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Man as center of creation

In our day, when the development of the sciences attracts and seduces with the possibilities they offer, it is more important than ever to educate the consciences of our contemporaries in order to prevent science from becoming the criterion of good and to ensure that man is respected as the centre of creation and not made the object of ideological manipulation, arbitrary decisions or the abuse of the weaker by the stronger. These are some of the dangers we have experienced in human history, especially during the 20th century.

Benedict XVI

Address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Jan 28, 2008

Jules van Schaijik

The goodness of lamenting

Oct. 5, 2009, at 12:07pm

There is one aspect of mere conservatism or traditionalism that I have never liked: namely, what seems to me an overly pessimistic view about the present coupled with a largely unfruitful nostalgia for the past. It seems to be such a hopeless view, so dreary. One reason, in fact, why I think Personalism is so important right now, is that it provides the key to retaining most of the good things of the past, while enabling us to rethink those things in light of the positive developments of the modern period (most of which are related, in one way or another, to a deepening sense of personal selfhood). God is still with us. His truth is still marching on.

Having said that, let me now add that Mark Henrie, in “Understanding Traditionalist Conservatism,” an article he kindly sent me after reading my last post, has made me more sympathetic to traditionalist nostalgia. He shows that it is neither unfruitful, nor necessarily anti-present.

“The traditionalist conservative’s first feeling,” Mark writes, “the intuition that constitutes his moral source, is the sense of loss, and hence, of nostalgia.” By itself this is perhaps too obvious to mention, but Mark draws several conclusions from it which, I for one, had never considered. First, he shows that this explains why it normally has a reactionary flavor.

The conservative spirit, as such, arises only when loss is at hand, or, probably more frequently, when loss has occurred. Consequently, there is always a “reactionary” dimension to such conservatism; the conservative typically arrives “too late” for mere conservation.

Secondly, and more significantly from a philosophical point view, that same sense of loss also serves as an important source of knowledge. The absence of what is lost not only makes the heart grow fonder, but also helps the mind to see more clearly. Here’s how Mark puts it:

While in possession, we take our good for granted and, so, often fail to recognize it. But in the face of loss, the human good is vividly revealed to us. We lament the loss of goods, not the loss of evils, which is why lament illuminates. Is it not striking that whereas antebellum Southern writers championed both the economic and moral superiority of the “peculiar institution,” post-bellum Southern conservatives typically did not lament the loss of slavery, but rather lamented the loss of gentility, gallantry, domesticity, and the virtues of yeoman agriculturalists? While it may be true that nostalgia views the past through “rose-colored glasses,” such a criticism misses the point. To see the good while blinkered against evils is, nevertheless, to see the good.

Lastly, by remembering, and hence keeping alive in some way, the goods that are rapidly disappearing from today’s culture—e.g. “communal solidarity, friendship, leisure, honor and nobility, and religious ‘enchantment’”—, traditional conservatives perform an invaluable service to modern America, which has been influenced too heavily and exclusively by a Lockean, individualist liberalism. This, if I can take Mark’s word for it, is why Russell Kirk so often insisted on the need “to revivify the ‘moral imagination’ through a serious engagement with poetry and imaginative literature.” This “prophetic call for the cultivation of moral imagination was an attempt to free Americans from liberal ideology so that they could begin to name those other elements of the human good which are obscured in the liberal dispensation.”

There is a lot of truth and insight in all this. Mere conservatism, indeed, is no answer. It has no future because it lacks the crucial element of life, and of growth. Without conservation, on the other hand, there can be no life and growth either: only decline and corruption.


Katie van Schaijik

Two must-read articles on sexuality and porn

Oct. 4, 2009, at 5:07pm

In an article in the latest issue of First Things, What Does Woman Want?, Mary Eberstadt brilliantly exposes the link between the rising tide of pornography (and the social pressure among secularists to treat it as a harmless, if vaguely embarrassing, pastime) and unhappy, sexless marriages.

Yet the explanation from imposed gender neutrality does not by itself go far enough. Something else lurks under the rocks picked up by the fashionable writing about marriage these days—something that crawls away from the light even as it squirms just under the surface of much of the new confessionalism.

“Don’t eat too many snacks, or you’ll ruin your dinner.” Every woman issuing the new literature of complaint and heartache will understand just how meaningful the saying is—at least when it applies to kids and dinnertime. Yet sexual satiety, of the kind that oozes by other names from so much female confessional literature these days, is almost never recognized the same way. In particular, pornography is the invisible ink of many of these essays and lives—obvious one minute, unnoticed the next, and the bearer of a message no one apparently sees. Understood or not, however, it appears to be leaving a mark on at least some of these publicly lived lives.

In Loh’s essay, for example, a husband—as it happens, one of those husbands no longer interested in sex with his wife—bookmarks his pornography on the computer; his wife knows all about it, even reports it to her friends who are also commiserating about their sexless marriages—and no one seems to connect the dots at all. Another writer for Salon, reflecting on Loh’s essay, similarly nudges up against this obvious if missing piece of the puzzle (in a piece called “Why Your Marriage Sucks”), noting, “I write this article from a hotel room in New York City, where nearly a dozen porn movies are on offer”—a fact the author uses to highlight what she thinks of as an irony, when it might instead suggest something else: a possible causal relation between all those movies on the one hand and, on the other hand, a loss of romantic interest on the part of those who think them inconsequential.

The article brought to mind Charles Williams’ novel, Descent into Hell, which I read many years ago, after learning that Charles Williams was one of the Inklings and that Tom Howard had written his dissertation on his novels. In it the lead character, by preferring a fantasy to reality, gradually cuts himself off from everything, becoming in the process less and less human, less and less real and good and true. More and more this seems to me the prime temptation of modern existence: reality avoidance.

Roger Scruton, in a paper given for the Witherspoon Institute: The Abuse of Sex eviscerates the utilitarian myths about sex that dominate our culture. And he does it phenomenologically (i.e. starting from the data of moral experience), and via personalism, in a way reminiscent of Josef Pieper and Dietrich von Hildebrand.

[Sexual desire] is rooted in animal instincts. But in a person desire is re-centered, self-attributed to the I, so as to become part of the inter-personal dialogue. Hence sexual desire, as we know it, is peculiar to human beings. It is an interpersonal emotion, in which subject and object confront each other I to I. In describing sexual desire we are describing John’s desire for Mary, or Jane’s desire for Bill. And the people themselves will not merely describe their desires, but also experience them, as my desire for you. ‘I want you’ is not a figure of speech but the true expression of what I feel. And here the pronouns identify that very centre of free and responsible choice which constitutes the inter-personal reality of each of us. I want you as the free being that you are, and your freedom is wrapped up in the thing I want.

...This is not a state of the body, even though it involves certain bodily changes. It is a process in the soul, a steady awakening of one person to another, through touches, glances and caresses. The exchange of glances is particularly important here, and illustrates a general feature of personal relations. People look at each other, as animals do. But they also look into each other, and do this in particular when mutually aroused. The look of desire is like a summons, a call to the other self to show itself in the eyes, to weave its own freedom and selfhood into the beam that calls to it….Likewise the caress and the touch of desire have an epistemic character: they are an exploration, not of a body, but of a free being in his or her embodiment. They too call to the other in his freedom, and are asking him to show himself.

...Persons are individuals, not merely in the weak sense of being substances that can be reidentified, and which undergo change, but in the strong sense of being identified, both by themselves and by others, as unique, irreplaceable, not admitting of substitutes.

...It follows from this that, in those relations between persons in which self and other relate as subject and object, each is viewed as unique, without a substitute. As I try to show in my book, this has an immediate impact on sexual desire. John, frustrated in his desire for Mary, cannot be offered Jane as a substitute – someone who says ‘Take Jane, she will do just as well’ has not understand what John wants, in wanting Mary.

His conclusion about the effects of pornography is remarkably similar to Mary Eberstadt’s:

Like all cost-free forms of pleasure, porn is habit-forming. It short-circuits that round- about route to sexual satisfaction which passes by the streams and valleys of arousal, in which the self is always at risk from the other, and always motivated to give itself freely in desire… It exhibits in addition, however, a depersonalizing habit – a habit of viewing sex as something external to the human personality, to relationship, and to the arena of free encounters. Sex is reduced to the sexual organs, which are stuck on, in the imagination, like cut-outs in a child’s picture. To think that this can be done, and the habit of doing it fully established, without damage to a person’s capacity to be a person, or to relate to other persons as one sexual being to others, is to make a large and naïve assumption about the ability of the mind to compartmentalize. Indeed psychologists and psychotherapists are increasingly encountering the damage done by porn, not to marriages and relationships only, but to the very capacity to engage in them. Sex, portrayed in the porno-image, is an affair of attractive people with every technical accomplishment. Most people are not attractive, and with only second-class equipment. Once they are led by their porn addiction to see sex in the instrumentalized way that porn encourages, they begin to lose confidence in their capacity to enjoy sex in any other way than through fantasy. People who lose confidence in their ability to attract soon become unattractive. And then the fear of desire arises, and from that fear the fear of love. This, it seems to me, is the real risk attached to pornography. Those who become addicted to this risk-free form of sex run a risk of another and greater kind. They risk the loss of love, in a world where only love brings happiness.


Katie van Schaijik

Weigel at Immaculata

Oct. 1, 2009, at 11:41am

Last night we attended a talk by George Weigel at Immaculata University comparing John Paul II and Edith Stein.  My reaction was somewhat mixed.  Weigel has a marvelous command of the timeline of their lives and some of the major points of convergence between these two giants of 20th century Catholicism and 20th century philosophy: their shared faith and intellectual vocation, their common critique of the atheism and materialism of the modern world, their profound interest in re-establishing the right relation between faith and reason, their work to bring Thomism and phenomenology into fruitful contact with each other, their contributions toward a Christian femininism, and so on. 
But for someone passionately devoted to personalism, the talk was frustratingly devoid of mention, never mind explication, of that basic legacy, which is, to my mind, the great, compensatory achievement of the entire modern period.  He did offer a few nuggets for deeper reflection on that score, however.  One was in the form of a quote from Henri de Lubac that admirably encapsulates the communitarian implications of personalism [paraphrasing from memory]: “We may organize society without God, but only if we organize it against each other.”  Another was a reminder of John Paul’s emphasis on culture and fostering a “communal subjectivity”, without which we will be pitifully prone to the domination of a soulless statism.
Here is a task I would like to set for our circle:
An essay comparing and contrasting humanism and personalism.  In other words, I propose that the personalism is the new humanism called for by JP II, and that it is importantly different from and more potent for meeting the challenges of our day than the old humanism.  I propose further that personalism is a fruit of (and not just a reaction against) the modern world.  I would so love to see better philosophers than I am take up this theme!


Katie van Schaijik

Newman on perfection

Sep. 29, 2009, at 11:25pm

Here is the context for the great Newman quote in Jules’ post below.

A Short Road to Perfection

September 27, 1856

IT is the saying of holy men that, if we wish to be perfect, we have nothing more to do than to perform the ordinary duties of the day well. A short road to perfection—short, not because easy, but because pertinent and intelligible. There are no short ways to perfection, but there are sure ones.

I think this is an instruction which may be of great practical use to persons like ourselves. It is easy to have vague ideas what perfection is, which serve well enough to talk about, when we do not intend to aim at it; but as soon as a person really desires and sets about seeking it himself, he is dissatisfied with anything but what is tangible and clear, and constitutes some sort of direction towards the practice of it.

We must bear in mind what is meant by perfection. It does not mean any extraordinary service, anything out of the way, or especially heroic—not all have the opportunity of heroic acts, of sufferings—but it means what the word perfection ordinarily means. By perfect we mean that which has no flaw in it, that which is complete, that which is consistent, that which is sound—we mean the opposite to imperfect. As we know well what imperfection in religious service means, we know by the contrast what is meant by perfection.

He, then, is perfect who does the work of the day perfectly, and we need not go beyond this to seek for perfection. You need not go out of the round of the day.

I insist on this because I think it will simplify our views, and fix our exertions on a definite aim. If you ask me what you are to do in order to be perfect, I say, first—Do not lie in bed beyond the due time of rising; give your first thoughts to God; make a good visit to the Blessed Sacrament; say the Angelus devoutly; eat and drink to God’s glory; say the Rosary well; be recollected; keep out bad thoughts; make your evening meditation well; examine yourself daily; go to bed in good time, and you are already perfect.


Jules van Schaijik

More on ideology

Sep. 29, 2009, at 11:20pm

The question of what exactly an ideology is, how it functions in human life, why it appeals and how it affects us, has been with me ever since I posted about it a week or so ago. Here are some points from my reading and reflecting that I thought might interest others.

Ideologies lead to homogeneity
First, I have been reading a great and probing lecture by our friend Mark Henrie (not to be confused with Mark Henry). (Katie linked to it some weeks back; here it is again). Its central theme is ideology and conservatism’s resistance to it. According to Mark, the essence of ideology lies in its claim “to have captured the whole truth about man” and the correlative proclamation of “a universal history for all the world.” On the basis of a presumed insight into the universal nature of man, ideologies work to impose a homogeneous (and ultimately global) state.

Conservatives, he argues further, while unlikely to fall into the danger of communism, are by no means immune to the danger of ideology as such. Adherence to the ideology of individualistic liberalism, for instance, or of the unrestrained free market is widespread. The reductive and depersonalizing tendencies inherent in these ideas (if not kept in check) are becoming clear. Nowadays, for instance, the free market is often experienced as “a realm where uniform laws of rational efficiency work to the end of homogenization. Human goods such as community, solidarity, and indeed, even eccentricity…are threatened”.

The homogenizing power of liberal market logic is revealed in contemporary political arguments that speak of the necessity of “competitiveness” in international markets. While it is often claimed that modern technological production has freed humanity from nature or necessity, the unrestrained market has itself become the realm of necessity that cannot be opposed. Here it is contended that we are not free to resist the demands of market efficiency. We are not free to seek such social goods as higher environmental standards. We are not free to defend settled ways of life by protecting older domestic industries. Owing to lower wage levels brought on by a competitive labor market, women are not free to remain at home as mothers, regardless of the non-quantifiable harm to children. In short, we are not free to organize any of our social relations in a manner that will lead to production inefficiencies.

There are more worthwhile things in Mark’s lecture (for instance, on how the present encounter with Islam might hasten the end of the age of ideology by revealing the “universality of the West’s modernizing history” as a kind of “parochialism”.) But I have said more than I meant to already, and turn now to the first few pages of Vaclav Havel’s essay, “The Power of the Powerless,” which is included in this great collection of his writings.

Ideologies are attractive because they provide ready answers to life’s difficult questions
Havel thinks that an ideology can be atractive because it offers ready-made answers to difficult, existential questions. It provides a coherent worldview in a confused and drifting age.

Keep in mind, while reading these excerpts, that Havel is reflecting on the communist ideology of the Soviet system. This means 1) that his remarks, while containing general insights into the nature of ideology as such, are taylored to a specific instantiation of it. And 2) he is dealing with an ideology that has been very successful in terms of being able to establish itself and maintain its grip on whole peoples, across large regions, and for a long time. As a result, essential characteristics of ideology are more thoroughly realized and clearly revealed than they would be normally.

It offers a ready answer to any question whatsoever; it can scarcely be accepted only in part, and accepting it has profound implications for human life. In an era when metaphysical and existential certainties are in a state of crisis, when people are being uprooted and alienated and are losing their sense of what this world means, this ideology inevitably has a certain hypnotic charm. To wandering humankind it offers an immediately available home: all one has to do is accept it, and suddenly everything becomes clear once more, life takes on a new meaning, and all mysteries, unanswered questions, anxiety, and loneliness vanish.

But there is a cost:

Of course, one pays dearly for this low-rent home: the price is abdication of one’s own reason, conscience, and responsibility, for an essential aspect of this ideology is the consignment of reason and conscience to a higher authority.

Our experience with ideology is more benign. But don’t we all know instances of a similar dynamic in more ordinary circumstances and in less dramatic ways? In certain religious groups, for instance, or in peer-groups?

Ideologies have an excusatory function
Havel begins section 3 of his essay by describing a greengrocer who hangs a sign in his window, “among the onions and carrots,” with the slogan: “Workers of the world, unite!” Obviously the grocer has no interest in this message at all. Why, then, does he place it in his window? Simply because he is expected to do so and wants to stay out of trouble. Havel continues,

Let us take note: if the greengrocer had been instructed to display the slogan “I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient,” he would not be nearly as indifferent to its semantics, even though the statement would reflect the truth. The greengrocer would be embarrassed and ashamed to put such an unequivocal statement of his own degradation in the shop window, and quite naturally so, for he is a human being and has a sense of his own dignity… Thus the sign helps the greengrocer to conceal from himself the low foundations of his obedience, at the same time concealing the low foundations of power. It hides them behind the facade of something high. And that something is ideology.
Ideology is a specious way of relating to the world. It offers human beings the illusion of an identity, of dignity, and of morality while making it easier for them to part with them… It is a veil behind which human beings can hide their own fallen existence, their trivialization, and their adaptation to the status quo. It is an excuse that everyone can use, from the greengrocer, who conceals his fear of losing his job behind an alleged interest in the unification of the workers of the world, to the highest functionary, whose interests in staying in power can be cloaked in phrases about service to the working class.

I am sure we are all familiar with the temptation of hiding something low behind something high. For instance, instead of admitting we are afraid to do something, we tell ourselves it would be imprudent. It is when such deceptions take on a communal character, that they start to look more like an ideology. Good examples don’t come to mind right now, and its time to turn in. (As Newman said, “go to bed in good time, and you are already perfect.”) Perhaps a reader can provide an example?


Katie van Schaijik

Personalism and NFP

Sep. 25, 2009, at 12:12pm

One of my hot button issues—Natural Family Planning—came up as a sidebar at another thread elsewhere on the web, where one mother lamented the guilt-riddled approach to marriage she often finds among religious Catholics. I couldn’t agree more. I want to add that I think it is not unrelated to an excessively legalistic and externalistic approach to the moral life, whereby we conceive of it as conformity to an elaborate set of do’s and don’ts, rather than living in harmony with the interior law of our own being, which is to say, love.
In this area, as in so many others, what is wanted is more personalism.
Here is an article I wrote on the subject several years ago.


Jules van Schaijik

What’s wrong with ideology?

Sep. 24, 2009, at 12:31pm

In an online interview I came across recently, the interviewer, obviously annoyed by president Obama’s frequent exhortations to “move beyond the ideological battles of the past”, asks: “Since when did ideology become evil?” Why is “adherence to a coherent set of beliefs” bad, while “pragmatism, doing whatever fits the moment, the panacea?”

If ideology were nothing other than “adherence to a coherent set of beliefs,” then there is nothing wrong with it. But that is not all it means. An ideology is in some way disconnected from reality. A coherent set of beliefs becomes ideological as soon as it is no longer tested against the concrete facts on the ground and adjusted accordingly. Ideologies are not just partial and incomplete, like any world-view, but closed off to genuine dialogue and to the correcting influence of stubborn facts.

This is why the call to put ideological battles behind us is rhetorically clever (and often so frustrating). It obfuscates the important difference between principled opposition to nationalized healthcare, say, and merely ideological opposition to it. It is also the kernel of truth in that call. Few of us are immune to the danger of unreality in our approach to politics. We do well to be on guard against it.

As Russel Kirk famously argued, “conservatism is the negation of ideology”. We should oppose mere pragmatism in politics, not with ideologies but with true principles.

UPDATE:
Katie forwarded me a link to a great 1977 speech by Ronald Reagan, in which he expressed something similar to the above:

I have always been puzzled by the inability of some political and media types to understand exactly what is meant by adherence to political principle. All too often in the press and the television evening news it is treated as a call for “ideological purity.” Whatever ideology may mean—and it seems to mean a variety of things, depending upon who is using it—it always conjures up in my mind a picture of a rigid, irrational clinging to abstract theory in the face of reality. We have to recognize that in this country “ideology” is a scare word. And for good reason. Marxist-Leninism is, to give but one example, an ideology. All the facts of the real world have to be fitted to the Procrustean bed of Marx and Lenin. If the facts don’t happen to fit the ideology, the facts are chopped off and discarded.

I consider this to be the complete opposite to principled conservatism. If there is any political viewpoint in this world which is free from slavish adherence to abstraction, it is American conservatism.


Katie van Schaijik

What’s happening in Europe?

Sep. 18, 2009, at 10:53am

Paul Marshall reviews Christopher Caldwell’s book, Reflections on the Revolution in Europe.   Caldwell “ponders the current state of a continent where the aging indigenous population is gradually being supplanted by young newcomers. Today’s immigrants might be considered hostile to European values, except that Europe itself increasingly has only a foggy sense of what those values might be.”

The author notes that even the prominent German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, who is an atheist, has acknowledged that “Christianity, and nothing else, is the ultimate foundation of liberty, conscience, human rights, and democracy, the benchmarks of Western civilization. To this we have no other options. We continue to nourish ourselves from this source. Everything else is postmodern chatter.”

Yet much of Europe has discarded its historic religious underpinnings as irrelevant at best, harmful at worst. Even the memory of what a religiously ordered society was like has seemed to disappear, Mr. Caldwell observes. “A good definition of religion” for most modern Europeans, he says, might be “an irrational opinion, strongly held.”


Katie van Schaijik

The incommensurability of justice and mercy

Sep. 17, 2009, at 1:32pm

The right relation between mercy and justice is something I’ve been mulling lately, because I’ve experienced personally the harm done by the confusion about it rampant in our society, including in the Church. I’ve witnessed many others experiencing it too, in large and small ways.
It came up again this morning, as I read an article at Catholic Light by canon lawyer Peter Vere critiquing a long-winded letter sent out by Fr. Alvero Corcuera, LC, to Legionary priests and Regnum Christi consecrated women. (An unofficial translation of the Spanish letter with some commentary can be found here.)
The letter drips with piety—piety of the vaguest and most generic kind. It is effusive in gratitude for the service and fidelity of the Legionaries and Regnum Christi members. It is boundless in its expression of ardor for Christ and anguish over the suffering his flock (that is, the Legion) is undergoing because of the “present difficulties”.

Believe me that I would give my life, or whatever it would take, so as to soften the cross of each one, and that I feel very unworthy of being able to offer you my whole life and renew to you my gratitude, support and brotherly closeness.

Peter Vere responds:

Nobody is asking Fr. Alvaro to give up his life. We’re simply asking him to apologize publicly to Maciel’s victims. It’s a debt of justice owed to those who were victimized at the hands of Maciel, then victimized again by having their reputations shredded when they came forward with the truth. Yet this is the one course of action Fr. Alvaro keeps avoiding. Why?

He avoids it because admitting the truth would (he must know at some level) discredit him, his way of life, and his cherished institution, which, I suppose he tells himself, is so important to the Church. He seems to hope that he can make up for the lapse in justice by “going the extra mile” in his expressions of Christian humility and piety.

It backfires. He aggravates the original wrong, by putting the moral onus on the victims and those standing in solidarity with them. “I’m sorry that even though I have given you so much and professed so ardently my Christian love and concern for you, you remain bitter and unforgiving.”

From Caritas in Veritate, paragraph 6 [my emphasis]:

First of all, justice. Ubi societas, ibi ius: every society draws up its own system of justice. Charity goes beyond justice, because to love is to give, to offer what is “mine” to the other; but it never lacks justice, which prompts us to give the other what is “his”, what is due to him by reason of his being or his acting. I cannot “give” what is mine to the other, without first giving him what pertains to him in justice. If we love others with charity, then first of all we are just towards them. Not only is justice not extraneous to charity, not only is it not an alternative or parallel path to charity: justice is inseparable from charity[1], and intrinsic to it. Justice is the primary way of charity or, in Paul VI’s words, “the minimum measure” of it[2], an integral part of the love “in deed and in truth” (1 Jn 3:18), to which Saint John exhorts us.

It’s not okay to take what doesn’t belong to us. Nor can we make up for it by offering ever so much of what does belong to us, while we refuse to return what doesn’t. Nor is that person fairly accused of being bitter or vindictive or unforgiving, because he asks to have it back and refuses to give up his claim to it.


Katie van Schaijik

Who will we stand with?

Sep. 17, 2009, at 11:49am

Jay Nordlinger makes a key personalist point—one that ties into more than one of our ongoing discussions—in a post this morning at the Corner: [my emphasis]

P.S. When President Ford, at the encouragement of Secretary Kissinger, refused to meet with Solzhenitsyn, conservatives thought this was a pretty rotten move and posture. I hope these same conservatives, and their heirs, see what President Obama’s snubbing of the Dalai Lama means today.
P.P.S. When President Obama does something — even a small something — like turn off the “news ticker” outside the American interests section in Havana, he tries to make nice with oppressors. Sometimes in life you have to choose: whether to make nice with the oppressors or with the oppressed. It’s hard to do both.

Writ large on the stage of international politics, it’s easy (at least I hope for most of us) to see the wrong of this. But this same dynamic is constantly at work among us in smaller, subtler ways much closer to home, where it is often disguised in pious garments. For instance, when those who have been abused or mistreated bring their charges forward and receive from those in a position of responsibility not justice (or even an honest investigation of the matter involved), but homilies on forgiveness and the need to avoid bitterness and vindictiveness.

It reminds me of that marvelous scene in The Winslow Boy, where Sir Robert calls on parliament to allow the boy’s case to be heard by reminding them of some the deepest principles of Christian justice: “You shall not stand with the powerful against the weak!” and “Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me.”


Katie van Schaijik

A 9/11 anniversary tribute

Sep. 12, 2009, at 7:49am

I found Mark Levin’s memorial tribute in the opening segment of his radio show yesterday beautiful and moving. You can listen to it at his free audio page. Just click on the 9/11 date.


Katie van Schaijik

Bad news for religious liberty

Sep. 12, 2009, at 7:47am

Parents in the Alameda Unified School District [in California] were refused the right to excuse their kids from classes that would teach all kids in the district’s elementary schools about gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender alternative families.

Fox news (via the Corner.)


Katie van Schaijik

The rising cult of experts

Sep. 12, 2009, at 6:26am

Here is an excellent and thought-provoking article (hat tip Arts and Letters Daily) in The Australian warning about the growing sway of “expertise” with its tendencies toward social manipulation and ultimately tyranny.

All too often experts do not confine their involvement in public discussion to the provision of advice. Many insist that their expertise entitles them to have the last word on policy deliberation. Recent studies indicate that in public debates those whose views run counter to the sentiments of scientific experts find it difficult to voice their beliefs.

The author ties the growing reliance on “expertise” (which he traces to the industrial revolution and the development of the social sciences) to the decline of traditional (and superior) forms of deference:

The prerequisite for the rise of the expert was the erosion of traditional authority. The diminishing salience of custom and traditional truths created a demand for guidance and advice. The demand for experts was fostered by a cultural climate where little could be taken for granted and where people lacked the intellectual resources to make sense of the world. At a time when Western society was confronted with a crisis of causality the public was ready to embrace those who claimed the authority of scientific truth..

Note the striking contrast this with Newman’s view of the true aim of education, as expressed, for instance, in this chapter of The Idea of a University. It is not expertise, but wisdom and judgment, learned not only through books and instruction, but through the personal influence of excellent teachers, through the dialog with other minds, and the traditions of the place…

We have lost this sense in our society. We conflate “reason and objectivity” with science and expertise and consider forcing the policy conclusions on the public as almost synonymous with good governance. Just this week the highly regarded New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman, openly envied China, where a “relatively enlightened” elite has the power to “get things done” without having to go through the messy and protracted democratic process of winning the consent of the people. And more and more of the political, academic and media elite tend to agree with him.

Nor is this limited to large questions of public concern. Here’s more of the article:

THROUGH extending the idea of complexity to the domain of personal and informal relationship, the authority of expertise has sought to colonise the private sphere. One of the characteristic features of modern times is that the decline of taken for granted ways of doing things has encouraged the perception that individuals are not able to manage important aspects of their life without professional guidance. Frequently the conduct of routine forms of social interaction are represented as difficult and complicated, which is why child-rearing can be treated as a science and why we often talk about parenting skills, social skills, communication skills and relationship skills. The belief that the conduct of everyday encounters requires special skills has created an opportunity for the expert to colonise the realm of personal relations.

We must find ways of reversing the trend.


Katie van Schaijik

Benjamin Franklin on anger

Sep. 7, 2009, at 3:24pm

This seems worth keeping in mind while we’re discussing anger.

“Anger is never without a reason, but seldom with a good one.”


Katie van Schaijik

The incipient personalism of romanticism?

Sep. 7, 2009, at 3:22pm

Arts and Letters Daily links today an interesting Newsweek article about Mary Shelly’s novel, Frankenstein. I read it years ago; Jules read it this summer. (Dr. Healy’s quotation of passages from Dracula in his talk on damnation had put him in the mood for catching up on those classics.) What strikes me in particular is the number of personalist thoughts and themes in the article as well as the book. Take just this passage:

The Romantics did not reject science, as Richard Holmes demonstrates in his remarkable new book, The Age of Wonder. (Holmes is also the author of a brilliant biography of Percy Shelley). They were ambivalent. Romantic artists and scientists shared a commitment to the quest for truth, and they were both motivated by wonder. It’s no accident that Frankenstein shares certain features with Percy Shelley. Frankenstein is a kind of artist, as well as a composite of the era’s well-known scientists. But as Holmes shows in a chapter on Frankenstein, Mary also captured the fear surrounding scientific exploration: if man can manipulate nature like a machine, what becomes of the soul? Chemistry and biology must be only half the story—half the human, one might say. Frankenstein is an argument between reason and emotion, nature and civilization, the divided self. Frankenstein’s radical suggestion is that it doesn’t take God to heal the rift. It takes the loyalty and love of another person.

Makes me wish I could take a year to study the seeds of personalism in 19th century English ethos.  I’d like to look into questions like the relationship between science and persons, the problem of solitude, and the role others play in mediating us (or not) to ourselves.


Josef Seifert

The first three evidences for human freedom

Sep. 6, 2009, at 8:32pm

1. The Immediate Evidence of Freedom in the Cogito
A first answer to our question imposes itself on us: The god-like attribute of the free human person: „for if we will, it is; if we will not, it is not…,” as Augustine says, is given just as immediately as our own existence in the experience of consciously living our being and performing free acts. (After ending this series on freedom, I will send to the Personalist project my whole text that underlies these blogs, namely a more extensive article with all the quotes.)

We can reach the knowledge of the real existence of our freedom in actually experiencing it from within – as part of the indubitable evidence of the cogito; it can be known with the same immediacy as our own existence, or in a sense even more immediately; because, as Augustine says, even if we were mistaken, per impossibile (which is impossible), about our own existence, it would still be evident to us that we would not want to be deceived, and in this will not to be deceived we experience our freedom with evidence.

Thus we may say that nothing is more evident to us than our freedom: Our very existence and conscious life are not more indubitably given, though perhaps more easily understood, than our freedom. And indeed we know of our freedom with the same type of immediate and thereupon reflective evidence with which we know of our own existence.

[Investigating this matter more closely, we could distinguish between the evident givenness of freedom on different levels: a) in the immediate inner conscious living of our acts, b) in what Karol Wojtyìa calls „reflective consciousness” (which precedes the fully conscious self-knowledge), and c) in explicit reflection and self-knowledge properly speaking in which we make our personal freedom the explicit object of reflection, d) in the insight into the nature of freedom, an insight which grasps the necessary and intelligible essence of personhood, which is realized in each and every person, and e) in the clear and indubitable recognition of our personal individual freedom, an evident knowledge which depends, on the one hand, on the immediate and reflected experience of our being and freedom, and, on the other hand, on the essential insight into the eternal and evident truth of the connection between freedom and personhood.]

The awareness of our own free will – a knowledge which is so evident that it cannot be deception – is in fact part of the evidence of the famous Cogito in René Descartes and even more in its richer and more adequate Augustinian version.

And the existence of free will in us is so evident that its evidence in a certain sense is more primary and indubitable than that of all other evident truths given in the knowledge: I think, I experience, I am.
And the existence of free will in us is even so evident that its evidence in a certain sense is more primary and indubitable than that of all other evident truths given in this knowledge (the Cogito).
Of course, this priority is not to be understood absolutely: for without the evidence of our existence and thinking activity also our freedom and will could not be given. Nevertheless, Augustine’s remark is valid in the following sense: even if we assumed, per impossibile, that all other truths given to us would be doubtful, we could still be certain that we would freely want and wish to avoid error and to reach the truth. For even if we could be in error about all things, it would still remain true that we do not want to be in error and of this free will we can have certain knowledge, as Augustine states:

Likewise if someone were to say: ‘I do not will to err,’ will it not be true that whether he errs or does not err, yet he does not will to err? Would it not be the height of impudence of anyone to say to this man: ‘Perhaps you are deceived,’ since no matter in what he may be deceived, he is certainly not deceived in not willing to be deceived? And if he says that he knows this, he adds as many known things as he pleases, and perceives it to be an infinite number. For he who says, ‘I do not will to be deceived, and I know that I do not will this, and I know that I know this,’ can also continue from here towards an infinite number, however awkward this manner of expressing it may be.

And again Augustine says:

On the other hand who would doubt that he … wills…? For even if he doubts, he … wants (wills) to be certain….

René Descartes gains the same insight as Augustine that we possess freedom of choice and know this from within our own experience of the free dominion over our acts, and expresses it in the following way:

[Descartes says that our freedom of choice] “is so evident that it must be counted among the first and most common notions that are innate in us.”

Thus, starting from the immediate self-experience of our conscious life, we gain the evidence that we possess the freedom to will not to err, and in a similar manner proceed to the more general evident knowledge of our freedom expressed by Saint Augustine thus:

for we do many things which, if we were not willing, we should certainly not do. This is primarily true of the act of willing itself - for if we will, it is; if we will not, it is not…

Augustine continues a little further down:

…Our wills, therefore, exist as wills, and do themselves whatever we do by willing, and which would not be done if we were unwilling.

The evidence of this knowledge cannot even be refuted by any and all possible forms of self-deception because these imply or presuppose already the evidence of free will, particularly the evidence that we can will “not to be deceived,” as Augustine says.

2. The Evidence of Our Own Freedom in the Light of the “Eternal Truths” or “Necessary and Supremely Intelligible Essences and Wesensgesetze”
An extremely important advantage of the Augustinian over the Cartesian Cogito lies in Augustine‘s clear grasp that the unique inner perception or grasp that we really exist through our intimate conscious contact with our being and life “from within” is connected with the light of eternal truths, an insight into necessary essences and states of affairs that are quite independent from our individual person but without knowledge of which we could also not understand the existence of anything: for example, we do not only immediately perceive from within that we live and are conscious but we understand at the same time the universal truth of the principle of contradiction “nothing can exist and not exist at the same time and in the same sense” or: “Deception and error requires the real existence of the person who errs or is deceived; therefore, nobody who errs and is deceived can fail to exist”. And as we perceive the concrete fact of our own existence in the light of these eternal truths, so we can also perceive our own freedom in the light of the eternal truths about the essence of freedom we discussed above. Thus we could formulate: in understanding what freedom is, we at the same time perceive in ourselves the actually existing power to act freely. As it were the light of the insights into the universal facts we discussed above about the nature of freedom at the same time allows us to understand clearly the instantiation of freedom in our own being and conscious life.

3. The Knowledge of Freedom through the Mediation of the Experience of Moral Calls and Oughts
There is another way to know that we are free: we all experience that we ought to do and not to do certain things. But an ought would not only lose any sense without freedom but in its experience freedom is co-given with the same evidence as the ought itself. In a similar way, the call issued from all objective values to give them their due response, explained so well in Hildebrand’s Ethics, which is, as a matter of fact, the main rational reason for an ought, cannot be perceived without at the same time knowing our freedom, without which we could never respond to the call for a due value response. For while we can also give an affective response, that is not within our free power to engender and still is due to a great work of art or to a beloved person, this due response as well calls for a free sanction without which our response as it were does not enter fully in relation with due-ness. Therefore in the experience of any “ought” or call to give a due response we are given with the same evidence with which we know that we ought to do or to omit something, or to perform an inner act due to a beautiful or good object or person, also our freedom, which is the only conceivable addressee of an ought or call for a due response. No conceivable totally unfree reaction can ever properly respond to an ought or to a call from a value per se. We can say: nobody can know of an ought or call to give an adequate response to a good without knowing that he is free; hence as we do know of many such oughts and calls for a due response, we know that we are free.


Josef Seifert

Are we really free?  Can we know it?

Sep. 6, 2009, at 8:31pm

In our discussion of the essence of freedom we already presupposed all along, and as we shall see with good reason, that we as human persons are free. We spoke of us being able to take free stances, to command actions, to cooperate, etc. Nevertheless, we must distinguish sharply between knowing the essence of freedom and knowing the existence of human freedom. In principle, to gain an insight into all we saw about the essence of freedom does not yet imply that we actually are free, that freedom actually exists in the human being, either in actu or in potency, as fundamental faculty of the person. Especially when it comes to freedom, we can well understand the fundamental difference between grasping the essence of freedom and knowing the existence of human freedom. This is evident because the determinist who denies the existence of human freedom has as well to understand the essence of freedom whose existence in man he denies. He cannot deny freedom without some grasp of what the freedom is the existence of which he denies. Can we then know that human freedom exists and that we actually are free?

If human freedom did not exist, human beings would not be persons, as we have seen – but why should this be impossible? Maybe humans are not persons, as those countless philosophies imply that deny human freedom.

That it is one of innumerable „eternal truths” that “person and freedom are inseparable,” leaves the question unanswered: Does freedom exist in man? All the facts about the essence of freedom and personhood say nothing yet about human beings’ actually possessing this astonishing faculty.
Is it not a prerogative of God to be Lord over the being and the non-being of a thing by a simple inner word or fiat, without the person being determined to such a fiat by any cause other than his or her free center itself?

Is there then such a god-like quality in any finite person as to be the lord over the being and non-being of her acts? Answering this question affirmatively, as we implicitly did, obliges us to answer also how we can know that we are free? I will present in the following six ways in which we know that we are free or “six proofs of freedom.”


Katie van Schaijik

What divides us?

Sep. 4, 2009, at 10:39am

A propos of our discussion on anger and holy wrath, I am both dismayed and challenged by this passage from Boston Archbishop Sean O’Malley’s blog entry describing his attendance at Senator Kennedy’s funeral.

At times, even in the Church, zeal can lead people to issue harsh judgments and impute the worst motives to one another. These attitudes and practices do irreparable damage to the communion of the Church. If any cause is motivated by judgment, anger or vindictiveness, it will be doomed to marginalization and failure. Jesus’ words to us were that we must love one another as He loves us. Jesus loves us while we are still in sin. He loves each of us first, and He loves us to the end. Our ability to change people’s hearts and help them to grasp the dignity of each and every life, from the first moment of conception to the last moment of natural death, is directly related to our ability to increase love and unity in the Church, for our proclamation of the Truth is hindered when we are divided and fighting with each other.

Is it fair to suggest that the critics of the decision to allow President Obama to give a eulogy at a Catholic funeral for a pro-abortion public figure are motivated by “judgment, anger or vindictiveness”? Can he give them no credit for concern with true and justice and moral clarity? And what of the irreparable harm done to the communion of the faithful by Catholic public officials promoting abortion and living scandalous personal lives?

What do others think?

UPDATE:
LifeSiteNews has an article expressing an opinion more like my own (hat tip American Papist), by Msgr. Ignacio Barreiro Carámbula, Doctor of Dogmatic Theology and head of the Rome office of Human Life International

In the same way that publicly incoherent Catholics might be denied communion, these persons can also be denied ecclesiastical funeral rites. The Code of Canon Law establishes, Can. “1184 §1. Unless they gave some signs of repentance before death, the following must be deprived of ecclesiastical funerals: 3/ other manifest sinners who cannot be granted ecclesiastical funerals without public scandal of the faithful.”

It’s that “public scandal of the faithful” that I thought missing from Archbishop O’Malley’s blog item—that I think missing from much of Catholic ethos and practice today. Needless to say, this ties into our forgiveness discussion as well. Can there be meaningful forgiveness where there is no repentance?

Msgr. Carambula gets even stronger and more specific:

We are informed by the press that the person who received the recent funeral in Boston gave some signs of repentance; but those signs were not specific at all with regards to the many grave and public violations that he committed against the teachings of the Church. Even if the signs of repentance would have been judged sufficient by competent local ecclesiastical authority, the problem of the scandal remains because the ordinary of the place where the funeral was officiated could not have been ignorant that the funeral was going to be turned into a celebration of the life of that particular person.


Josef Seifert

Inner Freedom and Cooperative Freedom

Aug. 26, 2009, at 12:02pm

Inner Free Acts
Thus I can act in the outside world, realize states of affairs or prevent them, but I can also take inner stances, respond by speaking a free “yes” or “no” to something. Besides such actual free responses, which I experience here and now and direct to an object, there are also superactual free responses in a person. These continue to exist in us even when we do not actually experience them or think of them. As we know many things superactually even when we do not think of them, so we find also that concretely lived free acts and responses do not exhaust themselves in our actually experiencing them. Both our responses to individual beings (such as our love for our wife or child) and to general types and whole spheres of value, such as attitudes of reverence, the virtues of justice, of purity, etc. can last in the form of superactual acts. They manifest themselves in our emotions, feelings, concrete responses and actions, etc. All virtues and vices are superactual acts. They profoundly influence the concrete actual consciousness of a person and are as it were a basso continuo which accompanies the actual melodies of our daily life. Finally, there is the so-called fundamental moral option for or against all morally relevant goods, for or against God and the whole world of values. This response has the most universal scope of objects at which it is directed. If it gains sturdy roots in a person, it becomes more than an “option,” it becomes the most fundamental moral attitude; this attitude may also be called the general moral attitude.

Cooperative Freedom and the Gift of Self as Supreme Fulfillment of Persons
It is clear that we cannot directly realize superactual attitudes and virtues by a simple fiat. We can engender freely general moral intentions, yes, but they neither immediately take root in the person nor acquire instantaneously the personal depth proper to superactual virtues. Similarly, we cannot, by a simple fiat of our will, bring about affective responses such as grief or love, joy, compassion, or repentance, however appropriate also these spiritual affections are to their objects, as Dietrich von Hildebrand has shown in his books The Heart and The Nature of Love. Yet this does not imply that we have no freedom or responsibility with respect to our superactual attitudes or to our spiritual affective responses such as love, repentance or grief. We come to recognize here two further important manifestations of freedom: (1) the indirect role of our free acts, and (2) cooperative freedom.

(1) A single free action of helping someone lies within the power of our immediate freedom (in spite of the difficulties and limitations we may experience with respect to its actualization), and has an immediate and direct effect in the world and on our conscious life. Yet each action has also indirect effects on ourselves; it will influence and gradually change our superactual attitudes and the kind of emotional responses (love or hatred, warmth or envy and bitterness) we give to others. This applies to good as well as to bad actions. We cannot directly bring about with our free fiat attitudes towards persons or values which result indirectly from many free actions nor can we immediately evoke affective responses of repentance, compassion, or love, which often arise in our nature without participation of our freedom and which nevertheless can be morally and humanly speaking adequate or inadequate to their human or divine object. Now the fact that all of these acts and feelings do not obey our immediate free command does not impede that they are in many ways influenced indirectly by our free acts. Thus the free acts of repeated adultery will give rise to an impure and unfaithful attitude and to kinds of feelings towards his wife and other women which the faithful husband will not experience. Thus we come to understand that our freedom has an enormous indirect influence distinct from direct freedom by which we bring about free acts.

(2) Even more amazing is what we might term „cooperative freedom.“ Besides indirect freedom exerting great influence on such data of the moral life as virtues and vices and our affections, we also have another important capacity: namely that of cooperative freedom, of relating freely and in a particularly intimate way to those realities in us that arise without freedom. We can conspire freely with the tears of repentance that arise in us, or suppress them; we can freely disavow feelings of hatred or identify ourselves with them. We can cooperate with emotions of love and form them freely from within by sanctioning them. We touch here upon what constitutes the very heart of human freedom.

Recognition of cooperative freedom even modifies what we have said about freedom at the beginning of this series, describing freedom in terms of being „the lords over the being and the non-being of our acts.“ This characterization of freedom in terms of autonomy does not describe adequately many aspects of freedom such as the freedom in the grateful receiving of gifts, in gratitude as such, and in cooperative freedom. In many cases, of which the highest involve divine grace, we find in our soul gifts and experiences of joy or love which arise in us without depending on our freedom. Yet inasmuch as such movements of our soul are adequate or inadequate to their object, good or bad, we must not let them arise in us without involvement of our freedom. When they are bad, we ought to disavow them, thereby not immediately eradicating them but „decapitating“ them, as it were. We can freely speak a ‘no’ to our feeling of intense envy, when we realize its evilness and inappropriateness. This is not an act of repression but, on the contrary, an act of conscious confrontation with ourselves. By disavowing feelings of envy, the person disassociates herself from them. Thus they become movements of the soul for which we are no longer responsible in the way in which we are responsible when we let envy grow in us without taking such a free stance. Much more profound is the interpenetration of freedom and affective responses – or other non-free experiences and gifts in us – in the positive case. When a deep love or feeling of repentance is granted to us – a feeling or movement of our soul which we never could have given to ourselves – our freedom is not fated to remain outside such gifts. It can join in with the gift. We can freely sanction our affective response or an attitude of our will of which we recognize that it gives a due response to an object or a person and that it has gift-character and does not stand simply within our power. By such a free sanctioning of these acts, we integrate them into our free life. Analogously, we can appropriate and accept into our freedom all intentional and good acts which arise in our soul, including our acceptance and conviction of the truth. Also in the sphere of the intellect we can integrate by a free sanction, and affirm from within, convictions which arise organically and without being free acts from our cognition. Given the rationality of the conviction and its character as a theoretical and adequate response to reality (states of affairs), we can also sanction it or add to convictions resulting simply from knowledge (being convinced by the object known) convictions which have the character of free real assent. We can speak a free yes to truth, a response which takes on a new role when it is not merely based on evident knowledge but on probable knowledge or on faith. We can turn that which is given to us as a gift into a free act, by freely sanctioning such gifts. Gift and freedom interpenetrate each other here. We might speak of a spiritual wedding of our will with our affections and with other noble movements or acts in us, including the assent to truth. By affections which well up in us as gifts, such as deep emotions of love, our will is enriched and allowed to partake as it were in the wealth of those affections and of other movements of the soul which possess gift character. Thus the deepest dimensions of freedom do not actualize themselves simply by the free center of the person alone. They are not even only formed by, as well as dependent on, the value of the object which gives purpose and meaning to our freedom. Rather, the deepest dimension of human freedom requires a gift which precedes it and in cooperation with which alone freedom can attain its supreme dignity. This is true in a special way of the deepest act of freedom realized only in love and in the gift of Self, in which we give to the other not only a response or something in ourselves, do not only perform acts, but give our very self to the other. This self-donation in love requires, in its fullness, on the human level, also the gift of the affective response to the beloved person which we cannot produce but sanction by our free will. In this ultimate sense, then, „to be free“ means to cooperate with gifts on the natural (and, as the Christian believes, also the supernatural) order. Without using our freedom in cooperation with such gifts we can never attain the highest perfection to which the person is called nor fulfill what it means „to be a person.“

Three Levels of Freedom that Belong Essentially to the Person
We said that already on purely philosophical grounds freedom inseparably belongs to personhood. Now we have to make some fundamental distinctions within what we call freedom, namely between: 1) freedom as a faculty (power) inseparable from personhood; 2) freedom as ability here and now to perform free acts; and 3) freedom as activation of this ability in actually performing free acts. Only the latter two imply the conscious life, self-determination and other traits of freedom spoken of above. The faculty of freedom or the free will (sense 1) belongs substantially to the person qua person and exists in every person even prior to awaken to consciousness. This is not true of freedom in the senses (2) and (3). Certainly, also the faculty of freedom is ordained to be exercised in conscious actualizations of it in which alone we encounter and experience freedom, and from whence alone we gain the metaphysical insight into its bearer, the person, and into the existence of the free power and of free potentialities which must exist prior to their actualizations in free acts. On the other hand, and equally certainly, neither the actual ability to perform free acts nor the actual use of it in these acts themselves is inseparable from personhood. They are not found in embryos and new-born babies, unconscious or comatose patients and in persons afflicted by certain types of grave mental retardation or psychic compulsion, and are absent in all human beings during sleep. But it is a most wrong consequences many bioethicists draw from this by holding that embryos and infants or mentally impaired persons are not persons. While they cannot exercise their freedom, they still are free: to be a person entails the fundamental metaphysical faculty, a capacity in principle to perform free acts. As faculty, freedom resides on the level of the substantial being of the person or, more precisely, is inseparable from the substantial spiritual being of the person.


Katie van Schaijik

More on Christopher West

Aug. 24, 2009, at 10:27am

For those interested in the Christopher West/TOB/prudishness discussion, don’t miss this comment box, which has seen some substantive new contributions from Fr. Geiger, Josef Seifert and others in the last few days.


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