One of my favorite pieces of art is The Apotheosis of St. Thomas Aquinas, dated around 1365, in the Church of Saint Catherine, Pisa.
Perhaps what I like most about it is the beautiful way the piece demonstrates the hierarchy of knowledge. On the same level as Thomas himself are Aristotle (on the left) and Plato (on the right). They represent the whole of philosophy—that knowledge we can know by reason alone.
But Thomas is larger than they because he has received supernatural knowledge. The six figures above Thomas are the four evangelists—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—and Moses (with the two tablets) and St. Paul (with the sword of truth). It's hard to see in this picture, but rays of light are coming forth from the books these figures hold. Scripture, then, contains a higher knowledge than that of philosophy.
But the highest knowledge of all comes directly from Jesus Christ—a knowledge not mediated through Scripture, but directly, through grace. One of the more famous stories about St. Thomas is that once, when kneeling before an image of a crucifix, Our Lord asked him what his heart's desire was; to which Thomas said, "Only you, my Lord, only you." This kind of single-minded devotion to Jesus Christ is the real power by St. Thomas's theology.
Finally, all of the light St. Thomas received from philosophy, Scripture, and Jesus Christ himself, is disseminated to the Church, who is represented by the groups of men on the lower left and right. The thought of St. Thomas is also used to defeat heresy, which is represented by the figure of Averroes, lying down.
I think it's time I start reading St. Thomas again.
Monday, February 26, 2007
One of my favorite pieces of art is The Apotheosis of St. Thomas Aquinas, dated around 1365, in the Church of Saint Catherine, Pisa.
Sunday, February 25, 2007
Among the innumerable and contradictory speculations that greeted the election of Joseph Ratzinger as Pope, several were offered by knowledgeable observers of the Church suggesting that the new papacy would see a re-emphasis on the Christian character of Europe and a concerted effort to revitalize that tradition. (Of course, there were also some less knowledgeable but more vocal observers who predicted that just the opposite would ultimately result. For ludicrously wrong-headed analysis of all things Catholic, by the way, it's hard to beat the British press.)
If you have been following my comments and Vehige's on Pope Benedict's Values in a Time of Upheaval, which will be drawing to a close with the next couple of posts, you know that we have been extremely interested in His Holiness' ideas for re-evangelizing a post-Christian culture. And culture doesn't get any more post-Christian than Europe's is right now. (I hope.) For someone who is seeking an actual blueprint or action plan for accomplishing the second Christian conversion of Europe, Values in a Time of Upheaval is not the book to read. The Pope dispels any lingering doubts about the practical value of these essays in the collection's tenth and final essay:
My remarks do not amount to a conclusive answer to the question of the foundations on which Europe is to be built. All I have sought to do is to sketch the task that faces us. We must not delay in getting to work on it.
Sketching the task is a good and necessary first step. Benedict defined that task itself in an earlier essay, which I commented on last week. In the Pope's words, “Our task as Christians today is to contribute our concept of God to the debate about man.” Those words should make clear that the task, as the Pope sees it, is not one to be accomplished by “cultural Christians” but by real Christians who are themselves defined by a specifically Christian understanding of what man is and what man needs. In the last couple of essays of the book, Benedict clarifies even further what “our concept of God” is, and how it can become a powerful force for cultural regeneration. In commenting on these final essays, I am going to cite just three passages that seemed to me especially important. And then I am going to take up briefly a question that might be perplexing at first glance – Why does the Pope conclude a book-length examination of Christianity and politics with a brief meditation on the Trinity?
1. “Toynbee was correct to maintain that the fate of a society always depends on creative minorities. Believing Christians ought to understand themselves as just such a creative minority and help Europe regain the best elements of its inheritance.”
The image of the “remnant” (Rom 9:27) as a metaphor for the Kingdom of God at work in the world has a long and distinguished scriptural pedigree. Benedict seems to be invoking that image here, while at the same time giving it an intellectualized, purely cultural twist by quoting Toynbee. Within the context of the passage, of course, the Pope is only addressing Europeans. But the problem of secularization, while it may be most acute in Europe, afflicts the rest of the Western world as well. Appealing to Christians as a saving “remnant” is going to be a hard sell particularly in the United States, where most Christians frankly do not think of themselves as a minority at all, creative or otherwise. All may agree that Europe is irretrievably post-Christian, but most of the culture wars in this country begin with zealous assertions from the Right that America is a “Christian nation.” The Pope's acknowledgment that “believing Christians” -- note the adjective – are in the minority today (and on both sides of the Atlantic, I would add) is a refreshing exercise in realism, absolutely essential before anything can be done about the problem.
2. “Man may not become a product. He may not be produced, but only begotten. And this is why one of the constant elements of every humane society is the protection of the special dignity of the fellowship of man and woman on which the future of the human race depends.”
I would like to see Catholic theologians turn their attention to a detailed and respectable explanation of why the Church opposes the legal recognition of same-sex marriage. (Alternatively, if there already is such an explanation, I'd like to see it widely disseminated among Catholics.) Most ordinary people seem to know – in many cases at an almost precognitive level – that there is something wrong with the idea of same-sex marriage, but their attempts to express the basis of their opposition verbally, let alone in the form of political action, are more or less embarrassingly bad. We hear much talk about “threats” to the institution of marriage itself, as if nobody will want to marry someone of the opposite sex any more once men are permitted to marry men and women women. (Frankly, I'm not much worried about that.) The stronger case against same-sex marriage is grounded in something that Benedict implies rather than states outright in the quoted passage. Until the brave new world of human beings as manufactured products is fully ushered in, the future of the human race will continue to depend, as the Pope perhaps superfluously reminds us, on a particular form of “fellowship” between a man and a woman. Catholics do not view this arrangement as an unfortunate but correctible biological inconvenience. We see it as a central part of God's revelation to us of our own human nature. (Even if you prefer not to think in terms of God or His revelation, the chances are overwhelmingly good that you still view the arrangement as nature's revelation of itself.) Either way, “the special dignity of the fellowship of man and woman” can be legitimately privileged in law until the day comes – as it might -- when procreation is exclusively a laboratory enterprise, and marriage between a husband and wife has become nothing more than one of several social contexts within which sterile sexual gratification can be pursued.
3. “We cannot trust one another and live together in peace unless man recognizes that he is an ultimate end, not a means to some other end, and unless we consequently regard other persons as sacred and inviolable. There is no evaluation of goods that could justify treating man as experimental material for higher purposes. We act ethically – not on the basis of calculations – only when we see this as an absolute principle that stands higher than all evaluations of goods.”
A wonderful example of what Benedict means by Christians “contributing their concept of God to the debate about man.” If you thought that embryonic stem cell experimentation, or the ethical “calculations” of Peter Singer, posed a threat only to individual human beings, please read that quoted paragraph over a couple of times. Unless we treat the dignity of every human being as inviolable – not as a relative good but as an absolute good – then it's the very possibility of human beings “living together in peace” that's at stake.
After 160 pages of sometimes intricate historical and political theorizing, Pope Benedict concludes Values in a Time of Upheaval with a brief six-page meditation on...the Trinity. That may sound odd, but Benedict makes it make sense. He has already hinted at the logical connection between Christian theology and world peace, by pointing out that only a metaphysical appreciation of human dignity – that is, a regard for our fellow human beings as the creatures of a loving God – will make possible any trust among people, or peoples. It has always been easy to say that we should love one another. What the world needs is not further repetition of that facile advice, but a demonstration of how it can be done. The Christian Trinity is a demonstration of how it can be done. The God who loved us into being, and saved us through the obedient love of His Son, and strengthens us to respond to that love through the Holy Spirit, is the only power in the world that, in the Pope's words, can “keep man from destroying himself.” Christians regard the triune God as perfect love within Himself, and Jesus – God become man – as the perfect embodiment of that love among us. In the Pope's words:
The face of Jesus is the face of God. That is what God looks like. Jesus, who suffered for us and forgave his enemies while dying on the cross, shows us how God is. (emphasis added)
That sounds remarkably like the re-evangelizing task the Pope has set for us in Values in a Time of Upheaval – to “contribute our concept of God to the debate about man,” to show a war-torn, post-Christian world “how God is.”
Friday, February 23, 2007
I wasn't actually going to post on this subject at all, having already made an intemperate comment about the tendency of the blogosphere to be "inbred and self-absorbed." And our low vote count clearly points to a lost opportunity for us, Vehige. We could have run up almost that high a total just by getting our wives and children to vote for Thursday Night Gumbo.
Like Vehige, however, I am grateful to those who nominated us (one we know, one we don't), even though simply being nominated doesn't strike me as the sort of thing that deserves a button in the sidebar -- nomination by itself being roughly as significant an honor as a nomination for the Nobel prize. Heck, considering some of the people who have won Nobel prizes, I think a nomination for the Catholic Blog Awards may be more of a real honor even than that. Surely we're a better Catholic blog than Yasser Arafat was a peacemaker, or Pearl Buck was a novelist. (The comment box is open.)
For me, the best thing about the awards is that the list of nominees and winners has brought some truly excellent blogging to my attention. Our blogroll will be expanding in the next several days with entries that I have started reading regularly as a result of the contest.
Congratulations to all the winners, most of whom I voted for. (Makes me wish there were some way to bet on the results....)
Labels: Catholic Blogs
Well, I'm a little late getting this up. And feel a little foolish, to. In total, we only got thirteen (13) votes. Does 10 votes in one category and 3 in another really qualify us as "nominees"?
We're certainly glad that we were nominated -- considering that Thursday Night Gumbo had been in existence for a mere three weeks before the voting.
But we promise all of you who have supported us in this our struggle that we are dedicated to the great task that looms before us over the next two score and twelve weeks to provide you, our loyal readers, with the most diverse and perspicacious blog in the Catholic blogosphere.
Labels: Catholic Blogs
Meal: Hamburgers, baked beans, potato salad.
Dessert: Chocolate ice cream.
Movie: Two episodes from Firefly: "Home" and "Jaynestown." I know we announced that we were going to watch the old noir film, Touch of Evil, but for the first time Netflix failed us; the movie didn't arrive in time. It will be our next movie.
Conversation topics: Lent, spiritual reading, Stephen King, H. P. Lovecraft, Star Trek, T.V. vs. the movies, philosophy in pop culture, the value (if any) of pop psychology, formation of the clergy, baseball, sociology of religion, how to re-evangelize a post-Christian culture, Peter L. Berger's A Rumor of Angels, Cardinal Ratzinger's Values in a Time of Upheaval.
Next Thursday Night Gumbo: undecided.
If this works out for the Texas Rangers, it might be the biggest deal of the seasons.
I have a lot of hopes for this team this year. The AL West isn't as strong as it has been in the past. The new manager, Ron Washington, seems to imbued the players with a new vigor. Hank Blalock has finally admitted that he needs to study hitting in order to become a better hitter. Michael Young, the league's best clutch hitter, is finally hitting in the Number Three spot, which means he should rack up the RBI's, particularly if Kenny Lofton and Frank Catalanotto hit the way they're capable of. The pitching rotation, though it lacks a bona fide power pitcher, is nothing to sneeze at. And, finally, the bullpen might be the best in the American League -- if not all of baseball -- if Frank Francisco and Eric Gagne can return to the form of a few years ago.
All that being said, I fear they're going to disappoint me again.
Monday, February 19, 2007
I thought about commenting on Pope Benedict's allusion to the Gorgias in my previous post. But I had already spent so much time nitpicking the Pope's analysis of 20th-century history that I was hardly up to the task of starting a whole new argument on the subject of Platonic eschatology. Perhaps it's a good sign that I'm reluctant to disagree with the Pope -- even in those areas where I'm perfectly free to disagree with a pope. He's not just the Vicar of Christ, after all. He's also a very, very smart man, which means that if I find myself disagreeing with him, chances are either (1) that I'm just wrong, or (2) that I have misunderstood what he is saying. I thought that Benedict's comments on the very frequently heard criticism of Christians – that we are oblivious to the demands of everyday life because we are just waiting to die and be with Jesus – were true but incomplete. Plato certainly had what can be perceived as a pre-Christian, “preparation-for-the Gospel” insight, one that (as Benedict puts it) “comes to its full validity” in the light of Christ's revelation. We must work for justice in this world because our spiritual destiny depends on it. In a sense, of course, that's all we need to know – the minimum requirement for eternal life. That seems to be the point of Plato's parable in the Gorgias.
But is this earthly life that arbitrary a test for admission to the next? Doesn't what we love eternally dictate what we love temporally? Isn't a concern for the here-and-now demanded of us, not simply as a hoop we must jump through on our way to heaven, but because God himself has a concern for the here-and-now? In no way do I think Pope Benedict doesn't believe that, or would not say that if he thought the situation called for it. But by the same token, I'm not entirely comfortable with Vehige's paraphrase of the Gorgias lesson -- “only the dread of the loss of heaven and the fear of the pains of hell are enough to make us live a life of charity and justice here on earth” -- as a restatement of Catholic moral teaching. A love of charity and justice are inherent in human nature and can, by themselves, guide us aright. They can also be overwhelmed, of course, by impulses of self-interest, which explains the necessity of grace. But we should always remember that the best reason to do God's will is the love of God, not the fear of hell.
I don't really think there's any argument going on here between Vehige and me. I just wanted to nail this one point down.
Instead of writing a post on Cardinal Ratzinger's Values in a Time of Upheaval, I am going to cite few passages that speak of the need of an awareness of heaven in order to give focus and to life here on earth.
Too many people think that if one is focused on heaven, then they are of no good in the here and now. This point is not lost on Ratzinger:
The suspicion that Christians neglect life here on earth because they constantly dream only of the life to come came to infect believing Christians themselves, including those who preached God's Word. We were told that Christians shared only half-heartedly in the work of constructing the world, which could have been better and more humane long ago if only Christians had not practiced "flight from the world." The task now is to make the earth a better place to live.
Thus runs the argument. Here is Ratzinger's response.
Well, these ideologies [that make this claim] have not made it [i.e., the world] better and more humane. It is precisely the one who spends his days exercising responsibility for eternal life who gives these days their full weight. We see this in the parable of the talents: the Lord does not summon us to a comfortable existence but to trade with our talents (see Matt. 25.14-30). It is also true that one who is aware of eternal life is liberated from the rapacious greed that wants to enjoy everything to the full here and now, since he knows that the present age is the time for work and that the great feast comes afterward. The fields of death before which we stand admonish us to remember death and to lead our life aright in the face of eternity.
Lest someone think this is a view only held by Christians, Ratzinger is right to cite a lengthy, pre-Christain text, that shows the important of keeping eternity in view if one desires to live an upright life in the here-and-now. Cardinal Ratzinger writes:
Plato's Gorgias contains a terrifying parable that is relevant here; it is not rendered obsolete by Christian faith; but rather it comes to its full validity in the Christian perspective. Plato says that the soul after death finally stands naked before the judge. Now the rank the soul held in the world is no longer relevant. It may be the soul of the king of Persia or of some other ruler. This does not matter, for the judge sees the traces left by perjury and by righteousness, the marks "that each of his deeds has imprinted upon the soul. And everything is twisted by falsehood and arrogance. He sees how the soul is weighed down by despotism, voluptuousness, presumption, and imprudence in action, extravagance, and baseness . . . . But sometimes he sees another soul standing before him, one that has led a pious and honest life, the soul of an ordinary citizen or a simple person . . . . Then the judge rejoices and sends it to the island of the blessed" (Gorgias 525A-526C). Where such convictions are strongly held, law and justice will be honored.
In other words, only the dread of the loss of heaven and the fear of the pains of hell are enough to make us live a life of charity and justice here on earth.
Saturday, February 17, 2007
That is the question Pope Benedict poses as the title of his seventh essay in Values in a Time of Upheaval. The question signals that Benedict is moving from a theoretical exposition of his views on the interplay of religion and politics to a practical application of those views. The point at which theory becomes practice is always where things get complicated in life, and I found things getting very complicated in this section of the book.
Many of the assertions that Benedict makes in these essays fall into one of two categories: analyses of historical fact (offered as evidence of the central role that a shared Christian sensibility has played in the development of European civilization); and calls for specific application of that Christian sensibility to the problems that civilization now faces or is likely to face in the future. On some of these points, I find Benedict's transition from theory to practice, from exposition to application, a bit unsteady. Here are a couple of examples.
(1) Benedict sees the post-World War II decision by the Allies to rebuild Europe, including Germany, as a distinctively Christian decision. America's refusal “to be guided by the idea of retributive punishment, still less of revenge or the humiliation of the defeated,” grew directly (as Benedict sees it) from the religious faith of the world leaders who made those decisions. “They conducted a politics of reason – of moral reason. Their Christianity had not estranged them from reason but had illuminated their reason.”
As Jake Barnes would say, “Isn't it pretty to think so?” Did America really choose not to punish its defeated Axis enemies because doing so would have violated the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount? Or was it because we had already given retribution and vengeance a try – after World War I – and discovered that it simply didn't work very well? To assume that America's “enlightened” postwar policies were consciously motivated by Christian charity and forgiveness is to disregard a great deal of evidence to the contrary. The president who approved the Marshall Plan, which kept thousands of people from starving in Europe, was the same man who approved the use of atomic weapons against the civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The same foreign policy that rescued the economies of West Germany and Japan from ruin also consigned the people of Poland and Hungary and Czechoslovakia – and East Germany -- to tyranny and want. In each of those decisions, public policy was shaped not by considerations of what was right but by calculations of what would work. They certainly were rational decisions. But their rationality was not, to adopt the Pope's own preferred terminology, intellectus (“reason that contemplates the deeper strata of being”), but only ratio (“reason in relation to the empirical, to the realm of what can be done”). They are nothing to take moral comfort from. And on the whole they will not serve, despite Benedict's perception of them, as a model of that “purified reason” that has marked the development of Western civilization over the last 1500 years.
(2) As every pope has since John XXIII, Benedict accepts the necessity of some sort of supra-national government capable of enforcing a true ius gentium – a law of nations. Such a structure would prevent “one single power from presenting itself as the guardian of the law.” (Any guesses what “single power” His Holiness might have in mind?) Here again the inherent moral attractiveness of Benedict's vision comes into collision with world realities. What is there in the cultural and political history of Europe to suggest that even Western civilization by itself – let alone a consortium of Western and non-Western countries – could achieve a common rule of law along the lines the Pope advocates? Not much. Even within its narrowly circumscribed sphere of “authority,” the United Nations offers an unimpressive track record of enforcing any ius gentium. (Perhaps it's that dismal record that keeps His Holiness from even mentioning the UN as a model for what he is talking about.) Benedict offers instead (and again) the example of World War II -- a successful, concerted, international effort in defense of reason and law. Of course, there was at the same time another concerted international effort, being led by some guys named Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo, who saw the value of cultural alliances very differently and who were intent on enforcing a ius gentium of their own. (International cooperation is not always a healthy phenomenon.) If World War II demonstrates anything, it is that the “guardian of the law” among nations will always be power; and sometimes, despite Pope Benedict's admirably idealistic hopes, it will be a single power. It struck me that, in making this part of his argument, Benedict himself did not seem altogether sure how far to press his vision of a formally structured world community. Of the united international effort that made possible the defeat of fascism, the Pope says:
“What was at stake was not the extension of the rights of one side, but a common freedom and the genuine rule of law, although of course it was not possible to exclude altogether the emergence of new structures of hegemony.” [Emphasis added.]
New structures of hegemony. Oh yeah. There was that bit of unpleasantness known as the Cold War, wasn't there. The sad fact is that history provides us with no reason to believe that either a revitalization of the West's Christian heritage, or its final disappearance, would ever put an end to “the emergence of new structures of hegemony.” The best hope that history does hold out to us is a certain amount of evidence that reason and law themselves possess considerable hegemonic potential. Consider the fact that, within the lifetime of the oldest generation still living, right has prevailed in world affairs a reassuring amount of the time, but it has done so much more often through military or economic struggle than peacefully under any ius gentium.
Throughout Values in a Time of Upheaval, Pope Benedict expresses his conditional admiration for democracy, but he also shows a clear-eyed recognition of democracy's shortcomings. Given that insight, and considering the counter-cultural struggle the Vatican consistently must wage in various international forums (on population issues, for instance), it is mildly surprising that the Pope would be so eager to see democracy – a concept that he considers “indissolubly linked to that of relativism” -- implemented as a system of international order. Isn't it likely that on any important issue submitted to the councils of world opinion, the Catholic position would not win a show of hands? Benedict himself has famously commented elsewhere that “truth is not determined by a majority vote.”
To return, then, to the Pope's opening question: “What must we do?” In general terms, I think we must all agree as Christians with Benedict's underlying thesis about our role in the world:
“We must help reason to function in a comprehensive manner, not only in the spheres of technology and the material development of the world, but above all with regard to the capacity to perceive truth, the capacity to recognize the good, since the good is the precondition of law and thus also the presupposition of peace in the world. Our task as Christians today is to contribute our concept of God to the debate about man.”
My areas of disagreement with the Pope in the essays that conclude Part II of Values in a Time of Upheaval center on his intellectual analysis of how recent history can provide a model for future action; and on some of his prudential judgments about how the rule of “purified reason” might best be implemented at the international level. We are not, as yet, anywhere near the point at which such disagreements need make any practical difference to someone who wants to take on the task that Benedict calls us to in the passage quoted above – “contributing our concept of God to the debate about man.” It may be enough for now if each of us ponders and finds a way to act on something Benedict says in the eighth essay, one of the most direct and challenging statements in the entire book: “If the essence of politics is the moral ordering of power on the basis of the criteria provided by law, then the heart of politics is one of the fundamental categories of morality.” In light of the fact that the 2008 presidential campaign seems already to have started in earnest, there should be plenty of time for figuring out what that statement means to each of us.
Friday, February 16, 2007
As I previously noted, as soon as I found out The Tomb of Horrors existed, I wanted to read it. It's based off an old Dungeons & Dragons module, which, when I was a kid, I longed to play, but never had the opportunity. Never missing an opportunity to return to my youth, I grabbed the chance to play the game vicariously—through the imagination of Keith Strohm.
The story line runs thus. Our hero, Kaerion, along with his trusty side-kick, the elf Gerwyth, join up with the nobles of a collapsing kingdom in order to retrieve a lost treasure with the hopes of restoring the kingdom to some of its former glory. Unbeknownst to them, another group, led by an evil cleric, is seeking this same treasure, but not for such noble purposes. The sought treasure is that of an long-dead, sinisterly evil wizard who has buried himself, along with his fortune, in an underground tomb—the Tomb of Horrors.
At the heart of this novel is the interior journey of Kaerion. At one time, he was the greatest Paladin (in the D&D world, a fighter-priest) of the god of light, Heironeous, but a decade before the novel begins, he fell from grace and has been eking out a living as a mercenary and drowning his sorrows in wine and ale. The novel tells the story of his redemption.
Whenever I critique a novel, I always try to consider what the author intended to do. Is he trying to write a literary masterpiece and take a seat alongside the likes of Homer and Tolstoy? Is he trying to write a solid piece of popular fiction that would appeal to a wide audience? Or is he writing on the pulp-level, or the genre-level—that is to say, writing for those who are fans? Once this question is answered, one can then fairly critique a book.
Without a doubt, Strohm is writing pulp-fiction. He is writing in a Dungeons & Dragons universe for Dungeons & Dragons players. One step above that audience, he is writing for the sword and sorcery fan. The Tomb of Horrors doesn't provide the epic, or high, fantasy of Tolkien (which is incarnated in the D&D universe through the Dragonlance novels). Rather, Strohm is writing in the tradition of Robert E. Howard's Conan or Michael Moorcock's Elric.
On the broader level of sword and sorcery in general, The Tomb of Horrors is an adequate adventure novel. That might sound more dismal than I intend. The problem with the novel is that it's set in the D&D universe, and I'm going to suspect that Strohm wasn't given too much latitude in terms of length or time. And that is really where the novel's flaw lies. One gets the impression, especially toward the end, that Strohm was in a hurry to finish. Since you don't write D&D novels unless you are already under contract, he was writing for a deadline.
Speed writing creates two flaws within a piece of work. First, flaws of language. Because the mind is clipping along faster than one can write (or type), it's easy to make leaps the reader cannot follow. Graham Greene once said that it is illogical to write, "He ran down the steps and jumped into the car," because that's just not how it happens—unless, of course, the car is parked right in front of the stairs.
Where is the car at in relation to the stairs? Outside? Around the corner? On the other side of the street? These are things that need to be made clear if the writer doesn't want to interrupt the fictional dream. And there were several times during the last 100 pages when I was taken out of the dream as I tried to figure out exactly what was happening.
The second flaw effected by speed writing is a lack of depth. The Tomb of Horrors is filled with a lot of potential. And as I read the last 100 pages, I wished more and more that Strohm had had the time for another rewrite—and had had the space for another 100 to 200 pages. There is one character, a Paladin named Vaxor, who plays a pivotal role in Kaerion's redemption—and he is hardly more than a decoration the first 250 pages of the book. Another rewrite, along with a few extra pages, this character, who also undergoes a transformation of real significance, would have added an intriguing element to the story.
All of this being said, I have to say that I enjoyed the novel very much. It's one of the better D&D novels I've read—not as good as the original Dragonlance novels (but, then, few things are), but better than R. A. Salvatore. It's fast-paced, never boring, and really does capture the essence of D&D—which is exactly what it is supposed to do. It's been several years since I've read a fantasy novel, and The Tomb of Horrors reminded me just how much I enjoy this kind of fiction. In fact, it compelled me to pull out a couple fantasy novels I haven't gotten around to reading yet.
I'll certainly be reading Keith Strohm's second novel, Bladesinger.
Vehige has made some fine recommendations. And I do agree with him about The Boys of Summer. Here are a few other good books to start getting us in the mood.
How Life Imitates the World Series
Why Time Begins on Opening Day
Two collections of essays by Tom Boswell, sportswriter for the Washington Post. The pieces date from the 1970s and early 1980s, and much of Boswell's attention understandably focuses on the Baltimore Orioles, his “home team.” But Boswell loves baseball so much, and he is so knowledgeable about both the past and present of the game, that his writing will be of interest to any fan, regardless of what team they root for. I was disappointed to discover that both these books are now out of print. (That happens to me a lot lately.) But check the library or a used book store; they're worth hunting for.
You Know Me, Al
Ring Lardner's classic epistolary novel about baseball in the years before World War I. A revealing portrait of much that has changed about the game, and much that is eternal. Jack Keefe is one of the truly great fictional creations in all of American literature.
Why Is the Foul Pole Fair?
Vince Staten provides answers to all those obscure questions you'll be embarrassed not to know the answer to when one of your kids asks them. An entertaining and useful reference.
Five Seasons: A Baseball Companion
Actually, almost any book by Roger Angell would be a good pick here. If you're a baseball fan, you need to read him. This one is a favorite of mine because it includes an account of the only World Series I ever attended in person – 1975.
Some of our readers will remember that I, Vehige, had a blog previous to Thursday Night Gumbo. It was called Vir Ecclesiasticus, and it was dedicated to theology and catechesis.
After three months, I decided I didn't like the direction Vir Ecclesiasticus was going. I asked Woodward if he'd be interested in starting a team blog and . . . well, you know.
However, I still want to write articles on the faith. But Thursday Night Gumbo just doesn't seem to be the right place for these kinds of articles. So I decided to start a third blog, this one dedicated only to explaining the faith as simply and clearly as I know how.
I went back to WordPress for this blog for the simple reason that one of the templates allows me to make the blog more like a web page. Blogger is easier to use, but I WordPress gives me exactly what I'm looking for with this new venture.
Come and visit me at The Catholic Witness. I'm still in the process of getting some things organized, so please excuse the mess.
Labels: Catholic Blogs
Meal: Manicotti, salad, steamed squash and zucchini, French bred. Thanks to my wife for preparing the manicotti.
Dessert: Vanilla ice cream, cinnamon ice cream.
Movie: Fear Strikes Out (Woodward's pick). I thought it was a great movie, and a great father-son story. Anthony Perkins does a fabulous job. I give it an "A" (I loved it!).
Conversation topics: Child rearing, home schooling, world history, reading habits, Dickens, Latin, Tolstoy, Anthony Perkins, blogs, books, movies, Wagner. We talked quite bit about which book we're going to read once we finish Cardinal Ratzinger's Values in a Time of Upheaval.
Funny happening: My two-year-old was so busy waving goodnight to Woodward that he missed the doorway and walked smack into the wall.
Next Thursday Night Gumbo: February 22.
Thursday, February 15, 2007
This morning, the Sports section of the local paper had a Spring Training preview. It was a sight for sore eyes, to be sure. Last season ended with such a whimper I wondered if it was the end of baseball.
On the grand scale, the 2006 World Series was pathetic. The St. Louis Cardinals, only one game above .500 last year, should never have been allowed in the playoffs -- and they end up winning the World Series. And the Detroit Tigers made so many errors you started wondering if Bill Buckner was one of their coaches.
On the local scale, our home team, the Texas Rangers, crawled over the finish line. The manager they had hired to make something out of this team -- Buck Showalter -- was canned. They lost one of their top players, Gary Mathews Jr., to a rival, the Angels. And the youngest GM in all of baseball couldn't seem to close the deal on any major player to improve this team.
Yet, the realizing that spring training is less than two weeks away is cause for rejoicing. I often tell my oldest son, after a particularly difficult day, to remember that when he wakes up in the morning everything will be new; it'll be time to start afresh. That's the beauty of spring training -- all the wounds from the previous season have been healed, and the only thing that matters is the newness, the freshness, of the new season.
So to celebrate the coming of spring training, I thought I'd recommend a few movies and books that will surely get anyone's heart ready for Opening Day.
Baseball has a fascinating history. In fact, it's history is so fascinating -- and some of its personalities so intriguing -- that it should be illegal to make up fictional baseball stories.
If you really want to get into the history of baseball, you can't do better than watching Ken Burn's amazing documentary, Baseball. This nine-disk DVD set will introduce you to both the facts and legends of the game. There's no need to buy it; you can get the whole thing from Netflix. Be sure to get the disks back-to-back. Burns is a master story-teller, and he understands the story of baseball. Once you start, you won't want to stop.
I'm not as well read in baseball as I would like; Woodward has read far more than I have. But I'm pretty sure Woodward would agree that the best baseball book ever written was Roger Kahn's The Boys of Summer. On one level, this is a memoir of one fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers who ended up being the team's beat writer in the early 50's. On another level, this is a story of a team -- a team loved for being losers, a team with the only black player (Jackie Robinson) at the time, a team that desperately wants to win and remove the "lovable losers" image. And yet on a third level, this is a story of the players who made up that team -- the story of their lives, their own triumphs and tragedies both while they played and after they left the game. In fact, it might not be too far off to call The Boys of Summer one of the best books ever written. A real masterpiece.
Billy Crystal's 61* tells the story of the 1961 season when Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris of the New York Yankees both chased Babe Ruth's record of hitting 60 home runs in one season. Like all good baseball stories, this movie understands that people are more important than baseball -- and so it correctly focuses on the Mantle and Marris' friendship, as well Marris' own struggle, both private and public, over doing something he most likely never wanted to do. But the perhaps the real power of this movie lies in the fact that Crystal, as much as he loves baseball, reminds you that baseball is just a game and that the players playing the game are people. My wife, who doesn't like baseball, loved this movie. So even if you aren't a fan, watch this movie.
Tuesday, February 13, 2007
Woodward has already commented on Cardinal Ratzinger's fifth essay in Values in a Time of Upheaval, the essay entitled, "If You Want Peace...." I must second his opinion that this is the best treatment I've ever read on the relationship between the conscience and the Church. Where was this essay when I was taking moral theology at the University of Dallas? (Hey Dr. Lowery, if you happen upon this post, make sure you read this essay!)
I've never quite understood the relationship between our conscience, our duty to follow it (even if it is in error), our duty to form the conscience, and the role of the moral authority of the Magisterium in the life of a Catholic. I've always accepted that somehow these tenets of the faith, although they seem to contradict one another, really do form a harmonious whole. Thanks to our Holy Father, I now understand how that whole is formed.
We must first make a distinction between the morality of conscience and the morality of authority. In today's world, these two — conscience and authority — are seen to be at odds with one another. If I hold an action to be moral, and yet the Church (or any authority, for that matter) holds that same action to be immoral, then whichever authority is opposing our subjective view of reality is understood to be oppressive, intolerant, dictatorial, and power-hungry. In other words, nowadays the subjective view of things is always deemed correct, even infallible, while the views of an authority — in this case, the Church — are deemed wrong, and even stifling to human freedom.
I must admit that this is my own moral background. Not in any propositional manner; I've never accepted the ideas of any subjectivist philosophical school. But I am, like everyone else, a child of my culture, and the culture I was raised in — the culture we all live in — is a culture of radical subjectivity, relativism, and practical atheism. So even though I've fully embraced the Church I was born and raised in, there's always been a part of me that hasn't quite accepted that the Church (or God) is really on my side.
It wasn't until I read this essay that I realized what my problem really was. I couldn't seen how my own freedom and my own conscience could exist in harmony with the moral precepts of the Church. What exactly is it that unites the morality of conscience with the morality of authority?
The answer is this: The truth unites the two.
All of this Ratzinger makes clear when he comments on the following statement by John Henry Newman: I shall drink — to the Pope, if you please — still, to Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards. Ratzinger writes:
Newman intended this to be a clear confession of his faith in the papacy, in response to the objections raised by Gladstone to the dogma of infallibility. At the same time, against erroneous forms of ultramontanism, he meant it to be an interpretation of the papacy, which can be understood correctly only when it is seen in connection with the primacy of conscience — not in opposition to this primacy, but based on it and guaranteeing it. It is difficult for people today to grasp this point, since they think on the basis of an antithesis between authority and subjectivity. Conscience is seen as standing on the side of subjectivity and as an expression of the freedom of the subject, while authority is regarded as the limitation of this freedom, or indeed a threat to it, if not its actual negation.... The intermediate concept that holds these two together for Newman is truth. I would not hesitate to say that truth is the central idea in Newman's intellectual striving. Conscience is central to his thinking because truth is the heart of everything.
One of my old professors, John R. Sommerfeldt, opens his book entitled The Spiritual Teachings of Bernard of Clairvaux by noting that . . .
. . . the key to understanding the spirituality of Bernard of Clairvaux, the spirituality of the twelfth century, indeed, the spirituality of any person or age, is anthropology. If the spiritual journey is a pilgrimage toward perfection, then that perfection is necessarily contingent on the nature which is to be perfected. The completion — the self-fulfillment, the happiness — of human beings necessarily depends on what human beings are.
Thus it seems to me that if we are going to understand the importance of conscience, we must first have a working idea of what a human being is.
Aristotle's called the human being a rational animal. Now it's been a long time since I read Aristotle, but I do not think it would be too far off to interpret this definition along the following lines: What distinguishes the human being from other animals is man's ability to know the truth of things, indeed, his desire to know the truth of things. In short, for Aristotle, man is an animal the desires to know the truth.
This idea is also found in Judeo-Christian anthropology. According to this view, man was created in the image and likeness of God for the purpose of knowing God and enjoying friendship with God. Since God is truth, the human person, at the core of his being, is ordered toward the truth. Yet, according to the Catholic theological tradition, because of Original Sin our intellects have been darkened and our wills, weakened. What this means is that we are no longer able to grasp the truth easily, or desire the good purely. Simply, we are able to make mistakes.
God in his infinite mercy has given us full knowledge of the truth through the revelation of his Son Jesus Christ. And this revelation is preserved in the Church. Thus the Church must not be seen as an authoritarian institution that seeks to oppress our human freedom; rather, the Church must be seen as our servant, as the one who exists solely for the sake of leading us to the fullness of truth. And this is precisely what Pope Benedict says:
The true meaning of the teaching authority of the pope is that he is the advocate of Christian memory. He does not impose something from the outside but develops and defends Christian memory. This is why [Newman's] toast must quite rightly begin with conscience and then mention the pope, for without conscience there would be no papacy at all.
Monday, February 12, 2007
A very powerful song about a father's guilt over aborting his child.
Surprisingly, Lent begins in less than ten days. Now I'm normally not the kind of person who likes to share my own spiritual life with others. I don't mind talking about the pious practices exhorted by the Church or by the great saints, but I've never been inclined to talk about my own spiritual life. I'm not a saint — at least not yet! — so there's nothing I can say with words that hasn't already been said with the sweat, tears, and even blood, of a Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Francis de Sales, or Maximilian Kolbe.
That being said, I feel inclined to talk about what I plan to do for Lent — and perhaps even to share some of my experiences throughout Lent — for the simple reason that I'm approaching Lent with a very different mindset than I have in years past. I don't think it's too arrogant to assume that what's new for me may also be new for a reader or two.
In years past, Lent has always been a time of self-denial as well as increased spiritual reading. The self-denial I've engaged in has never been anything serious — unless you take into account the length of Lent. And most of the books I've chosen to read were more speculative than practical.
But sometime last month Jimmy Akin wrote a post about penance in which he cited Canon 1249, and that changed everything. Canon 1249 says:
The divine law binds all the Christian faithful to do penance each in his or her own way. In order for all to be united among themselves by some common observance of penance, however, penitential days are prescribed on which the Christian faithful devote themselves in a special way to prayer, perform works of piety and charity, and deny themselves by fulfilling their own obligations more faithfully and especially by observing fast and abstinence, according to the norm of their following canons. [Emphasis added]
Over the last six to eight months, one of the spiritual truths I've come to accept, though perhaps not live out as best as I can, is that true devotion to Christ incarnates itself through true devotion the duties and people Christ has put in your life. Saint Teresa of Avila was surprised to discover that the closer she grew to Christ the more eager she was to serve her neighbors. Thus, when I saw that the Church herself holds up as a form of penance the self denial that is actualized through fulfilling our own obligations more faithfully, I was intrigued.
However, one of the problems I saw was that it would be very easy to slip back into old habits — that one would still be fulfilling their obligations, but perhaps not "more faithfully," as the Church requires.
Then I came across a saying by St. Francis of Assisi that struck me as the perfect motto for someone who wants to make fulfilling of their obligations as their primary form of self-denial: "Start by doing what is necessary, then do what is possible, and suddenly you are doing the impossible."
Start by doing what is necessary . . . .
This idea, it seems to me, is the perfect place to begin. It is quite easy to determine what is necessary for us to do according to our state of life; and, thus, is it quite easy to know whether or not we are faithfully performing those duties.
One might think that if something is necessary for us to do, then we are already doing it. That's certainly true, which is why the Church is asking us to fulfill these duties more faithfully. That is to say, to hand ourselves over to our duties because we believe those duties have been given to us by God himself. In short, it means handing ourselves over to the tasks ordained by Divine Providence.
So this is my new approach to Lent. Yes, I am still going to perform a concrete act of self-denial because my fear is that trying to fulfill my duties more faithfully for the duration of Lent will prove to be too much.
And, yes, I am still going to beef up my spiritual reading. But this year I am going to read some practical books. The first book is Saintly Solutions to Life's Problems by Fr. Joseph Esper. The other is The Hidden Power of Kindness by Fr. Lawrence Lovaski.
(Woodward will undoubtedly raise his brow at this last book. We used to attend a parish where the pastor would, without fail, preach on why Christ wants us to be nice to other people. That's not a homily I want to hear again — ever. The word "nice" has too many meanings to be used with any real meaning. Does it mean that we should be "pleasant," like a day at the beach? Does it mean being seen as respectable, such as when we say, "he's made some nice friends"? Does it mean that we should be good-looking, so they can say someone can say of us that we are nice in the same way they can say that new car is really nice?)
The second Beatitude exhorts us to be "merciful." An alternate translation is "gentleness." It seems to me that the virtue of kindness is a prerequisite for being gentle and merciful with others. And that's why I decided on Fr. Lovaski's book.
I am hoping that both of these books will help me fulfill my duties more faithfully — that during this Lent I'll be forced to tackle some of the vices I've conveniently chosen to overlook, those vices which really do harm our spiritual lives because they are part of our very fabric.
If you've made it this far, and if you're so inclined, then why don't you leave a comment on how you're approaching Lent this year. No need to go into specifics — in fact, it's probably better not to — but rather write something about the attitude with which you are entering the Lenten season.
Sunday, February 11, 2007
Back in the mid-1980s a collection of Flannery O'Connor's book reviews was published under the title The Presence of Grace. The book is now out of print, but it's available through amazon.com from a number of used book dealers at prices ranging up to $95 (almost enough to make me want to part with my copy!).
The reviews were written for various diocesan newspapers between February 1956 and April 1964, just a few months before O'Connor's death. They provide an interesting picture of at least part of what O'Connor was reading during the years of her own greatest productivity as a writer. Those were also years of ferment (as they say) within the Church, a Church that was poised in the late 1950s and early 1960s on the brink of some exciting -- and some menacing -- changes. Just to illustrate the point: the August 4, 1962 edition of her own diocesan paper published O'Connor's reviews of both The Cardinal Spellman Story and Hans Kung's The Council, Reform and Reunion. It was an age of contrasts.
I've often thought that a list of the books reviewed in The Presence of Grace might make an interesting "reading plan" -- at least if you chose the books that get the most favorable reviews. In fact, I first read some books because of what Flannery O'Connor had to say about them -- for example, The Range of Reason by Jacques Maritain and Meditations Before Mass by Romano Guardini. I also read what little of Teilhard de Chardin I have because of O'Connor's admiration for him (although my own admiration for him is somewhat less).
At any rate, Vehige, I'll lend you the book (but be careful with it!) and maybe we can pick a few titles to add to the Thursday Night Gumbo agenda. Let's not start with Cardinal Spellman or Hans Kung, though.
I think it's time to start reading The Habit of Being again.
Friday, February 9, 2007
Our Lord Jesus Christ, born true man without ever ceasing to be true God, began in his person a new creation and by the manner of his birth gave man a spiritual origin. What mind can grasp this mystery, what tongue can fittingly recount this gift of love? Guilt becomes innocence, old becomes new, strangers are adopted and outsiders are made heirs. Rouse yourself, man, and recognize the dignity of your nature. Remember that you were made in God's image; though corrupted in Adam, that image has been restored in Christ.
Use creatures as they should be used: the earth, the sea, the sky, the air, the springs and the rivers. Give praise and glory to their Creator for all that you find beautiful and wonderful in them. See with your bodily eyes the light that shines on earth, but embrace with your whole soul and all your affections the true light which enlightens every man who comes into this world. Speaking of this light the prophet said: Draw close to him and let his light shine upon you and your face will not blush with shame. If we are indeed the temple of God and if the Spirit of God lives in us, then what every believer has within himself is greater than what he admires in the skies.
Our words and exhortations are not intended to make you disdain God's works or think there is anything contrary to your faith in creation, for the good God has himself made all things good. What we do ask is that you use reasonably and with moderation all the marvelous creatures which adorn this world; as the Apostle says: The things that are seen are transient but the things that are unseen are eternal.
For we are born in the present only to be reborn in the future. Our attachment, therefore, should not be to the transitory; instead, we must be intent upon the eternal. Let us think of how divine grace has transformed our earthly natures so that we may contemplate more closely our heavenly hope. We hear the Apostle say: You are dead and your life is hidden with Christ in God. But when Christ your life appears, then you will also appear in glory with him, who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit for ever and ever. Amen.
(From the Office of Readings, Friday of the Fifth Week of Ordinary Time.)
Labels: Notable Quotables
Thursday, February 8, 2007
Okay, I'll do this. I told Vehige earlier that he would have to handle all of Thursday Night Gumbo's meme responses and pop-psych personality profile tests because I find the whole phenomenon a bit in-bred and self-absorbed. He responded that I was becoming...well, let's just say that he encouraged me to “lighten up.” So it's off with the grumpy-old-man hat and on with the good-sport blogging fraternity hat, and away we go. (Actually, this might not be so bad. Thursday Night Gumbo is, after all, a blog about books, so I might well have gotten around to expressing most of these opinions separately in other contexts anyway.)
1. Have you read (up to 3) authors recently you want to read more by?
Last summer in the pages of the New York Times I came across the best sports essay I have ever read -- “Federer as Religious Experience,” by David Foster Wallace. Then just a week or so ago, Amy Welborn linked to a short story in the New Yorker that I found very provocative. Turns out it was also by David Foster Wallace. I am assured by some English professor friends of mine that I will not like Wallace's novels, but he's two for two with me so far, and I am thinking about taking a closer look. If anybody has advice, I'd welcome it.
Also last summer, I finally got around to reading Madame Bovary. Where had it been all my life? One of the five greatest novels of all time. So now I need to choose another Flaubert. Again, guidance would be welcome.
At Vehige's suggestion, I recently read The Gospel of Jesus Christ by Pere Marie-Joseph Lagrange, a great early twentieth century Scripture scholar with whom I was unfamiliar. Aside from Guardini's The Lord, this book is the best informal commentary on the life of Christ I have ever read. I'm thinking now about reading Luther on the Eve of His Revolt. It's available online.
2. Have you read (up to 3) authors recently that if you never see another book by them, it will be too soon?
Perhaps I'm choosing my reading material more carefully these days, but I can't really say that I have had this reaction “recently.” The last book I really hated was The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, by David Kertzer. It is by far the most comprehensive book available on an interesting but peculiar chapter of Church history. But Kertzer's way of presenting his material is so contentious, and his own prejudices are so manifest throughout the book, that it turned out to be of limited usefulness to me. The sound of anti-Catholic axes being ground was deafening at times.
3. Are there any authors (up to 3) you wish would write more books? (I am breaking this into 2 categories, those dead and alive; the dead ones it's not likely we will get any more from, but I wish.)
Whenever I read them, I find myself wishing that two of my favorite poets had written many times the number of poems they did – Horace and Philip Larkin.
I read Horace's Odes as part of my self-instruction in Latin a number of years ago. It was rough going, but by the time I got through them I was convinced that Horace is the greatest lyric poet who ever lived. At his best, he demonstrates more powerfully than any other writer just how much language is capable of. Too many of the odes are the made-to-order efforts of a champion sycophant, but even when he's just brown-nosing Augustus or Maecenas, Horace is still better than a lot of poets who wrote with nobler motives.
Philip Larkin is not to everyone's taste. He is somber, fatalistic, sometimes actually cruel, almost always despairing in his view of man's ultimate end. But his poems are beautiful, which is all that really matters.
I also wish that John Kennedy Toole had lived to write other books after A Confederacy of Dunces, although I cannot imagine what those books would have been like.
I'm more or less content to wait and see what happens. I do expect additional great things out of Benedict XVI. And I think it's about time Dana Gioia published another volume of poetry.
Wednesday, February 7, 2007
Over the years, I have involved myself, as a lay volunteer, in a number of parish catechesis programs – high school religious education and RCIA. This involvement has always been rewarding, although the reward in some cases has been primarily the opportunity to confront the “Vatican II-changed-everything” approach to Catholic religious education. The centerpiece of that approach is invariably a class on “the role of conscience in Catholic moral teaching.”
That, at least, is what the class is usually called. What it actually turns out to be is a class on why it's perfectly okay for Catholics to practice contraception as long as one is “following one's conscience.” The lesson could be just as effectively taught by explaining to students why it's perfectly okay to rob banks as long as one is “following one's conscience,” but somehow bank robbery never enters the curriculum. Contraception always does.
There is nothing really wrong with teaching Catholics about conscience in this way. The consistent, definitive teaching of the Church is that “a human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience” [Catechism of the Catholic Church §1790]. That may actually be the single element of Catholic moral theology that has been most effectively communicated to the generations of Catholics who have grown up in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. If members of those generations have been lucky, they may also have been instructed in the necessity of forming one's conscience in the light of the Church's moral teaching before one starts following it. But whether their consciences are well or poorly formed, today's Catholics all know that they must follow those consciences and that, insofar as they do follow their consciences, they will be free of any moral culpability – sin, in other words.
To learn this is to learn an important truth of the Catholic faith – as far as it goes. But I have frequently been a little bothered, I guess, by just how far it does go (or doesn't go) in some programs of religious education. Conscience is presented, under this approach, as a sort of subjective checklist. We hold our actual behavior up beside our conscience, compare the two, and, as long as they match, we are “good Catholics.” Sure, one or another precept of the Church may tell me that a certain behavior is wrong, but if I don't feel that it's wrong – if my conscience does not bother me after I've done it – then it's not wrong for me. At any rate, my doing it is not a sin.
For many Catholics, especially those who have learned their faith in the “Vatican II-changed-everything” era, that ends the matter. Follow your conscience...and move on. But I have never understood how that really could “end the matter” for these Catholics, or for any Catholic. Their consciences have spoken, yes, and they have obeyed, just as they must. They have done the immediately right thing. But the Church has spoken too – Christ has spoken. And in some instances, what the Church has spoken is at variance with what these Catholics' consciences have spoken, and that should, at the very least, bother any Catholic. It should set up, as the psychologists say, a “cognitive dissonance” – a conflict between internal and external realities that cannot be kept permanently in equilibrium. What do I do when the same moral authority that tells me I must obey the certain judgment of my conscience also tells me that that judgment is wrong?
I have always been amazed at the number of well-informed Catholics who are, or seem to be, completely unbothered by such a state of affairs in their own lives. But at the same time I have never come across a good argument to encourage these Catholics to reconsider the inherent contradictoriness of their position.
Not, at any rate, until I read the fifth essay in Pope Benedict's collection Values in a Time of Upheaval. This essay, titled “If You Want Peace,” should be required reading for every Catholic director of religious education, every catechist, every RCIA instructor in every parish. It is the single best commentary I have ever seen on the Church's teaching with regard to conscience and its role as a guide to moral behavior.
Benedict begins by recounting a series of theological conversations he had with a colleague at the beginning of his academic career. In one of these conversations, the colleague argued that even Hitler and his fellow Nazis who were involved in the operation of the German death camps might well have been doing what they thought was right. If that was the case, argued the colleague, then the Nazis had acted without any subjective guilt for their behavior because they had acted in accord with their own consciences – however depraved those consciences may have been.
“Since that conversation,” says Benedict, “I have been absolutely certain that there is something wrong with the theory of the justifying force of the subjective conscience. In other words, a concept of conscience that leads to such inferences is false. A firm subjective conviction, with the consequent lack of doubts and scruples, does not justify anyone.”
Benedict explains that the Church has historically seen two dimensions to the human conscience. There is the dimension that gives conscience its name – what theologians call conscientia. It is an act of both the intellect and the will, by which we recognize the natural orientation toward goodness that every human being is created with, and apply that orientation to particular situations. It is the faculty within us, in other words, that makes us want to do what is right. The Catechism explains this element of conscience in paragraph 1777: “Moral conscience, present at the heart of the person, enjoins him at the appropriate moment to do good and to avoid evil.” By following this command of conscience once it is perceived within us, we can (as the Church teaches) be confident that we are not incurring any subjective guilt for our actions. “It is on this level,” Pope Benedict says, “that [even] an erring conscience obligates.”
That is the dimension of conscience that the Church has done a pretty good job of explaining to the faithful over the last 30 or 40 years.
But there is another dimension to the operation of human conscience. Benedict, along with other Platonic philosophers, uses the term anamnesis to describe this dimension. Anamnesis is the Greek word for memory, and it is an appropriate word for the human quality that Benedict is referring to -- “the primal remembrance of the good and the true.” We have this remembrance because, in the Pope's words, “there is an inherent existential tendency of man, who is created in the image of God, to tend toward that which is in keeping with God.” This inherent tendency toward good is what St. Paul was referring to when he said of the Gentiles – who had not been given the Mosaic Law to tell them how to behave -- “that what the law requires is written on their hearts” (Romans 2:14, 15).
Because this inherent tendency toward good – this primal remembrance of who and what we really are – is a universal human quality, we can reinforce it in one another and nourish it in community, since we hold it in common. Thus, as Benedict says, conscience “makes possible a shared knowledge that can generate a shared will and a shared responsibility.” But this also means that if we cut ourselves off from the ethical norms of human society – or if those norms themselves are betrayed and perverted by cultural decline – then our ability to remember the law that is written on our hearts will be diminished as well, and our consciences will inevitably become faulty.
From the standpoint of personal morality, the worst aspect of this loss of anamnesis, this forgetting of our deepest moral nature, is the fact that it can actually be intentional. We can choose not to examine our consciences too closely, not to think too deeply about the choices we face, not to inform ourselves about the Church's teaching on specific moral issues, because we know (or suspect) what we will find and learn if we do those things. We act superficially in a way that does not make us feel guilty, and assume for that reason that we are doing what the Church has told us to do – “obey the certain judgment of our conscience.”
Pope Benedict warns against this kind of moral superficiality:
"One who follows the conviction at which he has arrived never incurs guilt. Indeed, one must follow such a conviction. But guilt may very well consist in arriving at such perverse convictions by trampling down the protest made by the anamnesis of one's true being. The guilt would then lie on a deeper level, not in the act itself, not in the specific judgment pronounced by conscience, but in that neglect of my own being that has dulled me to the voice of truth and made me deaf to what it says within me."
This is all basic, traditional, orthodox Catholic moral theology. It is not Pope Benedict's private understanding of how conscience operates; it is right there in the Catechism, alongside the more familiar and more thoroughly taught explanation of why the demands of conscience are absolute. Here, for example:
"This ignorance [of the moral conscience] can often be imputed to personal responsibility. This is the case when a man takes little trouble to find out what is true and good, or when conscience is by degrees almost blinded through the habit of committing sin. In such cases, the person is culpable for the evil he commits." [Catechism of the Catholic Church §1791]
There is much food for thought here (certainly enough to keep me busy between now and my next confession!). Simply following our consciences is never sufficient, in and of itself. We must avoid what the Pope calls the “canonization of subjectivity,” seeking refuge in a clear conscience as if that can save us, excusing ourselves for not following the truth closely enough because we did not know what the truth was. Above all, though, we should not become discouraged. The good news of Christianity (in the words with which Benedict concludes his essay) is that
"...the truth by which we are judged is also the love that saves us. That is why we should never fear the truth or think that its demands are too much for us...The yoke of truth became “light” (Matt. 11:30) when the Truth in person came, loved us, and burned up our guilt in his own love. It is only when we know and experience this from within that we become free to hear the message of conscience with joy – and without fear."