Thursday, June 28, 2012

What Is So Wrong With ??? Sex?

One comment I keep seeing over and over again in discussions of gay marriage is, "I don't see why this is wrong." The same sort of thing for contraception. Even people who do believe based on the authority of the church struggle to give a simple explanation of why sex acts not open to life are always wrong. One answer is that we should not expect to understand it all. St Augustine said that if you understand it, it is not God. There is a lot of truth to that. Just because we don't see an issue does not mean there is no issue. Sometimes we need to trust the "Road Closed" sign and not go there even if we can't see the hole in the road.

Another answer is the Theology of the Body. For me that articulated a lot of the things I was able to discern spiritually but not able to explain logically. It is a thing of beauty. But it does not distill down easily into a few sentences. It requires quite a bit of work to understand a very big and very amazing picture of the whole world and where sex fits into it. I have never heard someone explain it successfully in an hour. So when someone asserts in a discussion that they don't see why this is wrong you end up telling them to go to a 6 hour workshop or read a 400 page book. I know how I would react to someone telling me that. I would accuse them of the Phantom Argument Fallacy. That is declaring the existence of a great argument for your position but not actually providing it so it can be scrutinized by your opponent.

So how do we sketch out the Theology of the Body so we can show very quickly that it an interesting bit of moral reasoning and not just a lot of special pleading? Not something that will convince by itself but something that will spark an interest in some people to dig into this further. I can do that with the problems of protestantism. I now find it easy to make a quick comment that shows how this or that depends on a rather questionable authority claim. I wonder if it is possible to do that in discussions about sexual morality.

So I shall make such an attempt. In as few easy steps as possible I shall try and discern what is wrong with gay marriage or contraceptive sex in heterosexual marriage.
  1. God is love. That means love is at the very center of existence. When we sin against love we sin in the most serious way possible. More than that it means God defines love. We can't just decide what love means. We need to learn it from God and do what He does. We tend to take any relationship we find pleasing and call it love. Mostly we are just using people. God's love was shown on the cross. It is completely unlimited. Completely devoid of self-interest. Completely focused on the fruit of redemption.
  2. Sex is a call to love. It ties together a strong physical desire, an intense emotional bond that is very painful to break and the possibility of a new eternal person. These 3 things make sex what it is. Removing one distorts sex. 
  3. Because sex is a call to love like God loves any distortion of it is going to distort our ability to love. But love is the most important thing.  Love makes communion with God possible. In some ways love is communion with God because God is love. 
So it is not that gay couples or contraceptive couples end up in a bad place. It is a place that is not good enough. It might seem compared to where they were but it is not good compared to the ultimate good that sex is intended to lead us into. So then we get into celibacy. How is celibacy better than this distorted form of sex? It leaves intact the picture of love that sexual desire paints in our hearts.

I can go on and on but the point is not to.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

An Atheist Attacks Faith

Here is a talk by an atheist that is on YouTube. His name is Aron Ra. I think it is called Faith Is Not a Virtue
Throughout my youth, I was taught that faith is a virtue. Other than that, no one could tell me what faith is. I was told that faith is loyalty. Now Fido was a popular dog name because it was based on the derivative of "fidelity," meaning the opposite of "infidel." And obviously if you are faithful and your spouse is unfaithful, he or she is guilty of infidelity. That's why they're called "faithful." An infidel is one who does not keep the faith. I'm told that the virtue here is that a man should stand by his beliefs as if his beliefs are tied to his very identity, and that he should hold true to that and defend the faith without compromise. That didn't make any sense to me as a child because, I reasoned, what if you had two men with mutually exclusive ideas? What, exactly, is virtuous if at least one of them are wrong, if not both? What exactly is virtuous about being unable to consider your opponent's position or reconsider your own? I know people who will continue to believe what they want to believe, regardless of whether it's really true or not.
There is a conflation of quite a few things here. One is to stand up for truth. Standing up for truth is something virtuous. That is independent of how we arrived at that truth. You might know something is true because you saw it with your own eyes. Faith is more about how we arrive at truth. Once you are properly convinced of a truth then defending it is a matter of integrity. 

But then he suggests in the last sentence that faith is about believing what you want and not caring about truth. I says he knows people like that. He doesn't give any examples. I would not call that faith. I would call it delusional. People of faith that I know care deeply about truth. I am not sure if he means liberals who talk about "your truth and my truth" or perhaps he means fundamentalists with their "faith against reason" thinking. It is hard to say. But knowing there are some people who abuse the notion of faith does not prove there is no proper place for it. 

[clip of Simpsons episode featuring Homer and Ned Flanders]
I cut out the story of some Mormons who behaved in a silly way. He does not seem to want to engage the best of Christianity. He seems to want to take the easy shots at when they look silly. The trouble is every belief system looks bad sometimes. Do you judge Mozart based on how it sounds when horrible musicians play his music?  So why judge Christianity by behavior that even Christians laugh at? 
I know that other people have done this, too, and one guy I know of managed to convince himself that his wife was still faithful, even when all of his friends and family had figured out when and where and with whom she was cheating. He didn't want to believe that, so he refused to acknowledge it, ignored all the signs, saw only what he wanted to see, and preserved his dignity (he thought) for a while until he realized that he didn't have any dignity for quite a time. And I know this is what religious people do, too. But it begs the question: when is it ever wise to believe someone without reservation? 
Now this is getting to the point. Can we trust anyone? He gives another proof by example here. Someone should explain to him that is a logical fallacy and not a valid for of proof. Sure there are people who have been betrayed. But is the wife always cheating? Is that a reason not to get married? It is a reason to be careful who you marry. Same with religion. Showing some religions are bad is not enough. You have to show good religion is impossible.
I was told that faith is trust--well, obviously that didn't work for me, either, partly because I had this image [image of sinister-looking goblin and thought bubble saying, "TRUST ME"] on a t-shrt in high school. In this context I was told I would not step onto an airplane unless I had faith that it would land safely. That doesn't make sense because I know the plane exists, I can prove that it does, I know something about the safety ratings of getting on an aircraft, I know I can check out my sources to know that they should be fairly reliable--but how could I be expected to trust things which can't be verified, and which are told to me by people who frankly can't be trusted? I can't trust the teacher, or the preacher, or even the President-who, when I was a boy, was Richard Nixon, and maybe that's why I can't recognize any authority as being unquestionable, and that includes the people who wrote all the world's religious tomes while claiming divine inspiration from a host of gods who cannot all exist at the same time.
This is more a statement about himself. He has trouble trusting. But is that a virtue or a defect? He was lied to by Richard Nixon so he rejects Jesus. Yet he trusts the people who fly airplanes. It seems pretty arbitrary. This is playing to one of the big fears people have with religion. They don't want to get taken. They don't want to be made a fool of. But you can be a fool for rejecting something as well as for accepting it.
Each of my science books said, "This is why we think this, this is how we figured it out, and this is what we still don't know." That I can trust. And it inspires me to contribute. Conversely, religious books claim to already know everything you'll ever need to know, even though they never explained anything, and you're forbidden to question them; instead, you should believe them without suspicion simply because they said so, even when they've already been proven wrong. This is why the words "confidence man" described a criminal swindler; such people should not be trusted. When is it ever wise to believe someone without question?
I don't know where he learned religion. I asked a ton of questions in religion classes. They did explain where we got things. God came to us in the person of Jesus. We know it is true because God raised Him from the dead. You start with that revelation. Things proceed logically from there. Someone might teach religion in a way that does not focus on reason and understanding but they might teach science that way to. It is not in the nature of religion but how we choose to think about it, or not think about it.

Again he comes back to trust. Are people who teach religion dishonest? Are they trying to con people? Do they really think it is all a lie? All of them? Does he seriously believe that? I doubt it. The swindlers are very few and far between. So why focus on them?
At least when you look up the word "faith," some dictionaries will describe it as "a secure confidence," but those that do also distinguish the colloquial sense from faith as it applies to religion, and that is the context we're talking about. Every dictionary I have yet seen matches everything I've seen from the hymns and sermons and theologians past and present, and even the scriptures of Abrahamic and Hindu religions: faith is a secure confidence that is not based on evidence. Without evidence, there can be no reason to believe. So then faith was described as being synonymous with hope. You hope this is true. You hope your authorities know what they're talking about. You hope they're not lying to you, and you hope your preconceived notions will still turn out to be true even when they obviously can't be. This sort of unsupported wishful thinking is what it really means to take something on faith. But when is it ever wise to believe someone without reason?
Here is a guy invited to speak about faith. He does not know what it means. Faith is a confidence in someone or something. It can be, and almost always is, based on evidence. When a friend gives you his phone number you are confident it is right. Why? Faith in him. In his character. In his ability to write 7 digits without error. Those things would be based on evidence. You would not have any direct evidence that the phone number is right. If you had such evidence then it would not be faith. You might still ask questions. "I thought you lived in New York, this looks like a New Jersey number?" If you had faith in him you would expect there to be reasonable answers.

He keeps going back to the rhetorical question, "When is it ever wise to believe someone without reason?" The answer is when they know more than you on the subject in question. You will typically have some reason for believing they know more than you. Maybe that reason is also based on faith. Just because premises are believed on faith does not make the process illogical. You want the best information. If Jesus knows more about how a man should live then I do then why should I ignore His word and follow my own thinking?
But you gotta have faith. If you have faith, anything is possible. Faith can move mountains. Supposedly, your faith can make mountains move all by themselves so you don't have to do all that tedious shoveling. That's the great thing about faith: it can give one a satisfactory feeling of accomplishment without having to find a solution or, really, do anything at all. In one of many old books of magic, myth, and monsters, there is a legendary character called Jesus, who might have been an actual person, but the story has been heavily embellished. In one of these tales, Jesus said that with even very little faith, you could destroy coastal communities by causing mountains to jump into the sea. He didn't mention the implied tsunami, but that is what would happen. 
Again, he does not seem to want to deal seriously with the actual faith. He seems more of a blasphemer than a rational thinker. That is he is more about poking fun at sacred things than actually addressing the big questions of life.
However, while Jesus says we only need faith as small as a mustard seed--and I want to know what his metric is, what metric he's using--he also implies that our faith must be absolute, because we cannot have doubt. The only way to eliminate doubt, the things that can't be tested, is you simply don't question, don't even think about them. Even though you know it's absurd, just keep telling yourself that miracles can happen if you believe that they will. But you must be absolutely convinced; the impossible will happen only if you believe "hard enough." Or if you make a wish with all your heart. Because there, mutually exclusive contradictions can be ingested without consideration. Don't think your way out of Fantasia. You don't measure faith with a logical brain from a natural world. "Search your feelings, you know this to be true." If you circumvent the intellect, you can believe six impossible things before breakfast. All you have to do is deny the laws of nature and the rules of logic, and just convince yourself without a doubt. Don't just say that you believe impossible absurdities, assert your conviction. Trust in the priesthood and in the doctrine of the infallible fables, and believe them absolutely. Never under estimate the power of pretend; you must make-believe. You have to pretend, with all the auto-deceptive delusion you can muster, because there's a lot riding on it.
Again he completely misrepresents what Christians believe. Christians don't deny the laws of nature and the rules of logic. That would be an absurd religion. We believe in miracles but as miracles. That is they don't happen all the time. They are exceptions to the laws of nature. The exceptions prove the rule.

We don't believe that if we wish something with all our heart it will come true. We have all tested that theory when we were children. Can we eliminate doubt? Not very often. Certainly not asking your questions will never eliminate doubt. You don't do it by eliminating the intellect. You don't so it by forcing yourself. You do it by living it and experiencing the truth of it in you life.
Religion is a belief system; that means you are required to believe this, and forbidden to believe that. This is how religion differs from free thought: we don't care what you believe, all that matters is why you believe it. Faith doesn't count as a reason. It is indefensible in that regard. This may be why religions resort to psychological projection, denying their own faults while accusing them in others. It's an old cliche: the pot calling the silverware black. It means accusing someone else of faults you, too, are guilty of. But religious extremists project their own faults onto those who will not share them.
This is interesting. How many irrational appeals has he made? He asserts that we know it's absurd but does not say how we know it. Listen to that small voice of doubt in your heart. Really, if you compare what he does to a typical preacher I would say he has embraced the worst preaching tactics, the cheap shots against people who believe different, the bold assertions without evidence. So he acts like he is above them but he plays the same game.
[montage of clips of religious people talking about the faith of atheists]

It's the old playground game of "I'm rubber, you're glue; what bounces off of me sticks to you." It's an infantile tactic which I describe as the pot calling the silverware black. It's a sort of psychological spin; how else can you defend an indefensible position? You have to twist everything around. That's why the Bible defines a fool as someone who does not believe completely the outrageous claims of incredulous sources even without asking for evidence, but every other source in the world defines a fool as someone who does these things. 
This is the tu quoque objection. It just means the problem you are pointing out in my system also exists in your system. It is a twisting around of sorts but it can be valid. There are certain questions that sit at the center of our lives. What is the meaning and purpose of life? How do we determine right and wrong? What happens when I die? It does not really work that well to leave these questions unanswered. If anything it is a less rational thing to do because you are not thinking about the key questions. You are rejecting an answer for reasons that can be just as emotional or involve just as questionable a reasoning process as any other religious choice. But there is often no clear sense of what replaces God in the center of your lives. should not a rational person articulate and scrutinize the central truths that he is organizing his life around? I know religious people do that. I don't see atheists doing that.
There is this idea, common throughout Christendom, that belief in God is somehow required in order to be good. 
I don't know many Christians who say this. Nobody doubts that atheists can have very strong moral feelings. Many times their morality comes indirectly from the Christian society they were raised in. But in general there is nothing wrong with them morally.  The concern is more long term. Do they have a principled way to tell moral progress from moral regress? If a new idea comes or an old idea gets challenged how does an atheist decide what is right? A Christian might get it wrong but he at least believes there is a transcendent source of morality, namely God, and we know some things about that source, namely the revelations of Jesus. Atheists tend to deny anything transcendent. Even if they believe such a moral source exists they have no reliable way to know anything about it. Everything boils down to moral feelings. Again Christians are being the hard rationalists. It is the that atheists are following their heart.

Statistically, that is obviously not the case, at least according to what I happened across online [screenshot of article headlined 'Societies wors off "when they have God on their side"']. I don't see a lot of Christian compassion or charity represented here [screenshot of article headlined 'Religious doctors not more likely to care for poor: study']. The factions of religion typically have the highest crime rate with special emphasis on hate crimes. Religious people are more likely to condone the murder or torture of prisones [screenshot of headlines 'An Enduring Majority: Americans zContinue to Support the Death Penalty,' 'Evangelicals Support Torture'], where non-religious people are more likely to consider that morally wrong. Yes, we have morals, and we're beginning to feel alone in that. But it gets worse. The most religious countries also have the highest murder rate, and the same is true of the most religious areas within this country. The higher the religiosity of a populace, the higher the murder rate. Similar nations show the opposite tendencies, where the less religious they are, the more peaceful they are [screenshot of article headlined 'Atheist nations are more peaceful']. Here in America, evangelical Christians have the highest divorce rate [screenshot of article headlined 'Evangelicals: Why Do We Have the Highest Divorce Rate?']. They also have the highest rates of teen pregnancy, which isn't surprising since we believe in teaching abstinence only. I live in Texas, where the abstinence-only program has been so successful that we have achieved the country's highest level of repeat teen pregnancy. But it gets even worse. Fundamentalist Christians also have the highest rates of abortion; that's what a colossal failure the programs of the religious right have been. But it still gets even worse than that: child protective services and other agencies report a significant majority of child abusers and molesters report as being very religious, and the more religious they seem to be, the worse offenders they seem to be. And yet despite all of this, how are atheists perceived?

[montage of invective against atheists]
This is actually fair comment. Sure the headlines are cherry-picked but Christians do tend to look down on atheists and they should not. Not all Christians but too many. We should be holier than they are. We should not say so. It should just be obvious. Sometimes that is true but not generally. When we claim more than is true or claim anything at all really we are judging. We need to stop. Atheists are allowed to judge us because they don't have to follow Jesus. We do.
In 21st century America, as in other predominantly religious countries now and throughout history, we are judged as evil, void, and emotionally depraved simply because we do not believe things which are not evidently true, because we are wise enough to reserve judgment in lieu of compelling evidence. Because we are wise enough not to jump to the first conclusion [unintelligble]. We lack the virtue of admitting we are wrong about something or could be. If given good reason, I will change my mind. I've had many discussions with people who say, "Look, you're never going to change my mind, and I'm never going to change yours." And I say, "No, you're wrong. You could change my mind, if you have a reason. I can't change yours because you've decided in advance that it doesn't matter what reason I give."
I agree again. We should always be open to changing our minds. In principle, most of us are. In practice, we close down when our core beliefs start to shake. It is easy to do. When contemplating Catholicism I had the constant temptation to just drop it. It is very uncomfortable to question your deeply-help convictions. Still people do it. I hate it when people start discussions by saying nobody is going to convert. If one or both has to be wrong then why do we want to exclude conversion? Don't we want the discussion to result in everyone arriving at the truth?
And it doesn't matter if there is an inverse correlation between one's level of education and their tendency to believe in gods, aliens, pseudoscience, and spiritualism. The real problem for empirical science and other forms of rational skepticism is that we care more about truth than the religious do. Christians have often told me that their fear of God is the only reason they don't run amok in the streets, raping, killing, and doing all the horrible things God commanded his followers to do in the Bible. Things atheists generally would never do even if it were legal. 
I don't think atheists care more about truth. The desire for heaven and the fear of hell is a motivator. It should not be the only motivator. When Christians say these things make them behave they typically don't mean raping and killing. They typically mean drunkenness, pornography, etc. Even that is a sign of an immature faith. Mature Christians are motivated by a desire for communion with God.

Most of us tend to do good, and when we are, we're good for goodness's sake. We do what must be done because it should be, not because of any threat, and not for any reward, either. So why do Christians think that belief in God has anything at all to do with being good? The popular notion is that when anyone dies, they're judged according to the tally of good or evil things they've done in their lives. This idea is much older than the Bible. It dates back to the Zoroastrian religion, which scholars say contributed significantly to the formation of Judaism, and of course Christianity and others. Way back then, they believed that the souls of men would ascend to the kingdom of justice and truth ruled by Ahora Mazda. And the souls of evil men descend into the kingdom of the lie ruled by Ahriman. And shadows of this can be found in modern Judaism, but this does predate. This is what it says in the Avestas of Zarathustra, but it does not say that in the Bible, and that is not what Christianity teaches.
There is a popular atheist assumption that if you find echos of Christianity in any other religion that creates a problem for Christians. It does not. Christians believe that God reveals Himself outside of the Christian and Jewish faith. The Zoroastrian religion could have discerned some truth about God before Christianity did. I think the idea of some sort of reckoning after we die, where the good are rewarded and the evil are punished, that is common to many religions. We sense that things should be that way. That our actions should be rewarded or punished justly and on this earth they frequently are not.
In the Christian religion, nearly all sins can be forgiven if you believe in Jesus, and simply because you believe in Jesus. No matter how absurd the stories are, all you have to do is swallow whatever the priests are selling [image of stained glass window depicting a boy kneeling in front of two priests, implying fellatio], and that's it! You're saved! So if you love sin, claim Jesus as your savior. Yes, there are passages in the Bible that say that works are important, too, but only in addition to faith, and those passages could be paraphrased as, "Believe what we tell you, so that you'll do as we say." Submissive obedience and subservience to the priest is repeated throughout. But there are also passages like Ephesians 2:8 which say that you are saved only through your faith, not of yourselves, meaning that there's nothing you can actually do about it. Because, as it says in Isaiah 64:6, your good works are like filthy rags in the eyes of God. It doesn't matter how good or bad you are, you're not going to be held accountable for your sins; that's not what you're being judged on. There is only one criteria[sic]: all that matters is that you believe, and that you believe on faith, meaning that you have complete conviction without evidence. Remember, Jesus said, "Blessed is he who has not seen and yet believed." So morality isn't the issue. What matters is whether or not you can believe the most outrageous claims imaginable, even from the least credible people possible, and believe it completely even when there is no reason at all why you should. The most saintly skeptic is cursed simply for being rational, while the most naive sinners can still be saved. You can break the Ten Commandments if you want to. You won't go to hell for that. In fact, the Bible lists hundreds of God's commandments, but he literally won't give a damn if you break them. Leviticus 26 says if you break God's commandments, he will punish you in this life, not the next, by making your toil harder and your efforts fruitless. That's why all these atheists [image of celebrities including Angelina Jolie, Bill Gates, and Jack Nicholson] had to toil so hard with little or no reward.
This is not a fair representation of protestant Christianity. It does sound protestant despite the references to priests. Morality is the issue but grace is the only way we become moral. Choices have consequences. If we reject grace then we cannot become holy. But people might reject grace through the church and receive it some other way. That is not normal but the church does not exclude that. But telling God to get out of your life is a dangerous business. He might do exactly that.
Now you might be thinking, "But that's the Old Testament, and those rules don't apply to modern Christians." But in Matthew 5:19, in the New Testament, Jesus says that any who ignores those old commandments shall be called least in heaven. So you'll still go to heaven; you just have to fly coach. You're still supposed to obey all those creepy old Jewish laws, including the one about having to murder anyone who works on weekends, and the one about having to sell your daughter to whoever rapes her first. But you'll still be forgiven if you don't. Even if you eat at Red Lobster while wearing a nylon-polyester blend. It doesn't matter how good or bad you are; love your sin all you want. Noah was a naked old drunk cursing his own children. Lot offered his daughters to a rape mob before he got drunk and molested them himself, and even blamed them for seducing him--what a schmuck! Yet these were the men whom God considered the best men in the whole world. Graded on a curve, wouldn't you all be better than that? Graded on a curve, how could any of you be considered least in heaven?
I often wonder about these kinds of bizarre biblical interpretations. He goes on and on with them. I can't imagine they are meant to be taken seriously. But atheists eat it up. It is lie they have contests to come up with the most revolting interpretive twist on some obscure passage of scripture. There is a reason why it is obscure. Christian tradition has not focused on these passages. They do tell us something but they are of limited value. These do mean Noah and Lot behaved badly. Their children behaved badly as well. Curses flowed from that. Anyway, he goes on and on with this kind of weirdness so I'll skip a little.
So, no, the reason I don't pretend there isn't an imaginary God has nothing to do with my wanting to be held accountable for something. Quite the opposite. The fact that I have accountability is the reason I can't pretend to believe. Not that that or anything else I ever say or do will matter to believers. When I die, guaranteed, some disrespectful fuck will be at my wake, assuring his or herself that they were right all along, and that Aron knows God is real now. So I'll use this moment to preemptively correct that eventual asshole by saying that when you or I die, we will not think, know, wish, remember, dream, be anything. Whether your god exists or not, history will be our judge. Either way, when I die, everything that was once me--my mother's son, my son's father, my wife's husband, my friends' bro, my neighbors' inconsiderate jerk--everything that once made me special will, upon my demise, be reduced to a few dozen pounds of ape meat going bad. And I'm okay with that. I don't need to live forever. The only meaning my life ever had was what I meant for someone else. That is all, and that's enough. Thank you. Thank you very much.
 He says he has accountability. Then he says after he dies he expects no accounting to happen. He gets very angry at someone who might try and console themselves at his funeral with the thought of an afterlife. Why such a bother? Why such concern that he be faithful to the truth and that other that follow him be faithful to the truth no matter how hard it is to face? That is a laudable goal. Where does it come from? Why can't an atheist say "believe whatever you want?" If he is dead then why does he care? Like truth is some absolute good that transcends death.

The accountability thing is real but it is always a self-accountability. That is you hold yourself to a standard of your own choosing. That is a huge difference. For example, many atheists decide that sexual morality does not apply. So they can just not count that when they declare themselves to be good. So they can be morally outraged at many things and still give themselves a free pass on their favorite vices. It is certainly not hard to imagine some people wondering if that plays a bigger role in the choice for atheism than any love of truth does.

Monday, June 25, 2012

When You Disagree With Church Teaching

Leah Libresco is becoming Catholic. This is great. I didn't know much about her. It turns out much of what I thought I knew was false. I thought her blog was called Unequally Yoked because she was an atheist married to a Catholic and dealing with those issues. In this post she calls herself bisexual. So I guess not. But I wanted to comment on how she is handling some of the differences she still has with the church.
I’m basically approaching this as walking the line between civil disobedience and dissent. I’m keeping my behavior inside Church teaching, but my voice and arguments are unrestrained. A fight (properly approached) is to everyone’s benefit. If I’m wrong, I want to lose, and if I’m right, I want to win. Neither of those things are likely to happen if I hold back on explaining my position and poking at other people’s about theirs.
First of all,it is great that she is keeping her behavior inside church teaching. I remember my position on contraception before I became Catholic. I was not really if full agreement yet but I chose not to use it. The fact that I was not using it made it easier to accept the church's teaching that it was wrong. Our reason can be biased by our hormones. So that is a big deal.

But what about the unrestrained voice and arguments? That is OK in private. If you are struggling to accept a teaching then talking about that struggle is not a problem. But talking about it in a very public forum can cause scandal. It can amount to teaching heresy. Leah is actually a very public Catholic right now. Major media outlets covered her conversion announcement. So having her say the opposite of Catholic teaching on a public blog is a problem.

The other issue is the implication that the truth is out there to be found. The immorality of gay sex acts is Catholic dogma. We don't need any kind of fight to figure out who is right. We know the right answer by faith before we start. What we want to do is understand the reason for the dogma. Why is gay sex wrong? Our faith needs to seek understanding. This is fundamentally different from the academic world or the political world or even the protestant world where the central truths can change based on a good argument. In Catholicism the central truths are revealed by God and we struggle to understand them and all their implications.
Here’s a precis, but I’ll give a longer answer in a post(s?) that will probably go up next week. I think the Catholic Church has, at it’s heart, the right axioms, but that its small-c conservative structure means it takes a really long time to update the applications of those principles as new data emerges. And when you’re more interested in safeguarding the core ideas than speaking definitively on everything as it comes up, that’s prudent. But then you should be more careful to temper your confidence levels on new problems and questions.
The church has the right axioms. But what are they? What needs updating and what needs safeguarding? Who decides? Well, the church does. It tells us not only what the principles are but also which ones are timeless and which ones only apply to the here and now. So the church will update things slowly as new data emerges but the update won't be the opposite of what is currently dogma. What is immoral won't become morally neutral. She seems to think that might happen.

The radical claim of the Catholic church is that God speaks to us through her. Some part of the wisdom that created the universe is available to us. So when you say, "the Church thinks gender is much more central to someone’s identity than I do," that should be a cause for repentance on your part. It should not be the starting point of a debate. If it is really the opinion of the one true Church of Jesus Christ then it has to be right. We need to understand we are creatures and we are interacting with our Creator. Even the smartest among us needs to be humbled by the experience.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Sending Preachers To Jail

When does the state have the right to jail a pastor for preaching bad doctrine? This story seem to contain that:
A Black Earth pastor convicted of conspiracy to commit child abuse for advocating the use of wooden rods to spank children has been sentenced to two years in prison.
It seems like this story is from Wisconsin. Now I don't doubt that this guy is saying something rather stupid and dangerous. But I also don't doubt that he believes it as part of his religion. So what has happened? The state has said we can punish a pastor for preaching something if the state deems it might hurt someone. Not that the teaching directly hurt someone but that we can imagine the teaching could inspire someone to hurt another person.

Do we want to go there? How long will it take before this gets applied to church teaching on homosexuality? Any sermon that inspires bullying should be illegal? Where is the line? Do you actually have to call for violence? No. When I was a kid bullying involved violence or a very obvious threat of violence. Now bullying can just involve verbal attacks. What precisely must be said? Homosexual morality involves drawing some distinctions between homosexual acts and homosexual inclinations. So you have several things going on here:
  1. Pastor or priest teaches the doctrine
  2. Layperson hears the doctrine and acts on it towards a person with same-sex attractions
  3. Same-sex attracted person interprets those words or actions
Step 1 is where we hope the truth is preached in a loving way. But pastors don't always get their preaching right. There should be a significant margin for error allowed before the state should inject itself and make the preaching illegal.

But even if the preacher does make all the right distinctions and make clear his love and compassion for same-sex attracted people there are going to be some in the crowd who will come away with something different. Especially when you have a topic where there are a lot of deep seated ideas and perhaps a lot of woundedness. People will often process sermons strangely. We are talking about potentially a very small number of people behaving badly as a result of this preaching. It happens all the time. People try and fight evil and they end up fighting the people who symbolize that evil to them. In spiritual warfare as in real warfare attacking the wrong target happens even to the well intentioned soldier but the results can be very bad.

Still, even if the preacher teaches the right doctrine and the person communicates it in a loving and respectful way there is still a chance it could all be misinterpreted by the same-sex attracted person. Many times these people are very young. They are feeling a lot of guilt over their sexual thoughts and actions. They are being told not to feel guilty and that the real problem is those that are making them feel guilty. So you are talking about people who can put some very strange spins on things. Then they can show a ton of problems, depression, suicide, violence, drug abuse, etc. Society desperately want to avoid saying these people feel real guilt for objectively immoral acts. So they look around for people to blame. The nearest person who has communicated the wrongness of the acts in question ends up taking the rap.

The point is that very reasonable preaching could easily be deemed harmful by society. What is the principled difference between the Wisconsin case and how society is likely to see preaching on the immorality of sodomy. The consensus against spanking children with wooden rods is greater. But for how long? Courts often only listen to what the intellectual elites are saying so the consensus on gay sex seems strong to them.

There is an assumption is society that doctrine does not matter. That it is just some rambling about God that can be safely ignored. The truth is doctrine is very dangerous. Bad doctrine can cause real physical harm to yourself and to others and to society. Even true doctrine is dangerous. Like true love in Romeo and Juliet. A few misunderstandings and something good becomes something tragic. But the courts don't get that. So they are likely to conclude that real danger implies that it somehow is not doctrine. That it is crossed over into something that is not religion and therefore can be regulated by the state. It has not. Real doctrine is every bit as dangerous as telling parents to beat their kids with wooden rods. Just like the idea of having the state rid society of bad religion is dangerous.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Self Control and Reason

Our society loves reason. It values intelligence, too much really. In an evolutionary worldview our dignity as humans derives from how big our brains are. They tend to see other things like our ability to love, our ability to appreciate beauty and our ability to tell right from wrong as artifacts. Our intellect, that is what makes humans special.

At the same time our society hates self control. When you suggest people need to stay away from pornography or premarital sex many people just don't get it. How could one refrain from doing these things when your hormones tell you to do them? Like controlling the body's passions is a non-option.

The strange part is that self control is required for us to benefit from our reason. Our intellect can control our will but if our will can't control the passions of the flesh then we end up knowing what we should do and unable to execute it. People with addictions see this. Often they are described as stupid. Actually they can be quite intelligent. They know they need to quit. They just can't control their desires. So their intelligence does them no good.

So it seems quite odd to value reason and dismiss self control. Yet you see it all the time. Society makes a real effort to educate young people. That is to develop their intellect. How much effort do we put into making sure those people can actually live out the choices their intellect leads them to? Mostly we assume they won't. No matter what you decide you are going to do the same thing anyway so here is how to manage the risk.

It is not just with sex. We get the same issues with greed. We can analyze our financial problems or our environmental problems. We just can't control ourselves. People act in their short term material interests. Politicians act in their short term political interests. We can see what should be but we can't make it happen. Our intelligence does us no good.

But it is worse than that. It is not just that our intelligence does no good. Our reason ends up being infected. In AA they call it stinking thinking. That is when your intellect can't control your behavior then your intellect starts to rationalize what you are doing. Intelligent people can accept really lousy arguments because the alternative is to admit they are powerless to change their behavior. Like Mark Shea likes to say, "Sin makes you stupid."

Satan always lies. He says if you abandon God you can have the dignity of being rational. Not a good trade anyway but it is a lie. You still end up irrational. So you lose your soul and get nothing in return. That is the only deal Satan can offer you.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Why Michael Greiner Is Not Catholic (Yet!)

Rev. Michael Greiner has a series of posts explaining why he is not Catholic. The first few just begged the question. This one gets more to the point. He starts with a long explanation of the Jewish Mishnah. He refers to the story in Mark 7 and Matthew 15 where Jesus tells the Pharisees "You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men." He is right about that. Jesus does distinguish between two things:
  1. God's word
  2. Human opinion about God's word
But then he leaps to the conclusion that category #1 includes only the bible and category #2 includes the teachings of the Catholic church. What reasons does he give? Jesus quotes Isaiah 29 when he talks to the Pharisees. Therefore He means to tells us only the book of Isaiah is the word of God. Not exactly. Maybe He means only the Old Testament is the Word of God. Could be. As an aside, it would be the wrong Old Testament from a protestant point of view. Jesus here quotes the Septuagint which includes the Old Testament books that protestants want to reject. 

To a protestant it is obvious Jesus is referring to the 66 book canon even though none of the New Testament was written yet. But He does not say that. How could He? What does He say?
Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this.  Nothing outside a man can make him ‘unclean’ by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him ‘unclean.’” Mk 7:14-15
For somebody who wants to promote Sola Scriptura this is a strange way to do it. He says with authority something that seems to contradict the scriptures. He is claiming His own words to be in category #1.

Back the Rev Greiner:
In the book of Acts, chapter two, we see the church born, and apostles teaching from house to house. What did they teach? We don’t have to wonder, the “gospel” in its fulness, is encoded in the words of Scripture, so that we can know. 
So what is the authority is Acts 2? Not a set of writings but a set of people, the apostles. So that is the opposite of Sola Scriptura. Verse 42 says, "They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer." It says nothing at all about scripture. So this proves what? That the gospel in its fulness is encoded in the words of Scripture? How does he get there?
Does anyone really think the concept of “pope” in any language was part of what they taught? Did they teach the sinlessness of Mary and her assumption? Did they teach the practice of praying the rosary? Did they teach that baby baptism removes the stain of original sin? Did they teach that elders were priests who had the authority to change bread into body and wine into blood? Did they teach that elders were priests who could not marry? Did they teach that attendance at Mass was mandatory? Did they teach that there would be a pantheon of saints, canonized by a pope, who could intercede in prayer from heaven? Did they say, “Hey, when I get to heaven, just ask me, and I’ll ask Jesus for you?” Of course not, they taught none of these things. 
So how does he know what the apostles taught or didn't teach? Are there maybe some traditions of men involved? This is pure projection. I am this way so the apostles must have been this way. Actually there is good evidence that many of these doctrines were there in an less developed form. I wonder if he thinks they taught the sinner's prayers and all the other evangelical distinctives?
These are the teachings of the popes. The popes who claimed for themselves infallibility when they speak ex cathedra. Did they teach that popes were single substitutes for Christ (Vicar) on earth? Did they teach a succession of popes? The Bible and the historical record show that the answer to all these questions is no. The Bible explains the gospel. The book of Romans, for example, exhaustively explains the Gospel and has none of these Papal teachings in them. We know the Gospel. We are responsible to discern the Word and avoid changing it or submitting it to the whims of men, even if they are popes.
Actually the bible and history do support the Catholic position. That is the trouble. He is just stating one man's opinion. He is firmly in category #2. Catholics actually keep these categories pretty clear. It is evangelicals that mush them together. Is a sermon the word of God or human opinion? Incidentally,  the popes don't claim infallibility for themselves. God gives it to them.

As for Romans? Rom 1:8 says, "I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world." That is what the papacy is about. That the faith of the Church of Rome be the central point of reference for the whole world. Why would the letter to the Romans be so important and not the Church of Rome and the Bishop of Rome? Do we not believe in the word made flesh?
I believe the Bible, because it comes from the Apostles. Only they are authoritative in bringing words from God.
This much we agree on. But did anything else come from the apostles? History and scripture say Yes. Sacred tradition comes from the apostles. Jesus condemned "traditions of men." Why did He add the qualifier "of men?" Because there are sacred traditions that we can trust. Good thing too because trying to live the faith apart from tradition is humanly impossible.
[my dear Catholic apologists who have been commenting. Feel free to continue. But forgive me if I put no stock in your arguments that say, “If you just learned Catholic doctrine correctly” or “If Saint Ignatius says so.” All I hear is you quoting your Mishnah. I have no desire to parse your popes. I don’t trust them like you do. I know you disagree strongly. So do I. Nothing personal. In fact, I believe that salvation by faith alone happens in the Catholic church also. I have brothers and sister there. For decades I have not discussed much about the reasons I am not a Catholic. There is no gentle way I know of to disagree strongly --some are better at it than I am, to be sure. But I am trying. Peace.]
This is unfortunate. He does not really interact with any Catholic objections. I think a key reason is that he has no good answer. His arguments only work as a monologue. That is they don't stand up to scrutiny. As a pastor that works fine. Church members have no ability or interest in rebutting what you say. They take your category #2 sermons and put them into category #1. But as a lover of truth who does not claim infallibility you should go out of your way to expose yourself to intelligent questioners from other traditions.

An Atheist Look At Bible Christians

Paula Kirby has written another article that has atheists cheering. It is actually a pretty good critique of Sola Scriptura Christianity. She noticed the inconsistency in what different Christian groups believed and also the certainty with which they believed it.
Some of us, on the basis of our relationship with God, knew him to be loving, compassionate, generous, always reaching out to us, pitying our mistakes rather than condemning them. Others, on the basis of their relationship with God, knew him to be angry, jealous, punitive.
Some of us knew that God had more important things to worry about than our sex lives; others knew that human sexual impurity was deeply offensive to him.
Some of us knew that God wanted us to respond to other people’s shortcomings with tolerance and forbearance and humility; others knew that he wanted sin to be made an example of, to be held up and publicly rebuked.
Some of us knew that God was offended by conspicuous consumption when so many people had nothing; others knew that God showered wealth along with other good things on those of whom he approved.
Some of us knew that God saw all religions as different expressions of people’s yearning for him; others knew that traditional, orthodox Christianity was the only route to him.
Some of us knew that the devil was just a myth to explain the existence of evil; others knew that the devil was very real and a genuine threat to our souls.
Some of us knew that there was no way God could ever allow such a thing as hell; others knew that hell was very much a part of God’s ordained order.
We all knew we were right, and we all based that knowledge on the personal relationship we had with him.  How could any of us possibly be wrong?
This is the fruit of Sola Scriptura. The credibility of Christianity can be fairly mocked. People see Christians are just believing what they want to believe and claiming it is from God. It really isn't that impressive. It drives people away from the faith.

So she rightly questioned the method people were using to arrive at that certainty. So far so good. But then she declare atheism to be a solution. How is that? Is the atheist answer not just as arbitrary as the multiple Christian answers?
And this brings us to something very important about atheism.  Atheism is not in itself a belief. Few atheists would be so bold as to declare the existence of any god at all utterly impossible.  Atheism is, quite simply, the position that it is absurd to believe in, much less worship, a deity for which no valid evidence has been presented.  Atheism is not a faith: on the contrary, it is the refusal to accept claims on faith.
You wonder how many atheists she knows. Many of them seem pretty sure of themselves. then you wonder how many Christians she knows. I don't know any that claim to believe based on no evidence. That would be absurd.

Her refusal to accept claims of faith.Where does that come from? She seems to start with some evidence. Does a little bit of reflection. Then she takes an intuitive leap to an absolute principle. That sounds like faith to me. How is her process different? Because she does not worship anything? But worship is just a right response to the knowledge of faith. In her case the right response is a lack of worship. At least worship in the way a religious person normally does it.

Has she really gotten around the issue? That a person's answers to moral and spiritual questions were more a reflection of that person rather than a reflection of a deeper reality? I don't see how. Atheism has that too. You have tried to solve a problem of too little reliable knowledge of truth by rejecting the main source of that truth. But rejecting a source, even a questionable one, does not give you more knowledge.

Catholicism actually fixes the questionable method and makes it reliable. If protestantism is a TV antennae with fuzzy reception Catholicism is the cable service. It makes everything come in much clearer. Atheism is just throwing out the TV. It is not really a solution.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Salvation Question

Nick has made a guest post on Devin's blog. It is about Sola Fide or Faith Alone. He focuses on one particular Greek word in scripture that is in some of the key protestant proof texts. I appreciate the work Nick has put into this. I know he has been passionate about this topic for a long time. It is very important. When people ask whether Luther was justified in breaking from the church this issue is front and center. Was Luther's disagreement due to the church going against the clear teaching of scripture or was it the sort of difference of opinion where we need to trust the authority of the church? Catholic apologists most often focus on the question of authority. How do you tell when the church is clearly wrong? That is important because it applies more generally to any question of doctrine. But going the other direction is also important. How could serious Christians who respect the bible so much and agree about almost nothing be wrong about the one thing they all do agree on? That is salvation by faith alone. For me that was a big deal. I knew a lot of protestant pastors and theology scholars. They were very smart guys and they knew their bible well. How could they get it so wrong?

Nick gives some of the answer to that. Not only does he make a pretty good argument that the protestant position is wrong but he shows how deep the errors lie. He does a lot of work where there are some easy shortcuts available. Shortcuts that just involve trusting protestant scholars who should know. If you trust your tradition, and protestants do trust it on this question, then how likely are you to sweat the details? If you do dig and start to find evidence that all the experts are wrong and the data does not support the conclusions they have made, then what happens? You assume you have made an error. You are one guy against centuries of settled doctrine. Are you going to risk being branded a heretic? I can see how very few go there. 

The thing to remember when reading Nick's paper is that the burden of proof is strongly on the protestant side here. They are hanging a ton on these few texts. They use them as interpretive keys. That is they take what they think these texts mean and use them as a framework for interpreting the rest of the bible. There are many passages of scripture that seem to tie good works to salvation in some way. They will conclude all these texts are saying something different than the plain reading would indicate because they are so sure about Sola Fide.

Then there is the matter of breaking with the church. In order to embrace Sola Fide they had to give up their trust in the church. That meant giving up the priesthood, the Eucharist, confession, apostolic succession, etc. Sure they have doctrinal issues with all those things but it was a lot of sour grapes. In order to break from the bishops they needed to create a theology that says bishops are not needed. So they convince themselves they are better off without the sacraments of the church. What is the basis for this? Sola Fide and those same few proof texts. 

The truth is the motivation for this was not purely biblical. There were philosophical, political, and psychological reasons why Luther and many others became convinced Sola Fide was right. But modern protestants really believe the biblical basis for it is solid. It just isn't. I know I was shocked to find that out.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Condemning Just Love

Nobody Expects the Spanish Inquisition!
The Vatican has been officially condemning some things lately. This is after many years of pretty much letting anything go in terms of doctrine.We will see if this new active CDF continues. It might just be that Cardinal Levada is getting ready to retire and is clearing his desk. It might also be Pope Benedict has decided such action is needed. Initially he felt Catholicism had an image as a negative way of thinking. He wanted to emphasize the positive. He may have decided he needs to give a few firm No's to go with the many Yes's.

Mary Hunt attacks the Vatican over their action against a book on sexual ethics written by a theologian and nun from Yale.
If Margaret A. Farley’s fine theo-ethical work causes “grave harm to the faithful,” Catholics live very graced lives. War, poverty, ecocide, racism, colonialism, sex and gender injustices of all sorts come to mind in the “grave harm” category. But not in the wildest imagination of anyone other than a Vatican bureaucrat would Dr. Farley’s sexual ethics qualify. 
Dr Hunt is a theologian. So I assume she understands that bad theology can do grave harm. I am not sure if she just thinks sexual ethics are in a category where getting them wrong is not a serious matter. Even that is hard to believe. But this kind of talk is standard. Somehow when the Vatican talks about theology people act like it is instead of helping the poor or doing some other good deed. It is veiled sentimentalism. We should not work hard to seek truth. We should just do what feels right. We should especially refrain from thinking about sexual ethics.  Such thinking could interfere with our fun. But, of course, making that argument is thinking about sexual ethics. So it amounts to question begging. This is unimportant because I don't agree with it. The insinuation that everyone thinks this is wildly out of bounds really means everyone who agrees with me.
How fortunate we are to have a scholar of her caliber, and how appropriate that she is appreciated widely. Recent attention to her work only serves to deepen her impact and broaden her audience; 24 hours after news broke of the Vatican censure the book was propelled from an Amazon ranking of 142,982 to 16. 
She does get her 15 minutes of fame from this. The CDF did not say she is a bad scholar. Quite the opposite. It takes some skill to cause "grave hard to the faithful." I don't doubt she argues her points well. The issue is whether she causes confusion about what is the orthodox Catholic position.
The June 4th Notification from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) titled “Regarding the Book Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics by Sister Margaret A. Farley, R.S.M.,” left many scandalized by the intellectually embarrassing and morally tawdry work of a group that obviously needs a permanent vacation. William Cardinal Levada and company at the CDF are simply out of their league theologically when it takes them 6 years (the book was published in 2006) to comment on an important work—and they still get it wrong.
This is mostly just name calling.  She talks about "intellectually embarrassing." I do think this real scholars try and avoid throwing mud like this. Scholars use arguments to interact intelligently with ideas. Not sure what she means by "morally tawdry." Does she know something we don't about Cardinal Levads's motives for this notification? 
A first-year graduate student could have handled the analysis in a week. S/he would have figured out that Dr. Farley was dealing with ethical method—how we frame and approach moral questions—not defending the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The Grawemeyer Award committee that chose Margaret for that prestigious and generous prize ($200,000 is real money in the theological business) realized Margaret was doing an outstanding job as a moral theologian in the broad interreligious conversation that is now the gold standard in the field.
OK, after all this trash talk Dr Hunt now gets to the meat of what she wants to say. Unfortunately she is confused. She admits that Dr Farley's position is not compatible with the teaching of the Catholic church. I am not sure what she thinks a CDF notification is. That is the central point. She is a Catholic theologian and she is teaching non-Catholic doctrines. How fashionable her ideas are is not important here. She can win all sorts of praise from all sort of scholars. That would be just more reason for the CDF to want to make clear the ideas she is articulating are not Catholic.
Vatican interlocutors, who obviously have no clue about such matters, only embarrass themselves by publishing their ignorance in six languages. They leave the distinct impression that they are oblivious to the fact that postmodern ethical analysis emerges from multi-disciplinary, multi-religious discussions grounded in concrete actions for justice.
It is not that they have no clue. It is that they don't care much about the mutual admiration that postmodern theologians have going. They just care if the ideas are Catholic.  They are not. Dr Hunt might not care about that but she should at least be able to grasp why the CDF would care.
A scholar of Margaret Farley’s stature must terrify the staff of the CDF. She is, after all, the Gilbert L. Stark Professor Emerita of Christian Ethics at Yale Divinity School; a past president of the Catholic Theological Society of America which gave her its highest award in 1992; as well as a past president of the Society of Christian Ethics. Dr. Farley holds 11 honorary degrees. In addition to 7 books, she has contributed more than 100 chapters and papers to the field. Her lengthy resume of lectures, workshops, and consultations attests to the fact that this modest woman of quiet confidence is simply an excellent scholar.
Again she can't grasp what the CDF is about. Why would an impressive academic resume terrify the CDF? They don't really have to be able to argue with her. They just have to be able to tell if she rejects settled Catholic teaching. The fact that her ideas are well known and well understood makes it easier discern whether they are orthodox. As far as the criticism they might take for publishing such a notice? They know they will take some heat when they accept a job with the CDF.
Dr. Farley’s scholarly work is characterized by a careful, reasoned, realism about the human condition. She brings a thorough grounding in the Christian tradition with an emphasis on Catholic thought to her books on commitment, embodiment, respect, and, the most recent and controversial one, on love. Rather than embrace her project and explore, as she does, the range of ways that good people try to love—with an emphasis on the demands of justice in every intimate relationship—the CDF theologians boiled down her opus into five cherry-picked nuggets on sex and marriage that reflect their priorities, not hers. They missed the forest for the trees. Their statement is deeply insulting, not to mention morally suspect, in that such a stellar scholar’s reputation is impugned. As my mother would say, “Consider the source.”
Again Dr Hunt seems confused. Nobody is saying her work has no good thinking in it.They are picking out five points because they feel there is a pastoral need to do so. That is their priority and not hers. There is no claim that these 5 points capture the essence of her published work. They are commenting on the trees and not the forest. They are commenting not on her intelligence but on her obedience. How many examples of persistent disobedience do you need to show there is an issue? If you don't value obedience as a virtue for theologians then you are not going to get this.
I do not traffic in ulterior motives, nor is it especially productive to speculate on why Margaret Farley, like Dr. Elizabeth Johnson, a Sister of St. Joseph of Brentwood and a theologian at Fordham University, was singled out for scrutiny. But their canonical vulnerability as members of “an Institute of Consecrated Life” plays a significant role in their selection for negative attention. There are other women theologians who are not members of congregations whose views parallel, and in some instances outdistance, Dr. Farley’s on contested issues. They/we are simply not canonically vulnerable in the same way.
Dr Hunt already questioned motives in this article so why stop now? But she is kind of right. What she calls "canonical vulnerability" Catholics would call a vow of obedience. As nuns they take such vows and as nuns they have more credibility as representatives of the Catholic church. People expect teachings from nuns to be orthodox. When they are not the church has more of a reason to note this so the faithful are not confused.

The church also tends to make the charitable assumption that nuns want to keep their vows and correct any heresy they might be teachings. Remember the desired outcome is not to shame the theologian but to bring them back into thinking with the church. Likewise those who followed their leadership because they are nuns are more likely to see the error of their ways and follow the true church teaching instead. You can call it "selection for negative attention" but there is just no good reason to assume the outcome will be purely negative.
The Roman men are hell-bent on reining in American nuns, if only to prove that they can rein in somebody in a world that pays them increasingly little heed. They fear that such intellectually powerful and theologically persuasive women, who identify with the institutional Roman Catholic Church through their membership in canonical communities, will trump them in the public arena.
Good thing she does not traffic in ulterior motives! If the CDF has this problem you wonder why they missed so many  opportunities to reign in these nuns. It is not like they have been pictures of orthodoxy. This is actually a new strategy. They have waited for decades for nuns and Catholic theologians to resolve these issues on their own. At some point the Vatican has to disassociate itself from these teachings.
This is what happened when Sister Carol Keehan, a Daughter of Charity, and Sister Simone Campbell, a Sister of Social Service, parted company with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops not once, but twice, in the health care debates. Their Catholicism trumped the Catholicism of the bishops in the minds of legislators and perhaps of the President himself. So it is with Margaret and Elizabeth that their well-reasoned, experience-encompassing, pastorally sensitive work simply trumps the bishops’ tired repetition of their own outdated thinking.
There is no Catholicism  other than "the Catholicism of the bishops." They are the successors of the apostles. They hold the principle teaching office in the church. Theologians like to think of themselves as defining Catholicism but what matters is ordination not education. Education is human. Ordination is divine. So saying Sr Keehan and Sr Campbell have a different religion than the Catholic bishops is the same as saying they are not Catholic. 
The Notification’s 5 little points need no rehearsal. Her critics simply miss the fact that Margaret Farley does not do ethics the way that they do. She does not share their ethical priorities on what Catholic moral theologian Daniel C. Maguire calls matters of the “pelvic zone.” Her scope is justice writ large—beginning in places where people are oppressed, violated, and demeaned. That the Vatican places masturbation at the top of its list highlights its perverted priorities in a deeply troubled world.
Again she missed the point. Having interesting thinking on a high level does not mean one can ignore errors  on a lower level. What if she had arrived at false conclusions about morals around violence? Say she said it was OK for a husband to beat his wife. Would Dr Hunt be saying one should look at the big picture and ignore the details? I doubt it. So why should we ignore false conclusions on sexual morality? Because sexual morality does not matter? Again you are begging the question.
It is impossible to imagine the discourse as the men took under their scholarly consideration Margaret’s understated, but nonetheless robust, affirmation of women finding “great good in self-pleasuring…something many had not experienced or even known about in their ordinary sexual relations with husbands or lovers” (p. 236). I am confident that this came as unwelcome news to many of the men gathered. But the fact that they would dwell on it speaks volumes about their ethics and their rapidly eroding power. Sexual power is power, and more and more women have it. Apparently the struggle to wrest it back is high on the agenda of those who live on the 110 acres called the Vatican.
She is right that the Vatican does not do ethics this way. Sexual morality is not a zero sum game between men and women. Either men get their way or women get theirs. Catholics actually believe in God. That asking whether what we do is consistent with the way God designed sex is important. That does not pit male pleasure against female pleasure. They actually claim God designed sex with more in mind than just pleasure. I know it is hard for modern thinkers to get their minds around this.  That is where having access to out-dated thinking is an advantage.
A more adequate understanding of Farley’s theological project can be gleaned by looking at 3 elements by which every scholar is measured: work, students, and impact. Farley’s work speaks for itself. Just Love is a standard ethics textbook in many seminaries and universities. Ironically, as noted earlier, it became a bestseller courtesy of the Notification. Thanks, guys. Even in retirement, she is a much sought after lecturer and writer whose wisdom has influence.
Again, she seems to think the CDF is denying this. The fact that the book is used in seminaries and universities is a good reason to tell people about problems with it.  Is the Vatican just supposed to say that if they are using it it must be fine? That is not the role of the pope in the church.  

I deleted several stories about Dr Farley being an all round nice person. Again, a CDF notification is not a declaration that they think she is a demon. It means that she has taught the specific errors specified in the document. Dr Hunt did not go into those specifics. So she misses the point.
Long after the Vatican’s Notification has been forgotten, generations will recognize that the HIV/AIDS pandemic occasioned a seismic shift in moral theology. Real world experience drives the discussion. Margaret Farley’s name will forever be associated with Catholic moral theology that does justice. Notify that!
If HIV/AIDS causes such a shift in moral theology would it not have more rules around sex? But the CDF is saying Dr Farley's morality is too permissive rather than too restrictive. I can understand why she might favor gay marriage. I don't get how the presence of AIDS is a reason to favor gay marriage. Logic seems to go the other way.

There is the huge confidence that the inevitable march of progress is on their side. But it is not like getting rid of sexual morals is a great new idea that has never been thought of before. The Catholic church has a long memory. Modern intellectuals just don't. So they think every idea is a new idea. So the church is the one that actually progresses. Remembering your mistakes makes progress possible. Assuming thinking can be ignored because it is out-dated actually tends to make the same ideas come into fashion over and over.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Gateway Drugs

The latest big name convert is creating the predictable angst among Protestants. You get the normal things being said. Look how many Catholics are becoming evangelical. He never really understood Sola Scriptura and Sola Fide. But this time round there is something new. People are rooting around for something he did that opened him up to the Catholic faith. Is it because he was too liturgical? Is it because he was too traditional? Kevin deYoung comments:
Was Two Kingdoms theology the gateway drug? Confessionalism? A high view of sacraments? An appreciation for history and liturgy? It could be all or none of the above. And even it were all of the above that would not necessarily indict anything on that list. Granted, there are some common themes that surface among converts to Rome (e.g., tradition, beauty, authority), but it’s best to stick with the stated reasons for jumping the good ship Protestant and refrain from the temptation to psychoanalyze.
It is interesting how we all love the idea of ecumenism but have such an instinct to turn away in practice. He correctly points out the hysteria of some people but he does not actually say the parallel between Catholicism and drug addiction is wrong. That is the opposite of ecumenism. To see Catholicism as one of the great spiritual powers of darkness rather than a group of Christians who interpret scripture differently than you do. What is the evidence for this? Someone converts? OK, more than someone, quite a few well-respected protestant thinkers. But what is conversion? Is it really comparable to drug addiction?

The reality is that protestants don't know what to do with Catholics. They seem like fine Christians yet they deny some of the few things protestants see as essential of the faith. So it raises some important questions. Do we really know what the essentials of the faith are? Can we get them from the bible without introducing the real chance we have made a serious error? Should not the very central teachings of the faith be clear? Not just clear to me but clear to every serious student of scripture?

These questions don't have good answers. The answers protestants give fall apart under scrutiny. The most common answer is that my particular brand of protestantism is clearly taught in scripture. That Christians who differ from it differ over non-essentials. It sounds good until you actually interact with knowledgeable Christians from other traditions. Then you struggle with what exactly are the essentials and where do you get this clarity? The really annoying thing is that Catholics have an answer. It seems like a very nice answer. Except it does not leave me with the theology I know and love. It forces me to embrace Catholicism as true.

So what is the real answer? It seems it is to stop asking those questions. Don't think too much about certain things. The trouble is the list keeps growing. The cannon of scripture. Pre-reformation church history. The role of the reformed confessions. The proper respect for liturgy. How to know objectively that a particular biblical interpretation is wrong.Where we got the doctrine of Sola Scriptura.

The trouble with that answer, other than the fact that it does not answer anything. is it is doing exactly what Protestants wrongly accuse the Catholic church of doing. That is to tell people to just accept this doctrine and don't ask questions. We don't actually do that. We always welcome questions. Still it is a common protestant myth. So it is a bit strange for them to tell people to avoid whole areas of inquiry. Calling them gateway drugs. If the Catholics would use that terminology in talking about protestants we would never hear the end of it.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Do You Love Me?

I was thinking about being raised in a religion. That it is a bit like being in an arranged marriage. You didn't really choose it. That does not make it wrong. But marriage and religion can't be done right unless we do choose them at a very personal level. They are not impossible. There is just something missing.

I can remember growing up Christian Reformed and having this kind of "Do you love me?" moment. It was at a retreat. A few things that were said there really touched me. One involved a picture like this:
He talked about how shepherds would break the legs of wandering lambs. It seems mean but after their legs were broken the shepherd would hold the lamb on his shoulders for weeks while the legs healed. During this time the lamb would learn to love the shepherds voice. When the legs healed the wandering lamb would no longer wander. That resonated with me because I had experienced some real failure in my life. I realized it was not because I was a loser and maybe God didn't love me. It was because God did love me that I was going through these things. He wanted to keep me from wandering.

On the last day we had the Lord's Supper. They went though  the Jewish passover and brought some things out  that made Jesus death on the cross very personal for me. It was the first time I cried at communion. I still didn't believe in the real presence. That was not even on the radar yet. Still that celebration was very real for me that day.

So what changed for me? Everything and nothing. I still went to the same church. I sang the same songs. I listened to the same preacher. But that church was suddenly so spiritually alive. Those songs were suddenly so beautiful and touched me so deeply. That preacher stopped being boring. He was teaching truth and very sacred truth at that.

I am grateful to my family, to the Christian Reformed Church and to my Christian Schools for the faith they instilled in me. But there was something incomplete about it until then. It is not that one dimension makes the others unimportant. People have gone there. Both with marriages and with religion they try and base the whole thing off feelings. Manufacture an emotional moment and let the rest take care of itself. But we get a lot of failed marriages that way and a lot of failures in people's faith lives as well.

The post-Vatican II Catholic church went there. Forget the doctrine. Go after people's feelings. They expected the theological learning, sacramental discipline and moral practice to take care of itself. It didn't. Lots of Catholics who were formed in this way back in the 70's and 80's are still ignorant of the faith. They are still not going to mass or confession. They are still not following the church's moral teaching in many areas.

So there is no magic formula. We want to make it easy for people to get saved. But falling in love can never be reduced to a formula. So what should we do? Love them. Teach them. Pray for them. Then be patient and let them develop their own relationship with God. The most important thing we can do is just to model what a good Catholic looks like.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Schmucks and Heroes

David Brooks writes about young people avoiding moral principles and trying to find moral action instead.
When I read the Stanford discussion thread, I saw young people with deep moral yearnings. But they tended to convert moral questions into resource allocation questions; questions about how to be into questions about what to do.
It’s worth noting that you can devote your life to community service and be a total schmuck. You can spend your life on Wall Street and be a hero. Understanding heroism and schmuckdom requires fewer Excel spreadsheets, more Dostoyevsky and the Book of Job.
Marty Kaplan agrees but thinks this is a good thing
The trouble isn't that we lack a moral vocabulary; it's that that language has long been a mask for wielding power. When people think pragmatically, it may not be because they weren't taught to ask what Jesus would do, or what the Torah says; it could be because they believe that secular reasoning is more reasonable, because faith failed them or didn't make sense, because you can think you know "how to be" and still be a schmuck. 
Christianity is very much on the "how to be" side. In fact, its central focus is on who Jesus is. It goes even deeper than moral principles and says we need to understand the author of those principles. Even more than understand Him. Have a relationship with Him. Nothing less than an encounter with God Himself will do. 

What about Kaplan's point that such talk can be abused? It can be a way for people to get power over you. Christian leaders can be schmucks. But what if they are? Can they still bring you into relationship with Jesus? That is where the Catholic church has a big advantage. Bad leaders can still put you in touch with scripture and sacred tradition. Bad priests can still give you a true Eucharist, Confession and other sacraments. Not that having schmucks for leaders is OK but the process is more schmuck-proof. That is good because leaders that seem like heroes will be schmucks will be schmucks once in a while. Sin is in every heart. We can't trust any leader and we can't trust our own ability to pick leaders.

The biggest mistake we can make is to assume our reasoning can be our reliable guide. Whether it is our reasoning about scripture, about people or just general moral reasoning. Reason is good but it can be biased. We tend not to notice our own bias. Especially when we have no external point of reference to compare our conclusions against. That is what tradition gives us.
The task of progress has even been conceived as the opposite of what Brooks advocates: Our work is to replace the language of morals with the language of ethics, the authority of tradition with the process of deliberation, the revelation of divinity with the evidence of science.
 This reminds me of the way young children think. Whatever idea pops into their head is assumed to be the greatest idea ever. All the old rules need to be dismissed in favor of this great new idea. Kaplan calls that "progress." Forget what humanity has learned over the past few thousand years. Trust your brain. You are smarter than any tradition, than any morality, even smarter than any divinity. What could go wrong?

Monday, June 4, 2012


Christians are supposed to be optimistic people. They believe Jesus wins in the end. But there is a lot to be concerned about for Christians. Society seems like it is leaving faith behind. We have embraced pornography and promiscuity almost without question. Same with divorce and contraception. Church attendance is dropping. In some places it is already in single digits. There does not seem to be much good happening.

The first thing we need to consider is that the 1950's were not as great as we sometimes think. We compare to that time a lot. People went to church. People were chaste. Seminaries and convents were full. Religion was respected. Life was good.

But how good was it? A lot of the religious fervor in the 1950's was a reaction to WWII. Modernism was proceeding and religion was being attacked before WWII. Read GK Chesterton and you will find many of the same attacks on the church that we find today. So we have a progression towards modernism that was interrupted by the war and then resumed after a couple of decades. Hitler scared people back into the churches. It just didn't last.

The second thing to note is that many Christians were not really free Christians. By that I mean they were not given a real choice between being Christian and the various other world views. They were processed into the faith but not always evangelized fully. That is they believed because what they heard at home, church and school was consistent and never really challenged.

You might say that still does not sound very optimistic. We can understand why things are bad but they still seem bad. Yes and No. Yes, the church is struggling. But that should not be reason for pessimism. We are here to struggle. Christianity being the religion of the majority should be hard for us to understand. That does not mean everyone is Christian. It means people feel social pressure to act Christian. That makes life confusing. One reason for optimism is an increase in honesty. If people really think Christianity is a bunch of horse pucky they are much more likely to say so today than in the past.

But what about mass media? Isn't that killing us? Yes and No. Lots of people are using the mass media to attack the faith. Perversions that were once barely thought of are presented as mainstream. But choosing the right thing because you are ignorant of the other choices is not a virtue. Choosing to do good in the face of temptation is much more impressive. Boy do we ever get a lot of chances to do that! Temptation is everywhere.

Where sin abounds there grace abounds all the more. Our faith is attacked everywhere we go but we have great arguments that if we bother to learn them will make us more confident than ever of the truth of Catholicism. Sexual temptation is everywhere but that should just push us to greater prayer and penance. We get ridiculed but that just means we are counter-cultural.

The greatest benefit of being Catholic today is having so much power and choosing Christ anyway. There have never been as many choices as there is today. Communication and transportation technology allow us to join almost any sect of any faith we want. So when we choose to belong to the church Jesus founded we that becomes huge. When contraception is easy then the choice to refrain from contraception becomes a source of great joy. Same with pornography and abortion and divorce.

There is a lot of reason to be concerned about society. We are making bad choices and we will pay a price. It looks like it will get a lot worse before it gets better. But we know that nothing we build in this world will last. That includes nations and wealth. So we should not be surprised when things crash and burn. We just need to learn not to be attached to such things.

There is a lot of reason to be concerned about souls. There always is. People get preoccupied with the question of whether anyone goes to hell. Stupid question. What we should ask is if we can do anything that might save someone. The answer is Yes. That is a reason to feel pretty good about life.

That is all we hope for from life. We can make sure we persevere to the end and we can help others do the same. The rest is God's problem. But we can marvel at what God is doing. We can see how humans are being allowed to understand so much more of what God put in place and even to manipulate it. Yet He calls us to remain humble and faithful even as creation becomes less mysterious. He calls us to remain obedient and respect the sacredness of life and sex even as we gain amazing capabilities in those areas.

What we can marvel at is that some will respond with faith and obedience. Not all but some. What is more those that do will have a beauty that defies explanation. They will be saints. That is the core reason to be optimistic. Some of us are becoming saints. The impact of one saint is infinite and eternal. How do we become saints. We have to want to. That is it. God does the rest. But our desire to be close to God has to overpower all our other desires. Still that road is open to each one of us. Knowing that how pessimistic can we be?