Sunday, February 26, 2006

"I won't give money to the Church anymore!"

That's the reaction of many in the wake of the clergy sex scandals. Let me ask you this, you who refuse to give to the Church unless she is free from sins: would you like it if God treated you similarly?

"Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us." Scariest line in all of scripture.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Eros and Thanatos

I was listening to the Met broadcast of Aida today, and it got me thinking about death and love. Why is it that lovers in opera, plays, and poetry have to die so often? Then I thought that perhaps it is the only consummation possible for Eros if it is not procreative. Sexual desire or longing for the other should be somehow attached to the creation of new life; that is its proper fulfillment. Boy sees girl, boy loves girl, boy loses girl, boy seeks girl, [boy and girl get married], boy "gets" girl, [boy and girl raise a family]. The parts in brackets are the parts left out of the operas and movies. The operas replace the last bracket with "boy and girl die", whereas the movies just end, leaving the audience with the uncomfortable feeling that the lovers in the movie will soon grow tired of each other and break up, only to find others, like James Bond finding a new girl in each installment. Dying would be preferable!

A love story without a marriage and a family is bulimic by nature--it is a story about longing without consummation, eating without nutriment, a race without a finish line, a prayer without a god, a mere phantom without substance. Death at least gives some sort of a conclusion to it. That's why Romeo and Juliet had to die. That's why Wagner wrote of Tristan and Isolde's love-death. It's also why Jane Austen's novels are so good: one always has the impression that the principals will raise lots of kids on their country estate.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Tattoos and Transcendence

I went to a lecture last night on Robert Spaeman, and he was reported to have said that it is only because of human transcendence that we are able to self-mutilate. In other words, it is only because we go beyond the body that we are able to treat the body as an object and draw pictures on it or poke holes in it. If we were mere animals instead of persons, we would not get tattoos.

This is not to say that tattoos are morally neutral--I think that they are best a venial sin--but that they are evidence of the greatness of human beings.

I wonder what my students will make of this thought?

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Socratic Reflections

I teach Plato for a living. One of the main points to be made from any reading of the early Socratic dialogues is the benefits of confusion. Socrates doesn't pretend to know what piety is, but he knows that he doesn't know, and he wants to get Euthyphro to join him in a productive confusion. He doesn't claim to know what virtue is or if it can be taught, but he wants to play torpedo fish and get Meno as confused as he is. This is because confusion is better than confident ignorance. I diagram it like this:

Confident Ignorance

Wisdom is the best state, of course, and confusion is good because it is directed toward wisdom. Once I know that I don't know, I will ask questions in order to know. The slave boy doesn't know the answer to the geometry problem, butas long as he thinks he knows, he will never really know. Confident ignorance is the worst state, since one is likely wrong, and will never come out of the ignorance because of the confidence. "Yes, I know all about piety. Just ask me!" says Euthyphro. As long as he thinks this, he will always remain ignorant about piety, and will never have any hope of wisdom.

I was thinking about this the other day, and I think I have made a discovery. We do not have many people in states of Confident Ignorance anymore. No-one claims to know anything about the forms, about moral matters. We all claim confusion. In fact, we are Confidently Confused. We don't know anything except that it is impossible for us to know anything. It is, as Cardinal Ratzinger put it somewhere, the unquestioned dogma of the age.

Confident Ignorance was better, because Socrates could shock people out of that state by dismantling their confidence. What would Socrates do today, when people are so confident that they are confused? To reduce them to confusion via the Socratic method only confirms what they already think!

I don't know the solution. How does one puncture dogmatic doubt? Perhaps like the rabbi who, when confronted by an atheist, says "Despite all that, perhaps it is true." (I get the rabbinical story from Cardinal Ratzinger's Introduction to Christianity, where he quotes Martin Buber.)

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Feeling good about yourself? Haven't been to confession in years?

You've come to the right place!

People don't go to confession much anymore. Why is that? I think this has its roots in the legalistic mentality of the western world. Strictly speaking, confession is not necessary unless one is in a state of mortal sin. Most Catholics today think that the only person who ever committed a mortal sin was Judas, or maybe Hitler. Mortal sins are so awful and terrible that ordinary people just don't commit them, right?

Wrong. Consider me your prosecutor, Mister-legalistic-US-Catholic.

For a sin to be mortal, all that is required is that the matter be grave (the sin must be something serious in its nature), that knowledge be full (you need to know it is wrong), and consent must be given (you need to want to do it). See the Church's teaching here. Let's start in reverse order and look at these requirements:

1. Consent: You don't need to make a contract in blood with Beelzebub in order to commit a mortal sin. You just need to have a complete consent, sufficient to make the sin a personal choice. You make personal choices all the time. Here are some examples: what to eat for dinner, what book to read, what clothes to wear. All very simple, everyday choices, but choices. So consent is not hard to give.

The CCC says (1860) the promptings of feelings and passions can also diminish the voluntary and free character of the offense, as can external pressures or pathological disorders. Sin committed through malice, by deliberate choice of evil, is the gravest. So, it is possible that one can be carried away by passion, and in such a case the sin may be less. But then the question is: why are you the sort of person who gets carried away by passions in such an irrational way? You have a duty to form your character--if it is your fault that you give into passions habitually, then you have already failed in that grave duty to form one's character.

2. Full knowledge. Perhaps, you may say, I didn't really know it was that bad! How much knowledge is required for a sin to be mortal? Again, the Catechism sets a low bar: (1859) It presupposes knowledge of the sinful character of the act, of its opposition to God's law. You need to know that the act is sinful. It doesn't say that you need to understand the full depths and ramifications of the nature of the sinful act; you only need to know that it is sinful. Further, if you say that evil 1970's nuns didn't teach you correctly, you still don't have an excuse: (1860) But no one is deemed to be ignorant of the principles of the moral law, which are written in the conscience of every man.

By nature, we have at least some knowledge of right and wrong. Even non-theology PhD's are capable, it seems, of committing mortal sins.

3. Grave matter. "But I've never murdered anybody!" Jesus says in Matthew 5:21You have heard that it was said to the men of old, 'You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.' But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, 'You fool!' shall be liable to the hell of fire. So, one need not actually twist a knife in the guts of another in order to sin mortally. Insults could be mortal, as Jesus says.

The Catechism says that grave matter is determined by the content of the ten commandments. If you act against a commandment, it is possible that such an act is about grave enough matter to be mortal. But you might say that the commandments are vague. Luckily for you, the Church gives more specific direction. The following list was culled from the Vatican online edition of the catechism, by looking up the word "grave." It isn't complete, but gives the sorts of things that are objectively grave matter. If you've done any of these things with knowledge and consent, you need to get to confession.

2. Divorce
3. Fornication
4. Hatred
5. Drunkenness that puts the safety of others at risk.
6. Scandal--behavior that leads others to sin.
7. Suicide. (Presumably none of my readers have committed this sin.)
8. Abortion.
9. Murder. Most people seem to think that this is the only possible case of grave matter. It's one of many.
10. Missing Mass on Sunday. Yup. It's still grave matter. Sleeping in rather than going to church could put you in hell.
11. Blasphemy! If you talk bad about God, you could be committing mortal sin. Test: what would you say if you dropped a brick on your foot? That might be blasphemy.
12. Sacrilege, a very common sin these days. This consists in treating sacred things as if they weren't sacred.
13. Masturbation.
14. Pornography.
15. Homosexuality. If you indulge in homosexual pornography (I hear that all-female films are popular), you've got an act that is three-times grave matter.

Note, that this is just the result of a quick trip through the Catechism's search engine. It is not an exhaustive list--for example, contraception is also grave matter, although it didn't show up in this simple and quick search.

I dig all of this up not to make any individual judgments--I myself am convicted by the same list. The point of this post is to get rid of the foolish, devilish notion that mortal sin is impossible. It is very possible. In fact, I think that mortal sin is likely extremely common, given the Church's criteria for it.

Now go get yourself to confession!

(Note: the above post is a repost of something I did years ago.)

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Introduction to Christianity

is a great book, at least so far,full of insights and memorable phrases. Here's one, quite reminiscent of Deus est Caritas: "We are also coming to understand more and more clearly that the apparent liberation of love and its conversion into a matter of impulse means the delivery of man to the autonomous powers of sex and Eros, to whose merciless slavery he falls victim just when he is under the illusion that he has freed himself. When he eludes God, the gods put out their hands to grasp him; he can only be liberated by allowing himself to be liberated and by ceasing to try to rely on himself." (p 114)

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Waldenbooks sells pornography to minors

I went for a walk in the Orland Park Mall today with my two little daughters in order to get some exercise, and I stopped in Waldenbooks to browse for a little while. They have a new sign outside the front of the store proclaiming "Waldenkids", inviting families and children to come view the books for youth. So we walked around, looking at what they had to offer. Then, I noticed something disturbing: on the shelf directly next to the poetry and classic literature, Waldenbooks was selling Penthouse Letters and other explicitly pornographic fiction.(If you are unfamiliar with Penthouse Letters, they are extremely explicit descriptions of sexual activity. Everything from an X-rated movie except the pictures.) These books, with lurid covers of lingerie-clad models, were placed on the ground level, where any child or teen could browse through them. In addition, there were no restrictions on who could buy them.

I asked to speak to the manager, and he wouldn't address my concerns, except to give me a letter from Waldenbooks, and refer me to his district manager. Here is the letter:

Policy Statement in regard to Sale of Adult Materials

Dear Customer:

As a responsible company, Waldenbooks is sensitive to both the needs of its customers and the public at large. Waldenbooks is proud of its atmosphere as a first class family bookstore. Waldenbooks, however, cannot act as a censor in regard to the sale of material found in our stores. To do so would present a serious encroachment on the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

We, therefore, have a specific policy on regard to the sale of adult magazine titles. These magazines are displayed on the top shelf of our magazine fixtures as close as possible to the cash wrap (register) area. Waldenbooks does not allow minors, defined as anyone under the age of eighteen (18) years, to browse through or purchase materials of this nature.

Waldenbooks does not offer for sale any publication which has been deemed obscene by any court of competent jurisdiction. Waldenbooks does comply with all local ordinances regarding display and sales of adult magazine titles.

We trust that you, who have inquired as to our policy, can understand the balance that must be reached in regard to such matters and appreciate the actions taken by Waldenbooks to be responsive to your concerns. Should you have any further questions, please do not hesitate to contact us in writing, addressing your inquiries to the attention of our President. Our store management can provide you with the address of our Corporate Office.

We appreciate you [sic] patronage of our store and hope that you will continue to purchase at Waldenbooks.


You, as an intelligent reader, will have noticed the misrepresentations and inconsistencies in this letter. First of all, I complained about the placement of pornography (writing about porneia) and was given a letter about the placement of pornovideo (images of porneia). I wasn't complaining about the shameful magazines, but about the shameful books; the letter does not apply. Second, the First Amendment does not require stores to sell such things. Barnes and Noble, for example, and the Daughters of St. Paul don't sell such things. The appeal to the U.S. Constitution is a red herring. Third, Waldenbooks does in fact engage in censorship: it won't let minors buy Hustler. But it will allow (and even encourage, by its placement in the store) minors to browse and purchase Penthouse Letters. Why not place Hustler on the rack for the kids? Is there a qualitative difference between a picture and a story?

I was invited to call the district manager. He hasn't called me back. I will keep you posted. Waldenbooks, of course, is the same as Borders, which is the same as Amazon. What a wondrous web we weave.