Comfort for the New Year

Monday, 01-01-2018


Though in early adulthood I suffered strongly from acedia, the “oppressive sorrow which so weighs upon man’s mind that he wants to do nothing,” today I am almost always cheerful.  This cheerfulness, a product of faith and hope, is not native to my temperament, since I am predisposed to a certain melancholy in which the sense of the fall of man and the feeling of things passing away are very strong.  Unless he is careful, such a disposition can make a person a crashing bore, and some people would say that I am one.

However, dispositions are also gifts to be used, and if I lost mine, I would miss it.  I tend to be more acutely aware than most people of how things go awry in our culture.  Now and then, the memory of the many ways in which I have personally gone awry provides some small insight into the travails of others.  I don’t object to the description of the world as a “vale of tears”; it seems to me refreshing, because honest.  The acknowledgement of sin does not burden me.  I would be burdened if there were no cure.

The note of joy has been much stronger in my life since becoming Catholic, largely because the Church takes suffering so seriously.  When my wife and I were preparing to be received into the Church, we participated in the customary sequence of classes for converts.  Catholics are just as interested in conversion stories as Evangelical Protestants, and one evening, during the break, we exchanged our tales with another couple in the class.

The husband had been a teacher in a Protestant seminary.  The two of them told us that they first began to consider the Catholic Church after their son committed suicide.  What turned their thoughts to Catholicism was neither his suicide, nor their grief for him, but the reaction of their friends to their grief.

It was not that their friends did not sorrow for them; they did.  But to spare their feelings, their Protestant friends never mentioned their son at all.  It was as though he had never existed.  By contrast, their Catholic friends were not afraid to speak of him.  The couple was consoled.

They began to wonder whether the Church understands something about suffering that their own tradition did not. 

She does, and She starts teaching it early.  A child in Catholic school who falls down and hurts his knee is comforted, of course, and encouraged to get back in the game.  But he is also encouraged to offer up the pain to Christ, who suffered for us, so that he can be more like Him.

To the world in general, this is madness.  Most people think victory over suffering comes from either ignoring it or defying it.  Yet according to the Church, the victory over suffering requires embracing it.  All Her thoughts of resurrection and rebirth begin with the bloodied Savior.

These seem to me to me tidings of joy.


Would We Have Known Him at His Birth?

Monday, 12-25-2017


 “We are very apt to wish we had been born in the days of Christ, and in this way we excuse our misconduct, when conscience reproaches us.  We say, that had we had the advantage of being with Christ, we should have had stronger motives, stronger restraints against sin.

“I answer, that so far from our sinful habits being reformed by the presence of Christ, the chance is, that those same habits would have hindered us from recognizing Him.  We should not have known He was present; and if He had even told us who He was, we should not have believed Him.  Nay, had we seen His miracles (incredible as it may seem), even they would not have made any lasting impression on us.  Without going into this subject, consider only the possibility of Christ being close to us, even though He did no miracle, and our not knowing it; yet I believe this literally would have been the case with most men ....

“We think heaven must be a place of happiness to us, if we do but get there; but the great probability is, if we can judge by what goes on here below, that a bad man, if brought to heaven, would not know He was in heaven .... He would see nothing wonderful there.”

-- Blessed John Henry Newman,

Parochial and Plain Sermons,

Volume 4, Sermon 16


The Last Days of the Republic: A Screenplay

Monday, 12-18-2017


It sounds like an idea for a motion picture, doesn’t it?  A historical melodrama.  You could call it The Last Days of the Republic.

By the end of the twentieth century, it was already routine for federal agencies to implement their own agendas, irrespective of the instructions of Congress or the executive.  Courts treated the federal Constitution like silly putty.

By the second decade of the twenty-first century, criminal prosecution of political opponents had become a tool of public policy.  The consequences of losing an election might be greater than losing the election.

The top ranks of the IRS, the FBI, and the CIA had all been weaponized.  A generation earlier, Mr. Nixon had tried this sort of thing with the IRS, but ultimately failed.  The lesson drawn by his opponents was that one must make sure to succeed.

The weakness of the movie is that it is almost too crude for fiction.  So protective of Mrs. Clinton are her investigators that Mr. Comey, cast as FBI director, drafts a letter exonerating her of security violations before the investigation even begins.  So hostile to Mr. Trump are his investigators that Mr. Mueller, cast as Special Counsel, authorizes modes of collecting information from the GSO which even the politicized courts have consistently ruled both illegal and unethical.

Other cinematic flaws are that the story is convoluted, it relies on an implausibly high number of what Leninists used to call “useful idiots,” and none of the main characters are sympathetic.

Movies depend on suspension of disbelief, but that sort of thing can be taken only so far.

Can the Empire be routed?  Can the Republic be saved?  Like a Star Wars movie, the script ends with a cliffhanger.

Hollywood loves sequels.  In real life, they are more difficult to pull off.



Trying to Shame the Shameless

Monday, 12-11-2017


Sexual harassment is a filthy offense.  However, it is impossible to restrain unless we acknowledge a standard of sexual morality.

To avoid conceding any such thing, workplaces have taken to defining sexual harassment as unwanted sexual attention toward another person.  In other words, the point isn’t what one is actually doing, but how the other party receives it.  It is entirely subjective.

Such a standard is unworkable, because the lecher cannot know whether his beastly attention is unwanted until he commits it.  The rule merely encourages him to give it a try.  If the other party is too intimidated to object, his behavior is not identifiable as harassment even then.

Suppose we define sexual harassment in the older way, as lewd attention toward another person.  Whether attention is lewd does not depend on what the other party thinks of it.

Persisting in lewd behavior over the protests of the other person makes it still more despicable, of course.  But it would have been despicable anyway.

Book: On the Meaning of Sex


Dangerous Truths

Monday, 12-04-2017


Some thinkers who believe in natural law are uneasy with the language of natural rights.  The rea­sons for this disquiet are understandable.  Why?  Because however firmly rights may be grounded in what is objectively just, grammatically speaking my rights seem to be subjective, just in the sense that they are “mine.”

Of course, the same is true of duties, yet, psychologically, there is a difference.  “My” duties direct my attention outward, to the persons toward whom I owe them.  By contrast, “my” rights direct my attention inward, toward myself.

This makes it very easy to view rights as though they were not really about objective moral realities, but “all about me” – about sheer self-assertion.  The fear of these thinkers, then, is that talking too much about rights subtly influences us to accept a false view of rights.

To most natural law thinkers, however, it seems unreasonable that we should avoid the language of natural rights just because the idea is so badly abused.  The reality of natural rights, properly understood, is a truth, knowable by reason.  In this life, truth is always abused; there is no such thing as a non-abusable truth.  Even liars know that in order to be persuasive, they must fit as much truth into their lies as possi­ble.

Besides, rights and duties are correlated.  If only we got into the habit of remembering the duties that our rights imply, it would go a long way toward making rights talk safer.

Instead of avoidance, then, a better strategy (though perhaps a risky one) would seem to be redemption:  To reclaim the spoiled language of natural rights, to rescue the concept from its abusers, to uproot it from the theory of radical self-sovereignty and plant it again in the soil of natural law.


Revelation – Says Who?

Monday, 11-27-2017


A student in one of my classes insisted one day that when Thomas Aquinas spoke of Divine law, he means “one’s own Divine law”:  Torah for Jews, the Gospel for Christians, Shari’a for Muslims, Thelema for Wiccans, Sheilaism for Sheila, whatever it may be.  She was quite offended by the suggestion that this was not what St. Thomas had in mind.

But it isn’t.  What thinkers like St. Thomas mean by Divine law is whatever really is Divine law.  Whether they are right about the authenticity of Christian Revelation is not a matter of indifference.  If a purported Revelation is not really from God -- if it is merely a product of the human mind that imagines itself to be from God -- then it is wholly incapable of instructing us about matters that transcend what natural reason can work out for itself.  It is worse than a harmless mistake; it is a blind guide.

Now the various purported Revelations -- contrary to popular belief, there aren’t many, for only a few of the world religions claim Divine Revelation in actual historical time -- cannot all be from God, because they say inconsistent things.  There is no “your truth” and “my truth,” for whether we like it or not, we inhabit the same reality.  What then is the Christian judgment?  That both the Old Law, given to the chosen nation, and the New Law, given to the Church, are truly from God, the former being preparatory, the latter being its fulfillment.  It follows that even if Shariʿa may include some good things -- even the pagans, who knew much less, knew some good things -- nevertheless it is a regression from that fulfillment, and it is not truly from God.

If it is really true that the truth about Revelation is simply a matter of fact -- like whether the nucleus of the atom really does contain protons, or whether gravity really is weaker than electromagnetism -- then there is no reason for anyone to be offended by this fact.  Suppose we are at the buffet, and Gertrude is about to dip into the tuna salad.  Felix says, “Better not.  The last three people who ate it got sick.”  Gertrude replies, “Stop judging me!”  Is her response reasonable?  Of course not, because the truth about the tuna salad is not about personal preferences; it is about how things stand in reality.  Even if Felix is mistaken about the tuna salad, he has not offered Gertrude an insult.  In fact, he has exercised concern for her.  She needed to know that the tuna salad might be spoiled.

Someone might say, “The analogy with tuna salad is nonsense, because we cannot know anything about God.”  Why not?  If the agnostic says that religious truth is specially resistant to rational inquiry, he contradicts himself, for to know God’s rational unknowability would be to know something about Him.  Indeed it would be to know a great deal about Him.  First one would have to know that even if He exists, He is infinitely remote, because otherwise one could not be so sure that knowledge about Him were rationally inaccessible.  Second one would have to know that even if He exists, He is unconcerned with human beings, because otherwise one would expect Him to have provided the means for humans to know Him.  Finally one would have to know that even if He exists, He is completely unlike the biblical portrayal of Him, because in that portrayal He does care about us, and has already provided such means – not only through Revelation, but even, in part, through the order of creation itself.  So, in the end, the so-called agnostic must claim to know quite a number of things about God just to prop up his claim to not knowing anything about God.  The problem is that, on his assumptions, he cannot rationally justify any of these things.

The hypothetical someone may go on, “But even if we can know a good many things about God by rational inquiry, we cannot know what to make of purported Revelations.”  But we can.  In the first place we can say something negative; any purported Revelation that contradicts what reason can tell us must be false.  For example, we must not believe a religion that denies the unity of God’s wisdom and goodness, any more than we may believe a religion that denies that two things equal to a third thing are equal to each other.  Although these truths of reason are not articles of faith, they are “preambles” to the articles of faith, for as St. Thomas writes, “faith presupposes natural knowledge, even as grace presupposes nature, and perfection supposes something that can be perfected.”

In the second place, even about teachings to which we cannot employ philosophical reasoning, we can employ historical reasoning.  For example, we can ask whether the original witnesses to God’s alleged revelatory deeds are credible.

In the third place, even in cases in which an alleged Revelation goes beyond the matters we could have figured out without it, even so we should expect it, if authentic, to provide deeper insight into these matters, so we can apply a test:  Does it?

Finally, one can put the alleged Revelation to the test.  St. Christian faith forbids “putting God to the test” in the sense of presumption, but in another sense, it encourages it.  The psalmist implores, “taste and see that the Lord is good!”   The Apostle Paul instructs, “Do not despise prophesying, but test everything; hold fast what is good.”

Suppose, then, that I live as though I believe the New Law.  (The alternative is to live as though I don’t.)  I ardently try to follow it; I live, pray, and worship as it directs; I rely utterly on the grace of Christ which is said to make this possible; I seek Him with all my heart; and I say to Him, “If You are real, you may have me” -- what happens?

Book:  On the Meaning of Sex



Monday, 11-20-2017


According to the natural law tradition, one of the conditions of a true law is that it be promulgated or made known.  There is no such thing as a secret law.  However, there are many ways in which a so-called law may fall short of being authentically promulgated.  The most obvious way is that the so-called law is literally secret.  Public authorities may refuse to divulge to the public the rules and regulations by which they will be judged.

Consider the ordinances against revealing state secrets in the People's Republic of China.  Astonishingly, many of the rules and regulations about state secrets are themselves secret, so there is no way to know whether or not one is in violation.  Trials held under the law are also held in secret.  Among those punished have been Shi Tao, a newspaper reporter, sentenced in 2005 to ten years in prison for "illegally supplying state secrets abroad";' Tohti Tunyaz, a University of Tokyo doctoral student studying Chinese ethnic minority policy, sentenced in 1998 to eleven years in prison for "illegally procuring state secrets"; and Rebiya Kadeer, an advocate for the Muslim Uighur minority, sentenced in 1999 to eight years for "illegally providing state secrets overseas."  What were their crimes -- what did they actually do?  Tao had posted online a summary of official restrictions on Chinese press coverage of events related to the fifteenth anniversary of the Tienanmin Square massacre.  Tunyaz had retrieved fifty-year-old records from a library.  Kadeer had mailed Chinese newspaper clippings to her husband in the United States.

But the expression "secret law" should also be extended to laws that are not literally secret, but secret in effect.  Consider vague enactments, rules that are cast in language so elastic that no one is sure of its meaning, or the meaning of which is unpredictably extended through excessively supple rules of interpretation.  During the past century this sort of elasticity has been a prominent feature of all of the totalitarian legal codes.  As Alexandr Solzhenitsyn wrote of the infamous Article 58, “Wherever the law is, crime can be found.”

The glories of elasticity are often trumpeted even in the liberal democracies that fancy themselves avatars of rule of law.  In the United States, they are sung in paeans to the so-called "living" constitution, and in the abominable theory that "law is whatever judges say it is."  But liberal democracies have invented a new failure of promulgation, a novel kind of "secret law" for which credit is theirs alone.  For promulgation can fail -- the rules can be unknown -- not only when they are literally secret, retroactively applied, excessively vague, or arbitrarily interpreted, but even when there are simply too complex.  To put it another way, the very impulse to turn everything into law can be prejudicial to law, for then the rules become so vast, multiform, and changeable that no one can learn them, much less grasp what they mean.

In 2010, investigators for the U.S. Treasury Department, pretending to be taxpayers, found that Internal Revenue Service Centers set up for taxpayer assistance gave either no answers, incomplete answers, or incorrect answers to their questions 43 percent of the time.  The root of the problem is not simply that taxpayer assistance workers are insufficiently trained, but that the tax code has become too complex for anyone to learn as a whole. 

The community has entrusted the power of making laws to Congress, but Congress long ago gave up the principle delegata potestas non potest delegari, "the one to whom a power is delegated may not delegate it to another."  Congressional enactments alone run to three or four thousand pages, but if we add in the regulations drawn up by the administrative agencies, the tax code comes to 20 volumes.  Bear in mind that taxation is only one of the fifty subject headings in the Code of Federal Regulations, now tens of thousands of pages in length.

As early as 1788, James Madison had foreseen such a possibility.  Mutability of the laws is "calamitous," he warned.  "It poisons the blessing of liberty itself," for “It will be of little avail to the people, that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood; if they be repealed or revised before they are promulgated, or undergo such incessant changes that no man, who knows what the law is to-day, can guess what it will be to-morrow.  Law is defined to be a rule of action; but how can that be a rule, which is little known, and less fixed?”

The rule of law, it seems, is not the same as the rule of a multitude of regulations, and there is a difference between publishing the rules and promulgating them.  If the law is so copious and profuse that the people cannot take it in, so intricate and involved that they cannot understand it, or so mutable and mercurial that they cannot keep track of it, then it has not been truly promulgated; and so it is not truly law.  What does this fact suggest about the legitimacy of the modern administrative state?

Commentary on Thomas Aquinas’s Treatise on Law