When Is It Tyranny? When Do We Say No?

Friday, 05-08-2020



As I’m sure you are aware, the governor of Illinois has stated that church services cannot begin until there is a Covid-19 vaccine or effective therapy.  Yesterday the governor of Michigan outlined her own draconian plan.

Waiting until there is a vaccine or effective therapy means having no church services in such states for more than a year.  Of course abortions have been permitted the entire time of the pandemic.  Surely it’s obvious even to the most pessimistic and atheistic epidemiologist or infectious disease expert that such differences in treatment have nothing to do with slowing the spread of illness.  They simply favor abortions over worship.

When commanded by the authorities to stop preaching about the risen Christ, St. Peter said “we must obey God rather than man.”  Hasn’t the time come for our church leaders to be asking whether they should say the same thing?



I think the time is long past when they should be asking that question.  As to the answer, though, dramatic responses short of civil disobedience are still possible.  Suppose worshippers scrupulously obeyed ten-person or fifty-person rules, but in selected churches, priests celebrated Mass after Mass after Mass, ten or fifty congregants at a time, so that everyone who wished could participate.  To reduce the heroic demand on overworked priests and ministers, variations could be worked out.  Perhaps not all the services could be Masses.

Wouldn’t that be a strong witness?   Why isn’t it happening?

In places where no indoor meetings at all are permitted, another possibility is to hold church services outdoors, for example in parks or in parking lots, with the congregants six feet away from each other, wearing masks.  My own parish, in the diocese of Texas, is resuming public indoor Masses on a small scale, but asking those who are over sixty-five not to attend.  So another advantage of holding some worship outdoors is that more could attend and even older people who might otherwise be at risk could participate.

As I mentioned in a previous post, in some places worship is already being held outdoors.  Why isn’t this being done everywhere that indoor services aren’t possible?  I would like our bishops to tell us that.

Suppose these things were more widely done.  It would be interesting to see whether officials in the more draconian states treated such worship as though it were an act of civil disobedience, even though no state regulations had actually been broken.  In some states, as in most of mine, the authorities would be – have already been – cooperative.  In others, they would be – have already been -- tyrannical.

Actual disobedience to the law should not be considered until all things short of disobedience have been tried, so that it would be difficult for even the most confused citizens to think that worshippers were merely hooligans who cared nothing for public health.  Give official bullies a chance to show their true colors.  The time to plan disobedience is when the authorities refuse to allow worship even within the bounds of reasonable public health restrictions.

But even so, there is a right and a wrong way to practice disobedience.  In the first place there must be no disobedience except to rules that are actually unjust.  Worshippers would have to rigorously keep that six-foot gap, and wear those masks, so everyone would understand that they did not reject public authority for the common good.

Priests would have to cooperate with their bishops, publicizing widely ahead of time what their churches would be doing, why they would be doing it, and why nothing less would suffice.  They would have to do whatever was necessary to avoid giving the appearance of disrespect for just laws.  Force and insult would have to be met with prayer and blessing.  Any who were arrested would have to offer no resistance, no shouting, and no hard words.  As during the Civil Rights movement, it would be necessary for the participants to be prepared ahead of time spiritually, because otherwise such discipline would be impossible.

Let us hope it does not come to this!

But let us not just wait to see what happens either.  The precedents being set for the oppression of faith during the epidemic will some day be invoked when there is no epidemic.  Why is there no sense of urgency?

You shepherds of the flock, are you paying attention?


Will MAD Come Back?

Monday, 05-04-2020


I see in the news that the government is clamping restrictions on the use of electronic parts supplied from abroad for use in our electrical power grid.  The purpose, of course, is national security.  One would not want the grid to be hacked by a hostile foreign power.

This raises an interesting question.  We have long known that all sorts of crucial domestic systems, not just the power grid, are vulnerable to being hacked.  In fact, there already have been numerous intrusions and thefts of information on a small scale, as though our defenses were being tested.  We have adversaries who might take great satisfaction in seeing our fragile setups collapse.  Why then hasn’t that happened already?

One possibility is simply that they aren’t ready.  Another possibility is that the ability to crash our systems is cherished not as a first-strike weapon but as a last resort; hostile powers might hesitate to do us too much damage, because in an interlocked global economy their own countries would suffer too.  

But there is another reason besides unpreparedness and fear of economic harm why hostile powers might hesitate to bring us down.  Even though our government is not very good at protecting the country against foreign hackers, it is no slouch at hacking hostile foreigners.  For example, the United States and Israel are widely believed to have collaborated on the development of the subtle Stuxnet computer worm that damaged the centrifuges used by the Iranians for processing nuclear fuel back in 2010.

The stalemate among the competing hackers of the various great powers brings to mind the old theory of Mutual Assured Destruction, called MAD, current at the height of the nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union.  “We too have nuclear weapons and ICBMs, and we can launch ours before yours arrive.  Be sure that if you destroy us, within minutes you too will be destroyed.”

Some of those involved in security debates opposed (and still oppose) the development of defenses against incoming missiles, on grounds that no one will murder if he knows without a shadow of doubt that by doing so he will accomplish his own suicide.  The devil is in that shadow of doubt!  But leaving aside the devil -- can one ever leave aside the devil? – the theory holds that the utter, helpless vulnerability of each nation to every other is the only hope of peace.  Let us all brandish razors, and all bare our throats.

I wonder whether those who take this view will oppose the development of greater computer security for the same reason.


The Bare Minimum

Monday, 04-27-2020


"So, J., what do you think is the bare minimum a person must believe for salvation?"

Thus my new friend began our first serious conversation, the moment he passed through my door.  That was a quarter of a century ago.  We were both Protestants.  He still is.

I didn’t mind his question a bit, and I still don’t.  Its quirky abruptness, and his waste-no-time, take-no-prisoners desire not to dissipate the evening in small talk, made me smile.  In seven seconds, his question gave me a sharper idea of his personality than I had been able to form during the previous seven months.  I saw him again not long ago.  He hasn’t changed.

Although his training had been in theology, not philosophy, the minimalism of his question was thoroughly in keeping with the philosophical method of the day, which is also minimalist.

Minimalist how?  We do philosophy as though people can consider reality only one shaved-down proposition at a time.  Sometimes, I think, the very opposite is true.  A single lonely proposition may be difficult to accept just because it does stand by itself.  In order to stand firm, a proposition must have context, as the single stone requires the arch.

My friend’s conversation-starter also brings to mind one of the great differences between the Catholic and Protestant ways of thinking about God.  Protestantism asks how many of all those pre-Reformation beliefs can be jettisoned and still have Christianity.  Except in a certain special context, Catholicism isn’t very interested in how few truths one can get away with believing.  Instead it wants to know all of them.  Tell me everything, everything!  Are there more?

And there are a lot of them!  Creation, Fall, and Redemption!  The three Persons of One God!  The two natures of One Christ!  Not only an Old Testament, but a New!  Not only a natural law, but a divine!  Not only worship, but veneration!  Not only precepts, but counsels!  A covenant with day and night, yet miracles too!  Holy saints!  Bad popes!  Sacraments!  Graces!  Gifts!  Virtues, infused and acquired!  Prophets, priests, and kings!  The Incarnation, Cross, and Resurrection!  A crown of thorns on the brow of God made Man!  A sword through His mother’s heart!  Suffering!  Blessedness!  The beatific vision!  And we are only warming up.

Writing about Christ’s statement to St. Peter that he would give him the keys to the kingdom of heaven, G.K. Chesterton wrote,

“The shape of a key is in itself a rather fantastic shape.  A savage who did not know it was a key would have the greatest difficulty in guessing what it could possibly be.  And it is fantastic because it is in a sense arbitrary.  A key is not a matter of abstractions; in that sense a key is not a matter of argument.  It either fits the lock or it does not.  It is use useless for men to stand disputing over it, considered by itself; or reconstructing it on pure principles of geometry or decorative art.  It is senseless for a man to say he would like a simpler key; it would be far more sensible to do his best with a crowbar .... it is enough to say here that there was undoubtedly much about the key that seemed complex; indeed there was only one thing about it that was simple.  It opened the door.”


Related posts:

Just Like Me

Comfort for the New Year

Why We Converted

Two Things You Will Never See

Does Sola Scriptura Mean “No Natural Law”?

Mortification of the Flesh


Constitutional CYA

Thursday, 04-23-2020


CYA, short for Covering Your Anatomy, is the strategy of choosing one’s course of action in such a way that if it goes wrong, someone else gets the blame.  Dealing with the problem at hand may take second place.

We all know that CYA can affect governmental policy.  What’s not so often noticed is that it can also affect the Constitutional balance of power.

I used to think CYA worked only against the balance of power.  For example, although Congress, not the courts, should make the laws, in some cases legislators are only too happy to let the judiciary set policy, just so they won’t get blamed for it.  This is just the opposite of what the Framers expected, for they thought that each branch would jealously guard its powers.

But I was wrong.  Ironically, CYA can work either for or against the balance of power.

For example, some of the current president’s critics have accused him of following a CYA policy by allowing state governors to decide for themselves when to roll back coronavirus restrictions in order to get their economies moving again.  Whether or not his motive is CYA, in this case it works in favor of the balance of power, because under the Constitution, that really is a state prerogative.

On the other hand, some of the critics of state governors have used them of following a CYA policy by speaking as though the response to the coronavirus depends entirely on federal decisions.  Whether or not their motive is CYA, in this case it works against the balance of power, because it encourages them to shirk their own constitutional responsibilities.

Irony doesn’t usually prompt belly laughs, but isn’t it funny how things work?

Fear and Forbearance

Monday, 04-20-2020


At the beginning, it was said that since it was impossible to prevent all infections, we had to “flatten the curve” of the coronavirus so that the caseload stretched out and hospitals would not be overwhelmed.  Now that the curve has flattened, we hear in some quarters that the country should not go back to work until there are no cases at all, an absurd standard never before proposed for any disease, even smallpox, typhus, and polio.

This is partly a social class bias, since most of those who say such things are secure of their jobs – they are people like me, who can work from home.  Or else, like journalists and politicians, they have something to gain from hysteria.  That we should take precautions goes without saying, but before you join the extremists, put yourself in the place of a poor man thrown out of work for six weeks and wondering how to keep food on the table.

Age has a lot to do with it too.  Unsurprisingly, the very young and healthy are reckless.  Understandably, the aged and vulnerable are anxious.  However, there can also arise quite a gap between the two groups in the middle.

On one hand are people old enough to have outgrown carelessness, but not old enough to have experienced previous episodes of serious public danger.   Many of them are badly frightened.  On the other hand are people old enough to have lived through several previous ends of the world.  Although most of them are cautious, many are also a bit skeptical, and they say so.

Whatever their age or social class, people who do fall into the badly frightened group tend to view all those who are not as frightened as they are as though they were irresponsible teenagers.  Since they view everything through this interpretive lens, nothing can convince them otherwise.

So if you're afraid that your older relatives are going out too much for their health, what should you do?  Call them up.  You can't catch the disease over the telephone.  Don’t scold them.  Find out what they need.  Don't assume that they'll tell you without being asked.  If you live in town or nearby, take it to them yourself.  Stand at the end of the driveway if you're afraid to get close.  Have the grandchildren talk to them through rolled-up car windows if you’re afraid to breathe the same air.

They'll understand.  But you need to understand too.


Now Is the Time to Be Bold

Thursday, 04-16-2020


In view of the efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus, I had thought of writing a post about how pastors, priests, and bishops should be imaginative instead of supine, finding ways to administer the sacraments without having to pack large numbers of people into small enclosed spaces.

Reality has out-distanced me, for yes, some ministers have been more imaginative – and some officials have tried to step on them anyway.

It began with threats, for example when the mayor of New York City warned that he would permanently shut down some churches and synagogues.  Now, in some places, people have been charged with crimes just for worshipping.

Do you think this is just about the coronavirus?  It isn’t.  The coronavirus is an excuse for the oppression of faith -- and the precedents set now will persist.  Public officials may take reasonable measures to protect the health of our bodies, but some of them want to command our souls.

If the matter were not so abominable, it would be ridiculous.  Tell me why it is an acceptable risk to allow a restaurant to offer drive-by takeout of a sandwich, but not to allow churches to offer drive-by distribution of a consecrated wafer.  Tell me how it is that abortion is an essential service that may continue during the epidemic, but Holy Communion is not.

We need to add a new perversion to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.  Some people find the exercise of brute power to discriminate between activities they like and activities they don’t an orgasmic experience.  Unfortunately, such persons are disproportionately attracted into government careers.

Pastors, priests, bishops, I was going to ask you to be bold.  That advice is weeks out of date.  Please continue to be bold.  Be prudent, but be witnesses.  Respect legitimate authority, but do not allow yourselves to be intimidated by threats and arrests.  Lean into them.  Have us worship outside with six-foot gaps between worshippers if necessary.  Set up breezy open-air confessional booths.  Whatever it takes.  But please, do it for us. 


Conversation with a Six Year Old

Monday, 04-13-2020


One of my natural law students told me this week of a conversation with his six-year-old sister.

He had been learning that according to Thomas Aquinas, a command, in order to be a genuine law rather than an act of violence, must be reasonable, for the common good, made by competent public authority, and promulgated to all.

Sister:  "What are you working on?"

Brother:  "A paper about natural law."

Sister:  "I know about laws, you know."

Brother:  "Really?  What do you know?"

Sister:  "Laws are rules that make good things."

Brother:  "Good for you or for everybody?"

Sister:  "Everybody."

Brother:  "Yes!  And do laws have to be reasonable or just whatever somebody wants?"

Sister:  "Of course they have to be reasonable!"

Brother:  "And who makes them?"

Sister:  "The President!"

Brother:  "And who knows about them?"

Sister:  "Well, they have to be known about by everybody."

This adorable little scholar seems to be both an incipient Thomist, and, like most children, a monarchist.