Wednesday, March 26, 2008

How Stanford scrapped a visit from Cardinal Ratzinger

The Stanford Review discusses how Stanford University rejected a proposal to invite then-Cardinal Ratzinger to lecture at the university in the 2000-2001 school year. The newspaper alleges ideological concerns played a role.
A vocal body of liberal Catholics and anti-Papists call Stanford home.

In a 2000 essay entitled “Fortress Vaticana,” religious studies professor Thomas Sheehan wrote derisively of Cardinal Ratzinger, suggesting his work was “third-rate,” “sloppy,” and theologically “vulgar.”

English professor Tobias Wolff has blamed the Church’s problems on its pursuit of “visions of cohesion and power.”

Both Sheehan and Wolff denied involvement in the decision not to invite Ratzinger, but Prof. Elizabeth Bernhardt, director of the Stanford Language Center, recalled voicing her concerns. In the event an official invitation had been extended, she said, “I would just have smoke coming out of my ears.” She also said she would have protested, but added that academic freedom is “a really important thing we all have to hold.”

Having taught a course on resistance to the Nazi regime, Bernhardt said she could not as a “matter of conscience” have condoned a visit by someone who joined the Nazi war machine. During World War II, such participation was mandatory.

Bernhardt said she opposed Ratzinger’s “ridiculous stances” on birth control and the ordination of female priests. Furthermore, Ratzinger’s title—Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith and Morals—was a legacy from the Inquisition.

Most worrisome, the pastor at the campus parish seems to have helped scuttle the proposal:
She also suspected that the event’s intent was to “embarrass” the Catholic Community. Fr. LaBelle agreed, saying that the event—far from an “open forum”—would have been designed to stir controversy in a kind of “staged argument.”

I am reminded of the passage in More's Utopia where he berates the English aristocracy for poorly educating their people and then punishing them for committing the crimes for which their lack of education has prepared them. If these Stanford professors and their like prattle on about the vulgarity and ignorance of American Christianity, they should acknowledge that acts like the refusal of a venue to a future pope ensure that American religious discussions remain at a crassly elementary level.

(via Erin O'Connor)

Friday, March 21, 2008

When Johnny Comes Marching Home

Mother Jones Magazine interviews former army Iraqi prison guards who wrestle with their consciences because they followed orders that enabled and encouraged abusive treatment of detainees.

Joseph Darby, the man who alerted authorities to the Abu Ghraib photographs, has faced harassment in his hometown because of his actions.

It is a sad, conflicted story.

via A Thinking Reed

Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Frustrated Constitution

My latest column is up at InsideCatholic. The Frustrated Constitution briefly considers the powerlessness of the U.S. Constitution and the problems resulting from its near-figurehead status.

It is a tad more impressionistic than I would prefer, but I hope it will generate answers to my pessimistic question:

Given that nobody really pays attention to the Constitution, how can good government be attained?

Activists prep for the Democratic Convention in Denver

Slapstick Politics has a good round-up of the self-described anarchist groups preparing to "Recreate '68" not fifteen miles from my house.

Slapstick Politics links to a Westword essay wryly observing one anarchists' organization meeting, and also a blog called Crash the Conventions.

If dozens of radicals really are coming to Denver to pick a fight, I do not envy the task of the Denver police department. Downtown Denver is astoundingly pretty. Both the hotel near the convention center and the convention center itself are glass houses. The last thing the city needs is a rock-throwing riot.

Though I had pondered whether to leave town the weekend of the convention, I may possibly obtain press credentials for the convention and find myself reporting from the belly of the beast.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Humanist Sex Ed for Libertarians

The fall of Governor Eliot Spitzer due to his patronage of a prostitution ring has produced much insensate libertarian boilerplate. The libertarians, taking inspiration from their drunken midnight viewings of Pretty Woman, bemoan a world where sex cannot be openly sold for money.

Ross Douthat essays an attack on those who would treat sex no differently than any other human act. Be forewarned, Douthat quotes some base fellow named Will Wilkinson who writes in crude praise of mutual self-abuse. These are often the same people who treat all sex acts as equal. This habit reflects the leveling tendencies of extreme egalitarianism and echoes the jaded indiscrimination of a long-time john.

Douthat brings up the case of incest, alluding to Leon Kass' "wisdom of repugnance," and asks how the levelers can condemn such an act based on their standards, or lack thereof, which treat sex as just another form of labor.

While such a reductio ad absurdum is well and good for brief debating points and blog entries, this habit of invoking the worst grotesqueries encourages social conservatives to be lazy.

The "wisdom of repugnance" is useless unless it can be clearly stated what positive good is being repugnantly perverted.

Such an enormous good is implicit in the standard conservative argument about the relevance of sex to reproduction. While this relevance is obvious to parents and the self-reflective, the porn-saturated singletons one finds on the internet have successfully blinded themselves to this point.

"Reproduction" in sex talk is a word that can cover over what is being reproduced, namely man. With the exception of Jesus and test-tube babies, all of us were conceived through a certain ordinary sex act.

Treating all forms of sex equally means treating the sex act by which we came into the world as no different than any other.

To deny the importance of that act is to deny the importance of its product: every dead, living, and unborn man and woman.

Perhaps there is enough humanism remaining to find this general denigration of mankind repugnant. Even the most self-regarding parricide must flinch at so blaspheming his own origins, and by implication himself.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Nature, Custom, and "Evil Love"

J. Budsiszewski has penned a noteworthy reflection on nature, the under-mentioned concept of connaturality, the "second nature" of custom and habit, and the perilous case of habits gone wrong.

In his essay The Natural, the Connatural, and the Unnatural he writes:
According to what might be called the lower meaning, the natural is the spontaneous, the haphazard, the unimproved: Think of Adam and Eve in the jungle, or for that matter, think of the jungle itself. From this point of view, a human being is at his most natural when he is driven by raw desires, "doing what comes naturally," as we say. But according to what might be called the higher meaning, the natural is what perfects us, what unfolds the inbuilt purposes of our design, what unlocks our directed potentialities. Think this time of Adam and Eve in the Garden, not the jungle, or for that matter, think of the Garden itself. From this point of view, a human being is most genuinely "doing what comes naturally" when he at his best and bravest and truest -- when he fulfills his creational design, when he "comes into his own." The lower way of speaking makes nature and second nature enemies. The higher makes them friends, at least potentially.

While talk of design and purpose must, I think, at least reference the challenges of philosophical Darwinism or empiricism, Budsiszewski's exploration gives the reader much to appreciate. His distinction between nature in potentia and "second nature," nature as actualized, must be kept clear in all discussions of human nature.

Take his description of habit and custom:
St. Thomas says that something can be connatural to a being insofar as it becomes natural through habituation, because "custom is a second nature." What he has in mind here is the way that habits and customs -- and, at another level, divine graces -- fill in the blanks, so to speak, which the generalities of nature leave undetermined. The result is that we acquire new inclinations to certain things, and come to find pleasure in things in which we did not find pleasure before. There are all sorts of varieties of second-nature connaturality, for example the connaturality of the lover with the beloved, whereby our nature adapts itself to the thing which, or to the person whom, we love.

The generalities of human nature, those discovered through philosophical or scientific inquiry, cannot forget the place of custom. It is in the domain of custom, too, that character and personality are most at play, whether in fiction or in reality.

Heresiologists make poor dramatists and social critics because they believe mistakes or differences about human or divine nature drive human behavior, when in fact it is the particular flaws and perfections of individual or collective habit that have the most motive power. These heresy-hunters call hubris Pelagianism, despair Calvinism, and impiety Gnosticism. Would that intellectual error were the only cause of sin! Education and argument would then suffice to correct the wicked.

Budsiszewski shows that mankind is capable of far more crookedness:
Not only can a man come to love what is contrary to his connatural good -- he can come to hate what conduces to his connatural good. In other words, he can learn to loath those things which tend to the very happiness that he is fashioned, by nature, to seek. Evil of a particular kind will become second nature to him even though it continues to be contrary to first nature -- but just because it has become second nature to him, he will have difficulty recognizing it as evil.

How does one cure a wicked habit when it is not recognized as wicked, when evil is one's good? Rational correction has its place, but perhaps external coercion and internal self-revulsion are the only other remedies short of divine intervention. Examples of external coercion are too familiar, ranging from social pressure to legal punishment.

Self-revulsion, however, needs more examination. Perhaps every sin contains within itself its own destruction. The sated glutton realizes his doom after the last gulp leaves him empty, or the wrathful pundit flinches upon seeing his recorded rage. Budsiszewski cites one woman who rejected her self-destruction after seeing others in extremis just down her vicious path. Call it the car-wreck effect.

This self-recognition constitutes a virtue of its own, and of course sin is best fought with true virtue.

Budsiszewski further references the Angelic Doctor in discussing how sin is a misdirected good. But the saint supplies us with an implicit rebuke of Romantic sentimentalism:
Evil is never loved except under the aspect of good, that is to say, in so far as it is good in some respect, and is considered as being good simply. And thus a certain love is evil, in so far as it tends to that which is not simply a true good. It is in this way that man "loves iniquity," inasmuch as, by means of iniquity, some good is gained; pleasure, for instance, or money, or such like.

(S.T. I-II, Q. 27, ad 1.)

No one can, without hinting at tragedy, say "Love conquers all" after reading this description of an "evil love."

(via diogenes)

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Galileo story in The Times references ultra-traditionalist Catholic crackpot

A London Times report on a new Galileo statue at the Vatican reprinted Galileo's recantation of heliocentrism.

According to the article, the text of the recantation was taken from Solange Strong Hertz's Beyond Politics: A Meta-Political View of History.

Those who have visited the stygian realm of Catholic ultra-traditionalism will recognize Solange Hertz's name from The Remnant newspaper.

At times Hertz sounds like a Tolkienesque crunchy conservative. "Divinely created natural substances like wood, stone, fibers and leathers are giving way increasingly to artificially produced plastics of every description," she says.

This is followed by a denunciation of a new science "built on the errors of Galileo, Newton, Darwin and Einstein which ignores divine revelation on principle." An adamant defender of geocentrism, her book Beyond Politics attacks the Copernican system as a whole.

The advocacy of natural materials over plastic is itself preceded in her speech by a denunciation of electricity:
In this new order, water, the primordial substance on which both natural and supernatural life depend, is being superseded by electricity. The unity once supplied by the Holy Ghost residing in the souls of men through their Baptism in Christ is now generated physically by a world network of electronic communication, whose new international language is no longer the Greek, Latin or Hebrew affixed to the Holy Cross, but universal English, the language of the United States.

While this contrast between Creation and technology evidences a poetic mind, Hertz does not stop at suggestive Romantic imagery. In Hertz, one can observe this "crunchy-con" spirit gone mad. A reviewer on summarizes one point from Beyond Politics:
Electricity is Satanic, illuminating the world with a false generated light, which in fact is Satan's darkness. Hertz believes electricity was in use by occult illuminates who built Atlantis and the Tower of Babel and was temporarily lost to most of humanity after the Flood and the overthrow of Babel. Hertz says the Bible does not "mention sizzling" when the circuits were burnt out during the Flood but concludes these technologies were in use since the beginning of time.

Did I mention this book was cited in The Times?

It is possible that the attribution of the Galileo text is itself erroneous. The text could have been taken from this CUNY page, which does not specifically cite Hertz as the source of the text. The CUNY page refers to a 1999 page at the Modern History Sourcebook, which does not attribute the text to Hertz. The Modern History Sourcebook does cite Hertz, but in a separate page about the Galileo trial, found here.

But couldn't The Times writer have gone to a real library, or even Google Books?

It is bad enough when media coverage of Galileo recycles the superficial spirit of bad nineteenth-century historiography. Including Hertz's work simply takes the discussion into the Twilight Zone.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Missionary Speaks Out about Muslim Conversions to Christianity

The public debate on Islam generally takes two sides. One side dismisses Islamic extremist violence as fringe, hoping in the capacity for Muslim nations to eliminate terrorism and liberalize. Another holds Islam to be inherently violent, countered only with strong military intervention abroad and harsh immigration restrictions at home.

While pundits often talk seriously about encouraging in Muslim lands demoralized quietism, liberal democracy or hedonistic secularism, almost nobody talks about converting Muslims to Christianity.

Nobody, excepting "Abu Daoud," an Anglican missionary in Muslim lands who has written a reflection on Islam titled Apostates of Islam. (Note: PDF)

Abu Daoud draws on his years of experience in partibus infidelis to examine the appeal Christianity has for some Muslims:
The Qur’an makes the claim that it is self-validating, and when a sign was demanded of Muhammad to validate his prophetic office he explained that the Quran was his sign. But many Muslims find the Gos­pels to be equally self-validating. The authority and coherency and integrity of the teaching and preaching of Jesus testify to its divine origin and salvific validity. His acceptance of the repentant ones on the fringes of society and his antago­nism towards the self-righteous religious rulers are profoundly refreshing to many Muslims, who have long suspected that they live in such a situation, but had never received approval of such a stance. His lack of concern for political power and rejection of violence even in the case of self-defense are opposite the life-style chosen by Muhammad. Muslim believers tend to base their understanding of the Gospel much more on the Gospels than on the Pauline epistles, as is the case in much of the Reformation tradition, which can lead to some interesting situations on the mission field.

The present corruption of Islam also encourages some to explore Christianity:
Every religion-however one wants to define that word-makes certain promises. Christ promised persecution in this world, substantial redemption among those called out (the Church) from that earthly kingdom, and eternal life in the Kingdom come. Islam prom­ises, for the society that abides by God’s will (the sharii’a), prosperity, peace, justice, and political domination. That is no small promise. Some Muslims have questioned that promise: given that there are dozens of Muslim-majority coun­tries throughout the world, including many who make an explicit claim to abide by the sharii’a, how is it that these countries are generally char­acterized by (excepting oil and gas) economic inferiority, political corruption, lack of human rights, and a devastating level of governmental oppression? On a more empirical level, why is it that so many people from these countries desire to leave them for countries ruled by mushrikiin or associators-that is, those who associate another with God, namely Jesus Christ? Such questions place traditional Muslims in an un­comfortable situation since Islam and Islamdom must be considered superior to any other civili­zation or geographical locus.

According to Abu Daoud, converts are still inspired by a medium Americans often recognize only in fiction: dreams.

One Muslim realized he was dream­ing of Jesus so he consulted his local Muslim religious leader who said he was blessed for having dreamed of one of the prophets. Some dreams focus on the Bible as something that the person must read; some actualize what is perceived to be a supernatural healing of an ill­ness; one showed a man in a white robe holding a chalice and a round piece of flat bread. But other dreams feature angels or saints like Mary and John the Baptist, both of whom are known to Muslims through the Qur’an by the Arabic names Maryam and Yahya.

However, it appears unassociated Evangelical churches are best positioned to evangelize Muslim lands. The historical churches are more easily punished or have clergy too apathetic or hostile to welcome such new Christians. Abu Daoud breaks the sad news:
...the liturgically-oriented churches, and thus the majority of churches indigenous to the Middle East, do not appear to have an interest in Muslims who might convert. Such an aversion is understand­able in the Middle East, where a government can, with one fell swoop, shut down churches, clinics and schools. Additionally, one must be on the lookout for false converts seeking financial gain or a permit to emigrate, for spies, and such. This is a practical reality for these churches. Due to such difficulties, Catholic and Orthodox churches in the Middle East do not, in general, receive or invest any time in individuals inter­ested in the matters outlined above. This is, as far as this author can discern, the reason why liturgy is not present anywhere in the literature of conversions from Islam. One priest told me clearly that he had several Muslims approach him every day wanting to convert from Islam; he said that some of them were false conver­sions, but that he knew that some of them were genuine. He gestured with his hand around him towards the beautiful church that encompassed us, and lamented that the government would take all of it away if he discipled and baptized such people. Another priest explained to me that Muslims could not genuinely convert from Islam because of the satanic nature of Islam. One woman went to a Catholic priest and told him of her dream of Jesus: he wept and told her that it meant she should be a better Muslim.

That last report shows how the indifferentist "Anonymous Christian" rhetoric favored in some Catholic circles ignores, rather than recognizes, the grace of God at work among non-Christians.

Read Abu Daoud's inspiring essay in full here.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Women in Combat: A Curious Ommission

A week ago the Washington Post added to the unreal debate, such as it is, over women in combat. In its story "Ready to Kill," writer Kristin Henderson provides an ecomia to women soldiers.

Amid the mandatory effusions of feminism and egalitarian boosterism, Henderson reports some of the reasons against placing women in war zones, writing, "Opponents worry that either sexual tension or the male instinct to protect females will undermine a unit's ability to pull together and fight effectively," she summarizes. The reference to the "male instinct to protect females" is a bit vague. Protect them from what?

Henderson also says, "Before all those changes in the '60s, a woman's biological role as a mother generally kept her off the killing fields." She quotes Erin Solaro's representation of ancient arguments against placing women in combat action: "Women who, because of their sex, risked their lives and health bearing children should not also have to bear the burden of defending those children when men were available."

Within the whole essay there is not one mention of women being mistreated, molested, and raped upon capture.

What universe is Henderson living in? Either she recognizes and deliberately ignores this gutwrenching reason against putting women in such danger, or she is a happy naif.

Every time an American servicewoman is captured, the news media indulge in sickening prurience, asking: "Was she, or wasn't she?" If the servicewoman is freed, Barbara Walters and her ilk compete to drag the poor woman before cameras.

One could make an argument in favor of Humanae Vitae from the contents of this essay. "The main thing is birth control," one expert says about the increase in servicewomen. "From the mid-'60s on, women could control their fertility." Who would have thought that sex education could be an issue of military readiness?

Former commandant of the Marine Corps, General Robert Barrow, summarized his own objections: "I may be old-fashioned, but I think the very nature of women disqualifies them from doing it. Women give life. Sustain life. Nurture life. They don't take it."

This very worthy respect for women and the symbolic integrity of human life recalls the argument of G.K. Chesterton in What's Wrong with the World. Were he alive today, Chesterton could argue the enthusiasm for women combatants is a logical outcome of women's suffrage, which he believed meant the inclusion of women in the coercion and bloodshed of the State.

Though such a critique sounds radical to modern ears, Chesterton goes on to outline the benefit of excluding a whole portion of the human race from the nasty business of war. "More than once I have remarked in these pages that female limitations may be the limits of a temple as well as of a prison, the disabilities of a priest and not of a pariah," Chesterton wrote. " is not evidently irrational if men decided that a woman, like a priest, must not be a shedder of blood."

There are some words in the Washington Post article about how a nation shouldn't send its mothers to war, but those objections won't amount to much in the land where the Pentagon has a daycare center.

The simple belief that a civilized society does not send women into danger is now dismissed as the unpopular one. We are already a country that puts women on combat ships and exports mothers into military actions. Their rapes at the hands of barbarians are used to stoke television ratings and to inflame rage against the enemy. Rather, such crimes should move us to overthrow the monstrous policymakers who put these women at risk in the first place.