Saturday, March 29, 2014

Pope Francis the Confessor

There was quite the hubbub made in the press about Pope Francis being caught on camera making his confession during a penance service this last week. Apparently this is the first time a pope has made confession in a public setting like this. I thought this a beautiful gesture on his part, with several salutary benefits to the Church and the world at large.

For one, it puts his money where his mouth has been, so to speak. Pope Francis throughout his pontificate has stressed the importance of the Sacrament of Penance and has exhorted the faithful to avail themselves of it. By being seen himself partaking of this sacrament, Pope Francis gives witness to its power and efficacy. It's like the ultimate celebrity endorsement: "I'm not only the leader of the Holy Catholic Church, I'm also a client."

For another, this public act of penance is one more way to clear up the all-too-prevalent confusion of papal infallibility for impeccability. Papal infallibility means that the Pope cannot err when in a solemn and public act he proclaims some matter of faith or morals to be definitively held by the faithful. Some people take "infallibility" to mean "the Pope can do no wrong, he is incapable of sin or error of any sort." But that would be impeccability, not infallibility. (From the Latin peccatum, "sin.") The Pope is a man, with foibles and shortcomings and bad habits, like any of us. And he knows he is a sinner in need of absolution. By letting himself be seen confessing, he helps us to know it, too, and thus to know the limits of his office: the Pope is our inerrant teacher, but he can still do all kinds of bad things. Just look at the Borgia popes. Or St. Peter, for that matter.

Let's follow the example of Pope Francis. Confess your sins! Be free of their chains! Embrace God's forgiveness made possible through the loving self-sacrifice of Christ! To quote the Oracle from The Matrix, "I promise, by the time you've finished, you'll be right as rain."

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Man Does Not Live By Popcorn Alone: What My Lenten Observance Has Taught Me

The time-honored practice of giving up some licit pleasure for Lent takes many forms. One popular choice is sweets, which is a real pain when there are lots of spring birthdays among people you know. Another is alcohol: this has the added bonuses of enlarging your wallet and reducing your waistline. The truly stout-hearted give up meat for all 40 days--these are braver men than I.

Me? I gave up popcorn.

"What kind of ridiculous choice is that?" you may ask. Oh, it's not ridiculous at all. I couldn't think of anything better.

There are few things I enjoy more in life than a big bowl of hot, salty, buttered popcorn, with a glass of something cold and sweet at hand. When I want to relax after a long day of work and study, when I've had a rough day or experienced some setback, when I want a little comfort or good feeling, nothing quite satisfies me as this all-American treat.

Maybe for you this same function is fulfilled by a hunk of chocolate, or a gin and tonic, or a 12-oz. steak. But whatever it is, the point for all of us in giving something up is encapsulated by Our Lord in his confrontation with Satan during his temptation in the desert. Jesus, having fasted for days and days, was hungry. Satan, being the devious son-of-a-gun that he is, tempted Jesus to turn the stones before him into bread. Jesus responds by quoting Deuteronomy: "Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God."

The purpose of fasting is to concentrate our minds and our wills on God. When I deny myself food or pleasure, and then the desire for those things needles at me, I remember that what I need most is not food or pleasure, not a bowl of popcorn or the tasty sensation that accompanies it, but rather God, His love, His goodness, His grace. Giving up these other good things for a period of time helps us to reorient ourselves, re-calibrate our priorities, re-establish the elements of our lives in their proper order.

So, when I've had a long day or a tough day and get a hankering for some popcorn, this Lent has helped me to realize that what I'm really hankering for is God. When I want some hot buttery goodness, what I really want is prayer, and grace, and the peace that only comes from union with the Creator of all things, popcorn included. I know that. I try to live it. But man, writing about this really makes me want a bowl of popcorn right now.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Does Science Disprove God? Nope.

I was listening to an episode of Catholic Answers Live that was fielding calls from agnostics and atheists, and I was amazed at how often the same sorts of objections were raised by the callers. So many of them boiled down to this: "Science can't find any proof for God's existence. Therefore we have no reason to believe God exists."

The atheist or agnostic claims that one ought not to believe in God if there is no scientific way to verify His existence. If we were to set this out in a simple syllogism, it would say:
We ought not to affirm the existence of anything for which there is no physical evidence.
God is a thing for which there is no physical evidence.
Therefore, we ought not to posit the existence of God.
What's wrong with this argument? Well, an argument can be faulty either in its structure (form) or its content (matter). The form of the argument is sound: the premises lead to the conclusion, provided the premises are true. But are the premises true? Nope.

The biggest problem is with the premise "We ought not to posit the existence of anything for which there is no physical evidence." This premise assumes that only physical things, things able to be detected by observation and verified by the scientific method, exist. It claims that our only sure basis of knowledge is empirical science, that we cannot say that we know anything beyond what observation tells us. But this is not true. There are all kinds of things we know to be true that cannot be established by the scientific method.

For one, there are truths of our own interior experience. It is true that right now, I feel fine. It is true that I love my fiancee. It is true that you feel hungry. It is true that you hate the Lakers. All of these things are true, but there is no scientific experiment one can run to verify the truth of these things. They are not subject to empirical observation.

For another, there are moral truths. It is wrong to injure innocent parties. It is wrong to steal. We know these to be true, but we don't know that by observing human behavior and drawing the conclusion that these things are wrong. We don't derive our morals from behavior; we apply our morals to behavior. We don't determine their truth with test tubes and telescopes.

Nor are the very truths used by science to do its work. Science draws conclusions based on observation; but the rules of reason that science uses to draw those conclusions are not themselves based on observation. The Law of Identity (A equals A, A does not equal B) or the Law of Non-Contradiction (a thing cannot both be and not be at the same time and in the same respect) are two obvious, intuitive truths that structure our thinking and that we use to examine and evaluate our observations. Mathematical truths are not demonstrated by science, either. What experiment do you run to prove that two plus two equals four? It is pre-observational truth, what we call a priori. Truths based on empirical observation, like scientific laws, are called a posteriori. To use the argument above, you must deny all a priori truth; but if you try to do that, you cut your own legs out from under you. Certain a priori truths provide the condition for the possibility of science. The existence of these truths alone prove that not everything that is is demonstrable by science.

Indeed, the claim "It is true that only that which can be discovered by empirical observation (a posteriori) is true or real" is itself not an a posteriori claim, but rather an a priori one. The claim refutes itself!

This is all to say that the this materialist empiricist atheist must concede the fact that there are truths beyond those with which science deals. With that, the atheist must admit the possibility of things existing outside of the sensor range of empirical science. Then maybe, just maybe, there's a God after all.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Good Ol' St. Joe

Today is the solemnity of St. Joseph, the foster father of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the guardian of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the patron of the universal Church. Such an august occasion ought not to pass without at least a passing remark.

I will focus on one aspect of this great and holy man. Some people object to the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary by claiming it ludicrous and unrealistic that a married couple would live their whole lives without enjoying marital relations. "Who could possibly do that?" they say. Well, with God, all things are possible, as a rather highly placed authority once said. The union of Mary and Joseph was not intended to be one for the purpose of producing children together, but rather of providing a safe and loving and pious home for their son, the Son. Of course, they loved each other, and expressed that love by the love they showed to Jesus. And Joseph showed his love for Mary by honoring her place in salvation history as the New Eve, the new Ark of the Covenant, the Temple and Spouse of the Holy Spirit. Joseph's love for Mary was beyond physicality. Joseph "teaches us that it is possible to love without possessing," as Pope Benedict once put it.

St. Joseph serves as a model for consecrated religious, who give their lives for love of God and neighbor without holding onto anything themselves. He can also serve as a model for married couples, to help them remember that there is more to relationships than the physical dimension: there is a deeper, spiritual dimension, which must take precedence, that the physical may take its proper place and thus be fruitful and joy-giving. May we look to St. Joseph in our time of need.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

On Nuns and Bad Teaching

I've had a number of discussions with people of my parents' or grandparents' generation who consider themselves faithful to the Church's teaching who have uttered rank heresies: we have to earn our salvation through good works; unbaptized babies will go to Hell; only Catholics can go to heaven. When I try to correct their mistaken notions, they reply defensively, "Well, that's what the nuns taught us when I was growing up."

My interlocutor here is invoking the spotless reputation of the "pre-Vatican II nun," in full habit, always faithful to the Church's teaching, praying for our souls whenever she isn't teaching our children, the bulwark of the local parish in the days before the Council allegedly turned everything upside-down and changed the Church's teaching, etc. Surely Sister wouldn't have taught us something that wasn't so? She wasn't like, you know, those nuns we have today.

First of all, there are many good and holy and faithful religious sisters today, just as there were then. And there are heretical and unfaithful nuns today, just as there were then.

We also have to consider the possibility that you have remembered incorrectly or you initially misunderstood what it was that the sisters taught you. Maybe you took their exhortations toward good works to mean that they are the mechanism by which we are saved, instead of that by which we are built up in holiness and closeness to God. Maybe you mistook the theological theory of the Limbo of unborn babies to be a hellish place. Maybe you thought when Sister talked about all the benefits of the Catholic faith (the grace of the sacraments, the fullness of the truth), you thought she meant that without these things it was impossible for anyone to be saved. Perhaps that was it?

And then there's this, a thought quite likely anathema to many: perhaps Sister taught you wrong. Maybe she was too stringent in her theology. Maybe she went beyond what the Church officially taught and believed. Maybe you weren't taught what you should have been. We could give the benefit of the doubt and assume a good intention, though. Perhaps Sister, living in a predominately Protestant country that openly discriminated against Catholics, got a little defensive and pushed a little beyond what the Church taught, in order to distinguish "us from them" and establish a firm identity with firm teaching: "No! Earn your way to heaven! Only baptized babies can get in! Only Catholics!" A bad result, but people can be excused at least a little for what they do when their backs are against the wall; or if not excused, at least we can sympathize.

Now, you might say to me, "Nick, you're a post-Vatican II child, you don't know all the changes that happened! That's what the Church used to teach! Things ain't the way they used to be."

Dude. I can read.

I've read theology manuals from before the Council, the ones used in seminaries and universities. They do not say that we earn salvation by works. They do not say that unbaptized babies go to Hell. They do not say that only Catholics can be saved. Indeed, they say pretty much exactly what the documents of the Second Vatican Council and subsequent teachings say. There are shifts in tone and emphasis and certain thoughts are developed more, but those are not substantial changes. The faith is essentially the same as it ever was, expanded and deepened but never contradictory.

If Sister taught you those things back then, she was wrong. Let's presume the error is in your memory and not in her instruction. Yes, the Church looks rather different on the outside in many ways compared to then. People hear things put in a different way than when they grew up, and they wonder what the change was about, and why it happened, and they long for the certainty they once had when Sister taught them such hard and fast doctrine. But let's make sure, in our search for certainty, that we're not certainly wrong.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Hitting the Big Time!

The folks at Catholic Stand have been gracious enough to add my as a regular columnist! "Regular" in this case means "once a month," which is just about enough time for me to periodically conjure up something that others might want to read. I'm very grateful to Catholic Stand for giving me the opportunity to spread my inanity farther across the Web.

Behold, my first entry:


Tuesday, March 11, 2014

"You are a Soul"? Nope.

There is a quote often attributed to C.S. Lewis that goes something akin to:

"You are not a body. You are a soul. You merely have a body."

Lewis never said it, but that's beside the point. I have heard and read far too many Christians repeating this phrase approvingly, tweeting it and posting it on Facebook and otherwise passing it along as some pearl of profound wisdom. But if you're a Christian, this is bad theology. Let me explain.

When you say something like "I am a soul, I only have a body," you've split the body and soul into two different things, with the soul being the really real thing, and the body to be a mere appendage or tool, a vehicle for getting around, a spacesuit to allow the soul to temporarily survive in this alien environment. You're a ghost in a machine, as Rene Descartes would say. But is that the case? Is that what things are like?

There is a profound and obvious difference between the experience of stubbing your toe and the experience of crashing your car. Your car is a vehicle, accidental to and outside of yourself; when you crash while inside of it, you feel its impact, but when the fender crumples, you don't crumple, and you don't experience a sensation of pain along with it. And when you stub your toe, your first thought isn't, "Dang, I hope the insurance covers the damage to my toe. Is the toe repair shop open on Sundays? Should I call a toe truck?" (I couldn't resist!) No, your thought is something akin to, "OWW!!! MY TOE!!!" One is related to you; one is you.

I would guess that people are drawn to this "You are a soul" phrase because it sounds spiritual and holy and ethereal and mysterious. But such thinking actually does harm to the idea of a human being. It divides us against ourselves. It alienates us from our own bodies. It destroys our integrity.

The classic Catholic definition of the human person, as laid out by St. Thomas using the philosophy of Aristotle, maintains the distinctiveness of the soul and body while insisting on their absolute unity and dependence on each other. A person is not two substances glued together, like an arts & crafts project; a person is the combination of two principles making a natural whole, sort of like a lyric and a melody making a song. The soul is what makes this collections of organs and tissues into a living human body; a body gives the spirit a corporeal existence and makes it a human soul, as opposed to some angel-like thing. A person is an ensouled body, or an embodied soul. When a person dies, and the soul separates from the body, each is incomplete. A body without its soul is a corpse, and a soul without its body is a spirit eagerly awaiting the Resurrection.

There's an important point: denigrating the body denigrates the doctrine of the Resurrection. It's amazing how often we forget it! We think of our eternal destiny as living with God forever in heaven (ideally), but for some reason there is a tendency to think of it as a purely spiritual existence. What about the "resurrection from the dead, and the life of the world to come"? Our destiny is precisely an embodied destiny, because as human beings we are by nature embodied creatures; that will not fundamentally change at the end of time. God likes what's he done with His design of us.

There is a great moral danger hidden in the erroneous view of "You are a soul": the potential of thinking,"Well, if I really am only my soul, and my body is just a temporary husk, then what does it matter to my eternal destiny what I do with my body? Why shouldn't I eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow I'll simply die and be rid of this hunk of flesh? Party time! Bring on the booze and the dames!" Certain groups of Gnostics in the early Church took to this way of thinking, and promoted (or at least didn't discourage) hedonism. Don't go down that dark road, my friends.

What you do with your body affects you, because it is you who does it. You make the decision, you do the act, you suffer the consequences. You are your body, AND you are your soul, because both are required to make you. When you die, the two are separated, and pine for each other. And on the Last Day, your soul will be rejoined to your body and you will meet your eternal destiny as you, whole, once again.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

How To and Not To Read the Bible

Here at the beginning of the Lenten season, many of us resolve to undertake some extra spiritual practice like praying the Rosary or going to Eucharistic adoration. I've heard some consider taking up reading some Scripture daily, but often they are daunted by the prospect. The Bible can seem so big and foreign and heady and, well, in some places, weird. What's with all the battle statistics in Numbers? Or those oddball visions in Daniel? Why does Jesus wither a fig tree? What on earth is going on in the Book of Revelation?

To repeat the most oft-given exhortation in the whole of Scripture: "Do not be afraid." Allow me to give a few tips for getting you started engaging the Word of God.

First, where to begin. I would suggest, as it was suggested to me, to start with one of the Gospels. As Christians, we believe that Scripture is the Word of God, and Jesus is the Word of God, so that, in some sense, Jesus must be on every page of the Bible, but it's simplest to begin with those pages that talk about him directly, his life, his ministry, his death and resurrection. Which Gospel you choose is your call: John is very spiritual, but can be a bit abstract; reading Matthew is aided by a bit more knowledge of the Old Testament; Mark is more simple and straightforward; and Luke provides lots of helpful historical context, and includes the narratives of Christ's birth which so many of us love so dearly. So, I'd suggest Mark or Luke for your first crack at it.

You know what? Let's leave it there for now. Read one of the Gospels. Do it in one sitting, or spread out over several days, however you like. A good place to start.

Yes, there will still be things in there that are confusing or references you may not get, which is why it's helpful to use a Bible with good footnotes. The Ignatius Study Bible is a solid choice.

One important note: bumper stickers and holy cards can give the impression that the Bible is a collection of inspirational quotes, but that is not the case. The Bible as a whole sets out the long story of God's search for fallen humanity. Yes, it contains many pithy inspirational passages that fit neatly on the back of your car or as a Facebook status, but the Bible is not meant to be a Twitter feed; sections and books (and in some sense the totality of Scripture) are meant to be taken as a whole, the whole providing context for the parts. Some may be shocked to find that one of their favorite Bible verses, "Be still and know that I am God" (Psalm 46:11), is not set in the same bucolic and peaceful place as Psalm 23 ("The Lord is my shepherd"), but rather is set in the midst of battle:

9Come and see the works of the Lord,
who has done fearsome deeds on earth;
10Who stops wars to the ends of the earth,
breaks the bow, splinters the spear,
and burns the shields with fire;
11“Be still and know that I am God!
I am exalted among the nations,
exalted on the earth.”
12The Lord of hosts is with us;
our stronghold is the God of Jacob.

Yes, the phrase itself is beautiful in itself, but its context puts it in a different light.

Or consider Micah 6:8--"You know, o man, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: to do the right, to love the good, and to walk humbly with your God." A beautiful sentiment, though it's set in the middle of God putting Israel on trial and pointing out their shortcomings. Actually, though, this setting improves its inspirational power: when do we most need to be reminded of what is required of us but when we have fallen short? How much more comforting is it to know that when we have failed in a given instance, God will most readily call us back? See! Context helps!

This is merely to caution you against flipping open the Bible, placing your finger randomly on the page, and expecting spiritual fulfillment. That can happen in extraordinary circumstances, such as in St. Augustine's "tolle, lege" story, but it's not the norm.

I echo the voice of the child in that story of St. Augustine's: "Take up! Read!" Get to know Our Lord this Lent through the Word He has revealed to us. It's not so scary once you get started.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

"Oh, I Know Why You Think That": The Genetic Fallacy

There's a sneaky little pseudo-argument that's become all the rage in the age of combox and Facebook debates, though it's really quite old. It's called the genetic fallacy.

The genetic fallacy is the logically erroneous move of trying to dismiss your opponent's arguments by asserting that they are false not because of their own internal logic or because they're factually inaccurate but because their source is in some way untrustworthy, or because some outside force compels them to think in that way. There are plenty of examples we could give.

"Don't vote for that bill, it was written by the [insert opposing political party here]!"
The proposed legislation is being judged not on its own merits but its author. The bill might well cure cancer, make every citizen a billionaire, and ensure that the Yankees never make the playoffs again, but the speaker of this quotation won't consider it, because it's come from "the wrong people."

"Can anything good come from Nazareth?" (John 1:46)
Nathanael, soon to be an apostle of Christ, at first doubted even the possibility of Jesus being a prophet, not because of anything he had heard him say or do, but merely because of the town he came from. "He's from the sticks, what good could he be?" Nathanael was soon to find out how wrong he was.

"You only believe in God because you have daddy issues/you're genetically predisposed/you have a guilt complex. If you didn't have that, you would see God doesn't exist."
Here one individual's belief in God is denigrated by another and reduced to a product of biology or psychology. But notice the leap the speaker makes: because he deems the source of belief in God to be flawed or inadequate, he concludes that God's existence is likewise doubtful. But one does not logically follow from the other. Why one believes in God and whether God exists are two separate questions. I could present the completely nonsensical arguments for proving that Jerry Brown is indeed the governor of California ("Jerry Brown is governor of California because I had pizza for dinner last night"), but my non sequitur reasoning doesn't mean it is not the case that Jerry Brown is governor of California. Likewise, the reduction of religious faith to a neuron or a neurosis has no bearing on the existence of non-existence of God.

Keep an eye out for this faulty argument. It's all too common, and all too easy to fall for.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

The Root of Error in the World Today

The intellectual culture of the West today--meaning not the culture of people who deem themselves intellectuals, but rather the set of assumptions that are shared among many people in the Western world--has at its heart a feeble and rotting philosophy which has somehow survived for nearly a thousand years, despite its sterility and vacuity. This is the philosophy of nominalism. Once I've explained to you what this philosophy is, I think you'll see just how widespread it is, and how much it's contributed to the inanity of public discourse.

Let's begin with the common-sense view. Consider a dog. We all can recognize that a dog is a dog. No matter the differences between different kinds of dogs, whether it's black or white, heavy or svelte, fluffy or sleek, long-tailed or short-tailed, we can still tell that they're all dogs, because these features are only accidental (being mere "attachments") to the critters; there is still something about each dog that makes it "doggy," that it has in common with all other dogs. Aristotle and the medieval philosophers who followed in his general line of thinking, like St. Thomas Aquinas, would call this "something that makes a thing what it is" that thing's "substantial form" or "nature" or "essence." We do still see this philosophy preserved in our everyday language, e.g. "Yeah, it may be missing a leg and been spray-painted bright green, but it's still essentially a dog." What makes a dog a dog, or a cat a cat, or a man a man, is its substantial form, its essence. When speaking of this in terms of how we know things, we would say that there is a universal concept of "dog" that can be equally said of all particular dogs; that is, all particular dogs have a participation in the universal concept of "dog."

But some later medieval theologians were dissatisfied with this notion of substantial form or essence, and they had problems with the notion of universal concepts. There were some who said that though we may use universal concepts as a way to talk about things more easily, this universal concept didn't point to anything real--that though we may talk about the concept of "dog," really, truly, in reality, there are only these particular things that share enough common features that we choose to call them all "dogs." There is no such thing as "dogginess," they would say, only things we choose to call "dogs" for the sake of convenience. Individual things are only collections of characteristics (the "accidents" mentioned above), but there's nothing that ties together all these different strands or "stands under" them (substance --> Latin substantiasub+stantia = "to stand under"); we simply call things with similar characteristics by the same name. This is the philosophy of nominalism (Latin nomen, nominis, "name").

There is nothing that makes two things each "dogs" unless we choose to call them such. Do you see the consequences of holding this philosophical assumption? It would apply equally to everything that exists, including people: if nominalism is true, then there is nothing that makes two things each "human beings" unless we choose to call them such. There is nothing at the core of us all that makes us the same. "Humanity" becomes a useful fiction which can be discarded when it is no longer useful, an arbitrary category that can be filled with different members as it suits us. So an American plantation owner can declare by his fiat that Africans do not fit in the category of human, and he can enslave them. Nazis can pronounce Jews to be less-than, and exterminate them. Abortionists can term unborn children to be mere "products of conception" and kill them. Suddenly, your gender or sex is not a given, but an option, an "identity" you choose; in the nominalist mindset, there is nothing that makes a man a man or a woman a woman.

Or think of the effect of nominalism in this way. Moral laws can only be set in universal terms, e.g. "It is good for humans to do X, and not good for humans to do Y." "Humans" is a universal term; they are all those things which share "humanity," that is, the essence of what it is to be human. But if we deny that this essence, this nature, exists, we deny that there is anything intrinsically common to humans. If humans have no nature in common, if "humans" is a mere label attached to really distinct particular entities, then we cannot say that anything is universally good or bad for them on account of their "humanity;" we would only be able to say what is good or bad for each of the individuals that we label "human." And who else could determine that other than the individuals for themselves? The door is open for each person to make their own morality. 

Of course, we could not have a society in which everyone makes their own definitions of everything, especially of right and wrong. So who makes these determinations in a nominalist society? Whoever has power: physical might, or political sway, or financial backing. The one with power defines our terms, and shapes our reality. The one with power, for all intents and purposes, becomes God.

What a terrifying thought. Most terrifying of all that this is the world we find ourselves in today.