Category Archives: Philosophy

Modern Thomism

…we will come under the final judgment of God and are subject to the constraints and possibilities of that judgment. We’re invited to avoid hell and find heaven, a view that isn’t typically welcome among our secular contemporaries, but which has implications for them as well as us. The “gentlemen’s agreement” of secular liberalism is that we ought not attempt to find public consensus upon questions of life after death or the dogmatic truth content of revealed religion. In some ways dogma is considered impolite in a secular context because it could be seen as politically or socially divisive. Although the opposite is true in some real sense because dogma tends to outlive many passing cultures and is a force of unity, vitality, and the renewal of intellectual life. Thinking through traditional dogmas invites us as modern people to think about the longstanding vitality of those doctrines—why they’re pertinent to persons throughout time and history and a stimulus for the intellectual life. Knowledge of what was profound wisdom in a forgone era is typically the best source of illumination for anyone who wishes to re-articulate the conditions of meaning for the future. The temptation in our own age is to think the opposite, as if we need to be in some kind of radical rupture with the past in order to articulate the conditions of meaning for the future. This is a pattern you find in Descartes or in the opening pages of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason or in Nietzsche in a more radical way. But you have people who tend to be both novel and preserve the past; I think this is true of Plato. Plato was very radical, but he also wanted to preserve the heritage of the past Greek religious traditions that came before him. Aristotle, too, is typically very careful in the first book of most of his works to show the insights that come before him and then he introduces a new order of learning and thinking. In general the great medievals like Bonaventure and Aquinas show how the past has contributed to the ongoing project of what they’re undertaking. In our own era Alasdair MacIntyre has been exemplary in showing how this kind of recovery and articulation of principles allows renewed engagement with the contemporary world around oneself.

I think Thomism functions best as an identification of principles and an engagement with contemporary intellectual questions.

I may be optimistic, but I think there are many modern questions Thomism addresses and answers. Thomism helps provide a realistic philosophy of nature, what it means that there are changing substances around us that have identifiable properties by which we can provide taxonomies for the natures of things and understand the ways in which they act upon each other. Aquinas is a phenomenal student of human nature, so he takes very seriously man’s physicality and animality, but also shows his emergent rational properties and freedom in their distinctiveness. He shows there are immaterial features to human knowledge and freedom that denote the presence of an immaterial form or spiritual soul. There’s also the whole architecture of virtue ethics Aquinas provides that is increasingly having an influence in the circles of analytical ethics. His study of the cardinal virtues—justice, prudence, temperance, and fortitude—provides terrific insight into the nature of a person. We’re longing for that in a culture in which there’s a great deal of intellectual instability and nostalgia for consensus. Often people want to impose consensus artificially through politics, which is a very superficial way to gain unity. That politics pervades the university, which is in crisis because there is deep absence of consensus about reality. Aquinas’s general anthropology and moral theory can give us the basis for a much deeper agreement about what human beings are and the structure of moral life than can any identity politics.

Religion doesn’t go away when you banish it from the university. It comes back in other forms, some of which are perfectly innocuous, but others of which are very dangerous. Aquinas is very realistic about the possibilities of pathological religious behavior; he calls it superstitio, the vice of disordered religion. The human being can become, very easily, irrationally religious, as, for example, in the cases of a banal religious emotivism or religiously motivated terrorism. The great conflicts we have between religionists and secularists, it seems to me, are very helpfully addressed by the harmony of reason and revelation in Aquinas, which allows the soul to flourish because the soul is meant for transcendence. Modern secular culture is asphyxiating. The soul needs to be open to the transcendent mystery of God to really experience the full freedom of its own intellectual life, its own voluntary life, its aspiration to the good, and its deepest desires for transcendence and meaning. A culture without an intellectual religious horizon is a truncated culture, but a culture that’s religious at the expense of the intellectual life is also a very unhealthy culture—so how do you get that right? I think Aquinas really helps us understand our natural religious aspirations in a balanced way.

-George, Robert P.. “Mind, Heart, and Soul: Intellectuals and the Path to Rome” (Kindle Location 1115-1153). TAN Books. Kindle Edition.

Love & Thomism,
Matthew

Know Thyself – γνῶθι σεαυτόν

Know Thyself


-by Jason Craig

Often, the difference between a man that believes in virtue and a man who doesn’t comes down to one distinction: is truth true or is truth relative? Most reading this know that “moral relativism” is a plague easily diagnosed and dismissed by sane men, but not truly believing in truth has more manifestations than we might think. Many of us are relativists by a different name by our attempt to create false images of ourselves and ask the world to believe in what we have created. Our screen time fuels this error.

Descartes is famous for saying, “I think, therefore, I am.” (Cogito ergo sum.Cartesian thought stems from stripping all other forms of knowledge away, being instinctively skeptical of all received so-called “truths” and being sure only of one’s own thinking. All knowledge in this mode comes from what can be proven by empirical evidence, but really what we end up with is just thinking that whatever we think is right. “I think, therefore whatever I think is what is.” Moral relativism flows easily from here, since morality needs philosophy and theology, not just empiricism.

Mix relativism with a little narcissism, and it’s not hard to picture the thousands of uploaded images, comments, etc. that we post on the internet and hear ourselves say clearly – by our actions – “I post, therefore I am.” We think what we slap on the wall is what we are, because we don’t actually care to know what we are. That can be ugly and hard.

Few of us want to do the work of really knowing ourselves, yet this is the true path to virtue and wisdom. Socrates expanded the Greek maxim “know thyself” saying, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Gazing at ourselves online – adoring what we have marketed – is not self-examination. It’s looking at the self as we have created it, not as God has. Holiness, which is the graced reality of virtue, must be found in asking God to show us to ourselves. Few of us have the courage and humility to see our self as it is, let alone the courage to persevere in correcting its faults. Seeing and correcting the faults of others is much easier, especially done through our created persona. To understand the self, we have to look away from it, especially by looking away from our screens, and look to God:

“We shall never succeed in knowing ourselves unless we seek to know God: let us think of His greatness and then come back to our own baseness; by looking at His purity we shall see our foulness; by meditating upon His humility, we shall see how far we are from being humble.” (St. Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle)”

Love & truth,
Matthew

Natural law? Being Human


-“The School of Athens”, Raphael, 1509–1511, Fresco, 500 cm × 770 cm (200 in × 300 in), Apostolic Palace, Vatican City, please click on the image for greater detail

-Jacob Kohlhaas
This article also appears in the July 2018 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 83, No. 7, page 49).

“Broadly understood, natural law refers to a range of moral theories that rely on rational discernment of the natural order as a means of telling good from evil. Within Catholic moral teaching, natural law arguments are commonly invoked to denounce “unnatural” and therefore immoral acts: contraception, same-sex sexual relations, euthanasia, genetic experimentation not in keeping with the God-given dignity of human beings, and many assisted reproductive technologies, for example. But where does natural law reasoning come from and just how does it connect nature to morality?

Despite its robust history within Christianity, natural law morality was initially developed by the Greek Stoic philosophers. Their commitment to living reasonably within nature’s designs produced a universally accessible moral theory based upon the ordinary human powers of observation and rational reflection. Christians appropriated natural law reasoning through the premise that observations of creation ought to reveal aspects of God the Creator’s will. In other words, what is natural is what God intends.

Yet some Christian beliefs challenged this union, particularly the Christian teachings that humans are limited and prone to sin. As such our understanding is always partial and likely to be distorted. While human finitude is natural, Christianity claims that sin is “unnatural” in the sense that it is a distortion of our nature and therefore does not point back to the will of God the Creator. Therefore, to understand nature as it was intended to be, some interpretation is necessary.

Classically the Bible served in this interpretive role as a sort of handbook to understanding reality. However, modern biblical scholarship and modern science have seriously displaced the Bible’s credibility on the factual details of human and cosmic history, if read as history book, which it is not, primarily. While scripture still provides an essential reference point for discerning the will of God, its reliability as a resource for understanding the natural world has diminished while the moral questions we pose to natural law have become increasingly complex. This is the context for the present diversity of natural law theories both within Catholicism and beyond.

All forms of natural law basically agree that the question “What ought I do?” is best answered in reference to the question “What is natural?” But theories diverge in how they discern that second question. Catholic natural law thinkers today tend to fall into two broad camps with significant diversity in each.

The first approach draws more from authority and deductive reasoning and is characteristic of Vatican documents that tend to conserve traditional teachings through appeals to God’s will as rationally discerned.

The second approach leans on contemporary experience and inductive reasoning and has been utilized by a number of Catholic scholars in order to argue for revisions to official Catholic teaching in light of contemporary knowledge.

Numerous current debates within Catholic morality rest at least partially on these differences. While God’s will for us as persons remains the fundamental concern of Christian morality, thoughtful moral discernment within a complex world remains a challenging process.”

Love & truth,
Matthew

Language of the Body

“In a recent debate on my Facebook page, a woman stated her view on sex: “There is no universal purpose, beauty, or reason to sex—that is up to the individuals to decide for themselves.” Trent has also seen this attitude in a recent documentary he filmed that asked college students, “What is sex for?” The most popular answer was: “That’s up to each person to decide for themselves.”

This is a common belief of millions who claim that sex isn’t “for anything” in particular. Sex can be for pleasure, or recreation, or stress relief, or even a cure for boredom. It can be no more significant or meaningful than eating ice cream!

The best way to get past this “feelings-based” approach to sex is by applying the natural law principles we learned in chapter two.

Remind your teens that they should ask what sex “is for” and use the answer to that question to guide their moral decisions.

Designed for Marital Love

If sex is “just for pleasure,” then why do so many people become distraught when their “significant other” has sex with someone else? This pain—universally understood and documented in literature, songs, and poems throughout millennia—is a huge hint that sex isn’t as casual or meaningless as some people claim it is.

Others say that sex is the way we express a deep emotional connection with another person. But we can have a deep emotional connection to many different people (friends, siblings, parents, children) with whom it would be wrong to have a sexual connection.

So, what distinguishes sexual relationships from all other kinds of human intimacy?

The answer is found in the design of the body.

When we look at the body, including the sexual faculty itself, we see that sex is ordered toward a life-long consequence, i.e., the conception of a child. This truth is like a signpost that men and women should not engage in sex before they’ve made the life-long commitment (marriage) that provides the foundation for the fruit of that act (a baby!).

Of course, many people will say that these consequences can be avoided by contraceptive use (which we will address later), rendering sex outside of marriage “no big deal.” But even if contraception didn’t fail often (and boy, it does), pre-marital sex would still be morally wrong with grave consequences. Why? Because it turns people into liars of the highest order.

Let me explain.

Deceptive Body Language

Your teen will probably agree that, in general, the words we speak should be honest and truthful. But we can also “speak” with our bodies to express ideas. For example, a handshake can mean “pleased to meet you” and a hug can mean “I am here for you.” When people use their bodies to communicate what is not true, they often experience discomfort.

Think about the uneasiness you feel when you’re forced to stand too close to a stranger on a bus or subway. Your bodies are expressing the language of social intimacy because they are so close together, but that intimacy is a lie—you don’t even know each other!

Similarly, sex outside of marriage expresses the intimacy of a permanent one-flesh union, but in a relationship (no matter how long it’s been going on) that has no such commitment.

It is a lie, told through the body, that speaks louder than words.

So, when it comes to sex, a teen girl may feel this discomfort when she doesn’t want the guy to see her naked. She may want to “get it over with” in hopes that sex will lead to a fulfilling relationship. Or, she may be sexually willing, but feel crushed when the boy does not contact her again. Boys, on the other hand, may resist being affectionate after sex or even refuse to talk to the girl they’ve slept with, because they don’t want to express with their hearts the deep, marital love they expressed with their bodies.

This discomfort is not some culturally induced guilt from a bygone era; it’s a strong signal that this type of vulnerable intimacy is only appropriate in the safety of a life-long, exclusive commitment. Sex outside of marriage is wrong because the body turns a beautiful truth (“I reveal and give my whole self to you in an irrevocable gift”) into a selfish and harmful lie. When your teens ask, you can give them a simple, reasonable answer:

Sex exists for the expression of marital love. Sex outside of marriage uses the body to express a permanent, fruitful union of love that doesn’t exist between unmarried couples. Sex outside of marriage is a lie, and we must never lie to the people we claim to love.”

Love & truth,
Matthew

Beauty, Truth, Goodness, Love: The Dialogue of St Catherine of Siena

Transcendentals

The transcendentals (Latin: transcendentalia) are the properties of being that correspond to three aspects of the human field of interest and are their ideals; science (truth), the arts (beauty) and religion (goodness). Philosophical disciplines that study them are logic, aesthetics and ethics…

…In the Middle Ages, Catholic philosophers elaborated the thought that there exist transcendentals (transcendentalia) and that they transcended each of the ten Aristotelian categories. A doctrine of the transcendentality of the good was formulated by Albert the Great. His pupil, Saint Thomas Aquinas, posited five transcendentals: res, unum, aliquid, bonum, verum; or “thing”, “one”, “something”, “good”, and “true”. Saint Thomas derives the five explicitly as transcendentals, though in some cases he follows the typical list of the transcendentals consisting of the One, the Good, and the True. The transcendentals are ontologically one and thus they are convertible: e.g., where there is truth, there is beauty and goodness, also.

In Christian theology the transcendentals are treated in relation to theology proper, the doctrine of God. The transcendentals, according to Christian doctrine, can be described as the ultimate desires of man. Man ultimately strives for perfection, which takes form through the desire for perfect attainment of the transcendentals. The Catholic Church teaches that God is Himself truth, goodness, and beauty, as indicated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Each transcends the limitations of place and time, and is rooted in being. The transcendentals are not contingent upon cultural diversity, religious doctrine, or personal ideologies, but are the objective properties of all that exists.
-https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transcendentals

“…(Catherine is a) permanent source of refreshment to the human spirit. She intuitively perceived life under the highest possible forms, the forms of Beauty and Love. Truth and Goodness were, she thought, means for the achievement of those two supreme ends. The sheer beauty of the soul “in a state of Grace” is a point on which she constantly dwells, hanging it as a bait before those whom she would induce to turn from evil. Similarly the ugliness of sin, as much as its wickedness, should warn us of its true nature. Love, that love of (hu)man for (hu)man which, in deepest truth, is, in the words of the writer of the First Epistle of St. John, God Himself, is, at once, the highest achievement of man and his supreme and satisfying beatitude. The Symbols of Catholic theology were to her the necessary and fitting means of transit, so to speak. …the fine allegory of the Bridge of the Sacred Humanity, of the soul in viâ on its dusty pilgrimage toward those gleaming heights of vision. “Truth” was to her the handmaid of the spiritualized imagination, not, as too often in these days of the twilight of the soul, its tyrant and its gaoler. Many of those who pass lives of unremitting preoccupation with the problems of truth and goodness are wearied and cumbered with much serving. We honor them, and rightly; but if they have nothing but this to offer us, our hearts do not run to meet them, as they fly to the embrace of those rare souls who inhabit a serener, more pellucid atmosphere. Among these spirits of the air, St. Catherine has taken a permanent and foremost place. She is among the few guides of humanity who have the perfect manner, the irresistible attractiveness, of that positive purity of heart, which not only sees God, but diffuses Him, as by some natural law of refraction, over the hearts of men. The Divine nuptials, about which the mystics tell us so much, have been accomplished in her, Nature and Grace have lain down together, and the mysteries of her religion seem but the natural expression of a perfectly balanced character, an unquenchable love and a deathless will.
-St. Catherine of Siena (2013-07-31T23:58:59). The Dialogue of St. Catherine of Siena (with Supplemental Reading: Catholic Prayers) [Illustrated] (Kindle Locations 438-454). TAN Books. Kindle Edition.

Love, Beauty, Goodness, Truth,
Matthew

The Argument from Conscience


-by Peter Kreeft, PhD

“The argument from conscience, Romans 2: 14-16, is one of the only two arguments for the existence of God alluded to in Scripture, the other being the argument from design, Romans 1:18-20. Both arguments are essentially simple natural intuitions. Only when complex, artificial objections are made do these arguments begin to take on a complex appearance.

The simple, intuitive point of the argument from conscience is that everyone in the world knows, deep down, that he is absolutely obligated to be and do good, and this absolute obligation could come only from God. Thus everyone knows God, however obscurely, by this moral intuition, which we usually call conscience. Conscience is the voice of God in the soul.

Like all arguments for the existence of God, this one proves only a small part of what we know God to be by divine revelation. But this part is significantly more than the arguments from nature reveal about God because this argument has richer data, a richer starting point. Here we have inside information, so to speak: the very will of God speaking, however obscurely and whisperingly, however poorly heard, admitted, and heeded, in the depths of our souls. The arguments from nature begin with data that are like an author’s books; the argument from conscience begins with data that are more like talking with the author directly, live.

The only possible source of absolute authority is an absolutely perfect will.

Before beginning, we should define and clarify the key term conscience. The modern meaning tends to indicate a mere feeling that I did something wrong or am about to do something wrong. The traditional meaning in Catholic theology is the knowledge of what is right and wrong: intellect applied to morality. The meaning of conscience in the argument is knowledge and not just a feeling; but it is intuitive knowledge rather than rational or analytical knowledge, and it is first of all the knowledge that I must always do right and never wrong, the knowledge of my absolute obligation to goodness, all goodness: justice and charity and virtue and holiness; only in the second place is it the knowledge of which things are right and which things are wrong. This second-place knowledge is a knowledge of moral facts, while the first-place knowledge is a knowledge of my personal moral obligation, a knowledge of the moral law itself and its binding authority over my life. That knowledge forms the basis for the argument from conscience.

If anyone claims he simply does not have that knowledge, if anyone says he simply doesn’t see it, then the argument will not work for him. The question remains, however, whether he honestly doesn’t see it and really has no conscience (or a radically defective conscience) or whether he is repressing the knowledge he really has. Divine revelation (Ed. through Scripture) tells us that he is repressing the knowledge (Rom 1:18b; 2:15). In that case, what is needed before the rational, philosophical argument is some honest introspection to see the data. The data, conscience, is like a bag of gold buried in my backyard. If someone tells me it is there and that this proves some rich man buried it, I must first dig and find the treasure before I can infer anything more about the cause of the treasure’s existence. Before conscience can prove God to anyone, that person must admit the presence of the treasure of conscience in the backyard of his soul.

Nearly everyone will admit the premise, though. They will often explain it differently, interpret it differently, insist it has nothing to do with God. But that is exactly what the argument tries to show: that once you admit the premise of the authority of conscience, you must admit the conclusion of God. How does that work?

Conscience has an absolute authority over me.

Nearly everyone will admit not only the existence of conscience but also its authority. In this age of rebellion against and doubt about nearly every authority, in this age in which the very word authority has changed from a word of respect to a word of scorn, one authority remains: an individual’s conscience. Almost no one will say that one ought to sin against one’s conscience, disobey one’s conscience. Disobey the church, the state, parents, authority figures, but do not disobey your conscience. Thus people usually admit, though not usually in these words, the absolute moral authority and binding obligation of conscience.

Such people are usually surprised and pleased to find out that Saint Thomas Aquinas, of all people, agrees with them to such an extent that he says if a Catholic comes to believe the Church is in error in some essential, officially defined doctrine, it is a mortal sin against conscience, a sin of hypocrisy, for him to remain in the Church and call himself a Catholic, but only a venial sin against knowledge for him to leave the Church in honest but partly culpable error.

So one of the two premises of the argument is established: conscience has an absolute authority over me. The second premise is that the only possible source of absolute authority is an absolutely perfect will, a divine being. The conclusion follows that such a Being exists.

How would someone disagree with the second premise? By finding an alternative basis for conscience besides God. There are four such possibilities:

  1.  something abstract and impersonal, like an idea;
  2. something concrete but less than human, something on the level of animal instinct;
  3. something on the human level but not divine; and
  4. something higher than the human level but not yet divine. In other words, we cover all the possibilities by looking at the abstract, the concrete-less-than-human, the concrete-human, and the concrete-more-than-human.

The first possibility, #1, means that the basis of conscience is a law without a lawgiver. We are obligated absolutely to an abstract ideal, a pattern of behavior. The question then comes up, where does this pattern exist? If it does not exist anywhere, how can a real person be under the authority of something unreal? How can more be subject to “less”? If, however, this pattern or idea exists in the minds of people, then what authority do they have to impose this idea of theirs on me? If the idea is only an idea, it has no personal will behind it; if it is only someone’s idea, it has only that someone behind it. In neither case do we have a sufficient basis for absolute, infallible, no-exceptions authority. But we already admitted that conscience has that authority, that no one should ever disobey his conscience.

The second possibility, #2, means that we trace conscience to a biological instinct. “We must love one another or die”, writes the poet W. H. Auden. We unconsciously know this, says the believer in this second possibility, just as animals unconsciously know that unless they behave in certain ways the species will not survive. That’s why animal mothers sacrifice for their children, and that’s a sufficient explanation for human altruism too. It’s the herd instinct.

The problem with that explanation is that it, like the first, does not account for the absoluteness of conscience’s authority. We believe we ought to disobey an instinct—any instinct—on some occasions. But we do not believe we ought ever to disobey our conscience. You should usually obey instincts like mother love, but not if it means keeping your son back from risking his life to save his country in a just and necessary defensive war, or if it means injustice and lack of charity to other mothers’ sons. There is no instinct that should always be obeyed. The instincts are like the keys on a piano (the illustration comes from C. S. Lewis); the moral law is like sheet music. Different notes are right at different times.

Furthermore, instinct fails to account not only for what we ought to do but also for what we do do. We don’t always follow instinct. Sometimes we follow the weaker instinct, as when we go to the aid of a victim even though we fear for our own safety. The herd instinct here is weaker than the instinct for self-preservation, but our conscience, like sheet music, tells us to play the weak note here rather than the strong one.

Honest introspection will reveal to anyone that conscience is not an instinct. When the alarm wakes you up early and you realize that you promised to help your friend this morning, your instincts pull you back to bed, but something quite different from your instincts tells you you should get out. Even if you feel two instincts pulling you (e.g., you are both hungry and tired), the conflict between those two instincts is quite different, and can be felt and known to be quite different, from the conflict between conscience and either or both of the instincts. Quite simply, conscience tells you that you ought to do or not do something, while instincts simply drive you to do or not do something. Instincts make something attractive or repulsive to your appetites, but conscience makes something obligatory to your choice, no matter how your appetites feel about it. Most people will admit this piece of obvious introspective data if they are honest. If they try to wriggle out of the argument at this point, leave them alone with the question, and if they are honest, they will confront the data when they are alone.

A third possibility, #3, is that other human beings (or society) are the source of the authority of conscience. That is the most popular belief, but it is also the weakest of all the four possibilities. For society does not mean something over and above other human beings, something like God, although many people treat society exactly like God, even in speech, almost lowering the voice to a whisper when the sacred name is mentioned. Society is simply other people like myself. What authority do they have over me? Are they always right? Must I never disobey them? What kind of blind status quo conservatism is this? Should a German have obeyed society in the Nazi era? To say society is the source of conscience is to say that when one prisoner becomes a thousand prisoners, they become the judge. It is to say that mere quantity gives absolute authority; that what the individual has in his soul is nothing, no authoritative conscience, but that what society (i.e., many individuals) has is. That is simply a logical impossibility, like thinking stones can think if only you have enough of them. (Some proponents of artificial intelligence believe exactly that kind of logical fallacy, by the way: that electrons and chips and chunks of metal can think if only you have enough of them in the right geometrical arrangements.)

The fourth possibility, #4, remains, that the source of conscience’s authority is something above me but not God. What could this be? Society is not above me, nor is instinct. An ideal? That is the first possibility we discussed. It looks as though there are simply no candidates in this area.

And that leaves us with God. Not just some sort of God, but the moral God of the Bible, the God at least of Judaism. Among all the ancient peoples, the Jews were the only ones who identified their God with the source of moral obligation. The gods of the pagans demanded ritual worship, inspired fear, designed the universe, or ruled over the events in human life, but none of them ever gave a Ten Commandments or said, “Be ye holy for I the Lord your God am holy.” The Jews saw the origin of nature and the origin of conscience as one, and Christians (and Muslims) have inherited this insight. The Jews’ claim to be God’s chosen people interprets the insight in the humblest possible way: as divine revelation, not human cleverness. But once revealed, the claim can be seen to be utterly logical.

To sum up the argument most simply and essentially, conscience has absolute, exceptionless, binding moral authority over us, demanding unqualified obedience. But only a perfectly good, righteous divine will has this authority and a right to absolute, exceptionless obedience. Therefore conscience is the voice of the will of God.

Of course, we do not always hear that voice aright. Our consciences can err. That is why the first obligation we have, in conscience, is to form our conscience by seeking the truth, especially the truth about whether this God has revealed to us clear moral maps (Scripture and Church). If so, whenever our conscience seems to tell us to disobey those maps, it is not working properly, and we can know that by conscience itself if only we remember that conscience is more than just immediate feeling. If our immediate feelings were the voice of God, we would have to be polytheists or else God would have to be schizophrenic.”

Love & truth,
Matthew

Dangerous moral attitudes – Hitler was right?

https://www.thecatholicthing.org/2018/04/06/the-slow-poison-of-bad-ideas/


-by David R. Carlin, is a professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island at Newport, is the author of The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America and Can a Catholic Be a Democrat?

4/6/18

Every semester I teach a course in ethics (moral philosophy) at my community college. I tell the students that they don’t have to agree with me; they are entitled to their own opinions, even if their opinions are deeply erroneous. But I attempt to persuade them that there are certain popular theories of morality that are wrong.

In particular, I argue against three popular but (in my opinion) pernicious theories:

* The theory that the rules of right and wrong are purely social creations.
* The theory that we are free to create our own individual moral codes.
* The theory that everything is morally permissible provided it does no obvious and tangible harm to non-consenting others.

On the other hand, I argue that there is a true theory of morality, namely the theory that all normal human beings have an innate knowledge of certain fundamental rules of morality, e.g., don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t commit adultery, don’t abandon your children, etc. This might be called a “natural law” theory of morality, but I don’t insist on that name.

Needless to say, I don’t persuade all, or even almost all, of my students to agree with me. I console myself by saying this is okay. Why? Because maybe I’m mistaken, and if so I hope they don’t agree with me. Or because maybe I’m right and they’ll agree with me thirty or forty years from now. Or maybe I’m right but they’ll never agree with me – but if Jesus himself persuaded only eleven of his twelve, why should I be discouraged that I can’t persuade all my students?

The other day, however, a young man in my class shocked me (actually he amused me) by clearly and frankly defending a theory of morality that I regard as absolutely horrible. He is a good student, sincere and amiable; and he’s not at all the kind of student teachers sometimes run into, I mean the kind who disagrees with the professor just to be a pain in the neck. Not at all; far from it; he’s a nice kid.

He contended (even though I had attempted to refute this obnoxious theory earlier in the semester) that individuals create their own morality, and therefore what’s right or wrong for you will not necessarily be right or wrong for me. As long as you do what you personally believe is right, then it’s right. Likewise, if I personally do what I believe is right, it’s right.

Now, whenever a student makes this point, I bring up Hitler: “If Hitler believed that the Holocaust was the right thing to do, then you say it was right for him to murder six million Jews, not to mention millions of others – is that what you’re saying?”

When I bring Hitler into the discussion, the student usually backs away from his or her assertion. (I sometimes suspect that God may have allowed Hitler to commit his mass murders so that professors will be able to use him as a horrible example in classroom discussions.) But this young man didn’t back away the other day. He stuck with the logic of his position. He said that what Hitler did was right because he believed it was right; and that therefore he (my student) would not condemn Hitler for doing the wrong thing.

At the same time, he assured me that he himself has a quite different personal morality. He personally would never commit genocide; it would be wrong to do so because it doesn’t accord with his personal moral code. I’m sure this is true. As I said, he’s a nice kid. I have no fear of mass murder when I walk into the classroom.

But this reminds me that we can change our minds more easily than we can change our hearts; we can change our opinions more readily than we can change our feelings. Among the most deeply embedded of all our feelings are the moral attitudes we acquire in the days of our childhood and adolescence.

Our moral attitudes, though, whether good or bad, are different from our moral opinions. That’s why it’s so difficult to talk a person out of bad habits. The advice you give this person may be 100 percent sound, but, still, it’s almost impossible to budge him. The same is true, mutatis mutandis, with people who grow up with good moral attitudes.

Does this mean that bad moral theories are harmless or that good theories are useless? Not at all. If you’re a person with good moral attitudes, your bad theories will probably have little impact on your actual moral conduct. But it may well have an impact on your children.

As you bring them up, you will be giving them a good example by your conduct (let’s say, habits of honesty); but your bad theory will be telling them, “I personally believe in honesty, and I personally hope you do the same when you’re an adult; but always remember this, that honesty is nothing more than my personal preference. Remember to be tolerant of crooks and liars and thieves who happen not to believe in honesty.”

Bad moral theories, then, will have bad moral consequences, and good moral theories will have good consequences. But it doesn’t happen overnight. It will take a generation or two, or maybe a hundred years, or maybe two or three hundred. Jefferson wrote, “all men are created equal” in 1776. This implied that slavery must be abolished. But it took 87 years and a great civil war before this happened.

“Ideas govern the world,” a French philosopher once said. And that’s true; they do. But in most cases, only gradually. We have a lot of bad moral theories floating around the USA today, not just my student’s bad theory. If we don’t check them, they will destroy us – if not in the short run, then gradually.”

Love & truth,
Matthew

Principle of Non-contradiction: truth cannot contradict truth

Jesus answered, “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” -Jn 14:6


-by Fr. George W. Rutler

“Dante’s thought was so greatly shaped by Aristotle that he called him “The Philosopher” rather as it is customary to call Saint Paul “The Apostle.”  He placed Aristotle in a sort of suburb of Heaven, for Aristotle’s logical thought was a noble anticipation of Christ the Word, or Logos, as the litmus test for all logical thought.  Aristotle applied his “Principle of Non-Contradiction” in several ways, but the third way, most pertinent to daily conversation, means that two statements that are opposite cannot both be true.

Like all great truths, this seems so obvious that it should hardly need to be pointed out.  But people contradict the principle of non-contradiction all the time.  It is easy to slip into this mistake out of fuzzy courtesy — which in the extreme is a form of sentimentality — as when someone says, “That may be true for you, but it is not true for me,” or, “All religions are the same.”  Pope Benedict XVI saw this as so great a danger to logical living that he spoke of it as a “dictatorship of relativism.”

To propose that opposite assertions can be true is harshly to cancel out truth.  In our grammar, two negatives make a positive, but to say that a negative and a positive make a positive would be to say that nothing is really positive.  Then to say that Christ is and is not the Living Word is to say that the Word is just a word.  This “dictatorship” inevitably tries to crush any assertion that there is such a thing as logic at all.

This is not a matter just for the philosophy class.  It has harsh consequences for justice.  The “show trials” of Stalin and Hitler were held in a Humpty Dumpty world where a word means anything the judge wants it to mean.  This reduces sense to sentimentality, and there is a fine line between sentimentality and cruelty, because it twists logic and explains why demagogues speak of caring for society even as they destroy every vestige of it, condoning unnatural acts as natural, and even offering to help children by killing them, as “lawmakers” in Brussels have recently done.  Milton said, “The mind is its own place and in itself can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”

Christ did not contradict Himself when He said that He fulfilled the Law, even while He was breaking some of the little laws.  He was showing the logic of the law as expressive of the eternal Logos that orders all things.  The Apostle, even wiser than The Philosopher, spoke of a wisdom which “is not of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish.  But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory.  None of the rulers of this age understood this;  for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Corinthians 2:6-8).”

Love & truth,
Matthew

Jesuit emotion…

-by Professor Yasmin Haskell

“Jorge Mario Bergoglio has chosen the papal name ‘Francis’, which will suggest to most Catholics the founder of the Franciscan order, Francis of Assisi. Pope Francis’ gentle and unassuming style, his poverty – if catching the bus and cooking one’s own meals really qualifies as poverty in the Latin American context … – point to the medieval Italian saint who preached to the common people, and legendarily, to the birds. But Francis was also half the name of one of the Jesuits’ earliest saints, Francis-Xavier (1506-1552), the fervent and restless ‘Apostle to the Indes’, who took Catholic Christianity to India, Japan, and the East Indes in the early modern period, dying of a fever just fourteen kilometres from the shore of mainland China. Perhaps Pope Francis quietly gestures to this sixteenth-century Jesuit missionary, too, who has come to represent the global reach of the Catholic Church, and embodies the evangelical zeal for ‘harvesting souls’ which fired so many members of his order in the early modern period.

So who were the Jesuits? The Society or Company of Jesus was a Catholic Reformation order founded in 1540 by Basque nobleman and former soldier, Ignatius of Loyola, and a bunch of his student friends (among them Francis-Xavier). They quickly earned a formidable and paradoxical reputation. The Pope’s crack troops were deployed from Messina to Macao, Paris to Paraguay, recruiting converts, fighting the spread of Protestantism, and educating the élites of Catholic Europe and her New World colonies. They conducted diplomatic business and scientific research, composed music and poetry, and shocked and awed audiences with theatre and pyrotechnics, art and architecture. Jesuits were prepared to die for their beliefs in faraway missions, but they were also accused of being slippery and self-serving. They championed native Indian rights, but enslaved Africans. In their ranks were to be found hard-nosed heretic hunters, as well as defenders of the rights of ‘witches’, and believers in ‘natural magic’. Renowned for their chameleon-like ability to adapt to local circumstances – dressing as mandarins in China or brahmins in India – the proud and powerful ‘black robes’ couldn’t help but stand out on Catholic home turf. Victims of their own success, the Jesuits were hounded out of France, Spain, Portugal, and the New World. The ‘Old’ Society of Jesus was shut down by the Pope in 1773.

The Society of Jesus was restored in 1814 and has regrown to become the single largest order of the Catholic Church. The ‘New’ Society has produced its fair share of arch-conservatives, but also Nazi-resisters, freedom-fighters, and liberation theologians. It retains its former reputation for education and intellectual sophistication: the profile of a twentieth-century polymath such as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (philosopher, mathematician, palaeontologist, and evolutionary biologist) would not look out of place alongside those of Athanasius Kircher (speculative vulcanologist, biologist, orientalist …) or Roger Boscovich (poet, physicist, astronomer, diplomat …) in Carlos Sommervogel’s great bio-bibliographical dictionary of the Old Society (Bibliothèque de la Compagnie de Jésus).

But the heart has always been just as if not more important than the head in Jesuit theology. Much of the order’s thinking, historically, has gone into questions of how to rouse, channel and discipline the emotions. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises remains to this day the beating heart of the Society of Jesus, anticipating some of the techniques of modern psychotherapy in its guided visualisations; its call for attention to and daily written reckoning of our desires and defects; its rules for ‘discernment of spirits’ (in effect, how to listen to our emotions before making important life choices). In conjuring up in detail the agonies of the Passion, however, not to mention a sense-by-sense experience of the torments of Hell, Ignatius is a world away from modern secular philosophers of emotional well-being and intelligence, and from mental health regimes that seek to eliminate anxiety and depression from our lives. The exercitant of the Spiritual Exercises moves inevitably between states of ‘consolation’ and ‘desolation’ with no more human control over this process than that of preparing him/herself in advance for the next turn of the wheel.”

Love,
Matthew

Faith is an intellectual virtue…

2/6/14
-by David G Bonagura, Jr., teaches at St. Joseph’s Seminary, New York.

“I don’t feel anything when I pray.” “I am bored at Mass.” “When I talk to God, I do not sense that someone is listening.” These laments, experienced at one time or another by both the pious and the lost, rise from the very heart of Christian praxis. They express the natural human desire for vibrant emotion and feeling in prayer, a reality that many often lack, especially as the faith is lived over the years.

Emotion, as a reality of the human experience, has a role within the life of faith. The Scriptures themselves express the full pantheon of human sentiment: joy and sorrow, gratitude and jealousy, trust and doubt, hope and fear, love and hate are all part of the divine economy of salvation because they, in their different ways, bring us into contact with God. But it is critical for believers to understand their emotions as one aspect within the broader context of their faith and their relationship with God – not as constitutive of their faith.

Because of the prevalence and power of sentiment, there has always existed a temptation, often well intentioned, to reduce faith to emotion and experience. In the nineteenth century, Friedrich Schleiermacher declared, “faith is nothing other than the incipient experience of a satisfaction of that spiritual need by Christ.” Today “youth Masses” attempt to make Schleiermacher’s definition a reality among young people through excited cheering and contemporary music. Other Masses border on sentimentality with overly sappy hymns such as “Here I am Lord” and “You Are Mine.” We are then supposed to feel the presence of Christ and respond to Him in faith.

These personal experiences and feelings can indeed kindle faith, but they cannot be the sole pillars of our spiritual lives, because emotions are not the essence of faith. Rather faith rests upon a loving God Who is not the product of our subjective longings, but a real independent Being Who calls us into union with Him through the revelation of His Son. Faith requires us to acknowledge and accept revelation. The response we make to God may be spurred and accompanied by an array of sentiments, but it is with the intellect that we assent to God and His will.

For this reason St. Thomas Aquinas classified faith as an intellectual virtue: “[T]o believe is an act of the intellect assenting to the truth at the command of the will.” (cf ST II-II, Q2, A1) The intellect has priority because it accepts what comes from God, yet it does so at the insistence of the will, which can be moved by the power of religious experiences. These experiences, when properly integrated within the contours of faith, can contribute to the further development of our relationship with God.

But because faith is the province of the intellect, we need not worry or doubt when emotion and religious sentiment ebb or even disappear from our lives, as they inevitably do. Spiritual aridity – the absence of feeling from the life of faith – is a normal occurrence in the spiritual life, and it can be temporary or prolonged. The saints, many of whom endured painful spiritual aridity for decades, teach us that the absence of religious feelings is God’s way of purifying our faith, which rests ultimately not on emotion, but on our trust in the authority of God’s word.

Often faith is stirred within us due to some profound experience that propels us forward joyfully in our relationship with God. But as the power of these experiences wanes over time, we are forced to trust that we remain in communion with God even as His presence seemingly vanishes. Our situation is akin to that of the apostles: for three years they experienced directly the presence of Christ, and the attendant joy and security that came with it. But after His death and resurrection, they learned, courtesy of Thomas, that it is not feeling but raw trust that constitutes faith. “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” (John 20:29)

Because God is real and not the product of our emotions, we know He hears our prayers and is present to us even if we do not “feel” Him. Our restless hearts must continue to reach toward God, knowing that He alone is their end and fulfillment.

Contrasts are often drawn between Catholics’ more stoic worship with the energy of certain Protestant services. The different styles are pathways to faith; religious feeling of itself neither constitutes nor measures the faith present within the community or the individual. Faith’s true vibrancy depends on the degree to which we trust in God and assent to His revelation. When our trust and assent is strong enough that we give ourselves wholly to God, then we have the love of God in our hearts. And love is not merely sentiment: it is action and commitment as well.

Carmelite Father Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen writes that “the enkindling of love does not consist in the joy the soul may experience, but rather in the firm determination of the will to give itself entirely to God.” Faith puts us in union with the love of God. We need not fret over lack of religious emotion in our lives, and we need not think our preferred religious experience should be shared by everyone else. True love withstands the flux of all emotions because it is anchored in the certain hope of the God who made us for Himself.”

Love,
Matthew