Thursday, August 25, 2016

Four Life Issues and Catholic Social Doctrine

There are several political issues commonly wrapped in the social-justice banner that are also issues affecting life and the family. In theory, a Catholic ought to support those policies which support life and family regardless of which party proposes them. However, when the two parties split on abortion and (later) euthanasia, so did American Catholics. Now the nation is so polarized politically that, as Scott Eric Alt explains, any Catholic who demands we pay attention to life issues outside of abortion and euthanasia is accused of “trying to kill opposition to abortion”.

“A Catholic CANNOT Vote Democrat”

On August 23, my friend and Catholic Stand colleague Matthew Tyson published “Yes, You Can Be Catholic AND Vote Democrat” in his Patheos blog Mackerel Snapper. On the face of it, I can’t conceive a more quixotic and desperate cause than trying to convert the Democrat Party to a “whole life” position, as the Democrats for Life want to do. Besides, the demographics have been shifting leftward (and away from party labels) for the last three generations, and the Republican Party is shredded in two. There’s arguably as much hope for converting the Democrats to the “seamless garment” as there is for converting the Republicans. (Yes, I went there.) But, as GKC said, hope only begins to be really useful when things appear to be hopeless.

For the record: Though I probably agree with many if not most of Matthew’s positions (I don’t fully know what they are), I refuse the label liberal. Classical liberalism, as I recently pointed out, was and is premissed on a faulty anthropology; the postmodern left’s social liberalism is progressing towards an authoritarian statism, and the postmodern right’s economic liberalism enables crony capitalism. Precisely because I am a Catholic, I hold neither the Republicans’ nor the Democrats’ ideological biases and policy preferences to be above challenge or criticism.

The post’s title was guaranteed to attract a knee-jerk contradiction. Sure enough, a reader (whom I’ll call Cato) declared, “A Catholic CANNOT vote Democrat,” and that “being a [Catholic] Democrat is indistinguishable from being a pro-equality KKK member, a Catholic Nazi, or a Catholic Stalinist.” Why? Apparently because Cato, bless his heart, believes the national platform makes all the party’s members co-conspirators, despite the fact that individual candidates are not and cannot be required to support every platform plank. It’s stupid sweeping generalizations like this which are driving Gen-Xers and millennials away from party identification.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Mark Shea the Ephraimite

Image Source: Mark P. Shea, I presume.
If you want an example of the damage done to the Catholic Church in America by the surrounding culture’s increasing hyperpartisanship and ideological tribalism, consider this: Mark Shea’s blog at the National Catholic Register has been dropped, and his even-Christians are happy about it. Rejoicing, even. Good riddance, Shea, you heretical librul (because, of course, to be a librul is to be a heretic and vice versa). The Circular Catholic Firing Squad has finally claimed a victory/defeat.

“Do Not Rejoice”

I have not found the official statement from NCRegister. Apologist Steve Ray posted it, and linked back to a Fr. Peter West’s Facebook post. Who Fr. West is, where he got the statement, whether he has a relationship with NCRegister, the deponent and saith not.

Added Fr. West, “With this in mind, I ask you to pray for Mark Shea. Hopefully, this will be an opportunity for personal reflection for him. He has many gifts that he can use in the service of the Church and the pro-life movement. Recall the words from the Book of Proverbs: ‘Do not rejoice when your enemies fall, and when they stumble, do not let your heart exult, Lest the Lord see it, be displeased with you, and withdraw his wrath from your enemies.’ (Proverbs 24:17[-18 NABRE])” I expect God to withdraw His wrath fairly soon.

Note that Mark wasn’t dismissed because of anything he wrote at NCRegister, but rather because of his social-media activity. I’ve watched with some concern as Mark’s Facebook posts became increasingly caustic, strident, and hyperbolic in his condemnations of the Republican Party, Donald Trump, and the pro-life PACs associated with them. If there’s anything we should have learned by now, it’s that our social-media activity isn’t private, that employers can and will fire people for their off-work behavior.

Furthermore, we who publicly proclaim and defend the Catholic faith have a special duty to be the same people in our bedrooms as we are in the public square — especially now that the line between public and private is thinning and blurry. I too have difficulty being charitable to critics, so I empathize with Mark’s frustration. However, to be anything more than a pose, charity must inform everything we do. To instruct the ignorant and admonish the sinner are spiritual works of mercy; the intent, however, doesn’t justify the manner.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Jon Stewart, The Daily Show, and the Trump Campaign

Jesse Bernstein of Tablet blames Donald Trump on Jon Stewart. Well, partially, at least; he does admit upfront that there are plenty of factors in the matter. But apparently Stewart and his The Daily Show compatriot Stephen Colbert are partially to blame because they “helped to create the very specific type of internet-era liberal smugness (and, consequently, ignorance) that, though far from the sole cause by any means, has been a significant factor in both the rise of Trump and our current political fracturing.”

The Daily Show’s Liberal Smugness

Here’s the centerpiece of Bernstein’s argument:

[Stewart’s] show [The Daily Show] was a cultural touchstone that dealt in mockery and ridicule, as good political comedy should. It parsed the bluster to find the nugget of insincerity that drives selfish politics. But as the democratization of media made it easier and easier to hear only from the sources you wanted to hear from, those who counted The Daily Show and its even jokier spawn, The Colbert Report, as news sources slowly but surely created an echo chamber.

The process went something like this: Someone said something on Fox News that mainstream liberalism didn’t like; Stewart and/or Colbert aired a sustained critique of the idea and the thinking behind it; liberal internet publications hailed it as the greatest rhetorical victory since Darrow argued for Scopes; liberals’ Facebook feeds full of liberal friends filled up with clips of the takedown. No one learned anything, no one engaged with an idea, and nothing outside of a very specific set of ideas was given any real credence. As Emmet Rensin so perfectly put it:

Finding comfort in the notion that their former allies were disdainful, hapless rubes, smug liberals created a culture animated by that contempt. The result is a self-fulfilling prophecy. … Over 20 years, an industry arose to cater to the smug style … and culminated for a time in The Daily Show, a program that more than any other thing advanced the idea that liberal orthodoxy was a kind of educated savvy and that is opponents were, before anything else, stupid.

As Rensin deftly discerns, this sort of intellectual elitism is probably part of the reason that the Democratic Party went from getting 66 percent of the manual laborer vote in 1948 to outpolling the GOP by just 2 points in 2012. It’s the inevitable consequence of eight years of reducing George W. Bush and all of his supporters to dumbass hicks, and choosing to denigrate the poor and uneducated (if only they read The Atlantic!), rather than doing real outreach to them. But as Christopher Hitchens learned on Bill Maher’s show, people don’t want to consider that possibility[.]

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Why We Can’t “Do Something” About the Gun Problem

Sig Sauer MCX, similar to rifle used at Pulse massacre.
(Image source: newweaponsandmore.blogspot.com)
In the wake of the horrific massacre in Orlando, people are once again demanding we “do something” about the massive number of guns in American hands — an estimated 357 million privately-owned guns as of 2013, or about 112 guns per 100 citizens. Some demand we get rid of guns altogether; others demand we loosen the legislation to put guns in the hands of more people. And both sides are churning out bogus “facts” to support their positions.

To be clear about my own biases: I believe the Second Amendment as written is outdated and needs revision. I favor reasonable legislation which includes mandatory training and certification as well as reasonable restrictions on carrying and purchasing. However, the research and statistical analysis I’ve done over the last couple of days highlighted for me both the drama and the intractability of the problem. To put it concisely, there’s plenty we can do about the American gun problem … most of which will do little if anything to solve it.

By the Numbers

To give you an idea of the legislative mess:

  • Only 17 states[*] require some form of permit or license to purchase a weapon; in many cases, the requirement only obtains for pistols.
  • Only 9 states require registration, mostly of handguns, sometimes only under certain circumstances.
  • Only 6 states require a license to own a handgun.
  • The concealed-carry laws of 42 states vary from very strict may-issue conditions to non-mandatory permits issued on request for the sake of reciprocity with other states.
  • Open-carry is permitted to some degree in 30 states.
  • There are only 8 states in which local ordinances can do more than limit discharge of weapons; in 22 states, state pre-emption is total.
  • Eleven states have no magazine capacity restrictions; 8 have no “assault weapon” restrictions.
  • Nineteen states require no background checks for private sales.
  • Only one state, California, imposes a mandatory waiting period as well as requiring a purchase permit.
  • Thirty-three states have some version of “castle doctrine” or “stand your ground” law, either on the books or through case law.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Justice for Harambe … or Revenge?

Photo source: Nature World News.
A recent petition on Change.org, titled “Justice for Harambe”, makes me wonder if anyone really knows what justice is anymore.

Harambe’s Death

On Saturday, May 28, a four-year-old boy managed to slip out of his mother’s sight at the Cincinnati Zoo. Nothing new or surprising in that. However, this four-year-old boy made short work of a series of barriers separating visitors from the gorillas at the zoo’s Gorilla World, and fell fifteen feet into the moat surrounding the habitat. Harambe, a 17-year-old western lowland gorilla, found the boy and — well, the boy survived, and has all his limbs. Harambe, on the other hand, was shot to keep the boy from further harm.

Strange to say, very little public concern has been devoted to questioning the design of the barriers. No, most of what can with some stretch of the imagination be called concern has been devoted to punishing the boy’s mother for the death of the gorilla (and, incidentally, for letting the kid out of her sight).

The Change.org petition is demanding, based on eyewitness claims for which it offers no source, “an investigation of the child’s home environment in the interests of protecting the child and his siblings from further incidents of parental negligence that may result in serious bodily harm or even death.” Note the words “further incidents of parental negligence”; that the parents are already guilty of one count is a verdict immune to challenge or contradiction. The Court of Public Opinion has already spoken.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

I Believe … But I Don’t Understand

Image source: gospelcoalition.org.
On Monday, May 23, Patheos published an article by Rebecca Bratten Weiss on suffering and “the clamor of insufficient explanations”. By “insufficient explanations”, Weiss means not only the myriad of clichés we Christians inflict on the suffering and despairing (“If God brings you to it, He will bring you through it;” “God shapes the back to fit the burden”), but also the assertion, “It must be God’s will.”

The Challenge of Suffering

The problem of suffering is the single most potent argument against Christian theology and cosmology, because it cuts past the dry hairsplitting of philosophy to pose a direct challenge to the heart. As Weiss puts it, “The fact that we need to suffer to be well is a symptom of a fallen world, but to suggest that the suffering itself comes not from the darkness of nature but from God on high is horrifying, sadistic.”

In Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, the atheist brother Ivan refuses to believe in a God who allows the suffering of children, and says that even if there is some inexplicable benefit to be derived from this, he will not have it. “I respectfully return the ticket” he says. I sympathize. I respectfully return the ticket to whatever fun-house or extravaganza somehow necessitates this terrible suffering. I would rather join Ivan and deny God outright, than believe in a God who is up there pulling all the strings that lead us to torment and loss, because this was the only way, the best of all possible worlds. [N.B.: Weiss has not abandoned the Faith, either formally or informally.]

We can’t escape the challenge by blaming the darkness of nature; for if Nature is dark, it can only be by God’s Will. And it’s not even the best of all possible worlds (cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I:25:6 ad 3). Whether God manipulates all events directly, or simply sits back and watches everything play out by itself, or some combination of the two, the buck stops at His desk.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Choosing Classical Education Over Common Core

Students at St. John Bosco, Rochester, NY
(Photo source: stjohnbosco.org.)
On April 28, the National Catholic Register published an article by Peter Jesserer Smith on the growing number of Catholic schools and systems converting from conventional progressive education to classical — or perhaps we should say neo-classical — liberal arts education. While one hundred American sees, just over half, have elected to conform to Common Core, widespread rejection of the controversial curriculum is creating greater demand for an alternative to homeschooling, leading to more charter and non-profit startups.

The Problem of Education

Catholics aren’t the only ones returning to the trivium. Philip Kilgore, director of the nonsectarian Hillsdale College’s Barney Charter Schools Initiative, told Smith that “[parental] dissatisfaction with contemporary education has been driving the demand for a return to the classical tradition.” Says Kilgore, “I speak with so many people from every corner of this land who are eager to do something about the problem of education.”

Many people from various ideological backgrounds agree that American K-12 education is failing. Some, like Prof. Jack Schneider, would contest this, pointing to tests of limited scope, like the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS) test, that purport to show American schools as doing well. Others, like Frederick M. Hess of the American Enterprise Institute, seem to recognize the problem only insofar as it affects the production of hire-ready future employees, as if the only worthwhile goal of education were to generate Homo oeconomicus.

The most commonly-perceived problem, however, is that the current systems produce moral and cultural illiterates, that the systems have abandoned teaching children how to think in favor of teaching them what to think. Writes Patrick J. Deneen:

We have fallen into the bad and unquestioned habit of thinking that our educational system is broken, but it is working on all cylinders. … Our students are the achievement of a systemic commitment to producing individuals without a past for whom the future is a foreign country, cultureless ciphers who can live anywhere and perform any kind of work without inquiring about its purposes or ends, perfected tools for an economic system that prizes “flexibility” (geographic, interpersonal, ethical).

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Timothy Egan and the Reverent Subject of Sex

Timothy Egan. (Photo: Barry Wong.)
The last few days, I’ve been focused on the hyperventilating by Catholic radical traditionalists over Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis’ overlong summation of the work of the last two Synods on the Family. The reactions from the left were, for the most part, entirely predictable — some despaired because it didn’t go as far as they thought it should, while others rejoiced because they thought it went farther than it did. Of the latter category, we have Timothy Egan of the New York Times, who penned what Phil Lawler has called “surely ... the dumbest column published on the topic.”

“Sex was Dirty”

Egan, Lawler states, “rolls out the stale complaints of the 1970s about the Bad Old Church, opening and closing his column with citations from the late comedian George Carlin. The reader will look in vain for references to any other authority. Nor is there evidence that Egan has paid attention to Catholic writers who have reflected on the Church’s approach to human sexuality more recently, and just maybe more profoundly, than Carlin—such as, just for example, St. John Paul II.”

Actually, Egan does worse than go without authoritative references: he cites the Baltimore Catechism in such a way that it appears to support the tropes.

Sex was dirty. Sex was shameful. Sex was unnatural. Thinking about it was wrong. Premeditation itself was a sin, and so was flirting. Sex had one purpose: procreation, the joyless act of breeding. “The sixth commandment forbids all impurity and immodesty in words, looks and actions,” was admonition No. 256 in the Baltimore Catechism, the standard text used to teach the faith from 1885 to the late 1960s.
No. 256 [sic; the actual answer number is 257] also warned about the dangers of “sinful curiosity, bad companions, drinking, immodest dress and indecent books, plays and motion pictures.” If that sounds now like the dynamics of a good dinner party, you can also see this pope joining the fun at the table.

In my post on Amoris Laetitia, I spoke of the distinction the Church makes between the doctoral (“What do we teach?”) and the pastoral (“How do we integrate this teaching into parish life?”). The same kind of distinction ought to be observed between doctrine and indoctrination: religious formation, also known as catechesis. What the Catholic Church teaches is one thing; what Tim Egan and George Carlin “learned”, however, is another thing entirely, and may not be entirely their fault for not paying attention in class.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

What Did the Pope Really Say? (The Amoris Laetitia Edition)

Image source: ancoraonline.it.
On Friday, as I’m sure most of you know, the Vatican Press released Pope Francis’ post-synodal exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love). Predictably, everyone who foresaw sweeping changes in Church doctrine and practice were proved wrong, though that didn’t stop The Usual Gang of Radical Traditionalists from proclaiming it a heretical disaster.

Amoris Laetitia Not a Wrecking Ball

If you’re going to read it, be prepared: at 264 pages (closer to 245, if you take out blank pages and such), it’s longer than any encyclical I’ve ever read, including St. John Paul’s Evangelium Vitae, longer even than Laudato Si’. It’s a wide-ranging and somewhat undisciplined ramble, as Francis occasionally breaks from the main line of his thoughts to directly address sections of his readership. For example, in paragraph 212, in the middle of discussing short-term preparations for marriage, he offers some quick advice to the engaged couples. But while fully half of the text is enclosed in quotation marks — three-quarters of one of the longest paragraphs consists of one extensive citation of a sermon given by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. — still Francis’ irrepressible enthusiasm comes through.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that Amoris Laetitia is an apostolic exhortation, not an apostolic constitution nor a motu proprio. Very early on, Francis defines his purpose: “to gather the contributions of the two recent Synods on the family, while adding other considerations as an aid to reflection, dialogue and pastoral practice, and as a help and encouragement to families in their daily commitments and challenges.” (AL § 4)

Since Francis’ focus is pastoral not doctrinal, no doctrine has been upset, no dogma contradicted, no norm disestablished. While Dave Armstrong exaggerates its importance to the life and future of the Church (“Francis’ ‘Humanae Vitae moment’”? Seriously?), it’s certainly not the wrecking ball many feared it would be.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Michael Lind’s Lifeless Conservativism

Russell Kirk (via Wikimedia).
That the Republican Party must reform or become irrelevant is increasingly obvious to most people. The hardest fact to deal with is that the voter base has shifted leftward over the last thirty-six years; the attitudes, values, and beliefs that appealed to many boomers doesn’t appeal as much to Gen-Xers and even less to millennials. If the GOP is to remain the American analogue to Britain’s Conservative Party, it follows that conservatives themselves must define what it means to be conservative in the 21st century.

Conservativism vs. Utopianism

“Can the American right free itself from the utopianism of the post-Reagan era?” asks Michael Lind in The National Interest.

The question would have seemed strange to mid-century American conservative thinkers like Peter Viereck, Russell Kirk and Robert Nisbet. In their view, conservatism was anti-utopian by definition. In different ways, they identified “conservatism” with a suspicion of radical schemes to revolutionize America and the world.
But today’s orthodox conservatism consists almost entirely of radical utopian schemes to revolutionize America and the world. So-called “movement conservatism” or “fusionism” in its present form is, in fact, an alliance of three distinct utopian movements in economics, domestic policy and foreign policy. All three crusades are doomed to fail in the real world.

A modern realist, I find, is very often one who, having despaired of the real world ever meeting the standards of his ideals, goes on to conclude that we should have no ideals. Lind, a modern realist, therefore plunks for a bare-bones conservativism, one that seeks merely to preserve the status quo rather than strive for a better nation.

Unfortunately, Lind doesn’t tell us why the status quo is to be preserved, or why change is unnecessary. He merely defines three particular efforts as “utopian” and derides any attempt to achieve them through politics as “madness”.