Archive for the ‘Thomas Aquinas’ Category

Was Killing Osama Bin Laden Just?

“For the United States, a Long-Sought Prize; for Obama, a Welcome Victory.” The New-York Times headline last week captures a critical truth about Bin Laden’s assassination: it carries more symbolic than strategic significance:

How much his death will affect Al Qaeda itself remains unclear. For years, as they failed to find him, American leaders have said that he was more symbolically important than operationally significant because he was on the run and hindered in any meaningful leadership role. And yet, he remained the most potent face of terrorism around the world and some of those who played down his role in recent years nonetheless celebrated his death.

Killing of any kind, even of someone as wicked as Osama bin Laden, should give us pause, as Patrick Clark observes over at In the Christian tradition, it is by no means a foregone conclusion that wicked people should be killed for their transgressions. Operative here are Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount:

You have heard it said ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth fora tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.

Thomists, following Augustine, do not take this passage as commanding passivism or non-resistance. Aquinas holds that is just to kill sinners “if a man be dangerous and infectious to the community, on account of some sin . . . in order to safegard the common good” (II-II, Q. 64, art. 2). In a bit of a departure from Augustine, Thomas also allows for killing in self-defense:

It is not necessary for salvation that a man omit the act of moderate self-defense in order to avoid killing the other man, since one is bound to take more care of one’s own life than of another’s. But as it is unlawful to take a man’s life, except for the public authority acting for the common good, as stated above (Article 3), it is not lawful for a man to intend killing a man in self-defense, except for such as have public authority, who while intending to kill a man in self-defense, refer this to the public good, as in the case of a soldier fighting against the foe, and in the minister of the judge struggling with robbers, although even these sin if they be moved by private animosity.

This passage forms the basis of the just war tradition which allows Christians to engage in warfare for the protection of the common good. There are, however, important limitations to the circumstances in which such killing might be justified, patricularly regarding proportionality and the protection of the innocent (II-II, Q. 64.2, ad. 1).

Thus, if killing Osama bin Laden was simply an act of self-defense, it would seem like a relatively unproblematic act in the Thomistic moral tradition. But it was not self-defense that most motivated his execution:

Mr. Obama called Mr. Bush on Sunday evening to tell him that Bin Laden had been killed. Shortly after Mr. Obama’s announcement at the White House, Mr. Bush issued a statement congratulating his successor, saying, “No matter how long it takes, justice will be done.”

What is this justice that has been done? I suggest it is rather vengeance that has been accomplished, “the infliction of a penal evil on one who has sinned,” as Aquinas defines it (II-II, Q. 108 art. 1). It is vengeance that has sent people dancing in the streets all over this country (or in the libraries as the case may be at my own Boston College, where amid celebrations, exams and papers still have to get done):

“I don’t know if it will make us safer, but it definitely sends a message to terrorists worldwide,” said Stacey Betsalel, standing in Times Square with her husband, exchanging high fives. “They will be caught and they will have to pay for their actions. You can’t mess with the United States for very long and get away with it.”

For Aquinas, vengeance is not evil in and of itself, but its moral evaluation depends on the mind of the avenger. If the intention of the avenger is evil of the person on whom she takes vengeance, the act is rendered unlawful,

because to take pleasure in another’s evil belongs to hatred, which is contrary to the charity whereby we are bound to love all men. Nor is it an excuse that he intends the evil of one who has unjustly inflicted evil on him, as neither is a man excused for hating one that hates him: for a man may not sin against another just because the latter has already sinned against him, since this is to be overcome by evil, which was forbidden by the Apostle, who says (Romans 12:21): “Be not overcome by evil, but overcome evil by good.”

Vengeance is only justified when the intention is good, “for instance that the sinner may amend, or at least that he may be restrained and others be not disturbed, that justice may be upheld, and God honored.” Moreover, vengeance, when motivated by an upright will, is actually a special virtue, reckoned under the virtue of justice: “Man resists harm by defending himself against wrongs, lest they be inflicted on him, or he avenges those which have already been inflicted on him, with the intention, not of harming, but of removing the harm done. . . Therefore vengeance is a special virtue” (II-II, Q. 108, art. 3).

I think there is a relatively good chance that a Thomist could justify vengeance in this case. Thomas even goes so far as to say that killing out of vengeance can be profitable to the common good. Notice, though, the contingency of these two sentences. Merely because vengeance can be justifiable does not mean it ought to be sought out. The justification of an act of vengeance depends on whether or not the act was prudent.

I want to suggest that in this case, killing Osama bin Laden was not prudent. First of all, it seems he was killed with relatively little resistance. With our highly-trained Navy Seals responsible for the mission, there is no reason that I can see that he could not have been captured and tried. Bin Laden’s capture could have prevented criticisms like the ones we see from his own family, published recently in the NYTimes:

If he has been summarily executed then, we question the propriety of such assassination where not only international law has been blatantly violated but USA has set a very different example whereby right to have a fair trial, and presumption of innocence until proven guilty by a court of law has been sacrificed on which western society is built and is standing when a trial of OBL was possible for any wrongdoing as that of Iraqi President Sadam Hussein and Serbian President Slobodan Miloševic’. We maintain that arbitrary killing is not a solution to political problems and crime’s adjudication as Justice must be seen to be done.

Moreover, Osama bin Laden’s execution resulted in the death of non-combatants, including a woman. The Christian tradition has a precedent that in executing vengeance, the “wheat should not be uprooted with the chaff,” and if the innocent suffer along with the guilty, vengeance ceases to be virtuous. Aquinas acknowledges that vengeance may be executed on a populace that bears a common guilt, thus providing a possible justification of the killing of a non-combatant in the execution, but again, only if in conformance with the demands of prudence:

On the other hand, if it is not the whole but only a part of the multitude that has sinned, then if the guilty can be separated from the innocent, vengeance should be wrought on them: provided, however, that this can be done without scandal to others; else the multitude should be spared and severity foregone. The same applies to the sovereign, whom the multitude follow. For his sin should be borne with, if it cannot be punished without scandal to the multitude: unless indeed his sin were such, that it would do more harm to the multitude, either spiritually or temporally, than would the scandal that was feared to arise from his punishment (II-II 108.1, ad. 5).

It is not clear to me that Osama bin Laden’s death has not caused a scandal, especially if the remarks made by his family are commonplace, as I suspect they are:

I Omar Ossama Binladin and my brothers the lawful children and heirs of the Ossama Binladin (OBL) have noted wide coverage of the news of the death of our father, but we are not convinced on the available evidence in the absence of dead body, photographs, and video evidence that our natural father is dead. Therefore, with this press statement, we seek such conclusive evidence to believe the stories published in relation to 2 May 2011 operation Geronimo as declared by the President of United States Barrack Hussein Obama in his speech that he authorized the said operation and killing of OBL and later confirmed his death. . .

In making this statement, we want to remind the world that Omar Ossam Binladin, the fourth-born son of our father, always disagreed with our father regarding any violence and always sent messages to our father, that he must change his ways and that no civilians should be attacked under any circumstances. Despite the difficulty of publicly disagreeing with our father, he never hesitated to condemn any violent attacks made by anyone, and expressed sorrow for the victims of any and all attacks. As he condemned our father, we now condemn the president of the United States for ordering the execution of unarmed men and women.

Relying on the political and moral realism of Aquinas, we don’t get clear answers to the justifiability of Bin Laden’s execution. We get no categorical statements like “Killing is always wrong” or “Christians should never pursue vengeance.” Both killing and vengeance have a place in Aquinas’ moral system. I am just not so sure they have a place in the recent execution of Osama Bin Laden. Regardless, as a Thomist, I am forced to sit uneasy with the president’s decision to call for his execution and not respond, as he did, with certainty about the justice of his actions.

Putting the “Sapor” Back in “Sapientia”

A couple of weeks ago, I assigned my students one of the hymns by the Wesley brothers to talk about Protestant challenges to the Eucharist (“Victim Divine, Thy Grace We Claim”). In their journals, many of my students reflected on how refreshing it was to read a hymn, even one that was so richly theological and complex as this one. As one student wrote, “Songs can be theology too.”

Indeed they can. This is one of the reasons I love studying the Medievals like Thomas Aquinas. Although Aquinas is known most for his Summa Theologica (which I think is a remarkably beautiful work even if it is intellectually rigorous), Aquinas also did theology in other forms besides the Scholastic disputational method we see in the Summa. For example, he wrote commentaries on Scripture, sermons, prayers, and yes, even songs. One of the most beautiful and most commonly sung is the “Tantum Ergo”:

Tantum ergo Sacramentum
veneremur cernui:
et antiquum documentum
novo cedat ritui:
praestet fides supplementum
sensuum defectui.
Genitori, Genitoque
laus et iubilatio,
salus, honor, virtus quoque
sit et benedictio:
procedenti ab utroque
compar sit laudatio.
Down in adoration falling,
Lo! the sacred Host we hail;
Lo! o’er ancient forms departing,
newer rites of grace prevail;
faith for all defects supplying,
where the feeble sense fail.
To the everlasting Father,
and the Son who reigns on high,
with the Holy Ghost proceeding
forth from Each eternally,
be salvation, honor, blessing,
might and endless majesty.

It is uncommon today for a theologian to do more than dapple in such a range of theological genres as someone like Aquinas, as my colleague Jana Bennett bemoans over at There are a lot of reasons for this (which she identifies), including time, ability, and tenure track requirements. One reason, however, that we do not witness the same aesthetic pursuit in academic theologians today as we did in the Medieval period may have to do with the way we think of wisdom.

In our post-Kantian world, wisdom is purely a matter of intellect. The wise person is the smart person, the educated person, the person who can make and win rigorous intellectual arguments. For the Medievals, wisdom is an intellectual virtue, but it is an intellectual virtue with a strong affective component. Take, for example, the following discussion from Denys the Carthusian’s Prefatory Questions on the Sentences:

Just as, then, those heroic men who are perfect in love, through the gift of wisdom that they have according to a perfect degree, are as it were the counselors, and secretaries, and the familiar friends of God, from whom they are strongly illuminated as they stand in a certain contact with the sun of uncreated Wisdom, and who by a supernatural and abundant internal taste know and taste the divine things to be believed and who judge well and certainly about the same things through the conformity and connaturality of their affections for them, so through the gift of understanding by which they are adorned to a perfect degree they understand most clearly, most certainly and most subtly those things that belong to our faith, and they also understand the connections and order of things to be believed and the supernatural reasonableness of the Catholic truth. . . Hence, this illumination is not given only to students in theology and to all of them, or to people who have great natural abilities, but to those who more stand out in their purity of heart and in their charity. One of these is the holy Brother Giles, who did not with say ‘I believe in God’ but rather “I know God.’ And another was the Seraphic Saint Francis.

Wisdom, it seems, is not just based in the intellect, but is based rather in “a supernatural and abundant taste of divine things to be believed.” Denys is appealing here to the etymology of wisdom [sapientia] which is rooted in sapor [to taste].

For Aquinas, wisdom is the gift of the Holy Spirit discussed in the context of his treatise on charity, a virtue rooted in the will. Aquinas treats wisdom both as an intellectual virtue (and intellectual gift), and as virtue with a strong affective component, rooted not just in the activity of the intellect, but also, and primarily, in the loving relationship (a connaturality) with God:

Wisdom denotes a certain rectitude of judgment according to the Eternal Law. Now rectitude of judgment is twofold: first, on account of perfect use of reason, secondly, on account of a certain connaturality with the matter about which one has to judge. Thus, about matters of chastity, a man after inquiring with his reason forms a right judgment, if he has learned the science of morals, while he who has the habit of chastity judges of such matters by a kind of connaturality (II-II, 45.2).

Returning to the quote from Denys, Aquinas would agree that the unschooled St. Francis was wise, not as a result of rigorous philosophical and theological study, but rather, because of the indwelling of grace that had brought him into union with God who is Wisdom himself. For Francis and others who possess such wisdom, their theological writings may lack the intellectual character of a figure like Aquinas, but are nevertheless still works of genuine wisdom. Francis did not need to study to be wise; the source of his wisdom was not learning but love.

What is the lesson here? As a theologian and an academic (like Thomas in kind but not in degree) I am firmly convicted that the study of theology is important for the development of wisdom. It is important to engage in disputation, to explore in depths the principles of the faith, and to deduce conclusions (especially ethical conclusions) from those principles. But it is also important, perhaps even more important, to “taste and see that the Lord is good.” The liturgy is a powerful source of this sapor, where the music and the psalms and the incense and the light infiltrating in through the stained glass all culminate in the reception of the Eucharist as the senses, intellect, and will are all brought into union with Christ who presents himself bodily at the altar. From this sapor, a different sapientia flows forth in poetry and song: “Sing, my tongue, the Savior’s glory, of His flesh the mystery sing,” as we sing with Thomas in the Pange Lingua.

The taste of this wisdom depends also on our ability to let ourselves be passive recipients of the God who offers himself to us. For Aquinas, wisdom is a gift of the Holy Spirit, a free gift of grace. Our inability to taste is often, I think, rooted in our desire to feed ourselves, rather than to let ourselves be fed. In the Anima Christi, we pray, “Blood of Christ, inebriate me,” indicating, I think, that we need to let our guard down, lose a little of our self control, and be rendered vulnerable to the working of the Spirit who offers us a foretaste of that Divine Banquet where “ we shall be drowned, lost in that ocean of divine love, annihilated in that immense love of the Heart of Jesus!”

Does Studying Theology Make Us Certain?

Those who are familiar with Thomas Aquinas know that he begins the Summa Theologica (his magnum opus) with the question as to how one can go about studying theology. In article two of that question, he asks whether theology is a science, and to answer, he makes a critical distinction so that he can answer that theology is, in one way at least, a science, thus making the Summa itself a work of science:

Sacred doctrine is a science. We must bear in mind that there are two kinds of sciences. There are some which proceed from a principle known by the natural light of intelligence, such as arithmetic and geometry and the like. There are some which proceed from principles known by the light of a higher science: thus the science of perspective proceeds from principles established by geometry, and music from principles established by arithmetic. So it is that sacred doctrine is a science because it proceeds from principles established by the light of a higher science, namely, the science of God and the blessed. Hence, just as the musician accepts on authority the principles taught him by the mathematician, so sacred science is established on principles revealed by God.

In other words, theology is a science, Aquinas says, if we understand it as a sort of “subalternated” science which derives its first principles from another science. Unlike other subalterated sciences like music or optics, however, theology derives its first principles from a non-demonstrable science. Godfrey of Fontaines explains why this is so:

[I]f theology were truly and properly a science after the model of a subalternated science in relation to a subalternating one, it would be necessary that the principles of theology that are had in this life be certain by the certitude of evidence at least in regard to knowledge that such is the case, and it would be necessary that there would be knowledge of why it is the case in the science the blessed have of these principles . . . So, in order that theology be science and that not only would there be faith regarding the conclusion of theology as there is regarding the principles, then regarding its principles it is necessary that they be not only believed but be known and evident. For, the type of evidence the principles have will determine the parallel type of evidence that the conclusion will have. For although a conclusion may be drawn from principles that are only believed and the consequence or the necessity of the consequence can be scientifically known, still the consequent and its necessity cannot be known scientifically from such principles (Quodlibet, IV, q. 10, 1287).

In other words, we might call music or optics a subalternated science because it derives its first principles from another science (arithmetic or geometry), or is subjected to other more proper sciences. Thus, an optician may proceed to study optics without having proper knowledge of the first principles of his science, which are derived from geometry. However, the optician may study geometry and in doing so, gain a more perfect knowledge of optics. Optics is thus subordinated or subalternated to geometry, but not in such a way that prevents a more perfect knowledge of optics through gaining a more perfect knowledge of its first principles through the study of another science.

Theology, as Godfrey points out, is not like this. Theology is based on first principles which do not come from another human science which may be studied, but rather from the science which exists in the mind of God and is consequently beyond all human understanding. “Science,” Godfrey tells us, is “a sure habit possessing both the certitude of evidence and the certitude of conviction,” which theology can never have because it is based in principles which are not certain but accepted on faith. In contrast to science, faith, Godfrey writes, is “a sure habit having only the certitude of conviction, not the certitude of evidence.” Faith may be stronger than opinion (which lacks both the certitude of evidence and conviction), but for Godfrey, because theology rests on revealed first principles which cannot be proved, it can only be faith and never science.

Is there a difference between Thomas and Godfrey? Maybe, but on the subject of theology as science, perhaps they can be reconciled. Thomas, like Godfrey, knows that the first principles of theology rest on faith. Such principles like the Trinity, Incarnation, and Eschaton cannot be proved, only believed. For Thomas, belief comes as a gift not only of intellectual propositions, but the gift of an actual relationship with God. The object of faith, while not convincing to the non-believer, is actually more certain than sensory knowledge because it is a knowledge based not only on the discursive intellect, but also the affections (as elevated by the gifts of the Holy Spirit). However, from those first principles, rational and logical conclusions can be drawn which enhance the knowledge one has of the first principles, and on this, Thomas and Godfrey are not in such disagreement. Godfrey writes:

So, when theology is posited as science, it is necessary that its principles become in some way evident and known or understood. In fact, evidence has to be of a kind that respects the excellence of its subject matter and the weakness of the human knower. Thus, to one instructed in theology, it is much more evident than to the simple layman that Christ, God and man, has risen, and how this is possible and not impossible. . . Therefore, even though such things are not as evident as are the principles of other sciences because of their lack of proportion to our intellect, still they are known by a kind of evidence that is sufficient. . . Concerning he kind of knowledge we have in theology, Augustine, in Book XIV of his De Trinitate, says: “Many of the faithful are not strong in this science, even though they are strong in the faith itself. For it is one thing to know what a man must believe in order to gain the blessed life; it is another thing to know how that which is believed may help the pious and be defended against the impious.”

So, both Aquinas and Godfrey show us that by studying theology, we are not making scientific arguments that will be convincing as science to the non-believer. However, by studying theology scientifically, that is, by logically deducing conclusions from revealed first principles, we do get a sort of science which is important, not because it makes our beliefs more convincing to the non-believer, but because we become more convinced, even in light of the opposition of non-believers. Thus, theology does enhance knowledge if conducted scientifically, even if we still might not be able to call theology a proper science.

This seems to me incredibly important today when so many believers, when faced with a materialist and empiricist scientific worldview, feel the need either to doubt or abandon their faith or to withdraw into a sectarian, anti-scientific stance. For this latter group, recovering the Medieval concept of theology as a science can help Christians engage the scientific community in a spirit of dialogue rather than polemics, and by incorporating the sciences into the study of theology, they may actually become better believers.

Is Lying Justified in the Effort to Stop Abortions?

A fascinating debate is taking place over at Mirror of Justice over the nature of the recent Live Action sting against Planned Parenthood in which two anti-abortion crusaders posed as underage sex traffickers in order to damage the credibility of Planned Parenthood. The debate first unfurled in the pro-life online journal Public Discourse between two pro-life philosophers—Christopher Tollefsen and Christopher Kaczor. Robert George summarizes:

Tollefsen and Kaczor agree that Planned Parenthood is a deeply malicious organization that should, by all legitimate means, be vigorously opposed by everyone who recognizes the humanity, dignity, and right to life of the child in the womb. The question in dispute between them is whether lying is a legitimate means. Tollefsen, in line with the teaching of St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, argues that lying is always and everywhere wrong, and may never be resorted to, even as a means of preventing wrongful killing and other grave injustices. His account of the moral wrongness of lying focuses on its damage to the integrity of the liar and to the relationship (the communio) of the liar and the person to whom the lie is directed—damage that is unavoidably done whether one’s lying is in a good cause or a bad one. Kaczor appeals to a counter tradition, one associated with Cassian and St. John Chrysostom, that maintains that there are narrow circumstances in which lying (to those who have “no right to be told the truth”) is permissible as a means of frustrating the efforts of a grave wrongdoer to achieve his evil objectives.

Aquinas, it is true, categorizes lying as a vice against justice. However, he also recognizes that not all lies bear the same moral weight:

Lies may be divided with respect to their nature as sins, and with regard to those things that aggravate or diminish the sin of lying, on the part of the end intended. Now the sin of lying is aggravated, if by lying a person intends to injure another, and this is called a “mischievous” lie, while the sin of lying is diminished if it be directed to some good–either of pleasure and then it is a “jocose” lie, or of usefulness, and then we have the “officious” lie, whereby it is intended to help another person, or to save him from being injured.(II-II, Q. 110, art 2).

As such, we might characterize Live Action’s lie as an officious one, with the intent to discredit Planned Parenthood enough to pull public funding, and hopefully diminish the organization’s power to perform abortions. The greater the good intended in the lie, Aquinas says, the more the sin is diminished. So Live Action is off the hook, right?

Actually, no. In the very next article, Aquinas goes on to say that every lie is a sin, by nature of its genus. Remember, for an action to be good, it must be good in every respect (object, end, and circumstance). In the reply to obj. 4 of the same article, he hammers the point home even more:

Now it is not allowed to make use of anything inordinate in order to ward off injury or defects from another: as neither is it lawful to steal in order to give an alms, except perhaps in a case of necessity when all things are common. Therefore it is not lawful to tell a lie in order to deliver another from any danger whatever. Nevertheless it is lawful to hide the truth prudently, by keeping it back, as Augustine says (Contra Mend. x).

And then, to complicate the issue even more, in article five he says that although all lies are sins, joking lies and officious lies are not mortal sins. So if Live Action’s lies were indeed officious, then maybe they don’t have all that much to worry about in the grand scheme of things.

Here’s why I don’t think Live Action’s lies can be considered officious–although a remote cause of their actions may have been to decrease the number of abortions performed by Planned Parenthood, this finality of their actions was remote indeed. More immediately, Live Action was trying to trap a Planned Parenthood worker in order to undermine her (and the entire agency). Their motive was malice towards neighbor, not beneficence (at least as I see it). Sure, Planned Parenthood is guilty of performing abortions, perhaps one of the gravest evils of our day. But it is fundamentally antithetical to Christian charity to “repay evil with evil.” Thus Aquinas says,

If, however, the false signification be about something the knowledge of which affects a man’s good, for instance if it pertain to the perfection of science or to moral conduct, a lie of this description inflicts an injury on one’s neighbor, since it causes him to have a false opinion, wherefore it is contrary to charity, as regards the love of our neighbor, and consequently is a mortal sin.

On this matter, Robert George concludes the issue in the way I think is most appropriate. Christians should not accept evil tactics (lies included) in a “just” fight. In doing so, like in war, the fight is rendered unjust. Christian hope looks to the nature of truth and goodness in themselves as ultimately victorious, and aligns themselves only for causes that fall under their banner. Moreover, if pro-life advocates are to be consistent, they must target their life affirming actions not only to the innocent unborn but also the guilty ones who participate in killing them. It hurts the pro-life cause to be selectively for certain lives and against others. And this is why it is hard to be pro-life—because it is hard to love your enemies. And yet, that is what we must do if our cause is going to prevail. everydaythomist will just let Robert George say it in a much better way than she can:

Catholics certainly, but non-Catholic pro-lifers, too, should reject lying even in the greatest of good causes. What we fight for is just and true, and truth—in its unparalleled splendor and luminosity—is the most powerful weapon in our arsenal. It is the truth about the precious life of the child in the womb, and about the consequences of abortion for women and men, and the effects of abortion on families, on the medical profession, and on society more broadly, that will ultimately enable us to build a culture of life—a culture in which, as Fr. Richard John Neuhaus prayed, “every child will be protected by law and welcomed in life.”

Professor Tollefsen is, I believe, profoundly right that we must not permit our cause to be sullied by lying. We must not abandon faith in the power of truth to transform those who oppose us in the great struggle over the protection of human life in all stages and conditions. We must not forfeit our standing in the debate as the tellers of truth.

Does this place us at a disadvantage in the struggle? Someone will say: the entire edifice of abortion is built on a foundation of lies—lies about the the biological status of the human being developing in the womb (“a mere clump of undifferentiated tissue, no different than a mole or a fingernail”); lies about the number of maternal deaths from illegal abortions prior to Roe v. Wade; lies about the so-called “medical necessity” of partial-birth abortions; and on and on. Why should we deny ourselves the use of weapons that many on the other side wield freely? Do we not deeply disadvantage our cause and, in that way, sin against its unborn victims by refusing to lie? Are we “keeping our hands clean” at the price of putting off the day when outfits like Planned Parenthood will be dumped onto the ash heap of history?

I understand the impatience; indeed, I share it. The edifice of abortion is indeed built on a foundation of lies. And in working to protect the victims of abortion, it is frustrating to hold ourselves to standards that so many on the other side freely disregard. But there are no moral shortcuts to victory in this struggle. A culture of life can only be built on a foundation of truth. Lying may produce short term victories, but it will, in the end, frustrate our long term objective. Respect for life—like respect for every other great human good and every other high moral principle—depends on love of truth. Our efforts in the cause of life and every other worthy goal will, in the end, prove to be self-defeating if they undermine love of truth.


The Challenge of Naturalism

At an ethics colloquium this week, I heard a professor tell a story (which I hope is okay to repeat here since both the storyteller and the subject of the story are anonymous) of a former theology student who had recently written with proud news of an upcoming publication on the topic of liturgy. She went on to tell him that she was flourishing in her job as the campus minister at a Catholic school. She had recently gotten into spiritual direction, which was going okay, despite the fact that she no longer believed in God, and overall, she was very happy with her life and career.

Wait. . . she no longer believes in God? In America, this is not as rare as you might think. While Europe is becoming increasingly more secularized, and the churches are becoming more and more empty, in the US, something else is happening. Externally, we are a very religious nation with a high percentage of churchgoers (about 47% of Americans attend a weekly religious service as opposed to about 20% in Europe). Nevertheless, there are signs that we are a nation a lot like this professor’s former theology student—involved in the act of religion without the corresponding belief. As Terence Nichols puts it in his very fine book The Sacred Cosmos:

Supernatural realities such as miracles, angels, afterlife, a sacred cosmos, and so on are rarely broached, at least in mainline Protestant denominations (and less and less so in Roman Catholic churches). God has become distant from everyday life. People may still believe in God, got to church, even pray, but without deep conviction. . .(8)

For Nichols, the problem is naturalism, “the belief that nature is all that exists, and that everything can be explained by natural causes and therefore by science. There is no nonmaterial reality, such as God.” The problem, he says, is deep and

. . . originates further back—with the separation of God from nature, a split that began in the late medieval and early modern period. This resulted in the (perceived) separation of god from everyday life that is so characteristic of contemporary secular societies. . .Ancient and medieval Christians lived in a sacred cosmos and saw nature as a window or sacrament that expressed the beauty, majesty, and glory of God. . . Sacraments make God present and invite the believer into a sharing of God’s presence. But for a sacrament to work, there has to be some similarity, some unity. . . If nature is seen sacramentally, rather than as an object to be investigated and used, it also can mediate the presence of God. Seen sacramentally, nature is a sacred cosmos, for whatever mediates God’s presence is sacred (9).

Instead of a sacred cosmos infused with the supernatural, what we have now, according to Nichols, is a universe completely subject to natural laws, where even religion (to quote E.O. Wilson), is subject to the explanations of the natural sciences. This metaphysical naturalism is the greatest challenge Christianity faces in the contemporary world. As Nichols puts it,

For if nature is all that exists, there cannot be any reality that is greater than and independent of nature. Nor can there be any hope of an afterlife, nor any means to really transcend our natural condition. The consoling grace of god, which frees us from sin, addictions, selfishness, hopelessness, and lovelessness, is, for naturalists, a fiction.

Must we then, as Christians, be anti-science in order to avoid the dangers poised by naturalism? Not at all. Christians have long held (rooted especially in the Thomistic tradition) that scientific naturalism is perfectly appropriate for the natural sciences. Science can tell us much of the world—how it originated, how it fits together, where it is headed. The laws of nature that scientists study are laws created by God and hence are very, very good.

But just because a scientist is committed to scientific naturalism, she need not commit herself also to metaphysical naturalism, i.e., the belief that these natural laws are all that exist. More specifically, a Christian evolutionary biologist very committed to the principles of natural selection need not conclude that simply because evolution exist, God does not. As Nichols points out, some of the greatest scientists were also Christian (Galileo, Newton, Descartes, Pascal, Max Plank). The problem is not evolution (or any other natural “law”), but rather, when evolution becomes an all-encompassing philosophy. Science and theology are meant to be complementary, not antagonistic.

No, the solution for Christians, what Christians need to do if they are to survive the naturalist challenge, is not reject science (and hence the “natural”), but rather, they need to recover the supernatural. In a Christianity Today article, Hwa Yung writes on this,

A careful reading of the Bible and the sheer weight of empirical evidence eventually brought me back to a supernatural Christianity. In this, I found myself out of sync with much of Western theology. Here liberals were at least consistent, but not evangelicals. Most liberals denied the supernatural both in the Bible and in the present; evangelicals fought tooth and nail to defend the miraculous in the Bible, but rarely could cope with it in real life.

Now, Yung is writing about the recovery of a more charismatic Pentecostal form of Christianity, which I am not arguing for here, but his basic point is sound. Christians need to recover the idea of the miraculous, the realm beyond science, the invisible, the graced. To describe how this might take place liturgically or in other Christian practices is beyond the scope of one blog post (though I would love to hear your thoughts), but at the very least, Christians can recover the supernatural in conversation. We can admit that knowledge of God is beyond the capacity of reason. The natural world can lead us towards God, but true knowledge is a supernatural gift, elevating the intellect beyond what it is naturally capable of.

We can also admit that simply because knowledge of God is a gift, and one which we do not experience fully in this life (see 1 John 3:2 and 1 Corinthians 13:12 for when we can expect full knowledge), we can still do theology. In other words, we can still speculate about God, and even do so “scientifically.” Thomas Aquinas tells us

Sacred doctrine is a science. We must bear in mind that there are two kinds of sciences. There are some which proceed from a principle known by the natural light of intelligence, such as arithmetic and geometry and the like. There are some which proceed from principles known by the light of a higher science: thus the science of perspective proceeds from principles established by geometry, and music from principles established by arithmetic. So it is that sacred doctrine is a science because it proceeds from principles established by the light of a higher science, namely, the science of God and the blessed. Hence, just as the musician accepts on authority the principles taught him by the mathematician, so sacred science is established on principles revealed by God (I, Q. 1, art. 2).

For Aquinas, the object of this science is God, and its principles are the articles of faith (things like the Incarnation and the Trinity). Sacred Scripture is important, but is of itself neither the object nor the principle of theology:

Such are the Trinity of Persons in Almighty God [The Leonine Edition reads: The Three Persons, the omnipotence of God, etc.], the mystery of Christ’s Incarnation, and the like: and these are distinct articles of faith. On the other hand certain things in Holy Writ are proposed to our belief, not chiefly on their own account, but for the manifestation of those mentioned above: for instance, that Abraham had two sons, that a dead man rose again at the touch of Eliseus’ bones, and the like, which are related in Holy Writ for the purpose of manifesting the Divine mystery or the Incarnation of Christ: and such things should not form distinct articles (II-II, Q. 1, art. 6).

And in the end, although theology is a matter of disputation (I, Q. 1, art. 8), it ultimately does not get us knowledge of God, but only a certain knowledge of God’s effects, and how those effect pertain to our salvation:

Although we cannot know in what consists the essence of God, nevertheless in this science we make use of His effects, either of nature or of grace, in place of a definition, in regard to whatever is treated of in this science concerning God; even as in some philosophical sciences we demonstrate something about a cause from its effect, by taking the effect in place of a definition of the cause.

Ultimately, the point of theology is not to render God understandable or to possess God, but rather, to seek a mysterious God in love. And when we talk of God (or do theology), it should be this gifted love that we communicate, especially to our friends in the natural sciences. We do not have to make Christianity “natural” in order to speak to scientists. We need rather to speak confidently, humbly, and reverently about the supernatural, and listen to what the sciences have to say about the natural. Maybe, with a little grace, we can actually get a conversation going in which the scientist learns a little about grace and eternal life, and the Christian learns a little about the world.

And this brings us back to naturalism. In terms of religion, naturalism pushes us to make all matters of faith matters of natural science. The Bible becomes an anthropological and sociological document, sacraments become merely rituals, God becomes an idea, and the afterlife becomes a naiveté. Christianity becomes a voluntary association that anybody can “do,” like the girl in the opening story of this post, rather than a graced invitation into a relationship with God. Terence Nichols expresses well the appropriate Christian response:

The greatest gifts of grace are faith, hope, and the love of God (1 Cor. 13) which, Paul tells us, is poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit that is given to us (Rom. 5:5). It is this love that allows us to love others, even enemies, and that characterizes the converted Christian life. Such a love is beyond our natural abilities. . . Christianity is not about rules and laws, guilt and fear of punishment, or extrinsic rewards. It is about grace: the experience of God’s transforming love and power in our lives that elevates and perfects our natural abilities and allows us to do more that we thought possible. In this sense, the life of every fully converted Christian moves beyond naturalism. It is god’s grace that makes the Christian practice of everyday life possible. And it is this same power of grace that one day will bring us to the resurrection, the ultimate transformation of nature, and to eternal life with God (226-27).

What Does Aquinas Have to Say About Egypt?

Jim, over at Zwinglius Redivivus, has a post entitled “Egypt Burns, and the Theologians and Biblical Scholars Remain Silent.” He writes,

Nothing really needs to be added to that title except one blazingly evident fact: too many are so involved in pointless pursuits and the useless drivel and dreck of their own limited interests that they are blind to what’s going on around them and voiceless.

Therefore they are, as far as I am concerned, worthless. If the teaching of Scripture isn’t applied to real life (as opposed to attempting to apply it to sci-fi and other stupidities) and theologians and biblical scholars have nothing to say to or about events such as we are presently witnessing, I think they have proven themselves unworthy of the title they bear and no longer relevant to anything, for anything at all.

I don’t normally read his blog (I found this post through a link on another blog), but Jim has a point. What say we blogger theologians about the events unfolding in the largest country in the Middle East?

Aquinas, following Aristotle, is clearly a supporter of a people’s right to rise up against an unjust tyrant. He writes in “On Kingship”

If to provide itself with a king belongs to the right of a given multitude, it is not unjust that the king be deposed or have his power restricted by that same multitude if, becoming a tyrant, he abuses the royal power. It must not be thought that such a multitude is acting unfaithfully in deposing the tyrant, even though it had previously subjected itself to him in perpetuity, because he himself has deserved that the covenant with his subjects should not be kept, since, in ruling the multitude, he did not act faithfully as the office of a king demands.

He is also wary of civil unrest. He goes on in “On Kingship” to say, “The welfare and safety of a multitude formed into a society lies in the preservation of its unity, which is called peace.” However, his more systematic response to the disorder caused by political revolution is in the Summa, in the treatise on sedition (contained within the larger treatise on charity, not justice, as you may be surprised to know). In II-II 42.1, Aquinas identifies sedition (“when one state rises in tumult against another part”) as a sin “opposed to a special kind of good, namely the unity and peeace of a people.” In 42.2, he cites Augustine (De Civ. Dei ii, 21) that “‘wise men understand the word ‘people’ to designate not any crowd of person, but the assembly of those who are united together in fellowship recognized by law and for the common good.’ Wherefore it is evident that the unity to which sedition is opposed is the unity of law and common good: whence it follows manifestly that sedition is opposed to justice and the common good.”

Aquinas’ comments on sedition in the Summa are not opposed to what he says in “On Kingship.” In “On Kingship,” the overthrow of an unjust tyrant is an expression of unity on behalf of the common good. He confirms this in 42.2 ad. 1: “It is lawful to fight, provided it be for the common good. But sedition runs counter to the common good of the multitude, so that it is always a mortal sin.” And in the same article ad. 3, he says even more explicitly:

A tyrannical government is not just, because it is directed, not to the common good, but to the private good of the ruler, as the Philosopher states (Polit. iii, 5; Ethic. viii, 10). Consequently there is no sedition in disturbing a government of this kind, unless indeed the tyrant’s rule be disturbed so inordinately, that his subjects suffer greater harm from the consequent disturbance than from the tyrant’s government. Ondeed it is the tyrant rather that is guilty of sedition, since he encourages discord and sedition among his subjects, that he may lord over them more securely; for this is tyranny, being conducive to the private good of the ruler, and to the injury of the multitude.

In other words, Aquinas would probably say that a lawful uprising in accord with the common good simply is not sedition, in the same way that taking food from another when one’s life is in danger is not stealing (II-II, 66.7). Since neither are opposed to the common good, neither are sins.

So this brings us to Egypt. There is some fear among US onlookers that the uprising is the work of the Muslim Brotherhood, which could potentially be contrary to the common good (especially the small group of Egyptian Coptics). But Egypt’s Islamist opposition has vowed to “respect the will of the Egyptian people” if Mubarak is disposed. Moreover, the uprising is more eclectic than merely the Muslim Brotherhood, as the Guardian notes:

“There is widespread exaggeration about the role of the Brotherhood in Egyptian society, and I think these demonstrations have exposed that,” said Khalil al-Anani, an expert on Egypt’s political Islamists at Durham University. “At first the movement showed little interest in the protests and announced they weren’t going to participate; later they were overtaken by events and forced to get involved or risk losing all credibility.” . . .

. . . Even on Friday, when the Brotherhood finally threw its weight behind efforts to bring down the government – a stance its leadership initially held back from – Islamist slogans were noticeable by their absence, and the formal contribution of the movement remained limited.

The Egyptian revolution, therefore, does not seem to fit the criteria for sedition. Rather, it seems the whole nation, and especially the youth, are rising collectively to challenge the injustices of a tyrant. Still, the unrest in the country definitely endangers the common good, and needs to be settled as quickly as possible.

Paul VI wrote in Populorum Progressio in 1967, keeping largely with the Thomistic tradition, “We know . . . that a revolutionary uprising–save where there is a manifest, long-standing tyranny which would do great damage to fundamental personal rights and dangerous harm to the common good of the country–produces new injustices, throws more elements out of balance and brings on new disasters. A real evil should not be fought against as the cost of greater misery.”

Although the mood is celebratory, the violence can escalate rapidly. Nik Kristof blogs from Cairo

The people I talked to mostly insisted that the army would never open fire on civilians. I hope they’re right. To me, the scene here is eerily like that of Tiananmen Square in the first week or so after martial law was declared on May 20, 1989, when soldiers and citizens cooperated closely. But then the Chinese government issued live ammunition and ordered troops to open fire, and on the night of June 3 to 4, they did – and the result was a massacre.

In the past, the army famously refused President Sadat’s order to crack down on bread riots, and maybe they won’t crack down this time. But I’ve seen this kind of scenario unfolding before in Indonesia, South Korea, Mongolia, Thailand, Taiwan and China, and the truth is that sometimes troops open fire and sometimes they don’t. As far as I can see, Mubarak’s only chance to stay in power is a violent crackdown – otherwise, he has zero chance of remaining president. And he’s a stubborn old guy: he may well choose to crack heads; of course, whether the army would follow orders to do so is very uncertain. The army is one of the few highly regarded institutions in Egyptian society, and massacres would end that forever.

One troubling sign is that the government isn’t showing signs of backing down. It used fighter planes to buzz Tahrir, in what surely seems an effort to intimidate protesters. It moved the curfew even earlier today, to 3 pm. It has sent the police back into some areas. The Internet remains shut off. And the state media continue to be full of lies. None of that sounds like a government preparing to bow to the power of the people.

It seems clear that Mubarak needs to go, but his overthrow will only be moral so long as the scale tips in balance of the common good.

Celebrating the Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas

In order to celebrate the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, saint and doctor from whom this blog draws its inspiration, I wanted to dedicate this post to the words Aquinas spoke in his inaugural lecture at the University of Paris in 1256 when he took his post as regent master. You can find the whole speech in the collection of selected writings edited by Simon Tugwell, O.P. Reflecting on Psalm 103:13

Watering the earth from his things above,
the earth will be filled from the fruit of your works.

St. Thomas writes:

The king of the heavens, the Lord, established this law from all eternity, that the gifts of his providence should reach what is lowest by way of things that are in between . . . This is why the Lord uses a metaphor taken from bodily things to express the law, stated in the psalm, which is observed in the communicating of spiritual wisdom: “Watering the mountains . . . ” We see with our bodily senses that rain pours down from the things that are above in the clouds, and watered by the rain the mountains produce rivers, and by having its fill of these the earth becomes fertile. Similarly the minds of teachers, symbolized by the mountains, are watered by the things that are above in the wisdom of God, and by their ministry the light of divine wisdom flows down into the minds of students. . .

Three aspects of the manner in which this teaching is acquired are alluded to in our text:
(1) The manner in which it is communicated, with reference both to the magnitude and to the quality of the gift received. The teachers’ minds do not have the capacity to hold all that is contained in God’s wisdom, and so it does not say, “Pouring things above onto the mountains” but “Watering them from things above. In the same way the teachers do not pour out before their hearers all that they understand. “He heard secret words which it is not lawful to speak to anyone” (2 Cor. 12:4). So it does not say, “Passing on the fruit of the mountains to the earth, but “giving the earth its fill from the fruit.” . . .

(2)The text alludes secondly to the manner in which this teaching is possessed. God possesses wisdom by nature, and this is why the “things above” are said to be his, because they are natural to him. “With him is wisdom” (Job 12:13). But teachers share abundantly in knowledge and so they are said to be “watered from things above.” “I will water the garden of plants” (Ecclus. 24:42). But students have an adequate share in knowledge, and this is symbolized by the earth being filled. “I shall have my fill when your glory appears” (Ps. 16:15).

(3) Thirdly, with reference to the power to communicate, God communicates wisdom by his own power, and so he is said to water the mountains by himself. But teachers can only communicate wisdom in a ministerial role, and so the fruit of the mountains is not ascribed to them, but the the works of God: “From the fruit of your works,” it says. “So what is Paul? . . . The ministers of him whom you have believed” (I Cor. 3:4-5).

But “who is capable of this?” (2 Cor. 2:16). What God requires is ministers who are innocent (“The one who walks a spotless path is the one who has been my minister,” Psalm 100:6), intelligent (“An intelligent minister is pleasing to his king,” Prov. 14:35), fervent (“You make spirits your messengers and your ministers a burning fire,” Psalm 103:4) and obedient (“His ministers who do his will,” Psalm 102:21).

However, although no one is adequate for this ministry by himself and from his own resources, he can hope that God will make him adequate. “Not that we are capable of a single though on our own resources, as if it came from us, but our adequacy is from God” (2 Cor. 3:5). So the teacher should ask God for it. “If people lack wisdom, they should beg for it from God and it will be given them” (James 1:5). May Christ grant this to us.

St. Thomas reminds us that the vocation of a teacher is a gift, for it is God who is the source of all wisdom, and it is God who makes the minister of His word able to communicate this wisdom to little ones. But he also reminds us how integral teaching and learning are to God’s providence, for it is by teaching and learning that we receive God’s wisdom, which is the source of all our happiness.

Aquinas gave this lecture when he was only 31. St. Thomas Aquinas, pray for us as we teach and learn.

The Virtues of Parenting

My husband I do not yet have children, so forgive me if I seem to be speaking beyond my area of expertise. Parenting has been on my mind a lot recently in light of certain articles of interest. First, David Brooks’ piece in this week’s New York Times is excellent, and responds critically to the author of the new controversial book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua. Chua’s book is a reflection on her own experience as a “typical Asian mother”: strict and uncompromising in discipline, rigorous in achievement, and unapologetic about the incredible pressure she placed on her children. In “Amy Chua is a Wimp,” Brooks writes perspicaciously

Chua’s critics echoed the familiar themes. Her kids can’t possibly be happy or truly creative. They’ll grow up skilled and compliant but without the audacity to be great. She’s destroying their love for music. There’s a reason Asian-American women between the ages of 15 and 24 have such high suicide rates.

I have the opposite problem with Chua. I believe she’s coddling her children. She’s protecting them from the most intellectually demanding activities because she doesn’t understand what’s cognitively difficult and what isn’t.

Practicing a piece of music for four hours requires focused attention, but it is nowhere near as cognitively demanding as a sleepover with 14-year-old girls. Managing status rivalries, negotiating group dynamics, understanding social norms, navigating the distinction between self and group — these and other social tests impose cognitive demands that blow away any intense tutoring session or a class at Yale.

While I wonder how Brooks knows the cognitive demands of a 14-year old sleepover, I do think he is onto something here. Personal achievement is more than the score one achieves on an exam or the chair one earns in the orchestra. It is about holistic functioning within complex group dynamics. He goes on

This skill set is not taught formally, but it is imparted through arduous experiences. These are exactly the kinds of difficult experiences Chua shelters her children from by making them rush home to hit the homework table.

The implication is that parents do best by their children if they not only push them to excel academically and in extracurricular activities, but also if they encourage them to participate in complex social interactions where they can develop their more emotionally-based cognitive activity like “the ability to trust people outside your kinship circle, read intonations and moods, understand how the psychological pieces each person brings to the room can and cannot fit together.”

The problem is that, as an excellent blog post on dot Commonweal observes, kids these days are doing pretty atrocious things in their group interactions that can seriously thwart personal achievement and overall flourishing. In his discussion of the MTV show “Skins,” Eduardo Peñalver cites Matt Zoller Seitz:

Is “Skins” bad for kids? Well, if shows directly influence behavior, over and above whatever morals that parents teach their kids – a big “if” — then yeah, maybe, I guess so. But on the other hand, I have yet to witness a scenario in either series that I didn’t personally fantasize about in some form or another when I was the same age as the teens that comprise this program’s target demographic. When I was in eighth grade (prime “Skins” age, I’m guessing) I snuck into explicitly violent and/or sexual R-rated films almost every weekend, furtively tried out adult substances, and spent hours futzing with the aerial on top of my parents’ TV set after they went to sleep hoping to catch a fleeting glimpse of fornication on a scrambled pay-per-view broadcast channel. If I were that age again in 2011, I’d probably watch “Skins” religiously for a couple of seasons, then get bored and move on to something else. The series would have been absorbing, silly, sexy and trashy no matter what critics said about it. The fact that it’s officially considered Bad for Kids makes it awesome.

Peñalver responds as I would: “it seems a little strained to call the idea that a show like this might influence kids’ behavior “a big ‘if’.”” If 14 year-olds are doing the sort of things portrayed on “Skins,” Brooks is right to call their sleepover parties “cognitively taxing.” More likely, such sleepovers are cognitively ruinous. It is no surprise that parents like Chua want to reign kids in with strict discipline and high expectations, even if it means social ruin, in order to save them from the sort of life ruin adolescent social interactions often lead to.

The challenge for parents is how to find a balance between pushing their kids to be the best they can be and letting their kids find their own way by watching their friends, experimenting, and making mistakes. The best solution I have seen recently was on my own new favorite television show “Modern Family.” In the most recent episode “Our Children Ourselves,” Phil and Claire Dunphy try and get their high-achieving daughter Alex to relax in fear that she is pushing herself too hard to be the top of the class (great scene with Phil and Claire staring on as Alex jumps on a trampoline, arms crossed, in the middle of the night). When Alex comes in second in the class, she tells her parents that she simply cannot compete with Sanjay, the first in the class who has a doctor and a professor for parents. “I’m doing the best with what I have.”

What ensues is a beautiful effort on behalf of Claire as she tries to prove herself to her daughter by going to a French film with Sanjay’s parents rather than attending the film of her choice–Croctopus. But her efforts fail, and Claire falls asleep during the film, bereft at the fact that she cannot live up to her daughter’s perceived needs. She leaves the theater not only confirming Brooks’ conclusion that social competence is sometimes more important than intellectual achievement (Sanjay’s father cannot work the parking validation machine), but also feeling more competent in her role as a parent, with the unique talents she brings to the table. Most importantly, she leaves the theater with renewed love for her husband and daughter and the family they try to make work.

Aquinas had firsthand experience with overbearing parents. His own father ordered the kidnapping of the adolescent Aquinas when he went off to join the new mendicant order of the Dominicans, the “Begging Friars.” As Chesterton writes,

[Thomas] said he wished to be a Friar, and his family flew at him like wild beasts; his brothers pursued him along the public roads, half-rent his friar’s frock from his back and finally locked him up in a tower like a lunatic.

Chua should know that we have a tradition of “tiger parenting” in the west too. But the moral of the story is that Aquinas would become what he became, try as his parents might to stop him. He would be a beggar and a philosopher, not an abbot and a politician. Chua’s children too will become what they become, despite her effort to “keep them in check.” In the end, parents must realize that the little life in front of them is not their own, not a precious commodity to be fostered into perfection, but a gift and a loan from the Creator who calls us all to our own vocation.

In the end, prudence is one of the most important virtue for a parent. In perfecting parents morally and intellectually, prudence allows parents to deliberate, judge, and command well in their role as steward over a new life. But no less important is hope, by which a parent is able to endure the difficulties of not knowing where their child will end up, but still maintaining the confidence that he or she is in the hands of God.

The Justice of Restricting Welfare Spending

This week, the Boston Herald revealed that Massachusetts welfare recipients have absolutely no restrictions on what they spend their government aid on:

Bay State welfare recipients can play the slots, pick up a six-pack of beer or nab a flat-screen plasma TV under loosey-goosey Bay State restrictions that allow those on the dole to treat taxpayers’ wallets as their own personal ATM.

Recipients of the Department of Transitional Assistance programs get Electronic Benefits Transfer cards that work like regular debit cards, allowing them to withdraw cash from ATMs and use it for whatever they want – all with scant oversight by the state.

Two days before the Herald revealed this, NY Mayor Michael Bloomberg sought federal permission to restrict the almost 2 million New York City food stamp recipients from using government-sponsored food stamps to buy soda and other sugary beverages. Bloomberg’s motivation is part of an overall anti-obesity campaign after a failed attempt to impose a “fat tax” on sodas (a move which everydaythomist supports). According to the NYTimes,

Public health experts greeted Mr. Bloomberg’s proposal cautiously. George Hacker, senior policy adviser for the health promotion project of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said a more equitable approach might be to use educational campaigns to dissuade food-stamp users from buying sugared drinks.

“The world would be better, I think, if people limited their purchases of sugared beverages,” Mr. Hacker said. “However, there are a great many ethical reasons to consider why one would not want to stigmatize people on food stamps.”

The fear of stigmatizing welfare and food stamp recipients is doubtless one of the reasons that Massachusetts and other states place no limitations on how government aid may be spent (the Herald also revealed that California welfare recipients spent $1.8 million in government aid on casinos). However, Bloomberg’s effort to restrict food stamp expenditure on sodas (which have no nutritional value) reveals that placing restrictions on how food stamps may be used can also be an act of justice.

Aquinas sees an important role for human laws in society, but his understanding of the role of law is contextualized within his understanding of virtue:

Man has a natural aptitude for virtue; but the perfection of virtue must be acquired by man by means of some kind of training. Thus we observe that man is helped by industry in his necessities, for instance, in food and clothing. Certain beginnings of these he has from nature, viz. his reason and his hands; but he has not the full complement, as other animals have, to whom nature has given sufficiency of clothing and food. Now it is difficult to see how man could suffice for himself in the matter of this training: since the perfection of virtue consists chiefly in withdrawing man from undue pleasures, to which above all man is inclined, and especially the young, who are more capable of being trained. Consequently a man needs to receive this training from another, whereby to arrive at theperfection of virtue. And as to those young people who are inclined to acts of virtue, by their good natural disposition, or by custom, or rather by the gift of God, paternal training suffices, which is by admonitions. But since some are found to be depraved, and prone to vice, and not easily amenable to words, it was necessary for such to be restrained from evil by force and fear, in order that, at least, they might desist from evil-doing, and leave others in peace, and that they themselves, by being habituated in this way, might be brought to do willingly what hitherto they did fromfear, and thus become virtuous. Now this kind of training, which compels through fear of punishment, is the discipline of laws (I-II, Q. 95, art.1)

This is a long quote but it essentially means that the primary purpose of law is to restrain people from those vicious acts they are inclined to commit which prevent them from developing the virtue necessary to live a good life. Human law is rooted in the natural law, but, unlike the natural law, human law is not universal, but varies from group to group: “The general principles of the natural law cannot be applied to all men in the same way on account of the great variety of human affairs: and hence arises the diversity of positive laws among various people” (I-II, Q. 95, art. 2, ad. 3). Moreover, citing Isidore, Aquinas affirms that human law should be “just, possible to nature, according to the customs of the country, and adapted to place and time” in order to foster discipline (I-II, Q. 95, art. 3, c.).

With this in mind, we can look at restricting welfare expenditure as an appropriate use of human law. Those who are on welfare and food stamps are, for various reasons (many of them good ones) dependent on the government in order to manage economically. Ideally, the goal (or telos) of welfare legislation is to allow economically disadvantaged individuals to flourish through the development of virtue. Unrestricted welfare aid may seem merciful in that it strives to protect such individuals from discrimination, but it also fails to provide the restrictions necessary for the development of virtue. By restricting food stamp and welfare expenditure for items like cigarettes, alcohol, lottery tickets, and, yes, even sodas, the poor are taught through coercive legal measures, how to act in such ways that are conducive to the development of the virtues necessary to flourish, virtues like moderation in consumption, prudence in purchasing, and health in eating.

This may seem paternalistic and discriminatory, and, in a way, it is. But paternalism and discrimination are not necessarily counterproductive to the goals of justice, at least from a Thomistic perspective. Justice demands that each is given what is due to him or her, and if we are going to say that justice demands government expenditure for welfare and food stamps (which I think it does), then it is also perfectly reasonable and just to place restrictions on how such aid may be used in order to accomplish the just goals which justify its very existence. When people use welfare money on lottery tickets and cigarettes and alcohol, they are not becoming more virtuous; they are becoming dependent on nicotine, potentially abusive of alcohol, imprudent consumers, and more dependent on the government for their subsistence.

Restricting food stamp expenditure on soda may seem a step too far. However, the goal (telos) of food stamp money is to ensure that poorer individuals and families have access to the nutrition necessary to flourish. Soda is completely contrary to this telos. Sodas provide no nutritional value, and worse, contribute to obesity-related health problems that tax the healthcare system and endanger lives. Bloomberg’s proposal is discrimination, but it is a just discrimination which will hopefully receive the support the “fat tax” on sodas failed to get.

Prayer and Contemplation

In the Commentary on Lombard’s Sentences, Aquinas took “prayer” to mean specifically the “petition for the things needed for this life.” In the Summa, Aquinas defines prayer as “an ascent of the intellect to God.” (II-II, Q. 83, art. 17). Both of these descriptions focus on the intellect. It is the intellect, especially as perfected by the virtue of prudence, which discerns what the needs of life are, and the intellect which inclines to God in prayer.

We are accustomed to thinking of prayer as a highly intellectual pursuit, a matter of thinking, discerning, and speaking. Accordingly, prayer is intentional. We might set aside time to pray, or designate a specific part of the house as a spot for prayer. However, more often than not, many of us find our mind racing or wandering to topics often unholy during our intentionally designated prayer times. Even when our minds do not wander, we might fumble around for the right words to say, or worry that our petitions and offerings of praise are inadequate. As a result, we may emerge from our times of prayer intensely dissatisfied.

One solution to this problem is to focus more attention on contemplative prayer. The contemplative Carmelite William McNamara described contemplation as “a pure intuition of being, born of love. It is experiential awareness of reality and a way of entering into immediate communion with reality.” Jesuit Walter Burghardt calls contemplation a “long loving look at the real.”

As a Dominican, contemplation was integral to Aquinas’ spirituality. What is wonderful about contemplation is that it is largely not an intellectual pursuit, but rather, a passionate, emotional, even intuitive endeavor. Aquinas writes, citing Gregory that “the contemplative life is to cling with our whole mind to the love of God and our neighbor, and to desire nothing beside our Creator.” He goes on,

Now the appetitive power moves one to observe things either with the senses or with the intellect, sometimes for love of the thing seen because, as it is written (Matthew 6:21), “where thy treasure is, there is thy heart also,” sometimes for love of the very knowledge that one acquires by observation. Wherefore Gregory makes the contemplative life to consist in the “love of God,” inasmuch as through loving God we are aflame to gaze on His beauty. And since everyone delights when he obtains what he loves, it follows that the contemplative life terminates in delight, which is seated in the affective power, the result being that love also becomes more intense (II-II, Q. 18o, art. 1)

He says later in the same question:

Although the contemplative life consists chiefly in an act of the intellect, it has its beginning in the appetite, since it is through charity that one is urged to the contemplation of God. And since the end corresponds to the beginning, it follows that the term also and the end of the contemplative life has its being in the appetite, since one delights in seeing the object loved, and the very delight in the object seen arouses a yet greater love. Wherefore Gregory says (Hom. xiv in Ezech.) that “when we see one whom we love, we are so aflame as to love him more.” And this is the ultimate perfection of the contemplative life, namely that the Divine truth be not only seen but also loved.

Contemplation is, therefore, a lot like falling in love. Contemplation is the passionate discovery of God’s delightfulness. I say “passionate” because contemplation, like love, emerges from something deep within us, from our appetites which incline us, often unconsciously, toward the good and the beautiful.

Walter Burghardt writes that contemplation, understood as the “long loving look at the real”

means that my whole person reacts. not only my mind, but my eyes and ears, smelling and touching and tasting. Not senses utterly unshackled; for at times reason must temper the animal in me. But far more openness, far more letting-go, than we were permitted of old, in a more sever spirituality, where, for example, touch was “out,” because touch is dangerous. No one ever thought of reminding us that free will is even more dangerous. Or cold reason.

Contemplation is integral to the life of prayer, but it cannot be forced. Rather, we must cultivate a capacity for the contemplative life, even in the midst of our busy activities. Burghardt offers five suggestions:

First, seek out some sort of desert experience. This does not need to be some sort of long, drawn-out ascetic withdrawal from life, but rather, an experience that “brings you face to face with solitude, with vastness, even with powers of life and death beyond your control.” A desert experience is simply something that interrupts the routine of your day-to-day life in a way that makes you slightly uncomfortable and heightens your awareness and perception of the unfamiliar world around you.

Second, cultivate a feeling for festivity, the experience of doing something utterly lacking in utilitarian value. Closely related is the third suggestion: cultivate a sense of play. Both festivity and play are contrary to work. Watch children who spend hours playing dress-up or other games of make-believe and you will understand the spirit of festivity and play. Both are linked to a sense of awe and wonder: “Let your imagination loose to play with ideas–what it means to be alive, to be in love, to believe and to hope.”

Fourth, learn to let go, to not posses, to let experiences and things be ephemeral. Most of us are conditioned when we see something beautiful–a sunset, a flower, a cute puppy, or our own children–to take a picture. The contemplative life savors the moment but lets it pass.

Finally, make contemplative friends, friends who radiate wonder, whose sense of delight is finely tuned. I have a very dear Jesuit friend and colleague who has taught me more about the contemplative life than I could ever learn from study. He does his morning prayer in the woods and though he has seen the same herons lighting on the water in the early morning light for the last five years, he still does not fail to mention each sighting in conversation with awe and wonder. The word I hear most from him is “amazing,” which he usually says in a loud voice, eyes sparking, wide smile on his face. Nothing is too simple to be “amazing” for him, be it a Rush concert, a line from Aquinas or Cicero, a sip of single malt scotch, or a heron searching for fish in the shallow water.

This particular friend offers perhaps the best advice for cultivating the contemplative life: think about your life, think about those moments where you experience the most profound delight and the strongest affective pull towards God, and be more intentional about seeking out those experiences. If you find it in gardening, garden more. In running, run more. In looking at art, get a season pass to a museum. For each of us, the contemplative life will look different. But if we are to have a meaningful life of prayer, a life where we “pray without ceasing,” cultivating the contemplative life is indispensable.

And to my dear friend, Father Nick Austin, SJ, who is now preparing to return to England to continue his career in moral theology and parish life, I give you my thanks for all that you have taught me about the contemplative life. The world is thirsty for people like you whose entire being radiates in love for God. You, my friend, have chosen the best part, which shall not be taken away from you (Lk. 10:42).


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