Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A schoolkid echoes Holbein and gets suspended

In the latest oddity of our fear-driven age, a second grader in Taunton, Mass. has been suspended over a drawing of Jesus and told to undergo psychological evaluation (at his parents' expense).

His artwork:

"...because he put Xs in the eyes of Jesus, the teacher was alarmed and they told the parents they thought it was violent," an educational consultant with the Associated Advocacy Center told the Taunton Gazette.

It may be too effusive to say so, but this child's iconography shows a deep theological truth. The Crucifixion was no mere illusion of death.

Perhaps that realization hit the teacher too closely.

The drawing itself is like a child's version of the Jesus in Hans Holbein's painting "The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb."

Note the disturbed reaction to that painting from Ippolit, the death-obsessed character in Dostoevsky's The Idiot:

"Looking at that picture, you get the impression of nature as some enormous, implacable, and dumb beast, or, to put it more correctly, much more correctly, though it may seem strange, as some huge engine of the latest design, which has senselessly seized, cut to pieces, and swallowed up--impassively and unfeelingly--a great and priceless Being, a Being worth the whole of nature and all its laws, worth the entire earth, which was perhaps created solely for the coming of that Being!

...The people surrounding the dead man, none of whom is shown in the picture, must have been overwhelmed by a feeling of terrible anguish and dismay on that evening which had shattered all their hopes and almost all their beliefs at one fell blow. They must have parted in a state of the most dreadful terror, though each of them carried away within him a mighty thought which could never be wrested from him."

Forget a psych exam, get that kid a paintbrush.

Update: The Associated Press claims that the school district denies the father's account. How will this turn out?

Writing books for money: a fool's errand?

Joe Carter discusses the economics of being an author.

Prospects are not good:

950,000 titles out of the 1.2 million tracked by Nielsen Bookscan sold fewer than 99 copies. Another 200,000 sold fewer than 1,000 copies. Only 25,000 sold more than 5,000 copies. The average book in America sells about 500 copies

One author says her net profit on a NY Times bestselling book currently stands at $24,517.36.

Samuel Johnson said nobody but a fool ever wrote except for money.

That was before the internet. There are a lot of fools out there.

Writing may be even less profitable than acting, and dollars for new art are dropping because of competition the Gutenberg Project and YouTube.

Without speaking fees or teaching positions to compensate, does the book writer have a realistic career path?

Saturday, November 07, 2009

To new visitors:

I see that Inside Catholic has republished my complaint about indecency in the local library, Neighborhood Pornucopia.

Welcome to new visitors! Action at this blog is quite slow this year. Those interested in recent activity should see my Twitter page.

Athanasius Kircher's Tarantella

Fr. Athanasius Kircher, SJ, was a genuine Renaissance Man of the 17th century. A logician, a mathematician, a vulcanologist, a phonologist, an Egyptologist...

His position as "alpha scholar" is secure enough. Just read what New Advent and Wikipedia have to say of his accomplishments.

Now Western Confucian points us to a Tarantella dance he composed:

"With all his learning and vast amount of adulation which he received on all sides, Kircher retained throughout his life a deep humility and a childlike piety," the old Catholic Encyclopedia writes.

Truly, a model for every intellectual.

Friday, October 16, 2009

New England folk music: "Spanish Ladies"

A relative's trip to Oregon and back brought me a souvenir: The Black Irish Band album "Into the Arms of the Sea." (MP3 and CD)

Though on the opposite coast, these musicians have compiled an enjoyable set of Maritime music from the New England seaboard.

Some of their songs are a capella. At their best, the band truly sounds like it is on the deck of a seaward ship.

A few songs are reliable classics, like "New York Girls (Can't You Dance the Polka?)", but many of the songs are beyond the knowledge of Google. As they should be.

While fans of American Western music can complain about its neglect, New England traditional music is in an even worse state. To my knowledge, it had no Will Rogers crooners for the television age.

Fortunately its enthusiasts endure.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

With Chai Feldblum, polygamists gain a foothold in the Obama Administration

A law professor nominated by President Obama to become a commissioner for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was a signatory to a radical 2006 manifesto which endorsed polygamous households and argued traditional marriage should not be privileged “above all others.”

So reports CNA in its story "Obama EEOC nominee signed radical marriage manifesto that praised polygamy" about Georgetown University (sigh.) law professor Chai R. Feldblum.

CNA adds:
Describing various kinds of households as no less socially, economically, and spiritually worthy than other relationships, the Beyond Marriage manifesto listed “committed, loving households in which there is more than one conjugal partner.”


“Marriage is not the only worthy form of family or relationship, and it should not be legally and economically privileged above all others,” the manifesto continued. “While we honor those for whom marriage is the most meaningful personal ­– for some, also a deeply spiritual – choice, we believe that many other kinds of kinship relationship, households, and families must also be accorded recognition.”

One signatory of the Beyond Marriage manifesto, Michael Bronski, once complained that he and his allies were being treated like skunks at a garden party for hitching polygamist and polyamorist concerns to the same-sex "marriage" debate.

Now someone who thinks "committed, loving households in which there is more than one conjugal partner" are equally worthy to natural marriage is positioned to become a major influence in the enforcement of workplace anti-discrimination law. The pro-family New Deal Democrats must be spinning in their graves.

UPDATE: In her Senate confirmation hearing, Feldblum disavowed the Beyond Same-Sex Marriage manifesto.

She called it "overly broad" and a "mistake" to sign. She professed disagreement with unspecified parts of the document.

It is difficult to believe that a Georgetown law professor wouldn't realize what she was signing, and so it is difficult to believe her disavowal is authentic.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Diverted by Twitter

For the previous few months my activity has been focused at Twitter. More substantial posting will resume at Philokalia Republic sometime in the future.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Catholic drama and 'grassroots entertainment'

San Diego playwright Cathal Gallagher recently spoke about his plays and his efforts to advance Catholic drama.

While movies cost millions to make, plays are the “grassroots of entertainment,” Gallagher told Catholic News Agency. He rightly noted that such works can have a “profound impact” on college and high school students.

His play "Viva Cristo Rey!" about the Jesuit priest and martyr Blessed Miguel Pro was performed at the Denver archdiocesan seminary earlier this year under the direction seminarian Scott Bailey.

(Last year I saw and deeply enjoyed Bailey's production of "A Man for All Seasons." We in Denver may hope he can become both a successful playwright and a priest, like a certain famous pontiff.)

Recently Gallagher has produced his play "Malcolm and Teresa," about British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge and Mother Teresa. According to CNA, his next production is “Margaret of Castello,” about the young Italian woman who "led a life of sanctity in 13th century Florence despite being born blind, lame and a hunchback, and also being abandoned by her parents."

Gallagher's belief in the promise of community theater may be sound. Small theaters have fewer financial and social barriers to entry than the film business. A good dramatist will form more personal connections with the actors, the audience, and artists, a sure precondition for the development of local culture.

And of course, there's no reason a successful play can't become a good movie later on, when it's found worthy.

There's a kind of Christian culture-maker who has a "Hollywood-or-Bust!" attitude. Many of them would have benefited from testing their talents before a live audience first. I worry their shoddy film productions more easily attain prominence just because industry publicity machines emphasize the film's Christian Message (tm).

Small-time stage plays often lack that rare luxury and have to succeed on merit.

However, not being a frequent patron of community theater, the field is unknown to me. I welcome comments from the knowledgeable.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Man who threatened Conn. politicians in Catholic bill controversy was FBI informant

Earlier this year, Connecticut witnessed the proposal of ominous legislation that would have forcibly reorganized the Catholic Church and crowded out bishops and clergy in favor of lay-run boards. The backers of the bill were apparently channeling the plans of the would-be Catholic reform group Voice of the Faithful.

In an additional hint of the “culture war” being waged, both sponsors of the legislation were homosexuals who have spoken out against Catholic opposition to same-sex “marriage.”

After a swift outcry, this legislation was withdrawn. However, the Catholic reaction itself came under scrutiny, as state officials pondered whether church leaders had violated lobbying laws by organizing a rally for thousands of the faithful.

To this mess of First Amendment violations, internal church division and political retribution is added a new twist: one of the most extreme critics of the bill, arrested for threatening legislators, was an FBI-trained agent provocateur.

According to the Associated Press, New Jersey-based blogger and radio show host Hal Turner in June urged his readers to "take up arms" against Connecticut lawmakers. He said government officials should "obey the Constitution or die," because he was angry over the Connecticut legislation.

(The AP slavishly follows the bill supporters’ characterization of the bill as one that “would have given lay members of Roman Catholic churches more control over their parish's finances.”)

The Jersey Journal reproduces Turner’s comments:

”This is a direct government assault upon the Catholic Church, in absolute violation of the First Amendment to the Constitution for the United States... the state of Connecticut has become tyrannical and abusive. It is actively and aggressively attempting to directly interfere with the internal governance of a church and the free exercise of religion. It is retaliating against citizens for exercising their right to petition for redress of grievances. This is tyranny and it must be put down.”

Saying a lawsuit was “too soft,” this armchair revolutionary/FBI informant and his Turner Radio Network advocated that Connecticut Catholics “take up arms and put down this tyranny by force.” He pledged to release the home addresses of the bill sponsors and another government official.

“It is our intent to foment direct action against these individuals personally,” Turner’s bombast continued. “These beastly government officials should be made an example of as a warning to others in government: Obey the Constitution or die.

“If any state attorney, police department or court thinks they're going to get uppity with us about this; I suspect we have enough bullets to put them down too... elected and other government officials… need to learn their place or be put there by force.”

His words are shocking on their own. But the shock deepens when one learns that Turner reportedly worked for the FBI from 2002 to 2007 as an "agent provocateur." He was taught by the agency "what he could say that wouldn't be crossing the line," his defense attorney Michael Orozco told the AP.

“His job was basically to publish information which would cause other parties to act in a manner which would lead to their arrest," he continued.

The AP reports that prosecutors acknowledge Turner was an informant who “spied on radical right-wing organizations.” Though Turner was not working for the FBI at the time of the threats, his attorney claims there was “no difference whatsoever” in his rhetoric.

Turner’s attorney says he plans to subpoena his client’s FBI “handler,” so the story could continue. As a reminder that this is no disinterested party, let’s remember that the attorney is also claiming that his client informed about a potential plot to kill President Obama.

What might Turner's supremacist fans think of the man now that he is exposed as a snitch?

It's clear what his enemies thought of him. The Hartford Courant reports that this informant conveniently attracted the attention of prominent advocacy groups:

“Turner has been branded a racist by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League. Elsewhere on the blog, the recent fatal shooting of a Kansas abortion provider is called ‘a righteous act.’”

Recall the Department of Homeland Security report which warned of right-wing extremists who exploit opposition to abortion. The FBI deserves an audit to see whether the Bureau itself is throwing gasoline on smoldering coals.

In a June 3 statement, Bishop of Bridgeport William E. Lori made remarks seemingly in response to Turner’s outburst and arrest:

...we deplore and condemn hateful language and advocacy of violence of any kind. Such speech is contrary to the civil and respectful discourse that reflects the Christian values we hold so dear.

We further denounce any individuals or groups who might try to exploit this matter for their own separate agendas.

What might Bishop Lori say, now that there are indications the federal government itself is helping fund the advocacy of violence?

We see here that the Connecticut government supplies the provocation, while the federal government has trained the extremist opposition. For their part, anti-discrimination groups and left-wing watchdogs provide publicity and use examples of extremism for their own fundraising purposes. This obviously is not the “balance of power” envisioned by sound republican principles.

Barring irrefutable proof, there is no need to speculate that there is some conscious anti-Catholic conspiracy afoot. Rather, this may be evidence of a structural problem, a self-aggrandizing, unselfconscious Iron Triangle that is both fueled by, and fueling, political extremism.

Monday, August 10, 2009

When Hospice Care provides the Terri Schiavo treatment

Chris Roach, commenting at What's Wrong with the World, reports his horrible experience with the scandal of hospice care:

Medicare typically pays only for a few weeks of hospice care on the theory that it's for the dying, not the merely very sick. So folks sent into hospice are essentially drugged up on halidol, rendered unconscious, and then dehydrated and starved to death. Disoriented and grieving relatives are told this is the "dying process" and "he's feeling no pain" and "this is all very normal," when their grandparents and spouses are, essentially, being murdered before their eyes.

I saw this with my own grandfather two years ago. I was totally unfamiliar with what was going on. I saw them remove his brown urine from the bed, brown because essential nutrients and water were being denied him. I saw them put the lotion on his lips so that we couldn't see the evidence of willful and easily remedied dehydration. I wasn't sure exactly what was going on; I've actually never had anyone close to me but him die. But as I looked into it, it became clear; he was being euthanized in plain sight, and an entire industry has grown up around this evil practice.

When the financial incentives are flowing up and down the chain of care in the Obamacare regime, it will be all the more tempting to encourage living wills with limitations on food and water and doctor-ordered, cost-saving trips to the hospice. Two weeks later, no more "expensive bills racked up at the end of life."

I'm not very emotional of a writer/blogger, and I almost never give testimonials. But seeing this all take place was one of the most disturbing experienced of my life, and I had limited understanding and no power (or at least no lawful authority) to stop it. But I sure as sh*t won't do this to my parents some day, and I'll encourage everyone I know to do the same. There are of course some legitimate hospices out there, but I believe one must make triple sure what you're dealing with before sending a loved one to a possible scene of mass murder.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

On flattering and supporting one's enemies

The Frenchman Louis Dutens writes from 1806 on France before the Revolution:
“Formerly I went frequently to Paris: I saw often many of those who were called ‘the philosophers’. It was particularly at Madame Geoffrin’s, Baron d’Holbaek’s, and d’Alembert’s, where they principally assembled. It was there that they silently planned the destruction of religion, of the clergy, the nobility, and the government. From the year 1766, I said to the Bishops who were connected with them, ‘They detest you’; to the great noblemen who protected them, ‘They cannot bear the splendour of your rank, which dazzles them’; to the Farmers-General who upheld them, ‘They envy your riches’. These continued, however, to admire, to flatter, and to support them.”

To view one's mortal enemies as harmless and misguided pontificators is one of the many perils of life.

There is a type of magnanimous patron who seeks out his philosophical opposite. He thinks the iconoclast will remain a fringe character, like a unique exotic pet.

In many cases, this is excusable. How many coffee shop communists never take action?

Yet to love one's enemies truly, one must acknowledge the extent of their ill will.

Then one must recognize that indifference towards their increasing power and influence is no act of love, for them or for one's own.

(Quotation via Deogowulf)

Making Men Moral, 15th Anniversary Conference

When I read Robert P. George's _Making Men Moral_ in college I thought it was one of the best intellectual challenges to the superficial libertarian spirit of our time.

Now his work is 15 years old and has won for itself a retrospective conference.

Micah Watson summarizes the gathering, while audio files of the lectures are available at the conference web site.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Russian choir mocks energy-dependent Europe

An amusing display of national pride and mockery of neighbors.

I know of nothing similar in the U.S. music industry, which is mired in embarrassed irony.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Horror: Electronic Arts makes video game 'inspired by' Dante's Inferno

The first person who said "there is no such thing as bad publicity" likely was an incompetent PR man trying to spin his way out of some mess he made.

One such ridiculous mess comes from Electronic Arts, which funded fake Christian protests of its Dante's Inferno game. The protesters "passed out amateurish material and held signs bearing slogans such as 'Trade in Your PlayStation for a PrayStation,' 'Hell is not a Game' and 'EA = Electronic Anti-Christ.'"

The game's development team even tweeted the dull protest as if unaware of its origins. Speculating on whether the team was in on the act adds the faintest spice to the plain mush of the marketers' failed sensationalism.

Delicate connoisseurs of Western culture are advised to avoid descriptions of the video game's "interpretation" of Dante.

Dante’s epic placed his beloved Beatrice in Paradise. The EA game, in a vile act of cultural vandalism, makes its Dante character rescue Beatrice’s soul from Lucifer.

To make reparation, a reading from La Vita Nuova is in order:
Beatrice has gone to the highest Heaven,

to the realm where the angels have peace,

and stays with them, and has left you ladies:

no quality of coldness took her,

or of heat, as it is with others,

but it was only her great gentleness:

since light from her humility

pierced the skies with so much virtue,

that it made the Eternal Lord marvel,

so that a sweet desire

moved him to claim such greeting:

and called her from the heights to come to him,

since he saw our harmful life

was not worthy of such a gentle one.

Speaking of this life's unworthiness: the Inferno video game character uses a cross as a weapon.

There is more vengeful fun to be had in comparing EA's gassy pop culture burp with its supposed inspiration. The playful CNA article continues:

"We've tried to faithfully recreate the geography of hell as he wrote about it," the game’s executive producer Jonathan Knight told USA Today.

Dante Alighieri’s “Inferno” depicts various circles of hell in which sinners are punished according to their defining sins.

Dante placed the fraudulent and the sowers of discord in the penultimate Eighth Circle.

In the Divine Comedy the Inferno is followed by the “Purgatorio,” a poetic exploration of purgatory, and then by the “Paradiso,” Dante’s depiction of the blessed in heaven.

He closes the “Paradiso” by exalting God as “the Love which moves the sun and the other stars.”

EA has not announced any sequels to its game.

Monday, June 29, 2009

St. Thomas Aquinas the comedian

Christopher Tollefsen in his spring lecture at CU-Boulder noted this bit of scholastic humor from St. Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologiae I.i.1 Art. 8:

If [sacred doctrine] is argued from authority, it seems unbefitting its dignity, for the proof from authority is the weakest form of proof... according to Boethius.

Curiously, New Advent's edition of the Summa omits this geeky self-parodying joke. The jest is in the Latin text, however:

Si [argumentatur] ex auctoritate, non videtur hoc congruere eius dignitati, nam locus ab auctoritate est infirmissimus, secundum Boetium.

Monday, June 22, 2009

What 'culture of choice'?

Last month Patrick Deneen discussed the contradictions of the rootless academic who is caught in the trap of inauthenticity: he propounds a life of “localism and community” on the internet and in the academy, two institutions which tend to dissolve what he professes to love.

Criticisms of would-be localists are easy to write: some haven’t been home in years. They murmur about loving “the idea of place,” rather than about the charming and dirty realities of one particular place. They only have time to theorize because of the productivity and efficiency of the economic system they often disdain.

Deneen himself writes that the arguments of his compatriots at Front Porch Republic
…are almost everywhere and always paradoxical, if not contradictory - arguing on behalf of communities and a culture in which choice and escape and individual self-assertion is subordinated, yet urging the embrace of these ways as a matter of choice and self-assertion. This paradox is forced upon anyone making these arguments by a culture that renders everything into a choice.

But how many of us really live in a “culture of choice”?

Many do not.

Circumstance, family concerns, health problems, lack of opportunities or simple lethargy encourage many to stay put without ever having to make an explicit rejection of “choice and escape.” While George Bailey almost left Bedford Falls several times, some of us never even became near-escapees.
We live within a thirty-minute drive of our birthplace and in the religion of our forefathers. We know the quirks of our area’s history and we can spot the landmarks even amid the suburban neighborhoods that have grown around them.

We try to place our fellow locals by what high school and what year they graduated in. And we wonder who all these people from out of state are and what they doing to change us.

For those of us settling into a career and starting a family, our regular choices may be no more substantive than what to watch on television, what or who to have for dinner, and what to do on the weekend.

We’re simply too busy or too non-wealthy to live in this “culture of choice” lauded by some and condemned by others.

Yet for all their abstractions and anti-abstractions, FPR writers and other localists help those of us who, because of forces beyond our control, have been extricated from the meritocratic amoeba but wonder why we are nevertheless content.
While many such authors may be mirror images of those they criticize, they speak for many of us who are not.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Eavesdropping on D.C.

The D.C. Interns blog sums up its target:

Over the next three months you have paper runs, coffee runs, and envelope licking to fill your days. As a consolation prize, you will be provided an intern badge, conveniently red, fashioned as your scarlet letter. This will identify your status to all of DC. A status that you interpret as “important” and we interpret as “tired” and “obnoxious.”

Aiming to correct the egregious behavior of aspiring lackeys, the blog recounts laughworthy but worrying examples such as this tour-leading intern:
High School Kid: "Are Ted Kennedy and Edward Kennedy related?"

Intern (authoritatively): "They're brothers."

And this:
Intern 1: I like, wanna try getting waterboarded.

His intern friends: What?!

Intern 1: Yeah, like I feel like it would be totally grounding.

Hear this blog tell of an intern who signed legislation meant for her boss. And observe more willful stupidity:
Intern 1: I'm not good with numbers.
Intern 2: Oh, I'm really good with numbers. Just not the times tables. I gave up on those.
Intern 1: That's okay, memorization is for baby boomers.
Intern 2: I know, right? I had to go to some research seminar last year. It was total bulls**t. I mean, maybe back before the internet...
Intern 1: But you can just look stuff up on Wikipedia now. I mean, I can learn more in twenty seconds than I could from reading books.
Intern 2: I totally agree.

It is unpleasantly amusing to think that those who answer phones and prioritize mail for the halls of power are supremely confident in their hodgepodge understanding of Wikipedia entries.

The horror continues with the sighting of "Two red-badge toting interns sharing a copy of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations ... Cliffs Notes version."

This provokes an aphorism: Ideology is to reality as Cliff's Notes are to great literature.

Attention-grabbing tales of D.C. Interns are by nature outliers, so we may hope that these tales reflect the follies only of the dullest political and careerist youth.

The Capitolist, a blog which claims to accept anonymous postings only from Capitol Hill IP addresses, serves a related purpose. Acting as a direct line into the various ids of staffers and interns, it allows the reader to eavesdrop on the type of internet dependent who works in a Capitol Hill office.

Many of the comments are pleas from clueless workers who lack a social life. Those competent enough to acquire juicy gossip likely won't share it there. They are astute enough to use sensitive information to advance their careers and to bait reporters.

But their ineffectual expressions of opinion are of minor interest.

For instance, a March 30 entry praising Catholic dissent generated replies two (clever), three(anti-papal), four(anti-dissent) five (pro-dissent) and six (pro-dissent).

Those wishing to monitor legislative obsessions may find The Capitolist useful. But note that mockery of constituents quickly turns tiresome.

RIP Bishop Kaffer

Bishop Roger L. Kaffer, auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Joliet, died at the end of May.

Now is as good a time as any to note that I helped edit Bishop Kaffer's forthcoming book from Basilica Press, "Common Sense Catholicism." Though I only spoke with the bishop two or three times, I sensed that he and his book reflected a deep and simple piety.

In our time when churches and the popular culture seem to be run by technocrats and self-conscious professionals, the bishop was just the type of clergyman to appeal to the average high school-educated layman. May he rest in peace.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Andrew Bacevich to speak in Denver tonight

According to the 5280 blog, Andrew Bacevich will speak at the Tattered Cover in LoDo tonight at 7:30.

See also the Downtown Denver Examiner.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Brains beat machines

On the Internet, transhumanism may be belittled as much as it is praised. Its science fiction dreams predict artificial intelligence, immortality through computing, and the wholesale re-engineering of mankind. Rev. David B. Hart described it as “a sensibility formed more by comic books than by serious thought.”

But its proponents are generally technology lovers who believe that foul devil Progress is on their side.
Derision, alas, is not enough to silence their claims.

Over at the New York Times, Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang evaluate the prospective match-up of Computers vs. Brains.

Of the brain, they say:
One cubic centimeter of human brain tissue, which would fill a thimble, contains 50 million neurons; several hundred miles of axons, the wires over which neurons send signals; and close to a trillion (that’s a million million) synapses, the connections between neurons... unlike a computer, connections between neurons can form and break too, a process that continues throughout life and can store even more information because of the potential for creating new paths for activity.

Their back-of-the-envelope estimate suggests the human brain has a capacity for about one petabytes, one million gigs, of information. (They say all information stored on the internet only reaches three petabytes.)

The writers throw cold water on futurist Ray Kurzweil's optimism that Moore's Law (the so-far constant doubling of computer capacity) will overcome the difficulties. Even if it runs into no insurmountable design barriers, “By 2025, the memory of an artificial brain would use nearly a gigawatt of power, the amount currently consumed by all of Washington, D.C.”

The human brain runs on only 12 watts. If nigh-limitless power devices remain uninvented, substantive technological mock-ups of the human brain may never be possible.

Aamodt and Wang close on a humanist note.

...although it eventually may be possible to design sophisticated computing devices that imitate what we do, the capability to make such a device is already here. All you need is a fertile man and woman with the resources to nurture their child to adulthood. With luck, by 2030 you’ll have a full-grown, college-educated, walking petabyte. A drawback is that it may be difficult to get this computing device to do what you ask.

U.S. Catholic history, blogged

Recently New Advent has been linking to the blog of Dr. Patrick McNamara, Church historian and assistant archivist at the Diocese of Brooklyn.

His posts feature brief profiles of important figures, historical summaries and also original sources.

To start with, here is Dr. McNamara's description of colonial America's Maryland Tradition in American Catholicism, "a tradition that stressed interfaith harmony, public service, and an attachment to such American principles as religious liberty and separation of Church and State."

A brief foray across the Atlantic touches upon Joseph de Maistre and his ultramontanist views on the papacy.

McNamara reports on Brooklyn's anti-Catholic riots of 1844 using a period newspaper article. Priestless parishes are not a new phenomenon, he adds, explaining that they were common on the American frontier.

For the Civil War period, McNamara informs us of Father James Sheeran, chaplain of the failed Confederacy and author of the mournful poem "Conquered Banner." The Catholic Encyclopedia article on the priest begins with this precious description: "He inherited from his parents, in its most poetic and religious form, the strange witchery of the Irish temper."

We also learn that General James Longstreet was a Catholic convert.

Given its sad history, it is not surprising that the largest group lynching in U.S. history took place in the South. But the action's victims were not blacks, but Italians.

They had been officially acquitted of the murder of an Irish-surnamed New Orleans police chief in 1891.

Obviously the Catholics of the U.S. labor movement cannot go unmentioned. Let Mary Kenney represent them.

Then there are the "modest proposals" of Brooklyn's Monsignor William McGuirl. In his tongue-in-cheek 1917 St. Patrick's Day address at the Waldorf Astoria, he asked the Irish to petition Congress to enact a law prohibiting any immigration for three decades, "except for the Irish."

"For thirty years none but Irish need apply."

The monsignor called for a boy in every family to be named Patrick or a girl to be named Patricia, so that "the virtues of the great old Saint might be perpetuated by psychology." Further, he advocated that incoming immigrants from Eastern Europe or Italy to be made to take the name of Patrick.

McNamara reproduces the full text of President Theodore Roosevelt's 1905 address to the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts.

The president, the first to speak at a Catholic college's commencement, used the opportunity to promote Celtic literature. He claimed he had grown "particularly interested" in it in the preceding three years, adding:
I feel it is not a creditable thing to the American Republic, which has in its citizenship so large a Celtic element, that we should leave it to the German scholars and students to be our instructors in Celtic literature. I want to see in Holy Cross, in Harvard, in all the other universities where we can get the chairs endowed, chairs for the study of Celtic literature.

Noting the revival of old Norse poetry, Roosevelt predicted an “awakening to the wealth of beauty contained in the Celtic sagas.”

Dr. McNamara also discusses black U.S. Catholics such as the twentieth century's Sister Thea Bowman

Further, there is an account of the inspiring heroism of Congressional Medal of Honor awardee Father Joseph T. O'Callahan, S.J.. When he was serving on the carrier U.S.S. Franklin, a March 1945 Japanese attack devastated the ship.

His award citation reads:

...calmly braving the perilous barriers of flame and twisted metal to aid his men and his ship, Lieutenant Commander O'Callahan groped his way through smoke-filled corridors to the open flight deck and into the midst of violently exploding bombs, shells, rockets and other armament. With the ship rocked by incessant explosions, with debris and fragments raining down and fires raging in ever increasing fury, he ministered to the wounded and dying, comforting and encouraging men of all faiths; he organized and led fire-fighting crews into the blazing inferno on the flight deck; he directed the jettisoning of live ammunition and the flooding of the magazine; he manned a hose to cool hot, armed bombs rolling dangerously on the listing deck, continuing his efforts despite searing, suffocating smoke which forced men to fall back gasping and imperiled others who replaced them.

The battleship U.S.S. O'Callahan was named in Father O'Callahan's honor.

Let's end with McNamara's appreciation of Myles Connolly's short novel Mr. Blue. Comparing Connolly's creation to F. Scott Fitzgerald's, he writes:
I have come to realize that the character of Blue must also have appealed to us all, and to countless other readers, because he was a uniquely American personality. As Myles Connolly wrote him, J. Blue was the man that the ambitious Jay Gatsby might have become had he steered by a higher truth than the sound of money in Daisy Buchanan's voice.

Dr. McNamara was a great help to me in writing my first freelance essay for Our Sunday Visitor, in which I discussed the place of bishops in the public square.

In Dr. McNamara's remarks, published in the April 19 edition, he explained how intense public engagement by bishops produced the New Deal-foreshadowing Catholic Miracle. However, he said the divergence between Catholic life and American culture has increased in recent decades, as evidenced in the rise of an anti-clericalism new to the U.S.

My thanks to both Dr. McNamara and OSV editor John Norton for their help with the piece.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Pro-life students step up at Notre Dame

Recently I mentioned the need for Catholic communities to produce more committed student and academic leaders to reform both Catholic and secular institutions of higher education.

Happily, some student leaders are already emerging in reaction to the University of Notre Dame's controversial commencement invitation to President Barack Obama.

The Notre Dame Response Student Coalition (ND Response), composed of groups opposed to the Obama invitation, has advocated several measures by which they believe Notre Dame may again secure its pro-life reputation.

Most proposals involve university president Fr. John I. Jenkins, CSC, “speaking out” or taking action on pro-life issues. With the reckless daring of the young, the students propose that Notre Dame's football commercials be used for pro-life advocacy.

More realistically, they suggest Fr. Jenkins lead a student delegation to the National March for Life or reserve a university fall forum for the pro-life cause.

The students of the coalition also ask for the school to re-commit itself to pro-life policies and to give “formal support” for pro-life initiatives on campus. They request that a pro-life “ombudsman” be appointed at the associate provost level to ensure “appropriate attention” to pro-life issues.

Curiously, ND Response's requests do not mention the new Notre Dame Fund to Protect Human Life, though its web site recommends donations to it.

The students have also sought to engage in dialogue with the university president. While ND Response's protest letters strike a much better tone than the communications of many other student activists, they reveal at least one major novice activist's mistake.

Though Fr. Jenkins initially offered to meet with 25 leaders of ND Response, the coalition boosted its demands. They asked that all student members of coalition groups and select faculty and staff supporters be allowed to attend a meeting with the university president in a large campus auditorium.

Likely thinking themselves magnanimous and perceptive of Fr. Jenkins' human limits, the coalition guaranteed that fewer than ten students would speak or engage with him at the proposed event.

“The content of this meeting will be available to the public following its event in the form of a transcript and live video recording: True dialogue only comes with accountability,” ND Response's April 6 letter explained.

Let's review.

Fr. Jenkins has recently made the worst decision of his presidency. Prominent figures have called for him to step down.

Yet these student innocents want him to go before a few hundred of their peers in a meeting style that could be seen as inquisitorial. Every careless remark Fr. Jenkins makes in such a venue will be recorded and scrutinized for weakness and “gotcha” moments by many of the internet denizens angered by his actions.

It's no wonder that, as CNA reports, the university president believes “conditions for constructive dialogue simply do not exist.”

ND Response replied to this comment by noting its members' intentions to “facilitate our productive discussion and demonstrate President Jenkins' genuine interest in transparent dialogue... ND Response remains open to true and transparent dialogue with Fr. Jenkins on this issue.”

Regrettably, the reply subtly and perhaps unintentionally denigrates Fr. Jenkins. If he has genuine interest in dialogue, students aren't needed to demonstrate it.

Student activism, however necessary, has its risks.

ND Response's proposal for a “pro-life ombudsman” resembles the decades-old left-wing student activist custom of placing themselves and their fellow travelers in the university establishment.

While ND Response's efforts may be more beneficial than, for instance, the creation of yet another assistant provost for diversity position, too much success means the local pro-life movement might calcify into another self-serving bureaucracy.

Then there is the danger present when young people mistrust their elders and set themselves up as the overconfident judges of the establishment's virtue. Lacking the social graces of age, some then poorly conceal their inexperience with self-righteous postures.

Yet these troubles only threaten because of the failings of the university leadership.

As Plato noted, it is a sign of social disorder when teachers fear their pupils, the wisdom of the young man is “a match” for the elder, and the old “imitate the jaunty manners of the young because they are afraid of being thought morose.”

If such concerns are kept in mind, then ND Response could provide a model for breaking out of the self-defeating habit that is the protest cycle.

Freedom and therapeutic deism

Damon Linker recently argued that orthodox Christianity is “unsuitable” for American pluralism. He argued that the “anodyne, inoffensive, tolerant” approach of
moralistic-therapeutic deism should replace what remains of public Christianity. Its vague exhortations to Niceness and Self-esteem are supposedly more fitting for a society in which some people “feel like second-class citizens for failing to conform to traditionalist Catholic-Christian moral teaching.”

How insipid it is, to rewrite excuses for licentiousness in the rhetoric of class warfare and victimization.

Linker's advocacy of a flimsy moralistic-therapeutic deism can attract many critiques. But few would be better than Ross Douthat's post Theology Has Consequences:
The more you fear the theocon menace, the more you'll welcome the Oprahfication of Christianity - since the steady spread of a mushy, muddle-headed theology is as good a way as any of inoculating the country and its politics against, say, Richard John Neuhaus's views on natural law.

But let's say you think that the biggest problems facing America in the Bush years were, I dunno, the botched handling of the Iraq occupation and a massive and an unsustainable housing and financial bubble. In that case, you don't have to look terribly hard to see a connection between the kind of self-centered, sentimental, and panglossian religion described above and the spirit of unwarranted optimism and metaphysical self-regard that animated some of Bush's worst hours as President (his second inaugural address could have been subtitled: "Moral Therapeutic Deism Goes to War") and some of his fellow Americans' worst hours as homeowners and investors. In the wake of two consecutive bubble economies, it takes an inordinate fear of culture war, I think, to immerse yourself in the literature of Oprahfied religion - from nominal Christians like Joel Osteen to New Age gurus like Eckhart Tolle and Rhonda Byrne - and come away convinced that this theological turn has been "salutary" for the country overall.

One bright spot of the winter of 2009 was the announcement that Douthat would take William Kristol's place on the New York Times editorial page. This young pro-life Catholic who is independent in his conservatism has already gone far.

Austin Bramwell, a longtime critic of “movement conservatism,” honed in on the advantages possessed by a conservative like Douthat who can move and speak and write in liberal circles:

Take [Douthat's] various opinions on church-state issues. I don’t think Ross would deny that you could glean most of them by reading past issues of First Things. But mainstream liberals don’t read First Things; they read The Atlantic. Ideas that might seem old hat in the former became a revelation in the pages of the latter.

Bramwell's comments about the contents of First Things being a “revelation” to the liberal mainstream help explain how Damon Linker could publish a book depicting Rev. Richard John Neuhaus as a menacing theocrat.

It's worth recording Linker's February dustup in which he accused thinkers like Andrew Bacevich, Patrick Deneen and Rod Dreher of adhering to a conservatism that “...demands an almost total overthrow of the status quo in favor of an alternative reality in which American citizens reject the ideal of individual autonomy, admire the virtues of self-denial and self-restraint, live financially within their means, and embrace a foreign policy driven by a narrowly defined national interest.”

Linker disdained the critiques of a “culture of choice” and in a jaw dropping move, described the objects of his criticism as enabling of clerical sexual abusers like Fr. Marciel Maciel. Excepting John Schwenkler, the main respondents to Linker generally ignored this below-the-belt swing-and-miss and zeroed in on his more substantive attacks.

Patrick Deneen said the criticisms to which Linker objected in fact
...speak to the modern American inability to govern appetite. They rest not on a call for the imposition of authority - how could one demand authority to suppress the imperial impulse? - but seek the encouragement of self-government and self-control. Such arguments rest on a fundamentally different conception of liberty than that assumed by Linker: not the absence of restraint, but self-government resulting in freedom from the self-destructive slavery to appetite.

Deneen noted that the expansion of private liberty is premised upon the expansion of a public power which “orders our lives in innumerable ways, and infiltrates our daily existence in ways that may be more extensive than any old-fashioned monarch could have dreamed of.”

(This trend is observed in certain libertarian arguments defending Supreme Court decisions which struck down morals legislation. These lovers of liberty trade local control and self-government for the court's centralizing imposition of permissiveness.)

To Deneen, Linker responded with a strange focus on fornication. After an outburst of anti-clericalism, he describes the “paleocon” ideal as “a society in which liberty has been redefined as obedience. And that can hardly be described as a liberal society.”

Linker concentrates on obedience to man, long caricatured as “mindless.” But it's clear that solicitousness towards the natural world or conformity to human nature are also threats to his vision of liberalism. This only reinforces the conservative critique holding that Linker's “culture of choice” is blind to reality, or rather brackets reality so that it may be conceived of and manipulated in terms of human will.

This culture is not fertile ground for the maintenance of the foundations of liberty.

Nearing the end of the disputants' exchanges, Ross Douthat warned that Linker risks confirming conservatives' enduring suspicions of the liberal order: “That it claims to create a political framework that's studiously neutral between competing modes of thought and life, but when push comes to shove it wants to impose liberalism all the way down.”

To his credit, Linker backed down, saying he has concluded that
the connections I made in the original item were overdrawn, and that I made things even worse in the second post. Ideas and arguments can take on a logic of their own, and I foolishly followed the logic of mine into a position several steps more radical than one I really want to defend.

He attributed his writings' fault-ridden extremism to his newness to the blogging medium. Fair enough. Not everyone has been rambling on-line since the days of FidoNet and Prodigy.

Yet, two months later, his endorsement of moralistic therapeutic deism echoes his novice effort. In praising the rise of individualistic, low-commitment religious or social mores, Linker avoids the difficult questions about the nature and sustainability of freedom's cultural roots.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Homeland Security 'Rightwing Extremism' report revisits the nineties

Now making the rounds is a Department of Homeland Security document called Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment.

Michelle Malkin, who claims to have verified the origin of the report, makes a point about the document's treatment of amorphous and unnamed “extremist groups”:

I have covered DHS for many years and am quite familiar with past assessments they and the FBI have done on animal rights terrorists and environmental terrorists. But those past reports have always been very specific in identifying the exact groups, causes, and targets of domestic terrorism, i.e., the ALF, ELF, and Stop Huntingdon wackos who have engaged in physical harassment, arson, vandalism, and worse against pharmaceutical companies, farms, labs, and university researchers.

By contrast, the piece of crap report issued on April 7 is a sweeping indictment of conservatives.

Factual questions about the report may come to the mind of the casual reader. From page five of the report:

Paralleling the current national climate, rightwing extremists during the 1990s exploited a variety of social issues and political themes to increase group visibility and recruit new members. Prominent among these themes were the militia movement’s opposition to gun control efforts, criticism of free trade agreements (particularly those with Mexico), and highlighting perceived government infringement on civil liberties as well as white supremacists’ longstanding exploitation of social issues such as abortion, inter-racial crimes, and same-sex marriage. During the 1990s, these issues contributed to the growth in the number of domestic rightwing terrorist and extremist groups and an increase in violent acts targeting government facilities, law enforcement officers, banks, and infrastructure sectors. (emphasis mine)

Same-sex “marriage” was barely on the radar in the 1990s. See the Pew Forum's time line. Same-sex “civil unions” weren't even recognized in the U.S. before the passage of a Vermont bill in the year 2000. The marriage issue proper didn't come to national attention until Massachusetts' 2003 court decision.

Without further documentation, it's unwarranted to believe that white supremacists were particularly concerned about same-sex “marriage” years before it became a clear threat to public decency, religious liberties and parental rights.

In the 1990s, it was hard to believe that same-sex “marriage” was the issue of the future. Why would extremists use the issue as a recruiting tool when they could easily gain recruits by citing the raid on Waco, the events at Ruby Ridge, Second Amendment concerns and fears about one-world government?

The DHS report's claims about antiabortion extremism is slightly more plausible, given the violent example of Eric Rudolph. But even then one has to recall the quip that more abortionists have been killed on Law & Order than in real life.

The Clinton Administration's Violence Against Abortion Providers Task Force, VAAPCON, worked so broadly as to maintain files on mainstream pro-lifers such as Archbishop of New York John Cardinal O'Connor.

This seeming overreach itself fed fears that the government would soon turn oppressive. The latest DHS report is sure to have similar effect.

“Revisiting the 1990s” is a telling subsection title in the DHS report. If we must revisit the 1990s, it is important to review Phillip Jenkins' prescient March 23 essay Terror Begins at Home. He writes:

Based on the record of past Democratic administrations, in the near future terrorism will almost certainly be coming home. This does not necessarily mean more attacks on American soil. Rather, public perceptions of terrorism will shift away from external enemies like al-Qaeda and Hezbollah and focus on domestic movements on the Right. We will hear a great deal about threats from racist groups and right-wing paramilitaries, and such a perceived wave of terrorism will have real and pernicious effects on mainstream politics. If history is any guide, the more loudly an administration denounces enemies on the far Right, the easier it is to stigmatize its respectable and nonviolent critics.

...Time and again, Democratic administrations have proved all too willing to exploit conspiracy fears and incite popular panics over terrorism and extremism. While we can mock the paranoia that drives the Left to imagine a Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy, such rhetoric can be devastatingly effective—as we may be about to rediscover.

Page 2 of the DHS report reads: “Federal efforts to influence domestic public opinion must be conducted in an overt and transparent manner, clearly identifying United States Government sponsorship.”

Here the bureaucratic invocation of “transparency” poorly cloaks the worrisome presupposition that the federal government should strive to influence domestic public opinion at all.

This report on “Rightwing Extremism” has certainly influenced some people's opinions.

With its publication, mostly harmless kooks now have more fodder for their newsletters. Their fevered reactions, composed in the bombastic style of the armchair revolutionary, will then feed government reports on extremism.

Budgets and paranoia will grow, wisdom will lessen, and these significant nothings will continue to clutter our public discourse.

(Report via Skojec)

Monday, April 13, 2009

Notre Dame and the Protest Cycle

The announcement of President Barack Obama’s invitation to give the commencement speech at Notre Dame is the occasion of the latest furore among internet Catholics.

The site Notre Dame Scandal has gathered more than 260,000 signatures protesting the invitation, including my own.

Considering the president’s immovable and extreme position on abortion, the protesters have just cause for their ire.

Yet their reaction suggests they could be playing a role in a vicious cycle which can end only in defeat:

1. The most rigorist Catholics stop supporting a Catholic school because of its dubious actions.

2. This makes the school more dependent on lax Catholics and non-Catholics’ support.

3. This leads the school to perform still more dubious actions...

4. Which then prompt more Catholics to withdraw support.

If this description is accurate, anybody who wishes to steal another Catholic university from the faithful who built it would simply have to instigate one or two large scandals to begin the negative feedback loop. The Cardinal Newman Society or the Catholic League could even be baited into helping alienate concerned Catholics from their institutions.

Granting that this cycle exists or threatens to begin, how could it be reversed?

Archbishop Chaput recently said we are witnessing the fruit of decades of complacency and bad catechesis.

Perhaps many Catholics and their organizations are spending too much time throwing rocks at the malodorous fruit instead of watering the tree’s roots.

Come commencement time, we can imagine that a few dozen protesters will leave Chicago, which spawned Obama the politician, to waste a day or two by padding an ineffectual crowd in South Bend. They’d be better off inviting their neighbors and lapsed Catholic friends and relatives of ChiTown to dinner or even to prayer.

Protest is often the opposite of evangelization. While evangelism proclaims the Good News that Christ is risen and has forgiven sins, the sentiment of protest can boil down to the statement “You’ve messed up big-time, jackass!”

Protest, too, falls short of that fraternal correction which is best done in the context of an existing relationship.

Until Catholic communities produce more committed student and academic leaders, higher education will want for such salutary relationships. For every internet comment trying to “scold a new church into being,” ten times as much energy needs to be expended to advance genuine Catholic renewal.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Hacker strikes web site of U.S. Intl. Religious Freedom Commission

Not only is USCIRF's Iraq recommendation being overlooked. So is its web security.

See the hack in action:

(Click for larger screenshot)

The ringtone and medication spam are viewable in Google's search results and in Google's cache, but not on the site proper.

This U.S. government site is a victim of the spam link injection hack. One victim provides further information on the attack, writing:
The hack I fell victim to involves some waste of space making secret changes to Wordpress source files and the Wordpress database enabling him to output a tonne of hidden links on all blog pages via a hidden Wordpress plugin.

It appears USCIRF itself uses Joomla, which is also vulnerable to the hack.

Brief research indicates that the hack is viewable only to search engine bots. Besides producing spam, the attack negatively affects page ranking in search engines and thus reduces the likelihood that internet users will find useful information from an affected site.

Given the mission of the U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom, it is hard not to speculate whether the site was deliberately targeted by freelance or government hackers who wished to bury information they found to be disparaging of their country.

In addition to adversely affecting the dissemination of USCIRF findings, the bad security practices which allowed this hack may render sensitive information vulnerable to exposure and may help make public the commission's reports before they are intended to be released.

The U.S. State Department isn't paying much attention to the USCIRF's Iraq recommendation. Thanks to these hackers, internet users won't be paying attention either.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

State Department and Western media ignore ‘the end of Christianity’ in Iraq

In December 2008 the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released its Report of the United States Commission on Religious Freedom on Iraq (PDF).

The report recommended that Iraq be designated as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) because of its “ongoing severe abuses of religious freedom and based on the Iraqi government’s toleration of these abuses as described in this report, particularly abuses against all of Iraq’s most vulnerable and smallest religious minorities.”

It continues:
“there has been continued targeted violence, as well as threats and intimidation against persons belonging to religious minorities, and other egregious religiously-motivated abuses are continuing and widespread. The lack of effective government action to protect these communities from abuses has established Iraq among the most dangerous places on earth for religious minorities.”

The situation is “especially dire” for ChaldoAssyrian Christians, other Christians, Sabean Mandaeans, and Yazidis.

”These communities report that their numbers in Iraq have substantially diminished, and that their members who have left the country have not to date showed signs of returning in significant numbers,” the report said. “Legally, politically, and economically marginalized, these small minorities are caught in the middle of a struggle between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the central Iraqi government for control of northern areas where their communities are concentrated. The combined effect of all of this has been to endanger these ancient communities’ very existence in Iraq.”

The report itself catalogues the depopulation of religious minorities in Iraq. From page 14:

”In 2003, there were estimated to be as many as 1.4 million Christians in Iraq, including Chaldean Catholics, Assyrian Orthodox, Assyrian Church of the East, Syriac Orthodox, Armenians (Catholic and Orthodox), Protestants, and Evangelicals. Today, it is thought that only 500,000 to 700,000 indigenous Christians remain in the country. Moreover, while Christians and other religious minorities represented only approximately three percent of the pre-2003 Iraqi population, they constitute approximately 15 and 20 percent of registered Iraqi refugees in Jordan and Syria, respectively, and Christians account for 35 and 64 percent, respectively, of all registered Iraqi refugees in Lebanon and Turkey. Christian leaders have warned that the result of this flight may be ‘the end of Christianity in Iraq.’

“The most recent attacks took place in the northern city of Mosul in late September/early October 2008, when at least 14 Christians were killed and many more report they were threatened, spurring some 13,000 individuals to flee to villages east and north of the city and an estimated 400 families to flee to Syria. The United Nations has estimated that this number is half of the current Christian population in Mosul.”

In the last days of the Bush Administration, the U.S. State Department declined to deem Iraq a CPC, Catholic News Agency reports. That's pragmatism in inaction.

If Iraq is still a U.S. responsibility, it’s hard to tell from observing the media’s December coverage of the USCIRF report.

The story merited less than 140 words in the Washington Post, which placed it on page B09 under its “Religion Briefing.” The Post followed a Reuters story given more space at Radio Free Europe.

A brief search of the New York Times site reveals no recent stories specifically on religious freedom in Iraq, the USCIRF reports apparently being last mentioned in September 2007.

Perhaps the press had more important religion reporting to do in December 2008, like reprinting frenzied complaints about Pope Benedict’s tangential criticism of gender theory.

Who does Google News suggest is providing the most coverage of USCIRF action on Iraq?

The Assyrian International News Agency, which published its USCIRF report summary in December.

AINA also reported that Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) in December accused the U.S. of turning a blind eye to anti-Christian persecutions in Iraq. AINA further reported that Sens. Brownback, Casey, Wicker, Cardin and Levin had sent a March 5 letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton which reiterated portions of the USCIRF report.

This letter was not even announced on any of the Senators’ web sites. Friends of long-suffering Iraqi Christians should not have to ask for that token publicity.

There is a backstory to the religious freedom commission, again covered mainly in the religious press. The Associated Baptist Press in May 2008 blamed political division in the USCIRF’s failure to secure an initial recommendation on Iraq’s CPC status, reporting:
The 10-member panel has nine voting members. Of those presently serving, five commissioners were appointed by Republicans, and four by Democrats. According to the Sun, all Democrat-appointed commissioners supported elevating Iraq to CPC status this year, while most Republican-appointed commissioners opposed the designation and the report accompanying it.

Even this conflict availed little, given the U.S. State Department’s ultimate decision not to deem Iraq a CPC.

Are the USCIRF findings underreported because the commission is largely symbolic, or is the commission largely symbolic because its findings are underreported?

Iraq is now far more Muslim than it was before the 2003 invasion. For all the happy stories about Iraqi families resettling in Western lands, those who drove them out and those who failed to protect them ought not escape attention.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Feser on Teleology and Design

Philosopher Ed Feser over at What's Wrong with the World is tearing into the intellectual shortcomings of certain atheist books.

Asked about the distinction between Paley's design argument and St. Thomas Aquinas' Fifth Way, he obligingly answered:

Teleology can be either inherent in the nature of a thing (as an acorn has an inherent tendency to become an oak) or imposed from outside (as the materials that make up a coffee machine have no inherent tendency at all to make coffee, but must be forced to do so by an artisan). The former, immanent sort of teleology is what Aristotelians mean by final cause, and what Aquinas is interested in in the Fifth Way. When one denies final causes, the only sort of teleology left is the latter, extrinsic sort, which is what Paley is interested in. Hence the design argument's tendency to characterize the world as a machine or artifact.

For Aquinas, by contrast, final causality is evident in nature precisely insofar as it is not like an artifact[bold mine -kjj]. This is also why complexity matters so much to design argument defenders but not to Aquinas: Artifact-like objects can seem impossible to account for in terms of impersonal processes only to the extent that they are so intricate that their resulting from such processes is improbable. For Aquinas, by contrast, even something extremely simple like a match's tendency always to generate heat and flame specifically, unless impeded from outside, is an unmistakable mark of final causality. And for this reason, finality exists wherever regular causal patterns do (which is of course everywhere in nature, down to the level of basic physics); complex biological phenomena are not particularly important for the argument, being just one, fairly uncommon instance of final causality among others.

(Contrary to a common misconception, final cause is NOT equivalent to "function" in the biological sense; such functions are just one special case of a more general phenomenon. What is essential to final causes is just directedness towards an end, something evident in every regular causal relation, however simple. For Thomists, the main reason to believe in final causality is that without it efficient causality of any sort becomes unintelligible, thus opening the way to e.g. the standard Humean puzzles. All of this is explained in detail in [Feser's book] The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism.)

Feser points out the simplicity St. Thomas can see in nature. While Paley cites the designedness of a complex watch as evidence, St. Thomas' Fifth Way may cite any pattern. He uses the image of an archer guiding an arrow, but only by way of analogy.

Those of us still under the influence of mechanistic physics may hope that Feser's book further addresses how teleology still is observable in nature.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Upcoming poetry and politics events around Denver

America's Future Foundation's Denver affiliate is sponsoring a panel discussion on the topic Is Capitalism Dead?.

Panelists include Conor Friedersdorf, of the late Culture11, Gene Healy of the Cato Institute and Ross Kaminsky.

The discussion will begin at 7 pm at the Denver Art Museum on March 26, after an hour of drinks. I have yet to attend an AFF event.


Also on March 26, novelist and Catholic deacon Ron Hansen will speak at Regis University on the Catholic literary imagination. Details are incomplete, but apparently the lecture begins at 7 pm. I would guess it takes place in the Science Building's amphitheater.


After a hiatus of one year, the Denver Gerard Manley Hopkins Conference returns to Regis University this March 27 – 29.


The schedule is now available here, with more information available here. The poet's collected works are reproduced here.


On April 3 at 7 pm libertarian writer Thomas E. Woods will be speaking at CU-Boulder. Details here


And let's not forget the Thomas Aquinas Center's upcoming lectures on the CU-Boulder campus.

Prof. Janet Smith's April 6 talk is titled "The Sexual Mess That We Are In and How We Got Here."

Prof. Christopher Tollefsen, co-author with Robert P. George of _Embryo: A Defense of Human Life_, will speak on April 23. His lecture is "Embryo-Destructive Research and Abortion: Are They Different Moral Issues?"

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Archbishop Chaput's sober reckoning of U.S. Catholicism

Today in Detroit Archbishop Chaput attacked Catholics' indifferent complacency and warned Catholics not to delude ourselves about "what we have allowed ourselves to become."

"November showed us that 40 years of American Catholic complacency and poor formation are bearing exactly the fruit we should have expected," he began, continuing:

...too many Catholics just don’t really care. That’s the truth of it. If they cared, our political environment would be different. If 65 million Catholics really cared about their faith and cared about what it teaches, neither political party could ignore what we believe about justice for the poor, or the homeless, or immigrants, or the unborn child. If 65 million American Catholics really understood their faith, we wouldn’t need to waste each other’s time arguing about whether the legalized killing of an unborn child is somehow ‘balanced out’ or excused by three other good social policies.

Comforting statistics also should not cloud our vision:

We need to stop over-counting our numbers, our influence, our institutions and our resources, because they’re not real. We can’t talk about following St. Paul and converting our culture until we sober up and get honest about what we’ve allowed ourselves to become...

Referring to St. Paul's preaching before the Sophists of the Areopagus, he added:
When Catholics start leading their daily lives without a hunger for something higher than their own ambitions or appetites, or with the idea that they can create their own truth and then baptize it with an appeal to personal conscience, they become, in practice, agnostics in their personal lives, and Sophists in their public lives.

Archbishop Chaput also broke through the dodgy descriptor "post-Christian," calling apostasy by its real name:

"If Paul felt so fiercely compelled to preach the Gospel -- whether ‘timely [or] untimely’ -- to a pagan world, then how should we feel today, preaching the Gospel to an apostate world?”

Nonetheless, he counseled courage, saying: "Fear is the disease of our age."


Upcoming decades are likely going to be difficult for Catholic Christianity in the U.S. They will be even more difficult without clear recognition and repudiation of the apathy found among clergy and laity both.


In related news, American Papist reports that the Archbishop in his comments encouraged his audience "write charitably" to the President of Notre Dame University to protest its invitation of President Obama to deliver its commencement address.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The wisdom of property

Many traditional conservative critiques of capitalist and business ideology emphasize that these encourage an amputated view of man, reducing him only to his desires and choices.

This reductionist ethos tends to cut off the individual from his family, his history, his country and even his God.

The same ethos has direct bearing on cultural conflicts surrounding sex and bioethics, where lifestyle individualism merges with consumerist demand to deny and to transgress the limits of bodily nature.

Yet the link to Liberal philosophy's view of property is rarely highlighted.

In this spirit, Villanova Prof. Mark Shiffman provides an excellent and concise critique of Lockean anthropology in his discussion of The Human Meaning of Property at Front Porch Republic.

According to Locke, our right to property derives from our investment of our labor to improve something that did not belong to another already (Second Treatise, chapter 5). This right includes property in our own person – our body and our mental faculties. Locke’s formulation of our relationship to ourselves in terms of labor-derived property hints at the view of the human person that underlies it, which is the reduction of the person ultimately to the will. For if it is our labor that makes our bodies our property, and the same goes for our minds, then what is the “self” that initiates and is responsible for this labor, if not the will that makes us stretch our limbs and direct our attention to what is around and inside us?

....The will places value on things, initiates the labor that improves their value, and shapes the way we think of them in terms of the right to exercise itself in their disposal. Locke’s examples, like Madison’s, emphasize agrarian property, but do so solely in terms of the prospect of infinitely increasing yields... The will imposes its limitless terms on the world, rather than recognizing natural limits to its satisfaction – except the limits that have to be observed and enforced by government to accommodate the existence of other wills seeking their own satisfactions. These latter limits, seen from the point of view of the person protected by them, are what we call “rights.” They are thus negative or prohibitive in character, grounded on the valuation imposed on the world by the individual will, and formulated so as to coordinate all the individual and conflicting wills that fall under one system of government and laws.

This “right” that precedes and legitimates government is natural in the sense that the passions of all human beings lead them to lay claim to it. If we take the will of the individual and extract what is universal in it (or sufficiently universal for practical purposes), this will provide us with the basis for elaborating a reliable system of rights, or a set of exemptions from interference that everyone can sign on to. Madison quite correctly asserts a reciprocal equivalence between property and rights. Unfortunately for his republican cause, this equivalence opens the door to the marketization of every aspect of life.

This habit of making the will foundational to man and to government ends up placing all choices beyond criticism, provided they do not conflict with other choices. Reason, one of man's mental faculties, is the "property," and thus the instrument, of the unquestioned will.

Such voluntarism calls into question the humanity of those who do not present obvious evidence for having wills, such as the brain-damaged and the unborn.

It also distorts the meaning of nature, seeing it not as good in itself, but only insofar as it is transformed into an expression of human will and the imperialist self.

Proposing a less willful view of property, Shiffman follows Richard Weaver:

The responsibility for property that is intimately connected to our life as a person (and this is the meaning of proprietas: what is one’s own and characteristic of oneself) calls upon virtues that render us more complete human beings. Foremost among these virtues is practical judgment, informed by long-term views of our life as a whole and our relationship to our community. Thus only property that satisfies this criterion falls under “metaphysical right,” i.e. must be recognized as rightly belonging to our very being and its fulfillment as what it most truly is.

While I would scrutinize the place of practical judgment as a foremost virtue, his essay brings to the fore the distinction between property as an instrument to satisfying human desires and property as an instrument to advancing human goods. Even the "instrument" takes on different connotations depending on its object: is property best used "to the extent desired" or used "to the extent it is beneficial"?

For advancing the wisdom of property, Shiffman's essay may be used to benefit.

The Natl. Review Board’s clerical sexual abuse reports: behind the press releases

The U.S. Catholic bishops' publication of the 2008 Annual Report on the Implementation of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People presents the opportunity to compare the U.S. bishops’ press releases on the two most recent reports and to consider how they summarize the original reports.

Examination reveals an increase in the number of allegations concerning abuse of those under 10, while the disproportionate percentage of male victims is cloaked by the summaries’ word choices.

Additionally, the reportage of financial costs of sexual abuse settlements leaves out legal fees and other expenses, which can total more than 10 percent of the reported several-hundred million dollar settlement figures.

The press release on the 2007 report was published in March 2008, while the release on the 2008 report was released in March 2009. For clarity’s sake, I will distinguish the press releases according to the year of the report each covers rather than the year each press release was published.

The reports themselves use data from the Georgetown University-based Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA).

From the press release on the year 2007 report:

The CARA survey, to which 194 of the 195 dioceses responded, found five credible accusations of abuse that occurred in 2007 to persons who were minors in that year. Overall, CARA reported that in 2007 more old cases came to light as 689 victims made 691 allegations against 491 offenders. Most incidents took place decades ago, most frequently in the 1970-79 period. Most victims were male and more than half between the ages of 10 and 14 when the abuse began.

According to the press release on the year 2008 report:

Last year, dioceses received ten new credible allegations of abuse to a person still under 18 years of age. CARA reported that in 2008, more old cases came to light as 620 victims made 625 allegations against 423 offenders. Most incidents took place decades ago, most frequently in the 1970-74 period. Most victims were male and a little more than half were between the ages of 10 and 14 when the abuse began. About 23 percent were younger than age 10.

Note how the “1970-79” becomes “1970-74” in the more recent report.

In 2007, 105 allegations were made against diocesan clergy concerning the 1970-74 period, while 93 were made concerning the period of 1975-79. In 2008, these numbers were 108 and 85 respectively.

The press releases correctly describe these periods as the peak years in diocesan and eparchial abuse allegations, but they exclude religious institutes from consideration. In 2007, allegations peaked at 19 in 1970-74 and then 16 in 1975-79. In 2008, allegations concerning religious institutes spiked to 47 in 1965-69 before dropping to 21 in 1970-74 and 11 in 1975-79.

It’s curious that the press release for the 2008 report states the percentage of alleged diocesan and eparchial clerical abuse victims under ten (23 percent) while the version for the 2007 report does not. According to the 2007 report, the percentage of under-10 victims was 14 percent, meaning that the number of reported under-10 victims has increased.

Many editorial decisions are made on the fly and can’t bear much demand for consistency. More concerning are the data obscured by language choice.

Take the press releases’ “most victims were male” comments. In the 2007 report, “most” means 82 percent of diocesan and eparchial allegations. In the 2008 report, “most” means 84 percent of such allegations.

In these instances, male victims compose a supermajority. Yet in common speech, “most” means an unspecific “more than half.”

Alleged victims of religious institutes are slightly less disproportionately male, composing 78 percent of all new allegations in 2007 but falling to 67 percent of all new allegations in 2008.

The accounts of the financial costs also bear closer scrutiny. The reports themselves distinguish between the expenses of diocese and eparchies, on the one hand, and religious institutes on the other. Expenses are categorized according to settlements, attorneys’ fees, therapy for victims, “support for offenders” and “other costs.”

A total combining the expenses of dioceses, eparches and religious institutes is presented in the reports, but not always in the press releases. These various figures can easily confuse. (The Catholic News Agency story on the report authored by me in 2008 at one point mixed up total figures and settlement totals.)

Concerning financial expenses, the statement on the 2007 report says:

“The total allegation-related expenditures by dioceses, eparchies, and clerical and mixed religious institutes increased by 54 percent between 2006 and 2007,” CARA reported. There was “a near-doubling (90 percent increase) in the amount paid for settlements in 2007,” CARA reported. Dioceses paid $420,385,135 in settlements and religious orders paid another $105,841,148. Not all money that courts awarded in 2007 was slated for distribution that year and some money was paid out by insurance companies.

The 2007 report itself reveals that the figure of $420 million in settlements from dioceses and eparchies does not include about $53.4 million in attorney’s fees, $7.2 million for therapy for victims, $13.3 million for support for offenders, and $4.3 million in “other costs.” In total, clerical sexual abuse cost the Catholic dioceses and eparchies in the U.S. $498 million in 2007, half a billion dollars.

Figures for the religious institutes are significant here, costing $105.8 million in settlements, $7 million in attorneys’ fees, $2.1 million in support for offenders, and less than $1 million each in therapy for victims and “other costs.”

The combined 2007 cost to dioceses, eparchies and religious institutes was $615 million.

Here is the U.S. bishops’ press release on the 2008 report:

"The total allegation-related expenditures by dioceses, eparchies, and clerical and mixed religious institutes decreased by 29 percent between 2007and 2008" after increasing in each of the previous three years)," CARA reported. Dioceses, eparchies and religious institutes paid a total of $374,408,554 in settlements.

Not considering religious institutes, the Catholic dioceses and eparchies paid $324.2 million in settlements in 2008. But again, this figure excludes attorney’s fees ($29.6 million), therapy for victims ($7.1 million), support for offenders ($11.6 million) and other costs ($3.8 million). This totals $376.2 million.

Religious institutes paid a total of $59.9 million: $50.2 million in settlements, $5.9 million in legal fees, $2.6 million in support for offenders, and less than a million each for therapy for victims and other costs.

The combined total 2008 cost for clerical sexual abuse thus comes to $436.1 million.

Both the 2007 and 2008 combined totals exclude child protection efforts, which cost $22.2 million in 2007 and $24.6 million in 2008. The most recent U.S. bishops’ press release highlights this “increased spending.”

It’s important not to be too conspiratorial in seeing deliberate design in the press release discrepancies. The U.S. bishops’ press releases use boilerplate and, though that may seem odd to the layman, this is a common and reasonable timesaving practice among busy spokesmen and public relations writers.

There is also the question of the U.S. bishops’ responsibility for religious institutes. The statistics for such organizations may be underreported precisely because the writers of the press releases are working for the U.S. bishops, whose oversight of religious institutes is indirect at most.

However, awareness of these habits should drive journalists of the Catholic and secular media to examine the source documents and to rely on these, not the press releases, for their stories. When patterns in sexual abuse and the millions of dollars in legal fees are not noted, the extent of the damage continues to be unrealized.