Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Woodward: Receiving Communion

Last week, when Pope Benedict celebrated Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York, Rudy Giuliani came forward and received communion (not from His Holiness but from another priest). And so the fight starts again.

As I understand it, a priest may justifiably deny the sacrament in a case when administering it would cause scandal -- the calling into disrepute of the Church or one of its precepts, the fostering of the idea that sin is not sin. If a priest, per absurdum, were to observe a person in the communion line turn and kill the person behind him and then present himself to receive the sacrament, that priest would be free to -- indeed, I think, would be obliged to -- refuse to administer the sacrament to him. Not only would the priest in that case know that the killer was in a state of mortal sin, but everyone else in the line would also know it. It is specifically that latter fact that introduces the issue of scandal, and it is that latter fact which would make it wrong for the priest to allow the killer to communicate. "If he can do that and receive communion," someone in the line might well say to himself, "then what might I not do and still receive?" Scandal.

The facts surrounding the issue of denying communion, alas, are never quite that simple. It takes a lot more nowadays to be a "public sinner" than it used to. In the huge, semi-anonymous assemblies that we now call parishes, almost no one would be tempted to imagine that he knows the state of any other parishioner's soul -- and that "no one" includes the parish priest! The realm of the "public sinner" has been reduced, in practical terms, to the realm of the "public figure." We all know that Rudy Giuliani "put away his wife and married another." We all know that John Kerry refused to exercise his authority as a legislator to outlaw the killing of a baby at the very moment it is being born. Both men -- along with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who also declined to outlaw partial-birth abortion when she had the chance -- received communion very publicly during the Pope's U.S. visit. What should the minister of the sacrament have done in these cases? And did the reception of communion by these very prominent Catholics give scandal?

To the second question, I offer only this comment from another Catholic who was at the papal Mass at St. Patrick's with Mayor Giuliani, as reported in the New York Daily News: "I feel sad, because if I was ever married and got divorced, I would not go to communion, because I respect the church -- and he should respect the church." The implied sense of justice in that statement is the basis of the Catholic Church's concern about scandal. Some Catholics will say: "I accept the consequences of my actions -- why shouldn't he?" Others may be tempted to say: "He doesn't suffer any consequences of his actions -- why should I?" It is a question we should all pray we never provoke anyone else to ask.

What should the appointed ministers of the sacrament in the cases of Msrs. Giuliani, Kerry, Kennedy, Dodd, and Ms. Pelosi have done? It might come as a blow to Nancy Pelosi's self-importance, but I doubt that the prelate from whom she received communion -- Archbishop Sambi, the Apostolic Nuncio -- knew her from Adam (or Eve -- or is that sexist?). What were the Pope and his Eucharistic ministers supposed to do -- stand there with ciborium in one hand and mug shots of dissident American Catholic office-holders in the other?

Which leads me to the only conclusion I feel entitled to draw from this whole mess -- not being a priest, canon lawyer, or even an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist. The overriding obligation here falls directly on the individual Catholic. Whatever the minister of the sacrament should have done in any of these cases, it is clear that Catholics who are widely known to be in defiance of the authoritative moral teachings of the Church should not present themselves for communion. Mayor Giuliani, to his credit, apparently observes this moral standard -- except when television cameras are present. As for the others...well, perhaps they would all do well, assuming that they have copies of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, to read paragraphs 2284-2287 -- on scandal.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Woodward: Lower-Case Atheism

In the April 14 online edition of Vanity Fair, Christopher Hitchens turns his notoriously wide-ranging and (usually) literate intellect to the task of reviewing a new biography of Sir Isaac Newton. The review is worth reading for more than one reason, but the thing that caught me most by surprise -- aside from his incomprehensible admiration for Carl Sagan -- was Hitchens's decision to refer to the Creator of the universe as "god." Small g. Not once, but twice. As thus:

Paley’s book Natural Theology, arguing that all of “creation” argued for the evidence of a divine designer, became the key text for those who saw the hand of god in the marvels of nature.

Hitchens's war against the Almighty thus degenerates from the philosophical to the typographical. Sure, he has cursed and ridiculed God in the past, but until now it never occurred to him to haul out the big guns -- refuse to capitalize God's name. That'll show Him.

From Hitchens, this junior-high grandstanding is no more (or less) than amusing. But doesn't Vanity Fair, a journal where correct -- indeed, elegantly correct -- English prose once flourished, have a copy editor any more? Or does their copy editor agree with Christopher Hitchens that God no longer deserves a capital G?

Woodward: Expelled

In an earlier post on the subject of evolution -- a subject that I am quickly coming to regard alternately as annoying and mind-numbingly tedious -- I said this:

I believe that increasingly complex forms of life have developed slowly and incrementally through genetic mutations over hundreds of millions of years, and that that development includes human beings. I do, however, have my doubts – as do many reputable biologists, I believe – about the adequacy of Darwin's theories to explain what we humans regard as the upward direction of that evolutionary development. In short, I accept evolution as a reasonable, indeed a likely, explanation of biological diversity on this planet; I do not have any idea – nor do I think anybody else does – as to how evolution “works.”

I'll stick with that opinion. It's the opinion I carried with me today into the movie theater as I took my 15-year-old daughter to see Ben Stein's documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. I came out with a few random reactions and one overriding conviction. Here they are.


Random Reactions

1. Stein's premise is that opponents and even casual questioners of Darwinian biology are being shut out of university teaching positions and the inner circles of the scientific establishment. I don't doubt that premise a bit, based on my own limited experience in the academy and my observations of the myriad ways in which ideological orthodoxy is enforced there. I would say, however, that there are other disciplines in which enforced orthodoxy poses a greater danger to society than the teaching of evolution. History, for example. Or psychiatry.

2. The movie suffers -- fatally, in my view -- from a lack of defined purpose. Is it trying to argue (a) that intelligent design advocates are being persecuted in an all-out assault on academic freedom; or (b) that Darwinian theory itself is false; or (c) that Darwinism leads to Nazism? At one point or another in the course of the movie, each of those allegations is advanced but none is established very convincingly. And in the case of the third allegation, the movie edges dangerously close, I think, to demagoguery, for this reason: As a scientific theory, Darwinism is either true or false. Does the (undeniable) fact that the Nazis found it ideologically useful have any bearing on its scientific validity? If biological differentiation produced by natural selection is a potentially dangerous truth about how the world works, we need to know that and deal with it. But the fact that Hitler accepted and used Darwinian biology doesn't say anything one way or the other about whether Darwin was right. The Nazis were also working on an atomic bomb. Should we on that basis question whether E=mc2 ?

3. There are some very smart, articulate, broad-minded, and attractive spokesmen for intelligent design. If the movie accomplishes nothing else, it shows the world that not everyone who questions Darwinism is a snake-handling glossolalian witch-burner. Stephen Meyer and William Dembski -- to name two of the prominent anti-Darwinians featured in the movie -- are both very effective representatives of their side of the argument. A ninety-minute debate between them on the one hand, and Richard Dawkins and Michael Ruse on the other, would have been a much more productive use of the audience's time. (And, purely as debaters, my money would be on Meyer and Dembski.)


Overriding Conviction

Documentaries are inherently defective -- and potentially (perhaps irresistibly) dishonest -- vehicles for presenting information. The world had a chance to learn that from Leni Riefenstahl. It has had several more recent chances to learn it from Michael Moore. Yet we keep buying tickets to these things, seduced perhaps by that noble-sounding title "documentary" into the belief that something other than our own ideological predispositions is actually going to be documented.

One other thing. Perhaps Expelled and the rabid assault being mounted against it will help some people see an important truth about the whole evolution debate. Why is it that a 150-year-old theory so nearly devoid of real scientific substance or utility still generates so much dialectical heat? Clearly, it's because the real debate is not about science; it's about religion. An outfit called the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) -- about which I've blogged before -- has a website up to challenge the assertions made in Expelled. That's fine. As I just explained, several of the movie's assertions are eminently challengeable. On their website, the NCSE is at great pains to assure us that "science and religion are distinct domains of human thought and experience," and are in no way in conflict with each other. After all, they tell us, "Catholic, mainstream Protestant, and Jewish theology long ago accommodated evolution." But they don't at all mind linking to Richard Dawkins's "fan" website, where you can both read an account of how poor Prof. Dawkins was misrepresented in the movie, and download one of these disturbingly tasteless flyers:

Are these really the kind of spokesmen science needs?

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Woodward: Blessed John Henry Newman

As reported here -- well, okay, along with hundreds of other places -- a few months ago, the sainthood cause of John Henry Cardinal Newman advances apace. His beatification will be solemnized later this year, and a second miracle required to validate his ultimate canonization is in the final stages of its investigation.

Reading Newman's Apologia Pro Vita Sua when I was a college freshman started me on the path to my own conversion. I have had a kind of informal devotion to him ever since. It's nice to know that that devotion can now be a bit more formal.



The Sign of the Cross

Whene'er across this sinful flesh of mine
I draw the Holy Sign,
All good thoughts stir within me, and renew
Their slumbering strength divine;
Till there springs up a courage high and true
To suffer and to do.

And who shall say, but hateful spirits around,
For their brief hour unbound,
Shudder to see, and wail their overthrow?
While on far heathen ground
Some lonely Saint hails the fresh odour, though
Its source he cannot know.

Vehige: Fate According to Virgil

Reading The Aeneid, the one thing that struck me was Virgil's notion of "fate" or "destiny" -- espeically when compared to that of Homer. In Homer's Iliad, the notion of fate has a nihilistic tone to it. It is so-and-so's fate to die in this battle. Fate has to do with the eternal decree of one's time of death.

For Virgil, however, fate bespeaks doing something great. It was fate that brought Aeneas to the Latin shores, and Aeneas himself seems aware of a destiny he has to fulfill. In fact, it's this awareness that compels Aeneas to act. Here's Aeneas speaking to his mother Venus:

I am Aeneas, duty-bound, and known
Above high air of heaven by my fame,
Carrying with me in my ships our gods
Of hearth and home, saved from the enemy.
I look for Italy to be my fatherland,
And my descent is from all-highest Jove.
With twenty ships I mounted the Phrygian sea,
As my immortal mother showed the way.
I followed the given fates.


Aeneas is aware that he is "duty-bound." He actively "looks for Italy." And he "follows the given fates." Whereas in the Greek mind men act with the hope that fate will not strip them of their glory, it seems to me that Aeneas is acting because he knows that following fate is his road to glory.

It seems that the Greeks (or Homer) and the Romans (or Virigl) have a completely different view regarding the role providence plays in the life of men. I wonder how this is going to play out in The Aeneid.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Vehige: Mortificaiton and the Laity

Let me begin with an except from Fr. Francis Fernandez's In Conversation with God from a few days ago:

The presence of the three divine Persons in our souls in grace is a living presence, which is open to our friendship: they are inviting us to get to know them and to love them. It is up to us to correspond. Why climb the mountains or go down into the valleys of the world looking for him who dwells within us? St. Augustine asks. But St. Gregory tells us: As long as our mind is giddy with carnal images it will never be able to contemplate . . . because there are as many obstacles blinding it as there are thoughts pulling it hither and thither. Hence, for the soul to contemplate the invisible nature of God, the first step must be: let it be recollected within itself.
Let's pause here. In Catholic spiritual lingo, "recollection" means, primarily, an aware of the things of the soul and, namely, an awareness of God's presence in the soul. Recollection is, so to speak, the practice of the awareness of the presence of God. So far, so good.

But when you read the traditional books on the spiritual life -- espeically if your a layperson -- you can become dismayed at the prospect of ever achieving recollection, for according to the spiritual writers, recollection is possible only if one pulls away from the exterior things of the world and focuses on interior things. To separate oneself from the world is a lofty goal indeed -- if it's your vocation. Yet, how are the millions of lay Catholic -- the millions of men and women who are not called to the monastic life -- supposed to do this? Did not Vatican II teach that the place of the laity is in the world and that it's the laity's role to sanctify the world? How can the laity achieve the recollection necessary for holiness if they are unable to pull away from working in the secular order?

Fr. Fernandez gives an answer to this question in the paragraphs that follows the one I just cited, and in them we see the genius of both Opus Dei and In Conversation with God:
God asks some people to withdraw from the world to achieve that recollection. But he wants the majority of Christians (housewives, students, employees) to find it in the midst of their daily activities. We keep our senses for God by means of ongoing mortification throughout the day; that's also the way to interior contentment. We mortify our imagination by putting aside useless thoughts; our memory, by not entertaining memories which don't bring us closer to God; our will, by fulfilling our timetable of work and duties, however small they may be.

Concentrated work, if it is offered to God, not only does not obstruct our conversation with God but rather facilitates it. The same applies to our external activity: social relations, family life, leisure time, journeys . . . Everything in life -- except when superficiality predominates -- has a profound, intimate dimension; it takes on that dimension when we are recollected and brings it into our friendship with God. Recollection means bringing together what was scattered, re-establishing interior order, controlling our senses as they tend toward dispersion even in things which are good or indifferent; it means having God as the center of our intentions in what we're doing and planning.
What advice! What practical suggestions that even a layperson working in the world can employ. If we can just figure out little way to remind us that God is with us, how easy it would be to become saints.

Now here's a question: What could Fr. Fernandez be thinking of when he says "except with superficiality predominates"? I have some ideas, but I'd like to hear yours first.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Vehige: Schooling Myself in the Classics

Part 1: My New Blog

I have a new blog. Schooling Myself in the Classics. Go there and have a look around. Leave a comment if you’d like. And if you really like it, please put it on your blogroll.

Part 2: Why I Have a New Blog

Without a doubt, the unforeseeable difficulty I faced when I became a stay-at-home dad was that I would no longer have any tangible long-term goals to pursue. I didn’t realize how much of a goal-oriented person I was until then. In the waning months of graduate school, I started writing a novel for fun; it only seemed natural, then, once I became an at-home dad to take writing more seriously. Besides, I had two childhood dreams -- becoming a writer and/or become a rock star. Since becoming a rock star was out of the question, becoming a writer took center stage (pun intended – ha, ha, ha).

As my kids grew older and the question of schooling became a practical one, I decided to give homeschooling a shot. I’d been a long-time proponent of homeschooling -- so long as my wife was going to do it. Faced with the prospect of engaging these Visigoths of mine on a day-to-day basis, I became far more ambivalent about homeschooling. It’s one thing to leave my wife at the mercy of these barbarians . . . but do I really want to subject myself to their antics? At last, my conscience won out, and I started homeschooling.

In the meantime, I was still struggling with the lack of any tangible goals. Writing fiction was far more difficult than I ever imagined, and not nearly as fun. There was also the enigma of my own education: Why would God allow me to receive two degrees in theology if I wasn’t going to use it in some way? I began wavering, going back and forth from fiction to theology. That seems ludicrous, I know -- writing ephemeral genre fiction or contemplating theology -- but it’s a dichotomy risible only on the surface.

Suddenly my kids were a year older. The forty-five minutes it took for kindergarten became two hours for first grade. Then my second child, my daughter, who is a few months shy of turning five, wanted in on the action, and those two hours became closer to three.

As Providence would have it, about the same time my own homeschooling was become more time consuming some two different friends who also homeschool had abandoned their plan to design their own curriculum in favor for set curriculum. The reason why: Their kids were older, demanded more, and they lacked both the time and energy to come up with their own curriculum on a year-to-year basis.

Oddly, the prospect of using an established curriculum concerned me. There’s nothing wrong to using a set curriculum, of course, but it occurred to me that I didn’t want to do that. One of the joys of homeschooling has been putting together a curriculum. Furthermore, I’ve often said that the reason I want to homeschool my kids was to give myself the education I never had. If I had to use an established curriculum, it would not only rob me of one of the joys of homeschooling, but I’d no longer be sharing an education with my children.

So I started thinking about what I could do now, when my kids were all still young, to give myself the greatest probability of designing my own curriculum through high school. I’ll spare you the homeschooling side of the question (for now) but I realized very quickly that in order to design my own curriculum I couldn’t be content with merely “learning along with my kids.” One can easily learn the outlines of ancient Greek history with a first grader, but it seems to me that you can’t do that with a fifth grader or a ninth grader.

At the same time, I happened to read Jacques Maritain’s Education at the Crossroads (I’m still in the progress of writing a few posts on it). Reading this little book opened my eyes to the poverty of my own education, and it showed me that if I wanted to give my children a true education in the liberal arts I first needed to give myself that education. One cannot pass on what one does not possess.

So in late February I got online and started searching for a good liberal arts curriculum I could use for myself. In the end, I decided to go with the curriculum of Thomas Aquinas College. It’s not only comprehensive, but also it seemed pliable enough that I could break it down into smaller, more manageable units. And there's the added benefit of having an end in sight -- though I don't expect to reach this end for quite a while.

To go along with the new goal of mine I started keeping a diary. But I quickly realized that I was not writing the diary for myself, but as if I had readers. So I started a blog back in March, but wasn’t set on whether I’d open it up to the public. I mean, I've been down this road before, starting out on these daunting projects only to run out of steam and end up shutting down the blog. But after almost two months of slow and steady reading, as well as seeing that I had some kindred spirits in Fred over at Reconnaissance of the Western Tradition and Drew over at Running River Latin School, I decided to polish up the blog and some of the older posts and open it up to readers.

Everything of substance that I post over at Schooling Myself in the Classics will be posted over here at Thursday Night Gumbo (such as my previous posts on Homer and Plato). What I won’t post here that I will post there will be short posts about where I’m at and how I plan to proceed. After all, I see Schooling Myself in the Classics as little more than an on-line journal.

Vehige: What Plato Taught Me

Since I'm not in school, whenever I sit down to read a Great Book, I tell myself that I'm reading it for myself, that I don't need to remember or understand everything in the book, and that the only parts that are important are the parts I deem important for me.

With that in mind, the most important aspect of the Phaedo (for me) is Socrates argument that life must be lived in view of death. Indeed, this is a major Christian theme and one that has been embraced by saints from the very beginning of the Church. Does not our Lord say, "What profit a man if he gain the whole word but looses his soul?" But sometimes those words strike me as bland and stale; I've heard them, and words like them, my whole life.

If there's one reason to read philosophy -- and there's more than one, but in the grand scheme of things, this is the most important reason -- it's that philosophy, particularly ancient philosophy, has the power to make deaf ears hear again because it reminds us of what we already know and goes about it in a way that it completely startling.

So, whereas I've heard all my life that "it profits not a man to gain the whole world if he looses his soul," I have only read for the first time last night the following words of Plato:

Those also who who are remarkable for having led holy lives are released from this earthly prison, and go to their pure home which is above, and dwell in the purer earth; and those who have duly purified themselves with philosophy live henceforth altogether without the body, in mansion s fairer far than these, which may not be described, and of which the time would fail me to tell.

Or, again, a few paragraphs later:

Wherefore, I say, let a man be of good cheer about his soul, who has cast away the pleasures and ornaments of the body as alien to him, and rather hurtful in their effects, and has followed after the pleasures of knowledge in this life; who has adorned the soul in her own proper jewels, which are temperance, and justice, and courage, and nobility, and truth -- in these arrayed she is ready to go on her journey to the world below, when her time comes.

Obviously, the ideas are not exact, and we Christians need to harvest the truth from Plato's words, separating it from error; but the ideas are both close enough as well as different enough to reawaken a person of the Christian faith to the great and wonderful truths of the Faith.

As I wrote those words, it occurred to me that St. Paul used similar words to pagan when preaching them the Gospel -- that the Good News should pull them out of their slumber. How ironic that 2,000 years after St. Paul the old pagan philosophers could be used to rekindle a person's faith in Christ.

At any rate, this was the great gem I found in the Phaedo. It's so easy to get caught up in worldly things and to live life in such a way that the goal is good food and drink, easy living, and material gain. Through Plato's pagan wisdom I've been considering my life and my goals from a truly Christian perspective.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Vehige: John Paul II and Benedict XVI

Peggy Noonan has written a nice article about the differences between Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, differences that can be summed up in the following passage:

John Paul made you burst into tears. Benedict makes you think. It is more pleasurable to weep, but at the moment, perhaps it is more important to think.

Of course, I never met John Paul and probably won't meet Benedict XVI, so I can't verify if upon meeting John Paul one spontaneously breaks into weeping . . . but I do know that thinking about John Paul, even when he was still with us, always brought tears to my eyes.

Yet, since my proximity to John Paul has been through is work, I can say that his was an intellect to be reckoned with, and both his and Benedict's work have brought an altogether different kind of tears to my eyes.

H/T: Scott D. Danielson

Friday, April 11, 2008

Vehige: Homer's Iliad and Andromache's Bane

The first time I read the Iliad, I thought that the two most important characters were Achilles and the wife of Hector, Andromache. Perhaps important isn't the best word here; perhaps the word is "interesting" in the sense that I wish I could read more about each. This is obvious in the case of Achilles. The will of Zeus was bent to give honor to Achilles, and the man is hardly in the story. But my interest in Andromache comes from the fact that she suffers from the wrath of Achilles more than anyone else -- even Priam.

Why do I say this? Because Achilles not only kills her husband, Hector, but also killed her father and her seven brothers before the Illiad opens. The shadow of Achilles looms over the death of everyone she is close to, save her mother -- who, if not already dead, was undoubtedly taken off as a prisoner because of Achilles' prowess. Achilles could rightly be called "Andromache's Bane," and it's Andromache for whom I felt the most sympathy.

Upon this second reading of the Iliad, I happened upon a very interesting footnote in W.H.D. Rouse' translation. The footnote is found in Book 9, when Agamemnon sends envoys to Achilles who beg him to return to the battle. When the envoys arrive, they find Achilles sitting in front of his tent playing a harp, which Homer tells us was taken as a spoil when Achilles raided Thebes. Now here is Rouse' footnote:

This touch will show how intricate the associations are in the story. Thebe in Mysia was sacked by Achilles, and the King and his seven sons were killed. His daughter was Hector's wife, Andromache. And Chryseis, the center of the whole story, was there at the time, and taken with the spoil.

Recall that the feud between Agamemnon and Achilles that sets the events of the Iliad in motion had to do with Agamemnon's refusal to return the girl Chryseis to her father -- the girl taken from Thebes -- the girl taken during the raid in which Andromache's father and brothers were killed. My own delight in this detail might be compelling me to make more out of it than it deserves, but it does seem to me that Andromache is the sorrowful center of the Iliad. She's not the heart of the story per se, but, rather, the one for whom we can feel the most pity.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Woodward: Baseball!

The season has begun in earnest, with the return of the Texas Rangers for their home opener today. It occurred to me as I sat in the stands eating jumbo dogs, snapping pictures, and watching the Rangers lose to the Baltimore Orioles 8-1, that baseball is not only the most American of all games:

it's also the most Catholic -- because it immerses human beings in a world where action:

and contemplation:

combine perfectly to reassure us that life is both fun and meaningful.

Now if only the Rangers could put together a reliable starting rotation....