31 July 2015


This is the platform of the North/Clybourn CTA station in Chicago.

Like most Red Line subway stations, it is ugly, drab, bare.  North/Clybourn happens to immediately adjoin a large Apple Store (upstairs and across a small courtyard).   Here you can see the train station on the right and the Apple Store on the left.  The two are in the middle of a shopping district in one of Chicago's stably posh yuppie neighborhoods, Lincoln Park.

The company has seen fit to buy the advertising space on the platform walls to remind you that you're only a few steps away from the latest gadget.  Normally the lightboxes feature gigantic pictures of iPads, MacBooks and such.

Lately, they have decided to fill these lightboxes (which are quite large—each is about 12 feet long) with images from the iPhone 6 "World Gallery".  What a difference!  Waiting for a train recently, I saw the image below, and was captured by it.  What a vision!  What an amazing thing to stick in such a gloomy, utilitarian space.

by Flavio Sarescia

Notes on Earthsea

I Spent all night working through Thomas's Third Way.  I should be sleeping now, but instead I finished reading a novel, so I wanted to write something about it.

This week I read the three books of the original Earthsea trilogy by Ursula Le Guin.  Having read nothing by Le Guin prior to this, except perhaps a short story in middle school, it was a positive experience.  The first and third books of the series were better than the second, but I think only the first (A Wizard of Earthsea) had a really impressive level of philosophical and psychological depth.  Reading plot summaries of the later books, and thinking back on the themes of the original three, it seems like Le Guin is fixated on death and the dead.  Her portrayal of the underworld was peculiar.  The amount of power she gives to these dark spirits and "Old Powers" was odd.  I'm sure it has some sort of Jungian basis, but from this reader's perspective it comes across as oddly obsessive, especially given the lack of substance to it all.  But the first book was really good.

Billuart on why creatures cannot create

"Ad creandum principaliter requiritur virtus infinita: atqui nullius creaturae, sed solius Dei virtus est aut esse potest infinita: ergo.  Min. constat. Prob. maj.: tanto major requiritur virtus in agente ad producendum formam ex potentia, quanto magis est remota potentia et minores sunt dispositiones ad illam formam: ergo ubi nulla est potentia, nullae dispositiones, ut in creatione, requiritur virtus infinita."

(Summa Sancti Thomae, Book II, Treatise on the Work of the Six Days, First Dissertation, Article IV.)

28 July 2015

Random Thoughts on Joshua 10:40-43

So Joshua subdued the whole region, including the hill country, the Negev, the western foothills and the mountain slopes, together with all their kings. He left no survivors. He totally destroyed all who breathed, just as the Lord, the God of Israel, had commanded. Joshua subdued them from Kadesh Barnea to Gaza and from the whole region of Goshen to Gibeon. All these kings and their lands Joshua conquered in one campaign, because the Lord, the God of Israel, fought for Israel. Then Joshua returned with all Israel to the camp at Gilgal.
This passage from the book of Joshua (part of a litany of similar episodes) sparks concern.  "He totally destroyed all who breathed, just as the Lord, the God of Israel, had commanded."  What are we to make of this? According to secular morals, we are supposed to think this an abomination.  On what principle?  On the principle that everyone deserves life, and respect, and freedom.  Warring tribes slaughtering entire cities and leaving no one alive are evil.  But the Gospel teaches us also to respect life and acknowledge human worth.  

The moral issue here is reducible to a metaphysical issue.  What is the basis of morality?  What is the sine qua non upon which all moral judgments are founded?  If it is the absolute and intrinsic dignity of free persons, then we must reject the book of Joshua like Marcion did, as being inspired by an evil God.  If the dignity of persons is the foundation of morality, then nothing can contravene it and remain moral.  

If on the other hand, the foundation of morality is not the dignity of persons, but the providential reign of God, the supreme Good, to whom all lesser goods are ordered, then the ultimate, decisive question we can ask about the morality of an action is: Does it tend toward God?

The form of our society reflects itself back into the form of our morality, which shapes our understanding of the natural order of the universe.  If we are really democratic, and if we are formed to be democratic citizens, then our morals will focus on ideas about equal dignity and 'rights'.  And once this has taken hold of our ordinary relationships and activities, it will be projected analogically onto our ideas about God. 

23 July 2015

Faith and Science in Pascendi §16-17

[A friend requested clarification on St. Pius X's meaning in this section of his great encyclical Pascendi, since it is unclear when he is speaking in the voice of the Modernist, and when in his own voice.  Response: he is speaking in the voice of the Modernist through pretty much the entire passage quoted below.  My notes in [red].]


Having reached this point, Venerable Brethren, we have sufficient material in hand to enable us to see the relations which Modernists establish between faith and science [science is understood here in the agnostic sense explained earlier in the encyclical], including history also under the name of science. 

And in the first place it is to be held [according to the modernists] that the object of the one is quite extraneous to and separate from the object of the other. For faith occupies itself solely with something which science declares to be unknowable for it [i.e. a sentiment or experience of the "divine"]. Hence each has a separate field assigned to it: science is entirely concerned with the reality of phenomena, into which faith does not enter at all [in other words, faith is not concerned with the reality of observable phenomena]; faith on the contrary concerns itself with the divine reality which is entirely unknown to science. Thus the conclusion is reached that there can never be any dissension between faith and science [this claim, in itself, is orthodox, as St. Thomas suggests in ST 1a q.1 a.6 ad 2—where the conclusion of a particular science disagrees with faith, it belongs to faith, as a higher science to correct it], for if each keeps on its own ground they can never meet [this claim is false—faith does make claims which pertain to observable phenomena and therefore overlap with "science"] and therefore never be in contradiction. 

And if it be objected that in the visible world there are some things which appertain to faith, such as the human life of Christ, the Modernists reply by denying this [in other words, the modernists insist that no visible phenomena pertain to faith]. For though such things come within the category of phenomena, still in as far as they are lived by faith and in the way already described have been by faith transfigured and disfigured, they have been removed from the world of sense and translated to become material for the divine [recall that the province of the "divine" for the modernists is the immanent experience of the "religious sentiment"]

Hence should it be further asked whether Christ has wrought real miracles, and made real prophecies, whether He rose truly from the dead and ascended into heaven, the answer of agnostic science will be in the negative and the answer of faith in the affirmative - yet there will not be, on that account, any conflict between them [according to the modernist, because the "affirmative" of faith pertains solely to the immanent experience and sentiments related to these doctrines, not to their physical reality]. For it will be denied by the philosopher as philosopher, speaking to philosophers and considering Christ only in His historical reality; and it will be affirmed by the speaker, speaking to believers and considering the life of Christ as lived again by the faith and in the faith [one hears this sometimes (I have, at least)—that Christ may not have risen physically, but he rose spiritually in the experience of the post-Easter Christian community].
Yet, it would be a great mistake to suppose that, given these theories, one is authorised to believe that faith and science are independent of one another. On the side of science the independence is indeed complete [according to the Modernists], but it is quite different with regard to faith, which [they belive] is subject to science not on one but on three grounds. For in the first place it must be observed that in every religious fact, when you take away the divine reality and the experience of it which the believer possesses, everything else, and especially the religious formulas of it, belongs to the sphere of phenomena and therefore falls under the control of science [in other words, according to the Modernist, to the extent that religious formulas deal not with the "divine reality" of a person's interior experience, but actually make claims above and beyond "faith" about actual phenomena, those claims are subject to science—for example, we read that Moses spoke with God on Sinai; this has a significance in faith, which pertains solely to our own personal experiences and sentiments, and another significance in its physical reality, which may relate to faith, but is subject to science]

Let the believer leave the world if he will, but so long as he remains in it he must continue, whether he like it or not, to be subject to the laws, the observation, the judgments of science and of history. Further, when it is said that God is the object of faith alone, the statement refers only to the divine reality [which, again, is a sentiment, not something existing independently of human consciousness] not to the idea of God. The latter also is subject to science which while it philosophises in what is called the logical order soars also to the absolute and the ideal [think here of Hegel—the experience and "reality" of the divine sentiment is a matter of faith, but the scientific analysis of the development of that experience is a matter for dialectical investigation]

It is therefore the right of philosophy and of science to form conclusions concerning the idea of God, to direct it in its evolution and to purify it of any extraneous elements which may become confused with it. Finally, man does not suffer a dualism to exist in him, and the believer therefore feels within him an impelling need so to harmonise faith with science, that it may never oppose the general conception which science sets forth concerning the universe [so, even though faith is an experience independent of science, the analysis and rectification of that experience is subject to science—if my "faith" has an outdated character, "science" can let me know that this is the case, so I can get with the times]

Thus it is evident that science is to be entirely independent of faith, while on the other hand, and notwithstanding that they are supposed to be strangers to each other, faith is made subject to science. All this, Venerable Brothers, is in formal opposition with the teachings of Our Predecessor, Pius IX, where he lays it down that: In matters of religion it is the duty of philosophy not to command but to serve, but not to prescribe what is to be believed but to embrace what is to be believed with reasonable obedience, not to scrutinise the depths of the mysteries of God but to venerate them devoutly and humbly. 

The Modernists completely invert the parts, and to them may be applied the words of another Predecessor of Ours, Gregory IX., addressed to some theologians of his time: Some among you, inflated like bladders with the spirit of vanity strive by profane novelties to cross the boundaries fixed by the Fathers, twisting the sense of the heavenly pages . . . to the philosophical teaching of the rationals, not for the profit of their hearer but to make a show of science . . . these, seduced by strange and eccentric doctrines, make the head of the tail and force the queen [i.e. sacred doctrine] to serve the servant [i.e. profane science].

Notes on the Internet as a Social Space

About a year ago, I began drafting a short treatise on the ethics of online communication.  At that time, I was committed to defending a certain degree of belligerence and mockery in social media, because this was (I thought) expedient for the defense of the truth.  I never finished writing that treatise, and have since reversed my views (due in part to a series of very unpleasant interactions of that variety, for which I am to some extent grateful—felix culpa).  However, the problem of social media and the enduring strangeness of the internet as a place for interacting with others remains.  In what follows I present some disconnected thoughts, the result of extended reflection on the topic and a good deal of personal experience.

1.  After finishing my master's degree, I moved back home with the hopes of paying down student debt while teaching theology at a local Jesuit high school.  Since my sister and I moved out, my parents, left with an empty house, had converted the second floor of their old two flat into a boarding house for international students studying English.  I moved in alongside the lodgers into what used to be the sitting room of the second floor apartment.  I am asocial by disposition, meaning that I tend not to socialize with people unless the routines of daily living bring me into contact with them as a matter of course.  Thus the people I've interacted with over the past two years as a teacher have been almost exclusively my parents, the boarders, my students, my colleagues, and a few people at my parish.

2.  Because of profound differences of outlook and theological conviction between me and my co-workers, work life did not introduce me to a community in which I felt either welcome or comfortable.  The few (generally pleasant) social occasions I've shared with my colleagues outside of work have been mostly colored by everyone's awareness of these differences.  It is possible to like and even enjoy people without really being capable of forming what Aristotle would call "honest friendships", especially when the interests, beliefs, and activities that each party holds primary in life have no interest for the other, or even inspire moral distaste.  Meanwhile, I have a positive relationship with my parents, and strike up conversations occasionally with lodgers, but this is not the stuff of a "social life".

3.  As a result, the internet has, during this period, become my primary outlet for socialization to an extent that it had not been since the dark, alienated years of early adolescence.  My Facebook account, which has fluctuated over the years in use, has become a mainstay.  Years ago I was an avid contributor to a Tolkien web forum, where I found people who shared my nerdy passion for Middle-Earth.  Nowadays I have formed a similar set of acquaintances who are devoted to that richer and stranger cycle of stories and questions—traditional Catholicism.

4.  I read an article recently about how the character of the internet has changed—social media have made it more inward focused and isolating, "the stream" has led to the automatic generation of a curated display of likable items.  There's a lot to that.  In the days before the "Newsfeed", one navigated Facebook through notifications and profile pages.  The dominant metaphor of the site was a stable array of personal pages to which one could tack notes and greetings.  If one wanted to see what was new with a particular person, one had to go to their profile.  Now, change as such seems to be the dominant metaphor of the thing.  Nothing is stable, the fixed elements of the profile have been tucked away in the background, and instead we are confronted by compounded streams of ephemera: posts, links, images, all appearing dozen by dozen for review.  The Newsfeed functions as an actual news feed.  It's the ticker tape of a social world, telling you what's going on through links, showing you "trending" stories, conversations, what people liked or commented on.  The flexibility of the thing is impressive, in a way.

5.  One of the great advantages of real-life social interactions is that they have two elements, which I'll call the "vertical" and the "horizontal".  Suppose you are at a social function at work.  Everyone is standing around chatting.  You can move about the room and join more or less whatever conversations you like.  Within this space, there is a tremendous horizontal freedom.  But there is a vertical component as well: it took something for you to gain access to this social gathering.  Not just anyone can wander in off the street and join your faculty Christmas party.  It's understood that that would be unacceptable.  The "vertical" element is the fact that certain social spaces and interactions are closed, and a certain set of procedures must be performed and relationships acquired in advance in order to gain access.

6.  Now, in real-life social interactions there are places which are totally horizontal.  Public libraries, parks, etc.  In these places anyone can, more or less, just wander in.  But note that these are also places where for the most part no one just talks to random strangers.  Why?  Part of it has to do with anxiety about striking up contact with an unknown person, who might be insane or wicked or simply want to be left alone.  At the same time, there's a sense of decorum: conversation requires a pre-existing relationship, or the intention to form a relationship, and in a community of thousands of people, it is more or less impossible to form relationships with every passerby.  There are other potential explanations for this fact (a rise of asociality in society, increased self-absorption, a culture of fear, etc.), but let's not get into all that.

7.  So, in spaces in real life where interaction is totally horizontal, there is little actual contact between people.  In fact, one might venture to say (it seems totally obvious to say) that in ordinary life the degree of contact and liberty of communication are proportionate to one's "ascent" along a vertical axis of exclusivity and relational closeness.

8.  Take these thoughts, and apply them to something like Reddit or Twitter.  Every social "medium" online has its own definite structure, which determines the way interactions take place on it.  Reddit has a structure characterized by topical sub-reddits, by the up-vote/down-vote feature, the ability to comment, the increased visibility for "controversial" and "popular" posts, and the lack of a user profile, which encourages anonymity.  Reddit is also characterized by a totally horizontal social dimension.  In other words (with a few minor exceptions), everyone can go everywhere, participate in any conversation, and perform the same functions as everyone else.  In this way, Reddit is like a public library or a park.  The main difference is that it's a park where thousands of people are congregating all the time, to do nothing but talk to strangers about various topics, and generally in the most unreserved and vocal fashion conceivable.

9.  Imagine someone who went around insinuating themselves into everyone's conversations at the park, and ferociously opining on every aspect of everything... the police would likely be called to detain the person.  One reason it is "OK" to do this sort of thing in social media, but not in real life, is that there is a strong buffer between people which makes them feel safe. The anonymous person screaming at me on Twitter or threatening to spray bodily waste on me while I sleep is prevented from actually doing so by anonymity, physical distance, and the difficulty of making contact with me in person. Additionally, participants in social media remain participants by choice.  They can close the tab in a flash, or delete their accounts, or whatever.  The public at large has no "right" to be left in peace on a particular social site, the way we have a right to peaceably use public spaces in real life.

10.  The structure of each social site creates a different degree of "verticality" that governs the behavior of participants.  For example, Gmail and Google Chat are extremely "vertical" social environments.  No one can ordinarily find anyone else's email unless it is given to them directly, and even then the conversations people participate in there are invisible to everyone except the participants.  Facebook is a step down from this.  In Facebook there are chats, groups, and the "timeline".  Each of these has variable settings for the degree of openness and so on.  The default settings guarantee that one still regularly encounters conversations with people one has never heard of before, and will probably never meet, but the fact that the structure is at root based on users' declarations that there exists a stable relationship between them (a "friendship") creates a staggered set of spaces in which people can converse—a tiered environment.

11.  Aside from the existence of definite permissions (e.g. "who can see my stuff" on Facebook) verticality can also be created by interests.  Not everyone is going search for a conversation about the quality of a particular brand of fountain pen ink.  Those who end up on a site dedicated to such things are therefore very likely to have a certain set of characteristics, which can serve as the basis of a community.  This was what I experienced with Tolkien fandom back in the day.  The marginal character of the community created a sense of good will and esprit de corps that functioned as social glue and created a desire for respectful, positive interaction.

12.  Totally horizontal social sites, because they lack the tiered verticality contributed through "friendships" or the isolation typical of forums dedicated to particular topics, tend to be characterized by the license permitted there.  4chan and Twitter are obvious examples of this.  We learn what to expect from ourselves by learning what to expect from others, and the structural features of a given social environment which determine what sorts of interactions are most visible, and how interactions take place, reliably determine the character of the average interaction on that site.  4chan is an anything-goes backwater, because of its anonymity, because it is known for protecting abominable forms of speech, and because it is based not at all on relationships or the development of a known personality, but on whatever one wants to share or talk about at any given moment.  Twitter is similar: because of the extreme limitations on what can be tweeted, the most popular tweets tend to be the sort that are not inhibited by brevity.  Unfortunately for Twitter, these happen to be links, emotional outcries, and superficial banter.  Now and then one will see people trying to express extended thoughts on Twitter, but the results discouraging.

13.  In real life, when you make someone's acquaintance and develop a habit of interacting regularly, the conditions for interactions are always elective and subject to the "vertical" dimension.  The fact that once someone brought a guest to my house for a party, does not mean that that person will be granted entry to every social interaction I have, even if I get along with them or establish a friendship.  Everyone has co-workers with whom one gets along swimmingly every day from 7am to 4pm, but with whom one does not interact outside the workplace or share the details of one's inner life.  Every single choice to interact in real life involves the vertical dimension to some extent.

14.  Because relationship-based social sites like Facebook presume some foundation of real-world contact, they start out, for new users, as a fairly natural virtual extension of ordinary social interactions.  Facebook is like a virtual party at which most of your friends are in attendance most of the time.  But, as the group of "friends" grows, it no longer includes only people you interact with regularly, but also old friends, family, loose acquaintances, co-workers, friends of friends, people you've never actually met, friends of people you've never actually met, etc.

15.  Eventually, if you let this process continue indefinitely, Facebook becomes your own personalized version of one of the purely horizontal sites.  You may control the membership of your public, to a certain extent, but this control is uncomfortably bivalent.  And the bivalence makes things difficult at times.  Suppose you become "friends" with a loose acquaintance with whom you would not choose to interact on a regular basis in real life.  Once the relationship has been established online, it cannot be terminated except by a few methods: one can "unfriend", which is generally taken as an overtly hostile gesture, one can "block", which is extremely hostile, or one can tinker with visibility settings, meaning that one has to expend effort so that the person does not see whatever you're sharing.  Because none of these options are particularly appealing, one tends to develop over the long run a gaggle of associates online with whom one does not have any interest in interacting, but with whom one interacts nonetheless—or, one alienates people by unfriending them, creating hostilities and hurt feelings.

16.  In real life one does not have these problems so much.  When relationships have passed their prime, one can simply let them fall dormant.  If one only wants to engage to a certain extent, one chooses to see someone to that extent.  Some people have difficulties with this because they feel subject to imaginary social expectations and therefore must engage, but on the whole the extent of one's personal involvement with others is subject to constant choices and renewals instead of a one-time enduring affirmation of "friendship".  Google attempted to solve this problem with their "circles" feature in Google Plus, but it does not seem to me to have worked, and this for several reasons.

17.  As time goes on, one of the main functions of social media has become to broadcast content.  This function is natural to the structure of these sites because they gather together large numbers of people simultaneously.  If one has something to say or display and wants it seen, this is the way to make that happen.  Because most people seem to have something to say or display which they want seen, the streams that make up these sites are never short of new content.  And because of the endless multiplication of new items being presented for review, anyone who wants recognition and exposure will tend to post frequently, so as to keep appearing at the top of the stream.  Frequency is opposed to the expenditure of much effort, and desire for attention (or approval) sets the tone of much of what is said on these sites.

18.  The weakness of the system becomes clear whenever one encounters, and develops habitual contact with, people who turn out to be more or less insane.  The stability and verticality of real life relationships establish a number of incentives against emotionalism, unrestrained vitriol, and the violent termination of friendships.  These things pop up all the time in real life, but there is no real cost for them on the internet.  Someone can keep you as a digital companion for long stretches of time, and you can dangle alongside them out of inertia, or shared interests, or amusement, with some vague sense of their instability, only to have it hit you full force one day with little warning.  Where were the cues?  Cues are more difficult in an environment made up primarily of text (generated by people you've never met) where the rules of polite interaction are perpetually suspended.  And likewise, real relationships are difficult in such a space where there are no commitments, few consequences, and little sense of propriety.

19.  Where does this leave us?  I am not sure.

22 July 2015

Operation Margarine, by Roland Barthes

I seem to frequently have the need to cite this short essay by Roland Barthes, for the principle he identifies in it.  Since it is not easily available elsewhere, I'm putting it here for my own use.  The essay appears in his classic collection Mythologies.

Operation Margarine

To instill into the Established Order the complacent portrayal of its drawbacks has nowadays become a paradoxical but incontrovertible means of exalting it. Here is the pattern of this new style demonstration: take the established value which you want to restore or develop, and first lavishly display its pettiness, the injustices which it produces, the vexations to which it gives rise, and plunge it into its natural imperfection; then, at the last moment, save it in spite of, or rather by the heavy curse of its blemishes. Some examples? There is no lack of them.

Take the Army; show without disguise its chiefs as martinets, its discipline as narrow-minded and unfair, and into this stupid tyranny immerse an average human being, fallible but likeable, the archetype of the spectator. And then, at the last moment, turn over the magical hat, and pull out of it the image of an army, flags flying, triumphant, bewitching, to which, like Sganarelle's wife, one cannot but be faithful although beaten (From here to eternity).

Take the Army again: lay down as a basic principle the scientific fanaticism of its engineers, and their blindness; show all that is destroyed by such a pitiless rigour: human beings, couples. And then bring out the flag, save the army in the name of progress, hitch the greatness of the former to the triumph of the latter (Les Cyclones, by Jules Roy).

Finally, the Church: speak with burning zeal about its self-righteousness, the narrow-mindedness of its bigots, indicate that all this can be murderous, hide none of the weaknesses of the faith. And then, in extremis, hint that the letter of the law, however unattractive, is a way to salvation for its very victims, and so justify moral austerity by the saintliness of those whom it crushes (The Living Room, by Graham Greene).

It is a kind of homeopathy: one cures doubts about the Church or the Army by the very ills of the Church and the Army. One inoculates the public with a contingent evil to prevent or cure an essential one. To rebel against the inhumanity of the Established Order and its values, according to this way of thinking, is an illness which is common, natural, forgivable; one must not collide with it head-on, but rather exorcize it like a possession: the patient is made to give a representation of his illness, he is made familiar with the very appearance of his revolt, and this revolt disappears all the more surely since, once at a distance and the object of a gaze, the Established Order is no longer anything but a Manichaean compound and therefore inevitable, one which wins on both counts, and is therefore beneficial. The immanent evil of enslavement is redeemed by the transcendent good of religion, fatherland, the Church, etc. A little 'confessed' evil saves one from acknowledging a lot of hidden evil.

One can trace in advertising a narrative pattern which clearly shows the working of this new vaccine. It is found in the publicity for Astra margarine. The episode always begins with a cry of indignation against margarine: 'A mousse? Made with margarine? Unthinkable!' 'Margarine? Your uncle will be furious!' And then one's eyes are opened, one's conscience becomes more pliable, and margarine is a delicious food, tasty, digestible, economical, useful in all circumstances. The moral at the end is well known: 'Here you are, rid of a prejudice which cost you dearly!' It is in the same way that the Established Order relieves you of your progressive prejudices. The Army, an absolute value? It is unthinkable: look at its vexations, its strictness, the always possible blindness of its chiefs. The Church, infallible? Alas, it is very doubtful: look at its bigots, its powerless priests, its murderous conformism. And then common sense makes its reckoning: what is this trifling dross of Order, compared to its advantages? It is well worth the price of an immunization. What does it matter, after all, if margarine is just fat, when it goes further than butter, and costs less? What does it matter, after all, if Order is a little brutal or a little blind, when it allows us to live cheaply? Here we are, in our turn, rid of a prejudice which cost us dearly, too dearly, which cost us too much in scruples, in revolt, in fights and in solitude.

20 July 2015

The Excellence of Perfectae Caritatis and Reasons for its Failure

I am presently reading Volume 1 of Jesuit Fr. Joseph Becker's chronicle of changes in the Society of Jesus in the US from 1965-1975 (The Re-Formed Jesuits).  The book and its sequel are both excellent: calm, objective, emphatically non-evaluative records of events.  Fr. Becker mentions early on in the book that the Vatican II decree on religious life (Perfectae Caritatis) was one of the main early sources of change in the Society of Jesus, so I decided to read it.  Perfectae Caritatis is a very fine exhortation on the virtues and character of religious life. It is, from beginning to end, in its descriptions of the spirit and ideals of religious life, clear in its affirmation of traditional teaching, and sometimes even eloquent. Reading it, I noticed an emphasis on certain points.  For example:
"Nevertheless everyone should keep in mind that the hope of renewal lies more in the faithful observance of the rules and constitutions than in multiplying laws." (PC 4)
"[Purely contemplative religious] present God, indeed, with a special sacrifice of praise; their great holiness inspires and embellishes, their mystical mission enriches God's people.  They are the glory of the Church, the focus of divine favor ... [T]heir withdrawal from the world and the exercises proper to the contemplative life should be preserved with the utmost care." (PC 7)
"Religious, therefore, who are striving faithfully to observe the chastity they have professed must have faith in the words of the Lord, and trusting in God's help not overestimate their own strength but practice mortification and custody of the senses. Neither should they neglect the natural means which promote health of mind and body. As a result they will not be influenced by those false doctrines which scorn perfect continence as being impossible or harmful to human development and they will repudiate by a certain spiritual instinct everything which endangers chastity. In addition let all, especially superiors, remember that chastity is guarded more securely when true fraternal love flourishes in the common life of the community." (PC 12)

Beyond these, there is the injunction to practice poverty in fact and not merely in spirit, to guarantee that spiritual nourishment and formation continue throughout the life of the religious, that the common life is nurtured through the daily reading of sacred scripture, through the liturgy, and through the Eucharist, and so on.  

Now, anyone who knows anything about the history of religious life in the Church over the past 60 years, knows that beginning in the 1960s, around the time Perfectae Caritatis was promulgated, a theretofore unimaginable collapse in the discipline, orthodoxy, and numbers of religious took place.  Obedience and community life were set aside, the traditional practice of chastity and mortification was eschewed for a "third way" approach, religious congregations became fonts of doctrinal dissent, traditional ascetical practices were abandoned, and in a number of cases the orders themselves so drastically re-imagined their missions and constitutions that they would, in their present state (if they still exist) not be recognizable to their founders.  In short: chaos and collapse.

What Fr. Becker points out is that the chaos in the government of religious orders came not from the decree's description of religious life per se, or its exhortations to renewal, but from the descriptions in the decree about how the renewal is to take place.  Consider the following passages.
"The manner of living, praying and working should be suitably adapted everywhere, but especially in mission territories, to the modern physical and psychological circumstances of the members and also, as required by the nature of each institute, to the necessities of the apostolate, the demands of culture, and social and economic circumstances. According to the same criteria let the manner of governing the institutes also be examined. Therefore let constitutions, directories, custom books, books of prayers and ceremonies and such like be suitably re-edited and, obsolete laws being suppressed, be adapted to the decrees of this sacred synod." (PC 3)
The above is the decree's primary order for renewal.  In principle the command is reasonable: the constitutions should be reviewed and obsolete laws should be suppressed.  Problems arise when one attempts to discern the criteria for "obsolescence" and "suitable adaptation".  The decree speaks of "modern physical and psychological circumstances".  What are these circumstances?  It is possible that the Council Fathers intended the decree to reference the description of "Modern Man" given in Gaudium et Spes, but that Pastoral Constitution had not yet been put in its final form by the Council.  Nor, even supposing this intention, are the descriptions of modern conditions given in Gaudium et Spes adequate to guide the reformation of complex codes of customs and laws which, in many cases, had developed gradually over the course of centuries.  

There is no doubt whatsoever that there were practices among some religious orders in the Church in 1965 which were proportioned to conditions no longer existing in society and needed to be suppressed.  But by failing to guide the renewal, and pointing instead to vague "psychological circumstances"—which could be interpreted by anyone however he wished, and often were interpreted in direct contradiction to the contents of this decree—the Council effectively opened the floodgates to chaos and confusion in the religious orders.  Consider two more passages:
"Papal cloister should be maintained in the case of nuns engaged exclusively in the contemplative life. However, it must be adjusted to conditions of time and place and obsolete practices suppressed. This should be done after due consultation with the monasteries in question." (PC 16) 
"The religious habit, an outward mark of consecration to God, should be simple and modest, poor and at the same becoming. In addition it must meet the requirements of health and be suited to the circumstances of time and place and to the needs of the ministry involved. The habits of both men and women religious which do not conform to these norms must be changed." (PC 17)
What exactly the "conditions of time and place" are, we are not told.  Nor are we given guidance for discerning them.  Furthermore "obsolete practices" could be anything judged by the members of the order to be outmoded.  And, as Fr. Becker points out, by demanding that religious perform these reviews, and demanding that the laws, customs, and habits be accommodated to the conditions of time and place, the burden of proof is placed on tradition, and change becomes the default option.  One more quote:
"In order that the adaptation of religious life to the needs of our time may not be merely external and that those employed by rule in the active apostolate may be equal to their task, religious must be given suitable instruction, depending on their intellectual capacity and personal talent, in the currents and attitudes of sentiment and thought prevalent in social life today. This education must blend its elements together harmoniously so that an integrated life on the part of the religious concerned results." (PC 18)
Here we find that religious are not only to accommodate their constitutions, habits, and customs to time and place, but that the education of religious should form them in the currents and attitudes of sentiment and thought prevalent today, with the goal of producing an "integrated life" on the part of religious.  It is very difficult to say what this paragraph means.  Perhaps it simply means that religious should be given the tools to analyze and understand the principles and rationale of modern sentiments and ideas, so as better to engage them (a laudable idea).  But one could also read it—as many Jesuits read it in the time following the Council—as demanding that religious integrate themselves more closely into the currents and attitudes of sentiment and thought prevalent in social life today, so that they become ordinary participants alongside their secular brothers and sisters in the world.

Of course, this latter interpretation is incompatible with the character and essence of religious life, even as it is described by Perfectae Caritatis itself.  But in the absence of guidelines of reform, and in the absence of disciplinary regulation both on the part of religious superiors and on the part of the authorities in Rome after the Council, it's clear how these commands could produce such a destructive chain of events.

So, to conclude, what we find in the Second Vatican Council's decree on the renewal of religious life, is a beautiful and orthodox expression of the nature of religious life in its various forms, coupled with a requirement for reform and renewal which is stated in such a way that it fails to give adequate criteria for judging obsolescence or updating laws and customs, while lending at least textual support (through the language of "time and place") to any possible innovation based on modern habits of thought, lifestyle, dress, etc.  In short, a fine and well-intentioned decree seems to have been rendered ineffectual (and even counterproductive) in its desire for reform, on account of what was left unsaid or unclearly said in it.

These are merely the opinions of someone wandering through the historical record.  More precise, and probably more accurate, conclusions could be drawn by someone who had worked through all the official decrees on religious life which were issued during the pontificate of Pope Paul VI. 



Pope Paul VI did in fact give criteria for the implementation of Perfectae Caritatis, in the Motu Proprio letter Ecclesiae Sanctae.  However, this letter suffers from some of the same problems identified above.  Specifically, it gives an open mandate for the adjustment of the constitutions and practices of religious life to the conditions of modern life, without specifying what these are, but directing those responsible for performing the revisions to the "spirit" of Lumen Gentium, chapters 4 & 5.  The following quote is illustrative:
"Those elements are to be considered obsolete which do not constitute the nature and purpose of the institute and which, having lost their meaning and power, are no longer a real help to religious life." (Ecclesiae Sanctae II.17)
The determination of which elements are inessential and have "lost their meaning and power", or are "unhelpful" is left open.  And, in retrospect, the 1960s and 70s were a particularly unfortunate time to give free reign to impulses toward revision and reconstruction.

19 July 2015

Adoration and Idolatry

Think of common forms of idolatry… money, pleasure, power, celebrities, entertainment, diversion, status, self-improvement, health... How does one come to have these things as idols?

Habitual desire, combined with a sense of the limitlessness of the possible experience of a thing.  Adoration has always this character: that you rest in the contemplation of the infinitude of something.  And the contemplation of it, not as an object of interest, but as the ultimate object of interest, as an ultimate and unending good… this makes it idolatry.

Litmus test for idolatry: is there something in life which you contemplate as its own good, worthy of devotion, infinite and infinitely attractive, which is not God, and not referred somehow to God?

The principle and foundation of Ignatius comes to mind:

Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul. 
And the other things on the face of the earth are created for man and that they may help him in prosecuting the end for which he is created. 
From this it follows that man is to use them as much as they help him on to his end, and ought to rid himself of them so far as they hinder him as to it. 
For this it is necessary to make ourselves indifferent to all created things in all that is allowed to the choice of our free will and is not prohibited to it; so that, on our part, we want not health rather than sickness, riches rather than poverty, honor rather than dishonor, long rather than short life, and so in all the rest; desiring and choosing only what is most conducive for us to the end for which we are created.

17 July 2015


1.  Tonight I watched Interstellar, the Christopher Nolan hit from late 2014.  I am about 8 months late in reviewing it, and I have basically stopped writing film reviews.  Nonetheless, here I am.

2.  There were off notes from the beginning of the film.  McConaughey's accent clashed with his father in law's—this was acceptable (in terms of plausibility), but annoying.  I preferred John Lithgow's acting.  The line about the drone needing to learn how to adapt was silly.  The vagueness of the global crisis made things implausible.  No MRIs, but automated combines and drones flying for years on end? Vague dust problems? Perhaps I missed something.

3.  The trick with the books was too convenient.  It was so much of a just-so connection between the science/exploration wing of the plot and the paternity/love wing that, while it solved all the internal problems admirably, it gave nothing to the viewer to take away.

4.  The deathbed meeting at the end was barren and gross in the same way as the ending of Kubrick/Spielberg's AI: Artificial Intelligence, in which the robot boy whose sole desire in life is to be loved, is granted a simulation of his wish for a single day by aliens who have carved him out of the frozen Atlantic.  Nothing in the satisfaction of Haley Joel Osmond's desire in that movie was pleasing or edifying to the viewer.  Instead, it was horrifyingly hollow, and would have been tragic except that one has a hard time attributing tragedy to robot drama. As a result it was a hollow simulation of the fulfillment of the desire of a hollow simulation of a person—perhaps fitting, but if one had any sympathy for the boy, it was horrible. In this case, the reunion at the end would have been tragic, except that it was perceived as a happy moment for both parties.

5.  The film is fundamentally about paternal abandonment.  It deals with this question in an unusual way by glorifying the father's departure because he is supposedly serving the interests and needs of humanity.  And in the end I think we are supposed to admire McConaughey's heroism.  But if we strip away the just-so resolution of the story, with the black hole and all that, the remaining story (father abandons children on noble mission; mission fails; children are orphaned and slowly die from plagues) is simply tragic.

6.  Paternal abandonment is a timely theme, for us in the United States.

7.  The most painful scene, and the best scene, was of McConaughey viewing the transmissions from his son after the 20 year interval.  I found this deeply moving, in part because of the pain the son must have felt speaking to an absent father, and then because of the pain the father feels witnessing this in his child, but mostly because of the love and fidelity the son shows, especially in the midst of his own difficulties.  Twenty years of growing up and suspending judgment of the probabilities and possibilities of the father's return is a long time to keep making contact.  What would it be to have so much love and faithfulness, not to simply move on?  Jessica Chastain's character has none of this fidelity, and her love shows itself mainly in resentment.

8.  McConaughey's character does not seem to be a man of ideas.  He's a skilled pilot with a good sense of where he wants to go at present, and a strong commitment to returning to his family. I did not find his struggle to be very sympathetic, since he effectively left on a suicide mission when he took off. Amidst the dishonesty of Michael Caine's character, the bitter mania of Chastain's, the irrationality of Hathaway's, the cynical darwinism of Matt Damon's, and the blandness of everyone else, I think the son's character is the one genuinely redeeming moral excellence of the story.  I was disturbed by the way he was treated at the end, as a sort of pawn to Chastain's reconciliation with her ghost-father, and then dropped.  They did not do justice to this fellow's character.

06 July 2015

A Taxonomy of Desk Weeds

Desk weeds can be divided into two main categories.  On the one hand we have the genus "paper", and on the other the genus "vessel" (n.b., this is not a proper division, but a functional one).  Paper is further divided into "loose papers" and "bound papers". Loose papers include such species as old receipts, post-it notes, Sunday bulletins, notecards, stock certificates, and bits of scratch paper.  Loose papers on the whole grow at a predictably steady rate, but are easy to clear up, provided one tends to them at regular intervals.  Bound papers on the other hand include only two main species (magazines and books) but the virulence of this genus of desk-weed should not be underestimated.  Not only do they quickly grow up into large, tottering mounds which threaten to eliminate all free work space, but their removal requires considerably more time than loose papers, because they must be sorted and carried to their proper shelves.

Passing then to the second category of desk weeds, we can divide vessels into two main genera: disposables and non-disposables.  The genus "disposables" is dominated by one species: aluminum cans, though there are other minor species alongside it (e.g. spray bottles, e-liquid bottles, paper coffee cups).  The uniformity of the members of the aluminum can species makes them easy to clean up, but once they have begun to multiply, they tend to grow uncontrollably for a period of time.  Thus provision must be made for their removal as soon as they appear.  The genus "non-disposables" can be divided most conveniently into "drinking vessels" and "eating vessels", although again this is not a proper division of the genus.  Among non-disposable drinking vessels we find the species "water glass" and "coffee mug".  Among "eating vessels" we find "bowls" and "plates", along with their separable appendages "eating utensils".  Among all the desk weeds, these have the slowest rate of growth, but are perhaps the most difficult to get rid of.  Their multiplication can, however, be halted through the exercise of certain hygienic habits.

So much, then, for our account of desk weeds.

04 July 2015

Experiments in New Evangelization: Martyrdom at the July 4th BBQ

Bea and Nestorius are loose acquaintances.  Bea has a passionate love of velcro (evidenced by her shoes, baseball cap, and several bracelets), and Nestorius prides himself on his ability to recite from memory all of Dana Scully's monologues from the first seven seasons of The X-Files.  They are gathered in the backyard of a friend on the Fourth of July for a barbecue.  Both of them being what we might call "exotic social commodities", they appeal to a rather narrow consumer base, and have, as a result, settled near a bowl of chips, so as to stay occupied as long as their unique insights are not demanded by the group at large.  They fall to talking.

03 July 2015

Evangelism and Mercy

By chance tonight I remembered Courage International's wonderful film Desire of the Everlasting Hills.  What is this film about, really?  We want to say it's about three homosexual Catholics telling their stories.  But I think this grasps the matter cheaply, using superficial tropes just because they're ready at hand.  Really the film is about three very brave and beautiful people, and it's about them as people.  Brave because all of them have explicitly come to terms with their own weaknesses and incompleteness, and the suffering set before them, and have accepted these things.  Beautiful because all of them display the luminous clarity of soul that comes from the virtue of honesty, which St. Thomas calls "spiritual beauty".

I was astonished after watching the film a second time, and struck to the core (again) by the unpretentious and unforced truthfulness with which these three speak about their lives.  There is the most wonderful self-knowledge here, and incredible mercy.  For all the chaos and anger after Obergefell, I think this film expresses the Gospel as well as anything else I've seen or read this week.  And what strikes me in the end is that the struggles of these beautiful people are not limited to the homosexually inclined.  Who doesn't recognize that the misplaced longing for completion we place in an idolized image of ourselves or others, the perfect romance, or promiscuity, is leading so many sad people in our society down a path of futility and fruitlessness?  But God is always there.  "He has caught us," in the words of Fr. Brown, "with an unseen hook and an invisible line, which is long enough to let us wander to the ends of the world and still to bring us back with a twitch upon the thread."

And remember, it's not really about Catholic homosexuals.

01 July 2015

Liberation and the Future Trajectory of American Sexuality

"Coming Out" as a Sacrament

In the past twenty years, an inordinate portion of American cultural and political life has been devoted to the discovery and disclosure of authentic sexual identities.  "I am trans." "I am bi." "I am gay." etc.  Up to this point the mainstream discourse about sexuality has focused on what we might refer to as the confession of a hidden truth.  We are all invited (like penitents kneeling before the priest of public opinion) to search deep within ourselves for the truth of our own sexuality, and, once we have discovered it, to announce it, exercise it, and strive to fulfill it.

This impulse to be shriven of the secret of one's sexual truth has created an entertainment and media industry saturated with plaintive voices declaring "That's who I am!" to warm-hearted consumers who want to participate in the liberation and moral affirmation of everyone embracing their "true selves".  The whole festival has an aura much like the sacrament of penance or a riverside revival: we rejoice in the admission of the penitent, we urge his conversion to a new way of life, and we gladly absolve him, just as we ourselves wish to be absolved.  Those who refuse to participate are labeled "merciless" or (in the Church) "pharisees", for trying to subjugate these New Men to the Old Law of sin and judgment.

In recent months this process has reached what seems to be its apex, with the unbelievable flurry of adulation surrounding the sex-change of Bruce Jenner, the huge number of celebrated cases of teens (or even younger children) choosing to "transition" to life as members of the opposite sex, and finally the Supreme Court's recent discernment that two men or two women must be allowed by all the governments in this country to contract "marriages", based on an occultist reading of the US Constitution.