Saturday, November 30, 2002

I finally got a chance to see the extended Lord of the Rings

The extended version is a much more leisurely movie, even though it is only half an hour longer. There is much more exposition, in particular of the hobbit way of life. In the theatrical release, we are barely introduced to hobbits before Frodo and Samwise are crashing their way through the wilderness. In the extended version, we get to see a bit of what hobbit life is like.

The journeys from the Shire to Rivendell and from Rivendell to Moria take quite a long time in the books, but were almost instantaneous in the movie. The extended version is more faithful to the book, giving a fuller scope to Middle Earth.

The best thing about the extended version is the greater depth it gives to three characters, Aragorn, Boromir, and most of all Gimli. We learn a bit more about Aragorn's parentage and why he is who he is. Boromir's relationship with Pippin and Merry is shown in greater depth; despite his treachery to Frodo, he has real affection for the hobbits, which is evident in several added scenes and bits of dialogue. Gimli, however, benefits the most from the extended movie. In the theatrical release, Gimli is a bit of a caricature--"Nobody tosses a dwarf!" In the extended version we get to see his relationship with Galadriel. If you are a Gimli fan, you must see the extended version.

I enjoyed the extended Lord of the Rings quite a bit, and have added it to my Christmas list.

Scientists discover that fire is hot

Well, it is almost as obvious. Take a look at this earthshaking study showing that , by golly, men and women may actually be biologically different.

Tuesday, November 26, 2002

A few new blog links

I've added a few links to my blog (see the blogroll on the left), to Veritas, Envoy Magazine, and to Dale and Heather Price. The last is a husband and wife blog, which is always interesting. I would invite my wife to join my blog, except for the fact that although she may not indeed be Nihil Obstat, she is just as bad, and would probably strike this last sentence because it is disjointed and too long. Just for the record, honey, "foment" is a perfectly good word!

Monday, November 25, 2002

My mind is boggled!

Apparently, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen are fraternal twins, not identical.

Trading Spaces at church

I attended Mass this weekend in a small, 19th century church in southern Wisconsin. The church was still mostly beautiful, but clearly had undergone big changes in the last thirty or forty years. There were traces of the former high altar left, but most of it had been removed, and the area behind the main altar is now a blank wall decorated with wooden forms in the shape of Gothic arches. As I sat listening to the handbell choir, I had a thought for what has happened to churches in the last forty years: they have fallen victim to Trading Spaces.

Trading Spaces is a show on The Learning Channel where two couples trade houses and then redesign a room in the other couple's house, with the help of professional interior decorators. It is a very entertaining show, because the decorators have total freedom; the couple who owns the house is not allowed to determine what will happen or to see the work in progress. Sometimes (most of the time, to my taste) the decorators do good work and create interesting rooms. Sometimes they create monstrosities, such as the Tantric love temple with lewdly-posed Barbie and Ken dolls. The fun of the show is that the viewer doesn't know what will happen.

The show works because the decorators have no guidance, and so no one can tell what will happen. But isn't this in fact what we have done with our churches? We have 1900 years of tradition in church art and architecture, but we have tended to cut all of that off, making the design of a new church into a exercise in free-form design. Sometimes (not too often, for my taste) the results are stunning. Sometimes the results are stunningly bad. I am sure you have examples in mind; I am thinking of the Freddy Kreuger tabernacle at Holy Name in Chicago. If you divorce yourself from tradition, sometimes you will get great art, but most of the time you will get self-indulgent tripe. The best art grows out of a tradition, not spontaneously. In music, the best composers, from Mozart to Bach to Ellington, work within a tradition, taking over the forms that are current and understandable by their listeners, and transforming them through their genius. The tradition is a framework that makes sure that we will create sensibly and not randomly, and it makes the difference between Bach and Schoenberg, or between Ellington and Ornette Coleman. We should do the same with our churches.

P.S. Disputations' eminent writer sent me a note, pointing out that the Tantric love temple was from a different but related show, While You Were Out.

Friday, November 22, 2002

Favorite links for a friday

One of my favorite links for research purposes is the Perseus Project at Tufts University. They have assembled a large collection of classical texts in Greek and Latin with English translations. The best thing is that the Greek and Latin words are hyperlinked to dictionaries and morphologies, so that even if you haven't had Latin in thirty years, you could still poke your way through Cicero, clicking on all the words you don't remember. They also have both the Vulgate and the Greek New Testament, which is especially useful when one gets frustrated with lousy bible translations and wants to read the real thing.

My new favorite link is courtesy of the Old Oligarch. There is an online museum called the Art Renewal Center that has lots of good old-fashioned representational artwork. Spend some time browsing through the collection and I am sure you will be delighted. My new desktop background is Vibert's "Un scandale," which, besides being funny, is a good reminder to me that I should keep custody of my eyes.

Thursday, November 21, 2002

I wish we had that kind of power

Take a look at this page from Jack Chick's website--it is the end of a comic book detailing how the Vatican is responsible for every evil in the world. According to Chick, we are responsible for the Communist Party, the KKK (an evil plot designed to make Protestants look bad), both world wars, the creation of Islam, and the Russian Revolution.

If the Catholic Church is so powerful, how come Fr. Bob can't get the choir to quit singing Marty Haugen?

I've got some grading to do

so won't be blogging too much today. I make my final plea concerning SF books that have a Catholic understanding of human nature: I will probably post the results soon, so if you want to send me a note, please do so. Scroll down if you want to see my original post on that topic.

Wednesday, November 20, 2002

The Universal Call to Celibacy

There is a wonderful reflection on celibacy in the Church in this month's First Things, to which, if you haven't subscribed yet, you definitely should. Fr. Maximos Davies, a Ruthenian monk, writes that we all have a call to celibacy. Note that he says celibacy, and not chastity. Yes, all Christians must be chaste in our relationships, whether married or not, but Fr. Maximos is saying more: we are all called to celibate, both the married and the unmarried. What does he mean?

Looked at from the perspective of the Eastern Churches, celibacy has very little to do with the sacrament of Holy Orders. It has everything to do, however, with the sacrament of Holy Baptism. Through the latter we are born into a new kind of life, in the Kingdom of God. We die to this world in Christ and rise again to eternal life. And in this resurrection we "neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven." (Matthew 22:30)

In eternal life, there is no marriage. So, clearly, celibacy is the universal state of all Christians, at least after the resurrection of the dead. Those who practice celibacy in this life are engaging in an ascetic practice. The word ascesis in Greek refers to exercise: an athlete is an ascetic, preparing for a future race. An ascetic in the Church is preparing a foretaste of the eternal life that we all hope to receive. Fr. Maximos says "Asceticism, as we have seen, is the recognition that everything we see and touch is mystically redolent with unseen and ineffable Divinity." So the celibate is showing how sexuality itself is nothing without its reference to the divine. Marriage is nothing without God but an embrace of two corpses, both doomed to die and come to nothing. "Marriage is worth of reverence only because the two hearts fall into a sacramental embrace with a Third, only because the children born of the union are born again through baptism into a new life, only because together the couple apply to their comforts the balm of asceticism that gives their possessions true and sacramental meaning." It is God who makes marriage sacred, and the celibate who foregoes marriage is bearing testimony to its sacredness by focusing on the divine.

The married couple must recognize that their marriage is only of relative value, and is not something to be valued in itself. The marriage is a union of souls for the sake of eternal life, and without this, is materially no different than fornication. Those who are married must be celibate (in the expanded sense of the word which Fr. Maximos uses) in their marriage, recognizing that sex is not the goal of marriage, but rather that the marriage is the goal of sex. In other words, one's sexual life is given for the purpose of creating new souls capable of eternal life and for the union of the married, but is not an end in itself. All in this life is a foretaste of the divine, and we all need to be mystic enough to see this. Mysticism comes from asceticism, from giving up the things of this world in order to retake them as gifts of God and symbols of our eternal destiny.

Fr. Maximos concludes with some thoughts about priestly celibacy, which is both ascetic for the man who undertakes it and symbolic for us. I quote him at length: "To be blunt: it is both psychologically dangerous and theologically illiterate for a Christian community that values sexual 'freedom,' including sex outside of marriage, adultery, abortion, and the contraceptive mentality, to then demand an entirely different sexual standard from its priests. Priests do not become celibate merely because they feel a personal call to a life of sacrifice--at least, they ought not. Priests accept celibacy because they lead a community that is as a whole committed to the ascetic discipline necessary to transfigure human sexuality into an experience of the divine. Celibacy is healthy when it is regarded as a common labor in which each Christian has a share. Seen in this way, priests will find their commitment to celibacy valued, understood, and supported. Celibacy will thus become a point of communion between priest and congregation."

A laity that doesn't understand its vocation to ascesis will not understand the ascetical practices of its priests, and will undermine that vocation. We are all called to pray, to fast, and to engage in the transformation of every aspect of our lives into communion with God. Fr. Maximos challenges the western Church to return to its ascetical practices, and says that until we do so, we won't understand the celibacy of our clergy: "Only a Church of mystics can realistically expect their clergy to be saints." Amen.

If you found this as thought-provoking as I did, you should definitely subscribe to First Things. If you like browsing through St. Blog's, you should subscribe to First Things. You should subscribe to First Things. Here is the subscription website.

Tuesday, November 19, 2002

Read any good SF books lately?

Tell me about it. I am hoping to compile a list of speculative fiction (science fiction) books that express a Catholic understanding of human nature. Drop me a line (email address is on the left). Here is my original post on the topic.

Monday, November 18, 2002

'Tis the season to be jolly? 'Tisn't!

We are rapidly approaching Advent, which is viewed by many as a time to put plastic Santas on the lawn, to start playing Christmas carols, and to buy lots and lots of stuff. It is not enough that we celebrate Christmas by celebrating excess, but we also celebrate it much too early. The Advent season is not an extended Christmas, but is a time of preparation. The recent Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy says that

Popular piety perceives that it is impossible to celebrate the Lord's birth except in an atmosphere of sobriety and joyous simplicity and of concern for the poor and imarginated. The expectation of the Lord's birth makes us sensitive to the value of life and the duties to respect and defend it from conception. Popular piety intuitively understands that it is not possible coherently to celebrate the birth of him "who saves his people from their sins" without some effort to overcome sin in one's own life, while waiting vigilantly for Him who will return at the end of time.

Don't prepare for the coming of the Lord by merely preparing your front lawn with big plastic reindeer; prepare your soul for His coming through an effort to overcome sin. I have some suggestions for how to do this, taken from my parish bulletin:

  1. Fast: you could join Eastern Catholics in the Phillip's fast, which says not to have meat or dairy products on Monday, Wednesday, or Friday until Christmas. Think how good that Christmas dinner would taste! Of course, you could just make sure you follow the current Latin rite rule for the whole year, which is no meat on Fridays or some equivalent penance.
  2. Go to confession.
  3. Ten minutes of silence each day.
  4. Mute the commercials from the television, or turn off the TV entirely.
  5. Listen to classical music rather than top-40.
  6. Pray the rosary, the divine office, or perhaps the Jesus Prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me. Repeat ad libitum.)
  7. Read the bible every day. If you want "Christmasy" stuff, read Isaiah.
  8. Read spiritual books. I recommend Frank Sheed, St. Josemaria Escriva, lives of the saints (try the DeWohl novels), the Philokalia, and in general anything from Ignatius Press. If you are one of the many Catholics who disagrees with some doctrinal teaching of the Church, take the Advent season as an opportunity to study that teaching--don't disagree blindly, but rather give the Church the benefit of the doubt. You owe Christ that much.
  9. Heal or improve relationships with family or friends.
  10. Give to the poor. Perhaps rather than giving that fourth or fifth toy to a child, you and the child could give the money to the poor?
  11. Support your church. Lots of people have used the scandal as an excuse to quit giving to their parishes. Why not make up the slack, since someone has to?

If you make some effort to get your soul ready for Christmas, the real season to be jolly, the twelve days from Dec 25th to Jan 6th, will be much more jolly.

Friday, November 15, 2002

Maybe this kind of stuff plays well in France

I just got done watching a movie called The Brotherhood of the Wolf, which is about one hour's worth of decent action film plus eighty more minutes of absolute silliness. Here's the plot: there is some sort of beast terrorizing the French countryside in 1764, somewhere near Avignon, a fact that has symbolic importance. A renowned naturalist cum martial arts expert is summoned to deal with the beast. After many plot twists and turns, the beast turns out to have been created by the evil Brotherhood of the Wolf, a group created by the pope in order to spread supernatural terror throughout France, thus scaring people back into the arms of religion. The good but whoremongering naturalist eventually dispatches the evil papist brotherhood, along with the poor tortured beast.

The movie is clearly propaganda, since Rome stands for fear, ignorance, torture of animals, and just plain evil. It is no accident that the action takes place near Avignon, which I take it is a symbol of popery dominating the French.

Ordinarily I would let this last detail pass, but since the movie is so repulsive, I must mention one more flaw. In pursuit of the beast, the naturalist and his Indian guide make traps out of bamboo. Bamboo! In Southern France!

Thursday, November 14, 2002

A wonderful reflection on why one should be Catholic

Go look at Zorak, the Embittered Mantis's reflection. It is very good.

Note to Nihil Obstat: how does one do the possessive in a case like the above? Is it Zorak's, the Embittered Mantis, reflection? Or is it Zorak, the Embittered Mantis's reflection? Or perhaps should I drop the commas: Zorak the Embittered Mantis's reflection? Do tell.

I teach the Church's position on contraception in my ethics class, and

nobody complains. Yes, believe it or not, when we discuss natural law ethics, I use the Church's prohibition of contraception as my example. I show how Aquinas proceeds: there is the first object of practical reason, which is the good, and then the first indemonstrable precept, that good is to be done and evil to be avoided. Then arises the question "What is good?" At this point one needs to examine human beings to decide what human goods are. It is not a simple matter of taking a poll on what humans like, but rather a matter of finding out what the real goods are that contribute to human flourishing. Just as if in a plague 51% of the people with the illness wouldn't make the illness health, so also if 51% of humans think that fornication were right, it would still be wrong, because fornication doesn't help humans to flourish.

So far, so good. We have a sketch of how natural law theory works. But how do we figure out particular precepts of the natural law? I use contraception as an example. We take a good hard look at the nature of the human person and of the sexual act. Sex is an act that by its very nature includes the gift of self to another, a total gift of the whole person to the other person. If its procreative dimension is taken away, the act becomes false, a restricted and shallow use of another for pleasure rather than a self-gift of love.

We then look at it more concretely. I draw a circle on the board to represent a woman. In the circle I place the various elements that contribute to the whole that is woman. So, it looks like this: (intelligence, judgment, wisdom, humor, love, sexual organs and attributes.) This represents the whole woman. I then draw another circle representing a man: (sexual organs.} I point out that if sex is open to the gift of life, the man needs to consider the entire woman, for she could be the mother of his child. If the sexual act is sterilized, the man no longer needs to consider the whole woman, but can just consider (sexual organs.) The woman becomes nothing other than a tool to be used for pleasure. Evidence that this is the case can be seen in the desperate things that women do to fight to stay sexually attractive, from botox to fad diets, from breast implants to mutilating their faces in plastic surgery. Look at what Joan Rivers has done to herself in a futile attempt to remain "sexy." Further, look at what happens to the man: because of contraception, the man is able to live his life like a fifteen year-old boy would like to live, full of sex without consequences. Once a student asked me when men grow up, and I said "Only when they have to." If men can have sex without consequences, they will never grow up. Thus men become incapable of being good husbands and fathers, since they never had to, because of

I ask the students to answer if they think, honestly, that contraception leads to human flourishing: "Umm, no." I then say "If that is the case, then is the Church correct that it is a bad thing?" "Yes." Perhaps it is a result merely of my wonderful teaching abilities or commanding personality, but as of yet no-one has disputed me on the conclusion.

The moral of the story? The teaching on contraception hasn't been rejected as much as it has never been taught. It can be taught in a way that allows the students to come to the correct conclusion on their own. I appeal to all of you to teach the Church's teaching on the Gospel of Life--it can be effectively taught for the simple reason that it is true. Teach it!

Monday, November 11, 2002

Science fiction friendly to religion?

Recently I complained that in Star Trek, the only races to have any sort of religion were the Klingons, and theirs was a primitive warrior cult. A friendly reader pointed out to me that the Bajorans from Deep Space Nine also were religious. I apologize for my error. I never quite had time to keep up with DS9.

But the letter got me thinking: what novels or movies in the field of speculative fiction are most congenial to religious belief, and specifically to a Catholic understanding of human nature? (I prefer the name "speculative fiction" rather than "science fiction," since often the subject matter has little to do with science. Lord of the Rings is certainly speculative fiction, but not at all science fiction.)

So I want to start a bit of a contest: send me your list of the best Catholic speculative fiction. After a week or so I will publish the top ten, if I get that many responses. Keep in mind that we want good books, and that the books need not be overtly Catholic. Walker Percy points out that if a novel is perceived to be a religious novel, it probably isn't a good novel; the novelist must be tricky, a master of deception, so that themes of God and salvation are absorbed, but not perceived. These books should be good, first of all, and Catholic second. Further, The Lord of the Rings are in my opinion the most Catholic of all novels, and there is not one bit of Catholic doctrine in the books. They are Catholic because they show a Catholic understanding of sin, grace, and redemption. Note further that I say Catholic mostly to keep out the Left Behind garbage; otherwise, non-millenialist Christian novels will be accepted.

I'm interested to read your responses, so send me a list, with some explanation, of the best and most Catholic novels in the genre of speculative fiction. I will print names when I post the results unless you specify otherwise.

Dear Readers

If you come upon this blog, could you spare a minute to say a prayer for me and my wife? Nothing is wrong, but we pray for you, and turnabout is fair play!

"The first and greatest duty of the bishops

is the promotion of holiness." So says the papal nuncio to the US. Holiness will rebuild the Church, and will call people to faith and conversion.

Bishop Gregory says they must not allow people to exploit the scandal

There are those who have used the admitted weakness of the shepherds to advance their own agendas. Gregory says that the Church cannot and will not change her teachings on these matters. False prophets work by the strategy: "Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will scatter." More applause.

Applause at the USCCB!

Bishop Gregory is calling for the overturn of Roe v. Wade, calling it a disastrous decision justified by bad logic. The bishops burst into applause.

God help them

The US bishops are meeting today. You can access the coverage through EWTN. I will be watching much of the meeting, and will blog such things I find blogworthy.

Just remember as you watch: rule of the Church by bishops is the absolute worst way to run a church, except for all the others. And as bad as you think the bishops are, the laity in the US are worse. Most of us, after all, believe that there is nothing wrong with contraception or even abortion, which, if engaged in, are mortal sins. Consider this: since 90% of Catholics engage in the practice of artificial contraception, then 90% of Catholics in the US are potentially in a state of mortal sin. We truly have the bishops that we deserve.

Friday, November 08, 2002

You are an act of God

Recently I was involved in some debates about politics and abortion rights. A GOP political operative complained that if the Republicans ran pro-life candidates in the Northeast, they would lose, because the battle has been lost. New Jersey and states like it are thoroughly secular, he said, and there is no hope, short of an act of God, for them ever to change their minds on abortion.

It would certainly be nice if God were to do something extravagant and miraculous. Perhaps Mary could appear atop the statehouse, imploring all who entered to respect life. Or perhaps there could be a plague of locusts, or the rivers could run with blood. I doubt that these miracles would be any more effective than they were with Pharoah; belief has to do with the will, and no number of miracles can change a human will.

What can change a will? Reason and charity. We need to explain the gospel of life. It is not that there has been a debate between life and death, and death won, but rather the debate hasn't happened. Abortion is accepted as a fait accompli, contraception is thought to be a natural and normal as sunrise, and casual sex is the rule, not the exception. The opponents to the culture of death have left the battlefield. We have left it unopposed from fear of being rude. This cannot continue. Those of us who recognize the true dignity of human life must speak up. If we don't engage the enemy, who will? Waiting around for God to solve the problem with a miracle ignores an obvious fact: You are a miracle. God created you, calling you by name into existence. Everything you do that is good is an act of God. You have a mind, and you have a voice, created by God for a purpose. Perhaps your purpose is to proclaim the Gospel of Life. If your voice speaks the truth and your life bears witness to the love of God, hearts may be opened and minds may be changed.

God rebuilt his Church in the twelfth century not through miraculous signs, but through the human miracles Francis and Dominic. It is certain that he is calling you and me to do the same in the twenty-first century.

Wednesday, November 06, 2002

I visited some of my favorite people last weekend.

I was attending the yearly meeting of the American Catholic Philosophical Association. I enjoy the ACPA meeting because it is a group of generally like-minded people, where one can talk of such things as being, goodness, beauty, and truth. Particularly I enjoy attending Mass at the conference: it is quite moving to see a room full of extremely smart, well-published, and tenured academics who are also pious Catholics.

Conventional wisdom says that religious people are not intelligent. Religion is a superstition that one grows out of. You can see this conventional wisdom on television, since religious characters are most often portrayed as villians or as idiots. In Star Trek, for example, Klingons are the only species that has any residual religious belief, and that is a primitive warrior cult; everyone else has evolved beyond religion. (This is one of many reasons why Babylon 5 was much better than Star Trek.) The ACPA meeting shows how false this view is. I am proud to be a member, and look forward to next year's meeting.

I'm quite pleased

with the results of the election.

Tuesday, November 05, 2002


Please vote. Vote pro-life wherever possible. If your parish didn't give you a voter's guide, here is a simple rule: the Democrats are almost 100% pro-abortion, and those who aren't have no power or influence.

If you live in Illinois, vote often!

Say a prayer for good results tonight.

Monday, November 04, 2002

Hermeneutics, Shermeneutics

Locdog has published a treatise on biblical interpretation, and for the most part his Eight Rules are fine. However, there is a difficulty with Rule Six: Precedent. Locdog thinks that the Bible must be interpreted according to the Bible. In other words, one passage should be interpreted in light of other passages. So far, so good. Now we get to the difficulty: the "explicit" sense of scripture trumps any sort of doctrinal precedent. In other words, even though the Church has taught for two thousand years that Mary is ever-virgin, since the text says "brothers", it must mean "brothers," even though the word could mean "cousins." Locdog says if there is ever confusion of the sort where an implied teaching appears to contradict an explicit teaching, deference is shown to the explicit.

According to Locdog's rules, he is required to accept the Catholic teaching on the Eucharist: "This is my body" (Matt 26:26)and "Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you shall not have life within you" (John 6:53) are pretty obviously explicitly teaching exactly what Catholics believe. It takes hermeneutical gymnastics to make the text mean what Protestants generally take it to mean, that the bread and wine are some sort of symbols or memorial. No. The text is clear: we are called to eat the body and drink the blood of Christ. Follow your own principles, and accept what Jesus explicitly says.

There is a further difficulty in his assertion that the text trumps doctrine. Not all doctrines are created equal. Certainly if some sect claims that the bible says something it doesn't say, the bible should rule. But the Catholic Church is not a sect. It is the historical Church, and the bible is the Church's book. The collection of the books of the old and new testaments was done by the Catholic Church, which therefore precedes the bible. If the Church teaches something, and the text of the bible appears to contradict Church teaching, deference should be paid to the Church, since the bible comes to us from the action of the Holy Spirit in that Church. We all read the bible from within a community of interpretation, and this colors what we think the "explicit" meaning of the text is. If you are a Protestant, you likely think Matthew 26:26 is explicitly metaphorical, because your community of believers thinks that way. But what if another group thinks differently? How can we adjudicate different readings of the explicit meaning of the text? Here is the answer: find out which Church Christ founded, and then read the bible in the light of Christ's Church.

One must be Catholic to read the bible correctly.