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.

The Greatest of all Concerns

But let us remember, Philothea, so to pass our time of recreation that we may never lose sight of the greatest of all concerns–eternity. (St. Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life III.27)

We can’t work all the time. We need sleep, for one thing, and we need to take a day off every week (hence the gift of the Lord’s day). But we need more relaxation even than this. Our brains can only take so much seriousness without a break. St. Francis acknowledges this aspect of human frailty. We need to have fun. We need to laugh and to enjoy entertainment as part of refreshing ourselves for the more serious parts of life.

But de Sales offers a valuable warning, too. We shouldn’t become so involved with recreations that we lose sight of the reason why we exist at all. We are made for fellowship not only with each other, but primarily with God. In a parable Jesus described those people who never bear fruit for eternity because the cares of this life overwhelm them, but no less fearful is it to be overcome by the fun stuff this world offers. We can be distracted from eternity–from the very reason that God made us–not only by the difficulties of this life but also by its entertainments. It is this that St. Francis warns us about in today’s quotation. We need time off, but we have to be careful not to let that time off distract us from the things that really matter.

That’s easier said than done, maybe, and it is surely easier said than done in proper measure. How much fun do I need? How many episodes of Person of Interest do I need to watch in one night? Or how many games of sudoku is too many, or just enough? One size does not fit all, seemingly. So I can’t tell anyone what is too much or too little recreation for himself. We have to use our heads and exercise prudence.

It just occurred to me that my last post was about the role of suffering in the Christian life, and now I’m writing about having fun. I am bouncing all over the place. Oh well. The point (today) is that it is very easy for the fun stuff to so badly distract us that we lose sight of what is most important. The Christian life is hard–hence the previous post about suffering!–and fun is, well, fun. There’s nothing wrong with fun in its proper place and proper measure, says St. Francis (whatever that proper place and measure may be); but to let pursuit of earthly enjoyments divert us from the pursuit of that which matters most is surely the most tragic of endings.

Interior Struggle

[T]here is indeed no radical deliverance for humanity which is not the fruit of an interior struggle, in which suffering, distress accepted in faith, is the condition of a truly new life. (Louis Bouyer, Introduction to the Spiritual Life)

Suffering, which is what Bouyer calls distress accepted in faith, is the condition of a truly new life — which is to say, the Christian life. This sounds like crazy talk, maybe, to us Western Christians. I sit here in my warm home with my feet up, typing something that a modest number of people will ever read, and Bouyer says that suffering is the condition of the Christian life?? Ouch.

But it is not as though he made this up. On the contrary, it is very scriptural.

In the world you will have trouble, but be brave: I have conquered the world. (John 16:33, JB; emphasis added)

I tell you solemnly, there is no one who has left house, brothers, sisters, father, children or land for my sake and for the sake of the gospel, who will not be repaid a hundred times over, houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and land — not without persecutions — now in this present time and in the world to come, eternal life (Mark 10:29, JB; emphasis added)

[W]hen we were with you, we warned you that we must expect to have persecutions to bear, and that is what has happened now, as you have found out. (1 Thessalonians 3:4-5, JB; emphasis added)

We all have to experience many hardships before we enter the kingdom of God. (Acts 14:22, JB; emphasis added)

In short: the Christian life comes with suffering. Period. We can’t escape it, and given the necessity of it (as these passages and others amply testify) I can’t exactly say how sure I am that we should try and avoid it at all costs. Because if I do not suffer hardships, as the Bible says is necessary, then how can I hope to enter God’s kingdom? I suppose the answer is that we must not be gluttons for punishment, but neither should we cowardly flee from troubles when God says in His Word that we will have them in this life. The sooner I accept this in faith, as Bouyer says, the sooner I will be suffering in the way that God wants me to do: in faith. Lord, help me to suffer in faith, because You discipline every son that You receive (Hebrews 12:6).


Quoth The Philosopher:

A well-educated man will expect exactness in every class of subjects, according as the nature of the thing admits. (Nicomachean Ethics)

In short: the subject matter determines the degree of certitude we may have about our conclusions concerning it. There’s the certainty of the syllogism, which must be true if the premises are true or valid and the conclusion follows from them; but on the other hand there are things we can only be much less certain about too. A good example is the weather: not even the experts are or can be as certain as a syllogism, and although what he meant by meteorology isn’t exactly what we mean by it (for one thing we don’t include earthquakes in this subject…) he nevertheless knew and conceded at the beginning of his book De Meteora that demonstrative certainty was impossible, and that the best certitude we may hope for in the matter is that our conclusions are consistent with the facts as we see them. Aquinas understood our limitations too, as I have pointed out not too long ago.

I think that we may apply another adjective to the well-educated man: he is humble. He realizes his limitations and does not pretend to a certainty that he cannot really have. It’s perfectly okay to have mere opinions, and it isn’t an error to appeal to authority. The real trick is to know just exactly what we think we know is something we really do know: to be able to distinguish knowledge (which for Aristotle and Aquinas is something about which we have certainty and genuine cause for it) from opinion and wild-eyed guesses. When we think about it this way, what we really know turns out to be surprisingly little, on average (at least for me!), and we tend to hold a lot more mere opinions than we usually think. Opinions aren’t a bad thing at all–unless we invest them with pretensions of certainty that are unwarranted. Hence the humility that is essential to the well-educated man.

J. Mortimer Adler once offered us criteria for disagreement that I think are excellent (and at least vaguely on-topic). If I am going to disagree with a man, I have to do at least one of the following:

  • Show that he is uninformed
  • Show that he is misinformed
  • Show that he has been illogical (his conclusions do not follow from his premises, or his premise(s) are false)
  • Show that his account of things is incomplete (he hasn’t told the whole story)

If we cannot do at least one of these things, then I am obliged to agree with the man because what he has said must be true. Now, it may be the case that I lack the time, interest, talent, or other resources that are necessary in order to disprove his thesis, and so it is not necessarily dishonest to withhold assent in every case. But if I can’t show that he is wrong, it is both uncharitable and a mistake to insist that he is nevertheless in error. Once again we see the need for humility. Intellectual modesty is a good thing.

Another Newman Quote of the Day

My first elementary lesson of duty is that of resignation to the laws of my nature, whatever they are; my first disobedience is to be impatient at what I am, and to indulge an ambitious aspiration after what I cannot be, to cherish a distrust of my powers, and to desire to change laws which are identical with myself. (Grammar of Assent, p. 347)

It’s hard to know where to begin in commenting upon this brief passage. It is just packed.

What is resignation to the laws of my nature? I think a good illustration would be to think of the madman who is convinced he has wings and tosses himself off a ledge with a false certainty that his powers of flight will deliver him from an inevitable sudden stop at the bottom of the cliff. So resignation to the laws of my nature would be to accept who and what I am and all that is encompassed in these things. I can’t be just anything; I can’t do just anything. This extends to more than the physical attributes we have. It’s not just about wings. We have limits and powers that we have a duty to accept—to which we must resign ourselves.

What is it to be impatient with what I am? It is to be dissatisfied with myself: with my abilities, with my performance of some task or other when I have made a good faith effort at it. It is wishing that I could be or do other things than those I can, or that I might have other weaknesses and flaws than the ones that plague me. This is not to say that I should be satisfied with mediocrity when I know that I can do better, nor that I should wallow in my weaknesses and vices because “that is just how I am.” But if I become angry with myself or with God because I have a tin ear and cannot play music well despite my wishes or because I happen to be tall and the world’s vehicles are cramped places designed for people of average height—if I become angry and impatient with myself or with God about such things (and a good many others; use your imagination), that is what Newman has in mind.

Cherishing a distrust of my powers is, I think, epitomized by a remark attributed to Descartes: “Doubt is the beginning of wisdom.” Nonsense! Doubt is the beginning of folly. It is the beginning of a pointless mistrust of one’s powers that ends in an impossibility to really live in the world at all if one is consistent about it. Consider: not even Descartes was so silly as to mistrust his powers so much as to wonder whether his dinner plate held steak or grass. But if he cannot trust his senses to tell him truthful things about the world, then the dumbest thing in the world is to start eating. He would never know what he is eating (or even if he is eating).

But there are other ways that we can distrust our powers, as when we deny that we are able to resist temptations, or when we absolve ourselves of responsibility to do good because we tell ourselves that we lack the ability or resources to actually do it.

None of these vices are good for us or for others. We are what we are. I must learn to love myself as I am or I will have a hard time loving others as they are; I must be content to do what I can rather than pout about what I can’t do.