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, June 30, 2014

A Blog on the Hobby Lobby Law Bomb

I'll just leave this here, shall I.

The internets are abuzz with Hobby Lobby hate. And Hobby Lobby pride. And Hobby Lobby what the hell are they on about this time. And so forth.

The contraception provisions of the HHS coverage mandate provoked a number of lawsuits, primarily of course from employers such as the Hobby Lobby who object to paying for contraception on religious or moral grounds. The Supreme Court ruled today that the state could not compel employers to provide coverage for contraceptive services.

Christians are to be found on both sides, vehemently decrying and vociferously supporting the ruling, and making remarks about the qualities of a Christian business, on this subject and others. A few thoughts:

1. The women's rights/reproductive health angle doesn't really work as an argument in favor of the original HHS requirements. It is perfectly possible to maintain that the government has no business dictating what does or doesn't happen in people's bedrooms, provided nobody winds up dead or unleashing Gozer the Gozerian. Both of which phenomena, strictly speaking, are as undesirable outside the bedroom as inside it.

Despite vaguely resembling Justin Timberlake, this entity is not bringing sexy back.

Where the argument becomes sticky is when we start saying that the state, or an employer, has an obligation to subsidize things that happen in the bedroom or to eliminate their consequences. And the brute fact is, whether we think it wrong or right, that's what contraception is: making sure that the normal consequences of sex won't happen.

Even referring to this as a matter of reproductive health is at best ambiguous. The issue of sexually transmitted diseases is an issue of health, of course; but treatments and vaccinations for those aren't, so far as I know, what's at stake here -- it's contraceptives that are at stake, i.e. things whose express purpose is to prevent pregnancy. And pregnancy, even if it is unwanted or objectively a terrible idea right now, is not a disease.*

If this were, for instance, a question of people wanting anti-pregnancy measures to be available to rape victims, the conversation would be pretty different, but so far as I'm aware that too is on the list of "not the main topic" stuff here. What's being demanded is employer-covered access to contraceptives so that people can engage in an elected behavior free of consequence, not a necessity to the normal functioning of the body -- indeed, its whole purpose lies in preventing the normal functioning of one system of the body. And, while I don't propose to criticize that elected behavior here, I would point out that it seems inappropriate to make other people (whether we speak of the employer or the taxpayer) fiscally responsible for one's own free choices in pursuit of non-essentials.

The comparison of cosmetic surgery, which has been raised by some writers on the subject,** seems to me a good one. No one need cavil at the idea that some people could, for lack of a better way of putting it, need cosmetic surgery; say, the veteran who comes back from war with half his face missing from a grenade explosion. But cases like this are clearly distinguishable from a general insistence that cosmetic surgery ought to be available to everyone as a right.

2. All the same, the brute fact is also that there is an inevitable inequality between men and women on this subject. To sum it up in a crude oversimplification, if people have sex and one of them gets pregnant (I'm going to assume for the purposes of discussion that this is more or less the old-fashioned sort of sex, in which at least one person of each gender is involved), the man can run away. The woman can't. And that is, by definition, unfair.

That it's inevitable is, I feel, a reply that rises a little too easily to Christian lips. That she should have been more responsible is a reply that rises altogether too easily to the lips of Pharisees everywhere.

God litters our lives with indulgences, letting us off the consequences of our sins; when He chooses not to do that, it isn't because the person who experiences consequences was worse than ourselves -- that is the chief point of the book of Job -- but is, in all likelihood, for reasons that we can barely guess and certainly not state with certainty. In any event, male irresponsibility is a lot easier to get away with, living as we do after both the Sexual Revolution and the demise of chivalry, and a lot of the insistence on a woman's right to contraceptives, or even to abortion, seems to be an attempt to level the playing field.

I would insist that these are, in fact, false solutions to the problem; but, whether I am wrong or right in thinking so, the problem of such inequality in our culture is a real one, and ought to be recognized and sympathized with, not just moralized at. A solution to the problem cannot stop there, but it must start there, because if it doesn't then I think it will not start at all.

3. Whether the Hobby Lobby and co. are jerks or not, this is, in fact, a religious liberty issue. No sensible person, I am sure, would want to deny that religious people can be incredible assholes. This is also an elected behavior, and one just as open to non-religious or irreligious people, but one does see it with depressing regularity. Even if we take the comforting view that this is largely a consequence of the media manipulating the facts at their disposal and presenting the worst face of Christianity, or religion in general, with unjust persistence, it is nonetheless depressing that they've got that much material to work with.

Nevertheless. Whether the plaintiffs in this case are generally unpleasant people, or even raving misogynists, is not actually relevant to the case. What is relevant to the case is the assertion that being made to pay for non-vital goods or services that violate their religious beliefs is unconstitutional, and it is. If we were talking about a vital good or service, like vaccination or blood transfusions, then sure, it'd be a different conversation; but we're not, and it isn't.*** Nor is this conversations even about whether contraceptives are or ought to be available: it is about who ought to bear the responsibility of paying for them; and the contention of the Hobby Lobby et al. is that those whose convictions do not forbid them to do so should be making the payments. Insofar as contraceptives aren't necessary to a person's well-being, I tend to agree.

4. That being said, critics of the ruling are kind of right when they point out other fairly non-Christian behavior on the part of companies and organizations that object to contraceptive coverage on religious grounds. It is a little bit unfair to make this solely a Christian question: there are other faiths whose practitioners are wholly or widely resistant to contraception. But of course it is predominantly a question of Christians -- even, very likely, predominantly a question of Catholics -- and I believe I write chiefly to a Catholic audience. So an examination of our conscience is not altogether out of place.

Do we support businesses whose practices are thoroughly Christian? And are our criteria for what constitutes thoroughly Christian practice dictated by hot-button issues of our own place and time, or by the person of Christ, the tradition of the Church, the exercise of reason, and the voice of the Scriptures?

The Bible says, at most, extremely little about contraception,**** but you know what it does say a great deal about? Avarice. Its warnings to the rich are repeated, they are stern, and they give not the slightest hint of "But you're American, so ignore this." The parable of the camel and the needle's eye is typical not just of Jesus, but of the whole Bible. (It is telling, and typical of our own society, that this is so often explained away today by referring to the Needle's Eye Gate in Jerusalem, which camels had to kneel in order to pass through, making it possible but difficult for a camel to pass through the "eye of the needle"; a charming explanation, were there any evidence that such a gate ever existed.) The howls of resentment that meet any suggestion of legally requiring companies to pay a living wage -- accompanied by the argument that companies won't be able to hire as many workers on account of such a pay hike, because it is in fact physically impossible for upper management to take pay cuts -- are a bad sign. So too, for that matter, is the commonplace close-fistedness of many Christians when approached by beggars on the street, refusing to give anything and even handing out insults instead, on the grounds that the homeless are lazy, probably drug addicts, will misuse the money, and so forth. Evidently that hadn't occurred to God when He lavished His gifts upon us.

You say you need air, light, warmth, and moisture to live? I can do that, but it'll cost you.

This is not only a question of consistency, though I feel that ought to be enough to make us care. Part of the reason that the churches in this country are as discredited as they are in the public mind, especially among the younger generation, is their refusal to apply Christian principles when these are embarrassing or inconvenient to our political allies -- specifically, the GOP, which I don't think really cares very much about Christian principles per se, but does care deeply about Christian votes. This is a failure of the prophetic function of the Church, which is called to denounce all evils, and especially its own, because the purpose of prophecy is not merely to condemn but to summon to repentance, purification, and healing. Charles Williams put the matter so well:
It is at least arguable that the Christian Church will have to return to a pre-Constantine state before she can properly recover the ground she too quickly won. Her victories, among other disadvantages, produced in her children a great tendency to be aware of evil rather than sin, meaning by evil the wickedness done by others, by sin the wickedness done by oneself. The actuality of evil does not altogether excuse the hectic and hysterical attention paid to it; especially to those who appear to be deriving benefit from it; especially to benefits which the Christian spectator strongly disapproves or strongly desires. Even contrition for sin is apt to encourage a not quite charitable wish that other people should exhibit a similar contrition. To grow into the vibrant web of universal and supernatural co-inherence is as difficult as to invite the direct and particular co-inherence of Almighty God. The natural mass is not the supernatural web -- not even when it calls itself Christendom. 
-- The Descent of the Dove, pp. 86-87
So, while I welcome the SCOTUS ruling on the subject, I remain concerned for the position of the Church; concerned rather for her spiritual position than her social position; concerned more, perhaps, in the wake of this political victory than I would be in the face of a political defeat. For defeats are to be expected: the Cross is the pattern of the life of Christ, and of His saints also. When I see an ostensible temporal triumph, I get the uneasy feeling that I'm being had.

Pietro Lorenzetti's fresco Entry Into Jerusalem in the Upper Basilica of St. Francis.

*Condoms are in a somewhat greyer area: however much many religious groups protest of their limitations, they do help to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases when used correctly, though naturally they are no guarantee. On the other hand, that was something of a happy accident, as both the modern condom and its predecessors were designed to prevent pregnancy, not disease. On the third hand, they are neither scarce nor particularly costly, unlike prescription medications, and can be found free in a lot of places.

**I forget who these writers were and where I came across them, but I didn't like to take credit for the comparison as though I'd been clever enough to come up with it myself.

***If we were talking even about the specific health applications that, I understand, certain contraceptives have or can have -- for instance, I'm told that the pill can help regulate a woman's cycle, though the very little information I've even heard on that is conflicting -- then, yes, that specific application would qualify as a health concern. But, see point 1; the narrative has not even professed to be framed substantially in those terms.

****Most readers will maintain that it says nothing about contraception. I would allow that one or two verses whose exact meaning is disputed may be talking about contraception, though I'd resist making them the basis of an argument, precisely because their meaning is disputed.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

New York Ho!

I will be in the Great Outdoors of the Adirondacks (as opposed to the Great Indoors of my desk and environs) till next Sunday, so I won't be posting anything, moderating comments, &c. until then. Have a blessed feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus on Friday, pray for me and the good folk I'm traveling with, and I'll catch you on the flip side, Mudbloods.

Friday, June 20, 2014

To Forgive a Predator

Warning: this post contains language and subject matter that may be triggering for people who have experienced traumas, especially relating to sexual abuse.

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This is the place of what is probably the most famous episode in the whole Commedia, the episode of Paolo and Francesca -- which is always quoted as an example of Dante's tenderness. So, no doubt, it is, but it is not here for that reason ... [I]t presents the first tender, passionate, and half-excusable consent of the soul to sin. 
Up to this point (Inf. V) the Imagination has been in suspense; it has not chosen -- whether from a shameful shrinking choice into spiritual cosiness, or from its not being confronted with this religious choice. It is now shown as choosing, and the choice is made as plausible as it could possibly be. ... What indeed was the sin? It was a forbidden love? yes, but Dante (in the place he gives it in the Commedia) does not leave it at that. He so manages the very description, he so heightens the excuse, that the excuse reveals itself as precisely the sin. ... [I]t is lussuria, luxury, indulgence, self-yielding, which is the sin, and the opening out of hell. The persistent parleying with the occasion of sin, the sweet prolonged laziness of love, is the first surrender of the soul to hell -- small but certain. The formal sin here is the adultery of the two lovers; the poetic sin is their shrinking from the adult love demanded of them, and their refusal of the opportunity of glory. Hell, in Dante, is in the shape of a funnel, and a funnel is exactly what hell is; and this moment of the lovers' yielding is the imagination swept around the inner edge of the funnel. 
-- Charles Williams, The Figure of Beatrice, pp. 117-118
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The article "From Youth Minister to Felon," recently published and thereafter retracted at Christianity Today, inspired a considerable amount of backlash. It was an account, intended by its author to serve as an example and a warning of how easy it is to slide into sexual sin in a ministerial position, of the author's own illicit sexual relationship with an underage girl in his youth group. It has been extensively criticized as being narcissistic, presenting justifications and excuses for his conduct, minimizing the predatory nature of the relationship, ignoring the consequences for the victim, and implying that she shares in the responsibility and blame for what happened. In addition to Twitter hashtags such as #TakeDownThatPost (a protest against the article itself) and #HowOldWereYou (in which victims of abuse shared parts of their own stories), some articles have been written in reply -- notably "To Publish a Predator" and "It's Abuse, Not an Affair," both also hosted by Christianity Today.

I was a victim of multiple rapes myself, beginning when I was thirteen, as I've dealt with hitherto. The man who raped me was not in the church's employ in any way, or an important figure in the congregation; he was, however, suffered to depart quietly after a private confrontation with the clergy (or so I understand), and so far as I know has never been brought to trial. Nor do I believe for one moment that I am the only young person he molested.

The tortuous slowness with which Christians are coming to face the reality of sexual predation within our congregations is horrifying; probably almost the only reason that the Catholic Church is doing as well as it is, is that it has been forced to, by the ghastly revelations of a decade ago. Meanwhile, every few months or so, I hear some new story of abuse, often at the hands of church leaders, sounding like something out of a nightmare. But the problem is beginning to be recognized, and in some degree dealt with. Above all, the wicked culture of silence on the subject is being dispelled.

The lashing out against this man's article bothered me, though. Now, it must be admitted, the article is seriously defective in certain ways: it does concentrate primarily upon the consequences in the abuser's own life, for one thing. But I'd like to parse some of the criticisms a bit.

For instance, both of the replies I linked to above refer to the abuser as a predator, one of them comparing him to Humbert Humbert, the pedophilic and unreliable narrator from Lolita. That's possible. But it seems to me to represent a dangerous and undesirable tendency to conflate every kind and degree of rape with every other; which is not a defense of rape, any more than distinguishing between first and third degree murders is a defense of third degree murder, but it is an assertion that distinctions are good for clear thinking while conflations are not. I'm reluctant to call this man a predator, not because what he did was okay, but because what I see in reading it is -- a man who hasn't fully come to terms with the gravity of his sin? very possibly, but, that aside -- a man who did indeed, as he describes, slide into sin slowly and by degrees.

And that distinction does matter. Not because it makes statutory rape okay; of course it doesn't. But it does, for example, make the difference between a good man corrupted by his desires and a man who pretended to be good to make his evil more effective. And that difference is important, primarily because different responses are needed, in both cure and prevention, for differing situations. To treat every case of this wrong (or any wrong) as though it were the worst of its kind actually makes things worse, not better; because a response that suits the worst case probably isn't suited to correct the problems of milder, or at any rate different, cases. Which leaves these other cases effectively untreated. And that means that the problem persists.

There are other things about the response to his article that bother me, too -- as that people read him to be making excuses when he spoke of feeling unrewarded at home, for instance, when I read that rather as him confessing one of his own interior lies. But I'd like to turn from this specific instance of the conversation about rape culture to the conversation as a whole.

I am flabbergasted that anti-rape activism should even be necessary: I was raised with the belief that rape is the worst sexual sin (and crime) possible; and I feel confirmed in that belief by St. John Paul II's Theology of the Body, for, insofar as the body is fundamentally a gift, the forcible taking of that gift -- whether by violence or otherwise -- is the deepest perversion of it possible. Nonetheless, there are three elements of the conversation about rape, coming from the anti-rape activist side (or such is my impression), that seriously bother me.

1. The phrase "rape culture." I don't necessarily object to this phrase in and of itself. What I do object to is people tossing around buzzwords, especially about something as grave as this subject, without bothering to explain them -- whether to themselves or their audience. I complain of this phrase because, in the last two or three years (which is as long as I happen to have seen it around), I've seen it actually explained exactly one time, and I've seen tons of unrelated or even incompatible things all described as being part of "rape culture," from making jokes about rape to, you know, actually raping people. That kind of vagueness isn't okay. No evil justifies substituting rhetoric for thought. Not knowing what you're talking about makes harder to address evils, not easier, and riling people up is not the same thing as actually dealing with a problem.

Now, far be it from me to say that everybody who uses this phrase is behaving as a mindless rabble-rouser in so doing -- of course that isn't true. Nor am I saying that rape culture is not a problem: insofar as I don't know for certain of an agreed-upon definition, I couldn't do so if I wanted to; and I certainly recognize rampant problems surrounding rape, like victim-blaming (whether the person doing the blaming is the rapist, or others, or the very victim), which I assume are at least part of what the phrase means. But I am in nearly as good a position as anyone* to understand the evil being dealt with, and I'd like to see it dealt with intelligently. That requires clarity, and clarity is something I don't feel I'm seeing in this discussion. (Of course, that may be very largely because both I and the other conversants that I'm familiar with are from the internet; but, although that explains, it does not excuse, sloppy thinking and sloppy speech.)

Your most powerful natural weapon against evil isn't anger. It's this.

2. The dehumanization of rapists. It may sound strange to object to this -- not least because being raped is a dehumanizing experience. But one injustice is not solved by an opposite injustice. If we object to dehumanizing people, simply as such, then we ought to object to criminals being dehumanized; whereas, if we don't object to dehumanization in itself, then one of our reasons for objecting to rape is clean gone. I prefer to maintain that dehumanizing people is always wrong, even if they're awful.

If you don't know what I mean about the dehumanization of rapists, read a few articles on the subject. Note the language and the tone: the way words like "predator" and "monster" are used, the tendency to imply (or state outright) that no punishment is too bad for them, the way in which everything that would connect them to our own humanity is denied. This is perfectly understandable -- I mean, most people aren't rapists. But I believe that it is a fundamental error, from two perspectives.

First, there is the risk to our own consciences. Whenever we set ourselves above a particular class of sinners -- however accurately, however justly, however even necessarily -- there is always a tug to treat them as less human than ourselves, for how else could they have done something so hideous? But unless they were psychologically sick, they sinned because they gave in to a temptation. And the thing about temptation is that it doesn't manifest itself, not usually, as the Weird Sisters prophesying upon a blasted heath or anything like that: it starts off, so often, as something small and harmless and almost innocent.

This was one of the essential points of the anonymous pastor-turned-criminal's article. He may not have been the right person to make the point. Or it may not have been decent for him to make it so soon after the events in question. But it is a point we ought to take to heart regardless of its source. I have to wonder whether a small part of the reason that the article inspired such a forceful response is that, in his gradual edging into this horrible evil, we recognized a pattern we are familiar with in our own lives, and resented the reminder.

No one describes this better than C. S. Lewis, commenting on Milton's depiction of Eve in Paradise Lost, just after the breaking of the primeval covenant. After a short account of the first few, pathetic and squalid, movements of Eve's fall, he writes:
But presently she remembers that the fruit may, after all, be deadly. She decides that if she is to die, Adam must die with her; it is intolerable that he should be happy, and happy (who knows?) with another woman when she is gone. I am not sure that critics always notice the precise sin which Eve is now committing, yet there is no mystery about it. Its name in English is Murder. ... If the precise movement of Eve's mind at this point is not always noticed, that is because Milton's truth to nature is here almost too great, and the reader is involved in the same illusion as Eve herself. ... Thus, and not otherwise, does the mind turn to embrace evil. No man, perhaps, ever at first described to himself the act he was about to do as Murder, or Adultery, or Fraud, or Treachery, or Perversion; and when he hears it so described by other men he is (in a way) sincerely shocked and surprised. Those others 'don't understand'. -- A Preface to 'Paradise Lost,' pp. 125-126

Every little step that this man described rings true. The small beginnings, the little omissions, the edging ever closer. Rape isn't the only crime, still less the only sin, to which that applies.

The second problem with dehumanizing rapists is that it cuts them off from the possibility of healing. I can understand someone whose response to this is that they don't deserve to be healed; but, from a quite utilitarian and even quite selfish perspective, I would far rather rapists stop being rapists than go on as they are.

It may well be that for some, whose crimes were motivated by a sociopathic inability to empathize with others, no healing is possible except by a direct miracle. But for others, healing of the soul is possible: excruciatingly painful, like trying to unmake a Horcrux, but possible. And for these men and women, who have, in however damaged a form, a conscience -- well, Brandish your ropes and your boards and your basket-hilt swords, but what is there can punish like a conscience ignored? They have to wake up every day and look in the mirror, knowing what they've done. (Small wonder that this ex-pastor did not address the consequences for the girl he abused; it may well be that he simply can't bear to contemplate them -- a bad and inadequate reason, but pitiable.) How on earth are they to recover if they are told by everyone around them that they are subhuman monstrosities? For if they are told that, and believe it, all motivation to resist their darker impulses is gone. It is only if a better self is really available to them that they will have any hope, and, with that, any reason left to fight.**

The third thing that bothers me about the conversation about rape culture remains.

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Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive, as we had during the war. And then, to mention the subject at all is to be greeted with howls of anger. It is not that people think this too high and difficult a virtue: it is that they think it hateful and contemptible. 'That sort of talk makes me sick,' they say. And half of you already want to ask me, 'I wonder how you'd feel about forgiving the Gestapo if you were a Pole or a Jew?' 

So do I. I wonder very much. Just as when Christianity tells me I must not deny my religion even to save myself from death by torture, I wonder very much what I should do when it came to the point. I am not trying to tell you in this book what I could do -- I can do precious little -- I am telling you what Christianity is. I did not invent it. And there, right in the middle of it, I find 'Forgive us our sins as we forgive those that sin against us.' There is no slightest suggestion that we are offered forgiveness on any other terms. It is made perfectly clear that if we do not forgive we shall not be forgiven. There are no two ways about it. 
-- C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Book III, ch. 7
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3. The more I read in the conversation about rape, the more I see every mind turning to revenge as a solution -- revenge, and not forgiveness.

It comes in a thousand forms. And it doesn't, not yet, actually call itself revenge; in a society like ours, that still has vestiges of an originally Christian compassion as basic assumptions of conduct, it calls itself self-esteem, or justice, or having no obligation to let toxic people into your life. And the reply to any mention of mercy and pity doesn't call itself unforgiveness, either: it seldom calls itself anything at all, but instead, as C. S. Lewis saw, vilifies the idea of mercy and pity as a contemptible and weak refusal to recognize evil for what it is.

Now, from the World (i.e. as the opposite of the Church), this is to be expected. Forgiveness -- as distinguished from revenge on the one hand, and mere bland acceptance of evil on the other -- is truly supernatural. But this is something I see more and more from Christians, I feel, and that disturbs me. People say that you cannot oblige or force someone to forgive, and you can't: except in the sense that Christ does, by telling us that that is what it means to be a Christian at all.

Saint Maria Goretti appearing to Alessandro Serenelli in a dream, giving him lilies that burned his hands.

It is (I believe) lawful, and indeed necessary, to take as long as you need to to forgive; to grieve the wrong you have suffered; to rebuild yourself, including your sense of self-respect. To work toward forgiveness while you're not yet able to effectively do it, is no different from any other duty in the Christian life. And cases like this do neatly illustrate the distinction that theology calls the difference between absolution and indulgence: to forgive a rapist, or any other sinner whose sins are rightly criminal, is not the same thing as letting them off being punished. Forgiveness, absolution, means choosing to love the offender, choosing to will what is best for them, laying down bitterness and spite and the whole complex of desires that can be summed up in the single desire to hit back. Indulgence means letting them off the consequences, which may or may not be good for the offender.*** What is best for them will, usually, mean that they be punished, with the hope that the punishment will serve as a corrective; and what is best for them doesn't necessarily mean establishing, or re-establishing, an intimate friendship.

Although, it bears saying, it could. After all, that is exactly and without hyperbole what Jesus does, every single time we come to Him and ask Him to forgive us for sinning against Him, in any way. For the children of this age not to forgive is the most natural thing in the world; for the children of the age to come not to forgive, is a hypocrisy of which we were warned in one of the Lord's most frightening parables.

It took me years to forgive the man who raped me; I had to learn that it was not my fault, I had to get through the anger and the nausea that live in those memories. I still feel disgust when I think of him -- along with a great deal of pity for his twisted soul. To forgive does not mean pretending that there was no evil committed, or that the evil isn't important and horrible. It just means forgiving it.

Pause for a moment and consider the example of our own most ancient leaders, the Apostles.
And he sent messengers ahead of him, who went and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make preparations for him. But the people did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. And when his disciples James and John saw it, they said, "Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?" But he turned and rebuked them. -- Luke 9.52-55
So Jesus is on His way to Jerusalem, and a village of Samaritans will not receive Him because He is sticking to the specifically Jewish practice rather than keeping the Passover with them. Naturally, the Zebedee brothers -- and here perhaps we see why they were nicknamed the Sons of Thunder -- say to Jesus, "Alright, Lord, would You like us to murder this entire village, for You?"

But surely, surely, that's a fluke -- the Apostles weren't just going around murdering people for kicks or anything, I mean, none of the others ever approved of that kind of --
And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." And when he had said this, he fell asleep. And Saul approved of his execution. And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison. ... Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. -- Acts 7.59-8.3, 9.1-2

"This is going to be really ironic in a few years, Saul!" -- St. Stephen Protomartyr (probably)

In the case of Saint James and Saint John, it was before the descent of the Holy Ghost, who plainly revolutionized their own values; in the case of Saint Paul, it was before he was a believer at all. But the God we worship chose these men before any of that had happened, to be His own special emissaries. Our embarrassment at their sins does not appear to be shared by Heaven; nor, it must be said, by the Apostles themselves, who were responsible for recording the Scriptures that so carefully enumerate their own faults.

This is what our Lord Jesus came to do. This is what it means to follow Him. It is our special business as Christians, who bear His own name in our hearts and on our lips and foreheads, to lay down every trace of hatred, enmity and revengefulness, and to return instead, by the supernatural power of the Spirit, eternal and inexhaustible love.

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For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation. 
-- II Corinthians 5.14-17

*I say nearly as good as anyone because, though I am a survivor of multiple rapes, there are two things that set me apart from many victims: first, I'm male; and second, the rapes I suffered weren't violent. They were violations, certainly -- of my human dignity, of God's design for sexuality -- but they didn't involve force or threats. As a result, I don't know how far I can adequately empathize with the female perspective of the matter, and won't deliver my own perspective as though it were universal; and, not having experienced the traumas of violence that many rape victims do, I'm reluctant to rank my own sufferings with theirs.

**I feel I am beginning to see progress on this problem in the specific sphere of pedophilia. For some years now, I've been deeply worried about the way pedophiles are treated in our culture: not, of course, that pedophilia is not horrible, but that those who suffer from such desires and want to resist them must surely feel that they have nowhere safe to turn and no one who can help them -- after all, who would? More recently, I've seen articles like this one that suggest a growth of compassion, or at least of the possibility of compassion.

***This is why the Catholic Church attaches indulgences to specific acts: an indulgence is a release from the temporal consequences, the corrective punishment, of a sin that is already forgiven; and since the corrective for the soul is still necessary (as we see in examples like this), the indulgenced act serves as a substitute for the punishment, to make sure you don't miss out on the good that would otherwise be done to your soul by a loving punishment. This is also part of why we usually get partial rather than plenary indulgences.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Review: "The Rising" by Robert Ovies

The Rising is a new miracle-based thriller novel, and the debut novel of its author, Robert Ovies. Set in present-day Michigan, it recounts the story of a nine-year-old boy, C. J. Walker, who appears to have been granted the power to raise the dead. His mother, their parish priest, and his semi-estranged father all try to deal with the fallout, which escalates quickly via the media machine. Before long, a shady businessman with a dying son, the U.S. government, and the local Cardinal are all trying to investigate, all trying to get a piece of the action, all trying to get a lock on C. J. -- and his own father's motives are soon seen not to be unambiguous.

But I won't spoil the rest for you.

The book has been published by Ignatius Press, and can be found on Amazon.*

The Strong Points

It's curious to say that plots are not a strong point in much modern literature (and film), since a plot, along with characters, is kind of what a story is, but we all know that it's also true. The Rising, I am happy to say, doesn't suffer from this weakness. The motivations of the characters all square with their decisions throughout the novel, and the sequence of events as a whole develops completely organically, in a story that is compelling and logical, yet still manages to surprise you several times.

The chosen theme of the novel is, obviously, religious. This is handled with a good deal more subtlety than I admit I had expected, particularly on the part of the ecclesiastical characters (most of all with the character of Bennington Reed). The plain, human difficulties of Lynn Walker, C. J.'s mother, and the fact that these have little or nothing to do with just "not having faith," are conveyed particularly well. The way in which the thematic and plot problems of the novel are tied together in the ending is especially good: the two are organically united -- one is tempted to say, sacramentally united -- in the solution.

The depiction of conversion in the novel is also unusually good. Many storytellers, even extremely talented ones, are defeated by conversions: Evelyn Waugh himself doesn't altogether pull off Charles' turnaround in Brideshead Revisited (as good a job as he does with Julia), and one could quarrel even with C. S. Lewis' portrait of Jane Studdock's in That Hideous Strength. Ovies, however, pulls it off beautifully, and with a very unpromising specimen as his chosen convert, no less.

The Weak Points

Stylistically, the book is imperfect. The writing, and occasionally the characterizations, have a wooden feel sometimes, though the book does often rise above this, at times into phrases of sheer brilliance. It has a tendency to linger over material that feels like "filler" sometimes, especially toward the beginning, where wrangles over the resurrected persons are being processed by the relevant bureaucracies.

There are also two characters -- C. J.'s father, Joe, and parish priest, Father Mark -- whose characterization seems at times to be a little too stereotypical to be convincing: the charismatic success-seeker and the unassuming, friendly priest. The former gives the impression, in a few passages (especially when he is being described, earlier on in the novel) of being a sort of typified Bad Husband more than a fully fleshed-out individual; while Father Mark has the similar problem of seeming like The Nice Priest, notably in his struggle with faith.

Is It Worth Reading?

Absolutely! I rarely find myself liking modern-day novels, outside of the fantasy and sci-fi genres (which this, for all its miraculous apparatus, just isn't, from a purely stylistic perspective); but I did enjoy this one. It is a welcome alternative to the spiritually and artistically shallow offerings one often gets in Christian art, and I'm interested to see what Ovies writes next. Buy, read, enjoy.

*I still haven't decided whether to boycott Amazon, though I have stopped ordering things from them until I make up my mind. However, the link will at least confirm what you're looking for, even if you are boycotting them.

Monday, June 2, 2014

A Question I Have No Good Answer To

Why is it wrong?

Since childhood, with only a relatively short period of wavering in my late teens and early twenties, I have taken the Bible's word for it -- and, since 2008, the Catholic Church's word for it -- that gay sex is wrong. I've never truly understood why; I don't have the revulsion from it that a lot of straight people do (though certainly a lot of straight people don't have that response either, my favorite reaction probably being that of C. S. Lewis, who for his part described homosexuality merely as "opaque to the imagination").

This is what I think of when I think of things being "opaque to the imagination."

I don't mean by this that I don't follow the syllogism of natural law generally used to defend the Church's position from a strictly philosophical, as opposed to a religious, standpoint. The argument of natural law is widely misunderstood, so I'll take a brief detour to explain it.

The argument from natural law isn't an argument that homosexuality doesn't occur in nature, which would be utterly ridiculous. I dare say some Christians have attempted to make that assertion (and there are probably a great many more who didn't mean that exactly, but who spoke with sufficient carelessness or stubbornness as to leave the impression that they did*), but this, even if it were true, wouldn't have anything to do with the natural law argument.

Rather, the idea of natural law to which Catholics appeal here is that of the law of human nature -- and by that meaning, not whatever human beings happen to be like, but that to which human beings are called by our specific character as rational animals. Our animality, obviously, includes plenty of things we share with the animal kingdom as a whole; what is under discussion here is that which is specifically human, specifically rational -- that which can fall under the categories of morality.

To take an extreme example, in this sense of natural law, it is unnatural for one man to kill another. This statement doesn't mean that men don't in fact kill one another on occasion; it means that it goes against that nature which is specifically human to do so. For one animal to kill another wouldn't necessarily be unnatural, because animals don't have rational souls and therefore don't have a moral compass or responsibility, so they wouldn't be contradicting their own natures to do so.

Admit it, you were waiting for him to up and kill some folk the whole series.

Now, the contention of natural law theorists** about homosexuality is not that it is arbitrarily wrong for us, though innocent among animals. It is that the reproductive system is, well, a system designed with the purpose of reproduction***, and that the proper activity of rational beings like ourselves is to use things in accordance with their purpose -- or, at the very least, not use them in a way that contradicts their purpose. Insofar as homosexual sex, by definition, can't lead to reproduction, it is therefore defined as wrong by the nature of the act.

If you're like me, you have one or both of two reactions to that line of argument:

1. That makes total sense.

2. But fuck that noise.

It's always been vaguely surprising to me that I can be both in full agreement with, and at the same time bitterly scornful of, the same argument. I've been grateful to have something more than "Because God says so" as a reason for having to regard being gay as a cross, instead of just a thing, with no moral implications. And when I look at this argument with detachment, trying to imagine as far as possible how I'd feel if I were evaluating it objectively and as someone who wasn't affected by its truth or falsehood, I have to assent that it's perfectly sound. Yet, as I've discussed with a few of my fellow queer believers, the consequences of living in accord with that belief -- the loneliness, the confusions and misunderstandings, and, yes, the blue balls -- seem grossly out of proportion to the gravity of violating it. I mean, seriously? It's so wrong to use something out of accord with its intended purpose that it's literally better for a gay guy or a lesbian to live alone for seventy years? It's like saying that it's better to have your hand chopped off than to use a wrench to pound a nail in!

Q: How many lesbians does it take to change a light bulb?
A: One, I assume. That's kind of a weird question; what brought that up?

Convincing though I find the natural law argument in principle, I personally would not be able to maintain my belief in it -- or at any rate, I wouldn't be able to care -- if the authority of the Church didn't back up the conclusion as the bearer of revelation. It so happens that the Church does, and I can. Nevertheless, at a heart level, I'm not satisfied, and for that reason (among others) I cannot bring myself to look sternly upon those who can't accept the Church's teaching on this subject.

I look forward with some small hope to the day when I'll understand, but for now, I have to acknowledge that I don't feel I have a good answer to this. Do I trust the Church? Of course. But having food that keeps you alive is not the same as having food that makes you feel full, or even being healthy.

I do, however, have an incomplete hunch. I've long suspected that the biological and reproductive angle was the wrong tack to take. The body, after all, is matter; and matter isn't bad, indeed, it's good, but matter doesn't get its significance from itself -- it gets it from the spiritual realm. God is spirit and God created matter, so this is true automatically, and it is specially true of what we might call spiritualized matter, i.e. the body and the seven sacraments.

Now, God, according to Catholic theology, is Trinity, and this means among other things that relationship is at the heart of all existence. This is part of what is meant by the famous phrase "God is love." The simultaneous unity and differentiation of the Divine Persons makes all of their relationships asymmetrical: God the Father begets God the Son and God the Spirit proceeds from both. No two relationships within the Trinity are exactly alike. Proper modes of relating are therefore not only important, they are of the essence of reality.

Depicted: blueprints for existence. Handle with care.

What has this got to do with sex? Well, one of the things that Christians in general and Catholics in particular believe about sex is that it isn't just a pleasure, but a peculiar way of relating to a person, incommensurate with any other way of relating. Scripture represents it as one of the primary analogies for the way Christ relates to the Church, and refers to it in both the Old Testament and the New as effecting a kind of union between the parties, referred to as a one-flesh union -- what we might today refer to as being welded into a single organism.

And if it is the spirit that gives the body its significance, then I think we get a conclusion that may seem surprising, but, to me anyway, makes a lot more sense than supposing that using our sex organs the wrong way, just as such, is the fundamental problem. Namely, we get the conclusion that the underlying problem with homosexuality lies in the mode of relationship between two men or two women, and that it is the spiritual problem in this mode of relating that makes these relationships infertile, rather than the inevitable infertility which renders such relationships wrong. If I may put it this way, two masculine souls don't fit together the right way for sex to unite them (and the same for two feminine souls), and that is what the essential problem is: the fact that two guys can't conceive a child is a sign of the problem, not the problem itself.

I said earlier that I had only an incomplete answer, and indeed that is all I have. I don't know what it is about masculine, or feminine, souls that would mean they don't fit together the right way for gay sex to ever be right; I take it that the metaphorical shape of our souls is in some way symbolized by the literal shape of our bodies, but beyond that plausible assumption -- I consider it no more than that -- I haven't a clue.

Hell if I know what's going on here.

I've heard a few explanations -- many of them extremely confident assertions of rigidly defined gender roles. I'll concede that stereotypes don't arise for no reason at all, and that they always have a basis in authentic archetypes; but I have to say that most of the explorations of gender (psychological or spiritual) that I've seen from Christian sources justify, or at best are very little better than, the skeptical and deconstructionist approaches often taken by those outside the faith in academia. Moreover, they fail even to do justice to Christian history. How would St. Francis, a grown man who refused sexual love and financial and military ambition, and who asked the Holy Roman Emperor to direct his subjects to feed the little birds, fare among the proponents of self-styled "muscular Christianity"? Or how would our contemporary worshipers of the virginal daughter becoming the obedient wife respond to St. Joan of Arc, dressing herself in men's clothing with her hair cut short and rallying men to battle? To say nothing of still stranger figures and phenomena, like St. Marina the Monk or the erotic mysticism of St. John of the Cross.**** Asserting the spiritual reality of gender, and recognizing certain of its consequences in theology and in life, should not lead us to assume that we know everything there is to know -- a hubristic and shallow approach to any question. As is the assumption that, because someone (perhaps ourselves) doesn't know something, therefore nobody knows anything.

That's as much as I've got right now. I still don't get why it's wrong -- not at a heart level -- but I have enough that I think I can accept working by faith and not by sight: again, right now. Tomorrow will doubtless have its own trouble, which will suffice it.

*The late Fr. John Harvey, on whom be peace, the founder of the Courage apostolate, is the example that springs to mind. He wrote -- and the phrase has been picked up by Dr. Joseph Nicolosi, the head of NARTH -- that "There are no homosexuals, only heterosexuals with a homosexual problem." What he meant (I think) was that the desires and dispositions of a person are not determinant of their nature; or, to put it another way, all men are fundamentally men rather than fundamentally gay or fundamentally straight; or, to put it still another way, gay men aren't a different kind of thing from straight men. Though I certainly agree that human dignity is the same for everyone and that desires don't determine what we are, I think that putting it this way is really stupid. It defies what the majority of people in fact mean by words like "homosexual" or "gay," thus putting what I consider an unnecessarily dogmatic view of terminology ahead of the basic purpose of language, communication.

**Yes, most natural law theorists -- so far as I'm aware, anyway -- are Catholics. But it's perfectly possible to be a non-Catholic natural law theorist, and vice versa: I'm given to understand that Eastern Catholicism in particular has little to no tradition of conceiving of human nature and morality in these terms. Additionally, I don't know of anyone who's made a case for a natural law theory that approves of human homosexuality as a positive good; but it's possible that someone has, or has made the attempt.

***This doesn't involve us in the belief that the reproductive system was designed with no other purpose than reproduction. That is part of why the Catholic Church concedes that natural family planning is morally licit, though of course it can be used to excess or with wrong motives: one need not be actively trying to have a baby every time, provided one is not only pursuing the other purposes of sex but also refraining from actively obstructing the reproductive purpose. But all of this is too complex to do justice to in a footnote.

****Because someone will ask, I'm not claiming (and don't think) that any of these figures were themselves gay, although depending on one's definition we could view St. Joan and St. Marina as genderqueer (with the proviso that the gender here referred to is the social aspect of gender, rather than implying that gender in its spiritual dimension was, in them, distorted in some way). I'll allow that any of them might have been gay, though I know of no evidence for it and find the question a bit of a bore -- especially in the case of St. John of the Cross, whose bridal imagery is in my opinion far more striking if he was in fact strictly heterosexual. But all of this is, at most, tangential.