Why is the Church so Political?

A friend of mine who has worked for both Church and State once remarked to me that the Church is much more political. He didn’t expound upon his assertion, but I suspect he’s correct. I theorize two reasons. First, within the Church, the protection of turf translates into the protection of holy ground. People in the Church face and sometimes fall to the temptation to assign a sacred significance to their projects. Second, officials and members in the Church, because they are doing God’s work, face the temptation to confuse their will with God’s will. Thy will be done becomes my will be done. Those who fall to this temptation interpret any criticism of or opposition to their will as disagreement with and antagonism to God’s will. The power the Church wields may be necessary for its mission, but that necessity make its power no less dangerous or, at times, frightening. The Church’s sometimes criminal response to cases of sexual abuse is a case in point. (VN)

A Story Alive after Death

My daughter Vivian Marie was born six months ago today and left this world after a mere fifteen hours of life. Despite her departure, her story has continued. It lives on and receives a telling in our stories, in the stories of her family and of those who loved her. Vivian remains present to us through cherished memories, mementos, and belongings, of course, but also through much more than these. She is in our prayers, a saint to whom we pray and ask for prayers. Her place of rest, found in a place called Baby Land, has become for us a holy destination of weekly, sometimes daily pilgrimage. We bring her gifts and flowers and tend to the grass that grows over her grave. We have stood before her in the biting wind, under the nurturing sun, within the blankets of snow, among the song of birds and flights of butterflies. Never before have we felt so bound to a location. A finality and permanence mark her story, yet, because her story is bound with ours, because we continue to narrate it, who she is continues to grow and surprise us. We do not know what twists and turns her tale will bring. We have come to know and continue to learn that death does not bring with it the words “The End.”

Infallibility and the Hermeneutic Circle

The idea of an infallible teaching authority has long made sense to me given the idea of a divinely-revealed text proclaiming matters of eternal life and death, especially as the particular text – the Bible – seems to avail itself to multiple conflicting interpretations. Put another way, it doesn’t make much sense to me to say that God revealed what is necessary for salvation through a text marked by ambiguity and layers of meaning, a variety of genres, and myriad historical and cultural nuances (not to mention inaccuracies and inconsistencies) without also providing a way of resolving fundamental disputes concerning salvation that inevitably arise during the difficult task of interpreting that text. The assurance that the Bible is divinely inspired and free from error in the essentials doesn’t mean much if we don’t have any assurance of knowing whose interpretation is true and whose is false.

Having an infallible interpreter, however, doesn’t fully solve the hermeneutic problem, for what this interpreter provides still requires interpretation. The texts produced by an infallible teaching authority may be less ambiguous and easier to understand than the complicated texts the authority seeks to explain, but they are nonetheless texts and therefore call for interpretation. There is no Magisterium of the Magisterium, and even if there were, it wouldn’t get us out of the need for interpretation. (VN)

The CHA and the Bishops

Anyone who's paid attention to the debate over healthcare reform among Catholics is no doubt aware of the disagreement over the Senate bill between a number of bishops and the Catholic Health Association. These bishops oppose the bill while the CHA supports it. The narratives about this conflict have generally stressed their opposition and even called into question or outright dismissed the Catholic identity of the CHA. Their positions on the bill, however, are not radically different. Both the bishops and the CHA want pro-life healthcare reform legislation that explicitly protects the unborn. The difference between their positions is that the bishops want such protection incorporated into the bill before it is passed, whereas the CHA is willing to support the bill as is while intending to work for the implementation of better protections, and a number of other fixes, in another bill that amends the current one. Their difference resides in how, not whether, they think the legislation should be made to protect the unborn. The bishops and the CHA agree on the basic principles themselves; they differ in how they apply those principles, and principally, in how they interpret the language and practical consequences of the legislation. (EC)

Bob the Builder: Duplicitous Businessman

My three-year-old son Jonathan really digs Bob the Builder, but I’ve seen or overheard enough videos to conclude that his fascination with the chief character and his crew isn’t morally healthy. Sure, Bob seems like a very likeable fellow who cares for his town and team and loves what he does, but that’s really a fa├žade. Bob’s a shady, manipulative figure; make no mistake. He’s captivated his crew by indoctrinating them with his “Yes we can!” rhetoric and seeming concern for their hopes and fears, but on paperwork his crew are little more than slaves. After all, his crew members are not really persons, not as far as the IRS is concerned: they’re vehicles. Bob doesn’t have to pay them, and he can deduct their usage as business expenses. These stories of hard work, the fun of building, and overcoming Lofty’s persistent inferiority complex all harbor an underlying narrative: bosses should manipulate their crew for the sake of profits, but do so in a Machiavellian manner, in a way that operates below the consciousness of those manipulated. Scary stuff, really.

Social Obligations, Charity, and the State

Whenever we institute structures to benefit society, we risk allowing those structures to take over our responsibilities, but I wouldn’t say that such a risk is reason never to institute them. It’s not as thought the face of suffering that motivates our charity will disappear: even the most perfect social program couldn’t help everyone or diminish all suffering. Individual obligations will abound in even the most socialized state.

Social programs and institutions can be a very effective means for individuals to come together as a society to care for one another. We can exercise virtue through our participation in institutions—that’s an idea behind the Catholic Church: we seek and find salvation not as individuals but as part of a community, the Body of Christ. The state, of course, isn’t a church, but the basic underlying principle remains. Specifically, the state allows us to seek and find justice and practice charity not only as individuals, but as part of a community of citizens.

Likes all ways of life, living in the state requires a particular disposition, a particular virtue: citizenship, in this case. The citizen must remember that the state is a means to an end, a way we meet social obligations. It is not something “over there,” detached from us, something to which we should hand over our obligations. If virtue is, as Aristotle taught, a mean between excess and defect, the virtue of citizenship is found not in ignoring social obligations (defect) or in handing them over to the state (excess), but in appropriately and prudently using the state as an instrument to meet obligations.

Quote from the Cupp House

“I’m holding your sweater, Mom. There’s something on it called my snot.”

- Jonathan

Giving Alterity a Bad Name

I am, apparently, “a nonsensical elitist-minded individual who is stuck in some alternate reality.” So says Teresamerica. All because I wrote this and this.

A Further Defense of Sr. Keehan and the CHA

Tantamergo calls my defense of Sr. Carol Keehan disingenuous, arguing that her organization, the Catholic Health Association, has supported the Democrat’s health reform legislation from the beginning. Of course, the CHA has advocated healthcare reform for longer than the Democrats have been in power, and given that such reform wasn’t a priority for the previous administration, it’s not surprising that the CHA has been more vocal now that healthcare reform looks possible.

Tantamergo writes that, “in the present political context, arguing in favor of 100% health insurance coverage for all Americans is the same thing as arguing in favor of Obamacare.” Well, not exactly. Some healthcare reformers like Dennis Kucinich oppose “Obamacare” for not being reform enough or a step in the right direction. Besides, from what I hear, “Obamacare” wouldn’t provide 100% health insurance coverage, so arguing for the goal of total coverage hardly translates into an argument for the pending legislation. One might, however, argue for this legislation as a step toward total coverage, as Sr. Keehan has done.

The CHA has also stressed that the current legislation requires “necessary legislative fixes,” including that the bill “should ensure that the final, overall health reform package will provide no federal funding of abortion.” The organization recognizes our social obligations both to those lacking adequate healthcare and to the unborn threatened with death. They emphasize the former because the former obligation is their purpose, their vocation.

Being pro-life doesn’t mean that one has to follow a particular program or policy for the promotion of life. Some pro-lifers seek to protect life through legislative actions, others through the courts, and yet others through the culture. In the realm of healthcare, some pro-lifers argue for better insurance policies, while others propose various government systems. Underlying every means debated by pro-lifers, however, is the recognized obligation we have to do what is in our power to promote life—an obligation that includes building a society in which life and heath are cared for. It’s our response to that obligation that makes us pro-life. When Sr. Keehan points to the fact that millions of people are uninsured, she’s not upholding the advocacy of insurance as the standard of being pro-life, as Steve Kellmeyer seems to think; she’s noting that our current means of providing healthcare is failing to meet our social obligation. As a society, we’re failing to promote life. Hence Sr. Keehan’s push for comprehensive reform. (VN)

Jon Stewart's Extended Interview with Marc Thiessen

Click for Part I, Part II and Part III.

In Defense of Sr. Keehan

There’s a meme travelling around the Catholic ‘sphere accusing Sr. Carol Keehan of stating or implying that opponents of the current healthcare reform legislation are not pro-life (video below). She did nothing of the sort. Sister Carol Keehan did not say that if you don’t support “Obamacare” you’re not pro-life. What she said is that not giving mothers care, not giving pediatric care, and not giving children care is not prolife. In other words, being pro-life means giving mothers care, giving pediatric care, and giving children care. This is true. Furthermore, Sr. Keehan was careful in her wording when expressing her support for the current legislation: she asked if they were good first steps and met certain conditions, and she said that, to her (“to me,” she said), they were. Now whether Sr. Keehan is right or wrong in her assessment of what the current legislation does, specifically whether it funds abortions, she’s clear that her assessment is just her assessment, not some standard by which she can deny the pro-life credentials of those who disagree with her assessment. She’s certainly not rewriting the catechism or pretending to be pope, as one blogger accuses her. As far as I can tell, she’s exercising her prudential judgment by applying Catholic moral principles to the matter of healthcare reform and judging that the current legislation is in keeping with those principles. She may be right or wrong in her application and judgment, but an error at these levels doesn’t mean an error at the level of the principles themselves. (VN)

Quote from the Cupp House

"Mom, come see the boogers I just did!"

- Jonathan, very excited after a sneeze

My New Motto

"The absolute requires pluralism to avoid absolutism."

- Richard Kearney, Anatheism

On Gay Marriage Arguments

A short while ago, a friend told me about a graduate student he knew who was teaching an undergrad philosophy class on love and sexuality and was soliciting arguments against gay marriage. A left-leaning feminist, she herself supported gay marriage, but she wanted to present, discuss, and philosophically analyze the arguments for it and against it. She didn’t just want to impose her own views on her students and was seeking to understand the arguments contrary to her own, specifically those that appealed solely to reason.

I don’t know what arguments she was able to gather, but upon hearing about her search, I thought about how most of the arguments that I hear against gay marriage appeal to scripture, theology, and church documents, hardly recognized authorities in our postmodern, pluralistic society. Moreover, I noted that the argument over gay marriage seems to be one that opponents are losing. Not long ago Ellen DeGeneres coming out on her show was a big cultural deal. Today some states in the union recognize same-sex unions. If I were a betting farmer, I’d bet the farm that our society will generally come to see gay marriage as a moral, legitimate, and socially-beneficial institution. Then speculations about its effects on society will be put to the test.

I pose two questions to my readers:

1. What are the most persuasive arguments against gay marriage that appeal to reason and not to religious belief? I’m looking for arguments that appeal to history, philosophy, psychology, sociology, and so forth, but not to theology or revelation.

2. How would opponents of gay marriage most likely succeed in turning the cultural tide against gay marriage?


Literature and Spiritual Nausea

Author Michael D. O’Brien, a leader in the anti-Harry Potter resistance, writes about his psychological and spiritual experiences upon reading J.K. Rowling’s uber-famous novels. He shared a feeling of spiritual nausea with three people who had read the novels and wanted O’Brien to assess them. He also suffered from vivid, memorable nightmares and a closely-paced series of severe external trials after publicizing a critique of the books.

I have no competence to judge these experiences or comment upon them in their particularity. All I can say is that if people have such experiences upon reading Harry Potter or other literary works, then they may be prudent not to read them. I say they may be prudent to avoid such works and subsequent spiritual experiences, but I wouldn’t say that the rest of us should consider their decision normative. I may risk sounding like a relativist by saying this, but what causes and qualifies as spiritual nausea for one person may not cause and qualify as such nausea for another. What leads one into the dark may lead another into the light.

Literature provides us with a way to have spiritual experiences, but our ways of experiencing a literary work will vary. Personally, I’d say if Harry Potter is spiritually dangerous, it is only because reading literature – nay, all of life – presents us with spiritual dangers. (VN)