Friday, December 17, 2010

The Morals of the Mushroom Cloud

The topic of the atomic bombings of Japan, which closed the Second World War, cropped up with some friends a couple of times as the semester was ending. It is a subject that I have visited and revisited over the years, without knowing why: my personal links to Japan may have something to do with it. I find myself in a minority in adamantly rejecting the decision taken by our nation, but there are few things of which I am so absolutely convinced, as that this was a war crime.

It may seem academic even to discuss the matter. After all, the dead are dead and cannot be brought back to life by argument. However, I am persuaded that this act represented -- and represents for us, to the extent that we give it our approval -- a radical compromise with evil; and that cannot be permitted: not to Catholics, not to Christians, not to self-respecting human beings.

For we must always remember that it is not only the things we do which influence our souls; nor only the things we think. The actions of others influence us also, even if we neither directly assist nor suffer them; for the whole question of innocence is not simply question of what we have done, but what we would do -- how our souls have been shaped by thought, word, and deed, including our responses to the actions of others: keeping them out of our soul by opposition or welcoming them in by approval, rightly or wrongly. By giving something our approval, we involve ourselves in it -- not practically, but spiritually. And the spirit is too valuable a thing to be compromised. It is our very self.

The issue at hand is whether the U.S. was justified in using the atomic bomb on Japan as she did.

Now, the fact that this was a war-time act situates it in the territory of Just War Theory, a favorite topic of several Christian philosophers, beginning with St Augustine. One of the basic elements of Just War Theory (reiterated endlessly over the centuries, most recently in the Catechism of the Catholic Church) is that non-combatants are not to be touched. Hiroshima did include secondary military headquarters; however, both Hiroshima and Nagasaki were chosen as targets not although, but because they were both large urban centers -- in other words, the bombings would result in severe damage to the civilian population. Damage to non-combatants in these strikes was not collateral. It was intended. This, if we accept Just War Theory at all, is an atrocity. The Catechism has the following to say (without directly citing the events of 1945): "The Church and human reason both assert the permanent validity of the moral law during armed conflict. 'The mere fact that war has regrettably broken out does not mean that everything becomes licit between the warring parties.' Non-combatants, wounded soldiers, and prisoners must be respected and treated humanely. ... 'Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation'" (secs. 2312-2314, emphasis original).

This actually yields a surprisingly clear syllogism for our use:
1. All acts of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities, etc., are war crimes (Major Premise)
2. These acts of war (the atomic bombings) were directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities (Minor Premise); therefore
3. These acts of war were war crimes (Conclusion)
With which we have the syllogism Barbara in the first mode, for all you logic nerds out there. (I hope you are both well.)

I have only once heard or read an attempt to evade the charge that it was not really intended as an attack on civilians. Paul Fussell, in his essay "Thank God for the Atom Bomb," sets forth the argument that, days before Hiroshima, leaflets were dropped on the city warning people to get out. For this particular argument, I have approximately the same sympathy as with that of a murderer who defends himself by pointing out that he courteously sent death threats before carrying out the actual killing.

Defenders of the bombings may take several more reasonable tacks. One, favored by the more pragmatic, is that the bombings saved lives in the long run: because the war ended so shortly thereafter, unnumbered American soldiers survived it. Some, taking a more universal perspective, will point out that Japanese soldiers, and even Japanese civilians, were likewise saved from the attrition of a slow march into the heart of the Japanese Empire. I have heard more than once about the last-ditch machinations of the Japanese government to arm the elderly, the women, and the children in a final effort to defend the nation.

Which, in fairness, makes perfect sense in view of the Potsdam Declaration made by the Allies earlier that year. It was, in the view of the Japanese government, a rehash of the Cairo Declaration of 1943 (which it cited). It was the Cairo Declaration which required of Japan not simply surrender, but unconditional surrender. The alternative presented to the Empire was a full invasion, which, in the Allies' words, would mean "the inevitable and complete destruction of the Japanese armed forces and just as inevitably the utter devastation of the Japanese homeland." What country would not make plans to arm its people so that they could defend themselves against that kind of threat?

Here comes the joke, though. Note that the Cairo Declaration, and that of Potsdam which reaffirmed it, demanded an unconditional surrender. Anything less, any peace terms which might be offered by the Japanese Empire, were being rejected categorically. The joke is that one of the other essential elements of Just War Theory is that any war, to be just, must be fought only to reach peace. Being able to unconditionally impose one's own will upon the opposing side is not a prerequisite, and in fact is unjust if it obstructs a reasonable prospect of peace. It could theoretically be argued that only an unconditional surrender from Japan could possibly have resulted in peace; but that can scarcely be proven. It could also theoretically be argued that, by insisting upon an unconditional surrender -- which, aimed at Japan, was not prima facie a realistic demand -- the Allies themselves made it necessary (if indeed it was) to drop the atom bomb. I do admit that this joke is not particularly funny.

Going back to the argument that it saved lives, whether American or Japanese (for I cannot abide even to answer the stance that it saved American lives at the expense of Japanese, as if we were worth more than they), it can only be said that this is not true.

That is, American soldiers were prevented from dying in the Second World War, and went home -- to die anyway: from cancer, or after crossing organized crime, or when they were shipped out to the next wars in Korea and Vietnam, or fifty years later asleep in their beds. Everyone dies. We know that, if we let ourselves. Whether a person dies in war does not make a difference about whether they will die at some point: the rate still holds at one per person, 100% (with allowances for those assumed a la Elijah, or raised from the dead Lazarus-style). Whether a person dies in war does certainly make a difference to what sort of pain they and their families go through -- though, it must be said, not necessarily a negative difference. The man who died at Iwo Jima as a war hero is a source of family pride, when, had he come back, he would have been traumatized by his experiences, estranged himself from his family and friends, and drunk himself to death. An imagined storyline, of course. But so are all the speculations about what would have happened between the Allies and Japan if the atomic bombs had not been dropped.

In any event such an argument is hardly tenable among Christians. For what ultimately matters is not how or when a man dies, but that "it is appointed for a man to die once, and after that to face the judgment." And no man will be judged according to the manner in which he died; but we are solemnly warned, repeatedly, by our Lord Jesus Himself, that "the dead were judged according to what they had done." To die, innocent, is a happy death: a fate to be hoped for. To die, morally compromised, is to risk your soul -- perhaps, to be damned. Everyone is going to die; what we need to be concerned about is not avoiding it as long as possible, for that is to think the way the World does, but to die having traveled as close to Christ as we possibly can. And we can hardly expect to travel close to Christ if we not only practice injustice, but defend it as integrity.

I do not claim it easy to maintain moral clarity in the face of such questions as this. It is also, I admit, far easier to sit writing about Hiroshima on a netbook than to sling a gun on my back and sail off, very probably, to be killed on the coast of Honshu, or captured and horrifically tortured. But if we believe in the Four Last Things -- death; judgment; Heaven; Hell -- in any real sense, we have to maintain that moral clarity. I believe that any price is worth paying to preserve one's innocence -- not that I imagine that I would pay any price. I know for a fact that I would sell my innocence for a lentil stew, because I have, God only knows how many times. But is what I or anyone would actually do of any consequence? The question before us is not what we, in our stupidity, cowardice, or selfishness, would in fact do. It is what is right. It is a question of whether, objectively, our innocence is worth everything, not whether we would pay everything to keep it. And if we do believe in the Four Last Things, then we had damn well better believe that innocence is worth everything, because innocence (or rather, that innocence God bestows on us on repentance, forgiving our lack of it) means everlasting bliss, and guilt, obstinately defended, means everlasting torment.

Does this mean I would rather have seen Americans and Japanese fighting to the bitter end -- in Taiwan, China, Okinawa, in the very streets of Tokyo? A thousand times, yes. No one would want that for its own sake. But I would rather see good, honest, loyal American and Japanese men fall as soldiers, one of the noblest deaths afforded to our broken race, than see children's faces full of broken glass and pregnant women with their skin melted by radiation. For one soldier to kill another is, at least, within the possibilities of a just war, and the soldier stands a very good chance of going to his death, to the extent that this is possible for anybody, prepared. For soldiers to kill non-combatants -- well, we have a word for what Al-Qaeda soldiers do in killing American civilians, and it is not an attractive one.

As Christians, it is vitally necessary for us to have clear heads on this question. Remember, we are the salt of the earth -- i.e., something that is supposed to preserve, prevent things from going bad, by being extremely unlike the thing we are preserving, as unlike as salt is unlike meat. We must not absorb the assumptions and attitudes of the surrounding culture: for instance, that preserving physical life is worth every moral compromise, or that anything that brings a war to an end is ipso facto justifiable, or even (though of course we would not put it this way) that whatever we did must be right because we are America. When we do that, we cease to fulfill one of the chief functions for which God put us into society -- to be a beacon of light in the midst of darkness (and if the very light in us is darkness, how great is that darkness!), proclaiming the eternal and vivifying truths that right is more important than might, that the soul is journeying at all times to damnation or salvation, that the real root of peace lies in justice rather than military, political, or economic force. And if the salt hath lost its savor, wherewith shall it be seasoned? Or what is it good for, save to be thrown out, and trampled underfoot by men?

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Holy War, Holy Peace

Many Christians, within the Catholic Church and without it, have taken the position that all war -- or even all violence of any kind -- is wrong. Dorothy Day, whose cause for canonization has been opened, noted in The Long Loneliness that the Catholic Worker movement (which she founded together with Peter Maurin) was not only pacifist but anarchist. The pacifist viewpoint is gaining ground, whether in pure or more diluted forms, among Christians of the rising generation, partly perhaps because of the leftward swing that the churches in America are experiencing.

I was, and remain, highly sympathetic to the pacifist position. At present my eligibility for the military is a non-issue, due to being gay, but if and when the current policies are repealed I intend to apply for the status of a conscientious objector.

This is not because I am a pacifist. I am not. The Scriptures make it clear, in passages such as Romans 13, that the secular authorities have been established by God -- not, admittedly, with the same directness, the same purpose, or the same protection from the Holy Spirit afforded to the Church. The Church was founded by God Himself and continues to be indwelt, in the whole and in all her members, by that same God. This is not true of any state. Some regimes, Christian ones included, have made valiant attempts at theocracy: the Byzantine Empire, Tudor England, Calvinist Geneva, the Massachusetts Bay Colony. But that is as alien to the reality of Christian belief as every other sin that guises itself as an angel of light.

Yet I digress. The Bible states plainly that secular rulers, in their own capacity, are representatives of God -- not a revelatory sense, but in a practical sense. In order for life to function at all, there must be some practical restraint of human evil, some order, some justice in the practical and not merely the ideal realm.

Set apparently against this are such passages as "Do not resist an evil person ... turn the other cheek." And in the context of daily squabbles between villagers, which would probably have been to the fore in the minds of Jesus' original audience, that is exactly right (surprise). Every trace of resentment, of bitterness, of revengefulness, must be given no quarter by the Christian in his own heart. But Jesus gives no indication that He is here setting forth any political theory, and it would be pretty surprising if He did, given that politics was a subject He rarely addressed directly, except to say that thing so blasphemous to American conservatives even within the Church: "Pay your taxes."

The problem with rigorous pacifism -- that is, the rejection of all forms of violence as intrinsically wrong, or even simply as worse than any of the evils it would prevent -- is that it is, in this respect, actually inconsistent with Catholic teaching. For of course, to insist that the use of force is always wrong does not merely eliminate all possibility of a just war; it eliminates the possibility of a just government (how could there be policemen, or prison guards, or a justice system in general, or even laws?) -- thus bringing us from pacifism to anarchism. Nor could there be any sort of discipline in schools; so we proceed from political to educational anarchy. Nor, realistically, could any punishments be conducted by parents, if such punishments are morally worse than simply letting the child go its merry way. Strict pacifism thus lands us at a rather austere picture of humanity, in which neither government nor school nor family exist in any practical sense of the words -- and so, quite apart from making the Old Testament pretty startling unjust in every possible respect, putting one in mind of Hobbes' description of man's life without society: "Nasty, poor, brutish and short."

Some people would allow for internal violence, but say that it ought always to stop short of war. For convenience, this may be labeled the semi-pacifist position. This is rather attractive, but unfortunately it suffers the fatal flaw of inconsistency. If it is moral for a government, when necessary, to impede or even harm its own citizens to prevent them injuring others, why is it suddenly immoral for them to do the same to foreigners? Are the lives of its own citizens worth less? Is it butting into other countries' business by defending its own citizens?

Many semi-pacifists would doubtless point out that very few wars have ever been fought for strictly defensive reasons. That is true. That is why, in a rather vague sense, Christians should indeed be "anti-war"; most wars are wrong. There is, according to the consensus of Catholic theologians, such a thing as a just war, but its criteria are rarely met, for they are stringent:

1. They must be fought in self-defense. All aggressive wars are intrinsically unjust. Note that this contains a tacit acknowledgment of how horrible war is even int he act of saying it can be defended, for no just defense. can take place unless an unjust attack has already taken place. (Some would argue that this criterion should be read strictly, so that wars which claim to be pre-emptively defensive are disqualified.)

2. Every peaceful means of resolving the conflict must have been exhausted first. This may be because they have been tried and found wanting, or because they have been shown to be impractical or ineffective. (For example, the aggressor may offer to settle a conflict in return for a monetary payment, but if the country cannot afford such a payment, that particular peaceful means would be demonstrably impractical.)

3. The damage the aggressor will inflict must be lasting, grave, and certain. "Hitler is going to kill all the Jews" would meet these criteria; "Hitler is going to make us wear totally stupid clothes" would fall somewhat short.

4. The damage the aggressor would inflict must be worse than the damage the war will do. So, for instance, if the only practical means of keeping your country from being destroyed by an invasion is to destroy it yourself, the war would not be worth it, and would therefore be unjust even in self-defense (defending yourself by ceasing to have a self is not logically plausible, QED).

5. Hand in hand with that, there must be a serious prospect of success. If, let us say, Sealand (a pretend-nation in the North Atlantic, consisting -- quite literally -- in about six or seven people) were invaded by Great Britain, it would be unjust for Sealand to take up arms, because a serious prospect of beating Great Britain does not exist. France, sure.

6. Non-combatants must not be touched. This includes not only children and the elderly (and, in most cultures until recently, women), but even non-combatant military assistants, according to most formulations of Just War Theory. So, you can bomb an AA battery while it is manned, but not a munitions factory during working hours -- because munitions workers are not actually in combat.

There are a lot of elaborations of these principles -- the principle of proportionate force, for instance, which dictates that enough force and no more must be used to stop an attack (which raises serious doubts about whether atomic weapons can ever be justly used); or the principle of fighting for peace, which means that the conflict must be ended as soon as is reasonably possible -- neither side may, for instance, insist on an unconditional surrender (which the United States did with Japan in the Second World War; I understand that attempts to surrender conditionally on the part of the Japanese were turned down, simply on the grounds that it was not an unconditional surrender).

Obviously this knocks nearly, if not absolutely, every war off the 'eligible' list for just wars. And so the rigorous application of Just War Theory would mean an awful lot of conscientious objectors among Christians an awful lot of the time, which, to be frank, I contemplate with some pleasure. After all, can any government -- can our government -- be relied upon to lead us only into just wars?

That being said, any war which really met these criteria would, I think, be not only just, but even morally obligatory. Chesterton said it with greater clarity and succinctness than I could manage: "There is no inconsistency in loving men and fighting them, if we fight them fairly and for a good cause."

The wars that have been most attacked for injustice and wickedness in recent times are the Crusades. It is said that fighting a war for a religion is evil. But surely this is quite backwards. Fighting for power, for money, for pleasure: these are wicked wars. But fighting to defend what we believe is holy -- how could we respect ourselves if we refused to do that? Admittedly the wars called the Crusades were in some respects on shaky moral ground, though for rather different reasons (and far less so) than most people think, mostly in that there was really some imposition of Catholicism involved, not simply the defense of it. Admittedly the actual conduct of every war, the Crusades included, exhibits much injustice; a criticism that can be leveled at all human behavior. But a religion can almost be defined as that which we are willing to die to defend. That is why the martyr and the crusader are, in the eyes of historic Christianity, regarded so similarly; as in Dante's heaven, where the two species mingle in the glories of Mars, their own shed blood dyeing the planet red. Ultimately, the only war really worth fighting is the war to defend what we regard as holy.

Dim drums throbbing, in the hills half-heard,
Where only on a nameless throne a crownless prince has stirred;
Where, risen from a doubtful seat and half-attainted stall,
The last knight of Europe takes weapons from the wall;
The last and lingering troubadour to whom the bird has sung
That once went singing southward when all the world was young.
In that enormous silence, tiny and unafraid,
Comes up along a winding road the noise of the Crusade.
-- GKC, Lepanto 15-22

Saturday, November 6, 2010

A Matter of Conscience

A Man For All Seasons, originally a play and eventually made into an excellent film, is about the martyrdom of Sir Thomas More, the courageous chancellor of England who refused to cooperate with King Henry VIII's rape of the holy Church. This is a selection from the play; the Duke of Norfolk, Master Secretary Cromwell, and Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, are interrogating the imprisoned saint.

NORFOLK Oh, confound all this ... (With real dignity) I'm not a scholar, as Master Cromwell never tires of pointing out, and frankly I don't know whether the marriage was lawful or not. But damn it, Thomas, look at those names ... You know those men! Can't you do what I did, and come with us, for fellowship?

MORE (Moved) And when we stand before God, and you are sent to Paradise for doing according to your conscience, and I am damned for not doing according to mine, will you come with me, for fellowship?

CRANMER So those of us whose names are there are damned, Sir Thomas?

MORE I don't know, Your Grace. I have no window to look into another man's conscience. I condemn no one.

The ability to respect others' consciences, and to reverence one's own, seems sadly eroded nowadays. Of course, it may only be nostalgia that makes older periods seem any better; or it may equally be considerable exposure to authors like Chesterton or Lewis, who quite definitely had the power of respecting conscience in themselves and others, and may have been as exceptional in their own time as they would be today. But, whether it bloomed more fruitfully in the past or no, it is a skill which we have a responsibility to learn.

There are a thousand examples -- as, for instance, a dearly loved friend who wishes to become a missionary to Moslems, and also harbors a definite animosity for Muhammad. This is worrying to me, for it is questionable whether any meaningful dialogue, missionary or otherwise, can take place between any two people if one of them believes the other, or the other's beliefs, to be evil. There would be no need for dialogue unless one party thought the other wrong; but wrong is not the same thing as evil. Evil cannot be argued with like heresy, it can only be exorcised like a devil. And freelance exorcism is not always appreciated, nor notable for its success.

However, the point that I will take as exemplary for this post is the fact, much protested, that the Catholic Eucharist is a closed Eucharist. Walk into most Protestant services, and anyone may partake, provided that they are Bible-believers. Some churches regard even that restriction as excessive. But walk into a Catholic Mass, and you will likely find a note in the bulletin or missal asking that only Catholics in good standing partake of Communion. And this is exactly what the teaching and discipline of the Catholic Church declare and expect.

There are exceptions, which are usually made for those communities of Christians (for instance, the Eastern Orthodox) who are already known to believe in the Real Presence. But of course one cannot build a theology by relying on the exceptions; the norm must come first, and then the exceptions. But the same why underlies both, in this case as in theology generally, and that why is a matter of conscience.

But stop a moment. Conscience, like tolerance, is one of many god-terms in our culture. By god-term, I mean a term that resembles God: in that if you attach the term to something, that thing becomes inviolable; and in that the term itself is a counter for something that nobody understands. We are in need of a refresher on its real meaning. Conscience does not mean what we happen to feel like doing, although few would be so bone-headed as to actually say that. It does not even necessarily mean doing what we find morally comfortable. Some moral choices, though perhaps fewer than we would like to believe, are fraught with complexity, and there are some which genuinely ought to cause us discomfort even when we make the right choice. Corrie ten Boom, in her heart-wrenching autobiography The Hiding Place, recounts one such circumstance when she lied to Nazis in Holland: "Only as I walked out of the building did I begin to tremble. Not because, for the first time in my life, I had told a conscious lie. But because it had been so dreadfully easy."

To paraphrase several authors (including the 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church, sections 1776-1802), conscience is the capacity for discerning and acting upon what is right and wrong. This can often bring us out of our comfort zone, thereby risking our lives. In all seriousness, obedience to conscience can be highly painful, and the whole point of someone's being a martyr is that it can indeed cost you your life to obey your conscience.

This means that conscience is, or involves, three things. First, we have right and wrong as they really are, objectively, in the outside world; or, if you prefer your terminology Platonic-Augustinian-Berkeleyan (you nerd), in the mind of God. Second, we have the human faculty for discerning what that truth is. Third, we have the pressure exerted by the conscience upon the human will to do what is right and avoid what is wrong.

Note how this brings together the will and the intellect. Catholics speak often about formation of conscience. This sounds difficult to understand, but it simply means how well-trained our ability to perceive the truth about good and evil is. Someone who has been taught from childhood that sex outside marriage is perfectly all right, and believed it -- because, after all, the authorities have said so -- that person would be said to have a poorly formed conscience, at least with regard to chastity. They would believe things that are, in fact, erroneous. However, because their conscience was badly formed, they would be significantly less guilty for, say, fornication than someone who was properly trained about chastity. (This is not to say that they would escape all moral guilt by any means, particularly if they had the opportunity of correcting their conscience on their own initiative and failed to do so. Nor is it to say that they will escape the practical negative consequences of sexual immorality -- any more than a child who was never warned not to climb too high will escape the pain of falling down, despite the fact that they do not have the moral guilt of a child who was warned and did it anyway.)

In short, how responsible a man is for his actions depends, not only on whether he obeyed the pressure on his will to do what appears to be right, but upon his understanding of what is right, and where he got that understanding. St Thomas Aquinas justly carried this principle very far: if I recall accurately, he even taught that someone who, mistakenly but honestly, believed Christianity to be untrue, would be morally culpable for converting to it. The fact that what they did, considered externally as it were, was right, cuts no ice. They believed themselves to be doing wrong, and they are for that reason guilty; for the intention of offending God is always wrong, and is in fact the essential constituent part of the wrongness of every sin.

Now, let us plug that back into the example selected earlier, that of the closed Catholic Eucharist. Many Protestants are offended by this; I was at first, but when I considered it from their perspective that ceased.

The Catholic Church believes herself to be the one true Church, i.e., the sacramental manifestation of the Body of Christ. She is a sign of the Church, and, like the Eucharist, she also is what she signifies. This is why the Eucharist is normally reserved to Catholics.

But she resembles the Eucharist in another way. We do believe that, when the bread and wine are consecrated, they cease to be bread and wine and become Jesus Christ's body and blood, soul and divinity. No part of Him is missing. Yet His being is not exhausted by the rite. It is not the sort of thing that could be. It is not a material, of which we have only so many ounces; it is an identity, without number, weight, or measure. We do not have "less Jesus" if we receive a fractured Host or abstain from the Chalice. His whole self is totally present in every part of the matter; just as, though it may have a sort of interface with the brain in particular, your soul is not locally present in that one part of your body and absent from the others.

Likewise, though the Catholic Church is (we believe) the Church, it does not follow from this that those outside of the Catholic Church in a visible sense are outside of the Body of Christ. We cannot judge another person's reasons for being outside the visible Body of Christ, and therefore we do not presume to comment on their eternal destiny; man looketh on the outward appearance, but God upon the heart. Yet we are sternly warned by St Paul, in I Corinthians 11, that one who eats without discerning the Body and the Blood eats and drinks judgment upon himself. For this reason, he says, many among you are weak and sick, and some have died. As it is none of our business to comment on their immortality, so it is none of our business to risk their mortality. The state of a given non-Catholic Christian's conscience, with respect to the Catholic Church, may be positively spotless -- but how can we be asked to take responsibility for it?

This was why I was so hurt when a godly woman of my acquaintance, a year or two ago, came out with an uncharacteristic and startling harshness against the fact that the Catholic Eucharist is closed. She spoke of it as arrogant, as judgmental, as an assertion that it is "our" table rather than Christ's. Quite apart from being offended on the basis of what we believe (which is my own problem), I was extremely wounded by her failure to consider the position of our consciences. I had, and have, no objection to anybody thinking that the Catholic perspective is in fact wrong. But when considering whether our behavior is proud, or hypocritical, or judgmental, or anything else, what counts is not primarily what the person making the evaluation thinks true, but what the person or institution being evaluated thinks true. The Catholic Church believes certain things about the Eucharist, and her disciplines reflect those beliefs. Whether those beliefs are true is, while terribly important, beside the point when we are asking specifically whether those disciplines are arrogant. Even if wrong, we are obliged to do what we perceive to be right. And that, though it may easily be done in an arrogant way -- we are all sinners -- is not arrogance itself.

Of course, the point is not simply to defend the Catholic practice of a closed Eucharist. The point is that, when discussing anything or judging any act, we must consider not only our own moral feeling but the state of the other's conscience. Magnanimity -- that is, giving others the benefit of the doubt; being generous in the face of suspicion; putting the best interpretation upon others' words and deeds -- is not merely a social pleasantry. It is a responsibility of charity. Even, perhaps, of justice.

CRANMER Then the matter is capable of question?

MORE Certainly.

CRANMER But that you owe obedience to your King is not capable of question. So weigh a doubt against a certainty -- and sign.

MORE Some men think the earth round, others think it flat; it is a matter capable of question. But if it is flat, will the King's command make it round? And if it is round, will the King's command flatten it? No, I will not sign.

CROMWELL (Leaping up, with ceremonial indignation) Then you have more regard to your own doubt than you have to his command!

MORE For myself, I have no doubt.

CROMWELL No doubt of what?

MORE No doubt of my grounds for refusing this oath.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Quick and the Dead

This being All Souls' Day, I thought I would take a look at the practice of praying for the departed. This will be a little bit more polemical than most of my posts have been thus far.

According to the cheat sheet in the back of my Bible, there are a total of fourteen works of mercy. Seven are corporal: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned, shelter the homeless, visit the sick, bury the dead; seven are spiritual: admonish the sinner, instruct the ignorant, counsel the doubtful, comfort the sorrowful, bear wrongs patiently, forgive all injuries, pray for the living and the dead.

It is commonly believed that prayers for the dead are derived from what are, inaccurately, called the Apocrypha. It is true that the only explicit Scriptural reference to prayers for the dead comes from a passage not accepted as canonical by most Protestants (Anglicans can go either way). II Maccabees, alluded to occasionally in the New Testament (e.g. Hebr. 11.35b, cf. II Macc. 7), is a literary account of the Jewish revolt against the religious persecution of the Seleucid Empire in the second century BCE. The relevant passage describes Judas Maccabee and his men, after a battle, performing the last corporal work of mercy (burying the dead) and combining it with the last spiritual work of mercy:

"Then under the tunic of every one of the dead they found sacred tokens of the idols of Jamnia, which the Law forbids the Jews to wear. And it became clear to all that this was why these men had fallen [cf. Josh. 7]. So they blessed the ways of the Lord, the righteous Judge, who reveals the things that are hidden; and they turned to prayer, beseeching that the sin which had been committed might be wholly blotted out. ... [Judas Maccabee] also took up a collection, man by man, to the amount of two thousand drachmas of silver, and sent it to Jerusalem to provide for a sin offering. In doing this he acted very well and honorably, taking account of the resurrection. For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin." -- II Macc. 12.40-42a, 43-45

Although the books of the Maccabees are not accepted by the Jews as Scripture, this does reflect the practice of some Jews at the time, and contemporary Orthodox practice: for nearly a year after their death, Orthodox Jews to this day pray for their dead.

The key is the mention of the resurrection. As St Luke mentions in Acts 23.6-9, "The Sadducees say there are no such things as resurrection, or angels, or souls; but the Pharisees acknowledge all three." It is a little-realized fact that, although He clashed with them on spiritual grounds more often than anybody else -- and perhaps not least because they were more widespread, numerically and geographically, than the other sects of Judaism -- Jesus and the Pharisees shared an overwhelming majority of their doctrine. The original premise of praying for the dead was a doctrine still accepted by both Protestant and Catholic Christians: that death is not the end, that the soul survives death and will receive bodily resurrection and judgment at the End, and that the worldly habit of talking about death as the end and the dead as the non-existent -- which has crept even into Christian usage -- is simply wrong.

Messianism aside, it was primarily the heart attitude of Jesus and 'the Nazarenes,' rather than dogmas, that distinguished them from the Pharisees; which is why St Paul was able to play the Pharisees off against the Sadducess, when the Sanhedrin was convened for the express purpose of condemning him. Though the book's status as canon was in dispute, this part of II Maccabees was probably written partly as a polemic against the Sadducee doctrine that humans have no souls and will not be resurrected -- doctrines found chiefly in literature written during the intertestamental period (e.g. I and II Maccabees, Daniel, Wisdom).

It is therefore, based simply on the historical data, more than possible that the earliest Christians did pray for their dead; for the reason that would have occurred to them not to do so, coming immediately from the Jewish matrix of the faith, would have been a denial of the resurrection, which was (well, and still is) heretical. This may be in the back of the mysterious reference to baptism for the dead in I Corinthians 15.

The standard Protestant reason for dissenting from this ancient practice is rather different. No Protestants that I know are conspicuous for resembling the Sadducees in this regard. For one thing, their beards are not nearly long enough, except maybe for my friend Nazim's. But the reason put forth by Luther, Calvin, and co. for rejecting prayers for the dead was twofold: first, when they determined that the Deuterocanonical books (I and II Maccabees et al.) were not Scripture, they no longer felt that there was Biblical support for the practice; second, they felt that the practice encouraged, or was even premised upon, a belief in Purgatory, which they rejected for similar reasons.

When I was a Calvinist I thought our grounds for rejecting the additional books of the Catholic canon were rather silly. Rejecting them on dogmatic grounds didn't make any sense to me -- surely we ought to settle what Scripture is first, and then derive our doctrine from that, rather than deciding what we think and then subjecting Scripture to our own litmus test of validity? And the argument that the Jews rejected them cut no ice either. After all, the amount of the New Testament accepted by the Jews is small; nay, negligible. Yet that had never stopped us from accepting it.

I think I still take that view. However, I have come to appreciate some of the arguments in favor of a Jewish Old Testament, even though I do not find them persuasive -- as, for instance, the point that to them were committed the oracles of God (Rom. 3.1ff). But even taking that into consideration, if the Jewish people have the privilege of determining the contents of the Old Testament, then how much more ought they to have a say in how it is to be interpreted? And it is only the Orthodox Jews, who have maintained the two-and-a-bit-thousand-year-old practice of praying for the dead, who can be viewed as the heirs of the Judaism that existed in Jesus' time; Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist Judaism all have as much or more to do with the dialogue between Judaism and modernity as they do with the internal developments of the Jewish faith since Christ's day. Moreover, it is the Orthodox who are organically descended from, and most closely approximate, the Pharisees in particular: the Sadducees, Essenes, and Zealots all perished within about a century of the Crucifixion, and the Samaritans can scarcely be regarded as the main current. As for the Alexandrian Jews, they were precisely the sect of Judaism that accepted the additional books which appear in the Catholic canon. So if we credit the Jews with the right to the greater act of determining the Old Testament canon, and therefore correspondingly with the lesser act of interpreting that canon, it hardly seems logical to rule out a practice that we originally got from them.

Now, about the connection between prayers for the dead and Purgatory. It must be noted that Purgatory is not part-time Hell, as most Protestants have been led to believe. The word in Latin literally means "place of cleansing," and that is just what the Catholic Church teaches about Purgatory. Those who die in the friendship of God, but who have not yet reached the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, as St Paul says in Ephesians, are purified, so as to be able to enjoy the vision of God, in which the blessedness of the dead consists. It is sometimes described as punishment, but it is not retributive. It is corrective; just as setting a broken bone is not retributive punishment for breaking it, but nonetheless will probably hurt.

It might be argued that Purgatory does not appear in the Bible. I am not so sure. Having accepted the doctrine for years simply on the strength of the Christian tradition, I was intrigued by this verse that I had never noticed, about a year ago:

"And some of those who are wise shall fall, to refine and to cleanse them and to make them white, until the time of the end, for it is yet for the time appointed." -- Daniel 11.35

Smack in the universally accepted part of Daniel. Reflections on I Corinthians 3.10-15 could be regarded as pointing in the same direction; and at least one major theologian of the primitive Church, Origen -- what makes it more piquant, he was a formidable scholar of Scripture -- regarded the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matt. 18.23-35) as a discourse on this same subject. In other words, whether the Bible speaks to Purgatory depends not so much on whether the Catholic or the Protestant canon of the Old Testament is correct, as it does upon what is the proper interpretation of various parts of the New.

But why make a fuss over praying for the dead in the first place? Sure, the Catholic Church lists it as one of the works of mercy -- but that's a didactic tool, not a set of demands. Well, I dare say that, if the dead can receive help from our prayers, they would welcome them. In the writings of Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich, a visionary of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, it is said that Protestants usually spend far longer in Purgatory than anybody else, not because they are any worse than Catholics (frequently the reverse is true), but because so few people aid them by prayer.

But, quite apart from the practical dimension, this is one of the points over which Catholic-Protestant ecumenical discussion has to take place. Catholics and Protestants can certainly cooperate over a pretty wide range of issues, but that is not the same thing as being united -- I pray that they may be one, just as We are one, Jesus said to the Father in John 17. Not talking about our divisions does not make them disappear. A lowest-common-denominator approach to Christian unity suggests contempt for the truth as such, and is inconsiderate of the feelings of those who treasure things that lie beyond the bounds of the LCD -- and, moreover, it implies that the Holy Spirit cannot be trusted to guide us into all the truth (John 14.26, 16.12-14). If we are serious about achieving Christian unity, we have to be willing to talk about the things that constitute obstacles to it.

Of course, that may seem abstract; not everyone is inclined to care deeply about the cause of reunion. Permit me to make a suggestion. We all acknowledge that none of us, except by Divine revelation, can know whether another person is saved. Might we not, then, pray that the dead have received salvation? After all, as long as we do not know whether something has happened or not, we may pray for it: once we do know, it falls into the category of God's known will, which is to be submitted to. But until that point, it makes very little difference whether the things we don't know are past or future; for all are known to God. Might we then, in consequence, take prayers for the final salvation of the dead, whether we believe in Purgatory or not, as a starting point for further discussion?

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Castitatis Splendor

Lately I have been running into persons who seem very surprised that a Catholic who happens to be homosexually attracted would choose to retain his Christianity and actually attempt to practice chastity. (I do not have a stellar record, but that is beside the point.) I am baffled by this bafflement. From non-Christians it is less surprising, but even a number of my Christian friends have evinced it, or assumed that I was a practicing homosexual until corrected -- not out of any intention to insult me, but because it had apparently not occurred to them that someone would just abstain from sex; while it had not occurred to me that this needed explanation.

Make no mistake. Nobody, gay or straight, has ever found chastity easy. (Okay, perhaps Christ Jesus and the Virgin Mary did -- but, on the other hand, we know from Hebrews that He learned obedience from what He suffered, and I imagine the same would apply to the Mother of God as to God Incarnate.) It is, thankfully, straightforward: few people would even pretend that the obligations of chastity are hard to comprehend. They're just hard to actually practice. But I rather suspect that this surprise has less to do with chastity proper than it does with surrendering to God, and, secondarily, to the Church that purveys His teaching.

Curiously enough, one of the most neglected facts in the Church is the Sexual Revolution of the '60s. I don't mean that it has been neglected from a theoretic standpoint; reams have been written on it. And I don't mean that it's been neglected in the same way that certain, ahem, progressive persons within the Catholic Church might aver the same -- meaning that the Church has failed to adjust herself and her doctrines to a whopping ten percent of the world (North America and western Europe) that has abruptly discovered the truth that chastity is difficult. That it is not even, in itself, as entertaining as sex. But I digress.

Nor do I mean that the theologically conservative reaction, especially in the political sphere, has been absent. There is no shortage of pro-life advocacy, literature explaining the Church's teaching on contraception and Natural Family Planning, and books and retreats and seminars in plenty on sacramental marriage, the vocation to celibacy, homosexuality and chastity, and so forth, until one begins to see C. S. Lewis' point: "Poor Aphrodite! they have sandpapered most of the Homeric laughter off her face."

What I am talking about is our mindset and our heart attitude. In giving talks and writing books (or blogs) and preaching homilies, and what have you, about chastity, there is one key element missing. Many people discuss symptoms: adultery, fornication, abortion. Some people discuss deeper symptoms: divorce, immodesty, contraception. But very few people discuss the lie which our culture's view of sex is based on, and which we have mostly bought.

The thing that makes chastity so hard for us -- it is always hard, in every age, because it is resisting a strong impulse, but the thing that makes it so particularly hard for our generation -- is that we, like our Babylonian rulers, believe in the Divine Right to Orgasm.

I wish I could give it a more dignified name. It is admittedly not a name that one is likely to come across at present, among those for it or against it (but give it a few years). But that is what it amounts to. We believe, and rightly, that God wishes us all to be happy; we also believe, less rightly, that happiness without orgasms doesn't exist or doesn't count. I remember once having a conversation with a lovely young woman, a Classics graduate student, who was fascinated and bewildered by my attempt to be a chaste Catholic even though I acknowledged quite frankly that I was gay: she asked me, not at all antagonistically, "How can you be part of a Church that restricts your ability to love?" I was lost for a second; then I realized that she was talking about sex.

For of course, real Christian teaching on the subject of sex is not a restriction to love at all. It does involve certain assumptions about what sex is, and does, and means -- spiritual assumptions -- and these assumptions are either true or false. Now, if they are true, then chastity (which, remember, is not the same thing as virginity; a married couple that has sex every night can be chaste) is not a restriction of love, but the logical result of plugging "Love your neighbor as yourself" into the data about sex and sexuality that Catholic doctrine constitutes. Conversely, if those doctrines are false, then what the World says about sex -- it's a great time, don't get pregnant, don't get a disease, leave kids and animals alone, otherwise you're good -- holds. But the question about what is true must be answered first. That might sound dry and demanding, but it is really no different from answering the question "Is this glass full of poison?" before offering it to a thirsty man. If the thirsty man claims not to care because, whatever it is, it tastes good, we just might continue to care.

The reason we have such a hard time keeping that in mind is that we have soaked in the values of the culture around us. The equivocation between sex and love evinced by my friend is not insignificant. Sex, broadly speaking, makes us feel loved and worthwhile. It was designed to; that's why the hormones it releases into our bloodstream do what they do, relieving stress and promoting emotional bonding and the like. A husband and wife are supposed to feel that way about each other, most of all when their spiritual oneness is sacramentally imaged forth through sexual oneness. But we have torn the pleasure (emotional, spiritual, and physical) from its sacramental context -- sacrificing most of the pleasure it has in the process -- and, maintaining its association with love, have now confused it with love. By mixing in the truth that everyone needs love and that it should be available to all, we have wrongly predicated the same thing about sex.

That, I think, is why so many Catholics have a tough time accepting not only clerical celibacy but the Church's teaching about homosexuality. I certainly don't have an easy time with it; I have absorbed the lie just like anyone else, the lie that I need a sexual relationship to be happy, and that since I don't or can't have one with a woman, my desire to have one with a man needs to be given the Nihil Obstat.

It must be stated plainly, however, that it is the Catholic view which gives profound significance to sex. Whenever something has and objective meaning, you can tell because the one who designed keeps saying, "No, not like that," and telling you how to use the thing properly. As if he knew! The view that sees nothing wrong with using precious, irreplaceable human beings for pleasure -- of whatever variety -- literally by the dozen, and then sending them on their merry, is as callous and contemptuous toward sex as it is toward humanity.

The late and Venerable John Paul II published an encyclical letter entitled Veritatis Splendor, or "The Splendor of the Truth," dealing with authority, the conscience, and relativism. I have not read it (though it inspired the title of this post), but I rather suspect I have found a summary of the relevant part of it. Dr. Peter Kreeft recently wrote a book, Between Allah and Jesus: What Christians Can Learn from Muslims, in which his main contention is that we western Christians have lost our spiritual toughness, and that Moslems set us an excellent example. Here is a selection from the chapter "On Sexual and Moral Ambiguity."

'"You have inherited the same commandments as we have, commandments that are very easy to understand and very hard to practice. And what do you do to them? You make them hard to understand and easy to practice. So you talk about 'moral ambiguity' so that you can feel good about yourself. And what is your motive for doing that? Your Bible gives you a clear answer to that question, and it tells you the same thing as the Qur'an tells you: that you are trying to escape God's demand to surrender. That's why you have invented your 'moral ambiguity.' It's a fog. You run into it to escape the hard, clear light that makes you uncomfortable. It's your wiggle room. You want to negotiate with God instead of making an unconditional surrender.
'... I see rationalization there in ordinary people. Don't you? What kind of psychologist are you if you don't see that? Don't you see how it works? You transfer the real inner struggle, the struggle between good and evil in the will, the struggle between good will and bad will, the inner struggle that we call jihad -- you transfer that struggle to the mind, where you call it moral ambiguity. That way, you don't have to admit that you have a bad will. You don't have to admit that you're a sinner."
'"You know, Jack, you're sounding more and more like one of those fundamentalist preachers."
'"But I don't want your money or your approval, Libby."
'"Well, it's clear you don't want my approval. What do you want from me?"
'"Your honesty."'

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Hymn of Abdiel

If there is anything most people nowadays would not claim to like, it is institutions. Whether one's deepest distrust is reserved for the federal government or the Catholic Church tends to depend on whether one is right- or left-wing politically, but institutional things as such leave a bad taste in people's mouth.

A lot of popular theological trends and movements reflect this: the Emergent movement, typified in authors like Rob Bell and Donald Miller, is perhaps the foremost, but a thousand signs indicate its presence. It is decreasing sharply among Catholics -- especially younger ones, ironically enough -- but the 'cafeteria Catholic' approach to the faith of the Church is by no means gone; the Church's teachings on sexuality, the ordination of women, abortion, divorce, and Jesus being the only way to God, as well as on her own authority, fill the position that green beans and creamed corn did in high school. (A quip went round in some circles when Pope Benedict XVI was elected: "The cafeteria is closed.") Among Protestant Christians, the popularity of quasi-denominational, inter-denominational, and non-denominational churches, movements, and Bible studies is a reflection of it, I think. So, too, is the tendency to avoid deep theological study and discussion and to dismiss the traditionally conceived list of Christian obligations, including things like attendance at church, in favor of spontaneous and self-defined devotions, with an affinity for the more dramatic charismata.

Now, I will have completely failed to communicate if anyone goes away from this thinking I disbelieve in the universal priesthood of believers (the Second Vatican Council made a point of the universality -- from Greek, the catholicity -- of the Christian faith, and that every believer is apostolic in his or her own capacity). Equally so if I am taken to mean that everyone is called to be a theologian in the strict sense; or that miracles belong to the past, a claim which ought to be laughable to any Catholic in the light of the holy Mass; or that spontaneous prayer is anything but a necessary part of our prayer lives. And so on. My point is not that the present mood is a bad one, though I must admit forthrightly that it is not to my taste, and that may color my perceptions of it. The trouble is that we may well be in danger of forgetting the counterweight-truths to those of liberty, equality, and fraternity; which likely has as much to do with the fact that we live in a Western democracy as with anything genuinely spiritual.

Milton's Paradise Lost is kind of a slow read. ("I have a point. I promise.") However, the following passage seems to me relevant. Satan, at the announcement of the Son's appointment as Messiah, King of the angels, and all His glories, has chosen revolt, and has now set up his scheme to seduce the other angels to rebel with him -- ignore the weird spellings:

'... They came, and Satan to his Royal seat
... For thither he assembl'd all his Train,
Pretending so commanded to consult
About the great reception of thir King,
Thither to come, and with calumnious Art
Of counterfeted truths thus held thir ears.
Thrones, Dominations, Princedomes, Vertues, Powers,
If these magnific Titles yet remain
Not meerly titular, since by Decree
Another now hath to himself ingross't
All Power, and us eclipst under the name
Of King anointed ...
Will ye submit your necks, and chuse to bend
The supple knee? ye will not, if I trust
To know ye right, or if ye know your selves
Natives and Sons of Heav'n possest before
By none ...
This far his bold discourse without controule
Had audience, when among the Seraphim
Abdiel, then whom none with more zeale ador'd
The Deitie, and divine commands obei'd,
Stood up, and in a flame of zeale severe
The current of his fury thus oppos'd.
O argument blasphemous, false and proud!
... Shalt thou give Law to God, shalt thou dispute
With him the points of libertie, who made
Thee what thou art, & formd the Pow'rs of Heav'n
Such as he pleased, and circumscrib'd thir being?
... But to grant it thee unjust
That equal over equals Monarch Reigne:
Thy self though great and glorious dost thou count,
Or all Angelic Nature joind in one,
Equal to him begotten Son, by whom
As by his Word the mighty Father made
All things, ev'n thee, and all the Spirits of Heav'n
By him created in thir bright degrees,
Crownd them with Glory, & to thir Glory nam'd
Thrones, Dominations, Princedomes, Vertues, Powers ...'
-- Paradise Lost V.753-837

If that seemed a little abstract, these paragraphs from C. S. Lewis may illuminate it.

'This thought is not peculiar to Milton. It belongs to the ancient orthodox tradition of European ethics ... It may be called the Hierarchical conception. According to this conception degrees of value are objectively present in the universe. Everything except God has some natural superior; everything except unformed matter has some natural inferior. The goodness, happiness, and dignity of every being consists in obeying its natural superior and ruling its natural inferiors. ... The justice or injustice of any given instance of rule depends wholly on the nature of the parties, not in the least on any social contract. Where the citizens are really equal then they ought to live in a republic where all rule in turn. If they are not really equal then the republican form becomes unjust. ... He who rules permanently, without successor, over his natural equals is a tyrant -- even (presumably) if he rules well. ...
'The greatest statement of the Hierarchical conception ... is, perhaps, the speech of Ulysses' in Shakespeare's Troilus. Its special importance lies in its clear statement of the alternative to Hierarchy. if you take "Degree" away "each thing meets in mere oppugnancy", "strength" will be lord, everything will "include itself in power". In other words, the modern idea that we can choose between Hierarchy and equality is, for Shakespeare's Ulysses, mere moonshine. The real alternative is tyranny; if you will not have authority you will find yourself obeying brute force. ...
'... Satan's main contention is clear. He is maintaining that the vice-regency of the Son is a tyranny ... Abdiel's reply is double. In the first place he denies Satan's right to criticize God's actions at all, because God is his creator. As creator He has a super-parental right of doing what He will without question ... In the second place, granting Satan's definition of tyranny, he denies Satan's facts; the Son is not of the same nature as the angels and was indeed the instrument by which the angels were made. Of course, if He is not their natural equal, 'unsucceeded power' on His part ... would not be tyranny, but just rule.' -- A Preface to Paradise Lost, pp. 73-77

For this reason, I cannot join in the general anti-institutional sentiment of my generation of Christians. It is not exclusively because, according to our creed, the Catholic Church is personally guided and protected from error by the Holy Spirit, though that is what we believe. It is because the proposed alternative -- the gathering of Christians in a non-traditional format, one that might be labeled charismatic or non-denominational or non-institutional or even non-religious Christianity, contains a fatal flaw; one noted by Lewis.

Every group of people orients itself around leaders. Leaders are of two kinds: those whose authority is derived from some sort of institution, and those whose authority derives in one way or another from themselves, whether we speak of the force of their personality or the force of their muscles. And, although the leader who compels us by his personal charisma is more appealing to most of us on aesthetic grounds, it is disappointingly clear that, if we want the rule of law and the order of reason, they are to be found in the institutional authorities, because those are based on an institution -- that is, a rational idea. The idea might of course be a lousy one in particular cases, just as a powerful personality may also happen to be a rational personality. It does happen. But the thing-in-itself remains. And a rule based on rules is rational, while a rule based on personal rather than institutional authority is, in one of two senses, a dictatorship. It may be a dictatorship in the original Latin sense, i.e., the rule of one who speaks well, and perhaps rightly; or it may be a dictatorship in a more sinister sense.

This would mean we would have to take stock and see what the hierarchy in our own situation is. Do I have parents? a spouse? children? a pastor? a flock? governmental authorities? persons over whom I have governmental authority? In those areas in which I am rightly a subject, am I submitting to the authorities which are in existence, those which sacred Scripture itself tells me in no uncertain terms are from God? (I am put in mind of the first reading for today's Mass, Ephesians 5.21-33.) In those areas where I have authority over others, do I exercise it with care and caution, and without the false modesty or diffidence that would make me unable to accept others' expressions of loyalty, gratitude, or reverence? (Clerics who won't let us kiss your rings, I am looking in your direction. Humbly.) Am I lording it over people who are really my equals -- or, alternatively, limply surrendering myself who have no right to control me, when I ought to shoulder responsibility for myself? (Me, I'm looking in your direction for both of those. Not sure whether that is to be done humbly or not.)

It is difficult to digest the truth in this. It is difficult because we are soaked and infected by the World and its values. Hierarchy means obedience. We Christians are perfectly okay with obedience, as long as there is nobody to obey in the immediate and earthly sense. We love reading and hearing and talking about obedience; we just can't stand it when we are suddenly expected to incarnate that obedience, to particularize our theoretical submission by offering up our own wills to some specific authority that we encounter in real life -- in the family, in the government, in the Church -- instead of the God that we had situated so comfortably in our pious, sanctified, and meritorious imaginations. But we will never be saints if we do not try. Every saint is a saint, whether recognized and canonized or not, because they gave God His way with them; and, depend upon it, that always meant giving themselves to Him through their earthly experiences, including their experiences of authority here. After all, unless God appears to you in a vision, there is literally no other way of conducting yourself.

I dare say it'll be an adventure, after the shock of humility wears off.

'So spake the Seraph Abdiel faithful found,
Among the faithless, faithful only hee;
Among innumerable false, unmov'd,
Unshak'n, unseduc'd, unterrifi'd
His Loyaltie he kept, his Love, his Zeale;
Nor number, nor example with him wrought
To swerve from truth, or change his constant mind'.
-- Paradise Lost, V.893-898

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Temptation of Virtue

We are all acquainted with the Seven Deadly Sins, the roots of sinfulness that characterize our actions when our hearts are turned away from God: arrogance; envy; anger; sloth; greed; gluttony; lust. Each of us, of course, has a personal 'favorite,' and each of them is animated likewise by pride (which is distinct from arrogance, I think: arrogance is a particular kind of pride, but so is anger, so is sloth, so is gluttony). Pride is simply the assumption that we have the right to direct our lives and that God does not.

A few weeks ago, however, I was having a conversation with a devout friend of mine over some fried shrimp and Yuengling, when a thought took clear form that I have been ruminating over half-consciously for a while. I have been thinking for some time that we can, in one sense, be tempted to virtue just as we can be tempted to vice.

I don't mean hypocrisy; that, true, is a very horrible corruption of the spiritual life, and open to anyone who wants to dabble in it, however far they may have advanced thus far. I mean temptation to what, from a natural perspective, is good, natural virtue: truthfulness, wisdom, generosity, self-control. These can exist apart from specifically saving grace (though they cannot exist in mere human beings, since the Fall, without common grace, i.e. the grace that God grants to all people, that which maketh the sun to shine upon the just and the unjust). The virtuous pagan, while rare in our own day -- I suspect that, for some reason, it is harder for pagan virtue to coexist with Christianity than with pagan vice -- does exist, and has existed in the past. One reason that the Church drew so heavily upon antiquity in the Medieval and Renaissance periods was that antiquity was, though not without flaws, chock-full of virtuous pagans, like Virgil (whom Dante chose as his symbolic guide through Hell and Purgatory).

The reason I speak of temptation to virtue is that I have been realizing of late that, while few men have any shortage of vices, one's makeup may easily be chiefly oriented toward natural virtue. This might be a boast, except that being oriented toward natural virtue is not only a gift of common grace, so that one might just as well be proud of the color of one's hair; but that it really does nothing to further one's salvation.

For the essence of salvation is to be supernatural. It is something that comes from without, something that breaks into our interior universe, suffusing us with something that we not only could not deserve, but could not even imagine on our own resources.

In consequence, though we certainly have to strive after virtue -- it is one of the elements of soteria, which in Greek means not only salvation but healing -- there is a sense in which it is quite beside the point. After all, the Cross itself is not the point of our being, but a means to an end, that end being a restored and fulfilled relationship with God: what the Church calls the Beatific Vision.

I think we can know we are being tempted to virtue, rather than wooed by the Holy Spirit, when our success makes us contemptuous of others -- when the thought, I can do it, why can't they? emerges in ours minds. This is perhaps my biggest sin; and contempt is an extremely serious sin, however hard it may be to resist. The thing that makes the temptation to virtue so dangerous is precisely that the thing we are being drawn toward is not only good in itself -- after all, every sin has some good element, on which it relies for its existence -- but may even be something to which the only alternative is objectively sinful. It is then that the Devil will press upon us most, for no direct evasion is possible. It is then, too, that purity of heart as such is being demanded of us -- and that, though daunting, is a comfort, for God will never refuse us the grace to do what he asks us to do.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A Christian Approach to Islam

At the Men's Night held at the Catholic Student Center on Friday, amid a haze of tobacco and bonhomie, the proposed Islamic center near ground zero in New York came up -- I have forgotten exactly how. This being America, two sides promptly developed, one opposed to the proposed mosque on the basis of deep patriotism, and the other vocally in favor of it on the basis of deep patriotism.

The debate never, thank God, became uncivil; but I don't think it came to a conclusion either. The one side objected strongly because the terrorists of September 11th were, after all, Moslems, and committed that atrocity in the name of Islam. A friend of mine, arguing for that side, pointed out that an ancient Moslem custom was to build mosques at the site of major Moslem victories, and following the proposal would delight the extremist enemies of our nation. Another friend, taking the opposite tack, argued that it was not only acceptable but actively desirable to build a mosque there: mainstream Islam is just as shocked and saddened by these attacks as the rest of the world, and having an Islamic center there would be a sign of sorrow for that tragedy and of rejection of the philosophy that inspired it.

My own position was, and remains, irrelevant. What I'd like to do is frame the question with more nuance, because I suspect that we find it easier to take positions than to think out what position is the more reasonable.

First, as to the mosque proposal. There isn't one. That is, there is a proposal for an Islamic center, which would contain what amounts to a mosque: a place where Moslems do, or can, gather on Fridays for communal prayers and listening to the reading of the Qur'an. But a mosque is not analogous to a Catholic church, or even most Protestant ones. Islam has no Incarnation, no sacraments, no saints in the Christian sense; it has persons whom it reveres (including, by the by, Jesus and Mary), but it has very little sense of the miraculous and no sense of a place of worship as a sacred space. This is not to knock Islam by any means. They simply aren't, for several reasons, the sort of thing that Islam happens to have or feels the need for. The only really sacred site for a Moslem would, I imagine, be the Ka'aba. Consequently, Moslem worship can take place anywhere in principle -- and, in predominantly Islamic cultures, does: when the muezzin calls the faithful five times daily for prayer, every faithful Moslem drops what he or she is doing and immediately faces Mecca and recites the appropriate prayers. (I wish Catholics had that kind of simple-hearted, instantaneous devotion. You see it with us sometimes -- for instance, when a ciborium or a monstrance containing the Host passes, Catholics will genuflect and make the sign of the cross -- but I'd like to see it more.)

Because of this, trying to ban the building of an Islamic center at that particular locale doesn't really tally with, say, trying to prevent the building of a Catholic church there. The absence of a mosque in the formal sense would not prevent any of the activities of a mosque from happening there. One could, I suppose, set up a small mosque in a private house; there are makeshift mosques in some places, such as the predominantly Catholic parts of the Philippines. Now, it would not bother me if a mosque, makeshift or otherwise, were set up in New York, whether at the proposed site or elsewhere -- actually, there is already an Islamic center only a few blocks further away. But, if it does bother anyone, it should be noted that the erection of an Islamic center sensu stricto would not really change anything -- nor would preventing it objectively prevent anything, except hurt feelings.

And why would some people's feelings, notably those of relatives of the victims, be hurt? Because the terrorists were Moslems. But let's clear that up too. Do we believe that all terrorists are Moslems? Of course not; look at Timothy McVeigh. Do we believe all Moslems are terrorists? Well, no. Are we aware that some of the victims of the September 11th attacks were, in fact, American Moslems? If not, was it because we had vaguely assumed, or rather imagined, that the World Trade Center was full of WASPs?

Are we willing to regard a Moslem as being, or as being able to be, a good American?

Of course we're going to answer Yes to that question when asked flat-out. But I think we need to pause and probe our mental image of Islam, just for a moment, and our mental image of America, too; and I believe we ought to ask ourselves whether, perhaps, there is a certain degree of bigotry in our approach to the question.

The general media angle on Islam shows us all the worst stuff about all the worst Moslems and Islamic regimes: ethnic "cleansing" of Kurds in Iraq, virulent anti-Semitism from Ahmadinejad, the murder of Indonesian converts to Christianity, suicide bombings of Israeli settlements in Palestine, the works. I can only imagine that Moslems who live here in the U.S. are, on the whole, as horrified by such things as the rest of us. But stop and think for a moment how we would feel if we -- we Caucasian Catholics (or otherwise), from a predominantly Christian, democratic society, knowing from within its strengths and virtues without being blind to its weaknesses -- imagine if we lived in a country like Saudi Arabia. And there, let us say, we saw on television a media image of this country in particular, and the West in general, based on abortions and abortion clinic bombings, on rape statistics, divorce rates, contempt and cruelty toward the poor (the sin of Sodom, according to Ezekiel), a nation of immigrants bent on preventing immigration, a nation plunged in intellectual and moral chaos, to all appearances ...

And now imagine -- just try -- how you would feel if everyone around you said, "Yes, that's what these Christians are like. Well, Christians, Americans, it's the same thing, really; it's just their culture. It's because of their religion -- their Bible is full of violence and racism -- and take a look at the history of the Church. Oh, they say that Christianity is a 'religion of peace,' but their history sure doesn't reflect that, and even if it did, I know how our national neighbors over in Iraq and Afghanistan feel about it right now, and what the state-less Palestinians think, too. Look what happened on the news last week." And so on.

The media concentrates on negatives because that is what makes for news. People will watch a story about an abortionist being murdered in the name of Christ. People will probably not bother to watch a story about someone praying a Rosary in the name of Christ. Likewise, people will sit up and take notice when a hijacker flies an airplane into a tall building to serve Allah. But people will be less likely to notice when a father teaches his little boy to tell the truth to serve Allah.

It is very difficult to resist the subtle and unceasing influence of the media on our perception of Islam. But for the sake, not of Christian charity, but of mere common honesty, we have got to try. Perhaps we have read part of the Qur'an. Fine; when we have read as much of the Qur'an as we have read of the Bible, we will be qualified to comment on its contents and their meaning, in the same measure that we are qualified to provide such commentary on the Bible. Perhaps we are acquainted with the Hadith: very well; when we can quote the Hadith as casually and accurately as we quote the Church Fathers, we may deliver our opinion on the Hadith as we do on the Church Fathers. Perhaps we know something of Moslem history and of its various sects. Excellent; when we know as much about those things as we do about Church history and of our own multifarious denominations, we may discuss them both intelligently. But not before. And you may be sure that, if we do not even know the scrolls and the traditions of our own faith, every Moslem has every right to take an exceedingly dim view of our pontifications about what his religion is, says, and does.

It may seem odd, but almost the only thing that bothered me about the conversation that night was that one young Catholic there said something about the proposed mosque pleasing "our enemies." Moslem terrorists (which applies to all Islam in exactly the same way that 'Christian terrorists' applies to all Christianity) may be irrevocably opposed to America. Let them be. I categorically refuse to regard them, or any other Moslems, as my enemies. I have one enemy, and that is sin, because sin is the enemy of God. Sin exists in me quite as certainly as it does in Osama bin Laden; indeed, I may be far worse than he is -- I do not know how he was brought up, or taught, or sinned against by Christians from the West. Islam and sin are two different things. Terrorism is a sin, but terrorists are not sin. Christ died for terrorists, too. And when we are faced with the decision of whether, in our own heart attitude toward them we elect to love or to hate, let us be mindful that Whatever ye have done to the least of these, My brethren ...

C. S. Lewis relates a short, powerful story of speaking with a pastor from continental Europe who had lived through the Second World War. He said that this pastor had met (or at least seen in person) Adolf Hitler on one occasion, and that he had what most people would regard as good cause to hate him. "What did he look like?" asked the apologist. The pastor replied, "Like all men. That is, like Christ."

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Challenge of Submission

The American Catholic Council, a dissident group calling for all the usual revisions of Catholic doctrine (moral approval of homosexual behavior, the ordination of women, etc.), has slated a meeting for next summer, around Pentecost. Father Hans Kung, one of the most notorious dissenters of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, has been invited; all of this happening in the wake of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, one of the two major associations of Catholic consecrated sisters in the United States, openly lending its support to the egregiously pro-choice health care bill recently pushed through Congress (without being read), in defiance of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. And these are just the latest events in what amounts to a low-level mutiny inside the Catholic Church in this country for the past three or four decades -- ever since the opening move was made when American theologians took it upon themselves to reject the papal reiteration of Catholic Christian beliefs about birth control in the encyclical of Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae.

"Dissent," the polite word for what used to be called "heresy," is rampant among both the rank and file and even some of the theologians, religious, and clergy of American Catholicism. Encouragingly, it is declining -- particularly among younger Catholics, both priests and laity. The real riches of the Catholic faith, maintained by the Church as a whole and especially by Venerable John Paul II and our current Holy Father, Benedict XVI, are being rediscovered: Latin is again in vogue, new ministries like FOCUS are skyrocketing, and ancient devotions like the Rosary and the spirituality of the Sacred Heart of Jesus are being revisited by young Catholics hungry for spiritual bread. But the era of dissent, while much more popular among previous generations than our own, is not over; and catechesis is, in some places, still so bad that many young Catholics who want to be faithful do not know how -- or worse, have only a latent desire to be faithful, because they are not aware that it is a live option. (I know a young woman, a paragon of Christian spirituality and an exemplar of our generation of Catholics, whose home parish was so pastorally lacking that she did not even know, until she reached college, that Catholics taught and believed in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.)

So why is dissent so dangerous? Is it because the Catholic Church needs to maintain her power? To that there is hardly any adequate answer except, "What power?" The Catholic Church has no armies, no masses of wealth (though people persistently assume that the Church is exceedingly wealthy), and in most places no extraordinary legal advantages -- indeed, in many places it is not even a legally legitimate entity: mainland China, for instance. It doesn't even have frozen alien skulls lining the walls of the Vatican Secret Archives, unless Fr. Malachi Martin is correct (because if there were no alien skulls, why would it be secret? Huh?).

Is it because the Magisterium, the teaching office of the Church, cannot bear dialogue? Well, that depends on what one means by "dialogue." The protesters in the Midwest (Minnesota, I think) who were recently refused Communion on the grounds that they were wearing rainbow buttons in open protest of the Church's teaching on sexual morality, thus turning the holy Mass into a political spectacle, claimed that the Church was unwilling to dialogue. If by that they meant "unwilling to contradict what the Church has maintained for her twenty centuries of existence," then certainly that is true. But what sort of dialogue are they, or anybody, really asking for? The Church has been proclaiming her teaching, being argued against and arguing back, setting forth a defense for the hope that she has, for millennia. If that does not constitute dialogue I am not clear what will satisfy the requirement.

For of course, the real reason that the Church's teaching offends and estranges the World is that the fashion of this world passes away, growing old like a garment; while the Church is founded upon a Rock. G. K. Chesterton pointed out, quite truly, in his last book (The Well and the Shallows) that a hundred years from now the Church will, to the eyes of those outside, look completely different than she does to the eyes of those now outside her -- she will look different because she will be the same.

Or why do people try so hard to loathe, defy, and smear the Pope? His reception in Great Britain was a good example: a sizable protest took place, labeling him a closet Nazi and holding him personally responsible for the abuse scandal, despite the fact that he was (and, to the extent that it is an issue, remains) an opponent of Nazism, and has actually done a great deal -- more, perhaps, than any single member of the Curia -- to improve the handling of abuse cases. By the end of his visit there seemed, thankfully, to be a general softening of the public perception of Pope Benedict in the U.K.; whether because of his sweet and gentle demeanor, or his cordial interactions with the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, or the beatification of Bl. John Henry Newman, or the delighted English Catholics turning out in love and support, or his courteous reception by the Queen herself. But even so some people try to maintain an image of him as an outworn, heavy-handed theological tyrant.

I suspect it is something like this. Blessed Cardinal Newman once referred to the human conscience as "the aboriginal Vicar of Christ." That, of course, is one of the titles of St. Peter's successor. Now, the role of conscience -- so often touted by dissidents as what they are obeying, in contrast to the dried-out dogmatics of the Church -- is to discern right from wrong, and Catholics believe that its pressure upon the will to do what is right ought always to be obeyed. Human beings, especially left to ourselves, can err about the content of right and wrong, but the pursuit of right and rejection of wrong, to the best of our knowledge and ability, are universal and absolute obligations.

The Catholic Church claims for herself in general, and for the Vicar of Christ in particular, infallibility. Not, that is, total freedom from error of any kind on questions of any kind; but possession of the unadulterated truth, and authority to proclaim it, on questions of Christian doctrine and human morals. But this is for teaching, for the formation of conscience; it does not create the conscience. That is built in. It may be misled, but it instinctively recognizes the truth, and St. Paul warns that it may easily become our accuser. We know when we have done something wrong, or for the wrong reason, deep down. And when the Church expounds the revelation entrusted to her, the World is made angry, not because it disagrees, but because there is a little, squirming bit of it that does agree -- and that really is an inconvenient truth. For if we were to actually attempt what the Church teaches us, well -- that would be like taking up our cross daily and following Jesus. And everybody loves Jesus until it starts to cost something. Pilate liked Him until it cost something.

If conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ, then the Vicar of Christ is the human conscience manifest. That is why he is loved and hated.

And that is why fidelity to the Church is so vital. Not only because it is our duty, as Catholics and indeed as human beings, to believe what we say we believe -- when we recite the Creed, when we renew our baptismal vows every Easter, when we receive our God. Not only because Christianity is, in fact, true. But because, in the deep recesses of our hearts, in the inner sanctum more pierced by the knowledge of the Holy Spirit than by our own knowledge, we recognize the truth. And if we try to reject it, we will be miserable because we are trying to reject both God and ourselves. As Ven. John Paul II never tired of saying, the Incarnation of Jesus Christ is not only the revelation of God to man, but the revelation of man to himself.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Which Surpasseth Understanding

All the best stuff comes from Mount Carmel, it seems. A very wise priest suggested The Dark Night of the Soul by John of the Cross -- it was tough to get into at first, but very nutritious. Really squirmed on reading this:

"During the time, then, of the aridities of this night of sense [i.e., the lower element of the human soul] ... spiritual persons suffer great trials, by reason not so much of the aridities which they suffer, as of the fear that they have of being lost on the road, thinking that all spiritual blessing is over for them and that God has abandoned them since they find no help or pleasure in good things. Then they grow weary, and endeavor (as they have been accustomed to do) to concentrate their faculties with some degree of pleasure upon some object of meditation, thinking that, when they are not doing this and yet are conscious of making an effort, they are doing nothing. ...
"The way in which they are to conduct themselves in this night of sense is to devote themselves not at all to reasoning and meditation, since this is not the time for it, but to allow the soul to remain in peace and quietness, although it may seem clear to them that they are doing nothing and wasting their time, and although it may appear to them that it is because of their weakness that they have no desire in that state to think of anything. The truth is that they will be doing quite sufficient if they have patience and persevere in prayer without making any effort. What they must do is merely to leave the soul free and disencumbered and at rest from all knowledge and thought ... but contenting themselves with merely a peaceful and loving attentiveness toward God, without the ability and without desire to have experience of Him or to perceive Him."

This is rough stuff. For one like myself, whose instinct is generally to go and do something in any given situation, the counsel "Be still and know that the Lord is God" is unwelcome.

It's very easy and pleasant to be a Christian at first. God gives us many of what are technically called "sensible consolations," positive emotions and mental illuminations and the like. Conquering temptation is easy -- graces are abundant. But of course, as C. S. Lewis notes in The Screwtape Letters and St. John of the Cross here, this state of affairs does not last for ever. Physical children must be weaned from their mother's milk; spiritual children must also be weaned, given adult food -- "bread with crust," as the Carmelite mystic charmingly says in another passage.

We must not be discouraged by a loss of consolations; admittedly it is unpleasant to not have pleasant feelings, but that is why sacramentalism is such an important element of the Catholic faith. In every sacrament -- in the Blessed Sacrament -- there is something objective going on, something that does not depend upon our emotional state at the time. The Eucharist depends upon the spiritual office and intention of the priest, and that is one of the precious things about it: it exhibits the objectivity of God. ("Reality is that which, when you stop thinking about it, doesn't go away." -- Philip K. Dick.) We believe it is far more than a reminder, yet it is a reminder, that our faith is a faith in reality and not in ourselves.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Five Problems with Justification Through Faith Alone

This doctrine, together with the doctrine of sola Scriptura, is the cornerstone of the whole tradition of the Protestant Reformation. The classical formulary is that justification is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, Scripture alone serving as the authority to know both this and all other necessary things pertaining to the faith. (The normal translation of the Latin sola fide as "by faith alone" is a little misleading, for it implies that faith does the justifying in contemporary English, whereas the actual meaning is that grace works through faith alone -- a slightly archaic use of "by.") Any Protestant could, in principle, be convinced of nearly everything else Catholic -- Purgatory, veneration of the saints, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, prayers for the dead, infant baptism, apostolic succession -- and remain a Protestant simply by believing these two doctrines. Indeed, for a while and in some circles, that was more or less what it meant to be an Anglican.

There are, however, certain serious problems with the theory of justification through faith alone. I have done my best to compile them, so as to facilitate Protestant-Catholic dialogue on this point, and perhaps make it clear to Protestants why the Church objected to this formulary when Luther first asserted it. I have isolated five of these -- you can skip to the one that interests you if you like; they are as follows:
1. That there is no specific Biblical assertion of justification through faith alone.
2. That it lacks a good pedigree from the Christian tradition in general.
3. That it can tend to produce a "fire-insurance" view of salvation.
4. That -- typically as a reaction to 3 -- it can also tend to produce a self-flagellating approach to Christian growth.
5. That, in point of fact, Scripture contradicts the doctrine of justification through faith alone word for word.

Before You Begin

One thing that almost always throws a wrench in the works for this discussion is that Catholics and Protestants mean different things by the term justification. Protestants mean a right standing with God, a declaration of innocence, an acquittal; Catholics do not necessarily exclude these things, but they include (for reasons I hope this note elucidates) growth in actual righteousness on the part of the Christian -- indeed, this is embedded in the Latin term justificare, "to become just," which translates the Greek dikaioo. The significance of works to the Catholic theology of justification lies in the question of Christian growth, not in the question of Divine grounds for forgiveness -- for if God insisted on our being good enough to deserve forgiveness, nobody would be forgiven, since a person who needs forgiveness is by definition somebody who does not deserve it.

My priority here is less to 'settle the issue' than it is to illustrate the problems I at any rate find with the Protestant view, which will presumably show why I abandoned that view, in favor of one I think more Biblical. To the extent that a Protestant does not agree with the explanation of justification through faith alone which I have here set forth, I think I can safely say that -- while I am the last person to hold this against them -- they have departed from the general Protestant tradition in so doing, and have probably moved in a direction more amenable to Catholicism rather than less.

1. It lacks specific Scriptural affirmation.

This may make some people sit up and blink, or stop reading with disgust; it certainly startled me when I discovered it. Although Martin Luther claimed (and no doubt believed) that this was the doctrine of Saint Paul, he nowhere -- not even in Romans -- says that we are justified by (or through) faith alone.

Relevant passages do indeed come very close:

No human being will be justified in His sight through observing the Law ... For we consider that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the Law. ... When one does not work, yet believes in the One who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness. Romans 3.20a, 28, 4.5

These and similar verses are the foundation of the Lutheran (more broadly, the classical Protestant, or Reformed) position.

Yet how teasing that in this very same letter, the apostle also writes:

God ... will repay everyone according to his works: eternal life to those who seek glory, honor, and immortality through perseverance in good works. Romans 2.6-7

What is the solution to this dilemma? Obviously nobody believes that the apostle is really, in some secret way, teaching that our salvation depends chiefly upon ourselves. While insisting on a rather different idea of the role works normally play in the Christian life, the Catholic Church is as uncompromising as the Protestant in confessing that salvation is by grace alone -- for remember that faith and grace are two different things, not one and the same. Grace operates with faith as its instrument; to say that grace can use another instrument (works) is not the same thing as saying that grace is not the operating force. Even if the Catholic theory is wrong, it should not be confused with the position that grace is not the motive force of our salvation (the Pelagian heresy).

The solution that presents itself to me -- which I offer as nothing more than a plausible opinion, not the dictum of the Magisterium -- is to look at the context of St. Paul's letter, and notice that the whole burden of it most of it, from chapter 2 all the way through the end of 11, is the double contrast, first between Jews and Gentiles apart from the gospel, and then between those who embrace Christianity (whether Jewish or Gentile in origin) and those who hold to Judaism as a religion. Indeed, the key verse -- the verse that, in many cases, forms the pivot of the argument in favor of sola fide -- states quite specifically the contrast, posing faith, not against works as such, but against the works of the Law -- i.e., the Mosaic Law, the Old Covenant which God struck with the nation of Israel. That contrast between the Old Covenant Law and the faith which characterizes the New Covenant (which not only leads naturally to the reference to the sacrament of Baptism in chapter 6 and the ensuing discussion of good works on the basis of the new identity conferred by Baptism, but is also the province of all people regardless of racial or even religious origin) is the driving force of the whole letter, informing every contrast the saint makes. To wrench a few verse out of that context and set them up as if they were referring to good works, just as such, turns the otherwise flowing progress of the letter into a jarring and rather scattered argument that has no clear reason for spending so much time on the Jews, and additionally makes nonsense out of Pauline passages like that quoted above from chapter 2.

All that being said, a lack of specific Scriptural support does not disprove any doctrine, unless one holds to the Regulative Principle (that anything which a Christian believes must be specifically affirmed by Scripture -- the trouble there being that the Regulative Principle is notable by its absence from the Bible). However, it does seriously jeopardize the position of sola fide as a pivotal doctrine in any systematic theology, and ought permanently to silence those who demand that this view of justification be affirmed, not just as a theological distinctive, but as a necessity for Christian orthodoxy.

Some might also appeal to the implicit message of the text, in an ironic nod to John Henry Newman, whose beliefs about the development of Christian doctrines found in seed form in the New Testament helped him enter the Catholic Church. However, Luther himself did not seem satisfied that St. Paul's text was sufficiently emphatic in implying the doctrine of sola fide, since -- in his German translation of the Bible -- he inserted the word "alone" into the text, drawing criticism from some quarters.

2. It lacks any clear support from the universal body of Christian tradition.

The Reformers were quite correct in pointing out that the Church has always defended the doctrine of salvation by grace alone, and no churchman was more notable for doing so than St. Augustine, the great upholder of the necessity of grace against the modernizing view of Pelagius, who taught that "grace" was really little more than a good example. The Catholic Church herself emphatically reaffirmed this teaching at the Council of Trent in the canons which deal with the doctrine of justification, reiterating the anathemas of both Pelagianism (the heresy that we save ourselves by our own efforts) and Semi-Pelagianism (the heresy that grace saves us in part, but we prepare ourselves for saving grace by our own unaided efforts).

This doctrine, however, is distinct from the teaching adopted by Luther, Calvin, and their followers. All were -- and are -- agreed that grace alone is the agent of salvation; or rather, that God is the agent of salvation, his salvation consisting entirely in gracious gift. The dispute lies in what instrument Divine grace works through.

Think of a flute. The air is the agent; the way its vibrations are manipulated by the flutist produces the music. The flute serves only as an instrument, to allow the air to be manipulated in a specific way. Likewise, God (the flutist) acts as Divine grace (the air) in the soul by means of faith (the flute). There is no question of whether the flutist or the air are necessary; only a lunatic would deny that they are. The dispute between Catholics and Protestants is about whether God is only a flutist, or also, say, a violinist; it is about whether God uses instruments other than faith to work upon the soul. The Catholic Church argues that He does, and that works of love are instruments, indeed related to and springing from faith but not simply the same thing as faith, which God uses to pour His grace into us, to help us grow in Him.

The classical Protestant contention is that God never plays any instrument except the flute -- that is, He does not work in us through any means except faith. Protestant Christians do not necessarily insist that He cannot; many have made such assertions but they are not an essential part of the doctrine.

However, Biblical support for this tends to work both ways (for instance, see Ephesians 2.8-10, where there is a vague "not of works" clause, but at the same time the apostle definitely designates good works as one of God's blessings on us); and as far as the church fathers and doctors up to the time of the Reformation -- well, the most we can say is that if they did believe it, they thought precious little about it. Many Protestants seem disposed to make the Reformed doctrine of justification the litmus test of Christian orthodoxy, yet when I began to read the fathers for myself, I found them spending a lot of time on things that seemed pretty Catholic -- the Eucharist, the authority of bishops and priests, church unity, penance -- and I don't recall ever coming across any writer who seemed to dispose to write about this problem at all. It could perhaps be argued that it was so taken for granted that nobody felt the need to write about it, but I don't think that argument is persuasive. Given the amount of time the church fathers and early apologists spent on something as basic as monotheism, one would think that, if sola fide were essential to Christianity, they would have taken at least as much trouble over that.

However, it should be admitted that this argument is suggestive -- not conclusive.

3. It can lend itself to Antinomianism.

This is the number one problem that occurs to most Catholics when they first encounter the doctrine of justification by faith alone. "So according to you," they are disposed to think (and say), "I can just have faith and then do whatever I want?"

Typically, a Protestant Christian will reply, "No, of course not," and proceed to explain (sometimes with a nod to the Epistle of James) that true faith always produces good works. Some Reformed thinkers sum up this element of the classical Protestant position by saying that we are justified by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone.

Many Catholics regard this as mere hairsplitting, and I'm not quite sure I disagree, but I believe it was on the strength of this proviso that Pope Benedict XVI (then Cardinal Ratzinger) announced to a somewhat surprised synod of Lutheran bishops that there was nothing to prevent this doctrine being reconciled with the actual meaning of the Catholic formulation of justification.

I have said that Protestants typically disagree with the critique offered by Catholics. This is because, sadly, there actually are certain rather ridiculous persons who really do affirm that one can have genuine faith and then sin however much we want all our lives and go to Heaven. I am by no means sure, but I gather that this school of thought is in some ways associated with the Reverend James Swaggart, and is sometimes framed in terms of "accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior" versus "accepting Jesus as Savior only"; formally, such a position would be called the Antinomian heresy. Needless to say, this has nothing to do with mainstream conservative Protestantism.

4. It can lend itself to an absolutist view of Christian growth.

In a reaction against the Antinomian abuse of sola fide just outlined, many Protestants will aver, not without Scriptural backing (e.g. James 2, Romans 6), that true faith naturally produces good works. Exceptions for accidental reasons might no doubt occur -- say, someone who converts on his deathbed and therefore has no time to do much of anything, bad or good. But of the person who claims to have converted and exhibits no change in lifestyle, or of the person who seems to be doing well for a while and then loses interest or actively rebels, we must assume that the conversion was a mirage.

This is a much more sensible position than the, as it were, unqualified form of justification through faith alone noted above. I gather that Luther himself initially expressed his views in terms which were taken by some to mean the view noted in point 3, and that when this fact emerged, he explained that what he had really meant was something more like the theory here. It does account for a good deal of what Scripture says; and it is certainly self-consistent.

The danger with this theory is twofold. One is simply that it suffers from the general defect of not being specifically asserted by Scripture and being seated very uncomfortably in an awful lot of Bible verses, including a good many from St. Paul, similar to those I noted in point 1. But it also tends to drive toward a moral error -- the opposite moral error of Antinomianism, called by moral theologians scrupulosity.

Basically, scrupulosity means making a big deal out of things that don't matter or making a bigger deal out of things that don't matter much. (Typically this problem is dealt with in the context of the confessional, where one must steer a path between scrupulosity and laxity, with the priest's help.) More generally, it can indicate a generalized and unhealthy anxiety about spiritual growth in general, often marked by self-flagellation or legalism, or both.

Consider. Just how good do you have to be to be regarded as having a "changed lifestyle"? How quickly? If there's a major area of sin in your life that you haven't dealt with, how long can it go on before it begins to suggest that your conversion was fraudulent or illusory? How sure can you be, really, that your conversion was sincere?

It will be said -- and rightly -- that this is the voice of the Accuser. But the Accuser frequently mixes truth with his lies, and, speaking from my own experience, the theology of justification sola fide offers absolutely no theological rejoinder to any of these questions. If it be argued that the proper rejoinder is that we are saved by grace and not by theology, I would agree that that is indeed how we are saved, but that the whole force of these questions is not about the source of salvation generally. It is about our own salvation, our own conversion, in particular. Salvation by grace is entirely irrelevant if we have not accepted grace to begin with; and if, in trying to reconcile sola fide with practical righteousness, we use our own practical righteousness as the litmus test of the reality of our conversion (as suggested by St. Peter in II Peter 1.10, especially in conjunction with James 2.14-18), every defect in that righteousness is a ground for doubt.

This form of error is seen with particular virulence in the heresy of certain fanatics whose origins lie in Pentecostalism, though -- having known Pentecostals who aren't insane -- I am hesitant to associate the two. There are some people who believe that genuine Christians cease to sin entirely from the moment of conversion; there are even some who claim to have done so. I have no wish to dwell at length on such people, since they are decidedly unrepresentative of Protestant Christianity in general, but I take note of them for the sake of thoroughness.

5. It actually contradicts the specific teaching of Scripture.

This upset me profoundly when I first came across it, and for many years I embraced the explanation offered by many Calvinist thinkers (I was raised in the Calvinist tradition), but it has -- for reasons I shall shortly explain -- ceased to satisfy me.

The problem is this:

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? ... So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead. Indeed someone may say, 'You have faith and I have works.' Demonstrate your faith to me without works, and I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works. ... Do you want proof, you ignoramus, that faith without works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by the works. Thus the Scripture was fulfilled which says, 'Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,' and he was called 'the friend of God.' See how a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. ... For just as a body without a spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead. James 2.14, 17-18, 20-24, 26

The primary problem here is precisely the juxtaposition of James 2.24 with the doctrine of sola Scriptura. If the Scriptures are indeed our only authority, then we are logically bound to deny justification through faith alone. For even if St. Paul implies that doctrine, he does no more; and the explicit sense of Scripture surely takes precedent over the implicit! Otherwise we should have to give credence to, for example, the Arian theory that because Christ is called the firstborn of all creation, which implies (or can be taken to imply) that He was Himself created, we must believe that, in spite of the explicit statement of St. John that the Word was God, all things were made through Him, and without Him not one thing was made that was made. But if -- as is no more than common sense -- the explicit affirmations of some parts of the Bible must be our guide for understanding the possible implications of other parts of the Bible, then we must use James 2 to interpret Romans 3, not Romans 3 to interpret James 2.

The traditional Reformed explanation of this passage is that St. James is responding to a specific situation, where people were abusing the doctrine of justification that St. Paul teaches in Romans, and that what the apostle really means is that true faith always produces works. Luther was not fully satisfied with this explanation, wanting for some time to expel James (among other books) from the canon. While I do not share his views on the canon or the niceties of this doctrine, I tend to agree with Luther in finding this account less than satisfactory -- partly because it relies on making something that St. Paul never explicitly says the backbone of our hermeneutic for, to all appearances, getting around something St. James does say quite explicitly; and partly because St. James does not, in fact, say it. This is not to say that the interpretation has no merit: it does do justice to some of what the apostle writes here, and it is a self-consistent hermeneutic. But I am distrustful of a hermeneutic which requires us to abandon the terminology of Scripture, not just to be part of a theological school, but even to be a Christian at all.

More significantly, the author of James actually seems to be going out of his way to not say what is attributed to him here by Reformed scholars. For he could easily have said what they assert, if that is what he meant. But what he actually says is that

Abraham our father [was] justified by works when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar[.] You see that faith was active along with the works, and faith was completed by the works. ... See how a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.

In other words, he is not approaching faith as the on/off switch that many Protestant Christians seem to claim it is. He views faith, and works with it, as a process of growth -- which is precisely what the Catholic Church teaches about justification. For our understanding of that term includes not only initial conversion, itself the first step on the path to righteousness (Latin justitia), but also the continuing process of advancing along that road to complete righteousness, complete holiness. St. James cannot really be any more explicit in making his point than he is in these verses. I prefer to take him at his word, and to confess, with Scripture, that we are justified by works and not by faith alone.