(just stuff I happen to be thinking about)

Friday, August 31, 2012

Trimarriage, gaymarriage, What's the Difference?

For years, those working to protect the definition of marriage have said that polygamy would soon follow gaymarriage. Now it begins. People react as if it is such an extreme view, but there is no possible way to justify gaymarriage without justifying trimarriage. If gender is arbitrary, why not number?

The definition of marriage is based on a natural fact: a child can be conceived only by one man and one woman. Therefore, marriage is a legal relationship between one man and one woman, regardless of whether the man and woman in question can actually conceive a child.

There is nothing even like this definition that would include gaymarriage. If someone says it is a legal relationship between two adults, the only reasonable question is why? Why partnerships but not fellowships?

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Don't Vote

"It is your duty as a citizen to vote", they tell me. Pish-posh is what I say. If I go into a restaurant and they present the special of the day, and it is liver, I will not choose it. If they tell me that the only alternative is spider, I will not choose that. I would rather go hungry than eat either.

So don't vote. To vote for someone who supports objective evil is to choose objective evil. This does not mean that we have to vote for the alternative. Just because I cannot vote for one does not force me to vote for the other. No one can force us to choose.

But then we will leave the choice to those who do vote! What about it? If 10% of the ballots did not include a vote for president, I guarantee that next time someone will try to figure out how to get that 10%. The Christian political act, according to C.S. Lewis, is to convert your neighbor. When we form a contingent of people who will most certainly not vote for someone who wants to have his grandchildren killed, and will not just vote for "the other guy" either, then we will be a powerful force in politics.

But if you are in Minnesota, do vote. Go vote "Yes" on the definition of marriage and write in your Aunt Sally for president.

Not on Moral or Religious Grounds

"Martin Amis doesn’t attack pornography on moral or religious grounds. But the British author is deeply troubled by what he sees as the insidious effect porn is having not just on sexuality but on human nature itself."

So begins a Slate article on Amis's new book. I do not have any comment to make on the book, since I have not seen it, but the implicit idea of this sentence is troubling. It is nothing different than what the majority of people, even religious people believe. The contrast here between moral/religious and reason is false. It is why people are always trying to keep religion out of politics, because they believe that religious doctrine is unreasonable.

The reason the Catholic Church is opposed to pornography is not because it was decreed from the sky that we should be. The teaching does find confirmation in the teachings of Jesus and the commandments, but we do not think that Jesus is unreasonable either. When the Church teaches that such-and-such thing is a sin, this means that such-and-such thing is bad for us, against our nature.

Of course Amis did not write a book that consists solely of the sentence "The Catholic Church teaches that pornography is wrong." It would be too short. But if the author of the article thinks that what Catholics do after they begin with that sentence is any different, he does not understand what we mean by morality. The Church's claim is that its teaching reflects the truth: the same truth a person reaches if they seriously consider human nature and come to independent conclusions. There is only one truth.

In Praise of Teachers

How is it that at the time Einstein wrote his theories of relativity, only a handful of people were able to understand them, but today every physics undergraduate has a relatively good grasp of the concepts? How is it that when calculus was invented it was the domain of the great minds of Europe, but now it is part of the standard curriculum in high schools?

It seems as if people are getting more intelligent all the time, but that is not possible. Evolution does not happen that quickly (which I somehow know even without a Ph.D. in Biology). It must be that ideas are becoming easier to understand. Who do we have to thank for that? Teachers. Einstein, Newton, and Leibniz may have figured out the equations, but teachers figured out how to express the concepts in comprehensible ways.

So as students around the country are returning to school this week and next, let us acknowledge the crucial role that teachers play in the sciences. No discovery matters very much until someone has found a way to put it into words.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Why C.S. Lewis was Right to Not Be a Pacifist

Stanley Hauerwas has written an article explaining the non-pacifist position of C.S. Lewis and arguing that he ought to have been a pacifist. His exposition of Lewis's writings on war and pacifism is helpful, concise but rather complete. This first half of the article is worth reading both for those who are unfamiliar with Lewis and those who know him well.

Hauerwas then shifts gears from this excellent summary to a strange claim. Having given the many and well thought out reasons why C.S. Lewis was not a pacifist, he says that he ought to have been. His argument is that Lewis was only opposed to the facile claim that "war is so horrible it has got to be wrong", but that it never occurred to Lewis that a Christian ought to oppose war on the grounds that "we were not created to kill", a sense revealed by the life of Jesus Christ.

I think it unlikely that Lewis never noticed that Jesus Christ was nonviolent. That is a central feature of the Gospels, though not without some inconsistency: "Let him who does not have a sword sell his cloak and buy one." Clearly with regard to his own suffering and death, he allowed no violence nor fought, because he was drinking the cup that the Father had given him, but is this an example that Christians ought to follow absolutely? No. And C.S. Lewis tells us why, and Hauerwas nicely sums up Lewis's reasons, then fails to answer them sufficiently.

Lewis argues that we are not Christians in a vacuum. St. Augustine, St. Thomas, and many other great figures of Christianity did not think that war was always wrong. Hauerwas would have us look to the martyrs instead, but the martyrs were private citizens. Just as Jesus Christ offered his life to the Father, and would have been foolish to violently resist the offering, the martyrs offered their lives in witness to Jesus Christ. No private person is obligated to use violence in their own defense, but they are often obligated to use violence in the defense of others. The responsibility of a leader of a people cannot be abrogated with a willingness to be sacrificed. That would be the leader's choice, but then he must stop being the leader, for he has sworn off the world and cannot be expected to defend it. What country of Christians ever said to the violent invaders, "Kill us, our wives, our children. Rape, pillage, torture. We will not resist."? Few monasteries have ever taken up that position.

Lewis says that we must protect the innocent from "homicidal maniacs". Hauerwas shunts this aside by saying that he does support a largely peaceable police system. It is as if he does not know the context in which Lewis wrote those words. Hauerwas must get over the impregnable argument in favor of war that is the person of Adolf Hitler. What police force would have stopped him? Would the world be a better place if they had just let him run rampant, if the English had handed over their country to him, if the Russians had welcomed his armies into Moscow?

Hauerwas then pulls out his most powerful argument, all the more powerful because he lets Lewis express the argument himself (Learning in War-Time): "a more Christian attitude, which can be attained at any age, is that of leaving futurity in God's hands. We may as well, for God will certainly retain it whether we leave it to Him or not." How can we know that the world is better for having fought wars? World War II is the classic case of a good war: evil Axis powers versus Allies fighting for freedom. I, and most of the world, believes that the world would be a far worse place if the Allies had been pacifists, but how do we know?

This is the problem that we confront in every war, and it cuts both ways. Perhaps, if the U.S. had not invaded Iraq they would have unleashed terrorism and chemical warfare against the world; there is no evidence that this is true, but it might have happened. Perhaps if the Allies had followed the course of France, Hitler would have never started up the concentration camps and would have been a just ruler of Europe; there is no evidence that this is true, but it might have happened.

Hauerwas, having glided over these powerful arguments, says that Lewis's strongest argument is that people are used to war and cannot imagine a world without it. Then he suggests that he, Hauerwas, has an imagination strong enough for the task. Perhaps he does, but unless he can share that imagination with the rest of the world it will not have global consequences. Until people no longer want to fight, there will be war; there will most certainly be war. Should we Christians really have nothing to say about this fact of the world as it is? Has not chivalry and just war made one of the worst facts about the world a little better?

A Christian was not made to kill another man, but he will if he has to, because some things are worth defending, not only at the cost of one's own life but even at the cost of another's. War is horrible, we all agree, and unfortunately, in this life, that is not sufficient proof that it wrong. Hauerwas would have us bring the Kingdom into this world, and I support his intention. Let him be part of the Franciscan Crusade that went without weapons and had longer success in conquering the Holy Land than anyone else, but we should not pretend that the Franciscans would have saved Europe at Lepanto, nor that God would have intervened. Someone had to stop the invasion, and how was that going to happen if not by waging war?

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Thank You Shauna Prewitt

In an open letter about the stupid comments of Rep. Akin, Shauna Prewitt draws attention to a serious problem: men who rape women still have parental rights in 31 states. It is facts like this that make me very frustrated with legislators. I understand why they cannot get a budget passed or agree on tax rates. I wish they could, but there are multiple sides. How is it that they have not gotten a rapists-have-no-rights law passed yet? I understand that there are some points to work out. Rapists still should be forced to pay child support, but have no visitation, no custody, no anything over the child. It could only apply to convicted rapists. Still, such a law should practically write itself. Hopefully, now that Shauna has raised the issue, laws will be passed in every state without them.

The only problem, if there is one, is defining rape. On the one hand, everyone is opposed to rape, but on the other it is difficult to define rape in a culture where meaningless drunken hookups are commonplace. Clearly some acts are rape, but it is difficult to write a definition that does not include acts which our culture claims are perfectly acceptable. This is why people try to talk about "legitimate rape" and "forcible rape" and sound stupid. Then the other side acts as if no man has ever been falsely accused of rape or sent to prison for doing what would never be called rape if a woman did it.

The New Testament does not talk about rape. In the Old Testament, rape meant having intercourse with a married woman who screamed for help or with a virgin without her father's permission. This is another example of God meeting people halfway. That definition might have been an improvement over what existed before but is pretty horrible now. The Catechism has a definition that is true as far as it goes, but is too vague for law: "Rape is the forcible violation of the sexual intimacy of another person." If the woman is silent and does not fight back, was that implicit permission or fear? If the woman is drunk or on drugs that she took herself, is that rape? What if the man is also drunk? All of this leaves aside any question of proof.

The most reasonable definition beyond clear cases of violence would be that anytime a person is able to prove they had intercourse with someone else and reports that they were raped, they were raped. This is problematic because the logical response to any accusation of rape would be a counter-accusation. Then both people would go to prison. Every instance of sex would be a potential case of rape; it would just be a question of whether or not the people decide to press charges.

It is almost as if we should have a procedure whereby two people stand up in public and announce that they give each other permission to have sex. Then there would be no question. There could be a whole ceremony: fancy dress, dinner, a cake, the promise of lifelong commitment that the sexual act implies. Thousands of years of civilization is not always completely wrong.

Our culture wants to treat sex as no more serious than playing a game of cards, but still knows (RIGHTLY) that the violation of sexual intimacy is far more serious than other violations. Rape can only be as serious as we know it is if sex is equally serious.

Watching Honey Boo Boo is a Grave Sin

Honey Boo Boo is a cute name. She is a cute girl. I have no issue with Honey Boo Boo. I have an issue with the fact that she is being used and what that does to a person. Who is she being used by? The point of the show is that she is being used by her mother to win talent contests, but she is being used by the show too. The producers want money and success. Her mother wants some sort of validation that she hopes to get from putting her through beauty contests. Here is a girl, a creation of God, who is learning to all the wrong lessons from her mother about beauty and self-esteem, and is learning further wrong lessons from the show's producers about being sarcastic and crude.

People think it is so funny to watch a child do something inappropriate. There is a whole class of humor that revolves around teaching a child to use profanity or to be sexual. Jesus says, "Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea." Not that it is a sin when the child does what they are encouraged to do, but that the sin occurs when they grow older. We are the product of our childhood experiences.

What does it mean when a child actor is used to depict something inappropriate? "It is fiction", we are told, "Plus it is reality anyway. These things happen." But the child was used to depict such things. The child was taught to say such things. Even if no one ever taught Honey Boo Boo to say or do anything particular for the TV show (it is "reality" TV after all and they would not dare fake that), she is clearly encouraged when she is at her worst. If we watch that, how can we be considered innocent?


Neil Armstrong died today. He was the first man to walk on the moon. The interesting thing about being first is that no one can ever take that away. If you set a record in the Olympics, it can be broken, but if you are the first to do something, no one else can ever be first. Neil Armstrong was the first human to walk on the surface of something that was not earth. Ecclesiastes has that great line about how nothing new ever really happens, but this was something new. In the history of humanity, no one had ever done it before.

Mary was the first disciple of Jesus Christ and the first human person to rise from the dead. The Apostles were the first humans to receive Communion. When St. Paul entered a new town, there was a good chance that he was the first one to preach the Gospel there. Mary Magdalene was the first to see the risen Lord. When Jesus Christ came, it changed everything, so there were lots of firsts.

But there have been other firsts in the 2000 years afterward. Anthony was probably not the first to go out to the desert, but his biography was the first bestselling story of a saint. He probably had no idea that this would happen when he sold everything and left. Francis was the first Franciscan. Theresa of Avila was the first discalced Carmelite, and the first female doctor of the Church. Blessed Theresa of Calcutta was the first Missionary of Charity.

Who knows what "firsts" yet await us? There are great things to be done out there. And someday, what "lasts": the last Pope, the last president, the last atheist, the last human being.

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Logical, Non-Religious Argument against Homosexual Acts and Gaymarriage

(1) Human nature is a complete description of the human such that it applies to every human and not to anything else.

(2) All morality is derived from human nature: Without a belief in human nature, no morality is possible: Every moral law is simply part of human nature.

(3) It is part of human nature that humans have genitals, male or female. The purpose of these genitals is the creation of new life. When they are used in a way such that new life can be created, it is called coitus.

(4) Coitus causes various physical events to occur.

(5) To cause a body to go through the physical events of coitus outside of coitus is contrary to the purpose of those physical events.

(6) To cause physical events of the body contrary to their purpose is contrary to human nature.

(7) What is contrary to human nature should not be done by humans.

(8) Humans should not cause the physical events of coitus outside of coitus.

That is the moral case, and now the legal case:

(9) The conception of children is necessary for the continuation of the human species.

(10) Coitus is the only natural way to conceive children: to conceive children any other way is contrary to human nature.

(7 again) What is contrary to human nature should not be done by humans.

(11) The human species should be continued through coitus.

(12) Coitus should be done only in the context of a commitment to engage exclusively with each other and to support each other and any children conceived. This commitment is called marriage.

(13) The human species should be continued through coitus in the context of marriage.

(14) Society ought to support what should be done for the continuation of the human species.

(15) Society ought to support marriage.

(16) Since two people of the same gender cannot engage in coitus, and therefore cannot cause the continuation of the human species, it is incorrect for two people of the same gender to call themselves married or to claim the support that society owes to marriage.

Notes: I use coitus here in order to be specific about what act I mean. It is defined in #3. #10 is about insemination, in vitro, surrogate parenting, etc. The Church is consistent on this point and opposes any conception of children outside of coitus, even when done by a husband and wife. #6 and #10 are probably the grounds where those who disagree with the conclusions would want to fight, though some would want to fight about #7. I do not claim that #12 is proven. Its proof would be just as long and a distraction from the question at hand. It is only here for definition.

The conclusion in #16 does not mean that they cannot have some other commitment to each other (partnership) or that society cannot support this other commitment with legal protections. However, the legal definition of such a commitment should not require a violation of #8.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions

Anyone who works in a parish knows people like this elderly woman who first scrubbed off patches of a fresco while cleaning it and then tried to fix it by painting over it. It reminds me of a scene from the Mr. Bean movie that was made awhile ago. He does something to a painting, and as he tries to fix it he makes it worse, then worse, then worse, until he has completely destroyed it. At the time it struck me as a good example of how sometimes in life we wish that we could go back to the the problems we had before we tried to fix them. In reality, there is usually no going back. The lesson is to have the humility to realize that we are out of our depth and need help. Often, calling out to God for help is a last resort, but we should not be afraid to admit our faults quickly without trying to cover them up.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

High School Valedictorian Plagiarizes Twilight

The valedictorian at Prague High School in Oklahoma plagiarized her graduation speech from a graduation speech in the Twilight movies, but that is not why she is in trouble with the school. The trouble is because she said the phrase "How the hell do I know?" during the speech. I find the plagiarism and its source more troubling, but is the school arguing a valid point? They have refused to give her her diploma, though that is mostly symbolic since she is still a graduate of the high school. This should not prevent her from entering college this fall, just from hanging up the paper in her dorm room.

Is "Hell" a bad word to say? I have run into people, not only children but even grown adults, who were shocked to hear me freely say the word in a discussion of the afterlife. Clearly, the sensibilities of some people are different from my own. I generally avoid using it as a simple "swear", but that is because I believe that profanity lowers the tone of any sentence, just a cheap thrill that is quickly worn out. The sentence above could have been said better in any number of ways, e.g. "How can you expect me to know that?"

But is it a sin to say "Hell"? No. It is not a name or word referencing God, which we are not to take in vain. There is teaching in the Bible against evil speech, but including a cast off "hell" as a verbal intensifier does not really rise to that level. St. Paul even used profane language at times to get his point across.

The school is asking the girl to write a letter of apology, which she will not write because she believes that she has done nothing wrong. This is always a difficult question: when should we apologize? There is the principle of the thing, which can be worth fighting for; here I suppose that it is freedom of speech and freedom from excessive censorship and refusing to be bullied by a worked-up school administrator, but there is also the peace that can be had by simply apologizing. As far as the world goes, the girl has come off pretty well, with TV appearances and nationwide support, making her persecutors look like fools, but the Christian response would be to, if at all possible, apologize in order to restore peace. When we disagree with another, even if we were only 10% wrong and they were 90% wrong, we should take our 10% and apologize to make peace. It will not win the esteem of the world, but God is aware of how hard it was for us to do it, and his esteem is worth more.

Sexism at Augusta National

The first two women were admitted as members of Augusta National Golf Club. The exclusion of women up to now has been compared to the exclusion of certain races in the past. Is that a fair comparison? Not exactly. The difference between a man and a woman is different than the difference between a black person and a white person.

One similarity is that in both cases the historical disadvantaged group can exclude the historical oppressor, but not the other way around. A "Whites Only" club is horrible. A "Blacks Only" club is fine. A "Men Only" golf club is sexist. A "Women Only" golf club is feminist. There is validity to this point, particularly so long as the wealth and power of the country and of the world is concentrated in the hands of white men. What is the endgame though? Are we hoping for the day come when a men's club is again acceptable or when a women's club is equally unacceptable?

God supports sexism but not racism. There are some rather racist parts of the Old Testament, in favor of the chosen people, but anyone could, in theory, join the chosen people. The policies were against mingling with those who did not join, the uncircumcised. Sexism, however, is fully supported throughout. The male only priesthood and other very specific gender roles are encoded in the Law. Jesus treated women with great respect, but treated them differently than men, not least by failing to choose a single woman to be one of the Twelve, though this would have been completely acceptable in the culture: a woman Apostle sent to preach to the women. And then St. Paul has so many sexist lines.

Orthodox Christian theology requires believing that men and women are not the same. They have the same human nature, but the difference in the body means a different role in Christian society. If this distinction is completely wiped out, many doctrines no longer make sense, above all the male priesthood and the masculine language for God. But does this proper sexism carry through to civil society? Are we better off when it is restricted to the religious sphere or when it is reflected in the political sphere?

Of course the ideal is a civil society that perfectly reflects religious truth, but we are not working with the ideal. In the world as it actually is, we are often better off with a civil society that is empty of meaning, where we are free to be in the Church. When civil society claims that it is reflecting Christian values, it is often doing so for the wrong reason. Did Augusta exclude women because it wanted to be a place where men could cultivate the virtues of masculinity and a feminine presence would per se prevent this? Probably not. It probably started because of a lack of respect for women and because men wanted to sin in a certain fashion without women around, or rather only with women around who were in a subservient role. It probably continued for these reasons and also a false devotion to "tradition".

So it is no loss to society to have an integrated golf club, but it will be when other organizations are not allowed to be sexist. My Catholic university would not allow the formation of the Knights of Columbus because all student organizations had to be gender-neutral in membership. Masculinity is not an evil. Machismo is. Society is better off if there is a place for men to go learn how to be men, which is best done without women around.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Hospital Denies the Rights of a Patient

A hospital in Nevada would not let a woman visit her domestic partner. The article says visitation, but it seems that something more was going on, such as updates from a doctor. Nevertheless, it seems that an injustice has been done against these women. This issue is often brought up in arguments in favor of gaymarriage, but it is a simple issue where common ground is easily found. Real life is complex. When a person is in the hospital, they should be free to choose any other person in the entire world as the person whom they are in a particular relationship with. While society will not benefit from accepting homosexual activity as the basis of marriage, this does not mean denying the reality of a same-gender relationship. If David had ever been in the hospital, he would have had Jonathan by his side, not his wife.

One of the strong arguments in favor of gaymarriage is that so many situations in our society unnecessarily require marriage before acknowledging a relationship. There are and always have been and always will be other relationships in the world. Accepting that does not require compromising the truth in any way.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Legitimate Rape

A candidate for the U.S. Senate, while trying to explain why he was opposed to abortion even in the case of rape, started spouting nonsense about how a woman does not get pregnant during a legitimate rape. I doubt that it was his intention to look stupid, but he does. He is trying to argue in favor of a good point: a child should not be killed because their father was a rapist. He made that simple point, but cluttered the matter with what can only seem like an accusation against victims of rape, that if they get pregnant, it is proof that they were willingly raped.

Those politicians who say that they are opposed to abortion except in cases of rape and incest are being illogical. Either abortion is always wrong, or there are probably other situations where it is excusable. To hold the logical position requires accepting an unpleasant truth: there are not easy solutions to every problem. A woman who is raped can use emergency contraception to try and prevent a pregnancy, but, if she does become pregnant, there is a new human being with rights who will depend on her completely for the next nine months. This is undoubtedly a stressful, difficult, painful position that anyone would avoid at all costs, but death is not a solution.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

What You Can Do for Your Country...

"Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country." This famous quote by John F. Kennedy is probably the most necessary in our current political atmosphere. It stands against those who idolize the individual. Republicans tend to idolize the successful individual who deserves what they built and owes no one anything. Democrats tend to idolize the personal individual who can do anything they want, particularly anything sexual, without any regard to the consequences. Against both of these false idols stands this statement about personal responsibility for the community.

Consider, as an example, the amount of time, money, and energy that is wasted on treating sexually transmitted diseases, which, for the most part are entirely preventable by a little individual responsibility. The effectiveness of penicillin has been dangerously lessened by its overuse, not least of all on STD's. "Get the government out of my privates", they say, but their so-called private actions do have public consequences.

Consider, as another example, what billionaires do with their money. If they all invested it in new research, we would not complain. If they all gave it to charities, even when those charities are sub-optimal, we would not complain. But when they waste the money on cross-country flights where value is burned up in the form of jet fuel, and in advertising and lobbying where value is burned up in the form of people's time used to convince other people to do what is wrong, and so many other wastes, of course we want higher taxes on billionaires.

Social Security

We have for the past 70 years or so had a social system in America of the highest virtue while pretending that it was of the lowest. The correct kind of retirement plan is not to tear down your barns and build bigger ones; it is to take care of the orphans, widows, and elderly. In an ideal society, we would forget about our own retirement and just make sure that we cared for those who actually need it now. Although we have been pretending that Social Security and Medicare were about saving up for our own future, they really work by having those who are young now take care of those who are old and in need now.

It is difficult to use our surplus now to care for those in need now because we are afraid that when we are in need later, no one will be around to provide for us. We cannot trust the future people to be as generous as we are, or, rather, we fear that they will be as selfish as we are.

Friday, August 17, 2012

A Theology Potluck: August 19th

There will be A Theology Potluck this Sunday, August 19th, from 5-7pm, at St. John the Evangelist in Rochester, MN. The topic will be Love and Responsibility by Blessed Pope John Paul II. All are welcome. Bring a dish, snack, or beverage to share.

Justice for Russian Punks

There is no basic human right to barge into a church to make a political statement, jump around near the altar, and shout obscenities. But there is most certainly the right not to lose your liberty for doing so, even if the act is offensive.
This has got to be one of the dumbest statements I have heard for awhile. It begins an article on CNN about the poor, poor punk rock musicians who are being sent to prison for violating the religious freedom of the Russian Orthodox. People told the Church there that they ought to be merciful, but mercy has to come after justice. No, there is no right to not go to prison for doing evil things.

Why did these women decide that their impromptu concert had to be played in the sanctuary of a Cathedral? Did they simply try to come up with the most offensive possible location? Or did they hope to trade on the publicity that it would surely draw? A Church sanctuary is a place set aside from the world, a place to be kept holy. Though we are told that it is too much to ask the world to respect the boundaries of decency, it is not too much to ask the world to respect the simple boundary of a sanctuary. The world cannot understand why we would be upset. A sanctuary means nothing to them; if it means nothing to us either, then there is no place left for holiness in this world.