Collect for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity

O God, the protector of all that trust in thee, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: increase and multiply upon us thy mercy; that, thou being our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we finally lose not the things eternal; grant this, O heavenly Father, for the sake of Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Monday, December 31, 2018

2018 Year in Revue

It’s time for my annual New Year’s Eve arts review. Music was (for me) a little thin this year, except that Florence + the Machine released High as Hope, from which the singles ‘Big God’ and especially ‘Hunger’ were remarkable. The imagery of the music video for ‘Hunger’ is intensely eucharistic—a statue that seems to provoke religious rapture in multiple people, with holes in its hand and its chest (one person puts his finger into the latter, like St Thomas), from which plants are shown growing; a man whispering into another man’s ear in a wide, church-like building, irresistibly evocative of both confession and the intimacy of lovers; the use of arches, stained glass, and light falling from above; a kneeling man surrounded by men who have laid their hands on his shoulders, as if consecrating him; the very title of the song (originally rooted in her confession of an eating disorder, and then reworked as a reference to desire in general); and the overpowering line You make a fool of death with your beauty. Every time I watch it I am reduced to tears.

Van Hansis and Kit Williamson as Thom and Cal in EastSiders

Film and television were stronger. I actually went to theaters to see two different movies this year: Love, Simon and A Quiet Place, both of which I reviewed; Netflix’s Alex Strangelove was a fun, forgettable knockoff of the former. There were a number of excellent TV shows I discovered, though I was often late to the game. Kit Williamson’s EastSiders, a dark gay comedy set in LA which I think wrapped up its final season this year, has some of the best acting I’ve ever seen and a very biting humor; Ken Arpino’s The Queens Project on YouTube (a show I admit I only started watching for B. J. Gruber’s pecs), a light gay comedy set in New York, is a witty, endearing, ludicrous delight, and they had better make a fourth seasons or I will be extremely angry. Big Mouth is an animated surrealist comedy about adolescence, the brainchild of Nick Kroll and featuring John Mulaney among others: it released a mostly-disappointing and frequently disgusting (but not in a funny way) second season this year, but the first season was golden and I retain the hope that the third season will be a return to form.

Finally, the second and fifth seasons of American Horror Story (Asylum and Hotel) were quite engaging, and the seventh, Cult, was an outright masterpiece that proves that Evan Peters and Sarah Paulson between them should have all of the academy awards forever. Asylum, set principally in a Catholic institute for the insane in the 1960s, got rather squirrely and didn’t really seem clear on what arc it wanted for the monsignor’s character; on the other hand, Frances Conroy’s performance as the Angel of Death was beautiful, and Jessica Lange as Sister Jude was by turns infuriating, tragic, and winsome, a masterful execution of an exceptionally complex character. Hotel, which famously featured Lady Gaga in a leading role, was more cohesive, and showcased the wider talent of Peters and Paulson, as well as Mare Winningham and Kathy Bates; it combines vampires on the one hand with serial killers and ghosts on the other, with the rewarding effect of keeping both properly horrifying, striking the balance that Anne Rice successfully did (and that her successors have cheapened) between humanity and monstrosity which makes such creatures artistically interesting in the first place.

But Cult is head and shoulders above its predecessors. I can think of one plot problem; that is the sole charge I have to lay against it. Set during and after the 2016 election, it follows both a quasi-political cult centered on the charismatic but unbalanced Kai Anderson (played by Peters), and the terrorizing of Ally Mayfair-Richards (Paulson) by possibly hallucinatory clowns: partly as a nod to the unbelievably creepy real life clown sightings of 2016, and partly because come on, clowns are that disturbing. I won’t spoil it—unless you are a Patreon sponsor, in which case I’ve posted a spoileriffic review of the thematic links between AHS: Cult and the fairy-tale The Snow Queen, many of them revolving around the often-forgotten plot element of the evil mirror that lies behind the latter story: the mirror shows only the ugliness of the world, and has been broken into countless shards that are scattered through the world. The acting, writing, pace, and costumes in Cult are all extraordinary, which, given the complexity of the plot (much of which is rooted in 60s and 70s despite the contemporary setting) and of some of the principal roles (especially Peters’ and Paulson’s), is a laudable accomplishment. I recommend it to anyone who has any taste for horror.

The Snow Queen by Elena Ringo, 1998

And last of all, to my ten chief readerships the world over:

Happy New Year
С Новым Годом
Bonne Année
Щасливого Нового Року
Frohes Neues Jar
Szczęśliwego Nowego Roku
Bhliain Nua Sásta
سنه جديده سعيده
শুভ ণববষ
Feliz Ano Novo

See you all in 2019!

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

What Is Side B Anyway?

And the Church must be forever building, and always decaying, and always being restored.
For every ill deed in the past we suffer the consequence:
For sloth, for avarice, gluttony, neglect of the word of GOD,
For pride, for lechery, treachery, for every act of sin.
And of all that was done that was good, you have the inheritance.
For good and ill deeds belong to a man alone, when he stands alone on the other side of death,
But here upon earth you have the reward of the the good and ill that was done by those who have gone before you.
And all that is ill you may repair if you walk together in humble repentance, expiating the sins of your fathers;
And all that was good you must fight to keep with hearts as devoted as those of your fathers who fought to gain it.
The Church must be forever building, for it is forever decaying within and attacked from without;
For this is the law of life ... 
—T. S. Eliot, Choruses from 'The Rock'
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Given the response a number of people have had to the Q Christian Fellowship’s announcement about representatives of Side B at their upcoming conference, I thought it might be as well to outline what, exactly, Side B is and what its implications are (with a hat tip to the Liturgical Queer, who inspired me). I haven’t done this before, for the rather silly but simple reason that it never occurred to me. This is partly because I’d thought it was clearer than, apparently, it is.

For one thing, a lot of people think that Side B is just ex-gay thought, but without its guarantees of successful orientation change. This isn’t the case at all. Side B was formed as a response to, and a rejection of, ex-gay thought, just like Side A was. It’s true that Side B takes a traditional ethical viewpoint, in contrast to Side A; but in general the origin, culture, and identity of Side B bear more resemblance to Side A than they do to anything out of Exodus or NARTH.

For another, a lot of people think that Side B Christians want to convert everyone to Side B beliefs. I’ll concede that we are very eager to convert our own churches to Side B beliefs: which largely means, getting them to treat us with the love, respect, and solidarity they profess (to a great extent falsely) to have for us. But, while I’m certain there are individuals who consider it their mission to convert Side A people to a Side B viewpoint, I can’t actually think of any. Most of us are—or more accurately, would be, considering the suspicion of our heterosexual brethren—perfectly willing to live and let live, not because the truth doesn’t matter (it does) but because it is neither our business nor particularly effective to go around browbeating people with your beliefs. Within a given church, since it’s a community defined by belief, it may make sense to have such discussions, but that’s quite different.

Now, I don’t want to paint Side B with too broad a brush; there’s a diversity of views, to be sure. The essential parameters are these:
- a traditional sexual ethic (i.e., sex belongs in a one-man, one-woman marriage)
- rejection of ex-gay practices and narratives
That’s it.

This obviously leaves a lot of space for what a given Side B person might think. Like I said, there are different versions of Side B, just as there are different versions of being gay in general. A Side A transman might believe firmly in monogamy, where a secular lesbian might think there’s nothing wrong with sleeping with a different person every night. Are they both right? No. Are they both queer? Yes. Likewise here: I think what I’ve laid out is typical of Side B, but there are many skeins in the rich tapestry of the community.

Some representative areas where Side B and Side A can work together include:

1. Refugee and asylum sponsorship, advocacy, and work. There are still a lot of places in the world, especially in Africa and Asia, where is it dangerous to be LGBT. I’m talking about everything from socially approved harassment to execution by stoning. The worst places include: Chechnya, part of the Russian Federation, in which men reputed to be gay are currently being shut in concentration camps; Iran, which executes adult men for homosexual behavior, but only requires 74 lashes for underage males; Nigeria, in which, if you get caught, you’d better hope it’s in the south and you merely have to languish in prison for a decade or so, because in the north they just kill you; Tanzania, which recently embarked on a large-scale anti-gay witch hunt; Saudi Arabia, which allows anything from an arbitrarily long imprisonment to flogging to castration to execution, and accents that last one for repeat offenders; Somalia, which allows the death penalty, but is at least chaotic enough that you can hope they forget to bother; and Uganda, which narrowly avoided instituting the death penalty in 2013 and settled for life imprisonment. Keep in mind, these are just some of the places in the world where your life and liberty could be endangered if you come out, or get outed by someone else, because everyone including the government will come after you. We know only too well that even ostensibly gay-friendly places like, say, Orlando can suddenly become scenes of horror and tragedy.

Getting LGBT people out of these countries and into safer parts of the world should be a no-brainer to everybody. It’s certainly a no-brainer to Side B. Rainbow Railroad is one organization I know of that does this. This of course goes hand in hand with our next point.

2. Supporting national and international legal reforms. This includes advocating legally classifying anti-gay crimes as hate crimes, for example, or supporting efforts to make gender identity and sexual orientation protected categories with respect to things like housing, employment, and access to public goods and facilities. Sodomy laws were of course struck down in the US as of Lawrence vs Texas, but they still stand in other places, and extending aid to those who are working to repeal them in other countries definitely qualifies.

I’d add supporting LGBT civil unions on an international basis, too. Some Side B folks do support civil gay marriage, since they consider their beliefs about marriage strictly religious. Some others, myself included, can’t unhesitatingly endorse gay marriage per se, but I think I’m right in guessing that an overwhelming majority of us are in favor of civil unions at the least. ‘Found family’ is one of the things that’s always laid at the heart of the gay movement, especially due to the fraught relationships so many of us have with our biological families; civil unions are a legal way of recognizing that. Adoption is in a distinct but analogous position here, and a Side B person can definitely support gay adoption (I certainly do).

3. Combating false and demeaning stereotypes about LGBT people, especially those that prevail among Christians. An example would be some of the more prejudiced reactions to the recent resurgence of scandal in the Catholic Church: calls for total bans on same-sex attracted men being admitted to seminaries were widespread, and remain a cause célèbre among many conservative or traditionalist Catholics. One individual, a rare instance of an uncloseted man with SSA (his preferred term), wrote an article published in First Things titled ‘Why Men Like Me Should Not Be Priests,’ asserting that chastity is disproportionately hard for homosexual men as such, and that we are accordingly unsuitable for such a demanding vocation. He adduced his own experiences struggling with chastity, and slipping into hookup culture at times, in support of his argument. The problem with these claims is not just that they’re detrimental to gay people (though they certainly are), but that they’re a bad reading of the evidence.

Traditional Christian culture, Catholic and evangelical alike, punishes not only homosexual acts, but homoerotic feelings, and deviations from quite rigid gender norms—a friend of mine, for example, was told that in order to be confirmed at his Anglican parish, he had to not only cut off all contact with his LGBT friends, but dress and speak differently (and this man was married to a woman). Moreover, while hookups can be treated as discrete, individual sins that can be repented and forgiven, anything that would humanize gay sex, like placing it in the context of a loving relationship, is typically treated as a more serious violation of chastity because it’s ‘living in sin’ instead of merely sinning. Without, quite, saying that the distinction has no value, I will point out that in this case, it makes hookups more appealing, not less: they satisfying both the craving of sexual lust for physical release, but also the intense psychological need that homosexual release should be a sordid and animalistic thing, without sincere affection or loyalty. A chastely celibate partnership between two uncloseted gay men is more of a threat to that identity than any number of anonymous blowjobs in a back room.

This is only one example of damaging preconceptions about LGBT people, and of how the shame and repression they inculcate can easily turn what was a calumny into a self-fulfilling prophecy. On wholly Side B premises with a thoroughgoing commitment to the most rigorous interpretations of Catholic sexual ethics, there is no reason to presuppose that a gay person is any less fit than a straight one to serve as a Catholic institution’s teacher, organist, secretary, youth minister, therapist, nurse, or priest. Each one of us must be examined not on our orientation, but on our merits—which is exactly what these positions call for anyway. Besides, given the incessant lectures we receive about how we shouldn’t reduce ourselves to our sexuality (from confessors and pastors, fellow parishioners, and total strangers in Christian media), it’d be nice if other people would stop doing it to us.

4. Demanding clarity from churches about how LGBT Christians can and can’t serve in them, along with the relevant circumstances and the justification. This alone is going to turn up a lot of homophobic subsoil. Vague assurances of ‘welcome’ are no match for a lived experience of exclusion, heteronormativity, and gaslighting., which I discovered through Twitter, is a great example of an effort to get churches to move from generalized affirmations of love to a concrete explanation of what their love is going to look like—which empowers LGBT believers of all sorts of convictions to make an informed choice about going to this or that church.

What Churchclarity is doing, however, is (and professes to be) just one part of this. If, for example, a given church won’t hire LGBT employees or won’t ordain LGBT Christians because they believe they’re more prone to sexual misconduct, that’s a deeply problematic justification for a stance that is admittedly clear. My own Catholic tradition is particularly frustrating on this point: her teaching that homosexual persons, like all persons, are to be treated with ‘respect, compassion, and sensitivity’ is in theory straightforward; but then she goes and ruins it with a bunch of well-actually-ing about what does and doesn’t count as prejudice and unjust treatment. As a Side B person, I strongly advocate for reform in the Catholic Church’s attitudes and policies, and especially for an examination of the extent to which her pastoral habits have been formed by discredited psychological theories of homosexuality. (The ex-gay claims and personal licentiousness of Msgr. Anatrella, recently disgraced along similar lines to ex-Cardinal McCarrick, spring to mind, given his former influence with the Vatican.)

Calling every congregation, parish, diocese, synod, presbytery, and communion to implement policies that actually promote the dignity and well-being they claim to desire for LGBT believers is what’s at stake here. A church that wants to call itself Side B in its doctrine needs to put its money where its mouth is and prove that it doesn’t discriminate against homosexually attracted believers simply because of their attractions—by doing things like employing and ordaining qualified gay Christians, and treating our gifts as being just as valuable as those of straight brothers and sisters by allowing us to exercise them for the good of the body. If your policies demand that LGBT believers, even the ones who are in complete theological agreement with you and live out the chastity they confess, must assume the roles of dependent recipients of your gifts and never more, then whatever your stated beliefs, your behavior is homophobic. And it’s wrong.

5. Attending to medical and social issues that confront LGBT people. People think of HIV here, which isn’t totally false (especially when you had a creep like Martin Shkreli on the loose), though it is recycling a trope that wasn’t entirely true even in the 1980s. But of course, even with Truvada and other godsend medical advances, HIV is still an issue in the gay community. Similar half-truths abound with respect to suicide and substance abuse.

A more pertinent example would be homelessness among LGBT young people: studies over the last twenty years suggest that anywhere from 11 to 40% of homeless youth are LGBT (as opposed to around 3% of the general populace), and that domestic abuse or family expulsion are leading factors here. It is sad and infuriating to think that a minister should need to tell the parents among his flock not to savage, molest, or evict their children for their sexuality or gender identity; sadder and more infuriating that many do not. Drawing attention to this societal travesty, and urging believers of whatever convictions to open their homes and hearts to young people who need to get off the street, are fundamental responsibilities of Christian compassion.

6. Defending the legitimacy of LGBT terminology and identities for Christians. It still leaves me baffled that so many Christians have a problem with words like ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian,’ especially since so few of them have a problem with the word ‘straight’ (or ‘bisexual,’ for some reason). Saying I’m gay is not a theological, political, philosophical, or moral statement. It is not an assertion about my sexual activity or lack thereof. It is not an assertion that this is the most important part of who I am, any more than any other I’m statement is such an assertion (I’m an American, I’m a teacher, I’m a nerd …). It’s just using the normal adjective that most speakers of English use to denote a guy who likes guys the way most guys like women.

That said, I personally am prepared to take it a step further and say that queer identities are not incompatible with even a robustly Side B Catholicism. Because what is identity? A lot of things. There are ontological identities like ‘rational agent,’ but when most people talk about their identity I’m prepared to bet they don’t have ontology in mind. Sense of self would be a closer synonym: a narrative of experiences, principles, relationships, ideas, and so forth that we find deeply important. Given that our sexual orientation has a profound impact on our experiences, emotions, and relationships, I see no reason to exclude it from identity in this sense.

And even beyond this, when we look at how groups of people work, we find that group identities are forged by shared experience and especially shared suffering. The early Christians, who were frequently persecuted in fact and could be persecuted at any moment in theory, are an example: the letter to the Hebrews and the Apocalypse are eminent examples of a kind of resistance literature, books that reminded the addresses of who they were, of the solidarity of the Church, of their purpose and their hope—in a word, of their identity. In a very different way, blackness in the US can be regarded as a social identity, forged primarily through suffering and chronic social injustice: ‘black’ isn’t an ethnic group the way Swedish or Korean are ethnic groups, but the shared historical experience of black people in the United States, regardless of their diverse ancestry, created a common identity that reflects a common history.

In the same way, LGBT people in general know what it’s like to grow up different, confused, maybe scared, often mocked or excluded, because of our attractions. We know what it is to realize that what we’re feeling for other boys is what they’re feeling for girls—the chasm that opens up in an instant between us and them, between us and the future we were raised to anticipate. We know collectively what it is like to live and move in a world that was designed by, and caters to, people whose relationships are to a large extent radically different from ours, even when we share their convictions.

These six points are general, exemplary categories, not an exhaustive list or some sort of authoritative confession. But I hope they help clarify for our more hostile or skittish Side A sisters and brothers why we are, precisely, sisters and brothers, both as Christians and as queer family; and that they rouse and spur our heterosexual fellow believers to treat us better.

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Wednesday, December 12, 2018

An Image of the City, Part IV: An Enumeration of Rights

At this moment the King, who had for some time been busily writing in his note-book, cackled out ‘Silence!’ and read out from his book, ‘Rule Forty-two. All persons more than a mile high to leave the court.’
Everybody looked at Alice. ‘
I’m not a mile high,’ said Alice. ‘You are,’ said the King. ‘Nearly two miles high,’ added the Queen. ‘Well, I shan’t go, at any rate,’ said Alice: ‘besides, that’s not a regular rule: you invented it just now.’ ‘It’s the oldest rule in the book,’ said the King. ‘Then it ought to be Number One,’ said Alice.
The King turned pale, and shut his note-book hastily. ‘Consider your verdict,’ he said to the jury, in a low, trembling voice.
—Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
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So then, the most essential rights of man, as outlined in my last, may be termed: the jus agnitioni, the right to be recognized as a human being; the jus vitæ, the right to live; and the jus factioni, the right to normal human activity. On hypothesis, all other rights are implications or outworkings of these three most fundamental truths about humanity. But these three ideas are the skeleton—it’s those other rights that flesh out the shape of right. So what are those other rights?

I. Jus Agnitioni

The right to be recognized is, first of all, a right to acknowledgment of one’s humanity irrespective of any other fact about oneself: age, sex, health, practical independence, intelligence, moral rectitude, criminal guilt, ethnicity, sexuality, politics, creed or lack thereof, class, nationality—all of that is secondary and all of it must be treated as secondary by the law, beside the bare fact that: this is a human being. Every human being is, in dignity, equal.

This carries with it a number of direct implications. The two most obvious, the right to live and the right to conduct a normal human life, form their own ‘families’ of rights; many more fall under the umbrella of equality before the law. We may enumerate:
· The right to liberty of thought, conscience, and expression
· The right to liberty of movement and conduct (as limited by others’ rights and liberties)
· The right to one’s merited good name
· The right to privacy and security against unreasonable interference
· The right to equal access to public goods and services
· The right to political participation in one’s home country
· The right to legal redress for injuries
· The right to an impartial trial when accused

These rights themselves may have further implications: for example, the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, the right to an attorney, the right to trial by a jury of one’s peers, the right to be tried publicly, and the right to face one’s accusers, may all be defined as instantiations of the right to an impartial trial (since revoking any one of these secondary rights would imperil the right to an impartial trial); or, the rights to liberty imply a right not to be a slave and a right to emigrate. Additionally, what we mean by some of the terms here could be defined with more precision: what, for instance, constitutes unreasonable interference with privacy and security, as distinct from putatively reasonable interference? Nevertheless, without claiming to have defined the jus agnitioni exhaustively, I dare say that these definitions are enough to move forward from.

With one proviso. The jus agnitioni prompts one definite question: given that lots of regimes, groups, and individuals have tried to delegitimize the humanity of certain groups—slaves, Romani,1 the unborn, the disabled, blacks, Jews—on what grounds is the jus agnitioni to be based?

I see no practicable alternative (in an age that is both scientific and scientistic) but to state that human rights inhere in any being that is, by species, Homo sapiens. This can exclude none of the aforementioned target categories, and applies without respect to capacities, origins, or any other quality. It applies equally to the stay-at-home dad, the Nobel laureate, the unborn fœtus, the autistic teen, the widowed mother of five, the comatose ninety-year-old, the penniless migrant worker, and the death row inmate. In other words, it applies to humans as such, not to a specific kind or condition of humans; just like rights are supposed to do.

This has implications vis-à-vis questions like abortion, capital punishment, and euthanasia, among other things. Even if it doesn’t rule them out (which it very well may), it casts them in a particular light: that of dealing with our obligations to a fellow human being, and not solely of the most convenient solution to a philosophically problematic encounter of wills.

II. Jus Vitæ

The right to live is the next most essential, since no other right can be exercised if this right is not preserved. If it is to be applied to Homo sapiens, then—all else being equal—it applies from the moment of conception until the moment of natural death. All else may not be equal: there are situations in which doctors predict confidently that a woman will die if she gives birth, or a man can only protect himself from a serial murderer by killing him first, or a garishly dressed alien can only rescue his interspecies girlfriend from a criminally insane real estate tycoon by sacrificing a junior colleague given to self-destructive cries for attention. But the existence of hard cases does not abolish the fundamental principles of right and wrong, any more than the existence of best solutions for hard cases turns them into easy cases.

Like the jus agnitioni, the jus vitæ carries additional rights in its train, rights to those things that we need in order to live. These include:
· The right to food, drink, and clothing
· The right to housing
· The right to health care
· The right to safe living and working conditions
· The right to fair wages and prices
· The right to self-defense
· The right to seek asylum from violence

The canny reader will have noticed that, while I mentioned safe working conditions and fair wages, I said nothing about a right to work. The right to work is of course intimately connected with these things, but I don’t think it is primarily derived from the jus vitæ. That is because, somehow, bringing work into discussions of the right to life always seems to smuggle in an idea that this right to live is conditional, upon a person’s pulling their own weight. Rephrased, that would mean if a person doesn’t pull their own weight, they deserve to die. As severe as I often am about moral principles, I am not prepared to espouse that view.

Besides this, working, as such, doesn’t really contribute to life. What it does is one of three things: obtain or create the goods necessary to live (harvesting crops to eat, weaving cloth to wear, bandaging one’s wounds, etc.); obtain or create superfluous goods to sell or barter; or obtain wages (whether in kind or in money). Work therefore falls properly under the jus factioni rather than here, and to that I now turn.

III. Jus Factioni

This is almost the same as what Thomas Jefferson expressed by the phrase the pursuit of Happiness, using a classical and Aristotelian understanding of happiness: i.e., well-being, human flourishing, a secure and contented human life. It is a right to those things we value about being alive: personal fulfillment, cultural activity, and pursuit of a calling or craft.

So what do we mean by human flourishing? I think a sufficiently catholic definition would embrace the following:
· The right to work
· The right to contribute to the common good
· The right to recognition of original inventions, discoveries, or creations
· The right to a family
· The right to fairly-acquired personal property
· The right to peaceable association with others
· The right to education
· The right to enter or refuse legally binding agreements

These rights are, naturally, the most difficult to detail, since—as both the medium and the fruit of human activity—they are wrapped up in the autonomy of everybody involved. Whether and how the right to education produces a personal obligation in an educator is, unavoidably, a tricky question to address. I hope to hammer out the hierarchy of these rights in a later post, which should help.

It’s also worth noting that I have specified personal property, which is different from public, private, or collective property. Public property is that which is owned equally by everybody; private property is that which is owned by an individual, but in excess of what they can actually use or enjoy; collective property is that which is owned by a group, like a company or a club, as distinct from an individual (government property is thus really a type of collective property, not public property). Personal property is approximately equivalent to what we call someone’s effects: property they can personally use or enjoy. I’m confident that there’s a right to personal property, but I’m not sure about the others, so I have left them off until I have more time to think.

But all of these rights are the rights of individuals. And individual people always exist in a context, a web of history and relationships that they didn’t choose (as well as others that they did). No Man is an Iland, intire of it selfe, and no society is a vacuum. Any serious theory of ethics and politics must account for the essentially social nature and origin of man—and therefore of every individual. Hence, before moving forward, we must ask what rights society as a whole has, and how they interlace with the rights of the individual.
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1A.k.a., Gypsies. Roma or Romani is, in general, the self-appellation and preferred name of the people; Gypsy is sometimes considered a slur.

Friday, November 30, 2018

An Image of the City, Part III: Jures Hominis

Father D’Arcy will forgive me if I take one example from his book, which exactly illustrates what I mean. He, being a trained philosopher, is naturally trained to put up with philosophers. Also, being a trained priest, he is naturally accustomed, not only to suffer fools gladly, but (what is sometimes even harder) to suffer clever people gladly. The consequence is that he can write calmly and even blandly sentences like these. ‘A certain likeness can be detected between the aim and method of St Thomas and those of Hegel. There are, however, also remarkable differences. For St Thomas it is impossible that contradictories should exist together, and … a thing must first be, to be intelligible.’
Let the man in the street be forgiven, if he adds that the ‘remarkable difference’ seems to him to be that St Thomas was sane and Hegel was mad. The moron refuses to admit that Hegel can both exist and not exist; or that it can be possible to understand Hegel, if there is no Hegel to understand.
—G. K. Chesterton, St Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox
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As I mentioned in my last, I was surprised to learn (years ago) that the notion of a hierarchy of rights is not a standard element of most versions of human rights theory. To me, this seems like a baffling omission, because it’s so obvious that there are cases where one person’s rights clash with another’s. If, for the sake of argument, a severely dehydrated man could only stave off death by stealing a drink from Lady Marchmain’s fountain, which takes precedence: the landowner’s right to property or the dehydrated man’s right to life? If they are equal, there’s literally no right answer.

The common-sense answer is that obviously a man’s right to live outweighs Lady Marchmain’s proprietary use of her fountain. I think the common-sense answer is entirely correct, but it wants to be worked out into a coherent system.

Remember that negative rights are essentially rights against being interfered with, while positive rights incur obligations in others. The right to life is a negative right, and pretty much means the right to not be killed; the right to health care is a positive right, obliging those who can care for others’ health to do so for those who need it (obviously, this is not a thorough explanation). The principles I use to work out the system are these:

1. If exercising right A necessarily requires a person to enjoy right B, then B is the more fundamental of the two—or, to switch metaphors, right B is higher in the hierarchy. Another way of saying this is that B conditions A, i.e. creates the conditions necessary for A’s existence and/or enjoyment.
2. If exercising right A in practice requires some other thing B (which may be another right, a resource, or something else), then this entails a positive right to B. For example, humans need water to live, so if there is a negative right to life, then there is a positive right to adequate water.
3. The more a given right is conditioned by other rights, the lower it will be in the hierarchy; the less conditioned it is, the higher it will be.

So, what are the baseline rights we can plug into this system? What is their hierarchy among themselves? And, with respect to both questions, why?

At first I thought that principle 1 meant the right to life was the most basic of all rights, but as I’ve continued thinking it out, I have revised that belief. The morass of genocides in the twentieth century teach us with crystal clarity that recognition of other human beings as human, tautological though it sounds, is the bulwark upon which the right to life itself depends. It is that mutual recognition that conditions all other rights, including the right to live; for if a given person doesn’t really count as human, then every other right of theirs can be violated; or rather, violating their rights stops being a real thing, because they lack the context of human dignity in which those rights exist. Everything from the three-fifths rule to the Holocaust to ‘eliminating Down Syndrome’ depends on this refusal to deal honestly with the fact that every other human being is, precisely, a human being.

Therefore, I have made bold to classify what I call the right to recognition as elementary. All other rights are related to it, one way or another. If humans are not first of all human, in the long run, nothing else is going to matter.

The more I tried to think about rights in some structured pattern, the more the rights that the Western tradition usually enumerates seemed to coälesce into three groups, one surrounding this right to recognition, and the other two surrounding the right to live and to do things with one’s life; systems or families or rights, as it were. Being a former Classicist and a show-off, I shall give these systems Latin names to distinguish them from the individual rights they imply, and shall use said Latin names both for clarity (kind of) and to avoid having to type the word right over and over and over and over, especially since in some contexts it would be confusing.

The systems of rights are these:

I. Jus Agnitioni, the right to recognition. This means recognizing the fact that a person is a person, and that fact intrinsically means they have the same dignity as every other person. It undergirds the other two rights, and also implies things like a right to equality before the law, a right to autonomy and privacy, and so forth.
II. Jus Vitæ, the right to live. This, since it conditions every right except the jus agnitioni, is the second-nearest to the zenith, and comes from and realizes it.
III. Jus Factioni, the right to activity. This one is easier to express concisely in Latin than in English—though come to think of it, the Jeffersonian phrase ‘pursuit of happiness,’ if you give happiness the Aristotelianized meaning of eudaimonia, isn’t far off. The jus factioni springs from and details the jus agnitioni and jus vitæ; it embraces things like education, work, and marriage, the stuff that we do with the recognition and life at our disposal.

It is not coïncidental that these families of fundamental rights are three in number, nor that the first is rooted in being, the second is ‘the life of men,’ and the third proceeds from the first two. I expected—although I did not foresee this pattern specifically—that the rights proper to humanity would take a trinitarian form, because man is the image of God.

Outlining the further implications of these rights, to the best of my ability, will be the subject of my next.
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Wednesday, November 21, 2018

An Image of the City, Part II: Little Fredegar

Where there is no temple there shall be no homes,
Though you have shelters and institutions,
Precarious lodgings while the rent is paid,
Subsiding basements where the rat breeds
Or sanitary dwellings with numbered doors
Or a house a little better than your neighbor’s;
When the Stranger says: ‘What is the meaning of this city?
Do you huddle close together because you love each other?’
What will you answer? ‘We all dwell together
To make money from each other’? or ‘This is a community’?
And the Stranger will depart and return to the desert.

—T. S. Eliot, Choruses from ‘The Rock’

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Before I examine positive rights further, I must make an important prefatory remark. My original intention had been to turn immediately to human sinfulness, and the effects this has on political theory, but I find I need to deal at more length with something else first. This post came largely out of the discussion I had with some friends (a writers’ group called Pints and Prose) about my previous post. In particular, the fact that I used a rights framework was debated, since several of those present don’t subscribe to an ethical or political theory based in rights. The truth is that I use the language of rights because it’s familiar to me, not out of any special philosophical commitment; it’s worth noting that rights language tends to center on individuals at the expense of every other consideration, and while a reasonable person might do that, I don’t think it’s really compatible with a robustly Christian anthropology. I’ll probably go on writing in terms of rights, because it’s familiar, as I said: but other frameworks are not only possible but, I imagine, profitable. Moreover, I expect (I do not know) that the salient points of any given ethical or political system could be ‘translated’ into the terminology of another such system, so I’m not too fussed about adhering to this system or that. Any system is worth using only insofar as it helps us grasp realities that exist independently of what we choose to call them.


Last time I tried to enunciate the difference between: negative rights, or rights against people interfering with each other; and positive rights, or rights to good things that would involve other people’s coöperation. An example of the first would be the right to life, which is the same thing as the right not to be killed. An example of the second would be the right to health care, which (supposing, as the Church does, that it exists) would imply some kind of obligation on those who have the resources and skills to care for health, to use those resources and skills on the sick as people, rather than the sick as customers, for example. This obligation is something that inheres in the sick and is based on their need for it, rather than something established only by voluntary contract. Can obligations of this kind exist?

Well, a Catholic must certainly answer Yes. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of mankind, past and present, does answer Yes: from Cicero’s maxim that ‘Men were brought into existence for the sake of men, that they might do each other good’ or the ancient Hindu saying that ‘The poor and the sick should regarded as lords of the atmosphere,’ all the way down to the famous line from the Spiderman mythos, ‘With great power comes great responsibility.’ There are only two traditions that consistently qualify, minimize, or occasionally reject this idea—what C. S. Lewis described as the positive law of general beneficence—that we have as much moral duty to render good things to others as we have moral right to protect our own. One is the Enlightenment-derived tradition of rights, rooted in thinkers like Locke, Rousseau, and Jefferson, and today represented most by the Libertarian Party; the other is the collection of nationalist, fascist, and racist ideologies that began in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries [1] and are today largely incarnated in the alt-right. [2] I utterly reject the second of these traditions, and have always had a slightly uneasy relationship with the first, precisely because of its strong tendency to neglect the poor—a deeply anti-Christian sentiment in any ethical or political system.

Even without appealing to ‘the universal opinion of mankind,’ though, we might observe that at least some positive rights are implied, to some extent, by negative rights themselves. If human beings have a right to life, but no right to any of the things by which life exists (such as food and drink, living space, and health care), then what the hell is the point of that right to life? It would be like pointing out that the Second Amendment guarantees us the right to keep and bear arms, but not the right to purchase bullets: yes, the logical distinction is there, but trying to build a moral or political system on that distinction is asinine.

But when trying to articulate positive rights in practice, things get more ticklish. It’s one thing to say that little Fredegar, who suffers from mumps, [3] has a right to health care; it is another to grab a doctor and say, ‘You shall treat little Fredegar’s mumps, because he has a right to health care.’ Aside from the obvious practical issue that this specific doctor may have no expertise in mumps, it does seem like an aggression against personal freedom; in addition, it evokes a particular logical fallacy called superalternation. This fallacy is reasoning from a particular statement to a universal, like: little Fredegar has brown eyes, little Fredegar is a human, therefore all humans have brown eyes. So here, the fact that every given person has a right to health care doesn’t mean that it’s the personal duty of a randomly selected doctor to provide that care to little Fredegar.

Yet doesn’t this land us back in the realm of purely negative rights? If little Fredegar’s right to health care can’t be ‘brought home’ to any particular health care provider, isn’t that open to the same criticism we made a moment ago, that negative rights are no good without some positive rights? Does it follow that positive rights themselves are, in practice, not much good themselves?

Possibly. As I said in my prefatory paragraph, a good deal of the conversation I had with my writers’ group on Monday was about the shortcomings of rights-based theory and language, and alternative approaches were discussed. All the same, rights language is what I’m familiar with, and I think we can express the proper solution to this ethical-political difficulty in that language, if we tweak it a little. [4]

In this rights language, we may affirm the following. When a person has a positive right to something, the duty to provide it impinges on society as a whole, and the duty is graver according to its necessity (health care is more needful than education) and urgency (mumps is more urgent than a cold). Insofar as society can only act through individuals, this duty naturally devolves to the people with (i) the most power to provide it and (ii) the closest relationship to the person in question.

Note, though, that while there are extremely intimate relationships like that between mother and child, and extremely distant ones like that between two complete strangers from opposite sides of the earth, the Christian view of man forbids us from regarding any two human beings as entirely unrelated. We are all, in however remote a degree, linked, and there are times when that impinges on practical decisions; the smaller a society is, the likelier it is that any given individual will have some duty to involve themselves in another person’s welfare. (The hypothetical extreme would be a doctor who specializes in mumps and little Fredegar being the only two people on a deserted island: it would then be the duty of that doctor specifically to treat little Fredegar, since for all intents and purposes the two of them are society in that context.)

Obviously, this would mean we need to have a hierarchy of rights—an idea which I had always found so natural and obvious that I was kind of shocked to discover that it isn’t a standard part of Enlightenment-tradition rights systems. But I think we could sort one out without too much trouble. Assuming I don’t get thrown another curveball, my next post will be about that.

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[1] To do them justice, the libertarians detest the ethnonationalists as a rule, partly for being racist and partly for being prone to tyranny. To do everyone else justice: libertarian ideas and rhetoric seem, judging from history, much more easily perverted into neglecting or preying upon the disadvantaged in a way that’s quite harmonious with ethnonationalism, than they are used to fight ethnonationalism. The non-interference that the libertarian tradition makes central can be made a weapon against a generalized oppression of everybody, but it is not so easily used against persecution, scapegoating, or oppression of the poor—which are precisely the things that usually happen when a government does become tyrannical, for whatever reason. Oppressing everybody at once is a stupid strategy and is accordingly not often tried.
[2] Contrary to widespread belief, while cultural and ethnic snobbery is probably as old as humanity, racism is (as far as we know) a comparative latecomer to the stage of human shittiness. In Europe and the Americas, it’s quite possible that it developed as a post facto justification for slavery and colonialism, rather than a pretext to start doing those things.
[3] It may be reasonably presumed that any child actually named Fredegar is currently suffering from mumps. Similarly, any child called Cholmondeley may be supposed to be a fair-haired bully at Eton, and any Wilfrid to be delicate, poetic, and never the same since young Master Harrington went away, if you’ll pardon my saying so, mum.
[4] One should never be afraid to tweak the language of a philosophical system. No system is exhaustive or flawless. A given tweak might be unhelpful, pointless, or detrimental, which is a good reason to examine proposed tweaks carefully; but that’s different.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

An Image of the City, Part I: Humanity in Trinity

The organic body sang together;
dialects of the world sprang in Byzantium;
back they rang to sing in Byzantium;
the streets repeat the sound of the Throne.
The Acts issue from the Throne.
Under it, translating the Greek minuscula
to minds of the tribes, the identities of creation
phenomenally abating to kinds and kindreds,
the household inscribes the Acts of the Emperor;
the logothetes run down the porphyry stair
bearing the missives through the area of empire.
 —Charles Williams, Taliessin Through Logres, ‘The Vision of the Empire’

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My affectionate rivalry with a friend at my parish came to an interesting pass back in July. We wrangle a good deal partly because, while both of us are anarchists, he is the wrong sort of anarchist: his suspicions of authoritarianism take a capitalist or libertarian cast, where mine run closer to democratic socialism. He posed me a rare challenge during one of our discussions, suggesting that I say in so many words what ideal society I’m advocating. I have decided to take a stab at it. (As Chesterton said, ‘It was perhaps an incautious suggestion to make to a person only too ready to write books upon the feeblest provocation.’)

Now, politics in general is a branch of philosophical anthropology, i.e., our idea of what human beings fundamentally are. In order to have a coherent theory of politics, we must first have a coherent theory of man.

For a Catholic, our understanding of humanity is rooted in our understanding of God, because the first thing we are told about humanity in Scripture is that we are made in God’s image. This implies the following:
1. We are spiritual beings—using Aristotle’s term, we are rational animals—because God is spirit.
2. We are innately creative; art, inventing, cultivating, building, and the begetting of children are all expressions of basic humanity. The first thing we are told about God before we are created in his image is precisely that he is a, the, Creator.
3. We are simultaneously individual and interrelated: God is Trinity, neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance. Both personal distinctness and intrinsic relationship are essential to a proper idea of man.

This already gives us a limited but important framework for what human societies ought to be. Mere chaos is against human nature. So are societies so rigid as to actively suppress creativity and innovation; those that deny the dignity of the individual in favor of the collective; and those that deny any claim, of others or of society as a whole, upon the individual person. A rationally organized society, one that embraces both creativity and fertility, and that affirms both the dignity of the individual and the essentially relational character of each individual, is a society that accords with human nature. Not only are the totalitarian ideas of Thomas Hobbes, Karl Marx, and Francisco Franco incompatible with a fully Catholic vision of humanity: so too are the radically fissiparating philosophies of William Godwin, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Ayn Rand. [1]

Obviously, there are still a lot of different kinds of societies that might fit the bill here. This is as it should be. There’s no reason to think that only one sort of culture or political organization is good, any more than there is to suppose that healthy families can only exhibit the pattern of mom, dad, two-point-five children, and a dogcat. Nonetheless, I think we can define the parameters of a good society further.

One point of dispute between me and my friend lies in the Church’s use of the language of rights: papal and episcopal documents speak regularly of the right to health care, the right to marry, the right to education, and so forth. He posed this reasonable question: if a person has a right to something that they don’t have—a right to marry, for example—then could they (in a justly organized society) go to court and demand redress? If American law were more perfect, could incels sue for a wife?

Now, there are rights where you obviously could do this. Human beings have a right to life, but of course what we mean by that is a right not to be killed; when a person dies of natural causes, we grieve, but we don’t issue warrants for arrest. [2] Human beings have a right to property, [3] but what we principally mean by that is that if somebody steals what belongs to us, we’re justified in calling on authoritative compulsion to get it back. These ‘negative’ rights of not being interfered with are comparatively easy to grasp. But the Church goes further and enunciates ‘positive’ rights, such as those exemplified in the paragraph above. How are we to understand this?

I will begin by approaching the matter from a different angle. C. S. Lewis writes in Reflections on the Psalms:
What do we mean when we say that a picture is ‘admirable’? We certainly don’t mean that it is admired (that’s as may be) for bad work is admired by thousands and good work may be ignored. Nor that … a human being will have suffered injustice if it is not awarded. The sense in which the picture ‘deserves’ or ‘demands’ admiration is rather this: that admiration is the correct, adequate, or appropriate response to it, that if paid admiration will not have been ‘thrown away,’ and that if we do not admire we shall be stupid, insensible, and great losers, we shall have missed something.

Passing from the specifically æsthetic to a broader philosophy in The Abolition of Man, he writes the following:
Until quite modern times all teachers and even all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could be either congruous or incongruous to it—believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval … that certain responses could be more ‘just’ or ‘ordinate’ or ‘appropriate’ than others. … And because our approvals and disapprovals are thus recognitions of objective value or responses to an objective order, therefore emotional states can be in harmony with reason (when we feel liking for what ought to be approved) or out of harmony with reason (when we perceive that liking is due but cannot feel it). … The head rules the belly through the chest—the seat, as Alanus tells us, of Magnanimity, of emotions organized by trained habit into sentiments. The Chest—Magnanimity—Sentiment—these are the indispensable liaison officers between cerebral man and visceral man. It may even be said that it is by this middle element that man is man: for by his intellect he is mere spirit and by his appetite mere animal.
This may be a worthwhile place to begin considering ‘positive’ rights. They are (at minimum) those things which everyone should be able to enjoy; they are proper to human life; if someone lacks them (save by their own choice) it is a probable indicator that something is wrong with society. [4] That may be something which ought to be resolved through legal reforms—or it may not be. Just, effective means will vary depending on problems and circumstances. But that question itself cannot be dealt with adequately unless we recognize the defective relationship of the reality to the ideal. Which in turn means acknowledging the ideal.

Among the Trinity, what is fitting is perfectly rendered by each Person to the others: being, knowledge, and bliss exist in mutual adoration and interanimation. An unfallen humanity, which needed no political governance, would presumably operate the same way, freely responding to the intrinsic dignity of every person in an adequate way. But that is not what we have; man is fallen; politics (even anarchist politics) is very largely a study in when it is appropriate to compel others to do right or to refrain from doing wrong, and when others should be suffered to stray, every one to his own way. We must, therefore, turn from the trinitarian character of humanity to its fallen character, and try to understand their relationship.

EDIT: After writing this post, I discovered that the language of positive and negative rights is used differently in technical discussions of moral theory among academics. I don't understand their terminology or its rationale clearly enough to use it, so I'll stick to my own inventions, but be aware that my language may clash with more standard language.

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[1] This isn’t to say that we cannot learn from these sources. I’ve drawn on Marx in my understanding of the world; but I’ve never done so uncritically, and there are key elements of his philosophy that I reject outright, like the labor theory of value or the idea that religion is nothing but an instrument of control.
[2] Or if we did, we’d have to issue them against God. Which, good luck with that, I guess?
[3] This is admittedly a sticky concept, partly but not only because of the relationship that can exist between life and property. We’ll get to this in more detail later.
[4] I say an indicator, not an infallible sign. Obviously, happenstance and variation will be involved in some cases. But when a trend emerges, that merits investigation.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

The Next Catholic Reform, Part IV

‘Give your evidence,’ said the King.
‘Shan’t,’ said the cook.

—Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

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A few ideas for reforming the Catholic Church that I personally think are bad, or at any rate unhelpful. I may of course be mistaken, but, in case I’m not (or in case I am but a smarter person can show me where I’m wrong), here is a list of them and why I believe they’re unwise.

1. Categorically banning gay men from becoming priests. There are a myriad of problems with this idea. First, considering the cultural hostility of the Church toward LGBT language and self-identification, there are strong social and psychological pressures against young men even recognizing themselves as gay (or same-sex attracted or whatever, I seriously don’t care, as long as you just pick a word and are honest about it). On the other hand, there is no surefire gay test. So what this policy would actually do, is allow only those gay or bisexual men who are either sufficiently in denial about their attraction, or unscrupulous enough to lie about it, to become priests; those who have processed their sexuality and aren’t willing to be dishonest will be the ones excluded. The problems of abuse and Machiavellian secrecy would be exacerbated by a policy like this.

Besides this, while it’s true that something like four-fifths of clerical abuse has been homosexual in nature, it doesn’t actually follow that homosexuality is causally linked to abuse. Most mass shootings and terrorist attacks on American soil have been the work of white men, but it doesn’t follow that whiteness causes terrorism—although it does justify investigating why the statistical link exists. Likewise here: the pattern exists, but that calls for analysis of its causes, and targeting gay people or gay priests is not only unjust, it’s unproductive. There are other factors at work, and if they are not properly accounted for then more people will be victimized. It is the difference between discovering the guilty, and simply burning the accused; the latter is more immediately satisfying, whereas the former requires persistent, intelligent work.

2. Ordaining married men and/or allowing priests to marry. I say in all seriousness that it would be nice if the solution were this straightforward. The problem here is that it isn’t, not that the proposed expedient is unattractive.

The notion here is that the celibate life either causes a tendency to act out sexually, or attracts people who already have such a propensity (whether through a naïve belief that celibacy will fix them, or maliciously, as cover for their appetites). There’s no doubt that that is true in individual cases. But it doesn’t match the facts about sex offenses in general—a category of criminal that’s very poorly understood in the popular mind. There are two typical profiles of sex offenders, what you might call the acute and the chronic; the recidivism rate for sexual offenses is lower than that for any crime except murder, because sexual crimes are largely the work of acute offenders who are reacting to specific, temporary stresses in sick ways, and who mostly respond to treatment. Chronic sex offenders are to the acute what a serial killer is to an ordinary murderer: apparently incurable as a rule, and very rare. They dominate the popular idea of what sex offenders because their victim-to-criminal ratio is far higher and their deviant behaviors tend to be much more dramatic.

But the thing about both categories of sex offender is, many perpetrators are or have been married, more than half (in direct contrast to violent crime in general). As far as I understand, acute sex offenses are usually about relieving some kind of stress, and chronic offenses are usually about power and ego—neither of them is necessarily about sexual appetite just as such. If they were, we would expect a majority of sex offenders to be unpartnered, but that prediction is contradicted by the observed facts.

3. Ordaining women. According to Catholic (and Orthodox) doctrine, this is impossible, whether it would be desirable or not. Female accountability or even oversight are not necessarily impossible, as I addressed in my third post; and given that the principal function of the clergy in general is to provide the faithful with the sacraments, which is not simply the same thing as canonical governance, intimately entwined though the two things are. The abuse scandal should not be made a pretext for deforming the doctrines of the Church—but equally, the doctrines of the Church should not be made a pretext for protecting a diseased system of discipline.

4. Violating, altering, or abolishing the seal of Confession. More than one government has attempted this recently: some districts in Australia have passed laws this year that would compel confessors to violate the seal in cases of abuse, and Ireland passed such laws in 2015 (though they have yet to be implemented). The problems here are two: one is the religious liberty issue, and the other is that, like trying to exclude gay men from the priesthood, it would certainly be ineffective. As to the first, the whole notion of the separation of Church from state is that neither should have the power to interfere in the affairs of the other—which is one of the reasons that so few states have really attempted the separation. And Confession is most certainly the Church’s affair. Her belief is that the priest himself is only lending his body to Christ’s personal action of forgiveness, and the seal exists because the penitent’s sins and secrets were not being told to him except, in a way, accidentally.

The impracticality, however, is even more obvious. Who would confess these things sacramentally if they knew they would be reported to the civil authorities? Only somebody who was prepared to face confessing to the civil authorities anyway. It is like the riddle in Wicked about what a dragon looks like while it’s inside its shell; nobody knows the answer because the only way to get inside it is to break it.

5. Turning into a snake. It never helps.

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