The Paradox of Abstract Traditionalism

January 31, 2007 § 1 Comment

Lydia McGrew makes the following observation:

The thing is that not many paleocons I’ve known have been willing to come right out and say that they don’t really mean to laud tradition qua tradition but rather one particular tradition, and that all bets are off (e.g. on whether people should defer to their own tradition, accept their “traditionally given identity,” etc.) when we’re talking about a non-Western context.

There is more preceding and subsequent to the comment, and it is worthwhile reading the whole discussion.

In the Marvel comic universe there is a vengeful hero named the Punisher who kills bad guys in cold blood. After a particularly vicious act of slaughtering bad guys he is asked “What makes you any different from them?”

The Punisher answers “I’m right and they’re dead.”

Now, any regular reader knows that I am no fan of the Punisher’s morality or methods. He is a broken figure, evil because of his brokenness, and needs to reform. But the episode brings into relief the fact that any one concrete situation is fundamentally different, at the level of incarnate reality, from another. The odd mix of narcissism with know-nothing fundamentalism that constitutes much of Islam’s tradition is not the tradition of Western Catholic Christendom.

Now one thing that I believe to be true is that for homo sapiens, meaning literally isn’t possible without tradition. We exist in a concrete reality which we cannot make completely explicit, and that concrete reality provides us with (among other things) pre-verbal meaning without which the things that we do make explicit are meaningless. But that doesn’t mean that what we incorporate as meaningful from that reality into our lives is necessarily true simply in virtue of being a tradition. So tradition cannot be banished, discounted, ignored, or asserted to be irrelevant in the face of that which has been made explicit: to do so is to deny the possibility of meaning entirely. But on the other hand, there isn’t anything about some arbitrary tradition -qua- tradition which makes it necessarily true, any more than some arbitrary sentence on a piece of paper is necessarily true.

So the upshot of it all is that tradition – and here I mean small-t pre-verbal tradition, not tradition that has been transformed into some explicit principles which we label Tradition with a capital T – has and must have epistemic authority coequal to that which is explicit. And yet, as with the things we’ve made explicit, there is no guarantee that a given pre-verbal incarnate tradition corresponds to incarnate truth. What guarantees correspondence to incarnate truth is connectedness to God Incarnate. What guarantees correspondence to incarnate truth is the Eucharist, Christ crucified and risen.

So the next time some modernist wag asks what the difference is between authentic Western Christian traditionalism and Islamic (or some other) traditionalism, you have a pithy answer: Christ is right, and those not with Christ are dead.

NFP: Graphic Sex Version

January 30, 2007 § 23 Comments

(Update: see this post also).

It occurred to me after our discussion a few days ago that when it comes to NFP, people appreciate graphical charts. So I’ve tried to summarize my view graphically in this post.

I am assuming that the reason for using NFP is a mutually agreed reason and that the couple intends to avoid pregnancy. I’ve also tried to clarify the difference between periodic abstinence and temporary abstinence in the lower graph. (It should be noted that – except in cases where a person has taken a vow of perpetual continence – all intentional abstinences from sex, including priestly celibacy and the continence of the unmarried, are temporary in the sense meant here).

You can see from the chart that NFP as a means to avoid pregnancy is superfluous in the sense that it is never morally obligatory. There is always a different licit option – temporary abstinence – available to the couple. If the reasons for using NFP are not grave enough then it shouldn’t be used. If the reasons are too grave then using it would be imprudent and thus morally wrong. Temporary abstinence doesn’t suffer from any of these weaknesses, and in fact is the better way in all cases if the couple can bring themselves to accept it willingly and lovingly.

Another thing you can see from the chart – and perhaps the most controversial bit – is the issue of just how wide the “bump” in which NFP is justified happens to be, and even the extent to which and precise manner in which it exists at all.

In my view NFP is a mercy, provided in response to human weakness. It is not “the best way” to carry out God’s plan for marriage. It is medicine, not food. And it is dysfunctional to treat medicine as food.

There is a caveat in here about temporary abstinence as well. Married couples have a positive obligation to bring children into the world. It isn’t an absolute obligation: indeed, Josephite marriage can be a very holy state in its own right. But frivolously failing to fulfill the obligation to be fruitful would be wrong, even if the means used were temporary abstinence (as opposed to periodic abstinence). The point though is that there is no positive obligation to engage in sex with some particular frequency.

All, of course, in my own view. My own view isn’t ex cathedra, but it is consistent with what the Magisterium has taught about NFP as far as I can tell; and more triumphalist views of NFP do not seem to be consistent with what the Magisterium has taught about NFP.

Note: Simply put, periodic abstinence is abstinence during the fertile periods. Temporary abstinence is abstinence until the reason for avoiding pregnancy comes to an end.

St. Paul on Positivism

January 30, 2007 § Leave a comment

If there are prophecies, they will be brought to nothing;
if tongues, they will cease;
if knowledge, it will be brought to nothing.
For we know partially and we prophesy partially,
but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.
When I was a child, I used to talk as a child,
think as a child, reason as a child;
when I became a man, I put aside childish things.
At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror,
but then face to face.
At present I know partially;
then I shall know fully, as I am fully known.

Conscience and Truth

January 26, 2007 § 4 Comments

This morning, when I read this:

“When the end came, Hussein said, ‘My conscience is clear,’ but that is the problem with conscience; if ignored in the early stages of ethical deliberation, it fades, and finally disappears. Conversely, if one follows what is known to be right—even in times of great personal cost—this contributes to an increasing insight into living a genuinely good life.”

…it immediately brought to mind this:

“To the affirmation that one has a duty to follow one’s conscience is unduly added the affirmation that one’s moral judgment is true merely by the fact that it has its origin in the conscience. But in this way the inescapable claims of truth disappear, yielding their place to a criterion of sincerity, authenticity and ‘being at peace with oneself’, so much so that some have come to adopt a radically subjectivistic conception of moral judgment.

As is immediately evident, the crisis of truth is not unconnected with this development. […]

Indeed, just as man in exercising his dominion over the world shapes it in accordance with his own intelligence and will, so too in performing morally good acts, man strengthens, develops and consolidates within himself his likeness to God.”


January 25, 2007 § 1 Comment

Referencing the Filioque in a combox at Sacramentum Vitae, a commenter asked:

“How in the world can the Son being an *equal* source *not* rule out the monarchy of the Father, without some heavy-duty semantical gymnastics?”

It seems to me that every claim of equality implies at least one more semantic step, without which the claim of equality is meaningless. In the abstract all that “equal” means is that some attribute is identical among specified instances: that the things being specified are identical in some respect. With numbers that attribute is quantity. With anything other than numbers, every claim of equality is empty without specifying the putatively identical attribute(s).

Example: suppose two men are identical twins with precisely equal genetic codes. Both are equally human beings, as well, and share all attributes which are common to all human beings. Suppose they have equal amounts of money in their bank accounts and they drive the same kind of car. Both of their wives are equally blonde. They both put equal investments into Google. Yet one of the twins happens to be king, while the other is not.

“Equal” always raises the question “equal with respect to what?” If that question is not answered in specific detail, down to an atomic attribute (like quantity), then the claim of equality is at best multivocal and at worst completely meaningless.

Understanding God the Father and God the Son as equal eternal sources of the Spirit, and simultaneously understanding God the Father as monarch, would only be problemmatic if “sources of the Spirit” and “monarch” were the same attribute. But it isn’t at all obvious that they are the same attribute. (My core point here isn’t about the theology, it is about the concept “equal”).

The thing to realise is that when it is asserted that one thing (or person) is equal to another thing (or person), it is an assertion of identity between one thing and another thing; an assertion which is meaningless without specifying the precise atomic attribute with respect to which both are identical.

Learning NFP Will Make You Unhappy

January 25, 2007 § 23 Comments

…unless you have a compelling reason why you need to learn it. It will make you unhappy, that is, unless you are the sort who is made happier by taking on unnecessary emotional and moral burdens.

An anonymous commenter in the post below makes the following observations:

My spouse and I learned NFP while engaged and I can agree that often it can be undertaken in a contraceptive mindset. My comment is: it sometimes (often?) occurs that the wife feels “in the mood” during the fertile times only. This causes a burden in the couple’s mind: Do we or don’t we? if they want to take advantage of the wife’s desire yet want to space their children out a little. CCLI for example will tell you that breastfeeding your child will give you infertility for an extended period, which sometimes doesn’t turn out to be true. In this case the couple is faced with a choice to “risk” pregnancy by making love when the wife is interested, or constrain their relations to outside the fertile period when her desires can be more for sleep than anything else, especially when she cares for children the couple already has! Perhaps this is not getting to the point, but we have struggled against sometimes resenting God for creating the female body and mind with this connection. “Does the clay say to the potter, why did you make me this way?” (Isaiah). Resentment of God is something one should confess during Reconciliation.

Engaged and married couples should know this: that learning this thing, if it isn’t necessary to learn it, can make you less happy and more burdened than you could have otherwise been. It is better – in the sense that you will be happier and less burdened – to not learn it, unless you have a compelling reason to learn it.

The distinction between pursuit of knowledge for love of the Creator who made all things that there are to know, versus pursuit of knowledge to emancipate ourselves from Him, goes all the way back to the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden. I think anyone who is honest with himself (at least anyone as old and tired as me) can think of things he would like to unlearn. Knowledge – at least the finite sort we have as human beings – is not morally neutral. It isn’t just that there are some mysteries which cannot be banished (though there are): there are some mysteries which, as particular people situated in particular historical contexts, we would be better off not banishing.

This sex education moment has been brought to you by Zippy Catholic

January 22, 2007 § 4 Comments

It is OK to intentionally avoid pregnancy for either short or extended periods of time. Really, it is OK. Relax. It isn’t a moral dilemma.

Pregnancy can be avoided by not engaging in any sex for the period of time that pregnancy is being avoided. It is perfectly fine for married couples to refrain from sex, and the reasons for doing so don’t have to be ironclad. In fact, there doesn’t even have to be any particular explicit reason at all. (It would be wrong to refrain from sex as a way of being mean to one’s spouse, of course, but I am in this post referring to mutual decisions reached by the couple).

So if you bought expensive nonrefundable tickets to go to Europe next year and you don’t want to be pregnant on the trip, you can very straightforwardly and licitly avoid being pregnant on the trip. You don’t even need a thermometer. (If you do need to use a thermometer, then the pregnancy avoidance method you plan to use is probably immoral in this case).

If one of you needs to work while the other finishes a degree, you can very straightforwardly avoid the difficulty of adding a pregnancy and a new baby to that mix.

And if you aren’t a Kalahari Bushman – probably even if you are one – then you know how to go about avoiding pregnancy without any training or education. I don’t have to give you any more hints than I already have.

On the other hand, making something that isn’t a moral dilemma into a moral dilemma can be a problem. Usually when we take something that isn’t a moral dilemma and turn it into one it is because we are trying to justify doing something we shouldn’t.

Catholicism is History

January 20, 2007 § Leave a comment


NFP: It Isn’t Brain Surgery

January 18, 2007 § 53 Comments

But it has a lot in common with brain surgery as a moral matter.

Not everyone who has a brain and uses her brain needs to know how to do it, or what is involved in having it done, for example.

Doing it for other than serious reasons – or even for the wrong sort of serious reasons – is morally wicked, as another example.

Whether or not doing it is morally licit in a particular case depends on a lot of intimate knowledge about the persons involved. (Not just about the patient either: about everyone involved).

The notion that NFP – understood as a natural method to limit or prevent pregnancies – is good in itself is like the notion that brain surgery is good in itself. That is, both notions are wrong.

One key difference between NFP and brain surgery though is that there are always alternatives to NFP which don’t end up with someone dying; whereas sometimes there is no alternative, other than death, to brain surgery.

I remain unconvinced that NFP is necessarily a good thing in a significant number of actual cases. It seems to me that if the reasons are serious enough to warrant NFP, they are probably – most or all of the time – serious enough to warrant abstinence. That doesn’t mean that NFP is morally illicit in those cases (though it might be if the risks involved in pregnancy are grave enough). But it does mean that NFP, as a behavioral tool in the moral toolbox – and quite unlike brain surgery – is probably dispensible.

Mere Prudence

January 18, 2007 § 1 Comment

A lot is hay is made of the notion that Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae is a teaching of merely the prudential order. But I get the impression that either the haymakers don’t understand what the word “prudential” means or I don’t understand it. So let me explain briefly how I understand prudential counsel and how it does and does not apply as a qualifier to the teaching in EV.

As a general rule, when we make moral judgements about human acts we are evaluating both the facts of the matter and the principles which apply to those facts. And we know that the components of a human act, for the purposes of moral theology, are the act’s object (the chosen behavior of the acting subject), its intent (what the acting subject is trying to accomplish, both immediately and mediately), and the circumstances. The haymakers seem to me to be failing to distinguish between principles governing circumstances and judgements about particular circumstantial facts; or at least focusing on the latter to the complete exclusion of the former.

Because to the extent that Pope John Paul II was rendering judgements about the actual facts of our actual circumstances, it is true that his counsel doesn’t necessarily fall under the charism of his office in teaching the principles of faith and morals. The Pope doesn’t have a special charism for determining whether or not the Iranians actually plan to nuke Israel, or whether or not Saddam Hussein actually was a threat even though imprisoned. But Evangelium Vitae doesn’t merely state what the circumstantial facts about modern society happen to be: it isn’t merely a prudential counsel. It also articulates moral principles governing circumstances, once we’ve determined what those circumstances actually are as a matter of fact. Those moral principles are not merely counsel of the prudential order: they are teachings about morals.

I think some folks are confused about the scope of the Church’s authority on moral matters. The Church’s authority on moral matters doesn’t stop at the object of the act, limiting it to articulating absolute prohibitions of certain specific behaviors. It extends also to principles which govern the intentions and circumstances which compose human acts. Indeed many teachings – the Just War teaching comes immediately to mind – wouldn’t make any sense if this were not the case.

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