Worlds beyond worlds…

Check out this interview with Michio Kaku on Closer to Truth.  Not sure if its new or not, but I just got an email about it today.  10 minutes long and its…its…well, kinda nuts.  Civilizations…Type 1, Type 2, Type 3…I mean, really?  What precisely is any of this based on?  Star Trek?  Don’t laugh…it sounds like it might be.  And all this talk about migrating to other universes, and sending “seeds” into new universes that will make our DNA part of the fabric of these universes?  All of this makes for some very interesting science fiction.  Heck, it would make a pretty nifty religion.

Compare this with Joel Achenbach’s rather sober assessment about the newest exoplanet discovered, ‘Proxima b’:

As ever, I will remind people that we have no data about extraterrestrial life. None. It’s all speculation. And we should guard against our natural desire for life to be out there. Life resonates with life. We don’t want to be alone in the universe. I don’t think we are, but that’s just an arm-waving opinion without any evidence to back it up.

But even this Assumption of Mediocrity carries with it a belief — almost a prejudice, or maybe you’d just call it a wish — that life, where it exists, will often evolve to the point where a species will be intelligent, and technological and communicative. That’s several great leaps in succession.

Remember that life on Earth remained single-celled for several billion years. Given enough time, life can become what we define as intelligent — we know this from our sample of one — but there’s no way to calculate how frequently that happens.

And although life seems to be made out of stuff that’s just lying around everywhere, it’s obviously not something that pops up automatically on a planet or moon — because we don’t see that in our own solar system. We don’t know how it originates and don’t really have a solid definition of life.

Also, while we’re on the subject of universes, Jimmy Akin has some good thoughts on the verbiage we use:

What is the multiverse?

From the sound of the word, you might guess that the multiverse is some kind of alternative to the universe, and you’d be right.

The idea is that the physical universe that we see around us might not be all there is to reality. There could be other realms as well. These have been called other universes, parallel universes, and alternate universes.

That’s ironic, since the term universe originally meant “everything that exists.”

If you insist on that meaning, then these realms beyond the physical universe that we see couldn’t be other universes, because the universe would be everything that is. Instead, they would have to be other, unseen parts of the universe.

But this is not the way the language has been developing, and today terms like parallel universe and alternate universe are common in both science and science fiction.

Other even looser expressions (e.g., parallel worlds, alternate realities, other dimensions) are also used to refer to basically the same things: realms other than the visible universe that we see around us. The claim that we live in a multiverse is the claim that there are multiple universes that can be grouped into a single, overall “multiverse.”

Could a multiverse exist?

It depends on how you are using terms. If you use universe in its classical sense, to refer to everything that exists, then, no, there could not be a multiverse. But there could still be many realms other than the part of the overall universe that is visible to us.

But if you avoid quarreling about words (cf. 1 Tim. 6:4, 2 Tim. 2:14) and accept the way the terms are used currently in scientific circles then, yes, there could be a multiverse. God is omnipotent, and if he chooses to create more than one realm of existence, he can do that.

The point is that the word “universe” has two meanings (metaphysical and scientific).  Actually the same is true of the word “cosmology.”

One last thought, courtesy of The New Atlantis:

Attempts to defend the night sky on cultural grounds must show how the qualities it embodies are unique to it. It is not enough simply to suggest, as many dark-sky advocates have, that the sky’s cultural value lies in its natural beauty that produces wonder and inspires us. Natural beauty can be found in many other places too — and for that matter, thanks to our space telescopes, we can now in a sense see the sky more clearly than ever before. Nor is it helpful to point to the many beautiful aesthetic creations the night sky has prompted. Perhaps van Gogh, had he lived under today’s light-polluted skies, would not have painted The Starry Night, but the vast majority of works of art about nature do not focus on the night sky, and so its disappearance would not end artistic creativity and appreciation.

If we do not understand more fully how the night sky as seen from the ground through the naked eye embodies beauty uniquely, the cause of preserving it remains vulnerable to economist John Kenneth Galbraith’s quip that “The conservationist is a man who concerns himself with the beauties of nature in roughly inverse proportion to the number of people who can enjoy them.”

The same goes for the concept of infinity that one might point to as an invaluable property of a starry night. (According to astronomer and writer Bob Berman, “an observer needs to see four hundred fifty stars at a time to get that feeling of infinitude, and be swept away.”) While the night sky’s immensity is undeniably impressive, unless we can explain the distinctive nature of the stars’ infinitude — that is, unless we can explain how it differs from, say, the countless grains of sand on the beach, or, for that matter, the vast array of shimmering pixels on the dome of a planetarium — we have not made a convincing case for why the stars should remain visible to us.

Such a case must show that the night sky is not culturally valuable merely as a relic of the past; rather, if it were more visible to us, it would teach us an important lesson even for our present and future, a lesson that perhaps nothing else in nature can teach us quite as well. We will see this more clearly if we recognize that the loss of the night sky was not an incidental consequence of the invention of particular lighting technologies but rather a direct implication of the modern scientific project. The unique importance of the night sky is that it reminds us of the limits of that project.

Unlike the American continent, outer space is practically infinite; there is no endpoint. But we can go only a very short distance before coming up against a barrier not “out there” but in ourselves: death. The fact of our finitude means we will explore only a small sphere of the total sum of space, and not an arbitrary sphere but only the one around our planet Earth. Sending people to Mars and other unvisited points in our own solar system will likely be possible in the next few decades, but traveling even to “nearby” stars would require complicated new technologies and trips lasting decades or centuries. A journey to Andromeda, the nearest neighboring galaxy, would take 2.5 million years at the speed of light. Besides, many of the starry objects themselves have already died long before their light reaches our eyes.

Thus, the inaccessibility of the stars reminds us that we are not and cannot be at home everywhere in the physical universe, that we are bound in time and place to a relatively tiny sphere of influence. Astronomy, arguably the most ancient of the sciences, has always understood what my professor on the first day of an introductory astronomy class called the “Tantalus Principle”: we can look but we cannot touch. The full meaning of light pollution for our understanding of ourselves is that the finitude that defines our own inhabitable sphere comes to light (so to speak) only in our encounter with the contrasting infinite background beyond. Our attempt to extend the light of our bedside lamps throughout our lived world has whited out this background, blinding our eyes to realms of the universe in which mankind has no agency. With the flood of artificial light blotting out the stars, we are, to borrow from Hamlet, “bounded in a nutshell” and counting ourselves “king of infinite space.” Seen in this way, our reliance on artificial light is not a Promethean defiance of our fate but a cowardly refusal to face it.

Quite the contrast with Kaku, no?  Perhaps it is better that we wake up and smell our finitude in the face of infinity.  As C.S. Lewis once put it, that is a genuinely religious experience.

Six Feet Under

Several times on this blog I have mentioned that I am a fan of the HBO TV series Six Feet Under.  I have been rewatching the series over the last few weeks, and have been blown away once again by the quality of the show.  I would say this is now one of my top two favorite shows (the other being The West Wing).  I’m not quite done yet (I still have most of the 5th and final season to go), but watching the show again has me brimming with reflections and observations I felt were blog-worthy.  Soooo…here we go.  A word of warning: there are SPOILERS ahead, so proceed at your own risk.

An initial point.  Six Feet Under was an HBO series that was created by the same guy (Alan Ball) who created True Blood (I am not a fan of that one-I tried watching it, but just couldn’t get into it).  Not surprisingly, Six Feet Under is…well, racy.  And raw.  The show is not going to score points on the “Purity Scale”-much less will it pass the “Doctrinal Conformity Test” (I just made both of those terms up in case it wasn’t obvious).  That said-and again this should be no surprise-that doesn’t bother me in the least.  I do not look for a complete validation of Catholic doctrine in the media I enjoy-indeed, I wouldn’t survive very long adopting a “separatist” approach.  On this blog I have regularly tried to draw out insights from sources that are…well, perhaps not anti-Catholic, but certainly not favorable.  You know…George Carlin…American Horror StoryBojack Horseman…I’ve got quite a history here.

Six Feet Under has always stood out to me as exceptional television.  As raw as the show is-and believe it holds virtually nothing back-the show’s greatest strength is that it is real.  By that I mean this show brilliantly depicts real life, in all its complexity, misery and…well, rawness.  Nothing is surgarcoated.  And, thanks to the brilliant acting and writing, it is relatable.  More than once the show has hit really close to home.  More than once it has moved me physically to tears.  Granted, this isn’t always that hard in my case, but I’m not alone in this.  Whatever Six Feet Under did, it did it right.

In a nutshell, Six Feet Under is an existential tour d’force.  That sounds a little bit pompous, but I can’t really think of a better way to put it.  This show descends into the deepest depths of the human experience, fleshes out our most primal fears and emotions, circling with us around the proverbial black hole of the human experience: death itself.  Nothing-not religion, not sexuality, nothing-is off limits. The whole human experience, in all its existential depth, is vividly and brilliantly depicted.  Everyone-even those who know nothing of philosophy-can understand and relate to this.

The show centers around the Fisher family, who operate a funeral home in Los Angeles.  Virtually every episode begins with a death.  The deaths themselves are sometimes disturbing-an entire family is hit by a truck, a man dies in autoerotic asphyxiation, a man with no family dies gasping for breath in the arms of a stranger.  While the operations and ethics of the “death care” industry make for an interesting backdrop, most of the action follows the personal lives of the Fishers, in their dysfunctional relationships, both which each other and outside the family.

In the first 5 minutes of the show, the Fisher’s patriarch-Nathaniel Sr.-is killed in a collision with a bus.  During his funeral, his wife and family matriarch Ruth breaks down and admits that she was having an affair at the time Nathaniel died.  This horrifies her sons-Nathaniel Jr. and David-who come to inherit the funeral home.  The youngest child-Claire-is also along for the ride.  Learn more about the characters here.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the series is that the live characters frequently converse with the dead ones (Nathaniel Sr., masterfully portrayed by Richard Jenkins, appears throughout the series, despite his aforementioned death in the first 5 minutes).  Mind you, these are not conversations with ghosts, but rather visual depictions of the “interior worlds” of each of the major characters.  In my view, this particular tactic still hasn’t been matched.

The show repeatedly throws in our face how dysfunctional the main characters are.  Although this may seem off-putting at first, there are a few things worth noting.  First, many people do not have “happy” or “functional” lives.  The chaos that defines many of the characters on Six Feet Under is a vivid reflection of how a great many people actually live.  Second, and more importantly, Six Feet Under depicts chaos and dysfunction in a genuinely nonjudgmental manner.  None of the characters are purely “good” or “evil,” the proverbial line through each of them.  The show reminds us that all are dysfunctional, all of us are broken, to a greater or lesser extent.

More than a few characters on the show are trapped in self-destructive patterns.  Drug and sexual addictions are a recurring theme on the show.  Yet, Six Feet Under is not The Jerry Springer Show.  It is too obvious that the characters who are trapped in the chains of self-destructive behavior are at war with something greater than themselves.  Indeed, the show hits painfully close to home for many people-myself included-who have known people who are dysfunctional and broken, trapped in a vicious cycle, beyond-so it seems-help.  Claire comes to realize that she cannot “save” Gabriel, her drug-addicted boyfriend, and admits to Ruth that can’t understand why she is so drawn to try and save those she cannot.  God knows many of us know firsthand what that is like.

Another recurring theme on the show is mental illness.  Nate (Jr.) becomes romantically involved with a woman named Brenda (portrayed masterfully by Rachel Griffiths), who is the daughter of two therapists.  The show depicts the professions of psychiatry and psychology in a rather negative life-perhaps unfairly and certainly a bit dramatically, but not entirely unfairly.  In a rather telling moment, Brenda, who is pursuing a degree in mental health, has a conversation with her mother, Margaret.  Margaret mocks Brenda’s idealism, informing her daughter that it is not so easy to “help” people as Brenda thinks.  One catches a glimpse of how helpless the mental health system can be.

Mental illness pops up again and again in the show.  Several characters suffer from depression.  Brenda’s brother Bill is bipolar.  David is carjacked by a man who is clearly psychotic, which leads David himself to suffer with PTSD.  The most powerful example, for me, occurs late in the series when Ruth marries a man named George, who is masterfully played by James Cromwell, one my favorite actors (Cromwell also played Pope Pius XII in Pius XII: Under the Roman Sky).  It turns out that George has a history of mental illness and suffers a breakdown from psychotic depression mere months after marrying Ruth.  He returns home after a series of ECT treatments.  For the course of an episode, he appears affable, if exhausted, while Ruth treats him coldly and hostilely.   The viewer is baffled.  Why on earth is this woman being such a b*tch?

And then, at the episode’s end, George has a borderline psychotic meltdown when he can’t have the flavor of ice cream he wants.  Turning to George’s daughter, Ruth breaks down in tears, sobbing that she doesn’t know how much more she can take.  At last the viewer can see what had been deliberately concealed until then: Ruth is suffering from caregiver exhaustion.  Again, this is all too painfully relatable.  The strain of caring for another person is enough to make almost anyone crack.  So many bear this strain, a strain that the rest of the world usually does not see.

Six Feet Under offers a simple and powerful reminder: be thankful for your mental health, which is not something to be taken for granted.  Far too many of our brothers and sisters suffer from a variety of mental ailments that earn them scorn and disdain from society-if they are lucky enough to be acknowledged at all.  At the same time, many of them can be genuinely impossible to live with-as Six Feet Under shows us.  This ugly mark on the human condition is one the show doesn’t make any effort to shy away from, and I say thank God for that.  Cherish your mental health folks.

As I noted above, the complexity of human relationships is on full display here-brother and sister, brother and brother, son and mother, mother and daughter, father and son, friend and friend.  There is adultery aplenty, even where you would least expect it, and more than a few characters struggle with their sexuality over the course of the series.  I readily admit the show’s stance on sexuality is not line with Catholic teaching, and those who are homophobic will recoil at the show’s vivid depiction of homosexuality.  Yet, the unabashed honesty of the series is-in my view-a hell of a lot healthier than trying to hide it.  Again, I do not seek validation of every Catholic teaching when I watch TV.

On the other hand, the show is surprisingly pro-life.  Claire has an abortion in the third season, and proceeds to have a vision in which she sees her recently deceased sister-in-law Lisa, holding her [Claire’s] son.  “I’ll take care of him” Lisa informs her.  Earlier in the show, Nate has a vision in which he “sees” several children who were aborted by ex-girlfriends.  It would be hard to miss the point: abortion is murder.

Then there is the question of religion.  The show’s creator Alan Ball is a Buddhist, though I can’t say I’ve ever seen anything “particularly Buddhist” in the series (conversely Ball is gay, and one can see that the show’s portrayal of homosexuality is deeply personal).  Religious themes are certainly not absent from the show-God and the afterlife are recurring themes and a source if conflict between characters.  Brenda, speaking as a representative of those whose lives have been defined by chaos and dysfunction, dismisses the idea of God-or indeed of any meaning in the universe-as a sick joke.  It is hard to argue with her, or with those for whom she speaks.

The entire series is permeated with the perennial question of whether there is any objective meaning at all in the fact of death.  Six Feet Under is a reminder that death underwrites all of human life, that our deepest and most primal emotions are inseparable from the omnipresent shadow of the Grim Reaper.  As Ball put it:

Six Feet Under refers not only to being buried as a dead body is buried, but to primal emotions and feelings running under the surface. When one is surrounded by death – to counterbalance that, there needs to be a certain intensity of experience, of needing to escape. It’s Nate with his womanizing – it’s Claire and her sexual experimentation – it’s Brenda’s sexual compulsiveness – it’s David having sex with a male hooker in public – it’s Ruth having several affairs – it’s the life force trying to push up through all of that suffering and grief and depression.

And, to quote a review of one particularly powerful episode:

The third season finale examines our tendency to replace what we’ve lost, and it suggests that we do so in myriad ways. The pigeon parable that sets up the episode shows us that the energy of a living thing—a dove, let alone a human—is unpredictable and messy. It’s hard to pin it down when you’re close to it. But when you lose someone’s energy (either through death or separation) and seek to replace it, your choice of replacement can speak volumes, both about yourself and about the person you’re trying to replace.

Yet, for all the darkness that permeates the series, the show is permeated with grace too.  There is reconciliation.  There is resurrection (metaphorically speaking).  The beauty of life is celebrated and affirmed.  The final six minutes series finale are some of the finest six minutes ever filmed for TV.  As much as the show is about death, it is even moreso about life.  The good, the bad, the ugly, the crazy, the beautiful.  Its all here.

What is my takeaway as a Catholic?  As I have noted before, the show is a reminder to me that piety and sanctity are too often and too easily confused with sanitization.  True holiness is “unholy holiness,” a willingness to “co-suffer” alongside others in the muck and mire of the world.  We need to see life for what it is, to understand it as it is, to engage it as is it is.  In the words of Father Ron Rolheiser:

The idea is that God and human complexity do not go together. Ironically that attitude is particularly prevalent among the over-pious and those most negative towards religion. For the both the over-pious and the militant-impious, God and robust life cannot go together. And that’s also basically true for the rest of us as is evident in our inability to attribute complexity, earthiness, and temptation to Jesus, to the Virgin Mary, to the saints, and to other publicly-recognized religious figures such as Mother Theresa.  It seems that we can only picture holiness as linked to a certain naiveté. For us, holiness needs to be sheltered and protected like a young child. As a result we then project such an over-idealization of innocence and simplicity onto Jesus, Mary, and our religious exemplars that it becomes impossible for us to ever really identify with them. We can give them admiration, but very little else.

A friend of mine is fond of saying this about innocence: As an adult, I wouldn’t give a penny for the naïve purity of a child, but I would give everything to find true childlike innocence inside the complexity of my adult life.  I think that what he means is this: Jesus went into the singles’ bars of his time, except he didn’t sin. The task in spirituality is not to try to emulate the naive innocence and non-complexity of our childhood. That’s an exercise in denial and a formula for rationalization. The task is rather to move towards a second-naiveté, a post-sophistication which has already taken into account the full complexity of our lives. Only then will we have again the innocent joy of children, even as we are able to stand steady inside the rawness of rock music, the power and complexity of human sexuality, the concupiscent tendencies of the human heart, and the uncanny and wily maneuverings innate inside the human spirit. From there we can write the Magnificat.

To be holy is to confront human existence, in all its depth and complexity, and to bring into conformity with will of God.  And there are few better places to see human existence in all its depth and complexity than on Six Feet Under.  Put aside your squeamishness and dive in.  This show has the power to change your life.

A final thought.  Whether Six Feet Under really offers any kind of overarching metaphysical narrative or not is an open question.  In my view, the show really doesn’t-that is left to the viewer to work out.  What the show does reveal is the perpetual restlessness of the human spirit-the fact that we can literally never be satisfied (which, perhaps, neuroscience is now confirming for us).  C.S. Lewis was a tad naïve to suggest that the fact that we have a yearning that nothing in this world can satisfy is “proof” that we are made for another world.  Perhaps, but it is worth a consideration.  In the face of death, which is where we all live, it is at least worth considering if maybe there is something more, beyond the chaos and dysfunction of our existence.  This is a thought to keep in mind as your absorbed in the depths of this amazing show.

The “Vision” of Pope Francis

When I was at Mass this past weekend, our priest delivered a homily on the “vision” of Pope Francis.  I must confess that I had my Kindle open at the time and was only partially listening (I know, I know!), but I caught enough to get the gist.  Pope Francis is a “new kind of pope,” he has “opened doors,” paradigm shift, etc., etc.  I have heard all of this before (actually, come to think, I believe this same priest delivered a very similar homily a couple years back).  It puzzles me how 3+ years into the Francis’s pontificate, there are still people convinced that the Church has gone through some kind of radical shift under his leadership.  A few things in particular have puzzled me about the “Francis effect”:

  • Many people seem to overlook the fact that “mercy” presupposes “sin”-the word “mercy” becomes meaningless otherwise.  It makes no sense to speak of “forgiveness” unless one accepts the existence of a moral order that has been violated (c.f. Bill Doino).  The Holy Father clearly believes in sin, so his to push to renew the Church’s teachings on mercy (emphasis on renew) really isn’t a “paradigm shift.”
  • Some are baffled that the Pope seems to have shifted emphasis away from the pro-life cause to other, more “worldly” issues.  Frankly, I don’t get that one either.  One could shrug their shoulders at environmental degradation and say God will take care of it, but presumably one could say the same thing about the unborn.  More to the point, though, this is a false choice.  Catholics can “walk and chew gum at the same time” (as it were).

Moreover, I’m not so sure that Pope Francis’s “vision” really is all that “worldly” anyway.  Consider Laudato Si.  There is a bit more depth here than is usually acknowledged.  Consider what Rowan Williams wrote on the encyclical:

Perhaps the first thing that needs to be said about Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment is that it is an entirely natural development not only of the theology of Evangelii gaudium but also—as the extensive citations show—of the theology of Pope Benedict, especially as found in Caritas in veritate. Both the pope’s critics and his supporters have often missed the point: Benedict’s Christian humanism, his consistent theology of the dignity of the human person, his concern for a culture in which there is no longer a viable understanding of any given order independent of human will—all this is reiterated with force and clarity by Pope Francis. This encyclical is emphatically not charting a new course in papal theology, and those who speak as if this were the case have not been reading either pope with attention. What is uncomfortable for some is that a number of points clearly but briefly made by the previous pontiff have been drawn out in unmistakable terms. The fact that we live in a culture tone-deaf to any sense of natural law is here starkly illustrated by the persistent tendency of modern human agents to act as though the naked fact of personal desire for unlimited acquisition were the only “given” in the universe, so that ordinary calculations of prudence must be ignored. Measureless acquisition, consumption, or economic growth in a finite environment is a literally nonsensical idea; yet the imperative of growth remains unassailable, as though we did not really inhabit a material world.

It is this fantasy of living in an endlessly adjustable world, in which every physical boundary can be renegotiated, that shapes the opening reflections of the encyclical and pervades a great deal of its argument. The paradox, noted by a good many other commentators, is that our supposed “materialism” is actually a deeply anti-material thing. The plain thereness of the physical world we inhabit tells us from our first emergence into consciousness that our will is not the foundation of everything—and so its proper working is essentially about creative adjustment to an agenda set not by our fantasy but by the qualities and complexities of what we encounter. The material world tells us that to be human is to be in dialogue with what is other: what is physically other, what is humanly other in the solid three-dimensionality of other persons, ultimately what is divinely other. And in a world created by the God Christians believe in, this otherness is always communicating: meaning arises in this encounter, it is not devised by our ingenuity. Hence the pope’s significant and powerful appeal to be aware of the incalculable impact of the loss of biodiversity: it is not only a loss of resource but a diminution of meaning. “Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us” (33).

The argument of these opening sections of Laudato si’ repeatedly points us back to a fundamental lesson: We as human beings are not the source of meaning or value; if we believe we are, we exchange the real world for a virtual one, a world in which—to echo Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty—the only question is who is to be master. A culture in which managing limits is an embarrassing and unwelcome imperative is a culture that has lost touch with the very idea of a world, let alone a created world (i.e., one in which a creative intelligence communicates with us and leads us into meanings and visions we could not have generated ourselves).

It is interesting that the theologian most often quoted in the document, apart from previous pontiffs, is Romano Guardini—not only a writer admired by Pope Benedict, but one who represents just that ecclesially and liturgically informed theology which came to fruition in Europe on the eve of Vatican II, presenting a coherent, imaginatively vivid, socially and politically critical worldview profoundly rooted in a highly traditional dogmatics, looking back to those patristic and monastic sources in which ethics, liturgy, spirituality, and doctrine were not separated. It is this hinterland that makes Pope Francis so hard to categorize in the eyes of those who think only in terms of left and right as conventionally imagined.

Well, that’s interesting.  Let’s also consider The New Distributist Review on the encyclical, shall we?

Modern man is almost drunken with his ability to dominate and control nature with the “technique of possession, mastery, and transformation.” According to this understanding of man’s relationship with his environment, the latter exists solely in order to be used by us, but not only used by “receiving what nature itself allowed, as if from its own hand,” but by exploiting and “attempting to extract everything possible from [nature] while frequently ignoring or forgetting the reality in front of us.” It is not a matter of working with nature, but of twisting her and wresting from her not only what is in accord with her natural potentialities, but of anything and everything which our technique can manage to extort.

This has affected even the way we think. Section 107 notes the “tendency…to make the method and aims of science and technology an epistemological paradigm….” It not only becomes very difficult for many people to imagine ways of dealing with the dilemmas of human existence which do not involve exploitative technology, but even worse, too many think that it is by technology alone that such difficulties can be dealt with. “Our capacity to make decisions, a more genuine freedom, and the space for each one’s alternative creativity are diminished”.3 Both those who look favorably on the consumption of genetically modified food and those who support the use of drugs or surgery to alter a person’s sexual characteristics according to the supposed demands of his “gender identity,” are equally slaves of this technocratic way of thinking. To both groups there is nothing strange about human actions which directly mutilate or distort what nature presents to us. In the former case we show how little we respect the varying natures of created things, their natural capacities and inclinations, the possible dangers inherent in interfering with them,4 and in the latter we subordinate the created bodily structure of the human person to an act of human hubris and will, showing not the slightest interest in finding out why anyone might feel so alienated from his own body as to wish to violently alter it chemically or surgically, nor what such alienation might indicate about his psychic health. It is impossible or very difficult for those enslaved to the technocratic paradigm to think that there is any other way of providing for man’s needs than by “a technique of possession, mastery, and transformation.”

Thus with every decision we become more dependent on the structures and limits created by our previous decisions, so dependent that we cannot imagine any other way of living and organizing society. We forget that every technological decision tends to create a way of living, or strengthens one already in existence, which then becomes all the more difficult to undo or reverse later on.

Now, this point about the technocratic paradigm should be tempered a bit.  Catholicism is resolutely not anti-technology-the Church does not hold a “Luddite” view of technological advance (I deliberately eschew the word “progress” here).  However, in our view, technology is subordinated to humans, not the other way around.  As the Catechism puts it:

2293 Basic scientific research, as well as applied research, is a significant expression of man’s dominion over creation. Science and technology are precious resources when placed at the service of man and promote his integral development for the benefit of all. By themselves however they cannot disclose the meaning of existence and of human progress. Science and technology are ordered to man, from whom they take their origin and development; hence they find in the person and in his moral values both evidence of their purpose and awareness of their limits.

2294 It is an illusion to claim moral neutrality in scientific research and its applications. On the other hand, guiding principles cannot be inferred from simple technical efficiency, or from the usefulness accruing to some at the expense of others or, even worse, from prevailing ideologies. Science and technology by their very nature require unconditional respect for fundamental moral criteria. They must be at the service of the human person, of his inalienable rights, of his true and integral good, in conformity with the plan and the will of God.

Note that the Catechism makes reference to “man’s dominion over creation.”  This language, deeply embedded in the Scriptures and Tradition, is not at odds with anything in Laudato Si.  For-as the very next paragraph makes clear-humanity’s ‘kingship’ of creation is to be exercised within certain parameters, the Natural Law being a prime example.  We are called to work with nature, not against her.  Technological advancement does not exist for its own sake, but is ordered to a greater good.

The Catechism also rebuffs utilitarianism in paragraph # 2294 when it notes that we cannot infer principles simply from efficiency or usefulness.  This raises the issue of how many unspoken presuppositions are smuggled into economics and politics today.  The New Distributist Review puts it thusly:

The ordinary materialist American way of looking at this is well expressed in the following by the well-known economist, the late Paul Samuelson.

An objective observer would have to agree that, even after two centuries of rapid economic growth, production in the United States is simply not high enough to meet everyone’s desires. If you add up all the wants, you quickly find that there are simply not enough goods and services to satisfy even a small fraction of everyone’s consumption desires. Our national output would have to be many times larger before the average American could live at the level of the average doctor or big-league baseball player.8

It is simply assumed here that the claimed desire of everyone to “live at the level of the average doctor or big-league baseball player” must be accepted without demur. This in itself is a good example of how a social or human science such as economics, modeling itself on the technique of technocratic physical science, simply assumes its aims as given and considers its task simply as generating means to satisfy those aims. Economics, as understood by the majority of its practitioners today, looks upon the world with a kind of tunnel vision, never asking what the point is of piling up stuff and more stuff, other than the fulfilling of man’s limitless desires. (This is to omit mention of its blindness toward the fact that those who possess economic and political power will almost always shape an economy in the direction of fulfilling their limitless desires, at the expense of the rest of us.)

This, by the way, aptly illustrates my frustration with many of the Holy Father’s critics, including those Catholics of the Austrian School (such as Thomas E. Woods).  Economics does not operate in a vacuum, but its practitioners often act as if it did, and they do so by “assuming its aims [acquisition of wealth] as a given”-which is to say, smuggling presuppositions in the back door.  It seems to escape many people-both those like Woods and those like the priest last Saturday-that the Pope’s vision extends beyond the tunnel, and that he is swinging at a larger target.

The bottom line is that there really isn’t a “paradigm shift” in Francis’s vision at all.  He favors a genuine humanism over a technocratic one, and he emphasizes that humanity must live within limits (our being is circumscribed by finitude).  There is some legitimate development in his teachings (as Williams notes, Francis recognizes that living within limits is a social reality and not merely a personal one), but it is clearly development, as the copious citations to the Pope Emeritus in the encyclical should make clear.

Pope Francis clearly has a “vision” (which is no surprise-we need one to live), but, pace my priest, there isn’t much new to see here.


To the extent that anyone insists on using the word “progress,” I think C.S. Lewis’s words from Mere Christianity are rather prescient here:

We all want progress.  Progress means getting nearer to the place you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer.  If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.  We have all seen this when we do arithmetic. When I have started a sum the wrong way, the sooner I admit this and go back and start over again, the faster I shall get on. There is nothing progressive about being pigheaded and refusing to admit a mistake. And I think if you look at the present state of the world, it is pretty plain that humanity has been making some big mistakes. We are on the wrong road. And if that is so, we must go back. Going back is the quickest way on.

The word “progress” is only intelligible if one accepts that there is something objective that one is progressing towards.  Again, we seem to miss the obvious about our own language.  Besides, as N.T. Wright has quipped about appeals to progress in the abstract:

They used to say that when people objected to cutting down ancient trees to build a new road, but we have begun to realize that progress in that sense wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.

A Word from Stephen Lovatt

Stephen Lovatt, who is an admittedly “quirky” writer (website here) published the following note on Facebook, that I think is quite interesting, and worth sharing.  Enjoy/

Things that Atheists say

Stephen Lovatt·Friday, August 19, 2016\l “

“A substantial claim must be backed by substantial evidence for it to be taken seriously.”

This evidential principle characteristic of hard-core empiricism is more at home in a court of Law than in philosophical dialogue.

On the one hand, no amount of evidence can ever properly justify any general universal proposition, such as are the business of Physics and Ontology. Physics advances by disproofs, not proofs. As Einstein put it: “No amount of corroboratory evidence can prove my theory; but one piece of contrary evidence can disprove it.” There is always the need to exercise faith, and always the need to remain humble: open to being proved wrong, so that one can improve ones understanding.

On the other hand, many (sometimes quite astounding) things can be proven to be true without recourse to empirical evidence. Typically this is done by showing that opposite idea leads to a self-contradiction. Once it has been shown that “X is absurd”, it is beyond any dispute or doubt that “not-X is true.” For example, the fact that there are irrational numbers can be established by proving that the statement “Pi is the ratio of two integers” leads to an absurdity. Hence, a resolute acceptance of logic, and a willingness to being proved wrong is a powerful means of gaining understanding and wisdom.

The most substantial claim possible is that of the Atheist, namely that contrary to the fundamental principles of both Physics and Ontology – everything that exists came into existence from absolute non-being. This is such an extravagant claim that it behoves any hard-core Empiricist to back it up with an overwhelming body of evidence. In fact there is no evidence whatsoever in favour of this claim. All the evidence which does exist suggests that every thing which exists does so because of other things which exist and/or existed beforehand, and this is a foundational principle of both Physics and Ontology: “Nothing comes from nothing: nothing ever could!”

The lesser claim: that the Universe we live in arose from some pre-existent extra-cosmic context (such as a hyper-verse of inflating proto-spacetime) is precisely equivalent – as far as Ontology goes – to the Theistic statement that our Universe arose from a transcendent un-caused first cause. The difference is only in language and specific detail. No serious minded Ontologist would dare attempt specify the detailed constitution of the un-caused first cause, as this would seem to be beyond human experience and subject to no kind of empirical test. Nevertheless, it is clear that any Physics theory of the origination of our Universe, will certainly and inevitably be accountable as a “theory of the Mind of God”, as expressed in formal mathematics.

“There is no evidence in favour of God being real.”

This is simply false. The most that can be said is that “there is no empirical evidence of God being real.” It would not be surprising if this were true, as empirical evidence always pertains to statements about material things and the behaviours of material things and the very idea of God excludes the possibility of God being a material thing.

Even so, there is empirical evidence of a kind to the effect that God is real (but not the kind that any atheist will be willing to accept, of course) in the form of answers to prayer, miracles and spiritual experiences of various kinds. Moreover, Christians believe that Jesus of Nazareth – a historic person who lived and died in Roman Palestine – is “empirical evidence of God being real.” Of course, no atheist is going to accept this evidence, and will typically claim that either Jesus of Nazareth never existed, or is misrepresented in the Gospels, or else that – even if He did exist and is not misrepresented in the Gospels – the mere existence of such a man (even if he rose from the dead) does not establish that what he believed and taught was correct. It is important to recognise that whatever empirical evidence there might be of God’s reality, it would always be possible to dismiss it as not establishing God’s reality, but only that “the world is a more complex and wonderful place than we had guessed.” Even if a huge bearded face appeared in the Sky over London and said “Hello, I am God,” it would not be necessary to take this as evidence that God was real. It might be some huge con-trick on the part of some human or extra-terrestrial agency. It might be a demon, trying to mislead humanity. It might be a manifestation of Gaia-consciousness. Who is to say? What is certain is that no serious Theist would take such a manifestation at face value. The same would go for any other empirical evidence of God’s reality.

All empirical evidence is connected to physical reality and can only indicate possibilities pertaining to physical reality. Hence insisting that there must be empirical evidence of God being real is itself absurd; and insisting on having such evidence as a precondition to belief in God’s reality necessarily and certainly excludes any possibility of ever having to accept that God is real. As soon as a person makes such a stipulation they are clearly exonerated from looking into any empirical “evidence” that anyone suggests might establish God’s reality because they can be entirely certain – quite apart from any investigation of this “evidence” – that it cannot possibly do what its proposer claims. Such a person may believe themselves sophisticated, but this belief would be founded on nothing more than their insistence on a foolish and absurd precondition.

There is, however, substantial evidence that God is real. This evidence is not empirical, but rather of a character congruent with the proposition it is supposed to establish as true. The first tranche of evidence is the actual existence of material things. This is the main reason why most people in the history of humanity have believed in God or gods. The main “job” of such theistic belief is to explain how it comes to be the case that anything at all exists. The Cosmological Argument is no more than a formal treatment of this universally accessible evidence. It establishes the reality of an un-caused first cause from the facts that things exist – and are as they actually are – and the intuitive conviction (which is the basis of Physics) that they might not have existed and need not be as we actually find them to be. All the work of theoretical physicists directed at explaining the origin of our Universe (in terms of quantum fluctuations in the Higgs field, or as crystals forming in an inflating matrix of proto-spacetime, or whatever) shows that the Cosmological argument has great force and is generally accepted as true by physicists in practice, even if it is rejected out of hand, verbally.

The second tranche of evidence is the idea which humans have that “there is value”. If this idea is not to dismissed as a delusion or fantasy (Nihilism is the alternate option, I grant) the Ontological argument leads inexorably to the conclusion that the Greatest Conceivable Being is necessarily real and self-actualising.

The third tranche of evidence is the direct subjective experience which human beings have of themselves as being conscious. Although this fact of experience is not directly evidential of God, it does incontrovertibly establish that there is an aspect of reality which is irreducible to and inexplicable in terms of “particles in motion”. This aspect of reality is exactly what is usually referred to as “spiritual”, and so the one fact which any conscious human being knows directly and with certainty – unlike any fact about material existence, which facts are always mediated by sense data – is the fact that they are themselves a spiritual being: an experientially conscious person whose core reality is not accountable in terms of matter.

This fact about human reality does not obviously imply that God is real; but it does establish that it is absurd to rule out the possibility of non-physical being and that it is reasonable to postulate a mode of reality which is transcendent of matter. To step from this conclusion to the statement “God is real” is not difficult – especially when due consideration is given to the Cosmological and Ontological Arguments, and particularly when it is noticed that the ideas of “value” and “significance” are closely linked in conventional thought with consciousness. By this I mean that if a being is incapable of being conscious of some fact (such as the fact that they are being ripped apart, limb from limb) then this fact does not have any real ethical significance or value; but if they are conscious of some fact (whatever it might be) then their consciousness of this fact elevates it to a level of ethical significance. As Msgr Ronnie Knox once said: “Nothing matters if no-one minds.” Conversely, anything matters if some-one minds.

It can, of course, be objected that the Cosmological and Ontological Arguments do no more than establish what theoretical Physicists take for granted in their Cosmological research, namely that there must be a pre-existent proto-reality beyond our Universe from which our Universe sprang, crystallised or whatever. Contrariwise, the Ontological Argument strongly suggests that consciousness must be constitutive of the Greatest Conceivable Being, for else this being would lack what would seem to be an obvious perfection – and indeed lack that perfection which may well be the foundational basis of value, and hence of what “greatest” means! Moreover, the Cosmological Argument strongly suggests that the conscious aspect of human reality must arise from a conscious aspect of the uncaused first-cause; though I grant that this might be more of a proto-consciousness (a potential for being conscious) rather than an actual consciousness.

“Theists delude themselves, the truth of the matter is that there is nothing more than material reality and nothing that exists has any real value, all existence being futile.”

This is a theoretically tenable position, if both the Cosmological and Ontological argument are rejected as somehow invalid; but even then it is not necessitated by the facts. It is a choice that can be made, but is at best motivated by a perverse invocation of Occam’s Razor: if one chooses to ignore everything other than “particles in motion” then all that one will see is “particles in motion”; and it is undoubtedly true that: first, material reality is exhaustively identical with “particles in motion”; second, “particles in motion” cannot underpin or justify the notion of value; and, third, every aspect of the reality of “particles in motion” must be accounted as futile.

However, the facts that our Universe actually does exist (and, moreover, started out in a state of extremely low entropy) and that experientially conscious – that is, spiritual – beings exist within it who have ideas such as “value” and “purpose” and “justice” (and typically have a conviction that these ideas are substantive, not illusory) suggests that there is more to reality than is dreamed of in any Nihilistic Materialist’s philosophy. One can choose, perversely, to dismiss these facts as not worthy of explanation – and if one does so one must be a Nihilistic Materialist, I suppose – but there is no good reason for dismissing them, and every good reason for accepting that they require a congruent and adequate explanation.

Returning to the first topic covered in this note; if one is going to claim that the ideas of “value”, “purpose”, “justice” and “human rights” are illusory; it would seem that a hard-core Empiricist should have very good evidence to hand to back this up. However, it seems to me that there is not – and indeed could not be – any supporting evidence for this claim. The fact that one might be able to give, say, a plausible Darwinian (and/or “selfish gene”) account as to how these ideas may have arisen in practice does not even begin to establish that they are false in theory.

“The fact of suffering makes it impossible to believe in God’s reality.”

The fact of suffering is undoubtedly the biggest problem for Theists, it seems to me. The problem of suffering is typically posed as having three solutions: either God is not real; or God is powerless to alleviate human suffering, and is hence not worth bothering with; or else God doesn’t care about human suffering, and is hence not worth bothering with. This is account is invalid, because there is a fourth possibility. This is that suffering is an inescapable part of God’s business with and for humanity; and that without suffering the beneficial outcome that God is intent on achieving for humanity would be unattainable. The detailed workings out of this possibility are necessarily obscure, as we are not acquainted with the details of God’s purpose(s) for humanity – moreover it is plausible that this ignorance is itself an important aspect of the working out of this purpose – and even if we were better acquainted with God’s purposes, it is plausible that it would be beyond our comprehension as to why things have to be ordered as they are, rather than in any number of ways which we might (on our limited view of things) judge to be preferable.

I accept that human suffering is, at first sight, substantial circumstantial evidence contrary to the proposal that God is real; but it seems to me that to take it as conclusive is unwarranted. To do so would be like convicting a defendant after the case for the prosecution had been presented, and after all documentary evidence submitted by defence council – that is, the Bible and Christian Tradition – had been ruled inadmissible, but before the defendant has been allowed to testify and give their account of the evidence – that is, God’s own account of things to be delivered at the End of Time. This would be unjust and foolish.

Once more there is a decision to be made. One can either choose to reject this fourth possibility or one can choose to embrace it. The Ontological Argument suggests that God is benevolent and would seek to optimise and perfect Creation. The Judeo-Christian revelation is congruent with this idea. Hence there is no reason to reject it apart from psychological pessimism and/or a previous decision to embrace Nihilism and these reasons are themselves inadequately justified.

New word

Lots of short posts today.

In a rare moment of ingenuity, I came up with a new word: Cate-chasm.

Definition: The gulf between what someone thinks or understands about Catholicism, vs. what Catholicism actually is.

Example: “I’m not sure we will ever get most of the Diocese of Rochester to cross the Cate-Chasm.”

I realize that’s a bit of a cheap shot, but those familiar with the DOR will get it.  Anyway, expect the word to be used here a fair amount going forward.

More Vignettes

A few more blurbs from the Internet today.

First, Mark Shea has apparently been fired from the National Catholic Register.  See responses here, here and here.  Note that the second article is a parody of sorts.  Father Dwight Longenecker writes:

Everybody in the blogosphere seems obliged to weigh in on Mark Shea’s release from National Catholic Register.

Uh-oh, me too.

think we ought to put things in perspective. First of all, I think Mark and Simcha’s main problem is that they forgot some of the basic rules of writing. I’ve always understood that a good writer writes primarily for his audience–not for himself.

Again-uh oh.

If I’m right about this, the release of Mark and Simcha doesn’t have as much to do with their behavior as people, but with their behavior as writers. They’re both good writers, but maybe they forgot that to be a writer you are in a position of respect with your audience. If you know your audience is conservative religious people, then it’s not too smart to use profanity, go on ceaselessly about how dumb and hypocritical they are and how stupid their pet projects are. Criticize by all means, but criticize in a smart and specific way. It is possible to criticize with wit and charity–although in the present political climate I admit that this is increasingly difficult.

In my opinion Mark and Simcha were released not because they are bad people or bad writers or bad Catholics but simply because they were no longer successfully connecting with their audience.

I’m not saying that the folks at National Catholic Register have done this kind of scapegoating to Mark and Simcha– I think the editors at NCR have done a good job of being faithful to orthodox Catholicism while also allowing voices that are properly critical and appraising the state of Catholicism.

However there is a tendency for religious people to stone the prophets and throw the Jeremiahs among us down the well, and we should be aware of that tendency and listen closely to those who speak out and criticize our faults. If a prophet calls us to a reckoning we should listen and examine ourselves–not blame the prophet.

Now that Mark and Simcha are not in this circle any longer perhaps all of us who are involved can remember to engage with good manners, mutual respect and decent language, while we also examine ourselves to make sure we are not throwing our Jeremiahs us into the well.

I quote Father Longenecker at length because-in case it isn’t obvious-I think his approach is the best.  I am sorry to see Shea dropped from the Register’s roster, but I must concur that he [Shea] has been increasingly consumed by anger as of late.  Sad.

Second, The New Atlantis has posted what appears to be a fascinating report on the science beyond sexual orientation and gender identity.  Thus far, I have only skimmed the report.  One snippet:

In a 2012 review article entitled “Can We Change Sexual Orientation?” published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, psychologist Lee Beckstead wrote, “Although their sexual behavior, identity, and attractions may change throughout their lives, this may not indicate a change in sexual orientation … but a change in awareness and an expansion of sexuality.”

It is difficult to know how to interpret this claim — that sexual behavior, identity, and attractions may change but that this does not necessarily indicate a change in sexual orientation. We have already analyzed the inherent difficulties of defining sexual orientation, but however one chooses to define this construct, it seems that the definition would somehow be tied to sexual behavior, identity, or attraction. Perhaps we can take Beckstead’s claim here as one more reason to consider dispensing with the construct of sexual orientation in the context of social science research, as it seems that whatever it might represent, it is only loosely or inconsistently tied to empirically measurable phenomena.

Given the possibility of changes in sexual desire and attraction, which research suggests is not uncommon, any attempt to infer a stable, innate, and fixed identity from a complex and often shifting mélange of inner fantasies, desires, and attractions — sexual, romantic, aesthetic, or otherwise — is fraught with difficulties. We can imagine, for example, a sixteen-year-old boy who becomes infatuated with a young man in his twenties, developing fantasies centered around the other’s body and build, or perhaps on some of his character traits or strengths. Perhaps one night at a party the two engage in physical intimacy, catalyzed by alcohol and by the general mood of the party. This young man then begins an anguished process of introspection and self-exploration aimed at finding the answer to the enigmatic question, “Does this mean I’m gay?”

Current research from the biological, psychological, and social sciences suggests that this question, at least as it is framed, makes little sense. As far as science can tell us, there is nothing “there” for this young man to discover — no fact of nature to uncover or to find buried within himself. What his fantasies, or his one-time liaison, “really mean” is subject to any number of interpretations: that he finds the male figure beautiful, that he was lonely and feeling rejected the night of the party and responded to his peer’s attentions and affections, that he was intoxicated and influenced by the loud music and strobe lights, that he does have a deep-seated sexual or romantic attraction to other men, and so on. Indeed, psychodynamic interpretations of such behaviors citing unconscious motivational factors and inner conflicts, many of them interesting, most impossible to prove, can be spun endlessly.

What we can say with more confidence is that this young man had an experience encompassing complex feelings, or that he engaged in a sexual act conditioned by multiple complex factors, and that such fantasies, feelings, or associated behaviors may (or may not) be subject to change as he grows and develops. Such behaviors could become more habitual with repetition and thus more stable, or they may extinguish and recur rarely or never. The research on sexual behaviors, sexual desire, and sexual identity suggests that both trajectories are real possibilities.

The concept of sexual orientation is unusually ambiguous compared to other psychological traits. Typically, it refers to at least one of three things: attractions, behaviors, or identity. Additionally, we have seen that sexual orientation often refers to several other things as well: belonging to a certain community, fantasies (as distinct in some respects from attractions), longings, strivings, felt needs for certain forms of companionship, and so on. It is important, then, that researchers are clear about which of these domains are being studied, and that we keep in mind the researchers’ specified definitions when we interpret their findings.

Furthermore, not only can the term “sexual orientation” be understood in several different senses, most of the senses are themselves complex concepts. Attraction, for example, could refer to arousal patterns, or to romantic feelings, or to desires for company, or other things; and each of these things can be present either sporadically and temporarily or pervasively and long-term, either exclusively or not, either in a deep or shallow way, and so forth. For this reason, even specifying one of the basic senses of orientation (attraction, behavior, or identity) is insufficient for doing justice to the richly varied phenomenon of human sexuality.

Noting that I have not delved deep into this material, I’m inclined to say that this report makes a number of points that are certainly worthy of consideration.  I have long felt that claims about sexual orientation or gender identity are more of an “ontological” nature-so to speak-than biological or psychological assertions that can be definitively “pinned down” (to the extent the latter ever can be).  Again, my point for now is merely that these are interesting points.

Third, a great quip from the Holy Father last year:

Work, as it is commonly said, is necessary for maintaining the family, for raising children, for ensuring a dignified life for our loved ones. In speaking about a serious, honest person, the most beautiful thing that can be said is: “he or she is a worker”, one who works, one who in a community doesn’t just live off of others. There are many Argentinians today, I see, and I will say what we say: “No vive de arriba” [Don’t just live it up].

And indeed work, in its many forms, beginning with that in the home, is also concerned with the common good. Where does one learn this hard-working lifestyle? First of all, one learns it in the family. The family teaches work through the example of the parents: the father and the mother who work for the good of the family and of society.

In the Gospel, the Holy Family of Nazareth appears as a family of workers, and Jesus himself is called “son of a carpenter” (Mt 13:55) and even “the carpenter” (Mk 6:3). And St Paul would not fail to warn Christians: “If any one will not work, let him not eat” (2 Thess 3:10) — that’s a good recipe for losing weight, you don’t work, you don’t eat! The Apostle explicitly refers to the false spiritualism of some who indeed live off their brothers and sisters “not doing any work” (2 Thess 3:11). Commitment to work and the spiritual life, in the Christian conception, are not at all at odds with one another. It is important to understand this properly! Prayer and work can and must be in harmony, as St Benedict teaches. The absence of work damages the spirit, just as the absence of prayer damages practical activity.

Obviously, I mean the bolded language.

Fourth and finally, Jeff Mirius has some good comments on the Ad Orientem controversy:

When it comes to discussions of the liturgy, some readers find my viewpoint appalling, while others regard it as a breath of fresh air. The reason is fairly simple: I have an extremely “intellectual” piety, which means I find nearly every liturgical form and setting to be a distraction rather than an aid to worship. For me the best liturgical form and setting for the Mass is the simplest. I have no tendency to dress the Mass up with human ornamentation, attempting to make it more beautiful than it already is in itself. I am certainly annoyed by studied indifference or cheap frivolity, but I am also left cold by elaborate ceremony (both in the Mass and elsewhere).

My favorite Mass has always been the unadorned daily “low” Mass of the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite, said in my own language. As far as suiting my own piety goes, nothing else comes close. I don’t go to Mass to be moved emotionally. This applies equally to elaborate musical settings, particular liturgical “styles”, and efforts to make the community feel good about itself. It is true that I revere Palestrina and generally deplore “Glory and Praise”, but—just between you and me—I find that both distract me from the essence of the Mass.

What is the value of all this embarrassing self-disclosure? Simply this: It is important to reflect on how our own personalities, tastes, and piety affect our judgment of liturgy. If we recognize that we each respond to God on somewhat different wavelengths—or, to put it differently, that we are all inherently biased in different ways—we can escape false certainties about what is “the right way” to do things. Liturgical discussion can be less passionate, and far more fruitful.

In any case, before anyone decides to burn me at the stake, I should point out that, whatever else might be said about my own liturgical preferences, my sensibilities at least put me within the tradition of that “noble simplicity” which is supposed to be the chief characteristic of the Roman Rite. Detracting from the Rite’s nobility by banal translations or any sort of frivolity is out. But so is detracting from the Rite’s simplicity by convoluted phraseology, excessive repetition, or elaborate cultural ornamentation.

Definitely with you sir.  For those looking for a “counterpoint” from an usual POV, consider this one:

Time marches on. Structures are built and demolished, traditions develop and evolve. For some in the “reform of the reform” wing of the church, I’m sure, I could be the poster child for a whole generation of misguided Second Vatican Council Catholics, the personification of everything that went wrong with the Novus Ordo liturgy. I understand the criticisms of what happened in the American Catholic Church in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, and it makes me sad that so many people felt angry and betrayed by the changes in their church. But the seeds of grace that were planted in me at the guitar Masses in the old Our Lady of Victory Church almost 45 years ago grew and continue to bear fruit to this day. Those simple childhood graces now keep me rooted in my faith when the church’s adult complexities fail me.

I experienced as a child a true, intimate connection with God (a “one-ing,” Julian of Norwich might say) through sacred space and music, through touch and sight and sound. Now, when life isn’t everything it is supposed to be, I can recall those times and those feelings of peace and wholeness and reconnect with God, not as a 10-year-old, but as an adult confident in the enduring gift of God’s grace.

Not sure I agree, but there is a point there that is at least worthy of serious consideration.


A few things that have crossed my path recently.  In no particular order:

First, Anglican theologian Sarah Coakley is interviewed by Robert Lawrence Kuhn on Closer to Truth:

You have to love the woman’s clarity of thought.  Would that we had more like her!  More interviews here, here and here.

Second, speaking of Anglicans-I shared this article about a year ago, and on the one year anniversary of its posting, I thought it would be worth sharing again:

Many Anglican Protestants believe their Communion to be a middle way between Protestantism and Catholicism. Sadly, it’s not the case.

Anglicanism is firmly Protestant, even though it retains some Catholic aspects (deacon-priest-bishop, a liturgy, etc.).

The Anglican Ordinariate is a via into full communion for Anglicans, and I think it can be a via media between the Ordinary Form and the Extraodinary Form.

OurLadyOfWalsinghamChurchI find it perplexing that two main options for Mass exist: an Ordinary Form English Mass with banal music and little reverence (clapping, slovenly dress, chatter and gum chewing, etc.), and a solemn, ethereal Extraordinary Form High Mass that is quite beautiful and reverent, but where it is difficult to follow what is going on.

A via media between those options is the Anglican Ordinariate’s liturgy. I see it as more like what the (Second Vatican) Council Fathers intended when they opened up the Liturgy to the vernacular. (For more on this, I recommend Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis.) The closest thing to it currently would probably be the Extraordinary Form Low Mass, which we’ve found to be quite warm and accessible when we’ve gone to daily Mass.

I have been to a few Anglican Ordinariate Masses, and, candidly, have been rather disappointed.  I have found them more “mechanical” than high church services I have been to in Episcopal churches (note I did not use the word “Mass”), and generally found the Ordinariate Mass to be more akin to the Extraordinary Form than the Ordinary.  Still, I certainly appreciate this perspective, and hope to give the Ordinariate liturgy “another go” soon.

Third, a classic post from Father Stephen Freeman, on the “God Cocktail“:

The more we understand of our world, the more troublesome becomes our thought about ourselves within the world. If my experience of the world is inherently mediated by chemicals (via neurons, etc.), and that same experience can be significantly altered by altering the chemicals (increased serotonin, norepinephrine, dopamine, etc.), am I anything more than the sum-total of the chemical cocktail in my brain? What is the place of the self, the soul? Where is God in the chemical equation? Is there a chemistry of religious belief (and unbelief)?

Of course, there is nothing new in these questions. Materialism in one form or another (“the material universe is all there is”) has been an live option since the birth of philosophy in Greece. What is new is our increasing understanding of the workings of the material world and the sense of cogency that accompanies it. Materialism seems yet more cogent (sensible and plausible) because we can increasingly use only material arguments to account for all that we see.

Christians can easily become disquieted at this turn of events. The growing materialism of the modern world feels quite threatening for some. Many simply choose not to think too much about these things or grasp at every scientific straw that might lend support for the faith. My own thought is that the clash between materialism and the Christian faith is the result of bad theology and the failure to understand some very foundational aspects of the faith.

But what of the chemical mix, the brew within our brain within and through which we experience the world? Would an increase of dopamine or serotonin change our perception of the mysterious God? My own experience in life says no. My brain has been “all over the map” in the course of my lifetime. My perception of God has sometimes been more clear during times of great depression and quite dim when it was otherwise. And the opposite has been true as well. The perception of God is, in the teachings of the spiritual fathers, not driven by our emotional or mental states. It exists both within and beside these states.

There is a perception, a “seeing” that is beside the seeing of the mind. This is the perception of the heart. The tendency of our mind (thoughts and feelings) is to fragment everything. We see details. We are overwhelmed with details. We experience the world as a cacophony of the senses. Repelled by one and attracted by another, we stumble through life like a drunken man, pushed and pulled by the things around us. This is a description of the passionate life. With increased purity of the heart, however, there comes the increased ability to perceive the whole. To see one thing, not only as itself but in its relations as well, is the beginning of knowing the logos of something. Were we to perceive everything in such a manner, we would perceive the truth of all things. For nothing is as it is in itself, but only as it is in relation (including most especially its relation to God).

If there is a strength in our modern way of seeing, it is in the power unleashed by the focused seeing of one thing. The so-called scientific view breaks the universe into component parts and in all things seeks for causes and effects. Knowledge of one thing (more or less) splits the atom. But the failure to see all things and the logoi of their existence turns such power into sheer destruction. We know a great deal while knowing almost nothing. The question: where is God in the chemical cocktail, is the question of the scientist – it is to look for God as an atom among the atoms.

Powerful.  True.  Helpful.

Fourth, and finally, I have noted that while I am not a libertarian in the true sense of the word, my politics lean that way.  (As I’ve noted before, I prefer the nonexistent label “subsidiarian” to describe my position).  Generally speaking, I have found the Cato Institute to be a valuable source of information.  Recently, Cato published a short piece about reducing “unnecessary incarcerations”:

Until now, much of the debate on reducing incarceration has focused on changing the law to reduce the severity of prison sentences, especially for non-violent drug crimes. These efforts are valuable. However, even under the current law, there are thousands of people incarcerated in both state and federal prisons who should be released; they are actually innocent or have overserved their sentences.  Without resolving the larger questions about criminal justice policy, perhaps everyone can agree that these incarcerations are a waste of taxpayer money. even a government with no commitment to liberty would want to minimize such wasteful spending.

There is something coldly utilitarian about the rationale of this article, to be sure.  I find it hard to understand how one can bracket questions of justice in the face of the abomination that is the United States criminal justice system.  I’m not exaggerating either-from where I stand (as an attorney for those who don’t know) I find few things more repugnant to justice than unjustified incarcerations.  But that’s a rant for another day.