Salesian Quote of the Day

Here is St. Francis de Sales on how being inundated with a thousand small tasks is worse than one big one:

As flies trouble us, not by their strength but by their multitude, so affairs of importance give us not so much trouble as trifling ones when they are great in number. Undertake, then, all your affairs with a calm and peaceable mind, and endeavour to despatch them in order, one after another; for if you make an effort to do them all at once, or without order, your spirit will be so overcharged and depressed that it will probably lie down under the burden without effecting anything. (Introduction to the Devout Life III.10)

All I have to say to that is “Amen and amen.”

A foundation for private property

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (CSD) provides no genuine solace for either of the two economic poles we are offered as alternatives today: socialism and capitalism. It is easy — for a conservative — to find and give a great Huzzah to what the CSD has to say in condemnation of socialism, but it is surprisingly easy for these same folks to ignore, overlook, or explain away its criticisms of capitalism. In at least one sense this is somewhat understandable and even forgivable, given that the CSD affirms the Seventh Commandment and its implicit defense of the legitimacy of private property. Unfortunately, these same folks often ignore what the Compendium has to say about the necessary limits and regulation of capitalism, and even sometimes appeal to the “laws” of economics in defense of their rejection of the CSD’s critique of an unfettered capitalism. Still others will deny that today’s free market is free at all, and assert that a genuinely free market would not suffer from the moral defects present in our markets. But the Compendium really gives no solace nor refuge to these defenses, because it presents an alternative foundation for economic life. That rule is repeated over and over throughout the book.

the universal destination of goods: ‘God destined the earth and all it contains for all men and all peoples so that all created things would be shared fairly by all mankind under the guidance of justice tempered by charity’ (CSD §171, italics in original; boldface added).

The point to understand here is the definition of what the universal destination of goods actually is.

This principle is not opposed to the right to private property but indicates the need to regulate it. Private property, in fact, regardless of the concrete forms of the regulations and juridical norms relative to it, is in its essence only an instrument for respecting the principle of the universal destination of goods; in the final analysis, therefore, it is not an end but a means (CSD §177; emphasis added).

Private property, says the Compendium, is a means for achieving the end of the universal destination of goods. It must never be reckoned an end in itself. Part of what this means is implied in our first quotation above, from §171: the rights of private property must be tempered by charity. I do not have the right given to me by the Creator to accumulate as much of this world’s goods as I possibly can. I have the right to sufficient property to provide a decent living for myself. Beyond that, as the CSD quotes Pope St. Gregory the Great:

When we attend to the needs of those in want, we give them what is theirs, not ours. More than performing works of mercy, we are paying a debt of justice. (CSD §184)

In short, the right to private property does not give me the right to more than my family and I need for a decent living. The rest belongs by right to the poor. Now of course one may fairly ask: what is a “decent living”? But on the flip side one may also ask: does a decent living consist in living in mean huts, eating dirt (as they do in Haiti), and being subject to exposure, starvation, and pestilence?

The right to private property is subordinated to the principle of the universal destination of goods and must not constitute a reason for impeding the work or development of others (CSD §282).

I suppose it is worth observing the obvious fact that the criticisms here apply to me no less than to most folks in the fabulously wealthy West. The question is not whether they apply to me or not; the question is: how do I respond to these criticisms? If I have more than I need for a decent living (and I daresay that I do), what am I going to do about it? The CSD provides a foundation (and even somewhat of a framework, really; but we have not looked at that) for answering the question. My surplus belongs by right to the poor.

The question I still have, and for which I remember no answer in the CSD is: what exactly constitutes a decent living? I am perfectly willing to live within such parameters, but what are they? I am sure that in a certain sense the question answers itself, at least in part. Whatever a decent living is, it is undeniable that a simply huge number of people in the world do not have it. So perhaps at least a part of the answer to the question is a follow-up question: why on earth am I worrying about that when there are people EATING DIRT in order to survive? Am I a dirt eater? If not, then maybe I need to think about just exactly how my resources are allocated.

There he goes

My friend Jason is asking some tough questions about some Reformed articles of faith. The Reformed may brush him off, but I do not see how they can pretend his criticisms have no teeth. The very best that they can do by way of answer is either appeal to their hermeneutical tradition (which is question-begging) or appeal to letting Scripture interpret Scripture. But in one of his posts Jason does exactly that, and things do not turn out so well for the Reformed, I think. The very act of letting Scripture interpret Scripture is fraught with baggage that never goes through the X-ray machines at the airport, and never gets searched either. The assumption behind the act is that we let the “easy” parts of the Bible guide us in the interpretation of the “hard” parts. Unfortunately what I think is easy and obvious may be something that you find obscure (and vice versa). We do not have a guide book that tells us which parts of the Bible are the official “easy ones” and so any specific attempt at letting Scripture interpret Scripture ultimately boils down to one of two things: either it is purely ad hoc and no one has any principled basis for accepting it, or it is done in terms of a presupposed hermeneutical framework or tradition. But this latter alternative is question begging, for it assumes the legitimacy of the underlying tradition, and I have no inclination (nor any good reasons) for granting any of the various Protestant traditons the benefit of the doubt. So as I see it, Jason’s questions are genuine posers for the Reformed.

Peculiar perseverance

Romans 11:22-23 presents an interesting difficulty for the Reformed Protestant doctrine of perseverance, according to which it is impossible for the Elect to lose their salvation. Consider what St. Paul writes in Romans 11 about the People of God as an olive tree. The Jewish people are the cultivated tree; we Gentiles are branches from wild olive trees that have been grafted into the tree.

Remember God’s severity as well as his goodness: his severity to those who fell, and his goodness to you as long as you persevere in it; if not, you too will be cut off. And they, if they do not persevere in their unbelief, will be grafted in; for it is within the power of God to graft them back again. (NJB)

Here’s the thing: a person either is or isn’t grafted into that tree. If he is then he is obviously one of the Elect; if he isn’t, then he cannot be one of their number. It is flatly impossible (as well as more than a little nonsensical) to imagine God grafting wild branches into that tree with the plan of later snapping them off and destroying them. So to be grafted into that tree (or to be a part of it by nature, as believing Jews were and are) just is to be numbered among the Elect. A farmer isn’t about to waste time and energy grafting in branches while planning all the time to chop ’em off again later. The illustration just falls apart.

Now consider St. Paul’s words. God grafts branches in, and if they do not persevere then He cuts them off again. Meanwhile those who have been cut off already can be grafted back in if they repent. How then can one say with divine certitude in this life that his eternal home is assured? I do not see how it can be done in the face of what St. Paul writes here.

What about election? Does it not assure this very thing? Well, the problem with that appeal is that no one knows whether he is Elect (in the sense that he knows God has chosen him for eternal life in His eternal plan). We just don’t, and we can’t. Let us allow Scripture to interpret Scripture, shall we? Consider Deuteronomy 7, where Moses says to Israel:

Yahweh set his heart on you and chose you not because you were the most numerous of all peoples—for indeed you were the smallest of all—but because he loved you and meant to keep the oath which he swore to your ancestors: that was why Yahweh brought you out with his mighty hand and redeemed you from the place of slave-labour, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt. (Deut. 7:7-8, NJB)

God chose them: they were the Elect. Now, please note that Moses says this particularly about the generation who came out of Egypt: the ones who died in the desert. In short: here are God’s chosen people failing to persevere. Just the same as in St. Paul’s example of the olive tree. The Reformed Protestant notion of perseverance does not make sense of this biblical data. We can indeed fall away, and we must be careful to avoid that. On the other hand, God is able to graft us back in again too. If we fall away, we can also be restored.

The Baltimore Catechism on Faith

There is a short and sweet treatment of faith in the first Baltimore Catechism that throws into clear relief the difference between the Protestant and Catholic views of this virtue. It is found in question 321. First, remember that the Protestant view is a fiduciary one: it focuses upon trust, and specifically on trusting that one’s sins are forgiven by Christ plus nothing else. The Catholic rejoinder to that is that we must of course trust God, because God is infinitely trustworthy. So although the Church affirms the necessity of trusting God, faith is something quite different. The focus is on assent to the truth.

Q. How does a person sin against faith? A. A person sins against faith: 1st, by not trying to know what God has taught; 2d, by refusing to believe all that God has taught; 3d, by neglecting to profess his belief in what God has taught. (Baltimore Catechism I, question 321)

Although the BC states things negatively here, we may safely infer the obvious positives. Faith is belief in all that God has taught, with the concomitant duties of professing the faith when necessary and seeking to learn as best we can what it is that God has taught. The fundamental thing here is assenting to what God has said and/or taught, just because He said or taught it. There is an obvious presupposition as well, found in Hebrews 11:6:

Now it is impossible to please God without faith, since anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and rewards those who seek him. (NJB; emphasis added)

This seems rather obvious to me, but it reflects the Catholic view of faith rather better than the Protestant one, I think. Here we get an eagle’s eye view of what faith is: in sum, the one who has faith believes that God exists and rewards those who seek Him. This is the presupposition to what the BC says. You can’t have faith in God if you do not believe that He exists! This is just a sine qua non that anyone would readily acknowledge.

As an aside, this verse also contradicts the Reformed Protestant notion of total depravity, according to which it is impossible for us to please God, full stop, and that God does reward anyone for anything because that implies a merit which they also claim is impossible for us to have. But I digress.

Returning to the BC, it says that it is a sin to not try to know what God has taught. Why? Because such negligence implies either that we do not care what God has said (which is obviously wrong) or that we do not care to know the truth at all (whether divinely revealed or otherwise). This too is evil, because God made us intellectual beings for a reason. We are made to love and to seek to know the truth. There are some things that we cannot know unless God tells them to us; consequently we ought to believe Him when He speaks and hold to the truth wherever we may find it because doing so is fundamental to what it means to be human.

Another aspect of the way the BC phrases things is that we must try to know what God has taught. This important qualifier means that poor people without the means or ability to know what God has taught are not liable for something that is outside their control. A contrasting example which helps make this clear, I think, is that the Protestant view removes any room for hope for people who are incapable of trusting God because they lack the mental capacity. But Catholics affirm the same hope for such people as for anyone else because God does not require from us what we are incapable of doing. So we try to know what God has taught us as much as our condition in life allows us to do so.

Lastly, we are obliged to believe all that God has taught. Why? Because refusing to believe it is to deny that what He said is true, and that is to call God a liar. But God cannot lie. He is truth. I am not free to pick and choose what I will believe among all that God has taught. For starters this would be wildly arrogant of me: to believe that I know the truth better than God does!

Faith is more than mere fiduciary trust according to the Baltimore Catechism. This is a distinct difference of emphasis from what our Protestant brethren profess.

Genesis and Literalism

I have written about this subject before, and it came up again today whilst I was flipping through my notes. Once upon a time when I was still Protestant I adamantly stood for the literal 24-hour, 7-day interpretation of Genesis 1. I went so far as to say with complete confidence that this interpretation was unchallenged until Lyell and Darwin came along, and that this alleged novelty demonstrated the error of supposing that Genesis 1 should be understood in any other way. In short, I was Mr. Know-It-All…except I didn’t. As it turns out there are at least two (and probably more—see below) highly prominent theologians who lived long before Lyell and Darwin and rejected the literalist approach to Genesis 1: Augustine and Aquinas.

Our first source of information is Frank Sheed’s fine book Theology for Beginners. He tells us (p. 72) that the Fathers and Doctors of the Church (including St. Augustine) never believed that the six days of Genesis 1 were literal days. Obviously my claim had a few holes in it.

Aquinas turns the holes into a gaping maw of ignorance on my part.

According to Augustine (Gen. ad lit. iv. 34), the works of the six days were done all at one time (Summa Theologiae I q.91 a.4 ad 5; emphasis added)

Fred turns red. What was that I used to say? Gulp. But why, then, should we suppose that Genesis 1 should be understood figuratively instead? Is there a positive argument? As it turns out there is at least one (even if we ignore the little problem of the “firmament”):

In the slime of the earth are earth, and water binding the earth together. Of the other elements, Scripture makes no mention, because they are less in quantity in the human body, as we have said; and because also in the account of the Creation no mention is made of fire and air, which are not perceived by senses of uncultured men such as those to whom the Scripture was immediately addressed. (ST I q.91 a.1 ad 4; emphasis added)

In short: Aquinas says that Genesis 1 should not be taken literally because it was written in such a way as to accommodate the weakness of its first recipients. Kaboom. Game, set, match; Fred loses. Two of the greatest theological minds of the last two millennia denied the idea of literal days in Genesis 1. My brash, untutored claims were just that: brash and untutored.

I have written about problems with taking Genesis literalistically before. There are serious difficulties that cannot be simply ignored out of existence. For another example, take Ishmael’s age when Abraham sent him and his mother Hagar away: was he a young toddler, as seems strongly implied by the record in Genesis, or was he thirteen or fourteen years old, as Genesis earlier says he was when he was circumcised?

The question, I think, is this: what sort of literature is Genesis intended to be? If it is not intended to be literal history, these difficulties evaporate. It seems to me that there are good reasons for making this supposition, not least of which is that SS. Augustine and Aquinas denied the strictly literalist account.

Old Wives’ Tales Debunked

Our priest’s homily for this Sunday did not go according to the script that detractors may have expected. From one perspective this is completely unsurprising because Father extemporizes pretty regularly: he has notes but he rarely reads from them and often seems to go off on tangents. So when he preaches, you can be fairly certain he isn’t reading from something he is required to read, nor self-consciously following a party line he is expected to follow. Basically we hear him at his unscripted, spontaneous best, so we know that what he is saying is what he really thinks. It is transparently obvious. Our priest is no dissembler.

Okay, so why am I making such a big deal about this? Well, I think it is noteworthy because it sets the background for demolishing a couple old wives’ tales about what the Catholic Church teaches.

Fable número uno: some people say that the Church teaches we can earn grace. Ding! No. Thank you for playing! As our pastor said in his homily, “if grace is earned it isn’t grace.” Contrary to what those unfortunate geriatric wives think, the Church has always taught that we are saved by grace alone.

Fable número dos: some people propose that the Church teaches some weird thing where the sacraments are effective without reference to the heart of the recipients. In other words, this fable tells us (for example) that I could get my sins forgiven in Confession while intending to sin again. Sorry, but Ding! again! As Father said, quoting from the Catechism: “To attribute the efficacy of prayers or of sacramental signs to their mere external performance, apart from the interior dispositions that they demand, is to fall into superstition” (§2111; emphasis added). In short: I have to mean it when I pray or receive the sacraments.

Okay, so Father wasn’t actually speaking extemporaneously when he quoted from the Catechism. The point works out the same, though, regarding the mistake so many people make about this. The sacraments are not magic. If I don’t mean it when I receive them then they do nothing for me. If I intend to sin later while receiving them, I am actually making my sin worse. My heart must be right before God first. Then and only then may I receive the grace of the sacraments, and even having my heart right is the work of grace.

The Catholic Faith is no do-it-yourself religion despite what those old wives say. It is a religion of grace, of mercy, of love for God finding expression in my way of life.

Knowledge without love

There is an old saying: “Those who can’t, teach.” So we get a snicker at the expense of someone who is more expert when talking than doing.

One kind of person is clever at teaching others, yet is no good whatever to himself (Sirach 37:19, NJB).

It is a great thing to be able to teach others and to be able to do it well. But at least sometimes it is far more important for the teacher to know how to put his head full of facts to its proper use. A guy who can tell you how to change a tire but can’t do it himself is going to be in trouble when he has a flat on a lonesome road, no matter what the reasons for his inability—and there are some perfectly legitimate ones.

But there seems to be more disdain conveyed by the NJB in the verse from Sirach quoted above. It is one thing to be incapable because of some defect or disability. It is quite another thing to be worthless to ourselves because of a moral flaw. If I have all the theological brains in the world but do not love God, that theology is less than worthless to me. If I am an acclaimed Sunday School teacher beloved by my students but do not conform my life to the truth out of love for God, what good does that knowledge do me? None.

Being interested in theology is a fine thing and knowing something about it is likewise great, but if I make the mistake of confusing stuff I know with actually loving God, then I may as well know nothing at all. Heck, I would be better off as a theological ignoramus if the choice is between loving God or being clever.

Example of the self-evident

Aristotle has this trenchant comment to make in the Physics:

That nature exists, it would be absurd to try to prove; for it is obvious that there are many things of this kind, and to prove what is obvious by what is not is the mark of a man who is unable to distinguish what is self-evident from what is not. (II.1)

Aristotle firmly holds that kinds exist: or, to use a less obvious term, he believes in forms or universals (though not in the way that Plato does). More than that, he considers their existence to be so obvious as to be self-evident. Why so, since others disagree with him? Well, we risk plunging into the absurd, as he says, by even asking the question. But let us forge ahead for a bit and consider what Aristotle might have in mind. When he says there are many things of this kind what he is talking about is the fact that there are many trees of the same kind (oak, maple, sycamore), many lions, many tigers, many bears, and so forth. If these things weren’t all of the same respective kinds, it would be impossible to talk about kinds of things at all. It would also be blatantly contrary to the evidence of our eyes. That is why The Philosopher says it would be a waste of time to try proving that kinds exist. It’s so immediately obvious that it is self-evident.