Monday, March 30, 2009

Woodward: Getting "De-Baptized"

Apparently a hundred thousand or so Britons have done it.

Or think they have done it. Would it be mean to point out to these newly certified heathens that baptism, by its sacramental nature, is irrevocable?

Incorporated into Christ by Baptism, the person baptized is configured to Christ. Baptism seals the Christian with the indelible spiritual mark (character) of his belonging to Christ. No sin can erase this mark, even if sin prevents Baptism from bearing the fruits of salvation. Given once for all, Baptism cannot be repeated.

--Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1272

So the bad news is that these people have wasted their time -- and, in the case of those who paid $4.35 (!) for the special parchment certificates, their money. The good news is that, when they find their way back to Christ and His Church, as some of them inevitably will, they'll still be just as baptized as they ever were.

(By the way, my wife and I have had five children baptized in the Catholic Church. It didn't cost us a cent, and we got not only an official certificate each time, but a nice candle as well.)

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Woodward: Hillary and the Virgin

This story is getting more play than it probably deserves.

Yes, it's moderately embarrassing that America's chief diplomat is completely ignorant about the defining cultural icon of the United States' nearest and arguably most important neighbor. (When she drives by Buckingham Palace, does she say, "Wow. Nice house. Who lives there?")

But Secretary of State Clinton is not obliged to believe that there's anything miraculous about the Tilma. (Neither are Catholics, for that matter.) Furthermore, it seems clear that she asked an honest question, and she listened intently to the story, which she obviously had never heard before. Hasn't she, in doing so, given us a gift? I have been reading over and over again the simple exchange between Mrs. Clinton and Msgr. Monroy, the rector of the Basilica de Santa Maria de Guadalupe, and I find it strangely powerful.

Mrs. Clinton: "Who painted it?"
Msgr. Monroy: "God."

Don't we need to hear that question from time to time? And don't we need to hear that answer?

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Woodward: Evolution In Texas

And if there is evolution in Texas, then, by golly, it's the biggest and best evolution anywhere.

But seriously.

Our state board of education voted this week not to require that teachers present the "strengths and weaknesses" of scientific theories dealt with in the public school curriculum. Taken at face value, that would be a frighteningly anti-intellectual decree to hand down in connection with any subject. But if you know that the scientific theory being given special protection by the board's action is Darwin's theory of the origin of species by means of natural selection, then does the decree become reasonable -- or even more frightening?

That depends, I suppose, on whether you are an ideologically committed partisan on one side or the other. And make no mistake, there is partisan ideology on both sides.

Doesn't every scientific theory, no matter how safely ensconced within the velvet folds of intellectual orthodoxy, still have strengths and weaknesses? I was taught that it does, back in the 1960s, at a time when ideology had certainly taken over the humanities in public education but not yet the sciences. Didn't the Copernican theory kick the Ptolemaic theory's butt, based on the weaknesses of the latter? Didn't Einstein formulate his theory of general relativity by perceiving weaknesses in Newton's theory of gravitation? Isn't quantum mechanics a solution to the weaknesses of the atomic theory? Aren't cosmological careers being made today on the basis of weaknesses in the Big Bang theory, just as they once were made by Big Bangers on the basis of weaknesses in the steady state theory?

Well, we'll have no more of that in Texas. Truth may be relative, God may be dead, and what's good for General Motors may no longer be good for the country; but the one instance of ontological certitude remaining in this crazy world, by order of the Texas State Board of Education, is that the random occurrence of genetic variations tested in the crucible of procreative success is the mechanism that drives speciation at a macroevolutionary level. Credo ut intelligam.

I can be flippant because I have no dog in this fight. My wife and I are home schoolers, which means that we and our children are still free to assess the "strengths and weaknesses" of any intellectual theory we want. But I'm not unaware that a powerful coalition of bureaucrats, ideologues, and textbook salesmen would like to have it another way.

Woodward: Monarchy Is Discriminatory

A movement is under way in Britain to repeal the Act of Settlement, a 1701 law that bars Catholics from occupying the throne or standing in the line of succession. A companion movement will attempt to do away with agnatic primogeniture, the rule that gives preference to male heirs over female. Between them, these measures are seen as redressing the outrageous sexual and religious discrimination that has so long disfigured the English monarchy.


Let's set aside for the moment the fact that this entire matter is moot. No occupant of the British throne since 1688 has been the rightful monarch of England in the first place. The real king of England, as all right-thinking people know, is Franz Bonaventura Adalbert Maria Herzog von Bayern and -- in direct defiance of the Act of Settlement -- he is a Catholic! But we'll take that up another time.

No, what interests me about the news report linked above is the absurdly self-righteous tone in which supporters of this "reform" are talking about it. The supporters include both the current British prime minister, Gordon Brown; and (shame on him) the current Catholic primate of England, Cormac Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor, both of whom seem suddenly quite offended by the discriminatory nature of the British Crown. Don't they realize that, even if the current monarchical glass ceiling is shattered for Catholics and older royal sisters of younger royal brothers, far too much injustice will remain in this corrupt system? The throne will still be denied to anyone but a Briton, an instance of rank nativism. It will still be denied to anyone not connected by birth to the royal family -- class prejudice at its worst. And while homosexuals will enjoy full rights of succession (as they always have), it's very much doubtful that a transgendered person will ever have much of a chance. (So forget about improving your place in line by turning yourself from a first-born daughter into a first-born son.) As for any members of ethnic minorities who might harbor royal ambitions -- well, just remember what happened to the last Hispanic who claimed the British throne.

No, these piecemeal calls for equality are not enough. I for one will not be satisfied until any little American boy or girl can grow up to be "by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of His (or Her) other Realms and Territories King (or Queen), Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith."

Woodward: More Good News from Deepak Chopra

Last year I blogged about Deepak Chopra's "new Jesus," who turns out to be a spiritual guru in the mold of...Deepak Chopra. This week, the Washington Post solicited Chopra's opinion as to whether Satan exists, and the answer should make us all feel much better about ourselves, because while we may still need a "new Jesus," it turns out that we no longer need Satan at all. Oh, maybe we did once, back during that unfortunate period of human history when what Chopra refers to as "our irrational side, with all its shadow fears and shameful impulses," was in control. But -- and here's the really good news, so I will quote it verbatim -- "now our minds have expanded."

With these expanded minds, we now know that Satan doesn't cause any of the world's evils; we do that ourselves (presumably with the parts of our minds that haven't expanded yet -- that point isn't very clear). In explaining evil, Chopra demands that "you must run out of human explanations first before you resort to supernatural ones." Fair enough. But then here is his list of some of the "human explanations for evil":

  • Hiding dark secrets
  • Feeling ashamed and guilty
  • Repressing feelings of deep anger and hostility
  • Denying painful truths, such as past abuse
  • Imitating the worst actions of one's peers to gain approval
  • Hatred of authority
  • A deeply rebellious streak that acts out as self-destruction
  • Ungoverned impulses of sex and aggression
  • Repression of the shadow side of the psyche
  • Hatred of "the other"
Deepak Chopra and I apparently have different understandings of what an "explanation" is. True, one can explain religious and ethnic violence by pointing to "hatred of the other." One can explain adultery (if that even counts as evil any more) by pointing to "ungoverned impulses of sex." But what explains the hatred, or the refusal to govern our impulses? Those are evils in and of themselves, whether or not they can also be diagnosed as psychological states. Chopra's list, and the obvious pride he takes in pointing out that "light has been shone on every level of the psyche" in the modern world, seem to regard only evil acts as instantiations of evil, without considering the possibility that a disposition to do evil is evil too. "Using 'sick' instead of 'evil'" when we try to understand why we behave as we do contributes nothing to that understanding, even if it occasionally dictates a more humane treatment of the evil-doer.

People have recognized "ungoverned impulses of sex and aggression" as a source of evil for a lot longer than you might gather from listening to Deepak Chopra. They were also told a long time ago that failing to govern those impulses is a further evil.

"You have heard that it was said to the men of old, `You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.' But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment...You have heard that it was said, `You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart."
[Matthew 5:21-22, 27-28]

That, of course, is the "old Jesus" speaking, not the new one that Deepak Chopra finds so helpful.

What practical difference does it make, one might ask, whether we adopt Chopra's new understanding of evil or cling to the one now preached only by "the dwindling number of fundamentalists who have made the Devil a core belief"? (That dwindling
number, by the way, would still include the world's 1.25 billion Muslims, 1.15 billion Catholics, plus hundreds of millions of Orthodox Christians and evangelical Protestants.) The practical differences are those that arise from having a realistic rather than a fanciful conception of human nature. The fanciful conception, in my view, is Deepak Chopra's, who seems to believe that we can achieve something approaching moral perfection simply through increased knowledge of ourselves. Chopra's vocabulary is a fashionably therapeutic one:

Although it's hard to face the fact that human evil trumps supernatural evil a hundred to one, the good news is that being human, it's something we can heal.

If Deepak Chopra were really proposing something new, it perhaps would be worth asking how this "healing" program of his is working out, now that we are applying our expanded minds to the problem. (I don't see much progress, frankly.) But Chopra's ethics and metaphysics are not in fact new. They are simply a variant of age-old gnosticism grafted onto the naive self-absorption that characterizes modern life. Standing apart from history, we want to view ourselves as the ones who can finally solve the puzzle of human nature -- on our own. At the level of society, that view has always been a recipe for disappointment and tyranny (the French and Bolshevik Revolutions, for example). At the level of the individual soul, it's even more disastrous than that.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Woodward: Spring

For those of us fortunate (or prudent) enough to live in the southern half of the continental United States, spring is more or less here. Maclin Horton is already showing off his Alabama spiderwort, which means it's time for us North Texans to rise up and prove that spring can arrive even without the assistance of any appreciable rainfall. (Yes, I know that April showers bring May flowers, but in Texas so do March droughts.)

Our crabapple tree is cooperating most admirably.

And the pomegranate bush, which is right next to the crabapple, has produced through Herculean effort a single bud -- at least a month ahead of its usual schedule. (Peer pressure?)

Within a couple of weeks, we'll be up to our eyeballs in bluebonnets around here, followed immediately by young men's fancies lightly turning to thoughts of love.

Take that, Maclin.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Woodward: The Annunciation

Not many people nowadays have heard of Joyce Kilmer. Of those who have, many probably think that he was a woman. He was not. And of his literary output, most probably know only one poem, "Trees," which is fairly famous ("Only God can make a tree") but not very good. Few know that he was a Catholic convert, or that he wrote much better poems than "Trees," or that he was well on his way to becoming the most significant American Catholic writer of his generation when he was killed in World War I.

Here is one of my favorite Joyce Kilmer poems, a nicely crafted Italian sonnet, appropriate to the day.

The Annunciation

(For Helen Parry Eden)

"Hail Mary, full of grace," the Angel saith.
Our Lady bows her head, and is ashamed;
She has a Bridegroom Who may not be named,
Her mortal flesh bears Him Who conquers death.
Now in the dust her spirit grovelleth;
Too bright a Sun before her eyes has flamed,
Too fair a herald joy too high proclaimed,
And human lips have trembled in God's breath.

O Mother-Maid, thou art ashamed to cover
With thy white self, whereon no stain can be,
Thy God, Who came from Heaven to be thy Lover,
Thy God, Who came from Heaven to dwell in thee.
About thy head celestial legions hover,
Chanting the praise of thy humility.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Woodward: Thomas Aquinas and Home Schooling

My tenth-grade daughter and I have arrived, in world history class, at the 13th century, which the amateur (in the truest and most literal sense of that word) historian James J. Walsh judged to be the greatest of centuries. To give her some flavor of Scholasticism, perhaps the age's principal intellectual achievement, I asked her to explicate one question, of her choice, from the Summa Theologica. My daughter is a no-nonsense kind of person, with a penchant for cutting to the chase, and so she chose Question 2 -- the existence of God. (Isn't every question pretty trivial compared to that?)

We were impressed -- she for the first time, I as I always am when I read the Summa -- by the consummate fairness of St. Thomas. He is consistently better at making the other side's argument than most people on the other side are. Then, of course, he demolishes it.

But as is often the case with home schooling, the really transformative experience for me was seeing my daughter's attention caught by something that I would not even have thought to include or dwell on in the lesson. The old eyes of the teacher must never neglect to give the young eyes of the student their due.

It's almost a throwaway line for St. Thomas -- nothing central to his argument. In fact, it's an epistemological detail that he simply has to concede on the way to making a more central point. Acknowledging that "the existence of truth in general is self-evident but the existence of a Primal Truth is not self-evident to us," St. Thomas says this:

The existence of truth is self-evident. For whoever denies the existence of truth grants that truth does not exist: and, if truth does not exist, then the proposition "Truth does not exist" is true: and if there is anything true, there must be truth.

Writing in the middle of what later came to be called the Age of Faith, St. Thomas was not combating any widespread contention that truth does not exist. He was simply demonstrating that the existence of truth is self-evident. It fell to a later century -- our own -- to stand in need of a demonstration that there even is such a thing as truth. My daughter, alas, has already run into plenty of people who would say that there is no truth -- or that "my truth may not be your truth," which is the same thing. And so she was particularly impressed with St. Thomas's neat little piece of Scholastic jiu-jitsu, in which he uses the force of epistemological relativism as a weapon against itself, holding up for all the world to see the irrationality of believing that there truly is no truth.

Woodward: Flannery O'Connor and Home Schooling

Not really. I just decided to combine in a single title the two subjects that have consistently generated the largest number of comments on this blog.

Okay, okay -- I realize that's cheating. So here indeed is Flannery O'Connor on home schooling, sort of. It's from the beginning of The Violent Bear It Away, the one work of O'Connor's that I never got around to reading back when she was an enthusiasm of mine, but which I am reading and enjoying now. It's the story of an eccentric backwoods preacher/prophet who kidnaps his nephew as an infant in order to raise the child in the light of the uncle's own...well, we'll call it a world view.

His uncle had taught him Figures, Reading, Writing, and History beginning with Adam expelled from the Garden and going on down through the presidents to Herbert Hoover and on in speculation toward the Second Coming and the Day of Judgment...The old man had always impressed on him his good fortune in not being sent to school. The Lord had seen fit to guarantee the purity of his upbringing, to preserve him from contamination, to preserve him as His elect servant, trained by a prophet for prophecy. While other children his age were herded together in a room to cut out paper pumpkins under the direction of a woman, he was left free for the pursuit of wisdom, the companions of his spirit Abel and Enoch and Noah and Job, Abraham and Moses, King David and Solomon, and all the prophets, from Elijah who escaped death, to John whose severed head struck terror from a dish. The boy knew that escaping school was the surest sign of his election.

Personally, this strikes me as a dangerously liberal curriculum. My wife and I home school our five children, and we stop at Calvin Coolidge.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Woodward: My Irish Heritage

I'm a bit late with this observance of St. Patrick's Day (or "Shamrock Day" as the culturally sensitive and/or Christophobic among us would have it), but I can plead a good excuse. My family and I were busy last evening devouring a holiday meal of corned beef and cabbage (and Guinness) in the company of some good friends.

For the occasion, I hunted up this picture of my Irish great-grandmother, Kate Murphy Hoskins.

Her parents immigrated from Ireland during the potato famine of the mid-1800s. She was born in this country, eventually married a Kentucky farmer, and bore him eleven children (the youngest of whom was my maternal grandmother -- the baby in the picture), which perhaps explains that wan half-smile on her face. And now her great-grandson, who never knew her, has put her picture on the internet. There is a kind of magic in history.

It seems wrong even to think of St. Patrick's Day, or of Ireland, without mentioning the greatest of all Irish tenors. So here he is, singing (late in his career) the song that first made him a superstar.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Woodward: Peter Singer Is Right!

It's just the law of averages, really. Peter Singer is such a prolific author that he had to be right about something, sooner or later.

In his new book, The Life You Can Save: Acting Now To End World Poverty, Singer -- the controversial Princeton professor who at various times has offered philosophical justifications of infanticide and bestiality -- now offers the following syllogistic argument in favor of what we Christians call alms-giving. (This as reported in a New York Times review of the book.)

FIRST PREMISE: Suffering and death from lack of food, shelter and medical care are bad.

SECOND PREMISE: If it is in your power to prevent something bad from happening, without sacrificing anything nearly as important, it is wrong not to do so.

THIRD PREMISE: By donating to aid agencies, you can prevent suffering and death from lack of food, shelter and medical care, without sacrificing anything nearly as important.

CONCLUSION: Therefore, if you do not donate to aid agencies, you are doing something wrong.

While the Times reviewer weirdly editorializes that "it’s pretty tempting to try to toss Mr. Singer’s argument back in his face," most decent people, I think, can only be heartened to see cold formal logic enlisted in the service of humanitarianism. (Whatever argument works.) The book even has its own website where people can sign a pledge to donate money to organizations that are working to reduce world poverty. (The list of suggested organizations has a perceptible ideological slant. It ignores religious agencies like Catholic Relief Services, Lutheran World Relief, or Samaritan's Purse; but does list Planned Parenthood, a group whose program for eliminating poverty is simply to eliminate poor people.)

Some may find it amusing that the New York Times treats this call to philanthropy as if it were a manifesto for some radical new philosophy, born of the startling insight that -- as Singer puts it -- we are to be judged morally on the basis of our omissions as much as our actions. I note that slightly more than 1000 people have thus far signed the Singer pledge to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. That's significantly fewer people than have been persuaded to do the same thing not by syllogisms but by sermons.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Woodward: Flannery O'Connor Was Odd

But she wasn't nearly as odd as this article in last week's New York Times Sunday Book Review. From a new biography by Brad Gooch -- which I am looking forward to reading -- Joy Williams has extracted what appear to be the top 50 or so weird facts about Flannery O'Connor, pasted them together, and called them a book review. Either as a profile of O'Connor, or as a summary of the biography, or as an exercise in literary criticism, the essay is among the most condescending and torpid chunks of prose I have come across in quite a while. Among the things Williams seems to find most worth noting about O'Connor are that she sewed clothes for chickens, that she could not tell Robert and Sally Fitzgerald's children apart, that the civil rights movement "interested her not at all," and that "she is reported to have had beautiful blue eyes."

There you have it -- one of the seven or eight greatest American literary figures of the twentieth century in a nutshell.

Am I being paranoid in suspecting that what Joy Williams -- and, by extension, the New York Times -- really find oddest about Flannery O'Connor is that she was an intelligent, well-read, devout Christian?

Woodward: Lying About Books You've Read

Of the top 10 books Britons falsely claim to have read, I have read five (honest):


War and Peace

The Bible

Madame Bovary

The Selfish Gene

Of the remaining five, I have no intention of ever reading three:

A Brief History of Time

Midnight's Children

Dreams from My Father

I am reading, on again off again, Remembrance of Things Past.

I may someday read Ulysses, although in all honesty probably not.

One word of advice. If you're lying about having read the Bible to impress your friends, then just read the Bible. If you're lying about having read The Selfish Gene to impress your friends, then just get some new friends.