevented from doing whatever they feel like doing," and at higher societal levels, there's really...nothing. You get the occasional visionary like Marx or the fictional architects behind Orwell's Big Brother, but for them Progress is just a tool to achieve an equality and freedom that are the poorest imaginable.

Progress becomes, not an achievement of justice, but a speedometer by which we measure the rate of adoption of ideas no one remembers trying before.

At that point it's easy to get off track. It's not hard to imagine someone forgetting what the fullness of marriage is, especially when duty was emphasized at the expense of the joys of an intimate relationship and raising children, and be in favor of opening it to everyone who wants it since it can be such a source of joy. It's a little harder to imagine right now that pets should be afforded the franchise, but once they are bestowed with enough human rights? In California, pets are no longer owned by their keepers, so don't think no one's testing the waters. Maybe the slope isn't very slippery, but there are people out there advocating any crazy notion you can think of, so don't be too surprised.

"Progress" toward no real goal, or toward one that isn't particularly (or obviously) good, isn't progress. It's just change. Change can be good, sometimes even for its own sake to break up the monotony, but when someone asks "why not?" we should also ask "why?"

"Why not?" is not an answer that justifies change. It is the question.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

What's the Church got to prove to you?

What makes the Catholic Church the Bride of Christ? What evidence does she--do we--have? Truth claims? An argument from history? Evidence of holy activity in the world? Proof that it's the only ecclesial body that makes sound claims of what defines or identifies the Church and meets those criteria?

Fr. Kimel has some words for the devil's advocates:

Yes, the Catholic Church should do better at making Christians, it should do better at evangelizing, it should do better at catechizing, it should do better at preaching the gospel, it should do better at worshipping God, it should do better in serving the poor and the oppressed, it should do better in every aspect of its life and ministry.

However, if the Church was doing better in all of these areas, or even just the one you have mentioned, would you be persuaded that the Catholic Church is the Church of Jesus Christ, as she claims to be? Of course not! Because performance neither proves nor disproves the claims of the Catholic Church. Ironically, your objection to the Catholic Church—viz., her poor, even sinful performance—is grounded in a works-righteousness understanding of the gospel. You are demanding that the Catholic Church justify herself as the Body of Christ by her works! But the Catholic Church is the Body of Christ only by grace and election!

Are you willing to apply the same criterion of performance to individual believers, to yourself? Are you willing to prove your regeneration in the Spirit by your works, by how well you are living the Christian faith, by how effectively you are proclaiming the gospel in word and deed? Jim, are you not in fact judging the Catholic Church by a standard you would never apply to yourself? What would you say to the nonbeliever who declares that Christianity cannot be true because there are so many bad Christians?

But your criterion of performance also fails for other reasons. For one thing, you are judging the Catholic Church on the basis of her performance in one geographical area in one period of time. But she has no doubt performed better (whether it be at catechesis or evangelism or whatever) in other places and in other times. Why not judge the Catholic Church at her best? Why not judge the Catholic Church by her saints?

I added the emphasis. Funny how even with sola fide in your corner, without having a didactic anchor, "knowing them by their fruits" ends up becoming a back door to Pelagianism.

If one sees fit to judge the Church this narrowly, why not more narrowly? Indeed, some do. Some make employment of women outside the home their litmus test, or the willingness to bless already-sexual homosexual partnerings, and every other concern is secondary, or disconsidered out of hand.

If you are looking at such a small piece of an ecclesial body's doctrine or practice, it's not really a church you're interested in. You want a social institution, of great or small caliber, to make you feel good with a grand gesture.

If you're looking to judge an ecclesial body on how it performs in these other areas--recruitment, training, social service, whatever--then you're also not interested in a church. You want a charitable organization, or a business.

Go ahead. See if you can rate the Catholic Church next to Welfare and Social Security, or against Kaplan and the public school system. See if any evaluation would even make sense and then get back to me.

As for simple skeptics:

[F]or 2,000 years the Catholic Church has been proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ and making disciples. How many saints must the Catholic Church produce to convince you? How many martyrs must lay down their lives? How many nations must she evangelize? How many churches must she build? How many baptisms must she administer? How many penitents must she absolve? How many Masses must she celebrate? How many religious orders must she establish? How many hospitals and schools must she found? How many hungry persons must she feed? How many homeless must she house? How many kings and despots must she confront in the name of Christ? And who stands today, pray tell me, more firmly and courageously against the culture of death, abortion, and sexual immorality than the Catholic Church?

If you insist on judging the Catholic Church by her works, then by all means do so, but do so across all categories of mission and ministry. Do not judge her just by your parish church in the year A.D. 2007 but judge her by her remarkable and glorious history that reaches back to the Apostles of Christ.

Yet are you truly in a position to judge her sanctity and sins, good works and failures? Why do you see only her weaknesses and not her strengths, her defeats and not her victories?

Go ahead. Take G.K. Chesterton's advice, and consider judging the Church on how good it has been, as well as on how badly it has failed in its mission. Condemning the Church because over history it has let a million poor people suffer in squalor and die alone in ditches and alleys is premature, to say the least, if you don't even know if the number of people the Church has succeeded in helping is on the order of dozens or of billions.

I wouldn't be satisfied with a statistical rationale if I were making that argument, but if I were bold enough to berate the Church for not living up to a higher standard than I hold anyone else to, I'd still be obliged to determine how well it performed against this new standard.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Abuse of liturgical abuse

The American Papist put together a video making fun of some of the sillier liturgical abuses that have been committed against the Novus Ordo:

For now I'm not going to comment on the grotesqueries of clown masses, but rather the relatively mundane liturgical dance, whose inappropriateness in formal liturgy is not always self-evident. Most of the arguments I've seen against it fall into one of three categories: it's not a natural part of our liturgical culture (i.e. simply grafting it into the rubrics tends to be disruptive on multiple levels), it tends to draw attention to itself and away from God (which confounds the purpose of the mass), and it's often just badly done (which I don't have to explain, do I?).

If someone managed to convince me that dance could be properly integrated into the mass, and then somehow compelled me to reconstruct the liturgy accordingly, I'm sure what I'd do is have the dancers direct the preponderance of their effort and attention toward the altar or tabernacle. Most of the (thankfully little) I've seen seems to have put a premium on engaging the congregation and showing them what the performers are doing, and hardly in the "Hey you, remember that this is all about praising the Eucharist/Incarnation/trendy theological meme" sense.

If it points to us, even in aesthetically inspiring ways, it is not worship. Maybe if it praised God for the great things He has done in and for and through us, but performing art like what we see here is frivolous decoration at best, and turning the liturgy into self-celebration at worst.

I don't mind art for art's sake, but worship is for the glory of God. We can (and should) see God's greatness in all human activity, but the liturgy isn't simply human activity, and any aesthetic element to the liturgy should expressly draw us toward the Eucharist and upward to heaven. With the stuff like what the American Papist is satirizing, the claim that it's well-ordered worship sounds a lot like a storefront church claiming to be rooted deep in history because its unschooled pastor is teaching himself Hebrew to read the Torah.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Hungering for Eucharistic adoration?

I keep hearing about parishes that don't have Eucharistic adoration at all. My first exposure to it was at a church that had a perpetual adoration chapel, so when I read about a parishoners here and there who want it, I'm surprised and disappointed that something as simple as exposing a consecrated host for even one hour a month isn't getting done.

There are all kinds of excuses, some understandable, some lame, all insufficient to justify curbing worship.

"The priest is too busy with other ministries/projects/social outreach"
Aside from expressly priestly duties--I mean in particular sacramental duties, although I don't want to draw the circle too small around things that require an ordained minister--most parish activities should be handled by a parishoner. It's what we're for; it's not like the priest is the only professional Christian and we just go in once a week the way we go to see the doctor once a year and expect the professional to do his thing for us. In fact, if we omit the benediction that traditionally comes at the end of adoration, a priest doesn't need to be there at all.

"The parish should focus on serving the community outside of mass; taking extra time for worship isn't a good use of time."
The first great commandment is to love God. The second is to love your neighbor. Doing the second is one way of doing the first, but it is not the only way, and if it were the primary way, then even the Sunday obligation couldn't withstand the logic. It's not like a Holy week service, where there is some expectation of large numbers of people showing up outside Sunday morning; people can come and go as they please. It's more like confession, only the priest doesn't have to be there.

"We're just not a parish that's big on devotionals."
Really? You really think that if you set a monstrance out at some publicized time and day, no one at all would show up because they just lack the interest or time or charism for extraliturgical worship? Do they pray at home by themselves, or teach their children to pray before going to bed? What else is the sanctuary being used for on a weekday evening or a Saturday morning, that would be preventing the few people who might want to spend some time with Jesus in person from doing so? I've already explained how it can't be that the priest is too busy, so even if exposition only lasted for an hour, and only one person stopped by for five or ten minutes between errands, it couldn't be that great a waste of time even if we set aside the fact that it would be time spent in the Presence and thus of inestimable value.

Even if no one showed up the first time, I think there's something welcoming about the Eucharist being displayed, about Jesus waiting for someone to come and sit with Him for a little while.

Here's my thought: if you want adoration and the people who could enable it are dragging their heels, show up anyway. If the church is locked tight 167 hours a week, then stay late after mass and explain that you just want to stay and pray a little while before they lock the doors. Come alone or come with other people who want it. You can get by without having the Sacrament exposed. You could even do the Litany of Divine Praises if you want to add some structure. God will bless the people who are faithful to Him. I would not be surprised if, by the grace of God, you could show the priest that there was enough interest in praying before the Eucharist exposed, then he would soon be moved to allow you to do so.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Is man-machine marriage on the horizon?

Maybe so.

I find the idea ridiculous, but David Levy's argument from inevitability is persuasive.

I certainly expect that such a silly notion will not be long-lived (although it could enjoy a renaissance once AIs become convincing), but I also suspect there's enough momentum behind the Culture of Death's ambiguization of marriage that someone will be getting a marriage certificate signed before all's said and done.

Said Levy:

"If the alternative is that you are lonely and sad and miserable, is it not better to find a robot that claims to love you and acts like it loves you? Does it really matter, if you’re a happier person?"

Of course it matters--an android (or gynoid, I suppose) isn't going to fake love any better than an otherwise well-adjusted real human can fake it--but if you can fool yourself into thinking you're happy, into distracting yourself from genuine pain with playing house by yourself, and with all the things commensurate with house-playing, then I would be surprised if no one tried it. Marriage with animals has been tried--or aped, rather, if you'll pardon the incongruent pun--at least once. Robots are already being made to perform certain household functions, and in some parts of the world, lifelike and life-sized dolls are already treated as surrogate girlfriends. Having one that can cook dinner and scrub toilets is still a ways off--though Levy only predicts that we'll see it happening by the middle of the century--but having a conversation with a false person that you've programmed, instead of imagining the conversation, will seem pretty appealing to affluent and very lonely people.

Levy naturally assumes that people want to marry just for happiness, but when a robotic "marriage" goes south, it will probably seem as natural as any other human marriage that has failed. It will be interesting to see how many people with failed robotic spouses treat it like with all the aplomb of a cell phone upgrade and how many show the same potentially disturbing overattachment of a guy getting wistful over trading in his first car.

Levy continues:

"It’s not that people will fall in love with an algorithm but that people will fall in love with a convincing simulation of a human being, and convincing simulations can have a remarkable effect on people"

I wonder: does "remarkable" necessarily equal "good?" No, never mind; I know the answer already.

Rutgers University biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, renowned for her studies on romantic love, suggests that love seems dependent on three key components: sex, romance and deep attachments. These components, she remarks, “can be triggered by all kinds of things. One can trigger the sex drive just by reading a book or seeing a movie—it doesn’t have to be triggered by a human being. You can feel a deep attachment to your land, your house, an idea, a desk, alcohol or whatever, so it seems logical that you can feel deeply attached to a robot. And when it comes to romantic love, you can fall madly in love with someone who doesn’t know you exist. It shows how much we want to love.”

Dr. Fisher has a point, but the human drive to love doesn't mean that a three-element reductionism is proper to a well-integrated human. That people will attempt to have real relationships with fancy but stupid machines is--well, people anthropomorphize objects all the time, so it's precedented, first of all--not so indicative of the success of the robo-spouse industry as of the level of dysfunction that can be found in humanity.

It's cute when a child is attached to a doll or invents an imaginary friend. For a child, it's also not unhealthy; the young person becomes accustomed to taking care of a doll and hopefully, by imitating the real mother, will carry some foundation of parenting forward into adulthood; the child with an invisible playmate exercises the imagination, which is a faculty that requires exercise like any muscle and does not cease to be at the onset of adulthood.

When an adult becomes attached to a doll, even a mobile, speaking one, it is somewhat disturbing. Adult skills are learned and practiced in youth so that they will be used in earnest in adulthood. As the youth matures, the exercise becomes more sophisticated and realistic, and playing at adult behavior for the sake of playing should diminish as the lessons to be learned by simulating real social activity dwindle, and real adult behavior can be engaged more and more.

An artist will tell you that you have to emphasize the basics in rehearsal, but rehearsal without performance is empty. It's contraceptive, masturbatory.

People who would strive for a relationship with a lump of metal and latex will be expressing a genuine need for love, but machines aren't a solution. Whether the reason is fear, habit, or lack of thought about what marriage is really about, these people wouldn't be ready for a real relationship, and the solution is to get them ready, not give them a pressure release valve that spares them the risks of living.

If living and loving are like muscles to be exercised, and ones that are atrophied from decades of neglect, should they not be trained as they would have been in childhood? I will not deny the value of some coaching here. Older siblings and friends and therapists can all provide some tools for learning to deal with other, real people. Can androids be used to this end? Maybe, but they'd need to do more than convincingly simulate humanity in order to really do people some good, and it would be a lot more cost effective--if you want to be utilitarian about it--to simply employ actual humans. If someone isn't to the point where he can deal normally with real people even under limited conditions, then he's got more fundamental problems than being shy around girls or comfortable around abstracted personalities on a computer screen, and giving him the means to nurse his pathology is not going to make it better. It just saves him the trouble of doing so.

As long as he's desperately pretending to live the American Dream, though, who are we to judge, though, right?

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Silliness in recent years

Below are responses to half-baked presumptions that have been in the news and on the Internet not-so-lately (would've posted it sooner, but I forgot I had left it in draft status for two years). I try to call out opposing sides on a couple things, although I'm probably not very fair. Maybe next time.

"God sent hurricane Katrina to punish New Orleans!"
God sends rain on both the just and the unjust. Was He not also punishing all the other cities that get hit by hurricanes? If New Orleans deserves punishment, would not also San Francisco? When was the last time they had a catastrophic earthquake? Maybe Boston's not getting hit hard, except for the occasional blizzard, because God doesn't condemn whatever's going on there. Does it seem likely in this context? Not to me. It's easy to map Biblical patterns onto current events; it's harder to know what's actually on the mind of God.

Christ wouldn't condemn [insert social misfit of your choice]! He'd probably go have dinner with him!"
Yes, He wouldn't necessarily condemn anyone, just as He didn't condemn the adulterous woman brought before Him by a mob, or the woman at the well who had married several times. He does, however, admonish sinners to sin no more. It's hard to invite sinners to a life of holiness when you distance yourself from them. It's a far cry from "I do not condemn you. Go and sin no more," to "Don't ever change." We should be comforted by the fact that Jesus loves us despite our failings, by His mercy, but we should also be motivated by His justice, not so much out of fear but out of love for Him. Even if God's mercy were greater than His justice, it wouldn't mean that we now get to keep doing whatever it is we wanted to do all along, only now there's nothing bad about it. It's not living under Christ's mercy, it's abusing it.

Late in 2005, in Israel, a British tourist named Sharon Tendler "married" a dolphin she had been visiting for fifteen years. Although assuring friends she'd end up with the dolphin instead of some boyfriend, she concedes she might "marry" a man someday, and hopes the dolphin, Cindy, finds another dolphin with whom to have lots of calves.
I'm not going to say "This fiasco is all the fault of the homosexual lobby!" but one more prediction about the fallout from the de-definition of marriage has come true. In fact, perhaps three have: is Cindy really the name of a male dolphin, and is Tendler going to divorce "him" when she meets the right human, or since she bases her love for Cindy primarily on how comforted she feels by Cindy's presence, and isn't expecting any fidelity (if consummation were even possible between them in the first place--I don't want to know) anyway, then what the heck kind of relationship is it? People can (but shouldn't) get married for whatever reason they want to, yet generally they recognize what marriage is supposed to be, at least in some stunted and partial sense; here, it's not even clear how Cindy could have said, in any way, shape, or form, "I do," how Cindy could have been capable of consenting to such an arrangement, personally if not legally.

"If a woman can't abort a pregnancy that is the result of rape, whenever she looks at her child, she's going to see the rapist."
I certainly sympathize with the victims of rape, but these words strike me as the kind that would only be spoken by someone who has never been or refuses to be a mother. I can hardly imagine how rape victims might react, but how cold and alienated do you have to be to look a person in the face, and not only not see that person, but hardly see a person at all? The solution, it seems to me, would be to put the child up for adoption. I know, continuing a pregnancy that's the result of rape would be a heavy cross to bear for anyone, and that pressure plus the abstractness in which abortion is often painted makes it easier to consider, but if a woman can come face to face with another person and say "I should have killed you," her problem is bigger than lacking the cab fare to Planned Parenthood.

"I could not bear to go through life knowing that my son or daughter, who resulted from a rape, was out there somewhere, being raised by adoptive parents. It would be less cruel to abort."
Less cruel to you than having to know someone else is trying to make good out of a bad situation? Maybe you're right, in a way--maybe people with attitudes like this one and the previous really are unfit to be parents. I know I wouldn't be happy living under the thumbs of people who really had to weigh the inconvenience of tearing my limbs off and crushing my skull against the inconvenience of having me around.

At least one protester's sign at a West Coast Walk for Life (caution: tasteless and vulgar content) read "Free abortion on demand."
I guess this one would go along with HMOs being a basic human right, along with liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Okay, flu shots are free, at least if you're a student or a senior citizen, but why should a major voluntary surgical procedure be free? I'm not talking about bankrupt people who need emergency medical care--they're already tax writeoffs for hospitals, if you're more worried about money than reluctant doctors--and I don't think the protester was, either. Why not demand free surgery for any sort of body modification you can think of? We have the right to self expression, after all.

Read another: Why not outlaw heterosexuality instead! [sic] Strike at the source!" Yet another: "Stop breeding."
Okay, even if you buy the notion that if the population increases by only one person, the global ecological system will completely collapse, what good would come of completely ceasing breeding? A hundred years from now, we'd be extinct. Do we really want to become extinct? I don't, even if it means that when our population reaches six billion and one, a "few" surviving people will find themselves thrown back to the stone age. Imagine instead what would the world would be like in fifty years if childbirth stopped tomorrow: everyone nearly old enough to retire, no one young enough to keep things going for them. I didn't see the people carrying those signs coming in from the woods trying to survive on their own, with as little impact on the environment as possible, and only trying to raise awareness. In fact, I don't see many of them wearing canvas instead of leather and eating tofu instead of beef, although it would be a start.

Things that make pseudoscientists and paranormal researchers look bad:
When Cassini's Huygens probe landed on Titan, a guest on Coast to Coast AM described the conditions on Saturn's moon as a "alternate reality." In my mind, describing anything, no matter how strange, that still follows the physical laws we already know, as "alternate reality" strikes me as distastefully hyperbolic.
On a different episode, George Noory was talking with someone about how medieval stained glass makers were able to create different colors by changing the fineness of the particles used to color the glass, rather than their composition; apparently, some of the particles were so finely ground that they functioned as quantum dots, with significantly different optical properties (like, you know, color) from particles with a more classical size. George commented that if skilled laborers could create quantum devices back then, maybe they were capable of time travel or something equally preposterous. Having a basis in regular science would really help in your study of its fringes.

Even an undergraduate level--skip the advanced stuff so you don't risk getting indoctrinated too much in scientism while you get extra practice at empirical research. I just wish liberal arts majors had to study more science to graduate. If people had more than a passing familiarity with the undisputed aspects of how the world works, it would really save us a lot of trouble all around.

Things that make actual scientists and wannabes look bad:
Examples of hearing second hand about an unexplained phenomenon, proposing a half-formulated rationale, and presuming its absolute veracity despite mitigating details:
Extended Marian apparitions, despite being obvious images of a woman who speaks with some of the people present, are dismissed as vaguely humanoid groups of birds and an unbridled imagination of schizophrenic magnitude in an otherwise and previously perfectly lucid witness. This kind of naysaying is quite common.
When informed that stalks of wheat from a crop circle appear to carry less of an electrical charge than stalks from elsewhere, a statistician on the National Geographic Channel (why they felt he'd be qualified to judge physical anomalies was not revealed) blithely described, without personal observation, the standing stalks as miniature lightning rods, which should hold a charge while stalks lying flat had their charges naturally dissipate, even though the flattened stalks had been on the ground for only a few hours before both groups of stalks were cut, which took place hours before the test; yet after the cutting of the dried stalks, there is no charge dissipation. Come on; you claim to be a scientist, even a plain mathematician, and a rational thinker, and some handwaving about differential capacitance in allegedly normal and uniform samples is all you can come up with, yet you brand your hypothesis as fact? Why is it so hard to accept that there are legitimately strange natural phenomena we simply haven't characterized yet? Another factoid from the NGC show: anomalous magnetic fields in agroglyphs (i.e. crop circles--I like the fancy word more, don't you?) are sometimes attributed to magnetized ferritic globules, but agroglyph hoaxers are believed when they claim it's all because they scattered iron filings around the glyphs, even though (1) the globules do not resemble commercially available filings (2) the globules stick to the plants, rather than to each other, as unconstrained magnets are wont to do.

Agroglyphs puzzle me. People so often seem to crave a paranormal dimension in their lives, at least to have room to believe there is one even if they don't experience it--up to and including faith in science as an omnipotent tool of understanding that we are simply unable to currently wield at its full potential. Something like bizarre patterns of flattened grains show up, and the first people to provide a superficially plausible demonstration are believed at their word with zero concern for the few lingering anomalies. I get better science from Mythbusters.

Materialists probably think they're following the maxim of Sherlock Holmes: "Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." The problem is that the line of thinking usually runs this way: "I refuse to believe that anything supernatural is real. Some logical, empirical explanation must be able to account for this strange phenomenon. I'm too clever to think otherwise, so whatever I think of off the top of my head is most likely exactly what really happened." After a few implausible assumptions get made, the probability of the half-baked naturalistic explanation starts seeming as low as an actual miracle to objective observers, but admitting that better explanations require more knowledge than is currently possessed often seems too difficult.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Apologetic for a Random Reader (IV)

Today: the Real Presence

Obviously I'm not going to go into all of it. I just wanted to address one or two points that often come up when discussing the Eucharist with Protestants and other non-Catholics who have some familiarity with the Bible.

I do find it curious that the people most inclined to speak of the literal truth of the Bible tend to be the quickest to ascribe John 6 and related passages to symbolism. Certainly, the Eucharist contains symbolic elements, but Christ made an awful effort to emphasize the importance of the Bread of Life.

First, He uses very graphic language, words with connotations closer to "chew" and "gnaw" than to "assimilate for edification." When His listeners said "This is a hard saying. Who can accept it?" it should seem odd that Jesus would say "I can satisfy all your spiritual needs" and people would take issue with it, but not accuse Him of blasphemy, as happened elsewhere. At other times when people misinterpreted His parables and analogies, He corrected them; this time, He did not, which suggests that the more scandalous interpretation was the correct one after all. If I'm losing you at this point, ask yourself which seems more disturbing: a metaphor for God as the source of all goodness, or a command to commit something like ritual cannibalism.

Second, He spoke quite a bit about being the Bread of Life. More than any other analogy He made. Maybe more than all His other analogies put together. I haven't counted verses, but I'd put money on Eucharistic material outweighing other symbolism not counting Good Shepherd stuff, and I wouldn't be surprised if it did even including the Good Shepherd. If it were just a metaphor, why say things like "My flesh/blood is food/drink indeed?"

Sometimes, other parallels are made with more apparent symbolic language. "Jesus said He was a door," goes one common criticism, "but we know better than to look for a doorknob in His side, don't we?" "He said He is the vine, but we shouldn't be looking for a leaf-covered man at the Second Coming, should we?" Since I believe in the Real Presence, I sometimes wonder if these other metaphors also contain dimensions of truth that extend beyond the meaning we can apprehend (or can expect to lie beyond our apprehension), but true enough, Christ is not a door or a vine quite in the sense that we understand mundane portals and foliage to be.

When someone reminds us not to expect the doorknob, so to speak, though, they're missing a rather critical detail. We knew "I am the door" is a metaphor because there was no doorway to be shown to the disciples. We knew "I am the vine" is a metaphor because we never saw Apostles growing out of Him. How is "I am manna come down from heaven" different?

He did not only refer to Himself as food. He referred to food as Him. At the Last Supper, there was bread present, and there was wine present; and His words were "this is My Body...this is My Blood." Where we lacked signs of gateage or vinery in the other metaphors, so we could know that the language was only symbolic, here we have the consummation of the whole discourse on the Bread of Life, ratified with an unleavened loaf and a fermented drink squeezed from grapes. Here we have bread that is not just miraculously multiplied, but bread that Jesus names as Himself.

It strikes me as odd that John 6 should be so much harder to understand in this sense of identity than "the Father and I are one" is to be understood as a statement of identity. Then again, some people struggle with the Trinity, as well, so maybe at least I shouldn't be surprised.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

I used to go to a nearby ag school to get meat on the cheap.

Because of their animal and meat sciences curricula, I could get decent selections of what I presume were semester projects at reasonable prices. Sometimes I could even get eggs.

A buddy of mine is still in grad school at said college, so I asked him one time before I went to visit to pick me up a number of things. One of the items he got was an eight pound slab of bacon. I wanted to be able to slice it up myself, or do other things with it that don't require thin strips of cured pork. It's extra work, but for the price and the novel culinary opportunities, I thought it'd be worth it.

I'd gotten a smaller one in the past, and I discovered that these slabs sometimes come with a nigh-inedible rind that should be removed before consuming. I neglected to remove the rind from that first slab, hoping it would cook down, but what I ended up doing was making a series of BLTs with extra-crisp meat that I could just break the rind off of, since I'd done so much slicing through that annoyingly tough stuff (yeah, I know, what was I thinking?) that doing a second round of dissecting just seemed an unbearable chore.

I asked my buddy to try to get one of the slabs that didn't have the rind, but no such luck. When I picked it up, there it was. Oh well. At least now I knew not to try to eat it.

What I still didn't know, though, was what the rind was. I figured it was just some subdermal layer of connective tissue, some intramuscular tendonlike membrane or something. Turns out I was wrong.

It was skin. You know what made it obvious to this non-biologist, non-farmer?


In retrospect I'm surprised I wasn't more revolted, but after ten or fifteen minutes with a hand cheese slicer, the skin was gone, and I now had mostly innocuous-looking one pound bricks of bacon.


Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Lord called my dad home a month ago, after a long battle with cancer.

I don't want simply to eulogize, but it might help a little to talk about some of my experiences. I should be back to more regular posting soon. If I have any regular readers left, you'll probably be willing to slog through this post; if not, check back next week.

While he started to seem better--his colon probably finally healing from the surgery--around Thanksgiving, he began feeling significant levels of pain and his strength started to drop shortly thereafter, and he spent most of the last month in the hospital. For the last few days the focus was on pain management, and he slipped away during the night. The rest of the details don't matter.

Indeed, for days--probably longer--he'd lost so much strength that he had to stop and rest in the middle of a meal, not only because it was so hard to eat with his abdomen swollen as it was, but because the act of eating took so much effort. At Thanksgiving, though, he ate normally--enthusiastically--without stopping, with hardly even slowing down the way I have to with my second serving of turkey or mashed potatoes. Maybe his colon had finally gotten back to normal, but I wonder now if Thanksgiving was an apropos gift.

Whenever my sister and I would come home from school for vacation or a few days, he always made sure that our last meal together was a nice one. He called it "our Last Supper." Maybe Thanksgiving was supposed to be his "Last Supper" with us, and the return of his appetite was just the gift of one last normal family event.

For now, we're largely being carried by relief that he's no longer suffering, and by keeping busy with our respective jobs and taking care of post-mortem administrativa. My sister made the observation that it will be easier to miss him than to watch him continue to suffer. Despite the bureaucracy my mom's had to deal with every day since then, it's been true for all of us.

While we always held out hope--living the last few years without hope really would have been much worse, and it would have been ghoulish to say our goodbyes and make our peace with him and then simply wait four years for him to die--it was difficult to see one part of his life after another taken away. I don't know how frustrating it must have been to retire and finally have the time to do what he wanted, and to start on medication that robbed him of all sensitivity in his extremities, so he could no longer play music, or carve wood, or even enjoy food like he used to; to be too ill to renew his airman's medical certification so he could start flying again; to be too weak to go hiking anymore, or anything outdoors more than a simple walk around the block once or twice a day.

During all this, he never complained, and endured everything with patience and dignity. I know I complain about my work situation a lot--not here, so much, but there are a few things I'm trying to remember to look at as opportunities for growth--but if I'm ever given such a heavy cross to bear, I hope I can be even just half the lamb my dad was.

The funeral was the weekend before Christmas, and I was dreading sitting through that and the viewing the afternoon before, but both were much better than I expected. My dad was someone who always enjoyed life, so we all agreed it would be appropriate to have a joyful funeral mass. As I said last time, things of this nature are bittersweet, but in my mom's words, there's been enough sadness. It also helped that the priest had come to know my dad quite well since the diagnosis, and so could offer a homiletic eulogy that wasn't just a reminder to the rest of us of fire and brimstone or a skein of vague, saccharine platitudes. A friend of the family reminded us about the opportunity for spiritual growth we had, and while we all did take comfort in our faith, it was hard to see anything happening other than enduring more than any of us thought we would have to, or could.

The one other thing I noticed was that, both before and after, the most hopeless and emotionally raw moments were the ones when it was easiest to pray. Sometimes it was just throwing emotions up to heaven, sometimes it was the simple rhythm of formal prayers, but I felt a comfort in prayer that reminded me of my mom's comfort when I was young and getting my shots--she sympathized but knew that my brief suffering was necessary. There's probably a whole library of books that could be or have been written on the theology that can be unpacked from that, but at least right now going any deeper is beyond me.

Two things really made the weekend bearable. One was remembering that everyone else who came to share their respects were also grieving, in their own way, and for the most part it was much more sudden for them than for us, so it helped me to be more empathetic. The other was having the opportunity to see the impact Dad had on other people as a man. I've gotten glimpses in the past, but his being my father tended to overshadow everything. I realize that people tend to say nice things about the deceased to comfort the deceased's loved ones, but just looking at the people who came, I could see how torn up they were about it.

I've come to know some of Dad's peers to be exemplary men, men I even now look up to for their integrity and faith and personability. What I didn't understand before, what I was honored to realize, is that these very men looked at my dad the same way.

I would liked to have known him more in that mode, but I probably would have had to distance myself as his son a little bit to see around the relationship we already had, which I'm not sure would be a net gain for me. What I can do instead is see Dad as the man reflected in everyone around him.

As a fourth degree Knight of Columbus, he was entitled to an honor guard during the vigil at the end of the viewing the night before the funeral, and a color guard during the funeral itself. My sister observed that, while the pomp was really quite respectful and not gaudy like she expected, it was in the carriage of the few Knights who had known him since before he joined (including some of my role models) whose respect for the man really showed through; yet, when the casket was taken from the church and the ceremony was over, every single Knight personally reiterated his condolences to me and gave me a hug. These men are not the modern, overly sensitive type, and that kind of gesture is not consistent with a man simply doing his duty.

Okay, I don't really have a good way to end this post. I tried saying "Things have gotten back to normal, except..." but nothing sounded appropriate. We're getting along, life keeps on keepin' on, blah blah blah. There's catharsis in grief, but I don't know how to write about it yet.