Reply to a Reader

Recently a gentleman left a couple comments in response to a post here, and I don’t think I did justice to his remarks. In this post I would like to rectify that situation.

He begins with this:

Unfortunately, it seems that a variety of people claim to speak for God. A fundamentalist Muslim may believe that women have no right to show their face in public, and requires them to wear a burka.

It is true that many people claim to speak for God. It would be an invalid inference, however, to conclude from this fact that none of them actually do speak for God. It would be an even less valid inference to conclude from this fact that God does not exist. The question of identifying who (if anyone) genuinely speaks with divine authorization is a distinct one from the question of whether God exists. Furthermore, it appears that Mr. Edwards intends his appeal to the Muslim customs surrounding the burka as a kind of reductio ad absurdum. If so, then it seems to me that the reductio does not accomplish what he hopes. First, not even all Muslims adhere to those customs. Secondly, it seems as though he expects the Western reader to reckon those customs to be extreme. He is quite likely correct about most Westerners, but clearly our objection to those customs by itself demonstrates nothing whatsoever about the truth of those claims. That is a completely separate question, and although I suspect that he and I are in agreement about it at least to some extent, it should be pointed out that Western objections to the burka do not disprove Islam and certainly do not disprove theism in its entirety.

Mr. Edwards continues:

Basically there two kinds of rights: “rhetorical” and “practical”. Those who invoke God or Nature are speaking rhetorically.

Given that “rhetorical” usually refers to either the art of persuasion or to the invocation of a question as a statement, I am not sure what Mr. Edwards means by rhetorical rights. Presumably he means something to the effect that such rights are nothing more than declarations without substance. If this is so, then it seems to me that he has done nothing more than issue a declaration himself. Unless he has some special sense of rhetorical in mind, the number of people who invoke God as a source of human rights merely for rhetorical effect is a vanishingly small percentage of all theists.

He goes on:

To show that it is more than rhetoric Jefferson would have to arrange for God to come down here and speak for Himself. And, who knows, He might say women need to wear burkas.

This claim assumes that the only way for us to know that God exists is for Him to show Himself to us. This is a false assumption, effectively disproved by Aristotle 2300 years ago and again by Aquinas 700 years ago. Aquinas offers multiple arguments in defense of the thesis that God exists in his Summa contra Gentiles, including the few that he repeats in the Summa Theologiae. Frankly I think his arguments are effectively airtight. At the very least they certainly belie the notion that the only proof of God’s existence must be oriented to our senses. Man is an intellectual creature, able to draw more conclusions about reality than what he can see or touch or hear.

Mr. Edwards also says this:

A practical right is one that we have agreed to respect and protect for each other. We reach agreement through a legislature made of people we elect. They pass laws against behavior that violates a right. … All practical rights arise by agreement.

If this was true, then our rights dangle from the most precarious of precipices: that of majority rule. Job had it wrong on Edwards’ view: the majority giveth, and the majority taketh away. Blessed be the name of the majority.

Obviously this is absurd, and I seriously doubt that he would agree with it himself if we asked him. But it is the inescapable outcome of his view that “practical rights arise by agreement.” It means that the only rights we have are those that some majority decides to give us. A different majority might take away those same rights. What he has effectively done is deny that human beings have any rights until they are granted by those around us, and this is clearly absurd. It is also dangerous, as when majorities decide to take away or deny the rights of various minorities. On Edwards’ view we cannot say that slavery was (and is) an evil thing; the very most we can say about the US Civil War is that it represented a shift in the opinion of the majority about the status of Africans as the equals of their European-descended owners. I think we can do better than that, and so did Jefferson (though a slave owner) when he wrote that we are endowed by our Creator with inalienable rights. No one can justly take them away, and those who do take away any of those inalienable rights have acted unjustly — whether they be a majority or a tyrant. I believe that we can do better than to relinquish our hopes of freedom to the whims of the 50% + 1.

Musings on Nature

There are two ways in which living creatures have powers for preservation: preservation of self, and preservation of their kind or species. Just as suicide is a moral evil (destruction of self is contrary to nature), in the same way failure to preserve our kind is a moral evil. The latter is more complicated, by virtue of the communities of which we are part: we are parts of neighborhoods, towns, nations, religious communities, companies, and so forth. Most generally we are part of the human race. Now obviously the preservation of one’s employer is of far less significance in the grand scheme of things than, say, the preservation of the human race or his home country. In all of these cases, though, the common good is more important than the individual’s good. This is why men give their lives for their country in wars; it is why they sacrifice their time and talents for the good of their communities by offering themselves for service in various ways.

In passing, this twofold power or inclination towards preservation is part of who we are as human beings. To the extent that I understand them, the libertarians (and perhaps some political conservatives) tend towards error with respect to the common good, favoring the individual’s interests instead. On the other hand the socialists and other statists err with respect to the individual’s good, absorbed as they are with the good of the community absolutely.

In further passing, the Catholic Church’s social teaching affirms both ends of the spectrum: the individual does not and cannot live apart from the community, and has positive duties towards it; the community must never arrogate to itself any sort of absorption of the individual which nullifies his value apart from the community as a unique being created by God. The social teaching of the Church refers to these two values as subsidiarity and solidarity. Both are essential.

You probably thought this post was going to discuss rocks and mountains or trees and flowers, didn’t you?

The Way of the Cross

The way of the Cross is the way of suffering.

It makes me happy to be suffering for you now, and in my own body to make up all the hardships that still have to be undergone by Christ for the sake of his body, the Church. (Col. 1:24, NJB)

According to St. Paul, there are afflictions (the word used by the NIV) still to be suffered by Christ for the sake of the Church! But wait a second. We know that Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross paid the entire price of our sins. What then can St. Paul mean when he says something here that sounds suspiciously different? The Navarre Bible proposes this:

The most common explanation of this statement is summarized by St. Alphonsus as follows: “Can it be that Christ’s passion alone was insufficient to save us? It left nothing more to be done, it was entirely sufficient to save all men. However, for the merits of the Passion to be applied to us, according to St. Thomas … we need to cooperate (subjective redemption) by patiently bearing the trials God sends us, so as to become like our head, Christ. (Thoughts on the Passion, quoted in St. Paul’s Captivity Letters, p. 142; emphasis added)

This is why the way of the Cross is the way of suffering: we cooperate with God by patiently bearing the trials He sends us. St. Alphonsus refers to the teaching of Aquinas on this subject, which we find here:

As stated above (1, ad 4,5), in order to secure the effects of Christ’s Passion, we must be likened unto Him. Now we are likened unto Him sacramentally in Baptism, according to Romans 6:4: “For we are buried together with Him by baptism into death.” Hence no punishment of satisfaction is imposed upon men at their baptism, since they are fully delivered by Christ’s satisfaction. But because, as it is written (1 Peter 3:18), “Christ died” but “once for our sins,” therefore a man cannot a second time be likened unto Christ’s death by the sacrament of Baptism. Hence it is necessary that those who sin after Baptism be likened unto Christ suffering by some form of punishment or suffering which they endure in their own person; yet, by the co-operation of Christ’s satisfaction, much lighter penalty suffices than one that is proportionate to the sin.

We must suffer this “lighter penalty” because we sin after Baptism. This is not inconsistent with what is said in Hebrews:

My son, do not scorn correction from the Lord, do not resent his training, for the Lord trains those he loves, and chastises every son he accepts (12:5-6, NJB)

So we must suffer.

That is not to say that it is in any way a fun thing. Again, Hebrews says any discipline is at the time a matter for grief, not joy (12:11). That is why the word is suffer. We cannot escape this, and we really shouldn’t try. Obviously we do not have to seek suffering out, and it is rational to seek relief, but the wisdom of God is foolishness with men: we benefit from our suffering, whether we can see that or not. We believe it because God says it. So I need to bear my trials with patience, because in this way I am united to my Savior and God. It is necessary, as we recently learned.

Faith is a gift

Faith is a gift of God, a supernatural virtue infused by Him. (CCC 153)

Heaven is beyond our reach.

It is not a place on this earth so that we can walk, swim, drive, climb, or fly to it. It is not a place in outer space to which we may travel in a rocket, or even see with the most powerful telescope. No powers we possess by nature can reach heaven. None. No number of good deeds done is sufficient, because natural things just don’t and can’t bridge a gap that is supernatural. By its very definition heaven cannot be grasped by any means we might employ.

The Catechism reminds us of the fact that we are not left as orphans despite our frailties. God who made us knows that we cannot reach Him on our own. He who made us to be with Him knows that, left to ourselves, we can never be with Him at all. And so He gives us supernatural gifts (above all faith) so that in the strength of His gifts we really can reach the unreachable. The cry “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief” is a perfectly rational plea for God’s saving help.

Until we see this fact, the most that we can ever do is try to reach heaven on our own. But that is striving after wind. We must humble ourselves, acknowledge our weakness (to say nothing of our sins!!), and beg for God’s gracious help. Even then, the very act of begging His aid is a gift from Him, because we can never really do that until we accept the fact of our weakness and unworthiness, until we know that we can only reach God and can only be truly satisfied in and by Him. Until that day we will never come to Him at all.

Ideas have consequences

Where do our human rights come from? According to the Declaration of Independence,

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…

Our rights, according to the Declaration, are ours because God gave them to us: we have certain rights by virtue of being human. Just because of who and what we are we have rights which cannot be taken away from us.

Okay, so what happens when (for example) a government pretends to grant us those human rights, and presumes on that basis to have the authority to withhold them from us when it deems fit? In the event that this happens, that government will have usurped its authority. It will have taken upon itself powers which it intrinsically lacks, and to the extent that it abridges human rights it has delegitimized itself.

This seems rather obvious on the face of it, I suppose, but sometimes we need to have cold water thrown in our faces. The truth may be obvious, but that does not mean it is always acknowledged. Sometimes we have to be reminded of what we should never forget. Pope Leo XIII gave us such a reminder in his encyclical Rerum Novarum (aside from many other reminders in that excellent document). In particular I have in mind what the Pope had to say about the family as one example of what I am talking about:

Hence we have the family, the “society” of a man’s house – a society very small, one must admit, but none the less a true society, and one older than any State. Consequently, it has rights and duties peculiar to itself which are quite independent of the State. (RN 12)

Families do not exist at the whim of the State, as though they are some kind of stop-gap to hold things together only because the State lacks the resources to fill the role of the family. So if a court (or some other agent of the State) pretends to be the source of the family’s authority, we may be sure that it does not know what it is talking about, or that it is attempting to exercise an authority which it emphatically lacks.

So it is with all our natural human rights. The State does not grant them to us, and consequently it cannot withhold them from us (though I would not deny that a prudential regulation of them may in some cases be necessary for the common good, of course: I am not allowed to shout Fire in a crowded theater unless there really is one, and this is for the best). We need to remember where our rights come from. If we forget, we may acquiesce in the day when usurpers take them away from us. Ideas have consequences, and to forget the idea that our natural human rights are ours by nature and not by the State’s whim or donation is to become helpless in the face of tyranny.

Your own garden matters

No, this is not about horticulture. In my last post I wrote about the importance of blooming where you’re planted. Today I hope to expand upon that theme a bit.

The Author wrote:

Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of this world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.

We do not control the future, and we have plenty to concern ourselves about today (Matthew 6:34). There is more than enough bad stuff going on in the fields that we know to occupy us for a lifetime. Rather than trying to change the world, is it not enough to clean the weeds out of the fields we know? This is what the Catholic Church calls the principle of subsidiarity. Put another way, “all politics is local.” For the majority of us, it is more than enough of a task or calling to improve things in our own communities. The gardens where we are planted need tending, and that is plenty of work for us.

Bloom where you are planted

Quoth The Author:

It is best to love first what you are fitted to love, I suppose; you must start somewhere and have some roots.

We Westerners are restless people. We move around (literally and figuratively) more than is probably good for us (I am not referring to getting enough exercise, of course). We change jobs regularly; we live in one place after another; we are rarely satisfied with what we have, always seeking for more or better things for ourselves. We forget the wisdom of another of The Author’s remarks:

Perilous to us all are the devices of an art deeper than we possess ourselves.

I am far better off to be content with what I have. It is best for me to love what I can rather than to crave things which I do not and will never have. There is no shame in contentment, no matter one’s station in life. Any honest job is honorable. We get ourselves in trouble (among other ways) when we become discontent with what we have and who we are. It is better to have a little and to love God than to be rich and full of anxiety (Proverbs 15:16, paraphrased from the JB). Things cannot satisfy or fulfill us, because we are created to love God and to be with Him; anything less will leave us grasping for more and more. But it will never and can never be enough, because our true goal is a supernatural one. The things of this world cannot satisfy.


The Catechism has this to say about Providence and the natural powers of the creatures that God has made:

God has not willed to reserve to himself all exercise of power. He entrusts to every creature the functions it is capable of performing, according to the capacities of its own nature. This mode of governance ought to be followed in social life. the way God acts in governing the world, which bears witness to such great regard for human freedom, should inspire the wisdom of those who govern human communities. They should behave as ministers of divine providence. (§1884; emphasis added)

We are not mere puppets on strings. God’s Providence is far greater than that. His will is always done, to be sure; but it is not done in ways that destroy or contravene the natures of the creatures He has made. Dogs chase cats because it is part of their nature to do so. They are man’s best friend because that is how He made them (sorry, cat lovers!). Sharks eat whatever they can; lions eat gazelles; and human beings exercise free will because that is part of what it means to be a rational creature as God made us.

This does not mean that we can thwart God’s will. Far from it! Rather, it means that God works out the mystery of His purposes for man through the exercise of man’s free will. How can He do this? I have no earthly idea. God knows all and is all-powerful; it is sufficient to believe that He does this because He tells us so.

There are consequences to what we believe about this that are genuinely inescapable. If we are puppets on a string lacking the genuine exercise of free will, then it would be unjust of God to punish us for our sins. Why? Because we would have no choice in the matter! This seems rather obvious to most people, maybe, but there are others who insist that it would not be at all unjust for God to punish us for something we did not freely will ourselves. This view is a mistake on their part, as the Catechism implies in our quotation for the day.

I am responsible for my own choices. I cannot blame them on others, least of all God. He does not force me to do evil, and no principle of human nature compels me to do so either. May God have mercy on me, because I sometimes choose to do evil things even though I say I love God and despite the fact that I know my choices are sometimes sinful. Thanks be to God that He offers forgiveness to us in Christ, or I would be without hope in the world. That is how great His love for us is!

True Virtue

St. Teresa says this in Interior Castle, about the soul in mortal sin:

While in a state like this the soul will find profit in nothing, and hence, being as it is in mortal sin, none of the good works it may do will be of any avail to win it glory; for they will not have their origin in that First Principle, which is God, through Whom alone our virtue is true virtue. (Emphasis added)

These are cautionary words on two counts, it seems to me. In the first place, it declares the truth that the Church has always taught about human merit: it comes from God, and consequently it is in that sense not ours. This is why St. Augustine once said that when God crowns our merits, He crowns His own gifts to us. The point is that many Catholics and most critics of the Catholic Church get this completely wrong. We think that we can win brownie points with God by doing this or that good thing, and we become proud of what virtuous people we are. Ahem. That is not what the Church teaches, as St. Teresa, Doctor of the Church, reminds us. We Catholics and our critics would do well to remember the facts of the matter.

And the second point is practically the same as the first. We think wrongly about this subject, and the consequence is that we wind up behaving wrongly. We may presume upon God’s forgiving grace, thinking that we can clean up behind ourselves all by ourselves. We commit grave sins and think that they are counterbalanced by the five dollar bill we gave the beggar and by holding the door open for the person behind us or by going to worship services, or whatever other good thing we think will make up for our sin. Wrong. As St. Teresa reminds us, the soul in mortal sin cannot save itself. None of its good works amount to a hill of beans before God. Forgiveness and salvation are found in Christ alone.


Aquinas the Catholic

Sometimes, and for reasons that honestly escape me, certain Protestants will attempt to say that St. Thomas was “one of them:” Not that he was literally Protestant of course, for that would be anachronistic, but rather some folks claim that Aquinas’ theology is rather more of the Protestant kind than of the Catholic kind. The apparent (?) intent of this attempt to drive a wedge between the Church and her greatest theologian is to bolster the Protestant claim that the Church abandoned orthodoxy at some point in the late Middle Ages, and her alleged discordance with Aquinas proves this.

Don’t shoot the messenger; I merely report what I have seen on more than one occasion on the interwebs.

Speaking purely anecdotally, I can say with complete confidence that the claim is erroneous. I have read enough of Aquinas and enough Protestant theology to be entirely sure that St. Thomas is about as Protestant as corn flakes. Here is an example of the sort of thing that I mean. In ST I-II q. 81 a.5, Aquinas addresses the question of whether Eve’s sin alone (without Adam’s) would have been a sufficient condition for the Fall (and particularly for original sin to be passed along to the entire human race). One of the objections proffered (the third) claims that St. John of Damascus asserted Mary needed to be purified (and therefore, the objection continues, Eve’s sin would have been sufficient to cause the Fall and transmit original sin because Eve would not have needed to be purified if she could not transmit original sin herself: the difficulty here being twofold, in that she would have been tainted with sin herself while bearing the Lord in her womb and would have transmitted original sin to Him). Aquinas responds to this objection thusly (ad 3):

This prevenient purification in the Blessed Virgin was not needed to hinder the transmission of original sin, but because it behoved the Mother of God to shine with the greatest purity. For nothing is worthy to receive God unless it be pure, according to Ps. 92:5: Holiness becometh Thy House, O Lord. (emphasis in original)

I think it is fairly obvious that there is very little if anything here that is Protestant rather than Catholic. I have never met a Protestant who held to anything remotely like the sinlessness of the Blessed Virgin as it is taught by the Catholic Church (and by Aquinas in this passage). Furthermore, St. Thomas wields Scripture here in ways that are utterly foreign to the Protestant’s grammatical-historical approach to hermeneutics.

Examples could be multiplied, but I recently came across this in the Summa Theologiae again and realized how very un-Protestant it is. But this should not be surprising, because Aquinas was no proto-incipient-Protestant. He was Catholic.