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, September 25, 2017

Thoughts on the Correctio Filialis

But I saw not synne, for I beleve it hath no manner of substance ne no party of being, ne it myght not be knowin, but by the peyne that it is cause of; and thus peyne—it is somethyng, as to my syte, for a tyme, for it purgith and makyth us to knowen our selfe and askyn mercy. For the passion of our Lord is comforte to us agens al this, and so is His blissid will. And for the tender love that our good Lord hath to all that shal be save, He comfortith redyly and swetely, menyng thus: It is sothe that synne is cause of all this peyne, but al shal be wele, and al shall be wele, and all manner of thing shal be wele. These words were seyd full tenderly, shewying no manner of blame to me ne to non that shall be safe. Than it were a gret unkindness to blame or wonder on God for my synne, sythen He blamyth not me for synne. And in these same words I saw a mervelous, hey privitye hid in God, which privity He shall openly make knowen to us in Hevyn, in which knowyng we shal verily see the cause why He suffrid synne to come, in which syte we shall endlesly joyen in our Lord God.1

—Lady Julian of Norwich, Revelation of Love, Thirteenth Shewing

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As of this past Saturday, sixty-two Catholics have signed the Correctio Filialis de Hæresibus Propagatis address to His Holiness Francis, the Bishop of Rome. In English, the document’s title is A Filial Correction Concerning Propagated Heresies. Among others, the signatories include Bishop Fellay, head of the Society of St Pius X or SSPX—a traditionalist group whose founder, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, incurred excommunication upon himself in 1988 for consecrating four bishops without the lawfully required permission, and in fact against the express wish and personal appeal, of the then Pope, St John Paul II. (It’s no secret that I take an extremely dim view of any and all persons who consider themselves to be literally more Catholic than the Pope.)

Nevertheless there can be valid grounds on which to rebuke even a Pope, especially since the conditions of his infallibility are actually fairly restricted. And such rebuke has precedent. Indeed, we have precedent in the first century, when St Paul took St Peter publicly to task for waffling on the discipline of the Judaizers. So it is worthwhile going through the Filialis and judging it on its merits.2

It’s a respectable enough document. It refrains from personal attacks against any person; it distinguishes with appropriate care between consequence and cause; it explicitly states that it makes no judgment about motives and degrees of culpability; and it does, as the title implies, remain filial, stating and restating the Catholic doctrine of the Holy See and asking for the Pope’s blessing at the conclusion. One of my perennial complaints about traditionalists is their readiness to condemn and to place their understanding of dogma ahead of the professed definer of that dogma, i.e. the Church defined by her communion with the Roman Pontiff, and the Filialis (as far as I can tell) avoids these flaws well, which is refreshing and laudable.

The authors assert that Pope Francis, by a combination of acts, words, and omissions, has in effect though not explicitly promoted seven heretical ideas (the text in the Filialis is in Latin, but the authors have also translated them into English):

1. A justified person has not the strength with God’s grace to carry out the objective demands of the divine law; or, God’s grace does not invariably and of its nature produce conversion from all serious sin.
2. Christians who have obtained a civil divorce and have contract a civil marriage with some other person, who live more uxorio3 with their civil partner, and who remain in this state with full knowledge of the nature of their act and full consent of the will, are not necessarily in a state of mortal sin.
3. A Christian can have full knowledge of a divine law and voluntarily choose to break it in a serious matter, but not be in a state of mortal sin as a result.
4. A person is able, while he obeys a divine prohibition, to sin against God by that very act of obedience.
5. Conscience can rightly judge that sexual acts between persons who have contracted a civil marriage, although one or both of them is sacramentally married to another, can sometimes be morally right or even commanded by God.
6. Moral principles contained in divine revelation and natural law do not include negative prohibitions that absolutely forbid particular kinds of action.
7. Our Lord wills that the Church abandon her perennial discipline of refusing the Eucharist and absolution to the divorced and remarried who do not express contrition for their state of life and a firm purpose of amendment.4

Now, as far as 2, 3, 4, and 5 are concerned, I’m bold to say that His Holiness would indeed deny those propositions. Amoris Lætitia emphasizes, repeatedly, that a revision of disciplinary practice is not a question of altering or concealing the Church’s perennial teaching, but of adapting it to particular circumstances, and of realizing that the best a person can manage may not rise to Christian perfection. The phrasing of 2 and 3 illustrates the distinction nicely: if I’m reading Amoris correctly, it’s precisely the ‘full consent of the will’ question that’s at stake, because human frailty interferes with our freedom even after baptism. That’s part of what venial sin means.

Proposition 4 is slightly ticklish, in that, while obeying a divine prohibition is of course not wrong, a person could be so entrenched in sin in some other way that this obedience could be vitiated. I've met people whose commitment to chastity I didn't doubt, but whose bitter, mean-spirited self-righteousness was so unpleasant that I think they'd have sinned less by taking a lover than by being so continually nasty. Given that the great focus of the encyclical was precisely on adapting doctrine to individuals, I think that matters. And that's the whole point of the 'law of gradualness': people can't do everything at once, and Christ does not send people away because of that.

Turning to the rest, I am not altogether sure what denying proposition 1 is supposed to mean, in the light of saints like Augustine and Paul. I don't mean this as a sarcastic remark; I mean I am genuinely unsure.

For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that I do not; but what I hate, that do I. If then I do that which I would not, I consent unto the law that it is good. Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me. For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: but I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.5

That is, of course, not the whole story. But it is part of the story, and whenever we speak of grace making us strong to obey, we have to mean it in a way that’s compatible with, well, Scripture. We don’t believe in Calvinist impotence,6 but we don’t believe in Pelagian or Semi-Pelagian mastery, either.7

Similarly, denying propositions 3 and 6 has to be done in a way consistent with Scripture. It’s interesting to me that, when the Pharisees took Jesus to task for not preventing his disciples from picking grain on the Sabbath, rather than pointing out that their rule was kind of made up (a way-past-the-goal-post extension of not working on the Sabbath, since picking grain was like doing the work of a reaper), Our Lord instead appealed to another, more direct transgression of the law:

And he said unto them, Have ye never read what David did, when he had need, and was an hungred, he, and they that were with him? How he went into the house of God in the days of Abiathar the high priest, and did eat the shewbread, which is not lawful to eat but for the priests, and gave also to them which were with him? And he said unto them, The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath: therefore the Son of man is Lord also of the sabbath.8

An even more shocking example, which I’ve often cited here as one of the hard texts of the Bible, is Elisha’s pardoning Naaman for not only past but future idolatry in II Kings 5. These are not general pretexts to violate the laws regulating sacred things (for which, in differing ways, Uzzah and the eight martyrs of II Maccabees 7 died), nor to worship other gods even in pretense. Still less does this amount to the power to change divine law. The point is that the application of divine law to concrete situations is in the hands of Christ—and, accordingly, of his Vicar.

Which casts its own light on proposition 7. I don’t think that Amoris Lætitia says or implies that absolution and consequent communion should or can be granted to those who aren’t repentant; that would make a nonsense of the former, and a sacrilege of the latter, and would have to operate on the assumption that Amoris be read without the whole prior context of Catholic theology and canon law. But as I pointed out above, full consent can be a subtle question, and it’s no insult to divine grace to say so. Yes, God could dispense maximal grace to everybody; but we know, since only one person was immaculately conceived, that he doesn’t. Presumably he has a reason. Certainly we don’t know what it is. And also certainly we must deal with the flaws and weaknesses of mankind as they—and we—are, not only as we logically could be.

All this being said, I do hope that His Holiness replies to the Filialis. The way the criticisms of Amoris Lætitia, loyal and otherwise, are piling up strains the unity of the Church, and the fundamental task of the Holy See is to guard that unity. Pope Francis may be right, but the authors of the Filialis are correct enough to point out that it doesn’t follow that he is wise, and I admit to some worry: not about his teaching but about how he teaches it, and not because of its effect on those outside the Church (who will take anything and run with it) but about the possible mutiny of those within her (who will also take anything and run with it, even though they have a special reason not to, and far more damage comes of such behavior).

Still, eleven out of twelve apostles fell down on the job when their Master was arrested. And that turned out okay.

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1‘But I did not see sin, for I believe it has no kind of reality nor any part in existence; nor could it be known except by the pain it causes. And this pain—it is something, as I see, for a while, for it purifies and makes us know ourselves and ask for mercy. For the suffering of our Lord is strength for us against all this, which is His blessed will. And, for the tender love that our good Lord has to all that will be saved, He strengthens us readily and sweetly, saying: It is true that sin causes all this pain; but all will be well, and all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well. These words were said very tenderly, showing no kind of blame to me, nor to anyone that will be saved. So it would be a great ingratitude to blame or be shocked at God for my sin, seeing that He does not blame me for sin. And in these same words, ah, I saw an astonishing secret hid in God, a secret that He will openly make known to us in Heaven; by knowing it, we will truly see the cause for which He allowed sin to come, and by seeing that we will rejoice endlessly in our Lord God.’ Personally I prefer the passage in Middle English, and it is of course mostly comprehensible, but there’s just enough semantic drift to deceive the unwary reader, which makes the modern revision worthwhile.
2For those interested, the full text can be found here.
3A technical phrase in Catholic moral theology, meaning ‘in the manner of husband and wife,’ i.e. engaging in sexual relations. This is contrasted with couples who live ‘as brother and sister.’
4I have edited these propositions slightly for length, though I believe I have preserved their meaning intact.
5Romans 7.15-19, 21-23.
6I.e., Catholics don’t believe that even after being baptized, we can do nothing good: we believe that Christ’s life is infused into us, not merely drawn across us. Whether and to what extent Calvinists really believe in such spiritual impotence is a difficult question to answer, even as a former Calvinist; I never felt I got a very consistent account of it.
7Pelagianism was a fifth-century heresy which asserted that divine grace, while helpful to final salvation, was merely helpful, not absolutely necessary, and that original sin was nothing more than a bad example set by our predecessors (as distinct from a flawed moral outfit we’re born with). After some controversy, it was condemned at the Synod of Carthage in 418, and this condemnation was ratified at the ecumenical Council of Ephesus in 431. Semi-Pelagianism, while agreeing that divine grace was necessary for Christian growth, asserted that men could prepare themselves for and make the initial act of faith on their own resources. This too was condemned at the Synod of Carthage, and again at the Second Council of Orange in 529.
8Mark 2.25-28.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The Courtesy of Deep Heaven, Part III: Magnanimity and Irony

Christianity does not want us to reduce by one atom the hatred we feel for cruelty and treachery. We ought to hate them. But it does want us to hate them in the same way in which we hate things in ourselves: being sorry that the man should have done such things, and hoping, if it is in any way possible, that somehow he can be cured and made human again. The real test is this. Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one’s first feeling, ‘Thank God, even they aren’t quite so bad as that,’ or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies as bad as possible? If it is the second then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils.

—C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity1

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Beginning from precision, the unwavering devotion to fact that (I personally think) underlies the English Catholic tradition of spirituality, I move to its two immediate products: magnanimity and irony. Both are grounded in a precise recognition of our own ignorance, and a kind of delight in it.

Ladies and gentlemen: subtlety.

By magnanimity, I mean a particular combination of humility and charity toward others. A lot of it is summed up in the phrase ‘benefit of the doubt,’ but it can be formulated more thoroughly and exactly: When dealing with another person, since you can’t read their minds, read their words and actions in the best possible light, conceding every extenuating circumstance.

The mere acknowledgment that we can’t read minds is a taxing work for some of us. Knowing what people really mean is an addiction. And the fact that we may divine people’s motives correctly a lot of the time makes it worse, since it bolsters the illusion that we get it right far more often than that—and there is no rush like being right at the expense of others.

Magnanimity renounces this rush. Precision rules out our emotional belief in our own telepathic powers; it points out the gargantuan difference between any two people, such that accident and misunderstanding and malign coïncidence can have profound effects on virtually any interaction; it acknowledges that every word, tone, and gesture has multiple interpretations, and that we do not always convey or achieve what we want to when we act. Magnanimity takes these facts and embraces them, choosing to cheerfully accept the limits of our knowledge of others, and to imagine every word and deed—even those which hurt us—as being, maybe, the best response that person can manage to their circumstances. For after all, it may be. We don’t know.

This acceptance of ignorance leads us into the other fruit of precision, which is irony. As Alanis Morissette taught us in 1995, nobody really knows what irony means,2 but the general sense of it is of words, situations, or narratives that contain a contradiction: so, sarcasm contains a contradiction between the knowledge or beliefs of the speaker and the words they use to express it; the assassination of Julius Cæsar provoked the totalitarian centralization the assassins had been trying to avert; and half of all Greek myth is about someone making a prophecy come true by trying to prevent it. But I’m using irony in a particular sense here, one primarily derived from verbal irony, yet extending into a general temper of the mind.

Lovers, if they’re any good at it, are continually laughing at each other. This isn’t because they despise each other, but because they see the other closely enough to see all the ridiculous aspects of their beloved, and human beings have a lot of ridiculous aspects, both as a race and as individuals. This ability to see to coëxistence of the laughable and the serious is a first step in the doctrine of irony; it discerns, and embraces, the mass of lovable contrasts that make up every human character. In particular, this kind of irony is able to see the mixture of evil and good in people: prepared to deal with evil if necessary (as precision demands), hoping for good (because charity hopes all things).

It may help to understand human affairs to be clear that most of the great triumphs and tragedies of history are caused, not by people being fundamentally good or fundamentally bad, but by people being fundamentally people. … Just when you’d think they were more malignant than Hell could ever be, they could occasionally show more grace than Heaven ever dreamed of. Often the same individual was involved. It was this free-will thing, of course. It was a bugger.3

For a practical example of irony at work, we can look to Socrates. A lot of people dislike Socrates, finding the irony he evinces in Plato’s dialogues a merely dishonest technique for sneering. I don’t read him this way at all. I think his irony was subtler than that: that it was, yes, a way to poke gentle fun at the egotistic windbags he so often spoke with, but also a way of inviting them to be better. His cross-examinations of Euthyphro, Protagoras, Gorgias, and ultimately the whole Athenian people certainly have an undercurrent of laughter, but I don’t think it’s hostile laughter. I think he really wanted them to exercise the virtue and intellect that he ironically attributed to them, and that his gadfly wit was a form of affection, rather than of affectation.

I think this specific form of irony is what underlies English humor. It takes more hostile and jagged forms, of course; but the cunningly bland understatement of its dry wit and the deadpan silliness of its … wet? … wit, have that distinctive tang that runs through Oscar Wilde, G. K. Chesterton, Dorothy Sayers, Evelyn Waugh, John Cleese, Douglas Adams, and—well, time would fail me to tell of Lewis Carroll, and of Winston Churchill, and of Simon Pegg, and of Martin Freeman. And these all, having obtained a good report through jests, received not the OBE.4

So then, precision, and from precision to magnanimity and irony. In my next, I’ll talk about what I mean by hierarchy and republic.

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1This miserably timely reminder comes from the chapter titled ‘Forgiveness,’ which, I think, has become an even more unpopular virtue than chastity.
2The word comes from the Greek εἰρωνεία (eirôneia), meaning ‘feigned ignorance.’ A lot of the word’s subsequent adventures become much more intelligible with this viewed as the conceptual point of origin.
3Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, Good Omens. In strict theological terms these conceptions of hell and heaven are of course nonsense, but Pratchett and Gaiman were not trying to write strict theology.
4Not that I know of, anyway. I didn’t check. I guess Churchill must have.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The Courtesy of Deep Heaven, Part II: Precision

He was finding the answer to Aston Moffatt’s last published letter difficult, yet he was determined that Moffatt could not be right. He was beginning to twist the intention of the sentences in his authorities, preferring strange meanings and awkward constructions, adjusting evidence, manipulating words. In defense of his conclusion he was willing to cheat in the evidence—a habit more usual to religious writers than to historical.
… With a perfectly clear, if instantaneous, knowledge of what he did, he rejected joy. He instantaneously preferred anger, and at once it came; he invoked envy, and it obliged him. The other possibility—of joy in that present fact—receded as fast. He had determined, then and for ever, for ever, for ever, that he would hate the fact, and therefore facts.

—Charles Williams, Descent Into Hell

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The first part of this spirit of courtesy is what I’ve called precision: that is, an exacting intellectual fidelity to the facts, as best we can manage. Honesty is of course one of the pillars on which all virtue and holiness have to be built, because if you refuse to deal with reality then you can’t do anything of importance. But I chose a different word from honesty, because what I’m talking about is slightly narrower than that—it’s a specific style or flavor of honesty. More than telling the truth, precision means maintaining a clear and complete picture of reality in one’s mind, including the shades of grey that our limited intellects always involve us in.

As an example, let’s say you feel a sudden, sharp pain in your back, and turn around to find someone holding a small knife with blood on it. It is quite reasonable to suppose you’ve been stabbed by this guy, and there’s no dishonesty in saying as much. But precision would do both more and less with the data. Less, in that it would acknowledge that Knife Guy only may have stabbed you, even if it’s likely; more, in that it would point out other possible explanations, as that someone may have stabbed you, thrust the knife into Knife Guy’s hand, and run away—and no, that isn’t a likely explanation, but unlikely things happen.

But precision isn’t the same thing as giving someone the benefit of the doubt, though it is the rationale for such doubt. It is, as stated above, fidelity to the facts. This is a possible but difficult quality to maintain in juxtaposition with sincere and passionate belief, in anything; which is probably why academics so often seem religiously dubious to less scholarly1 believers. And why people with fiercely held beliefs, no matter for or against what, are often willing to fudge the facts in proportion to their investment in those beliefs. For this fidelity to fact rules out any unwillingness to deal with facts that are inconvenient or even objectively dangerous.

The peculiarly English quality that (in my opinion) makes precision a part of the Anglican patrimony may not be obvious, and I certainly don't insist that mere accuracy is something unique to English Christianity. But it is intriguing to me that Anglo-Saxon England was a great center of scholarship during the Dark Ages (SS Bede and Aidan being the most famous exemplars), that troubled period between Classical Antiquity and the Middle Ages proper, when the remnants of the Roman Empire were for the most part reduced to barbarism. Charlemagne's court, which hosted a minor renaissance of learning in this transitional era, was populated largely by English and Irish scholars like Alcuin of York, Joseph Scottus, and John Scotus Erigena.

The conclusion of The Dark Knight gives an example of a deliberate refusal of the quality of precision. Don’t get me wrong, the movie’s magnificent—but its magnificence lies in its exact statement of how evil functions, how it corrupts heroes themselves, and Harvey Dent is only the obvious example.

Commissioner Gordon: The Joker won. All of Harvey’s prosecutions, everything he fought for: undone. Whatever chance you gave us of fixing our city dies with Harvey’s reputation. We bet it all on him. The Joker took the best of us and tore him down. People will lose hope.
Batman: They won’t. They must never know what he did.
Com. Gordon: Five dead, two of them cops—you can’t sweep that up.
Batman: But the Joker cannot win. Gotham needs its true hero.
Com. Gordon: [understanding immediately] No!
Batman: ‘You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.’ I can do those things, because I’m not a hero, not like Dent. I killed those people; that’s what I can be.
Com. Gordon: No, you can’t! You’re not!
Batman: I’m whatever Gotham needs me to be. Call it in. […] Because that’s what needs to happen. Because sometimes … the truth isn’t good enough. Sometimes people deserve more. Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded.
Gordon’s Son: Batman? Batman! Why is he running, Dad?
Com. Gordon: Because we have to chase him.
Gordon’s Son: He didn’t do anything wrong.
Com. Gordon: Because he’s the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now. So, we’ll hunt him, because he can take it.

The problems with this exchange are legion—as, for instance, that taking life advice from a man who abandoned his ideals in favor of murdering people based on flipping a coin may not be the wisest decision available; or that this child has apparently just learned, from his father who’s the head of the NYPD, and the vigilante who wants to preserve people’s hope, that it’s okay to hunt an innocent man in order to make an example of him; or that the truth always comes out eventually, and when it does, Gotham’s spirit will be more brutally crushed than if they had had it from the beginning; or that the logic that people ‘need’ to believe in Harvey Dent and therefore it’s okay to lie about him, is exactly the logic that shielded pedophile priests. The use Bane makes of the truth in the following film, to demoralize and control the city before erecting kangaroo courts to massacre its leaders, is a natural consequence of the deception.

Regardless, neither Gordon nor Wayne considers the matter with enough precision to realize these facts, because they haven’t committed themselves to caring about truth. They’ve only committed themselves to caring about Gotham. And there’s nothing wrong with caring about Gotham; but this is a perfect instantiation of how the love of a lesser good like your hometown, if it isn’t governed by the love of a greater good like the truth, will ultimately destroy the very lesser good you preferred when you gave up the greater.

Yet each man kills the thing he loves
    By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
    Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
    The brave man with a sword!2

The one who guides his mind by precision must act differently. The uses, evil or good, that the facts may be put to, can be legitimately considered in their turn. But fidelity to the facts themselves comes first—no matter what they are. For the thing about reality is that it intrudes itself upon you; you can only hold it at bay so long, and it will go right on operating around you even while you do your best to deny it. This is exactly why science, religion, and good art are so enduring: they’re rooted in the real world and not merely in what we’d like the world to be.

So then, precision, the commitment to recognize facts however much we dislike them (and, indeed, admitting our dislike of this or that fact is a part of precision, since we ourselves are facts): I take this to be the basis on which courtesy is built. In my next, I’ll analyze its first two consequences, magnanimity and irony.

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1It should be, but isn’t, unnecessary to point out that being scholarly and being intelligent are not at all the same thing.
2Oscar Wilde, The Ballad of Reading Gaol I.37-42.