Saturday, September 5, 2009

They think, therefore they are not

In a posthumously republished article at FIRST THINGS, the late Father Richard John Neuhaus laments the spiritual bankruptcy of academic Religious Studies. He should. But he should also have taken a look at his own legacy. Here are my remarks:

This article by Father Neuhaus is perfectly accurate. The only problem is that he himself exemplified the very faults he is decrying, as do most of the regular contributors and editorial staff here at FIRST THINGS. They are intellectuals all; masters of sophisticated gibberish, of dialectic, of the over-indulged adversary and of the never-quite-reached conclusion. Father Neuhaus, as we all know per his own self-depictions, was basically a “good liberal,” a man of the sort who thinks that the Social Revolution was not wrong, but that it didn’t go far enough. How telling is that famous picture of him standing next to Martin Luther King Jr., jaw set and eyes fixed, no doubt feeling himself very much in the right, having the good conscience at his back, ready to strike a blow for social justice, doing “the Lord’s work.” Did he know at the time that he was helping to set the standard by which all future liberalism in this country would operate, and that the standard would be one of social agitation, manufactured victimization and enforced pathology, all of it wrapped up and peddled to the lumpen-laity with pseudo-religious platitudes about “helping the poor” and “loving thy neighbor?” If not, then he certainly had ample time consider the aftermath, and it may be that he recognized the truth in the end. One of his last appearances on EWTN was for the purpose providing commentary for the papal mass in New York, which (if memory serves me right) he ridiculed as a “preening and overweening multicultural mishmash.”

Well said. Nevertheless, his approach to confronting unpleasant cultural tendencies was marked by both extreme intellectualization and a spirit of sympathy bordering on conciliation, as is that of the magazine he founded. These methods are ineffective. The ostensible purpose of FIRST THINGS is to “advance a religiously informed public philosophy for the ordering of society.” A quick glance around the society so ordered by Neuhaus & Co. shows exactly how successful that venture has been. Irony of ironies, Neuhaus was planting the seed for that mishmash mass when he decided to agitate alongside Dr. King. The rest is history.

It is the eternal fate of intellectuals to be ever standing on the wrong side of life, doing the devil’s work with the noblest intentions. This is because the intellect is capable only of criticism, never of construction. It apprehends and judges only what is unequal; it revels in the discovery of abnormality. Not that the intellect, by its own operations, can ever normalize the defects it discovers; it can only complain, and that complaint is always in the service of power. Subtly and inexorably it strengthens the ego, birthing that adamantine chip on the shoulder which is the hallmark of all revolutionaries, drawing the sympathies of those similarly afflicted, until at last the man is ready to rob an murder in the name of a social ideal which at its bottom can be shown to be nothing but a globalized personal gripe. Short of an actual revolution, there are always the perquisites of academic tenure to consider; the thrills of being a subversive, of tapping into the raw energies behind the misgivings of youth, of becoming “hip” and aloof, living life with a permanent sneer of mockery emblazoned across one’s face. Finally, for those without the skills to hack it in academia, there is the bliss of never-ending childhood that forms the secret pleasure of all victim-complexes; the pleasure of fisted-glove piracy which the victims affect by their ever-present threat of agitation; a life without real demands upon the faculties, without anxiety, without out accomplishment; a life lived in the consoling embrace of darkness.

We need look no further to understand why academic Religious Studies is a spiritually stunted project. That is its whole purpose. That’s what it is; that’s what it does. It was not the result of a mistake, but belongs essentially to what intellectualization is all about. What Father Neuhaus & Co. fail to realize is that the unilluminated intellect can never serve as a reliable ally in the quest for spiritual depth, and that therefore their own efforts are often similarly benighted. The intellect plays but a small and not very important part in the affairs of men. The true transformation of society will require the strength of the blood. It is imperative that the Church begin to function once again as a political organism, eschewing not the methods and tactics of temporal power. The alternative will be the complete dissolution of Christianity into a generalized system of social ethics. There are even powerful forces within the Church who desire this very end. The Great Laicization Project, marked by strong appeals to the freedom of conscience and by the ostensible-but-misguided desire to keep the purity of the Church free from state interference (its chief architect at present is George Weigel), must fail if Christianity is to succeed. In its place must needs be an aristocratic Church that can lead society in the right direction by example and command; a Church that cuts the Gordian knot of over-tense argumentation and entrenched political convenience. The current crop of intellectuals is ill-fitted to affect this transformation. They think, therefore they are not.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Decline of Scientific Publishing Standards, and Publishing Standards in General

At John Reilly’s site, the commenter HopefulCynic68 has an interesting post about the decline of standards in the magazine publishing industry. This thread provides immense food for thought; indeed, it presses the trigger on several loaded barrels that I’ve been meaning to fire off lately, especially vis-à-vis the precipitous drop in educational standards. However, since I find that subject very difficult to discuss dispassionately, I have for the time being confined my response to those issues pertinent to scientific publications (and why I no longer read them). The line in HopefulCynic68’s post that occasioned my response was this:

“Even the comments on the trends in the magazine world matched my own observations, such as the lefty drift of Scientific American (which is becoming sufficiently pronounced as to damage the credibility of the publication), and the recent improvement in Popular Mechanics. If that trend holds, the 'lowbrow' PM might just steal some thunder from some supposedly highbrow sources.”

I used to love reading Scientific American as a young teenager, circa early-to-mid nineties. As I recall, the magazine was at that time a vehicle for the best popular science writing around. Of the many attractions it offered, one could expect at least a half dozen lengthy, well-written articles per issue, mathematical puzzles by Martin Gardener, the wonderful Connections column by James Burke, and colorful graphics that were among the best in the business. I especially enjoyed the articles on physics and astronomy, which as a rule were included in every issue.

But by the late nineties I began to notice a serious downward trend in the quality of the scientific thinking behind the articles in the magazine. I had a difficult time of it, having to admit that I could no longer lie to myself about the serious methodological flaws that they allowed to slip into print. I had to question the reasoning behind many of the conclusions drawn in the articles, and I came to the uncomfortable realization that a good portion of the scientific establishment did not know when a thing was proven and when it wasn't.

I still remember the exact statement that caused me to lay the magazine aside, never to pick it up again. The year was 1999, early in the summer. I was reading a blurb about plate tectonics, in which a pair of geologists was claiming that great quantities of ocean water were being dragged down into the mantle with the subduction of oceanic plates. This much is certainly true, but the geologists proceeded from these humble beginnings to a rather flippant apocalyptic prediction. The subducting water, they said, posed no threat to the sea levels of planet earth for most of its history, because the interior of the planet was so hot that the water would be quickly converted to high-pressure steam and vented back to the surface. However, by late pre-Cambrian times the interior of earth had cooled sufficiently, such that the water was carried deep into the mantle where it was lost to chemical disassociation, and "sea levels have since dropped more than 2000 feet."

It would be an interesting exercise to enumerate all the errors contained in that statement, but we need not proceed further than to note that there is absolutely no geophysical evidence to support the conclusion that sea levels were ever that much higher than they are now. A 2000 ft higher sea would have inundated much of the continental landmass of the planet, and that simply hasn't happened. Whatever the geologists' speculations about the chemistry of the mantle might have told them, there is no prima facie case that their assertions are at all true. The known geological record is incompatible with what they have stated.

As an aside, I might also mention that I was thumbing through an issue of Discover magazine at a bookstore sometime in 2004, when I saw what had to be one of the most ridiculous examples of scientific illogicity ever to appear in print. To wit: New research had apparently revealed that the class of antidepressant drugs known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors were not really at all efficacious in increasing the amount of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the synaptic cleft; a finding which, if true, would invalidate decades' worth of theorizing concerning the neurophysiology of depression. "Thus," read the byline of the article, "Scientists were under new pressure to figure out why antidepressants work."

Evidently, the idea that antidepressants do not work had never crossed the minds of the editors at Discover; the materialistic myth of the physically determined mind was too much of a non-negotiable element in their worldview. Here we have a case in which the entire theoretical justification for their understanding of the causes and cures of depression had fallen away, and yet these drugs were still somehow, mysteriously, osmotically, occultically held to "work." It ought to go without saying that a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor has absolutely no attributable mechanism of action that would be profitable for relieving depression if low serotonin levels aren't the cause of that malady; and this becomes even more ironically and laughably true given that the substance in question does not even inhibit the reuptake of serotonin. But none of this is likely to make an impact on the so-called scientific community. I mumbled something about "cycles and epicycles" and put the magazine back on the shelf. They'll endorse the notion of homeopathic SSRIs before they abandon their model.

Bio-psychiatry is a large, lucrative, and harmful fraud that directly affects the lives of the untold millions of people who have been told (and sometimes forced) to take these useless and potentially dangerous substances. It is the redux of phrenology, but perpetrated with even less romance and human understanding than its forbear. It is, however, not the only such fraud to which the contemporary scientific establishment has given its imprimatur. At the top of the list we have the massive Anthropogenic Global Warming hoax, and the attendant possibility of serious damage to the U.S. economy if its backers succeed in implementing their agenda. Other entrenched errors of reasoning are less immediately threatening but no less egregious. The ideas of "dark matter" and "dark energy" postulated to explain the contradictions observed in the material content of the universe are naught but mere phantasms. Darwinian evolution has been utterly thrown down by the evidence, only to be revived by ad hoc notions of "punctuated equilibrium" and "inclusive fitness" (both oxymorons).

The list could be extended, but it is not necessary to continue. It is clear enough already that real theoretical science has been replaced by an insipid and rather unmanly appetite for pleasing visions, technological gimmickry, "signs and wonders" -- it is science according to Herod Antipas. The Principia Mathematica has fallen to The Tao of Physics. The trend will be reversed eventually; the necessity of living demands it. But when contemporary scientific fluff goes, it will take most of the philosophical presuppositions of modern society with it.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Right is Right and Left is Left...

…and never the twain shall meet.

Anyway, that was Oswald Spengler's understanding of the relationship between basic political philosophies, and it's my understanding, too. However, our friend Richard Fernandez does not seem to share in that assessment. In a
recent post at The Belmont Club discussing the political Left's ability to out-woo and out-network their competitors on the Right (thus winning more and closer friends for themselves), the redoubtable Wretchard had this to say:

"The real secret to gaining on the Left isn’t to offer up a more cogent argument or to present more compelling facts. It’s to outfriend them; to open up a door that will make the undecideds out in the cold come in and feel loved. On the day conservatives sweep the Facebook groups they will sweep the world."

There is a profound fallacy involved in this type of thinking. It is in the same family as that fallacy which causes many modern religious people to reduce the essence of Christianity to some ersatz "social doctrine." Such people forget that the Church's first priority is to proclaim the Gospel of Christ's love to man, and therefore she undertakes to love them and to better their lot. There is no sense in having the betterment without the Gospel, for the Church does not exist to be some religiously-themed Red Cross knockoff. She exists to redeem souls, to sanctify the world, and to lead us into all truth; and the truth, be it said, is larger than our material well-being as such.

In the present context, the fallacy has consequences less eternal but no less erroneous than the secularization of Christianity. The political Right cannot seek to become more like the Left without losing its identity in the process. As a purely practical matter, we may note that this strategy has already been tried and found wanting (notice that President John McCain remains a fixture of Alternative History); but more importantly, once we de-sensationalize Richard's argument by removing the references to humanitarian warmth and internet technology, we see that it reduces to little more than a blatant endorsement of panum et circenses. The Right is here exhorted to use any means at its disposal to purchase the affections of prospective coreligionists.

Now here are the facts as Spengler saw them, and as I think most clear-headed people see them. Tools like social networking, affection-peddling, and outcast-courting are not morally neutral techniques of which the Left has availed itself and the Right has not (but yet may, to its advantage); they are subversive practices which issue from the very heart of Leftist ideology and remain forever bound up with it. As G. K. Chesterton once observed, the morality a man really has is not the morality he discusses, but the morality he takes for granted. It is taken for granted by the Left that "numbers win the battle," and that man's greatest good is found in living a comfortable life on earth. To these ends, they assemble coalitions (mobs) to act as unwitting soldiers for them by making empty promises of material abundance and justice (the greatest good for the greatest number). They see nothing transcendent, nothing noble, nothing worthy of sacrifice, and no value in the individual or in the strugglings of great souls.

The Right is very different. We believe first and foremost in the transcendent, and we allow it to inform our every political decision. We put the good of the soul above all earthly goods. The Right draws its strength not from numbers but from the innate superiority of its principles, the very principles that Wretchard says aren't enough to win with. Remember, there can never really be any such thing as a conservative party, for the whole notion of governing parties is liberal through and through. The party is basically the engine and the incarnation of liberal thought: it is mean, "democratic," supra-individualistic, and irreligious. The party's vision begins and ends entirely in the earthy plain. The Right, on the other hand, consists of free and responsible souls who will stand or fall only according to their faith: it is (not coincidentally) the principle of righteousness which triumphs over numbers, weight, and all other material factors.

We remember that God raised up a Moses, a Gideon, a David, an Elijah, and a Daniel to fulfill His mighty purposes, against every sort of earthy odds. I have yet to read about Him raising up a collective to do anything. If the Right wishes to succeed, it must do so by having a 'Thermopylae" moment: it must stand in the breach and intercede, rooted in nothing but faith. This is the sign of its election. To resort to other means indicates a lack of faith and a dangerous dilution of principle. We must decide what we really believe. The opportunity to stand tall and prevail is even now upon us. We must hope and strive to prove worthy of it.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

I guess I'll have to weigh in on Tiller

Edward Feser has posted his thoughts on the recent murder of abortion doctor George Tiller. I'm too jaded to come up with much of a response to these things, but my reply follows, for what it's worth:

I think it's curious to see so many members of the pro-life movement going to such great lengths to condemn Tiller's murder. I am not speaking of Dr. Feser's post, but of Fr. Frank Pavone, for instance. They doth protest too much, methinks. It's almost as if they expect the political ramifications to backfire on them.

The fact of the matter is that Tiller's murder will have almost zero political consequences, one way or the other. It will not change anybody's opinion about abortion, or the pro-life movement, or the laws of the land. It will not be brought up in political ads or debates. It will be completely forgotten within a week.

This suggests to me that there is a meta-narrative going on above and beyond the talking points on both sides of the abortion debate. Most people do not seem particularly eager to see the issue resolved, nor have they given serious strategic consideration to the measures necessary to resolve it. Both camps focus on converting individual hearts and minds within the context of the current legislative regime. But this is no real answer; it is only a prolongation of the debate, and this dilatory tactic is deliberate.

I think there are great uncertainties at work deep in the bosom of our collective psyche. The pro-lifers aren't quite sure they want to live with the strictures of their own moral code, and the pro-choicers aren't quite sure that abortion isn't a grave evil. This uncertainty will ensure that the Tiller matter gets promptly buried. It's too real, too plain, and too sober a fact to confront, just like the facts of abortion itself.

When being confronted with these facts, the great majority of people have no idea what to do. They will simply turn away and distract themselves with something else, like a child who hears that his father just lost his job. He knows there is something dreadfully wrong, but there is nothing he can do but "act childish," revert to helplessness, sink into the dark currents of unconscious being. Abortion itself is a symptom of this sinking, but most of the debate surrounding it is not much of an improvement. The catchwords are verbal palliatives designed to obscure and soften reality. Roeder lept up like a flame in this darkness, expended himself in one devastating burst, and flickered out again, of no more consequence than a firefly in the woods; and the earth turns still, untroubled.

This is the wretchedness of mankind, the slow and pointless burn, the bitter necessities that cause him to forget and accept all manner of heinous abuses. The only cure is the breaking in of the transcendent God which elevates man to the heights of creation. This alone makes him capable of self-sacrifice and noble purpose. Blessed are those who have ears to hear Him. Pray, O pray ye all, that it may be you.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

War and Recovery

Richard Fernandez quotes an Australian Army officer's thoughts about the future of Iraq:

The future of Iraq is unknowable,’ he said, ‘but it has started again.’ That remark didn’t answer any questions about the future of events, but it helped frame my expectations.

I have responded with some cynical (but hopefully not too cynical) thoughs of my own:

I fully agree, but the corollary of this statement is that nobody involved in Iraq policy-making can possibly know what the hell they’re doing, and at this point one strategy is pretty much as good as another.

I think it was right around the 2006 midterm elections (USA) when I finally concluded that strategy was a moot subject in the Iraq War. It simply didn’t matter anymore. Iraq was going to recover someday (and be much better off than it had been under Saddam), but this would be due to the natural fecundity of life itself, not to any policy decisions. The survivors would pick up the pieces, cobble together a new life from the rubble, start having children, and gradually the war would fade away into the passing generations. The window of opportunity when policy decisions mattered had long since shut; a discontinuity in history had been reached, and now it was all up to nature.

I shrugged and began to think of it like this: “One of the things that wars inevitable do is to promote cultural exchange. There wouldn’t be so many Vietnamese immigrants in America today (the child of one such couple is one of my best friends), and a Vietnamese restaurant in every shopping center, if we had not fought a war in that country. We ought to just welcome the refugees from Iraq, and I can look forward to some aromatic tobacco and good falafel.”

What I mean to say is, it seems we could have achieved equality of result in Iraq If we had simply butchered and bolted, laid waste to the country’s economy, and dispatched a small interdictory force to watch over things while the locals rebuilt. We would have incurred the moral censure of the world, but it would have blown over in a few years (for fickle mankind is always ready to forget), and it would not have given the Left a McGuffen for 5 years’ worth of skeptical press coverage with which to beat up the Bush administration.

We might not be looking at a President Obama today if that had happened, and the situation in Iraq would be no different. Perhaps this is the ultimate indictment of Rumsfeld’s Defense Department and of modern precision warfare in general: it turns warcraft into too dainty a matter. It’s best to just rock-and-roll and then get the hell out. It does far less damage in the long run.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Lab Rats: A case against Animal Experimentation

A rather obvious yet novel thought occurred to me several weeks ago that actually gave me considerable pause. In fact, it’s so obvious that it’s incredibly easy to overlook it (at least I had, until now); but it’s one of those simple notions that, if proven correct, has the power to affect radical realignments in one’s worldview.

I had never before any reason to consider myself opposed to medical experimentation on animals. While I am opposed to certain directions in biological research on principle (such as genetic modification), that is because I believe the research to be wrongheaded and dangerous, not because I believe it violates the rights or integrity of the animal. There are many other instances of animal testing (such as anatomical studies, clinical drug trials, and toxicology tests) to which I would raise no principled objection.

Many contemporary philosophers have spun off elaborate theories of animal rights, mostly making use of some sort of utilitarian analysis. I will not bother to refute those theories here, but suffice it to say that they produce far more heat than light and need not be taken seriously. Animals do not have rights. They do not belong by nature to the community of rational beings to which the concept of rights pertains, and therefore it is categorically impossible to transgress against them. While cruelty to animals is indicative of a coarse and wicked nature in the man who practices it, even the meanest sort of animal abuse cannot be said to constitute a crime. No argument against animal testing made on those grounds can expect to stand very long.

On the other hand, the use of animals (as food, as raw materials, as traction, etc.) is entirely licit, for all of creation is ordered to the good of humanity. Animal experiments undertaken for the purpose of enhancing our repository of medical knowledge would seem to be included in the proper concept of use. In fact, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “Medical and scientific experimentation on animals is a morally acceptable practice if it remains within reasonable limits and contributes to caring for or saving human lives.” (Cf. CCC 2417)

But it occurred to me that, by framing the debate entirely in terms of animal rights (and the extent, existence, or nonexistence thereof), we are missing an important dimension of the problem. The issue is not whether animal dignity is being violated by experimentation, but whether human dignity is being debased by a too-ready comparison of the human body with animal flesh. In other words, the more we use lab rats as human analogs, the more we begin to see human beings as glorified lab rats.

This has an important bearing on many of the divisive medical-ethical issues of our time, such as contraception, abortion, cloning, and embryonic stem cell research. More, it extends beyond these to encompass even the most mundane matters of medical practice. Let us take but a single example: Contraception (namely, the “birth control pill”).

The discovery of hormones must have been a complicated and messy process, the final result of which was the understanding that minute amounts of certain chemical messengers were needed to regulate, among other things, the physiological processes of ovulation, conception, and gestation. In order to make these discoveries, many animal experiments needed to be done. Animals were surgically mutilated. Animals and their parts were ground up and put through various chemical fractioning mechanisms. The resulting fractions were injected into other animals and the results catalogued. Finally, these chemicals were synthesized and incorporated into medications, and these too were tested on animals. Is there anyone who believes that the methods employed here did not influence the researchers’ objectives? After realizing their capacity to manipulate animal life at a fundamental level, how could they then not turn their eye to the manipulation of human life as though it were some vast experiment?

I submit that this is exactly how our culture came to embrace the techniques of hormonal contraception, true fruit of the eugenics movement and its concomitant social dysfunctions. Before one can begin to contemplate such things, the human body must be reduced to mere material, to a set of endocrinological processes considered apart from their integration into a person. From there, it is but a small step to eliminating the person entirely from the field of view, and to looking upon the processes themselves as key. With that, self-styled elites rise up who would fain manage the glandular output of humanity in accordance with “scientific” social ends. I doubt not that many a modern liberal looks upon third-worlders, inner-city minorities, and teenagers as “bundles of hormones” upon whom they would lavish contraception in the belief that it would improve their condition, or perhaps even as mere entertainment.

There are some who would object to this, saying (and presuming for argument’s sake that we all believe contraception to be wrong) that the step from animal testing to human implementation is not obvious, and that there is somewhere a moral barrier that has broken down. I disagree, for metaphysics and epistemology precedes morality in the order of understanding. If we cannot define what a person is, we cannot know when we are doing right or wrong by him. Martin Heidegger once wrote that the Nazi Holocaust was the result of the application of the principles of modern agronomy to the problems of population management. Many would consider this a cop-out, but I happen to think his was one of the few analyses that actually addressed the hidden dimension of the problem. It was not only morality that failed, but method. The perfect cure requires not only a good will towards one’s neighbor, but “releasement” from the thought-forms of modernity, under the auspices of which we have no neighbor, but only social atoms.

Animal testing has contributed to this epistemic catastrophe. Perhaps it therefore ought to be reconsidered. I still maintain that this is a novel approach to the question, even though the idea of human beings as pitiful lab rats is a familiar enough trope in modern social satire. Hitherto we have been using those images as mere metaphors. The novelty is the shocking understanding that the metaphor has now become the literal truth.

Monday, May 11, 2009

More on Weigel and Bottum

The most recent episode of EWTN’s The World Over Live featured a long segment (more than half the program, actually) dedicated to the memory of Fr. Richard John Neuhaus. Joseph Bottum and George Weigel, respectively the new captain and quartermaster of Neuhaus’ literary legacy, First Things magazine, were present as honored guests. Ostensibly the topic under consideration was American Babylon, Neuhaus’ final and posthumously publish book; but that book, being as it was a collection of previously published essays and retrospectives spanning a long career of cultural commentary, readily induces a Talmudic caste of mind in literary men already wont to offer their opinions at the slightest provocation, and under its influence the discussion eventually uncoiled into a mishmash of philosophical abstractions and rococo-maudlin bizarrerie. Central to their meandering parley was the concept of tension as experienced by one who affirms both a Christian and an American identity, out of the fiery depths of which Fr. Neuhaus believed it was possible to forge an optimal version of human existence.

I’ll admit that over the last few days I’ve begun to think that some of my recent criticisms of Fr. Neuhaus were unduly harsh. Such a beloved figure, a man so universally admired and appreciated, and here I was, an upstart like me, daring to flaunt my misgivings about him when I’m sure I couldn’t hold a candle to his knowledge, to say nothing of his years of service! Just who did I think I was? When I heard that Fr. Neuhaus was to be the subject of the next broadcast, I made a point of watching the program with the express purpose of gathering material to refute my earlier point of view, arming myself for what I was certain must needs be a grandiloquent and publicly delivered mea culpa. The material never came, however. I emerged from the viewing experience with the unwelcome conviction that in essence my criticisms had been just. Neuhaus’ conception of America as an “almost chosen nation” (at least as it was presented by Weigel and Bottum) seemed like a heady idea to me, flush with the lusty rat-a-tat-tats of a Henry Steele Commager and even the sappy panegyrics of a Walt Whitman. This is all fine in the main, I suppose; but any attempt to weave together the threads of America’s self-conceived political destiny with the substance of the believer’s identity in Christ strikes me as an ill-advised compromise, for the simple reason that it tends to prevent the very thing it is trying to achieve: the right ordering of loyalties and the proper love of one’s country.

Now, my own thinking on the matter remains, I hope, decidedly unchallenging to the plain sense of Scripture: love the Lord your God with your whole heart, mind, soul, and strength (and your neighbor as yourself), and then you will be able to love your country as you would love your mother—that is, as the concrete being who nurtured you and to whom you owe a special kind of allegiance—without getting too persnickety about the details of its interior constitution. The chimerical association of America with Christianity, implying in this case that the country founded on a strong commitment to the free expression of ideas also functions as a particularly good, if not unique, vessel for the attainment of Christian culture—in short everything implied by that alarming theme of almost chosenness—makes continuous threats to destroy my happy hamlet with its uncomfortable admixture of political desirables and religious passion; but that is not how Weigel and Bottum see things. I can almost imagine them quoting with glassy-eyed satisfaction that all too often misused line of Chesterton’s, viz. “America is the only nation with the soul of a church,” without mentioning that, viewed in context, Chesterton makes it quite clear that he in no wise considered this to be an unmitigated advantage. Alexis de Tocqueville, who wrote more extensively on the subject, was of the same opinion. In comparison with these two great figures (and especially with the latter), as renowned as they are for their wisdom and foresight, Weigel and Bottum seem to be crippled by a very unhealthy attachment to the present moment and its transient debates. A hermeneutic of American exceptionalism and culture warriorship permeates their analysis of theological questions, creating in my mind the suspicion that, perhaps without expressly willing it, they would nevertheless see the Church and all her transcendent treasures pressed merely into the service of some more passing temporal agenda. I will have more to say below about why this occurs and how to correct it; but first I wish to sketch my impressions of the personal demeanors of these two men, for character is revealed in the physiognomy much more than in the words, and thus we will have a better indication of just who it is we’re dealing with.

Concerning George Weigel I have spoken before. The overriding visual impression he gives is that of an oaf. Large, protruding ears frame a neotenous face topped by a tuft of thickish black hair. All in all, he reminds me of nothing so much as the textureless, milk-fed suburbanite specimens I chanced to meet during my days at engineering school. But these slight physical limitations would have been easily overcome by the presence of a winning personality; however, it is in this very respect that Weigel falls decidedly flat. His preferred style of discourse is to drone on in monotone while leaning over the desk, raising the volume of his voice in order to win out in those awkward moments when two speakers are vying for the conversational space. There is a relaxed, overly self-confident slurring and sputtering quality to his speech, as if what he had to say were so important that he need not trouble himself to form actual words; his mere telepathic prowess is sufficient to drive concepts home into the listener’s head. Weigel belongs solidly in the neoconservative wing of the Catholic lay commentariat, having always been a defender of the Iraq War, of religious liberties, and of Vatican II (and “the spirit of Vatican II,” whatever that means). In fact, he’s just the sort of person who would feel very much at home in the WASP establishment; only the Protestant “P” doesn’t apply in his case and “WASC” is not nearly so tidy an acronym. He is perhaps best known for his massive book Witness to Hope: The Biography of John Paul II. Such book I am tempted to deride as hagiographic, but one must puzzle over the irony of using “hagiography” as a term of derision when the subject of the book will in fact be canonized someday. The point at present is that it is an overly fawning, one-sided, and heavily processed account that alters the Pope’s views to make them conform to George Weigel’s preexistent political and theological conceptions. In writing it so, Weigel was simply following his larger pattern of presenting Catholic doctrine as if it were justification for his neoconservative outlook; and I suspect it is the latter wherein he has stored up his real treasures.

Joseph (AKA “Jody”) Bottum is an odd sort of fellow, to say the least. A mop of wiry brown hair sits like a wig atop his beady-eyed face, lending him an uptight countenance reminiscent of the character actor Jeffrey Jones. He speaks in long, hastily composed paragraphs that tend to wander around the topic like the incomputable geodesics of some verbal n-body problem. In this, he displays a tin ear for the cadences appropriate to televised conversation—in which dialogue must be kept pithy and wit is superior to exposition—which is tantamount to a lack of conversational shame: he seems unaware of the fact that the time he takes to tell a story is incommensurate with the value of the story he tells. There was a repetitious quality to his speech as well: familiar words, atavisms, and chunks of thought recycled from earlier passages kept sewing their way into his patchwork explanations, padding their length and confusing their content. In the midst of one particularly lengthy excursion, the camera could be seen cutting back to World Over Live host Raymond Arroyo, who was growing visibly agitated and anxious to wrest control back from the interminably verbose Mr. Bottum. To crown these interesting developments, once Bottum had satisfied himself that his lecture was over, he settled into his chair with a look of contentment and cocked his left arm back like a cobra, drawing his hand up to his shoulder in what I took to be his characteristic gesture of completion.

The low point of their discussion occurred after a caller enquired about the wisdom of advancing a constitutional amendment proclaiming Christ the King. What the caller’s actual question was we shall never know, for he was cut off in mid-sentence by Raymond Arroyo, who was no doubt feeling very squeezed for time after already enduring several of Bottum’s bottomless disquisitions. Weigel spoke “to the issue,” saying (in paraphrase) that “Fr. Neuhaus would have been steadfastly against any such proposal. It is unadvisable to grant congress the authority to declare the kingship of Christ in even a social or a metaphorical sense, for a legislature that had such authority could also do very unsavory things with it, like proclaiming, oh, Oprah Winfrey as queen. It is best to keep the state out of the church’s business; the arrangement hit upon by America is a pretty good way of doing things, and Fr. Neuhaus was keen on preserving it.”

What kind of men behave thus? What kind of men, when faced with the (admittedly hypothetical) opportunity of getting one of the tenants of their faith written into statutory law, respond by abrogating it in favor of some jejune concept of liberty and political minimalism? Not exactly men who have placed both body and soul in the service of their beliefs. It is one thing to understand that the church and the state have fundamentally different roles and that, for many practical purposes, they ought to stay out of one another’s way. It is quite another thing to say that liberty trumps truth in the political arena. A strong commitment to liberty becomes, in every question of gravity, simply a commitment to self-negation. If you’re going to believe in something, it is necessary to fight for it, to bring it to expression using whatever means present themselves (including political means), and to take the inevitable setbacks and tragedies as the price of doing business in a fallen world. The Oprah analogy sets up a false dichotomy: Weigel has abandoned the possibility of a concrete victory for the illusion of a security bought by keeping metaphysical questions underneath the government’s radar; but it is not enough to refuse to claim the scepter and to hope that no one else does so. If we do not fight for Christ, than Oprah may end up as queen anyway—by default, and unresisted. We are not far from that situation now.

Towards the end of the program, Weigel expressed some disquietude about the manner in which the Obama administration has justified its stance on the sanctity‑of‑life issues so important for the functioning of our society, not to mention dear to the heart of God and to the hearts of His people. In effect, the administration has been saying “We understand your concerns and we respect them, but we’re going to proceed with [say, funding embryonic stem-cell research] anyway.” Weigel says that we’ve never dealt with an opponent like this before: someone who listens to our objections, but then simply dismisses them with a smile and a pat on the head. May I suggest to Mr. Weigel that this is precisely what comes from disregarding the use of political tactics in the service of Church ends? Obama does this because he knows he can: the only army that can stop him has decided that fighting is passé. The Christian of today need not wonder idly what it must have been like to join the crusades like his ancestors did of old, for there are plenty of crusades to be fought right now; but much of the Church, including the episcopacy, has foregone the use of politics to achieve what it desires, because it doesn’t fall into line with the modern day notions of religion as a matter of conscience and the church as a Community of Nice People.

What has happened to the Church today? What does it need, really, to be revitalized? I submit that it needs fewer spokesmen like Weigel and Bottum. Religious culture is a vast topic—far to vast to tackle in a short essay—but the crux of the matter is that we moderns have lost any sense of what religion actually is. It has become intellectualized, bowdlerized, and most perniciously, laicized out of all contact with truth and reality. It is the laicizing tendency which I mean to address here. What gives Weigel and Bottum the authority to discourse as they do? Neither one of them has been ordained; neither one of them follows the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience. It is inevitable that profit motives and personal hobbyhorses figure into their theological triangulations. The vulgarization of the teaching function that properly belongs to holy offices has spread the message too thin and caused it to lose coherence, such that the community of believers can no longer be said to be “of one mind.” In fact, the Church has lost its character as a church, becoming merely an umbrella organization for a hodgepodge of disconsonant verities.

The apostolic priesthood was instituted in part to help combat this natural tendency, but as the power of the laity has increased, that of the priesthood has decreased. This is not to say that the mind of Christ, as it is communicated to us in the person of the priest, is no longer respected anymore, for that would simply be restating the ascendancy of the laity; it is to say that the priests, all too often, no longer communicate the mind of Christ. They have become excessively accommodating to a shadow Magisterium consisting mainly of laypersons—parish committees, diocesan bureaucracies, and secular intellectuals like Weigel and Bottum—who are well able to extort concessions from the Church due to the latter’s lack of political heft.

Truly addressing this problem will require us to completely reorganize how we think about religion in the context of modern life. It is important to remember that the individual members of the priesthood have been called out of the lay state and into a higher order of being. The priesthood is an estate, a vocation, a metaphysical reality that brings with it graces, powers, and responsibilities that simply aren’t accessible to the layperson. The priest is a jewel that must be placed in a proper setting, treated with respect and veneration by the entire society. It is they who should be delivering the decisive word on all matters of truth and faith. But this requires, in turn, that they elevate themselves to the dignity that their office demands, and begin to rule the cultural landscape with clarity and firmness. The laity, on the other hand, is much better served by being solidly under the care of a worthy priest than by attempting to make theological determinations for itself. The priest is the hand by which the layman grasps God, and is much more dependable than the fickle mind of man, beset by worldly cares. The best way for a layperson to come close to God is to cultivate strong sacramental and devotional practices, and commit himself to work and to family life. In this way, religion begins to work its way into the bloodstream, becoming a matter of culture and habit, and a sure guide to virtue. For the laymen who is not called to a special religious status, religion is best learned in the context of the family; which, formed under the hand of a holy priesthood, becomes the seedbed of future priests. Thus the religious and lay states support each other on their pilgrimage through this world.

It is true that certain laypeople, like St. Catherine of Sienna, have done work that none of the ordained clergy dared to do, and rose to become great doctors of the faith. But this was precisely because the Church was in a state of confusion at the time. When no priest can be found to do the work, God will raise up whomever is willing. I have described here the ordinary way of leading a religiously informed life, the sure way, the way most conducive to peace and harmony, the way that is gentlest on the human frame. It is not the way of the broadsides that so inflame contemporary discussion. It does not stand in need of commentary, and the subscription rates are decidedly cheap.

Sunday, May 10, 2009


It's raining here in Denver tonight; a welcome divergence from last year's Spring, which saw almost no rain at all. I was just now observing the earthworms crawling around in my yard, escaping to the surface after a rainstorm, as is their wont.

Several competing hypotheses have been advanced to explain this curious behavior. The first holds that rainwater percolating through the soil becomes enriched in carbon dioxide from the respiration of soil microorganisms. The carbon dioxide dissolves in the water, creating carbonic acid which the worms find irritating. But since the immediate soil surface pH is not likely to differ markedly from that just underneath the surface, this theory appears to me largely discredited.

A second, popularly held notion has it that the worms rise to the surface to breath, since the subterranean tunnels they would otherwise inhabit have become waterlogged by the rains, causing them to drown if they remain below. This too seems rather implausible to me. Earthworms do not have lungs; they breath by gaseous diffusion directly through their skin. They can in fact survive quite comfortably under water, provided the quantity of dissolved oxygen is sufficient to maintain cellular respiration. It's possible that, during a heavy thunderstorm, the in-falling rainwater displaces enough of the soil's natural porosity to render the air supply inadequate; but it's raining very lightly tonight, and in the highly aerated upper soil regions where they live, this seems an unlikely possibility.

The third hypothesis states that the worms are drawn out by the rhythmic vibrations of the raindrops impacting the soil. This is no doubt an atavistic trait shared with their cousins, Shai-Hulud, the great desert sandworms of Arrakis. But seriously, professional worm harvesters (yes, there is such a thing) regularly employ vibrations to lure worms from their underground hiding places. This is accomplished by wriggling a garden rake or other multi-pronged instrument against the ground. A good worm hunter can gather an entire bucket of worms in a few hours this way, without a single drop of rain having fallen.

But there still remains to be explained why the worms behave in this fashion. I believe they are simply taking advantage of the wet conditions in order to get out of the house and move around for a while. Worms die quickly if they are exposed to sunlight or dry conditions. Thus, a nice damp night is the perfect time to hit the town, scout out some new territory, and scope out the ladies. Well, earthworms are hermaphroditic, so they can't really avoid finding the ladies; but then again, they can't avoid finding the gentlemen, either. All they have to worry about is finding another worm. This androgynous sex life ensures that mating opportunities are frequent, if not exactly enjoyable by our standards.

When we look at life in its simpler manifestations, we see how little it differs from the inorganic processes of geochemistry. The worm doesn't merely inhabit the soil; it is the soil, modulated and stabilized into this form by long eons of experience. The worm's boundless appetite for leaf litter and clay particles, its impressive faculty of digestion, its slow, dream-like pulsations propelling it through the abyss of night, these are nothing more than the mighty rotations of the earth, the timeless beating of wind and rain upon the rocks, the deep and pregnant rumblings of the planet that thrust up the mountain ranges and cleave the ocean basins, all intensified and focused and united into a gestalt. A will speaks forth out of the bare earth, a will to exist and to eat, a will to mate with like flesh and perpetuate the form. It bespeaks of a cosmic mind impelling the unfolding of the world through endless ages of ages. Soil has found a voice, and that voice says "I am Worm."

Each one of these miserable lives is a microcosm of creation, with drama and tragedy of its own. They are wasted by the millions, they go down like stalks of wheat before the thresher, but they endure. In this we see the way of all flesh: Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return. Every living organism, every plant and animal and single cell, is a seed planted by the Creator in the deep structure of existence, destined to arise and bear fruit at its appointed time, and then to yield itself up to eternity. Out of this churning mass springs forth the frame of nature, painfully beautiful and severe. The flesh has its requirements; it must do what it must do. But all things are ennobled by the struggle, and we need only play our roles and play them well.

The human race is unique, for here mere flesh is elevated to the rank of spiritual dignity. In the Incarnation we learn that God himself has received our flesh into His heavenly abode, and in turn imparted us with something of His own nature. Our bodies, dust though they are, will nevertheless accompany our souls into eternity. Humanity is the bridge between heaven and earth, at once the crown of nature and the dwelling place of nature's God. Could it possibly be otherwise? The abstractions of philosophers, the force-gods of the pagans, these lend no hope for man as such in eternity. Salvation could only come, has come, through the Son of Man. Without Him we are nothing but weak worms of the dust.

Just take my word for it, and never mind that wikipedia article.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Bodies and Souls

Edward Feser's most recent blog post is called Act and Potency; well worth the reading. The comments section has generated a couple of questions which I actually dared to try and answer. I hope Feser doesn't mind; and I hope his own answer, when it comes, will in some sense corroborate mine, so I'll know that I'm headed in the right direction. There were two questions I tackled in my post, the relevant portions of which I'll reproduce here. First up, the poster "Crude" asks:

I do have one question. How does this approach work when it comes to, say, genetically modifying plants or animals? For instance, there are rabbits that have been genetically modified to glow in the dark. Would this be in its own unique class /not 'filed' here? Would it be a first potentiality (assuming such a modification could be made while the creature is still living)? Something else?
Meanwhile, a little futher down the thread, Chen-Song asks:

Hi Professor Feser, thanks for another interesting post. I have a similar question to Crude, but even more far-reaching. For the genetic modification of rabbits, what if the rabbits are modified (say with human DNA) such that they can think like humans? I know that in this case the rabbit probably can't be called "rabbit" anymore, and is some sort of chimera, but how can that be explained in terms of act/potency?

There is a related issue I ran into a while ago: Someone posed a thought experiment about a dead brainless corpse getting fitted with a brain by a mad scientist. If the "mad science" works and the corpse is alive and thinking again, does that mean the brainless corpse had the potential to be alive? Or did the potential really somehow belong to the transplanted brain?

I have responded as follows:

Crude and Chen-Song,

Here's my two cents. Firstly, by inserting a gene into a rabbit's genome that causes it to glow in the dark (or inserting the Bt gene into a corn plant to make it pest-resistant, or whatever), we have simply appended an "accident" to its essential being. It is not really any different than receiving a tattoo or ingesting an oral fungicide; it's just accomplished using a more round-about method.

This is one good reason why genetic reductionism simply will not work. My genome is no more "essential" to me than my left arm. The disruption of my genome would be akin to the amputation of a limb: undesirable yes, but powerless to effect my essential being.

I think the confusion arises from three sources. First, the presence of an intact and functioning genome is necessary for the developmental actualization of every organism. A defect in this regard leads to rather obvious disfigurements and diseases, so it's easy to elide the distinction between "essential being" and "intact genome" if we are not fortified against this error by the rejection of genetic reductionism.

Second, because the processes of molecular biology occur beneath our level of sensory awareness and most of it is unknown to us, we imagine it to be some sort of black box which we mistakenly equate with the unseen three dimensional figures who cause the shadows to move in Plato's cave. This is what we might call "incomplete idealism."

Third, the hyped media reports of the successes achieved in genetic engineering play to the deep-seated Cartesionism with which we moderns are all infected, leading us to believe that intrinsic changes were wrought in the essential beings of plants and animals when in fact no such thing has occured. We must take the time to untangle the philosophy and the methodology of these cases before simply accepting the truth value of such statements as "Scientists Unlock the Secret of Aggressive Behavior," or some other such nonsense.

As for human-animal chimeras, the basic hylemorphic position is that human cells, or human DNA, integrated into the organism of a rabbit would subsist virtually in the rabbit, and hence would be 100% part of the rabbit not part of any human. If rabbits, or some other animal, were refitted with human brains, this would not suffice to make them rational animals; they would still be mere animals sporting human tissue.

In order to understand the case of the corpse, let's change the organs in the thought experiment. A heartless corpse certainly has the potential to live again if it received a timely heart transplant. Does the potential exist in the transplanted heart or in the heartless body? Actually it exists in neither, but only in the substantial form "human being," which requires a certain minimally intact body to actualize itself. The heart in question need not even be an organic heart, but might be a mechanical prosthesis. The same could be said of the brain. Some type of organ or device is needed to govern the body's basic metabolic and endocrinological functions so that it does not succumb to disintegration, but this need not be a brain as we usually understand the term. Thinking, on the other hand, is an activity that belongs to the soul, not to the brain. The basic fallacy here is the Cartesian notion that the brain is the ghost in the machine, the seat of consciousness inhabiting otherwise inert matter.

We would do well to remember here Leibniz's admonishment that human beings are not really born and do not really die. Their souls are created by God to be the rational form of their bodies,and are multiplied as bodies are mulitplied; but the soul remains immortal once created, is seperated from the body at death, and will one day be reunited to it. The body is "alive" only by virtue of the soul and not through some mysterious power of its own.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

More torture at What's Wrong with the World

Jeff Martin (Maximos) at What's Wrong with the World believes the political right is careening into Unseen Chasms of Perdition over the waterboarding issue. I have begged to differ:


It seems to me you employ a great deal of purple prose in order to lay out a very simple thesis: so-called "social conservatives" are leaving the political right over the torture issue. When stated so simply, is the thesis true? Is it relevant? Does it make any difference?

I answer "no" to all the above. Anyone who would abandon genuine conservatism, the great treasury of tradition and metaphysical verity, over something as minor as this, must not understand what conservatism is really about; and must, frankly, have been looking for an excuse to leave. Sorry, I don't buy the "torture pushed me out of the party" line; nor do I believe that waterboarding and abortion are similar enough to warrant mutual inclusion under the generic heading, "dignity of life issues."

But if the social conservatives whom you speak about are so concerned about eliminating both - fine. Let them leave the political right. Let them become conservative Democrats, if that's their fancy. They will enjoy the company of Colin Powell, Scott McClellan, and Christopher Buckley; but I wouldn't expect even vestigial traces of their erstwhile conservatism to survive for very long in that acid bath.

Should the political right really care if they go? Should they fear the diminished (and doubtful, and at any rate temporary) probability of electoral success that may result from not having these clowns in the party? Not at all. We stand for a body of truth and ideas that we proclaim both in season and out of season; truths that will ultimately carry the day because they issue from the wellspring of life itself.

By all means, go off and enjoy it. Comfort yourselves with the nostrum that you've rigorously adhered to principle (we all know it was just an expedient for expressing sour grapes). The political right will still be here when your little fad has run out of gas. We'll even take you back when you come to your senses. We'll be more than happy to overlook your transgressions and restore your reputation. We're like that; we're the forgiving sort.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Open letter to Mark Shea (quoted from What's Wrong with the World)

I now see that our redoubtable Mark Shea has tried to mix it up with Dr. Feser himself at What's Wrong with the World. Here is my latest letter to him, as quoted from that site.

Mark Shea wrote:

"I was quite sincere in my apology, as I am in my understanding that you seem to be completely baffled about what torture is. I'm sorry you refuse to grant forgiveness, but my conscience is quite clear so I won't worry about it any further."

If you would have confined yourself to making statements about what your own conscience tells you, then everyone would have agreed that your private opinion is quite respectable and no one would have bothered you about it. But you claim that your views are backed up by fully authoritative Church teachings, so that everyone who has a different take on the matter is either ignorant of the teachings or guilty of a sin. This is wrong. The argument made by folks like me, Dr. Feser, Francis Beckwith, and many others has met the burden of proving that the real situation is not that simple.

As you've stated above, your principle reason for banging this drum so loudly seems to be a deep-seated fear that once the state is "allowed" to torture anybody, nothing will prevent it from torturing you, your relations, practicing Christians, and anybody else whom it finds unsavory. In this you are in need not so much of a lesson in moral theology but of an awareness of Oswald Spengler's distinction between truth and facts. Positive law does not by itself restrain what an agent, and especially a state, is able to do. If it did, there would be no crimes, no criminals, no treaty violations, no political revolutions, no regime changes, not now or ever. We would all live in Immanuel Kant's republic, which, through the perfection of reason, is suitable even for devils. The reality is that while positive law places de jure restrictions on the behavior of individuals and governments, their de facto capabilities are limited by nothing but the exhaustion of their power. To make a long story short, a proscription against "torture," as you define it, would in no wise prevent it from happening anyway, as you must admit if you believe both A) That the U.S. has tortured detainees and B) That the Church, federal law, and international law has already forbidden this. In other words, you are in danger of that which you fear. There is a certain irreducible risk that you will suffer torture in this life no matter what anybody has to say about it. Welcome to the Valley of Tears.

By the way, I've noticed that you've made some attempt to refine your style when dealing with a worthy opponent like Dr. Feser. You were rather less kind to me on your blog, as I've taken care to document. Apparently you think I am someone who can be dismissed with nothing more than cheap rhetoric and slander, someone to whom it is not necessary to afford even the pretense of a charitable argument. I shall not forget that, and I will take appropriate measures should I need to correspond with you in the future.

Now, changing the subject. For a definition that can distinguish between the normative and non-normative uses of the word "torture," I propose something like the following: Torture (the intrinsically immoral kind) occurs whenever the subject suffers or has reason to fear the arbitrary use of power directed against him, or power directed against him incommensurate with his crimes. This obviously includes all cases wherein the punisher does not have the lawful authority to inflict the punishment. It also includes any sort of sadistic abuse doled out for the sake of thrills. It precludes any claim of torture on the part of a guilty person, so long as there is positive law stipulating what sort of punishments may be meted out for what offenses, and if the punishment was administered accordingly.

I've always been fond of Frank Herbert's dictum, "Thou shalt not disfigure the soul." It seems to sum up the thrust of all genuine morality rather nicely, and could be useful as a practical rule of thumb for both diagnosing crime and assigning punishment.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Waxing Personal

My friend Hans at The Long View, engaged as we are in a discussion about the definition and merits of conservatism, was very kind to ask me about myself:

If you don't mind a personal question, do you have a family (i.e. wife and children)?

No, I certainly don't mind a personal question. Actually, I'm glad you asked. Sometimes waxing personal is the only way to explain oneself.

I do not have a wife or children, nor would I be able to care for any in my current circumstances (hopefully soon I will). I'm 28 years old and I live sparingly, finally trying to finish up a university degree, the first half of which was spread out over 10 years and 3 different institutions.

I realize that many of the opinions I've expressed here these last two years may seem to have little to distinguish them from adolescent anarchism, but there are some reasons for that.

1. No doubt some if it was adolescent anarchism, and even I won't stand by everything I've ever written.

2. Since most of my learning is the product of my own undirected reading, it lacks both the adjustment that would have resulted from application to real-life situations and the refinement born of a scholarly atmosphere. I admit I get very emotional about these things.

3. Finally and most importantly, it would seem that, due to my station in life, much of the debate regarding the finer points of culture, politics, and economics, including much of the discussion occuring here at The Long View, is taking place at a level that is "over my head," so to speak. I mean by this not that it is beyond my comprehension, but that it seldom reaches down to effect me personally. I'm watching a battle between titans, and my opinion is really little more than a bet placed on which titan will win. I may win or lose the bet, but either way I was not really a part of the battle.

This sense of anomie no doubt accounts for much of my cynicism regarding contemporary culture. I don't really belong to it, after all. Nevertheless, my reasons for making my "bets" remain entirely genuine. Sure, there is also the desire to show myself approved, to show how smart I can be, to prove that I have honed my skills as a cultural critic and diagnostician, perhaps even one day ascending to the level of the formidable John Reilly! But there is also the fact that I really do care about the world, and that may yet triumph over all. Even the dogs may eat of the crumbs that fall from the children's table.

This goes to your point about Solzhenitsyn. I am a knight, but a poor one. An unhorsed knight lacking steed or armor, defending with self-deprecation an inner nobility that I cannot outwardly display. Although I may slip into contemporary idioms from time to time, although a wild temptation may occasionally spur me to "take up sides" in some partisan debate (especially when I'm earnestly trying to understand it), my opinions come directly from the heart. I shill for nobody, and I harbor little respect for those who do, even if by coincidence I happen to agree with them.


Hans, speaking of Solzhenitsyn, also had this to say:

That is the position of a true fighter for justice. Unfortunately, conservative politics now seem to be where left politics were in the 70s - people don't care about ethics and truth any more, it's all about spin and positioning.

I will try to correct this for you by doing my best to live and to fight as an honest conservative; more, as an honest Catholic. You are right to demand as much.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Getting bashed by Mark Shea

Mark Shea, a prolific and well-known Catholic author and a man I erstwhile admired, has for some strange reason decided to slander me in a recent post on his blog after I politely disagreed with him regarding America's treatment of detainees captured while prosecuting the War on Terror. Mark insists that these detainees have been tortured, and further insists that such torture is always and everywhere wrong, and actively condemned by the teaching magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church. As many of you know who have been following Mark's blog, he has been banging away at this with impressive frequency for quite some time. His responses to commentators who present reasonable and well-argued criticisms of his views have not always been gentlemanly, as the following post will show.

This dust-up started when I posted what I took to be a polite, mild opposition to Mark’s views on torture (and the applicability of the Church’s teachings regarding torture to the current circumstances), in which I pointed out that Fr. Sirico of The Acton Institute was on the record disagreeing with Mark’s stated position. The exchange that followed between Mark, myself, and several other followers of his blog is indicative, I believe, a rather narrow and uncharitable caste of mind on their part. Mark himself acted in a manner ill befitting a public figure of his stature. I have collated and annotated that exchange, and attempted to reproduce it here in as logical an order as possible, consisting as it does of various comments and quotations strewn throughout several posts on Mr. Shea’s website, to which I will provide links so that they may be viewed in context. First up, my original comment to Mark which occasioned the exchange:

Hello Mr. Shea,

I have seen you perform as Innocent Smith on EWTN, and I belong to my local Chesterton society (Denver). I've just started coming to your blog and perusing your quite extensive and informative writings, so I regret that my first comment here must be one of mild opposition.

While I fully agree with the statements made about the political divide within the Church, abortion and punitive interrogation practices do not share a parity of wrongness. I have a few brief words to say about this torture debate which I hope will help settle the issue.

First of all, it is all only rumor and gossip at this point. Nobody accept the prisoners and the interrogators know what really happened inside those prisons, and there is no wisdom in everybody going off half cocked.

Secondly, I was very pleased to see that Fr. Sirico of The Acton Institute granted an interview on EWTN's The World Over Live last Friday night in which he refused to condemn waterboarding as torture. Fr. Sirico recognizes that any statement of his which denounced Bush & Co. as being in violation of the moral law would be seen as him lending his pastoral support to a certain pacifist interpretation of Catholic social doctrine, which would not only hinder our country in dealing with its foreign policy challenges, but would throw fuel on the flames of a partisan divide such that the side least likely to advance a genuine moral agenda would reap the net advantage. This conflict is dividing the Church, sadly, into many subversive or misguidedly pacifist Catholics on one side, many pseudo-tough Mel Gibson-like "conservative" Catholic charlatans on the other, with hotheads on each side arrogantly approriating for themselves the title of "magisterium of the day." Since my concern is for the integrity of the Church, the leavening of the world, and the protection of the country (in that order), I can only applaud Fr. Sirico's suave handling of the question, in which he effectively told the blogosphere to "mind its own business."

To simultaneously insist upon the broadest definition of torture and the strictest application of moral proscriptions against it, during a time of war, accomplishes little more than the emboldening of enemies abroad, fifth columnists at home, and other less sordid political opposition in the opinion pages of the world. No state could function under that kind of scrutiny, which raises in my mind the suspicion that those who demand the impossible from the state are motivated not by the pure desire to see it conform to the image of Christ, but by some benighted instinct that the the entire eartly order of things is somehow ipso facto illegitimate. This cannot be squared with any proper understanding of Catholic social doctrine, but it remains a constant temptation within the religious life of man, for those who misunderstand the statement "my kingdom is not of this world."

End of first Letter.

To this rather innocuous dissention Mark Shea decided to respond with a slanderous post, not in the comment boxes, but on his regular blog, in which he both grossly misrepresented my positions and accused me of certain grave sins against the Church. The name of that post is Boy, do I get sick of having to say the same stuff over and over. Well Mark, nobody said you had to say anything. Did I strike a nerve, perhaps? The complete post, including his quotations of me, is reproduced below:

A reader wries:

Hello Mr. Shea,


I have seen you perform as Innocent Smith on EWTN, and I belong to my local Chesterton society (Denver). I've just started coming to your blog and perusing your quite extensive and informative writings, so I regret that my first comment here must be one of mild opposition.

Your regret is nothing compared to mine, now that I've read what you have to say.

While I fully agree with the statements made about the political divide within the Church, abortion and punitive interrogation practices do not share a parity of wrongness. I have a few brief words to say about this torture debate which I hope will help settle the issue.

A) I do not claim a "parity of wrongness". I think such attempts to parse "which grave evil is more evil" debates are fruitless and stupid. I simply point out that Holy Mother Church tells us in Veritatis Splendor and in the Catechism that both torture (what you call "punitive interrogation techniques") and abortion are gravely and intrinsically evil. That's why we are instructed:

"In carrying out investigations, the regulation against the use of torture, even in the case of serious crimes, must be strictly observed: 'Christ's disciple refuses every recourse to such methods, which nothing could justify and in which the dignity of man is as much debased in his torturer as in the torturer's victim'. International juridical instruments concerning human rights correctly indicate a prohibition against torture as a principle which cannot be contravened under any circumstances." -- Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, n 404

The internal quotation is from the 15 June 1982 address to the International Committee of the Red Cross by Pope John Paul II (available in French and Italian at

First of all, it is all only rumor and gossip at this point. Nobody accept the prisoners and the interrogators know what really happened inside those prisons, and there is no wisdom in everybody going off half cocked.

No. It is not. It is abundantly documented fact, including (but by no means limited to) pictures of corpses, reliable accounts of how they got to be corpses (and of Administration protections for the CIA interrogator who tortured the victim to death), as well as documentaries chronicling horrors inflicted on prisoners.

Secondly, I was very pleased to see that Fr. Sirico of The Acton Institute granted an interview on EWTN's The World Over Live last Friday night in which he refused to condemn waterboarding as torture. Fr. Sirico recognizes that any statement of his which denounced Bush & Co. as being in violation of the moral law would be seen as him lending his pastoral support to a certain pacifist interpretation of Catholic social doctrine, which would not only hinder our country in dealing with its foreign policy challenges, but would throw fuel on the flames of a partisan divide such that the side least likely to advance a genuine moral agenda would reap the net advantage.

If that is what Fr. Sirico said, and if EWTN lets it go unchallenged, then shame on them. This is an elaboration of Peg Noonan's counsel to simply ignore grave evil. A refusal to condemn waterboarding as torture is not a quibble about definitions: it is participation in an obvious and grave evil. We have *executed* soldiers from other countries who waterboarded people. It's a preposterous falsehood to say that it's impossible to know if waterboarding somebody 183 times is torture. Tom Kreitzberg summarizes the ridiculous incoherence of Fr. Sirico's reported argument this way:

"I don't understand. Is the idea that Fr. Sirico thinks Bush & Co. violated the moral law, but he won't say so because that would make pacifists happy? Or that he doesn't think they violated the moral law, but he won't say so because of... some other reason? Or that he hasn't formed an opinion, because if he did then it might make pacifists happy?

"And whatever it is, this is very pleasing and applause-worthy?"

I hope somebody at EWTN wakes up.

This conflict is dividing the Church, sadly, into many subversive or misguidedly pacifist Catholics on one side, many pseudo-tough Mel Gibson-like "conservative" Catholic charlatans on the other, with hotheads on each side arrogantly approriating for themselves the title of "magisterium of the day." Since my concern is for the integrity of the Church, the leavening of the world, and the protection of the country (in that order), I can only applaud Fr. Sirico's suave handling of the question, in which he effectively told the blogosphere to "mind its own business."

This, being translated, appears to mean "Don't listen to the Magisterium, listen to Fr. Sirico." Here's the thing: Fr. Sirico's disastrous attempt to paper over grave and intrinsic evil (and your attempt to anoint that opinion as the Last Word of Holy Mother Church) is *exactly* describable as "'conservative' Catholic charlatans .... arrogantly approriating for themselves the title of 'magisterium of the day.'" The real Catholic Magisterium clearly teaches that torture is intrinsically and gravely immoral. Common international law (including US law), has treated waterboarding (among other tortures authorized by the Bush Administration) as torture. We even hanged people for it.

To simultaneously insist upon the broadest definition of torture and the strictest application of moral proscriptions against it, during a time of war, accomplishes little more than the emboldening of enemies abroad, fifth columnists at home, and other less sordid political opposition in the opinion pages of the world.

Actually, I have not insisted on the broadest definition of torture. I have typically confined my discussions to examples of torture which nobody in his five wits can deny are torture, such as waterboarding, cold cells, and strappado--all of them authorized by Bush. As to the rest of your argument, it basically means "People who authorize war crimes are above the law if I happen to approve of the war" or, more briefly, "Ignore the Church's teaching in ius in bello."

No state could function under that kind of scrutiny, which raises in my mind the suspicion that those who demand the impossible from the state are motivated not by the pure desire to see it conform to the image of Christ, but by some benighted instinct that the the entire eartly order of things is somehow ipso facto illegitimate. This cannot be squared with any proper understanding of Catholic social doctrine, but it remains a constant temptation within the religious life of man, for those who misunderstand the statement "my kingdom is not of this world."

And we finish with the sotto voce suggestion that "If you don't support war crimes, you may be an enemy of America" and the blasphemous invocation of Jesus as being all in favor of covering up grave evil.

Since you are a Chestertonian, try contemplating some of these sayings:We do not really want a religion that is right where we are right. What we want is a religion that is right where we are wrong.

[Note: Mark here proceeds to quote G. K. Chesterton to me, but I will omit those quotations for the present. He resumes his invictive against me by plainly stating that I meant something other than what I said.]

Oh! Says the torture defender, "Did I say 'punitive'? I meant "enhanced". We aren't doing this to punish, but purely to obtain information".

[Finally, he outright accuses me of betraying the Lord Jesus.]

Here's your 30 pieces of silver.

End of Mark Shea's response.

Obviously I could not let this slander stand unchallenged, so wrote back once again to correct this injustice:

Hello again Mr. Shea,

I agree with the sentiments expressed by poster Jeff above. If you feel like you are saying the same things over and over again, that may be because my comments were filtered into some preexistent perceptual category of yours to which you have a readymade response. As it stands, the straw man you attacked in your rather heated blog post directed against me has little to do with my actual arguments. You seem to think you know exactly what I am really saying and why I am saying it, but I will not allow words to be put into my mouth. I was not rude to you; I did nothing to merit such animosity. I respectfully disagreed with you while expressing admiration for your work and showing due deference to your blog and your opinions. Now I will take my stand against this slander.

MS: ”A) I do not claim a "parity of wrongness". I think such attempts to parse "which grave evil is more evil" debates are fruitless and stupid. I simply point out that Holy Mother Church tells us in Veritatis Splendor and in the Catechism that both torture (what you call "punitive interrogation techniques") and abortion are gravely and intrinsically evil.”

Actually, you did claim a parity of wrongness here in your post An Interesting Letter from North of the Border. You said: “…We can even manage that much without placing, as core values at the heart of our various parties, some practice or idea that is directly repugnant to natural law and revelation. With the Dems, it's the sacrament of abortion. With the Rubber Hose Right, it has become the sacrament of torture.”

Furthermore, such debates are by no means fruitless and stupid. I do not want to reprise the entire history of moral reasoning on this subject here, but suffice it to say that waterboarding a known terrorist strikes many people as somewhat less gravely disordered than murdering an unborn child. If you disagree with such people, that’s fine; but they are expressing a visceral response, hardly uncommon to basic humanity, deserving of thoughtful consideration, not dismissal as “fruitless and stupid.”

Finally, I have read Veritatis Splendor 80, and I don’t see that it has much to do with the matter under consideration. The portion of that document upon which you continuously rest your case (actually a quotation from Guadium et Spes) does not apply here. The fundamental question under consideration is sovereignty, not morality. The right to administer punishment, up to and including capital punishment, is a right that belongs intrinsically to any justly constituted authority and cannot be rescinded. It is not moral to tell the state that it cannot act like a state; Augustine, Aquinas, Bellarmine, Suarez, and other thinkers of the “just war” tradition have said as much.

MS: ”If that is what Fr. Sirico said, and if EWTN lets it go unchallenged, then shame on them. This is an elaboration of Peg Noonan's counsel to simply ignore grave evil. A refusal to condemn waterboarding as torture is not a quibble about definitions: it is participation in an obvious and grave evil.”

To be fair, Fr. Sirico also said that the Church’s default position is always to do no harm, but he was unwilling to apply the default position in this case. I believe he did so because he knew that A) we were talking about a sovereign act of war, not sadistic torturing for thrills, and B) he knew that strong condemnation of the practice at such a juncture would be interpreted as a political act in itself (a rather unhelpful one) as I have explained.

MS: ”This, being translated, appears to mean ‘Don't listen to the Magisterium, listen to Fr. Sirico.’”

That’s not at all what it means, and you know better than that. This is pure misrepresentation. I said that I agreed with Fr. Sirico’s handling of the situation; I did not impute any infallibility to his opinion. But while we’re on the subject, you would do well to remember that he is in fact a priest, and deserving of a bit more respect from you. But more importantly, you have accused me of saying “don’t listen to the Magisterium.” In effect, you have accused me of heresy. That is a very foul thing to do, and in this case wholly unjustified.

MS: ”Here's the thing: Fr. Sirico's disastrous attempt to paper over grave and intrinsic evil (and your attempt to anoint that opinion as the Last Word of Holy Mother Church)…”

I made no such attempt.

MS: “As to the rest of your argument, it basically means "People who authorize war crimes are above the law if I happen to approve of the war" or, more briefly, "Ignore the Church's teaching in ius in bello."”

My arguments are arguments about the nature of sovereign authority; they have nothing to do with whether or not I am personally in favor of the war. As it so happens, I was opposed to the Iraq war from the beginning on the grounds that it was financial ruinous, to which my postings on numerous internet fora will attest.

MS: “And we finish with the sotto voce suggestion that "If you don't support war crimes, you may be an enemy of America" and the blasphemous invocation of Jesus as being all in favor of covering up grave evil.”

This is ridiculous.

1. I am saying nothing of the kind.
2. I am not arguing specifically for America’s interests in the present conflict, but for America’s sovereignty.
3. Don’t ever accuse me of blasphemy again.
4. Would you not admit the possibility that Christ’s words are, from time to time, misinterpreted?

MS: ”One of the "vivid calculations of remote events" that should occupy the mind of every Catholic (and especially every Chestertonian) is what happens after you grant Caesar the power to torture people whom he regards as "extremists".”

But Caesar has the power to torture people whom he regards as extremists. No one needs to grant it to him. That’s why he’s Caesar, and he can do with his spoils what he will. Caesar stands at the pinnacle of earthy authority, and there is no merely temporal power outside of himself to check his directives. He must hold his decisions before his own conscience. That is that gravity and tragedy of being Caesar.

MS: ”Oh! Says the torture defender, "Did I say 'punitive'? I meant "enhanced". We aren't doing this to punish, but purely to obtain information".”

No, I said punitive and I meant punitive. Punishment is not inherently evil, as you seem to think.

MS: “Here's your 30 pieces of silver.”

As I said, never accuse me of blasphemy or heresy again.

End of my second response.

This all generated quite a firestorm of controversy on Shea's blog. The poster Jeremy asks me this:

Mr. Beck,
I infer from your reasoning that a state actor need not take moral considerations into account, only questions of sovereignty. Is that accurate?

To which I responded with the following post:


A state actor can and should take moral considerations into account, of course; but his freedom to act in accordance with what he believes to be in the best interests of the state should not be frustrated by temporal subordinates, whether these be courts, churches, or opposing political factions. Otherwise he is not a state actor at all, but subject, at least in part, to the will of these other bodies.

In every historical struggle of parliament against king the cry goes up that monarchy is pernicious, liberty must prevail, that the will of the people must be heard, and that merit should rule. But in fact, monarchy remains the sole legitimate and metaphysically preordained form of government, and the defenders of liberty want not to do away with it, but simply to exercise the monarchical powers for themselves. Governance has only one nature. Power is power; nothing changes that. This truth was brought to the high pitch of expression during the English Revolution when Oliver Cromwell proclaimed that "history has abolished the very name of king," but proceeded to act autocratically himself as Lord Protector.

Magnanimity requires strength; peace requires justice; liberty requires that the political culture of nation be "in form." Those who militate against, not this or that ruler, but order itself (the terrorists in this case) have committed the crime of high treason. They have forfeited their claim upon the mercy and beneficence of society. The just response to their behavior is that they be publicly and painfully put to death, although society may forgo its right to administer this justice if it considers it expedient not to. But to tell a state that it "doesn't have the right" to punish treason with death is to impugn its dignity as a state, and ultimately is a betrayal of all those who have sworn her allegiance or sought her protection.

This can not be moral. Not only is it not moral, it is dishonorable. It forces innocent victims to acquiesce in the suffering of wrongs without the possibility of redress. Human beings were not made for this sort of slavish existence. The very purpose of government, the very meaning behind the vesting of authority, is to serve as a bulwark against the possibility of ultimate dishonor. The state is the incarnation of justice on earth; he who rules, rules with permission of Almighty God and will render an account to Him. True, human rulers are very frail, and power is often abused, but the state as such must continue to exist. The alternative is mere slavery and darkness.

End of my third response.

This too failed to quiet my accusers, so I called upon the venerable Dr. Edward Feser to help me with my fourth and final reply:

As for the rest of you gentlemen, I will point out that Professor Edward Feser has written a series of three long blog posts treating of the legitimacy of the Iraq War in terms of traditional Just War theory, in which he incidentally examines the treatment of prisoners taken by us in that conflict. Here is the link to the second part, from which I quote the following relevant passages:

"There is also the question of how the U.S. has treated prisoners of war, though, and here many have alleged that the methods of interrogation that have been used are intrinsically immoral. Now there have undoubtedly been individual cases where prisoners have been unjustly abused. But that is bound to happen in any war to some extent, just as it is bound to happen in police work, and by itself it no more de-legitimizes the war as a whole than the occasional corrupt cop casts doubt on the legitimacy of having a police force. What really matters is whether the methods officially approved of and widely practiced are on the whole unjust.

"Here again, it seems clear that the tradition and the manuals support the conclusion that there is no violation of just war criteria. To be sure, the manuals – or at least the ones I have seen – do not specifically address the question of how prisoners of war may be interrogated. But they do nevertheless have much to say that is relevant, particularly in their treatment of the question of how ordinary criminals can legitimately be dealt with.

"So, for example, McHugh and Callan explicitly rule out “torture” as a legitimate way of punishing evildoers, and give as examples of torture “rack, thumb-screw, prolonged scourgings, etc.” (vol. II, p. 130). But they also allow that such “bodily harms” as “wounds, blows, restraint” and even “branding” are permissible as punishments for people known to be guilty of serious wrongdoing, as long as they are administered on “sufficient authority” (such as that of the state), for a “sufficient reason” (such as the “good of the public”), and so long as there is “moderation in the harm or pain inflicted” (pp. 129-130). Similarly, “mutilation is lawful by public authority in punishment of a criminal; for if the state has the right to inflict death for serious crime, much more has it the right to inflict the lesser punishment of mutilation” (p. 127). In short, while torture is always wrong, the manuals allow that under the right conditions such punishments as wounds, blows, restraint, and even branding and mutilation do not count as torture.

"Along the same lines, Prümmer’s Handbook of Moral Theology says that “since the State has the power to put the criminal to death, so it has the power for a sufficient reason to mutilate the criminal (v.g. by cutting off his hand) or to flog him” (p. 126). And Jone tells us that “corporal chastisement is lawful if done by, or with (at least tacit) consent of, competent superiors. Public authorities have this power over malefactors, as also parents over their children” (p. 144)

"If spanking a child can be morally permissible, then, it is hardly plausible to suggest that there is anything intrinsically immoral or contrary to human dignity in, say, slapping a known terrorist. And while my point here is certainly not to defend any particular case of alleged mistreatment of prisoners – much less to recommend the likes of mutilation, branding, or amputation as methods of interrogation – the manuals do clearly suggest that if a certain prisoner (Khalid Shaikh Mohammed or Saddam Hussein, say) is known to have engaged in seriously immoral behavior (e.g. terrorism or mass murder), then it can be justifiable to use rough methods in dealing with him. It is no good, then, piously to condemn as “torture” or as “violations of human dignity” the methods the U.S. has used in interrogating terrorists, since what counts as “torture” is part of what is at issue. And clearly, the tradition and the manuals, while sometimes condemning torture, also sometimes allow that some very harsh punishments indeed fall outside the scope of torture.

"It might still be objected that whether or not certain methods are intrinsically immoral, they ought not to be used because they are incompatible with the Geneva Conventions, or with some other international standard of lawful wartime conduct. But while the manuals hold that such international agreements ought in general to be respected, they also allow that “if they are repudiated by one side, they cease to bind the other, unless they are the subject of Natural law and justice” (Davis, p. 149; cf. also Fagothey, p. 578 ). In regard to reprisals against those who have committed acts that violate international law, McHugh and Callan hold that “if the act of the enemy is opposed only to international law [and not the natural law], it is not unlawful to use the same act against him, for, since he has broken faith, the treaty obligation no longer binds the other side” (vol. I, p. 573 ). Insofar as the tactics used by terrorists are violations of international law, then (not to mention the natural law), the United States has, according to the teaching of the manuals, no moral obligation to respect standards of international law in dealing with them (though of course it does have an obligation to respect the natural law)."

End of my last response.

Part One, Part Two, and Part Three of Edward Feser's essay on Just War theory are here provided for your reading pleasure. All who are interested in the legality of the Iraq War or American interrogation techniques are highly encouraged to take a look at them.