Tuesday, May 07, 2002


As some of my regular visitors have noted, I’ve been blogging more infrequently of late, and I wanted to take a minute or two to explain why.

First of all, I’ve simply been busy, with work and visitors.

More importantly, though, blogging has been taking time away from what I really need to be focusing on away from work: my dissertation. I’m a doctoral candidate in dogmatic theology at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome, where I had the privilege of studying from 1997-2000 (my wife, some friends and I were blessed to be inside St. Peter’s for the opening of the Holy Door and the Great Jubilee on Christmas Eve of 1999, and we got to meet the Holy Father earlier that month as well).

Anyway, I’m trying to complete me research and write the dissertation this summer, and that means that for the next few months, blogging has to take a back seat. In the meantime, if anyone has any thoughts on “Concupiscence and ‘Simul iustus et peccator’ in the Lutheran-Catholic Dialogue” or the topic of justification in general, feel free to email me.

Monday, April 29, 2002

"New" guys

A couple of links I've been delinquent in posting:

Martin Roth

Sean Gallagher

Friday, April 26, 2002


A couple of weeks ago I referred to an article in First Things by Wesleyan theologian Jerry Walls on purgatory. Well, that article is now available online.

Early on, Walls poses one of -- if not the-- questions concerning the idea of purgatory: If salvation essentially involves transformation—and, at that same time, we cannot be united with God unless we are holy—what becomes of those who plead the atonement of Christ for salvation but die before they have been thoroughly transformed?

Precisely. As I've grown in my understanding of most of the various Protestant theologies, I've realized that -- contrary to my prior polemical perception -- growth in sanctity is important for my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. (I know, I know... how could I have thought otherwise? Well, that's another story.) Granting that, I think that this "indiscreet theological question" (as Walls terms it) must now be dealt with seriously. As our author explains, this difficulty served to prompt the initial forays into what would become the doctrine of purgatory in the first place, all the way back to the Patristic era (Walls refers to Fathers like Cyprian and Augustine).

Walls is masterful in dealing with some of the objections which his fellow Protestants pose to the doctrine of purgatory. He refers to one theologian who states that, "“In both this life and the life to come, the basis of the believer’s relationship with God is grace, not works. There need be no fear, then, that our imperfections will require some type of post–death purging before we can enter the full presence of God."

But as Walls replies, nothing about purgatory denies the necessity and primacy of grace. Does it imply that we must cooperate with grace? Absolutely (and this may stick in the craw of some), but cooperation-with-grace has nothing to do with "works-righteousness".

Yes, grace first involves forgiveness of sin. But many Protestant theologies (including -- I would contend -- those of the first generations of Reformers) do not deny that there is some transformative aspect to grace, i.e. that grace -- besides forgiving sins -- also changes who and what we are. The New Testament stress that we (the justified) are the sons and daughters of God is fully understood only when the power of grace to transform us is remembered.

One of the graces of ecumenical dialogue has been the realization that much of what we believed our brothers and sisters in Christ has been nothing but a caricature. My former view of a holiness-less Protestant theology is one such example. And for many Protestants, the view that Catholics teach a "works-righteousness", grace-less theology of justification is another.

But back to purgatory... Walls' article includes many other excellent points. I would highly recommend it to any Protestant curious about the Catholic doctrine of purgatory and to any Catholic curious about a "positive" take on purgatory by a Protestant.
Wonderful Weigel

An outstanding article by George Weigel on the scandals.
Mark on a Day of Reparation

Mark Byron seems to agree with Emily Stimpson and myself that we all need to pray for the Body of Christ in this time of scandal.

Mark also morns (albeit somewhat belatedly, but only because he didn’t know) the loss of “The Met”—the stadium in which the Minnesota Twins and Vikings played once upon a time. I even saw a Vikes game there… outside. Yes, it was actually an outdoor stadium. Oh well.

Thursday, April 25, 2002

Where did it go???

Hey! I just noticed that the ad at the top of my blog is gone! I thought it looked different somehow....

Whoever you are, thank you.
Why I don't post much on the scandals

1. Plenty of other people are saying about everything that needs to be said: Amy Welborn, Eve Tushnet, Rod Dreher (at National Review and National Review Online), and many others.

2. There are many ways to respond to moral failures and scandals within the Church. One is evidenced by people like St. Catherine of Siena, and is seen in the strong words of people like Amy, Eve and Rod. Besides that reaction, though, is another one, evidenced by people like St. Ignatius of Loyola: to not say much and focus on one's own sanctity and to do good works and penance to heal the damage done by sin. (Obviously people like St. Catherine and her modern 'disciples' would embrace this as well; the options are not exclusive.) This is the path which I personally prefer. It's simply the one I feel most comfortable with, for a number of reasons.

I say this because I don't want my "silence" to give the wrong impression. What has gone on is wrong, simply put, and those responsible must be held accountable. But my personal response -- among many legitimate and excellent options -- is to focus on rooting out my own failings and to strive after my own holiness, and in so doing to help the Body of Christ in a time of special need.
"Our" Penance

I wholeheartedly agree with Emily Stimpson's comments from today regarding the Day of Reparation proposed by the Cardinals.

As Catholics, we believe in the Communion of Saints, and part of that doctrine means that we -- by our own acts of penance -- can do something to "repair the damage" done to the Church (speaking in everyday terms) by the sins of others. Maybe the call for such a Day is a political ploy by the Cardinals, but regardless of that (and I personally doubt it), it's just a darn good idea that can have a real, positive impact on the Church. And that makes it eminently worthwhile.
Mark Shea

One of my bookmarked websites is run by apologist & author Mark Shea. Well, I'm happy to see that Mark now has his own blog. Check it out.
The Law, Personhood, and Inconsistency

Many people are aware of the fact that most states will charge someone with two counts of manslaughter or homicide if they kill a pregnant woman. This obviously flies in the face of other laws which deny the personhood of the embryo/fetus.

Recently I found another example of this inconsistency within the law. It turns out that in most states someone who is “begotten” (conceived) before the death of their parent (obviously the father) is—for the sake of the father’s estate—treated as equally as a child who is born when the father dies. In other words, in terms of rights as an heir, an embryo has the same legal status as any other child. Hmm….

Monday, April 22, 2002

Fr. Joseph Lortz

Last week I mentioned a german Jesuit theologian, Fr. Joseph Lortz, whose career has been devoted to studying the Reformation in general and Martin Luther in particular. For Catholic theologians involved in ecumenical dialogue -- especially with Lutherans -- Fr. Lortz was a major figure in the mid-twentieth century; this is seen in that there is a "Lortz school" of Catholic Luther scholars.

I've been reading Fr. Lortz's The Reformation: A Problem for Today, and it is outstanding. Fr. Lortz is a wonderful example of a theologian who is unabashedly committed to orthodox Catholicism yet is able to engage in real, authentic dialogue with those from other faith communities. That is, he is able to perceive what is beautiful, good, and true in the doctrines held by others, yet able to be critical of them when necessary. His writing is completely honest yet free from decisive polemics. He strongly believes in the urgent necessity for all Christians to come together as one, yet he just as strongly opposes a false unity, i.e. a unity not based on truth. To me, he shows how a Catholic can be thoroughly orthodox and thoroughly ecumenical. That such a statement can seem paradoxical or even contradictory today speaks volumes about the state of ecumenism in our time, but that's another story.

I'd like to share some passages from this book which particularly struck me as I read them.

Speaking about the Catholic Reform of the sixteenth century -- which arose both apart from and in response to Protestantism -- Fr. Lortz writes: Reform within the Church during the sixteenth century came predominantly from the countries of southern Europe, especially Spain and Italy. Post-Reformation Catholicism bears a strong Latin imprint. This presented certain disadvantages from the German point of view and has remained something of a difficulty right up to the present day. It is a form of penance immanent in the historical process which is imposed on the German people for the fact that the Reformation came from the section of the Church. However, the fact that Catholicism bears a predominantly Latin imprint is a loss for the entire Church and deprives it of real strength; Germany's contribution to the life of the whole Church was not enough.

This idea amazes me; I am intrigued by the thought that the Church in Germany was not able to make a sufficient contribution to the Reform of the (Catholic) Church, and that this is indeed a loss for the entire Church. As someone of predominantly german heritage, this strongly resonates with me. Fr. Lortz goes on to enumerate the vital contributions which the Church in Germany made throughout the first millennia and a half of Church history: Germany is not only the land of the Reformation; it is also the country that decisively saved the Papacy, in the tenth century and later restored its unity at the beginning of the fifteen century through the Emperor Sigismund. The influence of medieval Germany on the formation of the Latin liturgy and the Christianization of the East was of primary importance.

Father then points out how pre-Reformation Germany was not nearly as corrupt as Italy in the same period: Actually life had become not as paganized in Germany as in Italy at that time. For despite the radical humanism of the Erfurt school [the same place that Luther received his Ockhamist training] the utterly pagan lack of restraint in the pursuit of the joys of this life was never as promiment as in Italy, even at the papal court.

Yet after making this point, Fr. Lortz makes this thought-provoking assertion vis. the relationship between moral life and the religious life of the Church: In speaking of weaknesses within the Church, I strongly emphasized that the moral element was never really the decisive factor in the religious life of the Church during any given period. The truth of the fundamental principles on which a given age is structured makes the difference. Moral guilt of the worse type does not constitute the greatest evil that can afflict the Church at any time; far worse are doctrinal deviations that make it impossible to remedy a moral evil.

I am again astounded by this insight. What is most crucial in determining the life of the Church is not the moral health of Christians (although that is clearly central), but rather the doctrinal health of the Church. Why? Because if you lack the latter, you cannot heal the former. This insight seems to me to have been demonstrated in our own day in the sexual morality (or lack thereof) taught to Catholics in high school and college. Because that moral theology was... well... wrong, the spiritual and hence moral life of Catholics was stunted. Bad theology leads to bad morality. But good theology can "cure" bad morality. It's that simple.

Returning to the Reform of the Church in the sixteenth century, Fr. Lortz states matter-of-factly, "The saints are the ones who save the day". Continuing this line of thought, he writes this amazing line: the Saint does not leave the world so that he can watch the world go by; he leaves it so that he can properly assess it and then return and conquer it." Yes! How purely true! We as Christians are called to separate ourselves from the world, but not simply to sit back and judge the decadence and errors of the world, as some would have it, but in order to prepare and train ourselves to return to the world and save it as Christ's instruments! Fr. Lortz's insight here reminds me of a book by Hans Urs von Balthasar entitled Razing the Bastions, in which Balthasar argued -- writing in the 1950's before Vatican II -- that the Church had to tear down the ramparts it had erected since the French Revolution (and even the Reformation) to protect itself from the world and its ways. While this defensive measure was necessary at the time, now -- having sufficiently assessed the situation from behind those castle walls -- the Church has to engage in a grand offensive to take back the world from the secularism which has swept across it. And that's precisely what Vatican II called for, and precisely what we -- Catholic or not -- must do. Engage the world, assimilate what is true therein, and then proclaim the Gospel in a language understandable in our day and age.

I'll continue with more from Fr. Lortz later.

Friday, April 19, 2002

Personhood & a Brief Christological Note

There's been a lot of discussion over the last couple of days on some blogs (Ben Domenech, Louder Fenn, my own earlier posts, and some things by Mark Byron) on the question of what it is to be a person in light of the cloning issue and broad libertarian support for cloning. I'd like to make a couple further contributions to that discussion.

Last summer I was involved in a brief discussion on stem cell research and the moral status of the human embryo on a now-defunct Delphi group. I'd like to reproduce that discussion here, slightly edited.

My initial post

First, a couple links:

A great article on the biological facts concerning the origin of the human being by Dianne Irving. [I've previously linked that article here at my blog]

A great article on the "personhood" issue at Libertarians for Life.

Finally, another article on the "parasite" issue (the claim that the fetus is a parasite).

An argument:

1. A human person is intrinsically valuable.
2. A human person is a body.
3. That body came to exist at the moment of conception.
4. Therefore that being which is intrinsically valuable came to exist at the moment of conception.

The only way out of this is to deny one of the first two premises, thereby either denying the inalienable rights of the human being or falling into a radical dualism regarding the human person.

A definition of personhood:

"A person is a being which has the active capacity to reason & freely-will (R&FW)."

Why does a person only need the capacity to R&FW, instead of actually R&FWing? Because when we are newly-borns, when we are asleep, and if we are in a reversable coma, we are not at that moment R&FWing. But these beings are all recognized as human persons; why? Because although they may not actually R&FW, they all have the potential to do so, as does the embryo.

Why an active capacity? Because, as many people have pointed out, any cell now has the capacity/potential to become an adult human being, through the process of cloning. However, in order for (say) a skin cellto become an adult human, something must be DONE TO it; it cannot OF ITSELF become an adult human. I.e., it has the passive potential to become an adult human.

OTOH, embryo and all succeeding stages of development have the ACTIVE capacity to R&FW. That is, the embryo will OF ITSELF develop to the point at which it can R&FW. It does not need to have any process performed upon it; it will self-develop to the adult stage.

This thus renders the "sperm & eggs are potentially human, too" and "every cell in the human body are potentially human, too" arguments irrelevant & specious.

End of my first post

Someone (call him Joe) called into question the third step in my argument, stating that it could be denied. I responded thus:

I refer you to the first linked article in my original post. From an embryological point of view, the human organism/body comes to exist at the moment of conception. This is not a religious, political, or philosophical judgment, but a biological/embryological/scientific fact, as evidenced in said article.

Allow me to quote a portion of this article (which should be read in its entirety):

[I'm not including the quote here for brevity. Just go read the article :-)]

End of my second post

My interlocutor "Joe" replied in this way:

"From a purely scientific perspective,....irrefutable."

Irrefutable? Then it isn't science. I retract my earlier statement. The question is not when life starts, but personhood.

I then responded to Joe:

"The question is not when life starts, but personhood."[His last line.]

Then you would apparently deny the 2nd premise of my argument, that the human person is a body, thus asserting a radical dualism with regard to the human person, i.e. that the person is an exclusively-spiritualentity which merely dwells in the material reality which is the body. Such a viewpoint reduces bodily life to an instrumental rather than an instrinsic good.

At this point I would recommend Robert P. George's article "A Clash of Orthodoxies".

Allow me to quote a portion of this article:

[I am again removing the quote for brevity's sake. But since I haven't linked this article before, I'll provide the first and last lines of the section I quoted so that you can locate it in the article.]

Let’s take the central issues of life and death. If we lay aside all the rhetorical grandstanding and obviously fallacious arguments, questions of abortion, infanticide, suicide, and euthanasia turn on the question of whether bodily life is intrinsically good, as Judaism and Christianity teach, or merely instrumentally good, as orthodox secularists believe.


From these arguments one rationally concludes that the body, far from being a nonpersonal and indeed sub–personal instrument at the direction and disposal of the conscious and desiring "self," is irreducibly partof the personal reality of the human being. It is properly understood, therefore, as fully sharing in the dignity—the intrinsic worth—of the person and deserving the respect due to persons precisely as such.

"Joe" never replied.

At this point, "Sven" jumped in, with this post, beginning by quoting my original post:

1. A human person is intrinsically valuable.
2. A human person is a body.
3. That body came to exist at the moment of conception.
4. Therefore that being which is intrinsically valuable came to exist at the moment of conception.

The only way out of this is to deny one of the first two premises, thereby either denying the inalienable rights of the human being or falling into a radical dualism regarding the human person.

The first premise is shaky if one is picky. Valuable how? How valuable? Can't be infinitely valuable, because two humans lives are worth more than one. Valuable is a difficult term. We're presumably most interested in a common sense argument, though, so I'll ignore for now.

So allow those who disagree the chance to walk right out door number two, then. If you accept your own argument, you'd better haul it to the nearest graveyard and start digging all those intrinsically valuable
humans out of the ground. Think of the terrible, uncaring, so-called "loved ones" that burn up all those intrinsically valuable human bodies instead of burying them.

We can argue with three a bit, too, unless you narrow down the definition of body. If you were to ask one-hundred people if human bodies have brains or hearts or limbs, one-hundred people would say yes.
An embryo is only cells.

[he now begins to quote from my definition of personhood]

Why does a person only need the capacity to R&FW, instead of actually R&FWing? Because when we are newly-borns, when we are asleep, and if we are in a reversable coma, we are not at that moment R&FWing. But these beings are all recognized as human persons; why? Because although they may not actually R&FW, they all have the potential to do so, as does the embryo.

Newborns reason. Sleeping people have personal identities, though. If I'm asleep, and someone asks you if I favor stem-cell research, you can answer, "Yes, he does." If I were dead, you'd think the questioner a moron for not using the past tense and answer, "Well, he used to, but not anymore." If I (and I shouldn't even use "I") were just a cell, you'd just stare at the questioner and think him crazy. "Persons" require a personal identity, which requires ideas.

End of Sven's post

And here's how I replied:

What do I mean by intrinsically valuable? That the person has value not for what s/he can do, for his/her appearance, for his/her abilities, but simply for what s/he *is*. Because of this, the person has value as soon as s/he comes to exist, not when s/he begins to do certain things.

Regarding dead bodies: I naturally meant living bodies. Please excuse me for that oversight.

Regarding bodies & their organs, I would first point again to the article on the origins of the human being/organism, which scientifically demonstrates that the physical aspect of the human person begins to exist. Secondly, I would agree that most people would state that human bodies have hearts, lungs, etc., because most people think of the adult human being when asked about human bodies. Most people would also state that human bodies have teeth, but that is not the case with newborns. My point? The fact that an embryo does not actually have various organs does not mean that it is not a human body, because at that point of development, it has exactly what it is supposed to. It will (on its own) develop those organs as it moves toward adulthood (i.e. it has the active potential to develop those organs).

I would also disagree with your assertion that newborns reason, insofar as the brain of the neonate is not completely formed until some 30 days after birth (i.e. around 10 months after conception), thereby making higher brain functions impossible.

It is also incorrect to say that having ideas are necessary in order to be a person, in that newborns and those with severe mental handicaps do not have "ideas", yet they are recognized as persons. It appears that you require that a being actually R&FW in order for it to be a person, rather than recognizing that one only needs to have the active potential to R&FW.

End of my reply to Sven

That was it. I never got a further reply from either Joe or Sven or anyone else.

One other note, of a theological nature: Louder Fenn wondered about the distinction between human and person, pointing to the case of Jesus, who had a complete human nature, yet was not a human person.

Theologians attempt to answer this question in a number of ways. One of them is this: Everyone human nature that is self-subsisting is a human person. However, Jesus' human nature did not subsist in itself; it subsisted in the Person of the Divine Word, and because of this, there was no human person in Jesus' human nature. In every other case of an individual human nature, though, that nature is self-subsisting, and therefore there is a human person.

If anyone has any thoughts, criticisms, or comments, feel free to email me.

I hope it was helpful.
Why do you persecute Me?

The first reading for today is a well-known one: the conversion of St. Paul on the road to Damascus. Among the many fascinating aspects of this narrative is connection Jesus makes between Himself and His Church. His first words to Paul are, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” and when Paul asks who He is, Jesus replies, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”

Obviously, Paul was not literally persecuting Jesus, in that He had already ascended into Heaven. However, he was persecuting Jesus’ community of disciples, and so from Jesus’ words to Paul, we find a certain kind of identity between Jesus Himself and His Church, to such a degree that to attack the one is to attack the other.

This “secondary” aspect of his conversion clearly had a deep effect on Paul’s understanding of the Church, in that he is the primary Scripture writer who refers to the Church as the “Body of Christ”. We can rightly infer that this understanding of the Ekklesia derived from his conversion experience.

What this means for us is important: we cannot view the Church as some sort of tertium quid – a “third thing” that comes between the believer/disciple of Jesus and Jesus Himself. Rather, the Church is the very place wherein we encounter our Risen Lord, in that the Church is in some mysterious yet real sense the Body of Christ. We can no more be an authentic disciple of Jesus and exist outside the Church than an arm can continue to exist after it has been cut off from the body. Furthermore, this also shows us that the Church is more than a “coming together” of disciples, that the Church does not come to be only when disciples gather. Rather, the Church – as the Body of Christ – in a certain sense “pre-exists” individual believers. So when someone is converted to Our Lord, they are “grafted into” His Body and become a living member thereof by joining the already-existing Church.

To me, this sort of thing shows the depth underlying Sacred Scripture. What seems fairly innocuous at first reveals great depth on closer inspection. As someone (Chesterton?) once said, Scripture is shallow enough for babes to swim in and deep enough for an elephant to drown in. How true.

Thursday, April 18, 2002

Grace and Free Will

The Gospel readings for this week have been from John 6, and Peter Nixon has been providing some wonderful reflections on these readings. His reflections, in turn, are prompting me to reflect on various aspects of salvation and its process.

Today's reflection by Peter points out the tension that exists between faith as a gift of God and as a work of man. As Peter says, both things are true. Apart from God's grace, we cannot have faith; it is a gift from God. At the same time, faith (once given) is a virtue, an act on our part. In order to remain true to Jesus' words, we must hold both truths at once, never allowing one to gain at the expense of the other. As Peter indicates, this balance was crucial during the Reformation.

Many Catholic scholars in the last 40 years have noted that the doctrine which Luther was rebelling against -- the idea that man can justify himself, or even prepare for that justification, on his own -- derived from the teaching of William of Ockham, and that in fact it did not represent authentic Catholic teaching. (Luther was educated in the school of Gabriel Biel, who was orthodox, yet nonetheless was an Ockhamist.) One of these scholars, Fr. Joseph Lortz, even stated that the Catholicism that Luther rejected was not Catholicism. In other words, Luther threw off a decadent scholastic theory, not true Catholicism. Unfortunately, certain vestiges of Luther's Ockhamist education remained, and prevented him from discovering the authentic Catholic doctrine on salation, e.g. in the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas. On this, I would highly recommend Fr. Louis Bouyer's wonderful book The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism, in which Fr. Bouyer first points out the many wonderful truths which the first Reformers proclaimed, and then shows out these truths were prevented from achieving the fruit they ought to have because of the latent Ockhamism in much Reformation thought; according to Fr. Bouyer (himself a convert), this Ockhamism in a sense choked off the positives, resulting in teachings which the Magisterium judged heretical.

Wednesday, April 17, 2002

Dare We Hope...?

This morning Peter Nixon reflected on today's Gospel, noting how we as Catholics believe that it is possible for those who lack explicit faith in Jesus Christ to be saved (see Lumen Gentium, 16). I'd like to take this a little farther...

With the great twentieth century swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar and others, I believe that we can and should hope that all people will be saved. I know that this will rub some people the wrong way and that it sounds like I am a universalist, but hear me out...

First, note that I am not asserting that all of us definitively will be saved. No... I hope that all will be saved. There is a crucial distinction involved here. The first position (that which asserts universal salvation) implies certitude about the salvation of all, while the second position implies ignorance about the salvation of all, i.e. we do not know the eternal destiny of all humanity (although as Catholics we do know that some are in Heaven: canonized saints).

It is precisely because we do not know everyone's eventual destination in the hereafter that we can hope that all will be saved. Such hope flows not only from charity (which seeks the best good -- which is Heaven -- for all) but also from doctrine (the universal salvific will of the Father who "wills that all be saved" [1 Tim 2:3-4]). It is also found in our liturgy, in various prayers in which we pray for all our deceased brothers and sisters, which clearly includes all who have died; now, if we know that some are damned, then it is wrong to pray this prayer, as we would be praying for something that cannot be, i.e. the salvation of someone who can no longer be saved.

Some might object to this view on the basis that someone like Hitler or Stalin simply cannot be in Heaven, based on their actions on earth. I think this indicates a fundamental misunderstanding of our teaching on sin and salvation, in that any sin -- no matter how "insignificant" -- condemns us, and at the same time all of our sins, no matter how heinous, have been forgiven by the blood of Jesus. What is required for our salvation is that this redemption and forgiveness be applied to us, and it seems to me to be possible that somehow, in someway, this could have happened even with someone like Hitler.

I do want to note that this opinion is not Magisterial; while I believe it to be true and to follow from Christian doctrine and worship, the Catholic Church does not formally teach it, so anyone is naturally free to reject it. At the same time, I'd ask you consider it before doing so :-)
Pre-Reformation England

Peter Nixon yesterday gave an excellent review of the book The Stripping of the Altars by Eamon Duffy. Prof. Duffy's work debunks the idea that all of Christendom prior to the Reformation was mired in superstition; while that may have been true in many parts of Germany, it definitely was not the case in England.
Sin and Reason

Something I've realized over the last several years is that people who are not very familiar with the Christian (specifically Catholic) tradition on sin -- and this includes Catholics and other Christians -- today tend to associate belief in sin with backward, repressive, irrational thinking. In other words, to seriously call something "sinful" implies that you are irrational and backward in your worldview, that you are restricting yourself from achieving happiness by submitting to an apparently arbitrary and irrational moral code.

What is somewhat ironic about this is that in the classic Catholic teaching, sin itself is what is irrational. Note the definition of sin as found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

Sin is an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience; it is failure in genuine love for God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods. It wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity. It has been defined as "an utterance, a deed, or a desire contrary to the eternal law."

Sin is defined as first being an offense against -- what? -- reason. According to the Catechism, a sinful act is an act against right reason, i.e. it is an irrational act. This same idea was taught by St. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century; Thomas wrote in his Summa Theologiae that -- among other things -- sin is "contrary to reason" (I-II, Q. 71, A. 6). This thomistic (and Catholic) understanding of sin is aptly explained by the 20th century german philosopher Joseph Pieper in his book, The Concept of Sin. Pieper also shows how -- again, according to long-standing Catholic thought -- a sinful act is contrary to our nature. In other words, to commit a sin is to in some way deny or prevent the fulfillment of what it is to be human.

So, contrary to widespread intuitions today, to believe in sin is not to be irrational, but in fact to commit sin is irrational. This furthermore means that one can discuss the sinful character of particular actions in the context of public policy discussions, because this sinful character can also be considered the irrational character of such actions. I'm not advocating using the word "sin" in this sort of format -- precisely because of the common misunderstanding of its meaning -- but rather I am arguing against a tendency to throw out arguments because they discuss acts in terms of sin "instead of" reason. In fact -- as I have shown above -- sins are by definition irrational, and this feature allows us to make arguments against such acts that can't be dismissed by categorizing them as "arguments from sin".
Church Scandal Article

Kathryn Jean Lopez and John Burger have a great article at the National Catholic Register on the scandals. Check it out.

Tuesday, April 16, 2002

Postrel again

I'm sorry to post again on the cloning issue, but Postrel made me do it.

Referring to Ramesh Ponnuru's blog at The Corner (link to the left) yesterday, she construes his argument for the personhood of blatocyst thus: this argument "declar[es] something a person because, given enough time and the right circumstances it could become one."


Should someone who disagrees that the embryo is a person come across this, please read very carefully and slowly...

We (Ramesh, me, and others who are pro-life) do NOT believe that an embryo is a person because it will later become a person. That's completely illogical and makes no sense -- it's saying that something is X because it will be X later; what???? If it only becomes X later, then it can't be X now, by definition. Anyone who portrays our position in such a manner either thinks we're really, really stupid or hasn't been listening very well (or both, I suppose). Our position is this:

To be a person means to have the active potential to reason and freely will (regardless of whether it is immediately exercisable or not).

A human embryo has this active potential at every moment of its existence.

Therefore, a human embryo is a person at every moment of its existence. It does not become a person later; it already is a person as soon as it begins to exist.

It isn't really all that complicated. The argument usually made against it seems to come down to this: it doesn't look like a person, so it can't be a person.

And that's a bunch of baloney. We've already been down that road way, way too many times.

Monday, April 15, 2002

We Are (not the entire) Church

I wholeheartedly agree with those in blogland and elsewhere who have been drawing attention to and criticizing the priestly sex scandals and how they have been handled. And I agree that this is a crisis.

However, I also believe that we have allowed ourselves to get a bit carried away in our rhetoric. While the Catholic Church in the U.S. can accurately be described as being in a crisis, that does not mean that the Church Universal is in a crisis. Yes, there have been recent scandals in other countries, but there scope is much more limited (as far as we know) than the problem here in the U.S. And yes, the crisis for the Church in the U.S. may reach beyond our borders. But as of now, it is too much to say that the entire Catholic Church is in a crisis that rivals the time immediately prior to the Reformation, as I've read in more than one place.

Our situation is serious, but c'mon: overblown rhetoric all too often can have unintended negative consequences. Let's acknowledge the seriousness of our state and deal with it resolutely.

At the close of the Great Jubilee of the year 2000 on January 6th 2001 (the Solemnity of Epiphany), John Paul II issued his Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio Ineunte: At the Beginning of the Third Millenium. This is a beautiful document in which the Holy Father seeks to turn the Church's attention toward the new millennium, after having celebrated the Great Jubilee of Jesus' birth.

Last spring the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano published a series of reflections on different aspects of the Letter, and one of them is entitled The Art of Trinitarian Prayer, and it bases itself on what JPII says about prayer in the Letter and derives other thoughts therefrom. Here is one passage from this article:

All Christians, in order not to be mediocre, "Christians at risk", because they are not rooted in a strong and personal communion with God, are called in these times to be persons of prayer, friends of Christ, Christians who are adults in faith and in love. Christian prayer is not only a salutary antidote to the excesses and deviations of the return to the sacred, to the surrogates of alternative religious proposals, but is food for the soul and a source of life.

I would warmly recommend that anyone interested in growing in their prayer life and their understanding of prayer read this reflection.
More blogs

A couple of blogs I've found recently via their links to me (thanks!)...

Midwest Conservative Journal

The View from the Core
Luther's 95 Theses

If you asked anyone who knows anything about Church History in the West to pinpoint a specific moment or event which can be considered the beginning of the Reformation, the answer would probably be Martin Luther's posting of his 95 theses on indulgences on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517. By this act, Luther is seen as rejecting the whole medieval system of indulgences and their associated doctrines and practices; in so doing, he makes his break from Rome, or at least begins to do so in a definitive way. In fact, many Protestant churches celebrate October 31st as "Reformation Day", indicating the importance of that date and Luther's actions on it in 1517 vis. the Reformation churches and communities. This date, then, has been widely regarded as the beginning of the Reformation. However...

In all likelihood, it never happened. Luther never nailed his theses on indulgences to the church door in Wittenberg.

Skeptical? I was, when I first heard of this theory not long ago. Nonetheless, I ask you to indulge me (pun intended) for a few moments...

This argument was first made in 1961 (yes, over 40 years ago) by a Jesuit priest and Luther scholar (no, that's not a contradiction in terms) in Germany named Erwin Iserloh. Fr. Iserloh argued that the generally-held narrative was in fact a legend. He made his case based on a variety of arguments, some of which are as follows:

1. The first written account of Luther's nailing his theses came from Phillip Melanchthon, which he wrote in 1548 three years after Luther was dead and over 30 years after the fact. Furthermore, Phillip wasn't even in Wittenberg in 1517 -- he was called there in 1518 -- meaning that he was not an eyewitness.

2. Following from this, then, Luther never refers to the alleged event. In fact, he was initially unhappy with the fact that his theses were being spread around Germany; we know from his writings that he had given copies to friends, but that they were to be used for scholarly discussion, not widespread public debate.

3. We do know from historical records that Luther mailed his theses to his Archbishop, the attached cover letter being very respectful in tone towards Luther's ecclesiastical superior. In other words, Luther did not seek to publicly attack the current doctrine of indulgences (at least not yet), but rather he followed the canonically-correct procedure and mailed his theses to his superior.

4. Luther also stated in private correspondence after 10/31/1517 that not all of the theses were his opinions. In other words -- and again contrary to widespread belief -- the 95 theses are not an articulation on Luther's own theology of indulgences, at least not in their entirety. This is seen in that around the same time he wrote a Treatise on Indulgences, which I have read in english translation, and which -- by and large -- is perfectly compatible with Catholic teaching on indulgences. Besides the importance of this in and of itself, it corroborates the argument that Luther did not post his 95 theses, in that to do so would mean he was intending for public "consumption" ideas he did not hold to himself, while knowing that they would be circulated exactly as his ideas.

What does this mean? That in the fall of 1517, Luther was far from the defiant rebel commonly seen by both Catholics and Protestants. Instead, he was a faithful son of the Church who sought a theological discussion on some notions concerning indulgences. It can also be shown that Luther's teaching on indulgences (at this point) was not heretical from a Catholic perspective, but in fact could have been a very positive factor, if it had ever become widely known.

Finally, most Luther scholars (regardless of church affiliation) today accept Fr. Iserloh's argumentation; while this may not have reached the popular level, those who are heavily involved in studying Martin Luther's thought generally agree that Luther never posted the 95 theses.