Friday, March 31, 2006

"Local Color"

A former EMT recounts his time in Denver when he unwittingly developed a local clientele in his off-hours: Adventures in the Casa Bonita Barrio

Islamic Mythmaking Funded by '70s European Governments?

Briefly put, the alleged plot was an arrangement between European and Arab governments according to which the Europeans, still reeling from the first acts of PLO terrorism and eager for precious Arabian oil made significantly more precious by the 1973 OPEC crisis, agreed to accept Arab “manpower” (i.e., immigrants) along with the oil. They also agreed to disseminate propaganda about the glories of Islamic civilization, provide Arab states with weaponry, side with them against Israel and generally toe the Arab line on all matters political and cultural. Hundreds of meetings and seminars were held as part of the “Euro-Arab Dialogue,” and all, according to the author, were marked by European acquiescence to Arab requests. Fallaci recounts a 1977 seminar in Venice, attended by delegates from 10 Arab nations and eight European ones, concluding with a unanimous resolution calling for “the diffusion of the Arabic language” and affirming “the superiority of Arab culture.”
Brendan Bernhard, The Fallaci Code

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

The Ukranian Famine: "Moscow does not Believe in Tears"

Robert Conquest's Harvest of Sorrow, a history of the systematic starvation of the Ukranian nation and others, is too sad for many words. Ridiculous economic ideas combined with a desire to murder the enemies of the Soviet regime with the result that some twelve millions perished either in hunger or in Siberian camps--and that is a conservative estimate. Bernard Shaw, Beatrice and Sidney Webb, and the New York Times' Walter Duranty provided enough good news and uncritical parrotting of the Soviet party line to give a patina of plausible deniability to the famine, a cautionary tale for any would-be investigative reporter.

Conquest's book has plenty of heart-wrenching passages, but I'll only reproduce one here:

The 'dissident' Soviet demographer M. Maksudov estimates that 'no fewer than three million children born between 1932 and 1934 died of hunger'. It was above all the new-born who perished. A figure of two and a half million infants dying of starvation was given to Lev Koplev by a Soviet researcher. The 1970 Census shows 12.4 million people living who were born in 1929-31, and only 8.4 million born in 1932-4; though the natural rate of increase fell only slightly. In 1941 there were a million fewer seven year olds than eleven year olds in the schools--and this even though the eleven year old group had also suffered severely. Moreover when we come to the famine areas, this disproportion is greater still. In Kazakhstan the seven year old group was less than two-fifths the size of the eleven year old; while in Moldavia (most of which had not formed part of the USSR in the 1930s) the seven year old group was two-thirds as large again as the eleven year old.
A teacher in the village of Novi Sanzhary, Dniprpetrovsk Province, reports that by 1934 there were no school children left for her; another, that only two were left of a class of thirty. And as to younger children, in the Ukranian village of Kharkivisti, the 1940-41 school year found no beginners at all, as against an average of twenty-five previously." p. 297

Monday, March 27, 2006

What the Schools are For

A remarkable consensus has formed recently among business leaders, elected officials and scholars that we must strengthen U.S. science and engineering education if we hope to strengthen our work force and maintain our innovative edge in an increasingly competitive world economy.
-Alan Leshner, Science education: Protecting science, religion

Of course pleasing these folk is the real aim of government education, but I'd never thought it had come to the point where such a goal could be so bluntly acknowledged without fear of protest!

Having begun on such arguable grounds, the author proceeds to thrash certain anti-Darwinians, who I admit sometimes deserve a thrashing, and to trivialize genuine religious differences. He then appeals to the ersatz religion of nationalist sentiment:

In a time that calls for unity and common purpose, the Oklahoma measure divides and distracts us. America is facing unprecedented challenges -- protecting national security, developing new energy sources, improving our economy and defending against diseases such as Avian flu.

In a free society, the school system is made for the citizenry, not the citizenry for the schools. The absence of a concern for liberty in this article tells much about the sad decline of liberal education.

Mommentary on Altar Servers

Elinor Dashwood at Mommentary in her comments section remarks on mixed-sex altar servers, replying to the contention that boys should just get used to mixed activities and not let girls crowd them out:

Well, boys do feel this way, and after considerable experience with boys, I really don't think it's from a venal desire to crowd girls out of doing the fun stuff. I hold to what might be called the Gilder-Gallagher thesis: girls have lots of ways to rehearse and develop femaleness, and boys not nearly so many means of working out their maleness. Since hunting animals for food or breaking sod and cutting hay have dropped out of the realm of practical pursuits for most people, distinctively masculine activities for boys have tended to be marginalized into things that are either wicked (seducing girls, for example) or leisurely and rather irrelevant (like watching sports). If we don't want a society full of men who are simultaneously insecure and self-indulgent, we need to address this lack of male identifiers, and certainly not let feminism co-opt any more of them. I think it stands to reason that we don't want a priesthood full of pleasure-seeking namby-pamby types, and to this end altar service ought to be returned entirely to men and boys.

Saint John Chrysostom on Christian Marriage

Let your prayers be common. Let each go to Church; and let the husband ask his wife at home, and she again ask her husband, the account of the things which were said and read there. If any poverty should overtake you, cite the case of those holy men, Paul and Peter, who were more honored than any kings or rich men; and yet how they spent their lives, in hunger and in thirst. Teach her that there is nothing in life that is to be feared, save only offending against God. If any marry thus, with these views, he will be but little inferior to monks; the married but little below the unmarried.
Homily 20 on Ephesians

Not only are these words advice for the Domestic Church; they also contain an insight into what is lacking in American Catholicism: the monastic ideal. During the revelations of pedophile-shuffling, people tended to denounce "clericalism" as a root cause. Clericalism is something of a protean term, but it connotes treating the priesthood and/or the episcopacy as a special club, a higher state of life above criticism. Such have been the habits in Catholic circles. But this is to ignore the older vision of the contemplative life as superior in kind to the lives of bishops and popes. Such clerics, like the laity, are "agitated and troubled" by secular affairs. Perhaps the prominence ordained men held in the Catholic immigrant churches led to the older species of reverence for monastics being transferred simpliciter to the priesthood and the episcopacy.

It is refreshing that Chrysostom believes even those who must have worldly concerns can in spite of them approach the level of Christian perfection counseled in the gospels and the better religious orders.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Guy Fawkes, Reconsidered

V for Vendetta, what appears to be a paltry attempt at social commentary with a backdrop of gigantic explosions, has exposed an old, old, fault line in the Anglophone world over the place of Guy Fawkes in history.

Auberon Waugh, son of the often cretinous Evelyn Waugh, recalled how his family would flippantly celebrate November 5, Guy Fawkes' Day:

"Fireworks night, so we join the citizens in their fawning celebration of a brave and good man's death. In our family we always let off our fireworks in celebration of the attempt to blow up Parliament, rather than its failure, and we have never had an accident. If ever the Vatican requires evidence of divine intervention before raising Guy Fawkes, Soldier and Martyr, to the celestial company of canonised saints, it has only to look to the hundreds of men, women and children blinded and disfigured every year in their attempts to mock him.

"If only the Jesuits realised how the aims of St. Guy Fawkes coincided with those of nearly everybody alive today, they might drop their pathetic, cringing attempts to deny that he every existed and actively promote the cause."
-Diaries, Nov. 5 1974

Various movie reviewers have scolded the juvenile Wachowski brothers for glamorizing Fawkes:

It may be relevant to point out, for instance, that Guy Fawkes, who is at the emotional center of the movie as well as of the graphic novel, was no liberator but a Catholic dissident who, in 1605, wanted to destroy the Protestant aristocracy by blowing up the House of Lords and killing King James I. Captured beneath Parliament with thirty-six barrels of gunpowder, Fawkes was tortured and hanged, and, ever since, on November 5th (the anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot), he has been burned in effigy all over England in celebrations both merry and ironic. If Guy Fawkes has become a sympathetic figure, it’s his failure—his incompetence as a mass murderer—that has made him so.
-David Denby, The New Yorker

And Daniel Larison essays a limited defense of Fawkes against a Washington Post reviewer's comparison of the Gunpowder Plot to 9/11:

Fawkes targeted the heart of the government he was out to topple, and he sought to do it without threatening the lives of civilians. He did not seek to blow up a train, a hotel, a marketplace, a stock exchange, a bustling port, a school or a place of worship, or any other place that would involve the deliberate targeting of civilians. He targeted the seat of a government he believed (and not entirely unreasonably) to be illegitimate. Given the same chance under similar circumstances, I doubt that most of the heroes of Whig history would not have done just as Fawkes and his crew tried, and failed, to do.

Mr. Larison sees the continued villification of Fawkes as another facet in the so-called culture wars, one side of which depicts militant Christianity always as the oppressor and never as the oppressed. Comparing, say, the bombing of the Serbian people on Orthodox Easter to the pussy-footing reverence for Ramadan truces, one can't help but wonder if the former deed resulted from the abecedarian "Anything But Christianity" education found in most Western universities.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

In Praise of Purgatorio

For my lenten reading, I've finally overcome my stalling and continued Dante's Divine Comedy past the Inferno. I had pedantically wished to continue in the Durling billingual translation, but since he has been slow to produce the next two books I turned to Allen Mandlebaum's translation, which has its own charms.

The contrast between the end of the Inferno, the lowest circle of hell, and the hopefulness of the first glimpse of Purgatory is stunning. The Purgatorio is a poem "rising again from Hell's dead realm." Among Dante's first words of Canto I, we find signs that not death but life lies ahead:

"The gentle hue of oriental sapphire
In which the sky's serenity was steeped--
its aspect pure as far as the horizon--
brought back my joy in seeing just as soon
as I had left behind the air of death."

Hell is literally sheol, the abode of the dead, and Purgatory the place of those on their way to assured eternal life. As if speaking directly to my Coloradoan heart, Dante's guide Vergil describes the mountain of Purgatory as of such sort
"...that climbing it is hardest at the start;
but as we rise, the slope grows less unkind.
Therefore, when this slope seems to you so gentle
that climbing farther up will be as restful
as traveling downstream by boat, you will
be where this pathway ends, and there you can
expect to put your weariness to rest. (Canto IV)

These words impel the reader upword. This yearning for ascent towards heaven begat in me a powerful motivation for turning the next page just to see what comes next. Moreover, the Purgatorio acted as a truly Lenten reflection, provoking myself to self-examination and even minor penance. I am putting off the Paradiso until Easter to further increase my Lenten expectation.

I must remark on the topic of teaching Dante in a secular university, springboarding off a far more studied thinker:
"The type of translation characteristic of modernity generates in turn its own misunderstanding of tradition. The original locus of that misunderstanding is the kind of introductory Great Books or Humanities course, so often taught in liberal arts colleges, in which, in abstraction from historical context and with all sense of the complexities of linguisitic particularity removed by translation, a student moves in rapid succession through Homer, one play of Sophocles, two dialogues of Plato, Virgil, Augustine, the Inferno, Machiavelli, Hamlet, and as much else as is possible if one is to reach Sartre by the end of the semester."
-Alasdair MacIntyre, "Tradition and Translation," Whose Justice? Which Rationality?

Reading through the first two books, I've realized a pitfall of any education syllabus that includes Dante. The Inferno is almost always the only work of Dante assigned, so students will only get the Christian dystopia of a hopeless Hell. Even the Purgatorio doesn't portray the Christian ideal, but only those in the journey towards it. A reader won't encounter an encomium to true sanctity until the final book, the Paradiso. Thus, anyone in a "great books" course which tries to cram the whole Western canon into a semester will rarely encounter any depiction of a Biblical hero or Christian saint even if Dante is on the book list! A good instructor will point out this limitation, but will be ignored. As MacIntyre notes, Dante is abstracted and amputated. Worse, Heaven itself is excised by such cavalier treatment of the Christian epic.

"Lasciate ogni speranza, voi intrate", "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here" is as much a motto of the modern university humanities department as it is for Dante's gates of Hell. I hope a purgation is on the horizon.

Christianity is the Humanism

The latest New Pantagruel has published a nice scholarly riff on humanism by Dan Knauss titled Christian Humanism, Past and Present.

As if in answer to a phenomenon perplexedly noted on this very blog Knauss informs us how humanism became a pejorative term:
"Influenced in large part by the Dutch philosopher Hermann Dooyeweerd’s critique of western culture, Francis Schaeffer frequently used “humanism” as an unqualified polemical term to refer to thinkers and ideas he objected to from the Renaissance to the twentieth century. In his most acclaimed book, How Shall We Then Live?, which was highly influential in Anglo-American Reformed and Evangelical communities, Schaeffer specifically attacked Renaissance humanism and linked it with modern secular humanism."

Knauss also notes how the elasticity of human nature put forward by thinkers such as Pico Della Mirandola was originally conceived not to justify self-creation, burdening Everyman with the atlantean imperative to become a self-sculpting Pygmalion. Rather, the aim of such plasticity was to humble oneself, to make oneself a blank slate for God and wisdom both Divine and human:
But for humanism, which Grondin links with Augustine, the rejection of a fixed, definitive human nature is embraced as a denial of anthropocentrism and human autonomy. The positive corollary of that denial is a “thankful openness to the enlightening perspectives of others and of those who have preceded us and bequeathed to us the opportunity of their experience.”

Christian humanism finds its basis in humbling oneself before the wisdom of others, that one might find exaltation in love and knowledge. It is the extension of John the Baptist's words "He must increase, but I must decrease" to all of God's creation and all His children.

Nor was this humanism only a Renaissance phenomenon. Socratic ignorance itself has parallels in so-called monkish ignorance, as revealed in this account from the Desert Fathers:
One day some old men came to see Abba Antony. In the midst of them was Abba Joseph. Wanting to test them, the old man suggested a text from the Scriptures and, beginning with the youngest, he asked them what it meant. Each gave his opinion as he was able. But to each one the old man said, 'You have not understood it.' Last of all he said to Abba Joseph, 'How would you explain this saying?' And he replied, 'I do not know.' Then Abba Antony said, 'Indeed, Abba Joseph has found the way, for he has said: 'I do not know.'''

Likewise, Saint Basil the Great's own opinion of pagan poetry foreshadowed the Renaissance's embrace of classical authors: to the learning to be derived from the poets, that I may begin with them, inasmuch as the subjects they deal with are of every kind, you ought not to give to your attention to all they write without exception; but whenever they recount for you the deeds or words of good men, you ought to cherish and emulate these and try to be as far as possible like them; but when they treat of wicked men, you ought to avoid such imitation, stopping your ears no less than Odysseus did, according to what those same poets say, when he avoided the songs of the Sirens.
"On Reading Greek Literature"

The Renaissance was not without its drawbacks. In many ways, the period spurred on an already well-established practice of self-criticism and self-reformation. Paradoxically, some have become so critical of the West that they have become enamoured of relatively uncritical non-western cultures. However misdirected these thinkers have taken the Western habit of self-critique, such self-criticism is ultimately rooted in the dynamic of shedding the old Adam in order to put on the New Adam, Jesus Christ. It is a confession of sin and error in hopes of restoration to redeemed state of being. It is no accident, I think, that Renaissance is a Christian phenomenon. A cultural renaissance is simply a rebirth writ large, and no other religion so exalts being "born again."

Here's to another rebirth.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

O nullo scelus credibile in aevo...

When one defendant, Holst, was arrested in Chicago in January, he told investigators he turned to child pornography after getting "burned out" on regular porn, according to court records.

Down With Memes!

Stuart Buck directs us to Alister McGrath's speech The Spell of the Meme,(PDF!) in which the Oxonian theologian remarks on the Hierophant of Memes Himself, Daniel Dennett:

First, the meme is just an hypothesis – one that we don’t need, as there are better models available – for example, in economics, but also in anthropology. If genes could not be seen, we would have to invent them – the evidence demands a biologically transmitted genetic replicator. Memes can’t be observed, and the evidence can be explained perfectly well without them. As Maurice Bloch - professor of anthropology at LSE – commented recently, the “exasperated reaction of many anthropologists to the general idea of memes” reflects the apparent ignorance of the proponents of the meme hypothesis of the discipline of anthropology, and its major successes in the explanation of cultural development – without
feeling the need to develop anything like the idea of a “meme” at all.

Dennett, creator of a thousand brainless scarecrows, makes himself such an easy target. McGrath also makes a nice comparison between memetics and the theory of the ether, and wishes for a new Michelson and Morely to rid us of this tiresome idea.

Weekly Standard Writer Denounces Usurers

via Touchstone's Mere Comments:
Significantly, though, the new [bankruptcy] law made no real changes on the lenders' side, measures that might have reined in an increasingly predatory credit industry. It is common knowledge, for example, that credit card companies intentionally urge financially troubled families to borrow still more money, because they can
charge these households exorbitant interest rates. As one Citibank executive has candidly observed, "They are the ones who provide most of our profit." Late payment fees, another favored industry device, reportedly deliver over 30 percent of credit card financing revenue. Assurances by lawmakers that the new law will bring credit card interest rates down fly in the face of these more fundamental corporate strategies.
Allan Carlson, Indentured Families

Carlson notes that the National Organization for Women was "heir to the GOP-favored National Woman's party," a fact previously unknown to me. I believe his claim that Teddy Roosevelt shunned the eugenics movement is mistaken, but the rest of his remarks on the tensions between the financial and social conservative wings of the GOP are spot-on. I'll keep his reflections in mind when I visit my first party caucus tonight.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Did Religious Controversy Make Byzantium a Feast for Muslims?

It has become an established practice of non-specialists to claim that the religious controversies of the Byzantine Roman Empire prepared its lands and peoples for Islamic conquests. The story goes that groups dissenting from orthodox Christology saw little difference between a heretic in Constantinople and an invading army of Arab heretics, and so collaborated with the latter in hopes of throwing off the yoke of the former.

David Larison challenges this interpetation: is my firm opinion that the myth of collaboration, specifically monophysite collaboration, with the Islamic invader is unfounded in the evidence and anachronistic in its interpretation of the attitudes of the Roman Christians whose loyalty to their ecumenical polity is being traduced. Very simply, there is no evidence of monophysites collaborating with the Islamic invader.

I would like to know if the popular interpretation itself derives from Edward Gibbon.


Daniel Larison responds to my Gibbon query:
As far as I know, Gibbon was the most well-known early advocate of the view that the heretics opened the door to the Muslims. For him, this may have made more sense in his age when fairly recent British history (and to some extent even in his own time) had seen religious loyalties dictating political allegiances in a very dramatic and decided way. What Gibbon could not, or did not want to see (or perhaps literally could not without access to some of the Coptic and other Oriental sources) was that serious Christians still considered themselves to be Romans and believed themselves to be foremost supporters of the empire who would do nothing consciously to undermine it. Since a large part of his explanation of the decline focuses on the role of Christianity and the change this wrought (not entirely wrong, but far too oversimplified and polemical in the way he explains it), he did not see continuity in the attitudes of the Roman people themselves or considered such attitudes less important than the "weaknesses" their Christianity gave the empire. It is odd, but this is one of the oldest Gibbonian holdouts in later Roman history that Byzantinists have not repudiated, and it is one of the few that many in our field endorse. But that is changing, and that is the good news.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

What Ever Happened to Theodosius?

Christianity had a better start. For almost three centuries it avoided capture by the logic of the state, and was able to form human beings into a community that transcended class, race and geography. This tradition was eclipsed in A.D. 325, when Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.

So say Phillip Blond, a lecturer in philosophy and religion at St. Martin's College, Lancaster, and Adrian Pabst, a doctoral candidate at Peterhouse, Cambridge University, and a research fellow at the Luxembourg Institute for European and International Studies, in an article for the International Herald-Tribune.

These putative scholars should be forced to write on a blackboard one-hundred times "Not Constantine but Theodosius made Christianity the state religion." In Latin, even. I believe The Da Vinci Code makes the same mistake, an error more excusable in a trashy novel than in the polemics of two aspiring academics.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Dante on "Creative Destruction"

"Compared to you, Athens and Lacedaemon,
though civil cities, with their ancient laws,
had merely sketched the life of righteousness;
for you devise provisions so ingenious--
whatever threads October sees you spin,
when mid-November comes, will be unspun.
How often, in the time you can remember,
have you changed laws and coinage, offices
and customs, and revised your citizens!
And if your memory has some clarity,
then you will see yourself like that sick woman
who finds no rest upon her feather bed,
but, turning, tossing, tries to ease her pain."
-Dante, Purgatorio, VI.139 trans. Mandlebaum

Dostoevsky not so Polyphonic After All?

The [Soviet] political situation is one reason why Bakhtin's famous Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, published under Stalin, had to seriously downplay FMD's ideological involvement with his own characters. A lot of Bakhtin's praise for Dostoevsky's "polyphonic" characterizations, and for the "dialogic imagination" that supposedly allowed him to refrain from injecting his own values into his novels, is the natural result of a Soviet critic's trying to discuss an author whose "reactionary" views the State wanted forgotten.
-David Foster Wallace, reviewing Joseph Frank's Dostoevsky in Consider the Lobster

Unitarian University's Students Intimidate First Amendment Case Lawyers

I've long suspected Unitarianism to be the American state religion: both the therapeutic pocket deity for ethical living mentality and the radical religious individualism, and the indifferentism of our nation's political life seem to have their roots in Unitarian circles.

So this story from the Boston Globe makes me want to underline the currents at work:

When word spread at Harvard Law School last month that one of the most successful recruiters of its graduates, Ropes & Gray, was helping Catholic Charities explore ways to prevent same-sex couples from adopting children, gay and lesbian students wanted to stop the law firm it its tracks.


A Lambda representative wound up meeting with Ropes's managing partner and others at the firm and expressing the students' unhappiness.

Two weeks ago, Ropes said it would no longer do legal work to assist the bishops in their efforts to stop gay adoptions, and last week Catholic Charities said it would end its adoption program because it could not reconcile church doctrine, which holds that gay adoptions are ''gravely immoral," with state antidiscrimination laws.
Harvard Law group hits Ropes & Gray

Tolerance is a velvet glove on an iron fist.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Catholic Faith and the Vocation of Public Service: Helen Alvare's Casey Lecture

Professor Helen Alvare of Catholic University delivered on March 7th an excellent speech on the occasion of the Archdiocese of Denver's Third Annual Robert P. Casey Lecture, named for the shunned pro-life Democratic governor of Pennsylvania, of happy memory.

Professor Alvare began with a description of the events which led her into public life. She began as a consultant on theological matters for political campaigns and the television networks, somehow finding herself invited to represent pro-life Catholics. She soon became the NCCB's secretary of pro-life affairs, and she is now a professor at Catholic University School of Law.

In the first half of her talk Professor Alvare described an engaging autobiography, and I was particularly struck by her reasons she could progress no further in media or politics: In televised pundit-circles she couldn't come up with an opinion on the spot for the issue of the day, and so could not rise, or rather, descend, to the opinion-a-minute flurry of television commentary. In politics, the pro-life groups she was assisting tended to absorb more and more the political attitudes of their poltitical allies. This phenomenon not only diluted their cause for the sake of political success, but it ended up connecting issues whose connections are not obvious and in some cases counter-productive, especially since they alienated Mrs. Alvare, who would have been a very typical Democrat thirty years ago.

I recorded her talk on a hand-held digital voice recorder, which has enabled me to make transcriptions of parts of her talk. They are not edited or transcribed particularly well, but Professor Alvare's remarks are blogworthy nonetheless. She notes:
"There are fundamental ethical requirements that we need to address... There are things that are not at all sectarian, we often think of these things that arise out of natural law... We should also not just be condemning when things are problematic, in these ethical spheres, but also positively sharing our moral, our intellectual, our spiritual riches of the church, and find ways that they can infuse the culture. My entire modus operandi in my scholarly writings--plain old law reviews--is to take some insight that I find in the faith, that derives from natural law, some insight that I did not see being used in family law. Some thorny issue, and they're at an impasse, and I ask "how could some particular insight the Church relies on help solve it?" And I bring it in a secular way, I don't even cite Christian sources at all. This is how I've written about reproductive technology, or about the basis of marriage, or about marriage strengthening, or about other bioethical issues.

She advocated a necessary resistance to the separation of one's spiritual self from one's public and political self, and made many thought-provoking reflections on the nature of the Catholic Church in public life. Some may strike readers as triumphalist, but I think that to dismiss them as such would ignore some very real insights. Her talk continued:
I don't think you all realize how unique is the church's status as a public voice, and there isn't really another like it, and what it would mean if we weren't there. It wasn't until I started doing work in the UN, and participating in delegations to foreign countries, that I began to see how respected the church was in an international way. Or to go to interfaith meetings, and for other groups to say wow you Catholics have *really* been strong on... and they name something: pro-life, or immigration issues. We're not monolithic, but we have a unified voice. We're transnational. We have millennia of international relations skills--millennia! We don't speak out of political considerations. We're large, we're old.

And here's something that makes us really unique now: we explicitly claim to be seeking truth. Do you know how unique that is? Think about other institutions that are going out to speak on issues, and aren't hearing it from maybe some more vested interests: to win the next election, or for monetary reasons. We actually say we're in this debate, either because we have a truth we think we'd like to share, or because we'd like to join the search for the right thing, the good thing to do. To be explicitly truth seeking is so unique. This is out of step with much of our time, but what it's in step with is the desire of people's hearts. People are looking for things that they can base their life on, things that are worth living for, that are as Cardinal Dulles says, because they are worth dying for.

In a relativistic age, truth-seeking is indeed unique. My question below raised some concern that perhaps the church shouldn't be this unique, but should rather have more allies in this area.

Professor Alvare again continued:

Peggy Noonan noticed, after JPII's death, how many people who had no knowledge about the church, really, who had never really read any of our teachings, but really went with what they had read in the NYTimes, expressed an opinion about the church.[See Pierce Bush, -kjj] In a way, she said, this is a really really back-handed compliment. In a way, it is an affirmation of what the Church says it is, which is a universal, a catholic institution. And people innately respond somehow to this claim or maybe even to the reality of that fact, by feeling like it is the patrimony of all of us, and we can take shots at it. That somehow it does speak to all of us, and it actually makes an attempt to speak for all of us, and because of that all of us have a legitimate interest.

I actually think she has a point there. It's one of the last transnational institutions that claims that its answers not for a limited ethnic group, not for a limited country, not just for people born into that religion, but for everybody. Another sign of this universality, this attraction to truth-seeking, is the fact that in most of the leading hot-button issues of the US today: abortion, immigration, marriage debate, poverty, the Catholic Church is the one in the middle of the debate. And we are often the one to answer. I don't know if you heard about the 55 Catholic members of congress who were all in favor of abortion, so they had to put out a document to say "We are great Catholics! We are for the vulnerable, we just happen to support abortion, including partial birth abortion, and that's just fine, that's great." They feel the need to answer the church. They feel the need to criticize her and to answer her.

Even after decades of negligent bishops, woeful catechesis, and the laity's significant abdication of their duties, Alvare's remarks do ring true.

These are just the passages I found most interesting and easy to transcribe. Doubtless the Denver Catholic Register will have an article on her lecture, which will be linked when available. An admirable talk given by an admirable woman.

Natural Law Theory: Just a Weird Catholic Thing?

To preserve space and separate issues, I have made a distinct post on my own question posed to Professor Helen Alvare at the Casey Lecture at the Archdiocese of Denver.

My question, in all its turgidity:

You mentioned natural law. It's become a concern to me that natural law is coming to be seen as just this "Catholic thing." I think Martha Nussbaum was making that argument in a constitutional case. The more I look around, the more I see that people dedicated to Natural Law end up converting to Catholicism, which doesn't help us politically. [And philosophically, I add, since Natural Law theory presumes or predicts adherents among all people and religions -kjj] Could you reassure me that Natural Law debates are taking place outside of the Catholic Church as well?

Professor Alvare briefly passed the question off to seminary professor Sister Prudence Allen, a great thinker in her own right, who reflected on the differences between Protestant or Enlightenment natural law, like Locke and Hobbes, which sees rights coming out of conflict, instead of being based in goodness or in the common good and common things. She concluded her brief response(unworthily summarized here) saying that if you can get in touch with the deepest desires of the heart, you will get a natural law-like answer, which itself ultimately points to God.

Professor Alvare then replied:

"Natural Law has, in the public mind, become synonymous with fideism, something the exact opposite[of what it really is], something only Catholics can know by virtue of faith! So I have tried to stay away from it, and I haven't really tried to think about it completely, but I try to draw a contrast between the world that they are proposing, which is the one in which physical reality is meaningless: the embryo is meaningless, the stem cell is meaningless, the trauma that a surrogate mother goes through is meaningless, that this meaningless phenomenon ought to have no impact on the debate. What is it then? Why is it in the world? Men's and women's bodies, their complimentarity, the institution of marriage arising pre-legally, they tell us nothing? So I more posit that world versus the one we are proposing without calling it Natural Law."

A good answer, especially given the time permitted. I worry that those whom Professor Alvare engages are far too eager to embrace meaninglessness and call it wisdom than consider the burdensome but also liberating alternative of a meaning-full life.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Pierce Bush: Catholic Church has Talibanesque, Stone-Age Mentality

Dubya's nineteen year-old nephew, Pierce Bush, has weighed in on the Dubai ports deal but that's not what has attracted my interest. AP reports:

It was Pierce Bush's second letter to the Chronicle. His other letter, published in April, focused on reforms he thinks Pope Benedict XVI should consider for the Roman Catholic Church.

FreeRepublic has the actual letter, reproduced below:

Here are two reforms

With the election of Pope Benedict XVI, Christians around the world will most likely not be able to look forward to needed reforms within the Catholic Church. There are two major areas of reform that are needed to accommodate our progressive world society.

The first change regards the treatment of women. In a religion that preaches equality among all people, the Catholic Church is locked into a stone-age mentality by not allowing women to be ordained as priests. Frankly, it is rather Talibanesque.

The other area of needed reform deals with allowing priests to marry. A lot of people naively think that celibacy is a tradition that has existed forever. In reality, priests once were allowed to marry, and this was changed during the Middle Ages.

I wish Pope Benedict XVI the best, as I am sure that he will be a wise leader, and I hope he will strive for equality. I also hope these simple reforms I suggest will be made in my lifetime.

Pierce Bush, Houston

Imagine, an authority on both Catholic theology and international relations by the age of nineteen! Surely this boy has a bright future.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

G.M. Hopkins Conference Coming Soon to Denver!

For any Denverites reading this, Regis University will soon host its annual Gerard Manley Hopkins Conference discussing the master poet and Jesuit priest. Thus saith the website:

The 2006 Hopkins International Conference will be held at Regis University, Denver, Colorado from March 24th to March 26th. Accommodation has been reserved at the Comfort Inn/Brown Palace Hotel in downtown Denver.

Peter Milward, SJ, of Sophia University, Japan will be a presenter, as will novelist Ron Hansen. Once again, Shakespearean actor Richard Austin will provide excellent recitations of Hopkins' poems, recorded copies of which are available for purchase on his website.

Last year excepted, I have been a regular attendee at the conference since its inception. Highly recommended.

[Also: with the exception of the banquet, all events are free and open to the public!]

The Humble Will Be Exalted

There's another liturgical mess making the rounds of the Catholic blogs. Out in Orange County, parishoners at a more traditional parish are being ordered not to kneel.

Some parishoners haven't taken this on their knees, which is part of the problem. Anti-episcopal activism, though often starting in true grievances, can lead to a kind of ascetic pride. The protestor might think of himself as another Athanasius or a Catherine of Sienna, even invoking their names in his letters of protest.

But despite all the traditionalism such efforts hope to advance, protest is one of the crasser features of modernity. As Alisdair MacIntyre has commented:

indignation is a predominant modern emotion... Protest is now almost entirely that negative phenomenon which characteristically occurs as a reaction to the alleged invasion of someone's rights in the name of someone else's utility. The self-assertive shrillness of protest arises because... protestors can never win an argument: the indignant self-righteousness of protest arises because... the protestors can never lose an argument either. Hence the utterance of protest is characteristically addressed to those who already share the protestors' premises... Protestors rarely have anyone else to talk to but themselves. This is not to say that protest cannot be effective; it is to say that it cannot be rationally effective.

Not only is protest not rationally effective, I do not think modern forms of protest can be spiritually effective either. Those wronged should kneel before the archbishop in supplication, asking him permission to kiss his ring and beseeching him to hear their cause. A shrieking letter is easy to ignore, but he'll be too embarrased to refuse a personal request made in so obsequious a manner. Obedient humility of the ring-kissing sort is exactly the kind of practice traditionalists should revive.

Then perhaps the lowly will be lifted up, and certain bishops will be reminded of the duties their God requires of them.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Can Webcasting Elevate Good Teachers' Careers?

Steven Burton at Enchridion Militis proposes a solution to bad teachers like the local failure, Overland geography teacher Jay Bennish:
every public school classroom in America should be fitted out with a video camera, and the full proceedings of every minute of every class day should be webcast for whoever wants to tune in. This would have the added benefit of allowing parents to check up not only on the teachers, but also on their kids, whenever they felt like it. What interesting things they might learn!

If incorporated well into a merit pay system, classroom webcams could be more than simply a moonbat-prevention system. Ideally, good teachers would attract more internet attention from motivated-but-deprived students and curious onlookers from other schools, and even other regions of the country. Implement a workable way to generate income from such webcasts and we're looking at lower taxes, better funding for schools, and bonuses for deserving educators.

The Ideal has an unfortunate habit of colliding with the Real, but that's what experimentation is for. Surely this is deserving research project for D.Eds willing to improve their field's notoriously poor reputation, or a gimmick for an enterprising charter school.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Moral Relativism: The Handmaid of the Market

Many a conservative's stock portfolio has been fattened, and soccer mom's all-terrain vehicle financed, through supporting clients like Calvin Klein. And would anyone really be surprised if the tobacco company that was flattering feminism through its Virginia Slims campaign was simultaneously contributing to the reelection coffers of Jesse Helms? The ethos of commerce--with its scientific methods pressed to monetary ends, with its strict rationalism placed in the service of a narrow materialism--has neither the language nor the appetite for such scrupulous discriminations. Rather, its democracy of pro fit wants to decree that all money is good money while its standard of service wants to insist that the customer is always right.

When practiced in moderation, these commercial ideals of toleration and solicitude are indeed necessary for a civil, democratic marketplace. But when the market expands to enclose the whole of society so that even the most intimate of activities becomes economically defined, when the primary shapers of allowable behavior are the imperatives of the bottom line, then toleration gives way to decadent license, civil solicitude to venal solicitation, as everything becomes "good" and anything "right" So enclosed, we can rationalize the most offensive of behaviors. Access to the morgue photos of a murdered child, JonBenet, becomes yet one more entrepreneurial opportunity, their purchase and publication justified under the banners of "freedom of expression" and the public's "right to know."

How has such moral relativism come to define our social sphere? The answer is both so pervasive and near that it is hard for us to see: Relativism is the standard operating procedure of scientific capitalism, the working premise of commercial life. To say so is merely to restate the premises of capitalism's cultural contradictions, and show again how the Producing Self has become complicit with, and dependent on, the depredations of the Consuming Self.
-David Bosworth, The spirit of capitalism, 2000, Public Interest, Winter 2000

A sharp undergraduate can spot this mechanism in his first reading of John Stuart Mill. Bosworth takes this insight to a whole new level.

via Caleb Stegall at the CrunchyCon Blog

Taking Over, One Birth at a Time

Advanced societies are growing more patriarchal, whether they like it or not. In addition to the greater fertility of conservative segments of society, the rollback of the welfare state forced by population aging and decline will give these elements an additional survival advantage, and therefore spur even higher fertility. As governments hand back functions they once appropriated from the family, notably support in old age, people will find that they need more children to insure their golden years, and they will seek to bind their children to them through inculcating traditional religious values akin to the Bible’s injunction to honor thy mother and father.
-Phillip Longman, The Return of Patriarchy