Thursday, April 10, 2014

Stephen Colbert and the Death of Protestant America

Stephen Colbert, 2007
(Photo: David Shankbone)
Certain events, small in themselves, can serve as cultural bellwethers, pointing to the direction that the culture is going as a whole. Two years ago, we saw one of these in the replacement of the Supreme Court's last Protestant, Justice David Souter (an Episcopalian), with Justice Sonia Sotomayor (a Catholic). Since that time, the Supreme Court has been made up of six Catholics and three Jews, with no Protestants. At the time, I asked whether this signalled the twilight of Protestant America.

Support for that theory was not slow in coming. Over the course of 2012,Mitt Romney, a Mormon, won the GOP primary, beating out Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, both Catholics. Romney then chose Paul Ryan, a Catholic, as his vice president. He then lost to Obama, a Protestant with a Catholic vice president. Perhaps most remarkable about all of this was that it was almost unremarked-upon.

Today, I think that we're seeing another of these bellwethers. Late-night host David Letterman recently announced his retirement: his ratings have not been faring well in the face of two new rivals, Jimmy Kimmel and now Jimmy Fallon. Today, CBS announced his replacement: Stephen Colbert. Deacon Greg Kandra was quick to point out one reason that this was significant, with the headline: “The Catholic takeover of late night TV is complete.” Letterman was the Protestant hold-out in late night. Once Colbert replaces him, networks will be hosted by Catholics.

What we're seeing is not necessarily a resurgence of Catholicism, at least in any meaningful sense. Not all of the people we're talking about here are model (or even practicing) Catholics, by any stretch. Rather, we're witnessing the collapse of Protestantism. That's born out by the data, as this 2012 Pew report shows:


In late 2012, Pew reported for the first time that a minority of Americans polled (48%) still considered themselves Protestants. Catholicism is gaining relative to Protestantism simply because we're treading water, while they're drowning. This is particularly true of liberal and “mainline” Protestantism, which is simply collapsing (I've heard Evangelicals derisively refer to the mainliners as “sideline” Protestants, and that's increasingly the reality).

Meanwhile, it's irreligion, not Catholicism, that's on the rise. As the Pew report (and subsequent NY Times coverage) point out, most of these religious unaffiliated people still believe in God. It's not so much God that people have given up on, but religion. Part of this is a trend towards social alienation: one ironic result of technology is that we're lonelier than we used to be, more alienated from our friends and neighbors. The natural social cohesion that holds a congregation together is increasingly lacking. But whatever the cause(s), this is a reality that I think all of us, regardless of religious affiliation, have to take seriously. As I said back in 2012:
In a talk he gave this summer, Cardinal George said that he was much less worried about Protestant America, and much more worried about post-Protestant America. I think we're going to have to start thinking much more seriously about just what this entails, because America's post-Protestantism is descending upon us rapidly. 
These trends aren't showing any signs of changing, but the future's not set in stone. For those of us who take religion seriously, and view it as a tremendous good for souls and societies, these statistics are an important diagnostic tool. We've seen the bad news. How shall we respond, we who know the Good News?

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Help Fund a Nun!

My friend Mary Beth Baker is entering the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecila, better known as the Nashville Dominicans. It's a good example of God's sense of humor, since she's been running a blog about life as a single Catholic girl in D.C. for some time now. She's actually the second of my friends to enter the order, but there's a hold-up: she's got about $25,000 in student loans to pay off.

I asked her if she would write an introduction so that I could share her story with you readers, to see if any of you felt called to help her. She's got an inspiring, and she's a good friend of the blog: in fact, she's been my editor for the book that I'm working on (work that she's been doing for free, by the way). So without further ado, here's a link to help, here's a story on ABC News written about her, and here's the introduction that she wrote at my request:
Mary Beth Baker
My name is Mary Beth Baker, and I have just been accepted as a postulant with the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia in Nashville, Tennessee, to enter this August. It's been a challenging, terrifying, beautiful year of discernment, and I am eager to answer the call and enter the convent this summer--to step out of the boat without fear and see what Christ has in store.

Pursuing a religious vocation as a 28-year-old professional has definitely taken me by surprise. After a pretty serious bout of discernment in late high school and early college, I put the whole thing behind me and thought I would get married and raise a family. I come from a great Catholic family myself, the oldest child of seven in a large military family. For the past four years I've even kept a blog about living the single life well as preparation for marriage, called "Life in the Gap," focused on the daily ins and outs of being single and trying to live the present moment well. I have to chuckle at the way God surprises us -- his plans far outdo anything I could have come up with for myself.

But it took me a long time to figure that out. I've enjoyed a rewarding career as an editor and writer, and for several years I was happy to focus on my work and let my vocation work itself out in its own time. I remember when I first decided to major in philosophy at Christendom College, one relative quipped, "So you won't have a job, but you'll know why." I was bent on proving him wrong. And I've had a wonderful career, working my way through the ranks at a conservative book publisher, rubbing elbows with well-known authors and making sure no embarrassing typos or comma splices detracted from their notoriety. I left that job for a newspaper's opinion page, where I fielded op-ed submissions, developed story ideas, tracked down writers to discuss news-of-the-day, and even helped launch a new feature for the page focused on young professionals. I left newspaper for the "dark side" of PR about a year ago, and now work with several C-level professionals to hone their writing, fine-tune their message, and share their expertise with the public, on everything from policy to social commentary. It's been an exciting and rewarding field, but about two years ago I became aware of a growing restlessness. I needed something more in my life, but I wasn't sure what that something was.

It was around this time last year that I asked God to "turn my life on its head." I realized I had gotten comfortable with singlehood, comfortable with my own selfishness, comfortable in a life lived not for others, but for myself. Whatever my vocation was, I knew I needed to ask God to show me in a concrete way and give me the courage to chase it. I needed to be shaken out of my complacency. My discernment journey began in that moment, helped by a number of factors in my work that forced me to realize a career, while it can be rewarding, can never fulfill a person. We're made to love and to be loved, and work can only satisfy so much.

Once I started discerning in earnest, there was never any question about which order I should look into first. I've been in love with the Dominicans for a long, long time, with their deep intellectual tradition, their rich monasticism, and especially their devotion to the Blessed Mother. Throughout my life I've been inspired and helped along by Dominican saints, from St. Rose of Lima (my first book report project in 1st grade), to St. Martin de Porres (my Confirmation saint), to St. Thomas Aquinas (the main focus of my studies at Christendom). From my very first visit there, the convent of St. Cecelia in Nashville felt like home. I love the sisters' ever-apparent joy, the liturgy they sing together three times daily, the beautiful blend of silence, teaching apostolate, and community life. More than anything, I love the order's complete focus on Christ. The moment you walk into their house, the first thing they say is, "Let's go to the chapel." He is their source and center, and it overflows into everything else they do.

I long to seek Him with that undivided heart. In order to do that, though, I have to pay off my remaining student loan debt. Despite six years of working and paying them down, I still have a ways to go. So I am asking that you prayerfully consider donating whatever you can to help me pay off my remaining balance and enter the postulancy in August. I've launched a website to facilitate the process, as well as a Facebook page.

As we approach the canonization of Blessed John Paul II, I'm daily reminded of his constant refrain throughout his papacy: "Do not be afraid. Open wide the doors for Christ." Fear grows in us when we think we have control over our own journey. It's only when we let go, open the doors, and let him work in us unhindered that he can make something really beautiful out of our lives. I pray that all of us will be open to his call, and I thank you in advance for anything you can do to help me answer it. Even if you can't give yourself, please share my story with your own networks and let them know about my fundraising page. More than anything, I ask for your prayers. You can count on mine.
There you have it. I hope that you can help her out in some way: financially, and especially spiritually. She's about to embark on a major life change and I'm sure she can use all the prayers she can get. And if you're not familiar with the Nashville Dominicans, check them out: they're an amazing order of women doing tremendous good within the Church.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Rwanda and Forgiveness, Twenty Years On

The skull, Rosary, and belongings of a genocide victim,
Genocide Memorial Center, Kigali, Rwanda.
Twenty years ago today, the unthinkable occurred: a post-Holocaust genocide. On April 7th, 1994, in the east African nation of Rwanda, militant Hutus began a 100-day of terror, slaughtering countless Tutsis, along with Twa (Rwandan pygmies) and moderate Hutus. All told, an estimated 500,000-1,000,000 Rwandans were murdered, including upwards of 70% of the Tutsis living in Rwanda at the time. Here are three must-reads for anyone seeking to understand why this happened, and how to respond to it.

I. We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families

I highly recommend Philip Gourevitch's 1998 book We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda. Written just a few years after the genocide, it includes interviews with many of the people who lived through it. The first half of the book focuses on individual stories about the genocide. Several of these accounts were brought to screen in the 2004 film Hotel Rwanda. The second half of the book asks important questions about the appropriate role of humanitarian intervention in international affairs.

Gourevitch is particularly critical of those who could have stopped the genocide, but didn't. In particular, he points a finger at the United Nations (which sent armed troops who watched the genocide occur, while doing nothing), the United States (which did nothing), and France (which is alleged to have favored the French-speaking Hutus, at least in the beginning). He also exposes the wide range of reactions among Catholic clergy: from heroic priests who denounced the massacre and/or helped to hide Tutsis, to those who did nothing, to those (like the infamous Father Wenceslas Munyeshyaka) who are accused of assisting the genocidaires. His writing style is crystal clear, and packs a punch. For example, take this passage, from p. 148 of the hardcover edition, in which Gourevitch realizes why he never sees dogs in Rwanda:
Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady at Kabgayi,
one of the genocide sites.
I made inquiries, and I learned that right through the genocide dogs had been plentiful in Rwanda. The words people used to describe the dog population back then were “many” and “normal.” But as the RPF [the Rwandan Patriotic Front, the largely-Tutsi militia that successfully defeated the Hutu genocidaires] had advanced through the country, moving down from the northeast, they had shot all the dogs.

What did the RPF have against dogs? Everyone I asked gave the same answer: the dogs were eating the dead. “It's on film,” someone told me, and I have since seen more Rwandan dogs on video monitors than I ever saw in Rwanda - crouched in the distinctive red dirt of the country, over the distinctive body piles of that time, in the distinctive feeding position of their kind.

I was told about an Englishwoman from a medical relief organization who got very upset when she saw RPF men shooting the dogs that were feeding off a hallful of corpses at the great cathedral center and bishropic of Kabgayi, which had served as a death camp in central Rwanda. “You can't shoot dogs,” the Englishwoman told the soldiers. She was wrong. Even the blue-helmeted soldiers of UNAMIR [United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda] were shooting dogs on sight in the late summer of 1994. After months, during which Rwandans had been left to wonder whether the UN troops knew how to shoot, because they never used their excellent weapons to stop the extermination of civilians, it turned out that the peacekeepers were very good shots.

The book also makes brief mention of the fact that the Virgin Mary warned of the coming genocide in a series of well-documented apparitions at Kibeho in the 1980s. From page 79:
A hill called Kibeho, which stands near the center of Rwanda, became famous in the 1980s as a place where the Virgin Mary had the habit of appearing and addressing local visionaries. In Rwanda - the most Christianized country in Africa, where at least sixty-five percent of the population were Catholics and fifteen percent were Protestants - the Kibeho visionaries quickly attracted a strong following. [....] These young women had much to report from their colloquies with the Virgin, but among the Marian messages that made the strongest popular impression was the repeated assertion that Rwanda would, before long, be bathed in blood. “There were message announcing woe for Rwanda,” Monsignor Augustin Misago, who was a member of the Church commission on Kibeho, told me. “Visions of the crying Virgin, visions of people killing with machetes, of hills covered with corpses.”
Later, during the genocide, Hutu genocidaires would release false apparitions seeking to condone their horrific actions.

The book is not without its shortcoming. Gourevitch, at times, seems naively optimistic about the goodness of the RPF, and the prospects of humanitarian intervention. I would like to see how he would write the book if he were writing it today, in the aftermath of the Iraq war. Nevertheless, We Wish to Tell You is a good book, and an important one.

II. Left to Tell

On my own “need to read” list is Immaculée Ilibagiza's Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust, the autobiography of a Tutsi woman, and her struggle to forgive the friends and neighbors who tried to kill her, as well as her struggles with God. My archbishop, Archbishop Joseph Naumann, has referenced the book in a few of his homilies, and it sounds powerful. Ilibagiza spent 91 days along with several other women, hiding in the tiny bathroom of a local pastor to avoid hundreds of Hutus seeking to kill them.  Ilibagiza wrote a follow-up to this book as well, entitled Led By Faith: Rising from the Ashes of the Rwandan Genocide

In addition, she has written Our Lady of Kibeho: Mary Speaks to the World from the Heart of Africa. In the latter of these, she fills in details that Gourevitch omits: namely, that Jesus and Mary, in the apparitions at Kibeho, had entreated the Rwandans to open their hearts to God, and not to resort to genocide... thirteen years before the genocide occurred.

III. Portraits of Reconciliation

Finally, also on the subject of forgiveness, the New York Times has a beautiful photo series by Pieter Hugo and Susan Dominus documenting the reconciliation process, particularly highlighting some of the success stories facilitated by AMI (Association Modeste et Innocent):

On the left is François Sinzikiramuka, a perpetrator of the genocide. On the right is Christophe Karorero, a survivor. The series shows how these men, and numerous other peoples, achieved reconciliation (and even, in some cases, friendship) after the genocide. Along with the photos, the series includes statements from both perpetrators and survivors about the process of seeking (or offering) forgiveness, and the effects that forgiveness have had on their lives. It's quite moving.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Four Surprising Facts About John Calvin and the "Apocrypha"

One of the major issues dividing Catholics and Protestants is the Bible. Catholic Bibles have seven Books that Protestants reject: Protestants call these Books “the Apocrypha,” while Catholics call them “the Deuterocanon.” This dispute matters, because it's hard to agree on what Scripture says if we can't even agree on what Scripture is, on which Books are Scripture.

Here are four facts that may surprise you about the Protestant Reformer John Calvin's view of the Deuterocanon, and might cause you to reconsider your views:

I. Calvin Implicitly Concedes that the Deuterocanon Supports Catholic Teachings.

Peter Paul Rubens,
The Triumph of Judas Maccabeus (1635)
After the Council of Trent, Calvin wrote what he a response to the Council that he called the “Antidote.” The Fourth Session of the Council of Trent discussed the canon, and listed all of the Books of the Catholic Bible, including the Deuterocanon. Calvin, in his response, said:
Add to this, that they provide themselves with new supports when they give full authority to the Apocryphal books. Out of the second of the Maccabees they will prove Purgatory and the worship of saints; out of Tobit satisfactions, exorcisms, and what not. From Ecclesiasticus they will borrow not a little. For from whence could they better draw their dregs?
This is supposed to be an argument against the Deuterocanon, suggesting that the Catholics are acting in bad faith in declaring these Books canonical.* But stop and think about three facts.

First, this means that if Catholics are right about the Deuterocanon, then we're also right about Purgatory, praying to (not worshipping) the Saints, exorcisms, and so on. That's pretty huge.

Second, this means that these doctrines date back to before the birth of Christ. While there are always disputes as to the exact dating of specific Books, nobody questions that these disputed Books pre-date Christianity. So Calvin has already shown that Purgatory, veneration of the Saints, etc., are beliefs that are more than two thousand years old.

Third, this concession is extremely significant when you consider that none of the Church Fathers considered the Deuterocanon heretical. Not all of the Fathers considered the Books canonical, but none of them considered them heretical.

Bear these points in mind as we continue.

II. Calvin Admits that Some Church Fathers Held the Same View as Trent

Another significant admission that Calvin makes is that his favorite Church Father, St. Augustine, held the exact same view that he's criticizing the Council of Trent for teaching:
I am not, however, unaware that the same view on which the Fathers of Trent now insist was held in the Council of Carthage. The same, too, was followed by Augustine in his Treatise on Christian Doctrine; but as he testifies that all of his age did not take the same view, let us assume that the point was then undecided. But if it were to be decided by arguments drawn from the case itself, many things beside the phraseology would show that those Books which the Fathers of Trent raise so high must sink to a lower place. Not to mention other things, whoever it was that wrote the history of the Maccabees expresses a wish, at the end, that he may have written well and congruously; but if not:, he asks pardon. How very alien this acknowledgment from the majesty of the Holy Spirit!
In other words, Calvin acknowledges that both St. Augustine and the Council of Carthage in 397 A.D. took the same position on the Deuterocanon that the Council of Trent did.

Calvin proceeds to use the end of 2 Maccabees as a proof-text against the Book's inspiration (and perhaps, against the inspiration of the Deuterocanon). It's a weak argument. The line he's referring to is from 2 Maccabees 15:37b-38: “So I too will here end my story. If it is well told and to the point, that is what I myself desired; if it is poorly done and mediocre, that was the best I could do.

Calvin claims that this humility is alien to the majesty of the Holy Spirit. Even on face, that's a bad argument, but it's especially so for anyone who has read 2 Peter 3:15-16, in which Peter says that some parts of Paul's Epistles are “hard to understand.” The Holy Spirit inspired both Peter and Paul, and it wasn't alien to His majesty to acknowledge that some parts of Paul's writings are confusing. The author of 2 Maccabees doesn't even go that far.

III. Calvin Recognizes that the Deuterocanonical Books Belong in the Church.

Master of Parral, St. Jerome in the Scriptorium (1490)
Here, we move to a point that I imagine many Protestants will find surprising: despite everything we've just seen (and everything that's happened in Protestantism over the last five hundred years), Calvin didn't reject the Deuterocanonical Books entirely:
I am not one of those, however, who would entirely disapprove the reading of those books; but in giving them in authority which they never before possessed, what end was sought but just to have the use of spurious paint in coloring their errors?
So already, Calvin is taking a position that's more Catholic than the position of most Protestants today. He explains his position a bit later in the Antidote:
Of their admitting all the Books promiscuously into the Canon, I say nothing more than it is done against the consent of the primitive Church. It is well known what Jerome states as the common opinion of earlier times. And Ruffinus, speaking of the matter as not at all controverted, declares with Jerome that Ecclesiasticus, the Wisdom of Solomon, Tobit, Judith, and the history of the Maccabees, were called by the Fathers not canonical but ecclesiastical books, which might indeed be read to the people, but were not entitled to establish doctrine.
As a matter of historical fact, Jerome and Rufinus weren't speaking for the “common opinion of earlier times.” You won't find a single Church Father advocating the Protestant canon before those two men in the fourth century.

But it gets more interesting, because there's a significant omission: Calvin says that he joins Jerome and Rufinus in rejecting the canonical status of Ecclesiasticus (Sirach), Wisdom, Tobit, Judith, and 1 and 2 Maccabees. That's six of the seven Books in dispute. The other one is Baruch, which both Jerome and Rufinus accepted.

But it gets better, because as we're about to see, Calvin actually quoted Baruch as Scripture:

IV. Calvin Actually Quotes the Deuterocanon as Scripture

Baruch, Servite Church, Vienna (18th c.)
In his commentary on 1 Corinthians 10:19-24, Calvin seeks to explain St. Paul's use of the word “demons” in 1 Cor. 10:20. Here's what he says:
Some, however, understand the term demons here as meaning the imaginary deities of the Gentiles, agreeably to their common way of speaking of them; for when they speak of demons they meant inferior deities, as, for example, heroes, and thus the term was taken in a good sense. Plato, in a variety of instances, employs the term to denote genii, or angels. That meaning, however, would be quite foreign to Paul’s design, for his object is to show that it is no light offense to have to do with actions that have any appearance of putting honor upon idols. Hence it suited his purpose, not to extenuate, but rather to magnify the impiety that is involved in it. How absurd, then, it would have been to select an honorable term to denote the most heinous wickedness! 
It is certain from the Prophet Baruch, (4:7,) that “those things that are sacrificed to idols are sacrificed to devils” (Deuteronomy 32:17; Psalm 96:5.) In that passage in the writings of the Prophet, the Greek translation, which was at that time in common use, has δαιμόνια — demons, and this is its common use in Scripture. How much more likely is it then, that Paul borrowed what he says from the Prophet, to express the enormity of the evil, than that, speaking after the manner of the heathen, he extenuated what he was desirous to hold up to utter execration!
So Calvin (a) acknowledges that Baruch was a prophet, (b) cites Baruch as Scripture, and (c) suggests that 1 Corinthians 10:19-24 borrows from Baruch 4. All in all, it's pretty ringing endorsement for Baruch's canonicity, and shows that Calvin seems to have treated at least this one Deuterocanonical Book as sufficient for establishing doctrine.


So there we have it. John Calvin:
  1. Admitted the Deuterocanon teaches Purgatory, veneration of the Saints, exorcisms, and other doctrines denied by Protestants;

  2. Admitted that the Deuterocanon was considered canonical by many of the Fathers, including Augustine and the Council of Florence;

  3. Admitted that the Deuterocanon should be read in the Church; and

  4. Quoted part of the Deuterocanon as Scripture.
Given this, does anyone reading this still think that Protestants got this one right?

*Contrary to Calvin's claim that these Books were added after the Reformation, the Catholic, Orthodox, and Coptic Churches had previously declared these Books as canonical back at the Council of Florence (1438-1449). And as he admits, the Council of Carthage had declared them canonical by in the fourth century, and we have plenty of evidence of their use in the early Church. More on that here, here, and here.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Moral Relativism, Conscience, and G.E.M. Anscombe

What should we make of the idea that there's no such thing as objective morality: that morals are just determined by cultures, or by individuals? That's at the heart of a question that I address in the essay below. It's taken from a draft of a midterm that I wrote dealing with moral relativism -- more specifically, the cultural relativism advocated by Ruth Benedict, who claimed that “good” and “evil” are socially determined.

In the paper I argue against Benedict's cultural relativism, in favor of the moral absolutism advocated by the British Catholic analytical philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe:

Moral Relativism, Conscience, and G.E.M. Anscombe 

One of the most pernicious developments in contemporary philosophy is the rise of a moral relativism that rejects the existence of any absolute, universal moral claims. In a real way, it is diametrically opposed to the moral absolutism of the twentieth century philosopher G.E.M. Anscombe. Nevertheless, the two antipodes each reveal an important dimension of the social role of conscience-forming. This paper will proceed by considering the appeal of, and arguments for moral relativism; the arguments against moral relativism; and the interplay between moral relativism and Anscombe's moral philosophy on the question of conscience.

I. The Appeal of Moral Relativism

Melanesian Seafaring, Fiji (1842)
The rise of moral relativism is closely related to the process of globalization. In earlier times, when individuals were exposed primarily or exclusively to their own cultures, it was easy to imagine that one's culture's morals simply reflected morality. The spread of Christianity throughout Europe (and Islam throughout much of the rest of the world) had a similarly homogenizing effect on morality: pagan mores gave way to an Abrahamic moral code that held largely intact from one nation to another. What was immoral in France was likely immoral in Scotland, Spain, and Switzerland as well. This moral uniformity lent itself strongly to the suggestion that these mores reflected the natural law, that these were objective rules of morality existing apart from any particular culture.

As Christianity's influence on European and North American culture waned, this uniformity began to break down. Simultaneously, anthropologists, sociologists, and historians began to examine cultures with moral systems dramatically distinct from, and even diametrically opposed to, Christian culture. For example, anthropologist Ruth Benedict argues against moral objectivity by telling stories about the (allegedly) paranoid and violent culture on Dobu island in northwest Melanesia, a culture that she described as treating violence as acceptable, while ostracizing the kind and helpful.1 In the light of these alien moral codes, what had once looked like common-sense moral rules reflecting a universal human consensus now appeared to be arbitrary social conventions. The cultural relativist argues on this basis that the notion of an objective and transcultural morality is illusory.

Instead, the argument goes, we must learn to value tolerance, since to insist upon Christian morality would be an arrogant imposition of our own culture. Certainly, the morals on Dobu seem barbaric and evil, but Benedict argues that “the very eyes with which we see the problem are conditioned by the long traditional habits of our own society.”2 That is, we see Dobu morality as wicked because we approach it with Western eyes. They would likewise see Western morality as wicked, given their own cultural formation.

II. The Problem with Moral Relativism

Without question, G.E.M. Anscombe, whose adherence to moral absolutism is well-established, would reject moral relativism of this sort. Francis J. Beckwith gives several reasons why in answering the above line of argumentation. First, this cultural relativism conflates preference-claims with moral-claims, so that “killing people without justification is wrong” is treated as a merely subjective preference, like “I like vanilla ice cream.”3 Second, relativism is premised off of the idea that, since cultures cannot agree on what objective morality is, there must be no objective morality. Logically, the conclusion does not hold: the people of Dobu might have cosmological and scientific beliefs radically at odds with Western cosmology and science, but we would not rationally conclude that, therefore, there must be no objective cosmology or science. Worse, if the mere existence of disagreement means that the belief is not objectively true, then the disagreement over cultural relativism disproves it.4 Third, the cultural relativists typically exaggerate the disagreements between cultures, and ignore underlying commonalities between moral codes.

General Sir Charles James Napier (1849)
Additional problems with cultural relativism can be seen from the real-life encounter of General Sir Charles James Napier, British Commander-in-Chief in India from 1849 to 1851, with certain Hindu priests. The priests were protesting the British ban on Sati, the practice of burning a widow alive on her husband's funeral pyre. They argued that Sati “was a religious rite which must not be meddled with,” and “that all nations had customs which should be respected and this was a very sacred one.”5 Napier responded:
Be it so. This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pyre. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to national customs.”6
Napier's response highlights several problems facing cultural relativism. Where cultures clash, whose moral code should triumph? For the British to “tolerate” Sati would involve violating their own moral codes. For that matter, whose morals should triumph within a particular culture? Should the Indian brides simply “tolerate” being thrown into the flames against their wills because of popular morality? Or should cultural morality simply be decided by the powerful imposing their will - be that the Indians forcing brides onto the pyre, or the British forcing them to stop? Quickly, this devolves into pure Nietzschean will to power.

As Beckwith notes, “cultural relativism is making an absolute and universal moral claim, namely, that everyone is morally obligated to follow the moral norms of his or her own culture.”7 This is problematic, both in that it is self-refuting (since the crux of cultural relativism is the rejection of such absolute an universal moral claims) and that it would eliminate any possible social progress, since no one could upset the moral norms of his or her own culture. For that matter, the whole notion of social progress would have to be rejected, since “progress” implies some comparison of a culture to an external standard of some kind.8

III. Moral Relativism and the Problem of Conscience

Albert Anker, Writing Classes (1865)
That moral relativism cannot be endorsed in toto does not mean that it is entirely without merit. Take, for instance, this claim by Ruth Benedict:
The concept of the normal is properly a variant of the concept of the good. It is that which society has approved. A normal action is one which falls well within the limits of expected behavior for a particular society. Its variability among different peoples is essentially a function of the variability of the behavior patterns that different societies have created for themselves, and can never be wholly divorced from a consideration of cultural institutionalized types of behavior.9
As a description of the good, this account is inadequate, for the reasons discussed above. However, as a description of the influence of societies in the formation of individual consciences, it highlights a real phenomenon. In Anscombe's words, “it belongs to the natural history of man that he has a moral environment,” such that it is impossible to raise a child without this being the case.10 This moral environment includes the deliberate influence of the child's parents, but it also includes the society in which the child is raised. A child raised in the notoriously-violent Yąnomamö culture will be shaped differently than a child raised in a strictly-pacifistic Quaker community, and their approach towards moral reasoning will likely reflect this upbringing, at least initially. Benedict and the cultural relativists are right, therefore, to see culture as playing an indispensable role in the formation of individual consciences.

In fact, Anscombe and Benedict arrive at similar conclusions for the class of cases that Anscombe would describe as involving “invincible ignorance,” which she defines as “ignorance that the man himself could not overcome.”11 Thus, if Abner has been taught of a certain affirmative duty, and Charles has never been taught about this (and has no reason to suspect its existence), Abner is morally responsible for his failure to perform the duty, while Charles is not. For Benedict, this distinction would be explained by reference to the differing cultural norms facing Abner and Charles. For Anscombe, it would be explained by reference to Charles' invincible ignorance. Nevertheless, the conclusion would reached along somewhat similar lines: because the two men received different moral instructions, they are held to differing standards.

Albert Anker, Writing Boy (1883)
Here, the agreement between Anscombe and Benedict ceases. In two major areas, they would decisively part company on the question of conscience. The first is on the relationship of social moral pedagogy to objective morality. Benedict viewed it as disproving the existence of objective morality, at least in any transcultural sense: that is, because cultures indoctrinate in differing, and even contrary ways, there can be no binding transcultural morality. Anscombe would disagree, holding that some societies are simply better or worse at moral formation, just as some parents are. Both parents and the culture possess a certain moral authority in the upbringing of children, yet Anscombe noted that this authority “is not accompanied by any guarantee that someone exercising it will be right in what he teaches.”12 Acculturation and indoctrination must therefore be compared to an external standard of objective morality. Accordingly, we can affirm that some parents or cultures create a moral environment suitable for raising virtuous individuals, while others fail to do so, or succeed in creating viscous persons.

The second area of disagreement between Anscombe and Benedict on the question of conscience involves the degree to which the individual's socially formation is fixed. Certainly, Benedict speaks of cultural morality as a static thing: an individual believes such-and-such because these are the values of his culture. As Beckwith notes, the rigidity of such a view leaves no room for moral reformers like the leaders of the Civil Rights movement.13 Nor does it seem to leave room for individuals like Benedict herself, whose belief in cultural relativism was a radical break from her native culture's moral outlook. Anscombe rightly rejects Benedict's rigid view, holding instead that an individual may move closer to (or further from) objective morality throughout his life. She describes the context in which children come to reject their parents' moral authority; the same is surely true of societies.14 Individuals need not live out their entire lives blindly accepting a particular thing as true simply because society says so.

These two points prove to be crucial. Because conscience can be malformed, the individual may face a genuine moral perplexus in which every course of action is morally wrong:
If you act against your conscience you are doing wrong because you are doing what you think wrong, i.e. you are willing to do wrong. And if you act in accordance with your conscience you are whatever is the wrong that your conscience allows, or failing to carry out the obligation that your conscience says is none.15
This moral perplexus is only comprehensible in light of the fact that relativism is wrong. We would otherwise have to affirm that “there's no such thing as false conscience. Conscience is conscience and infallibly tells you what is right and what is wrong. So conscience always binds, or else legitimately leaves you morally free to do or not do.”16

So, having rejected moral relativism, we are left facing a moral perplexus. Here, it is important that Benedict was mistaken to view socially-formed conscience as static or fixed. It is precisely in the ability of the conscience to be formed, even in adulthood, that Anscombe finds a solution to the perplexus, saying: “There is a way out, but you have to know that you need one and it may well take time. The way out is to f­ind out that your conscience is a wrong one.”17 That is, the long-term solution to the perplexus problem is to repair the damage inflicted upon your conscience, whether that damage was self-inflicted, or the result of a bad moral environment.

IV. Conclusion

A major part of the appeal of moral relativism is that it tells a half-truth: culture really does influence the way that individuals approach morality. A proper moral environment is invaluable, if not indispensable. But this reality does not point to the absence of objective morality. Rather, as Anscombe shows, it points to the need of properly forming one's conscience, and ensuring a healthy moral environment for the rearing of children. To fail to take these steps risks placing you or your children in a moral perplexus, in which every possible action is morally wrong.

Footnotes (Now Endnotes)
  1. Ruth Benedict, “A Defense of Moral Relativism,” in Do the Right Thing: Readings in Applied Ethics and Social Philosophy, 2nd Edition, ed. Francis J. Beckwith (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thompson Learning, 2002), 9.
  2. Id. at 6.
  3. Francis J. Beckwith, “A Critique of Moral Relativism,” in Do the Right Thing: Readings in Applied Ethics and Social Philosophy, 2nd Edition, ed. Francis J. Beckwith (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thompson Learning, 2002), 13.
  4. Id.
  5. William Napier, History of General Sir Charles Napier's Administration of Scinde (London: Chapman and Hall, 1851), 35.
  6. Id.
  7. Beckwith, “A Critique of Moral Relativism,” 17.
  8. Id.
  9. Benedict, “A Defense of Moral Relativism,” 10.
  10. G.E.M. Anscombe, “The Moral Environment of the Child,” in Faith in a Hard Ground, ed. Mary Geach and Luke Gormally (Charlottesville, VA: Imprint Academic, 2008), 224.
  11. G.E.M. Anscombe, “On Being in Good Faith,” in Faith in a Hard Ground, ed. Mary Geach and Luke Gormally (Charlottesville, VA: Imprint Academic, 2008), 111.
  12. G.E.M. Anscombe, “Authority in Morals,” in Faith in a Hard Ground, ed. Mary Geach and Luke Gormally (Charlottesville, VA: Imprint Academic, 2008), 93.
  13. Beckwith, “A Critique of Moral Relativism,” 17. 
  14. Anscombe, “Authority in Morals,” 94. 
  15. G.E.M. Anscombe, “Must One Obey One's Conscience?,” in Human Life, Action and Ethics, ed. Mary Geach and Luke Gormally (Charlottesville, VA: Imprint Academic, 2005), 241. 
  16. Id. at 239. 
  17. Id. at 241.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Two Liturgical Rules I Wish Everyone Would Follow

There are lots of fights over the way that the Mass is celebrated, and about liturgical beauty more broadly. I think it would help to bear in mind two rules, both of which are borne out a simple reality: the Mass is the place in which we encounter Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. With that truth in mind, here are the two rules. They're simple, really:

Liturgical Rule #1: Jesus is Present at the Mass, so it should be as beautiful as possible.

Israhel van Meckenem, The Mass of Saint Gregory (1515)
The Mass isn't about my self-expression, or yours, or the priest's or the cantor's or the choir's. It's about encountering Jesus Christ, in the fullness of His Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. It's about uniting my prayers, sacrifices and struggles to His eternal Sacrifice, so that He can offer it all up as an oblation to the Father. It's about giving Him even my sins, so that He can refine my soul in the fires of His Mercy. If I'm in a state of grace, it's even about communing with Jesus Christ, the highest act of man this side of Heaven. The Eucharist is the “source and summit” of the Christian life. Everything else flows from the Eucharist, and points towards the Eucharist.

Communing with Jesus Christ is the most amazing thing that you'll ever do, period. And the externals should reflect that significance. I think that many (admittedly, not all) brides-to-be recognize this truth when it comes to their wedding: they're about to enter into a lifelong union with their fiancees, and they want the external beauty to reflect this. How much more when we're uniting, not with our spouse-to-be, but with the Divine Bridegroom, Jesus Christ Himself? Jesus actually uses just this imagery in Matthew 22:1-14, in which He compares the Kingdom of Heaven to a wedding banquet, and describes the need to come attired in the appropriate “wedding garment” (Mt. 22:11-12).

There's a good reason that the Old Testament has lots of instructions, given by God Himself, for proper worship: He governs everything from the architecture, to the vestments, to the music. He's not apathetic about these things. At the risk of sounding cheesy, we should offer God the best that we've got, because He's the best we've got.

All of this is complicated, of course, because tastes vary. Let me put this more bluntly: all of this is complicated because some people have bad taste, or they have bad theology. Often, people either fail to make the Mass what it should be, aesthetically, or succeed in making the Mass something that it shouldn't be. Sometimes, it's simply because people making important decisions don't think with the mind of the Church about the focal point of the Liturgy: making it about us (either corporately, or certain “performers”) rather than about Him. Other times, it's more subtle than that. Perhaps they think that they can sing, and can't; perhaps they like a style of art or music that isn't objectively beautiful (or perhaps they fall into the modern trap of believing that there's no such thing as objective beauty), etc. Fortunately, the Church has developed guidelines governing all of these areas. If we listen to the Bride of Christ, we have a surefire way of offering worship fitting the Bridegroom, Christ.

Liturgical Rule #2: If it's good enough for Jesus, it's good enough for me. 

Alessandro Allori, Christ with Mary and Martha (1603)
What I described in Rule #1 is the ideal, what we ought to see at every Mass. For a lot of reasons, that's not always what the Mass looks like. And that's why Rule #2 is important: it's easy to fall into griping and faultfinding when the Mass doesn't look like we want it to, or when it doesn't look like the Church wants it to (which are two different things). But as long as it's a valid Mass, Jesus Christ is there in the Eucharist. If the Mass is good enough for Him to show up, it's good enough for you. Don't set higher standards than God.

When we fault-find during Mass, we can easily become distracted: instead of focusing upon Jesus (the reason we're there), we're focused on the externals. But that misses the point, entirely, since the externals are meant to draw us towards Him. If we fixate on the externals of themselves, we're forgetting thatart is not an absolute end in itself, but is ordered to and ennobled by the ultimate end of man.” Consider Luke 10:38-42:
Now as they went on their way, he entered a village; and a woman named Martha received him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving; and she went to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.”
Martha understands Rule #1 well. She's welcoming Jesus into her home, so she wants it to be beautiful. She's right to do so. But she is so fixated on wishing that everything was just so that she's actually missing out on time she could be with Jesus.  She's not following Rule #2, and as a result, she's missing the point of Rule #1: to enhance our communion with Jesus Christ. How often do we become anxious and troubled about many things during Mass, or resentful of our sisters and brothers who we think should be doing more? That may be a sign that we're missing the one thing needful.

But it's worse than that. The wedding garment that Jesus is referring to in Matthew 22:11-12 isn't physical, but spiritual. When we harbor ugly thoughts towards others for how they're worshipping, we're adding ugliness to the Mass. That is, we're not just violating Rule #2. We're violating Rule #1, the very rule that we supposedly care about. In Luke 11:39, Christ condemns the Pharisees for their obsession with external cleanliness, while their hearts weren't cleansed. Let's not forget the highest forms of beauty (Ps. 51:16-17):
For thou hast no delight in sacrifice; were I to give a burnt offering, thou wouldst not be pleased. / The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise. 
Finally, remember that Jesus Christ is present at the Mass. A valid Mass can never be truly ugly, at least not completely. Remember that the Second Temple was externally inferior to the First Temple, to the extent that “many of the priests and Levites and heads of fathers’ households, the old men who had seen the first temple, wept with a loud voice when the foundation of this house was laid before their eyes” (Ezra 3:12). But God promised that “the latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former” (Haggai 2:9), that is, that the Second Temple was going to be more beautiful. This prophesy was fulfilled when Christ was presented in the Temple (Luke 2:22), and Malachi 3:1 was fulfilled. 

When Christ was carried into the Second Temple, it was forever ennobled in a way that the First Temple could never rival. Likewise, when the priest carries Christ in his hands at the Mass, the church is rendered more beautiful than anything man can make by his own skill.

So there it is. When it is within your power to make the externals of the Mass more beautiful, do so; when it isn't, ennoble the Liturgy by offering Him your heart. 

Beauty Draws Others to Christ

Bogorodica Trojeručica, an icon traditionally said
to have been written by or for St. John Damascene
(8th-14th century)
Last thoughts on beauty: it draws others into communion with Christ. Here's what the Catechism says about beauty, in discussing iconography:
1162 "The beauty of the images moves me to contemplation, as a meadow delights the eyes and subtly infuses the soul with the glory of God." Similarly, the contemplation of sacred icons, united with meditation on the Word of God and the singing of liturgical hymns, enters into the harmony of the signs of celebration so that the mystery celebrated is imprinted in the heart's memory and is then expressed in the new life of the faithful.
The starting quotation is from St. John Damascene's eighth-century Apologia Against Those Who Decry Holy Images, which (as you might suspect) has a lot to say about liturgical beauty, and particularly iconography.

But there's another quotation that I want to close on, from a surprising author:
We have still a thirst unquenchable, to allay which he has not shown us the crystal springs. This thirst belongs to the immortality of Man. It is at once a consequence and an indication of his perennial existence. It is the desire of the moth for the star. It is no mere appreciation of the Beauty before us, but a wild effort to reach the Beauty above. Inspired by an ecstatic prescience of the glories beyond the grave, we struggle by multiform combinations among the things and thoughts of Time to attain a portion of that Loveliness whose very elements perhaps appertain to eternity alone. And thus when by Poetry, or when by Music, the most entrancing of the poetic moods, we find ourselves melted into tears, we weep then, not as the Abbate Gravina supposes, through excess of pleasure, but through a certain petulant, impatient sorrow at our inability to grasp now, wholly, here on earth, at once and for ever, those divine and rapturous joys of which through the poem, or through the music, we attain to but brief and indeterminate glimpses.
Who said this? Edgar Allan Poe. I couldn't hope to say it any better.

Monday, March 24, 2014

From Pew Potato to Here: A More Personal Note

Joe Bollig wrote a very generous write-up of yours truly in this week's Leaven. It goes a bit more into personal back-story than I normally do around these parts, including the role of Fr. Andrew Strobl in saving my soul:
There was time in Heschmeyer’s life when you could have called him a “pew potato.”
Heschmeyer grew up across the state line in Missouri, but went to Bishop Miege High School in Roeland Park. During his freshman year, he was recruited for the debate team by an older friend, Andrew Strobl. Their parents were longtime friends, and the two boys had known each other their whole lives.
When Heschmeyer graduated in 2003, he followed Strobl to Washburn University in Topeka. Strobl, who turned out to be his dorm resident assistant, had meanwhile undergone a profound re-conversion to the Catholic faith.
Sometimes, on school breaks and weekends, they’d carpool to and from Topeka. During their 75-minute drives, Heschmeyer would pepper Strobl with questions.
Feel free to check it out. On a related note, feel free to add me on Facebook for a somewhat different experience. I often use Facebook as a sounding board for arguments that I haven't fully developed, or when I don't have enough to say to justify a full post. And while I'm getting all this personal stuff out of the way, let me take an opportunity to thank everyone who reads this blog, and everyone who comments on it. You folks make this blog a true joy, and I think that the level of discussion in the comments is enviable, both in that there tend to be really good questions, and the tone tends to be charitable. I've certainly learned a lot, and I hope you have as readers. God bless!