Christian Conscientious Objection to War

“I think that Jesus would have turned his cheek once or twice but he never would have let anyone punk him around.”

Hearing a fellow soldier reason in such a way as he abused an Iraqi prisoner marked a turning point for Josh Stieber in his own reasoning about Christian participation in the war in Iraq: “Hearing him say it that way just made it sound so ridiculous. Here we supposedly had faith in this guy who very clearly was punked around, and ended up living and dying with sacrificial love. From then on, I really had to face the fact that I couldn’t have it both ways. Either I was going to try to find this inward reality where sacrificial love was possible for a higher goal, or I was going to let self-defense be my ultimate value.”

The above-cited Slate interview with Stieber follows closely on the heels of a recent NYTimes article about Michael Izbicki, a midshipman who, like Stieber, filed for a discharge as a conscientious objector.

Academy graduates accounted for only a dozen of the roughly 600 applicants for the special status between 2002 and 2010, spokesmen for the service branches said. Of those requests, fewer than half were approved. And like many of the other academy applicants, according to lawyers who handle such cases, Mr. Izbicki won his discharge only by taking his petition to federal court.

The Navy rejected Mr. Izbicki’s application twice, questioning the sincerity of his beliefs despite the support of several Navy chaplains and the testimony of two Yale Divinity School faculty members who said his religious convictions seemed to be mature and sincere.

One Navy commander suggested that the pacifist strain of Christianity that Mr. Izbicki embraced was inconsistent with mainstream Christian faith. The same commander likened the Quakers, who supported Mr. Izbicki, to the Rev. Jim Jones and his People’s Temple, a suicide cult.

What is interesting about both of these cases is the way in which both Stieber and Izbicki challenged the “spirit of compromise” in the Christian tradition regarding warfare. This spirit of compromise is often attributed to Augustine, who said that sometime Christian love (caritas) would require disciples to “take the sword,” not for their own defense, but for the defense of the common good. It is Augustine who Aquinas references in his own justification that war is not always sinful:

As Augustine says (Contra Faust. xxii, 70): “To take the sword is to arm oneself in order to take the life of anyone, without the command or permission of superior or lawful authority.” On the other hand, to have recourse to the sword (as a private person) by the authority of the sovereign or judge, or (as a public person) through zeal for justice, and by the authority, so to speak, of God, is not to “take the sword,” but to use it as commissioned by another, wherefore it does not deserve punishment. And yet even those who make sinful use of the sword are not always slain with the sword, yet they always perish with their own sword, because, unless they repent, they are punished eternally for their sinful use of the sword.(II-II, Q. 40.1, ad. 1)

For Augustine, the idea is that you can kill your enemy, and that need not be contrary to the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount about non-resistance and turning the other cheek because one’s inward disposition is loving. Moreover, Augustine is wary, nay, terrified, of the potential chaos that threatens the Earthly City, chaos that Christians must be willing to fight against.

Aquinas himself is also an advocate of the compromise position. Observe how he deftly deals with the seeming conflict between the justification of war and the non-resistance of the Sermon on the Mount:

Such like precepts [as it is written (Matthew 5:39): “But I say to you not to resist evil”; and (Romans 12:19): “Not revenging yourselves, my dearly beloved, but give place unto wrath.”], as Augustine observes (De Serm. Dom. in Monte i, 19), should always be borne in readiness of mind, so that we be ready to obey them, and, if necessary, to refrain from resistance or self-defense. Nevertheless it is necessary sometimes for a man to act otherwise for the common good, or for the good of those with whom he is fighting. Hence Augustine says (Ep. ad Marcellin. cxxxviii): “Those whom we have to punish with a kindly severity, it is necessary to handle in many ways against their will. For when we are stripping a man of the lawlessness of sin, it is good for him to be vanquished, since nothing is more hopeless than the happiness of sinners, whence arises a guilty impunity, and an evil will, like an internal enemy.”(II-II, Q. 40.1,ad. 2)

Despite Aquinas’ apparent embrace of a spirit of compromise, it is reasonable to assume that he might fully embrace the decisions of both Stieber and Izbicki. In article 2 of his treatise on war, he asks whether clerics and bishops can engage in wartime fighting and responds in the negative:

Now warlike pursuits are altogether incompatible with the duties of a bishop and a cleric, for two reasons. The first reason is a general one, because, to wit, warlike pursuits are full of unrest, so that they hinder the mind very much from the contemplation of Divine things, the praise of God, and prayers for the people, which belong to the duties of a cleric. Wherefore just as commercial enterprises are forbidden to clerics, because they unsettle the mind too much, so too are warlike pursuits, according to 2 Timothy 2:4: “No man being a soldier to God, entangleth himself with secular business.” The second reason is a special one, because, to wit, all the clerical Orders are directed to the ministry of the altar, on which the Passion of Christ is represented sacramentally, according to 1 Corinthians 11:26: “As often as you shall eat this bread, and drink the chalice, you shall show the death of the Lord, until He come.” Wherefore it is unbecoming for them to slay or shed blood, and it is more fitting that they should be ready to shed their own blood for Christ, so as to imitate in deed what they portray in their ministry. For this reason it has been decreed that those who shed blood, even without sin, become irregular. Now no man who has a certain duty to perform, can lawfully do that which renders him unfit for that duty. Wherefore it is altogether unlawful for clerics to fight, because war is directed to the shedding of blood.

Much more than when Aquinas lived, Christians today embrace the idea of the universal call to holiness and the priesthood of all believers. Since Vatican II, this has been a particularly prominent theme in Catholic theology especially. It is no longer the priest alone who is called to the contemplative life, nor is it the priest alone who ministers at the sacrament of the altar. For Protestants and Catholics, the call to priesthood requires a radical transformation of life that is consistent with the call to holiness. In our world today, this call to holiness may very well include a call to pacifism, thus making Stieber and Izbicki contemporary prophets.

Stanley Hauerwas once wrote a beautiful and influential essay entitled “Why Gays (as a Group) are Morally Superior to Christians (as a Group).” In it, he writes

“I am ambivalent about recent discussions concerning gays in the military. I see no good reason why gays and lesbians should be excluded from military service; as a pacifist I do not see why anyone should serve. Moreover, I think it a wonderful thing that some people are excluded as a group. I only with that Christians could be seen by the military to be as problematic as gays.”

Gays can serve now. Maybe it is time for Christians to opt out.

Rationing Health Care in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit

“This book is about moral tragedy. . . Such tragedy is the inevitable result of two universal aspects of the human condition.

1. We have virtually unlimited health care needs.
2. We have limited health care resources.”

So begins my friend Charlie Camosy’s important new book Too Expensive to Treat: Finitude, Tragedy, and the Neonatal ICU. Now, in most cases, I would not dedicate a blog post to a utilitarian and proportionist unless I was going to argue against him. Charlie happens to be both. But he also happens to be an extraordinary moral theologian who defies stereotypes and ideological “buzz words” to really get to the heart of a moral issue. Since these are also the values of everydaythomist and since Charlie is the first utilitarian this everydaythomist has liked so much, his new book deserves a laudatory blog post (check out another review that mentions these virtues at National Catholic Reporter).

Take the following quote, also from the introduction.

[T]he unjust health care system of the United States has once again sparked a heated national debate about precisely what reforms should take place to make it more just. Many of those against expanding our significant public option for health insurance cry out against the “rationing” that would be done. Even the Obama administration and others pushing for precisely this kind of expansion claim that ‘no one is talking about rationing.’ But what neither side seems to realize, or at least is willing to admit, is that we are already rationing and we will never not be rationing.

Rather than avoid “health care rationing” as a bad word, Charlie forsakes the arguments of both sides and gets to what is really going on: We are already rationing, because we have to. Avoiding using the term won’t change the fact that we don’t have enough for everybody to get what they want.

What does this have to do with the NICU? Neonatal intensive care is some of the most expensive in pediatrics and in the healthcare system in general (estimated at around 21 billion dollars). It is routine to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars, even millions, to save the life of a newborn “at all costs.” Camosy gives two powerful narrative examples to illustrate the complexity of the argument he intends to make, one of Patrick, a tiny little preemie who beat all odds at survival and went home after only three months in the NICU, and Jerry, a Tennessee resident with a muscle spasm in his heart who can no longer afford the necessary treatment after being dropped from TennCare (Medicaid):

Can we justify spending $30 million on a single NICU patient while millions like Jerry need life-sustaining treatment—and for pennies on the dollar in comparison? If we say no, we are putting a price on life. We are not saying that Jerry is worth more than Patrick. We are not even saying that such monies, to be justly distributed, need to go somewhere other than the healthcare of babies. We are saying rather that just distribution of resources requires us to face difficult choices about how to ration care.

Part of Camosy’s argument relies on what is called the “social quality of life model” which looks at the just distribution of resources as having primary significance in determining the overall balance of burdens and benefits in questions of treatment. Most who argue for the social quality of life model also argue that infants do not possess a full moral status as a human being and as such, should be denied medical treatment based on broad, and more important social factors. Charlie again defies expectations and argues for both a strong social quality of life model and the full moral status of the infant:

Though all human infants have full moral status, if one accepts Catholic social teaching’s principles of theological anthropology, universal destination of goods, and a preferential option for the poor, broad social factors have more than secondary importance when it comes to treatment of imperiled newborns.

The strong social quality of life model espoused by Camosy, especially as viewed through the light of Catholic social teaching reveals that the “culture of overtreatment” in the NICU is in desperate need of reform. For imperiled newborns, doctors and parents often want to take “every measure possible to preserve the life of incredibly tiny infants, even when the chance of survival is very low, especially without significant handicap. Camosy argues that

“what is in a newborn’s best interest cannot be isolated from the duty of all to live in right relationship with the rest of humanity in conformity with the good of all. Part of what is means to live in right relationship is to use only a proportionate amount of resources available in one’s community. And given the dramatic numbers. . . it seems that some treatment of imperiled newborns is disproportionate with the common good. Such treatment, in light of the finitude of our resources (and of our human condition more generally), out to be forgone.”

Concretely, Camosy thinks a “triage” scale should be established for imperiled newborns ranging from “must treat” to “must not treat (given palliative care)” based on (1) survivability and length of life predictors and (2) short- and long-term costs of treatment. This includes making illegal the treatment (outside of palliative care) for the following terminal ailments which cannot possible benefit from treatment:

trisomy 13, 15, or 18
Large enecephaloceles
Inoperable heart anomalies
Severe clotting disorders
Birth without pulmonary veins
Potter’s syndrome/renal agenesis
Multicystic/dysplastic kidneys
Plycystic kidney disease

Although Camosy supports legal reform to keep any aggressive medical treatment from such infants, he is also adamantly opposed to the idea that this constitutes “abandoning the child.” He supports palliative care and any medical procedures (induced early birth, e.g.) that will allow a parent to bond with their child before they let her go.

Camosy must be commended for his courageous willingness to take on an issue that both sides (conservative and liberal) have avoided. Camosy is right to point out the problems with the culture of overtreatment in the NICU, though this culture extends far beyond treatment of imperiled newborns. Overtreatment is a problem in many segments of the health care industry, and Camosy could do a better job pointing this out in order to avoid criticism from the right suggesting that he is unfairly focusing on infants rather than the over-cautious, the terminally ill, or the elderly. For more on overtreatment, check out the book by Shannon Brownlee.

Another issue that goes largely unaddressed (for very good reasons since he is making largely philosophical and not explicitly theological arguments) in Camosy’s book is the fear of death that feeds this culture of overtreatment. Theologically, this fear of death is challenged in a very fine book by Terence Nichols: Death and the Afterlife: A Theological Introduction. However, the point is that Camosy draws on Catholic Social Teaching without drawing on other elements from the broader Catholic tradition (i.e. its teachings on the afterlife) which may make his overall argument a little easier to swallow. Catholics who believe they have to take “every step possible” to save the life of their premature newborn (or elderly parent) often misunderstand the Church’s teachings on end-of-life care precisely because they have not been taught or fail to appreciate the corresponding teaching on eternal life.

Finally, Camosy gives a nod to the role for virtue ethics in this debate in his discussion of prudent clinical and public policy decisions, but one need not be a utilitarian to argue against a culture of overtreatment in the NICU or for a more just distribution of health care resources. A virtue ethicist may put a greater onus on doctors to make prudent, just, and courageous decisions in the NICU or a parent to see true courage as the ability to let their premature baby die peacefully rather than taking extraordinary and largely futile life-extending measures, but virtue ethicists can also appreciate the value of certain legal measures in forming virtuous decision makers in the NICU. This is just a minor quibble. Secretly, I think Camosy is a virtue ethicist at heart (which is why he appeals to the “common good” in his teleological schema rather than the “greatest good” as other utilitarians do). Ultimately, the ideal that Camosy lays out for the just distribution of health care resources will require agents whose characters have been habituated to promote such goals consistently, reliably, and with pleasure. For Camosy, the emphasis is largely on making rational and logical decisions, but a virtue ethics contribution could attend to the powerful way in which emotions prevent or facilitate rational action in these matters.

This is a very fine book, challenging for anybody to read, and worthwhile for everybody. Camosy challenges us to look at a complex and difficult moral dilemma without the comfort of our ideological camps that allow us to be either “pro-life” or “pro-justice.” And speaking of justice, the book is only $12.24 and available in paperback.

Reconceptualizing Feminine “Complementarity” by Appealing to Female War Reporters

Cathleen Kaveny, professor in the law school and the theology department at Notre Dame, has an important article up at America Magazine, in which she reflects on the Catholic Church and its effort to define “feminism.” Kaveny, in her typically moderate, rational, and sensitive way explores the varieties of ways in which the word “feminist” is used and the manifold ways in which the Church both is and is not what it claims.

On the one hand, if we take “feminism” to be a general affirmation of the well-being and the dignity of women, the Catholic Church is most definitely “feminist”:

It has done an enormous amount of good for women, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, in precarious circumstances throughout the world. To take only one example, the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development, Gender & Women runs programs around the world that help women organize into cooperatives for the production and marketing of goods; it also provides shelters for basic needs, educational programs in literacy and training in business knowledge and empowerment.

However, despite the many ways in which the Church works to advance the flourishing of women, it is often subject to criticism from both secular and religious feminists who claim the Church takes two steps back for every step forward in its refusal to sanction the use of contraception (and more controversially, soften its restriction on abortion in cases of rape, incest, and the life of the mother). Kaveny does a good job portraying the limbo-like status many Catholic women find themselves in affirming both the progressive nature of the way the Church views women and way in which the Church still has miles to go in truly affirming the dignity and equality of women:

Catholic women can sometimes find themselves caught in the middle, loving their church and their faith but dispirited by occasional statements that suggest that the Vatican views them as disordered or defiled simply because they are women. Last July the Vatican caused a public relations firestorm after its announcement of two grave crimes under canon law: sexual abuse by members of the clergy and the attempt to ordain a woman. Even women who support the church’s restriction of the priesthood to males winced at the decision to group these two acts in the same document.

In order to advance a more rigorous analysis of feminism and Catholicism, Kaveny suggests three areas of focus: equality and difference, nature and nurture, and complementarity and collaboration. It is really the last area–the issue of complementarity–where the most work needs to be done in light of John Paul II’s distinctive for of feminism, re-affirmed by Benedict XVI:

With women flooding the educational system, men find themselves competing with them for advancement and academic honors. Pope Benedict XVI, when he was prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, expressed concern about such competition between men and women and called instead for a collaborative relationship between the sexes (“On the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World,” 2004).

His view is this: The basis of a collaborative relationship is the recognition of the complementary gifts and skills of men and women. Women in particular should not aim to emulate the strengths of men but should instead nurture their own distinct gifts. Complementarity is most clearly visible in the roles that men and women play in marriage and family life but should be visible in other contexts as well. One of the hallmarks of John Paul II-style feminism, in fact, is an effort to define the “feminine genius” in all spheres of women’s existence in terms of the virtues of motherhood.

For their part, many other feminists are worried about the call to complementarity, not necessarily because they are opposed to the idea that both men and women bring some distinct and important gifts to human society but because of the way that idea tends to work out in practice. In fact, they fear it undermines collaboration, because it tends to promote separation and practical inequality.

The great Protestant theologian Karl Barth explicated male-female complementarity in terms of A and B—one need not be a psychic to guess which sex is which. The way the concept of complementarity works in geometry also reveals the potential problem: Two angles are complementary if they add up to 90 degrees, so a complementary angle is all and only that which the primary angle is not. Analogously, if one begins with a man, then a woman must be all and only that which a man is not—her role is to fill in the gaps. If complementarity is taken too far, then, it does not facilitate collaboration but rather fosters entirely separate spheres of interest and specialization.

The concept of complementarity rightly affirms the importance—and unique demands—of motherhood on women. But how does it account for the gifts, ambitions and concerns that men and women have in common, even in parenting? For men and women to strive for excellence—together—in the many areas and interests they share ought not to be considered a destructive form of competition. The common pursuit of excellence, or virtue, is a key element of the classical definition of friendship.

The question of complementarity and collaboration has come up recently in regards to another question: the role of women reporters in war zones. In an important article in this weekend’s NYTimes, Kim Barker argues that, despite the dangers of sexual assault and physical violence, women can cover war time reporting just as well as men, if they have the courage. Not only can women do the same job men can, they also provide a necessary angle to war-time reporting not accessible to their male counterparts.

More important, they also do a pretty good job of covering what it’s like to live in a war, not just die in one. Without female correspondents in war zones, the experiences of women there may be only a rumor.

Look at the articles about women who set themselves on fire in Afghanistan to protest their arranged marriages, or about girls being maimed by fundamentalists, about child marriage in India, about rape in Congo and Haiti. Female journalists often tell those stories in the most compelling ways, because abused women are sometimes more comfortable talking to them. And those stories are at least as important as accounts of battles.

Kim Barker seems to provide a challenging alternative to the sort of complementarity Kaveny is addressing, without throwing out the issue of complementarity all-together.

In Mulieris Dignitatem, John Paul II’s encyclical on the dignity of women, JPII wrote that women should employ their “feminine genius” in building a culture of life. This “genius” includes the feminine characteristics of receptivity, generosity, sensitivity, and maternity. Is it not possible that all of these characteristics make women powerful and important war-time reporters? Receptivity in their ability to grasp the unique experiences of women in war-torn areas or in uprisings like the ones going on now in Egypt and Bahrain; sensitivity in her ability to see beyond the material to the heart of the matter, to report not just on the events but on the spiritual and emotional movements underlying these events; generosity in her ability and willingness to sacrifice herself and her body for the sake of truth; maternity in her ability to see and hear also the children in a given place, and weave their stories also into the final story she tells as a reporter.

Like many women, everdaythomist has problems with the ways in which the concepts like “complementarity” and other aspects of John Paul II’s feminism have been used, but I think these concepts gain at least new rhetorical force when put in dialogue with the sort of secular feminism that Kim Barker offers in her argument for the important and unique role of female war-time reporters. Complementarity offers us a way of seeing these female reporters as offering a unique perspective not so easily offered by their male counterparts, thus justifying their work on grounds not so much of equality, but on difference. This is important, I think, because if women reporters are offering the same perspective as their male colleagues, it seems too easy for an editor to pull all women reporters out of war zones by appealing to the dangers of their job and the ability of men to do their tasks without the same risks.

In practice, I think putting JPII’s notion of complementarity in dialogue with Kim Barker’s secular feminism effectively serves to help bridge the divide between Catholicism and feminism that Kaveny is trying to encourage. It offers us a way of keeping the concept of complementarity without keeping some of the rather unfortunate ways this concept has been put in practice to keep women from doing the sorts of things that men do.

Post-modern Therapy? Balancing Between Appreciation and Critique

I have a respected friend who calls himself a “postmodern therapist.” When I first heard this term, I was intrigued and disturbed (okay, I was more disturbed than intrigued). As you can imagine, everdaythomist is no fan of postmodernism in general, for very Thomistic reasons, but in terms of therapeutic professions (medicine, psychology), it seemed even more of a stretch to label oneself a post-modernist. “Don’t post-modernists reject the existence of a knowable external reality?” I asked him. “How does that philosophical assumption allow you to help a person who clearly has anorexia, for example, or who thinks your coffee table is a monster? Or what about a person who is actually hurting herself, through, say, cutting. Don’t you think a cutter would disagree about this whole non-knowable external reality?” Everydaythomist must also admit that in her head she was also shouting, “Clearly you are wrong! Admit you are a realist, preferably with an Aristotelian-Thomistic bend, and let’s move onto more interesting matters!

Turns out, my friend calls himself a post-modern therapist, at least in part, to help him avoid doing in a therapeutic setting precisely what everydaythomist did in our conversation: declare himself right, declare the patient wrong, and then proceed to define reality for the patient according to a rigid line of truth reasoning. In a therapeutic setting, this narrow perception of “truth” may both assume more about the patient than may be justified, and may actually do the patient harm therapeutically by talking past her. To understand where he comes from in his therapeutic approach, my friend recommended I read Harlene Anderson’s Conversation, Language and Possibilities: A Postmodern Approach to Therapy. I dutifully did so, and I humbly offer my rather naive reflections in response to my friend. Why not just respond in person, you might ask? Because I am taking Anderson’s post-modern approach and recognizing that our debate does not exist in a vacuum, thus I am expanding the concentric circles of our dialogue to include other “voices” that may be at play (that’s you readers. I encourage you post-modern readers especially to jump in and tell me where I may have erred).

Harlene Anderson offers this book as a response to the many bad ways therapy can be and has been done, and she offers an introductory story of a Swedish family with two anorexic daughters to illustrate her point. The daughters both suffered at the hands of their therapists because they were not listened to, they were not cooperative, they were not flexible. In reaction to such hierarchical and over-confident therapists, Anderson offers her own approach as a “collaborative approach” which she conceptualizes as “a language system and a linguistic event in which people are engaged in a collaborative relationship and conversation—a mutual endeavor toward possibility.”

Anderson may be a therapist and may have written a book to help other therapists, but her therapeutic methods are solidly grounded in post-modern philosophical claims which she pretty thoroughly buys into. Post-modern, to Anderson, means embracing social construction, hermeneutics, and narrative. It means recognizing human systems as “language and meaning-generating systems,” reality as language, meaning as something created through language, and truth . . . well, truth is just the meaning one ascribes to an experience and believes (206) (the index does not include an entry for “truth”). Words do not have essential meanings, but meaning is generated through the use of words. She summarizes near the beginning,

Postmodern thought moves toward knowledge as a discursive practice, toward a plurality of narratives that are more local, contextual, and fluid; it moves toward a multiplicity of approaches to the analysis of subjects such as knowledge, truth, language, history, self, and power. It emphasizes the relational nature of knowledge and the generative nature of language. Postmodernism views knowledge as socially constructed, knowledge and the knower as interdependent-presupposing the interrelationship of context, culture, language, experience, and understanding. We cannot have direct knowledge of the world; we can only know it through our experiences. We continually interpret our experiences and interpret our interpretations.

Anderson buys into the post-modern critique of natural and scientific explanations of human systems. As such, she is also an advocate of social construction theories that reject any claim that knowledge reflects an ontological reality but is rather a construction. Anderson does distinguish between social constructivism and constructionism in that the former regards reality as a construction of the individual mind, emphasizing both autonomy and individualism. Anderson aligns better with the latter which de-emphasizes autonomy in favor of “the interactional and communal context of the meaning maker” (44).

Anderson sees broad implications for this philosophical basis in a therapeutic setting. First, the therapist is removed from the pedestal as the “knower” and is instead placed in collaborative dialogue/conversation with the patient (henceforth called “client” since “patient” assumes the person is sick or needs to be treated, which Anderson does not assume). The therapist, rather than diagnosing, is called to take a perspective of “not-knowing,” to suspend all pre-knowledge and judgment in order to properly hear what the client is saying. Attention is given to the client as a story-teller, and the therapist is called to be fully engrossed in the individual before them and the unique narrative they offer (no note-taking, but lots of questions). The therapeutic session is “public” in the sense that the therapist is frank about her own thoughts, prejudices, and biases, and is also willing to share information about herself. Moreover, to the extent that other voices need to be brought into the conversation, they are invited (family, friends). Finally, therapists are called to honor a client’s story, to take them seriously, and to validate them. She tells the story of Lars, a Norwegian seaman who thought he had a chronic disease and was infecting others. The therapist, Harry asks him

How long have you had this disease? . . . As Harry showed interest in Lars’s dilemma and let him tell his story the way he wanted to, Lars began visibly to relax, even to become somewhat animated, and he began to share in Harry’s curiosity. Harry’s intent was not to challenge Lars’s reality or story, or to talk or manipulate him out of his delusion. Harry wanted to learn about it, be sensitive to it, to maintain coherence with it. Colleagues observing the interview were critical of Harry’s question ‘How long have you had this disease?’ They feared the question reinforced the man’s ‘’hypochondriacal delusion.’ A safer, more neutral question, they suggested, would have been ‘How long have you thought you’ve had this disease?’ The not-knowing position, however, precluded the stance that Lars’s story was delusional (138).

Six months later, Lars’s life is back on track and weather he was infected or not was no longer an issue.

This compelling story reveals both the strengths and the weaknesses of Anderson’s approach. Methodologically, it is good to take patients seriously, at least in practice, to give them a chance to speak, to hear their stories, and to be attentive to the particularities of their needs. It is also good to be humble in psychiatric diagnosis. I am reminded of a Mad Men episode from the first season where Betty, Don Draper’s wife, has been seeing a psychoanalyst for some time who says virtually nothing during their sessions until one day he announces “you have a problem with your mother.” In the episode, Betty is upset, and rightfully so. It may be that the doctor is right, but his answer is not only imprudent in its delivery, it is also likely reductionistic. Betty’s problems are much deeper than her mother, and the therapist need only listen to hear that.

But why do we need a post-modern philosophical foundation to encourage prudence in the therapeutic environment? Why must we deny the existence of an objective, identifiable reality independent of human representations? Anderson is not even completely consistent in her application of her post-modern principle. Lars, she thinks, is delusional. He does not have a disease, and his delusion is disrupting his life. She recommends prudence (though she does not use this word) in dealing with a person like Lars, but if he were to jump out of the chair and start assaulting her, claiming that he heard voices in his head telling him to infect her with the disease, I suspect she would not be so enthusiastic about entering into a stance of “non-knowing for the pursuit of collaborative dialogue.” Moreover, Anderson is convinced that her therapeutic stance towards Lars is right, and his previous therapists were wrong. Sounds like a truth claim to me.

The reality and the truth is that Lars really is delusional and his delusions are hurting the people around him. He needs help, and the therapist is the one to provide that help. I can buy that the most effective help a therapist can give is humble and prudent, but I cannot buy the claim that meaning and truth is just a linguistic construct. Surely, there must be a middle ground.

Realism, and the more recent critical realism, tries to forge this middle ground by recognizing that as human beings, we need truth, we have access to reality, and that language indeed communicates meaning but also points to things that really exist (when I say “ow” and point to the paper cut I got from reading the Summa, I am pointing to something that really exists and that I know, namely, my bloody finger). As a result, statements can be true or false depending on the degree to which they correspond with reality, and reality limits the relative meaning that statements can have. As such, we have a criteria for judging the merit of statements and formulating an appropriate response.

I suspect that Anderson’s post-modern therapy is also a reaction to realism, which has been taken to an extreme in our contemporary world by reducing everything to matter, or to biology. Thus, all psychiatric problems have a biological (or a genetic) origin, leaving little room for the dynamic way in which human behavior is shaped in non-material (i.e. linguistic) ways (this relates to an earlier blog post I wrote on metaphysical naturalism. Anderson would critique such naturalism from the opposite perspective in which I have done). But in her reaction, Anderson throws out the proverbial baby with the bathwater (both of which I am still positing exist, as I bet Anderson does to) and lapses into a metaphysical relativism which is just as problematic as metaphysical realism.

In short, I think my friend is a methodological post-modern therapist, not a philosophical one. Everydaythomist is in no position to tell therapists what to do, but she is in a relative position to judge therapeutic philosophies and ethics. I think my friend likes the idea of listening to clients’ narratives, to deconstructing, at least in part, the extreme therapeutic hierarchy, and to recognizing the individuality and particularity of his clients. But I would encourage my friend to also recognize philosophically and ethically that the client in front of him is real, with real problems and real needs, and the therapeutic task (indeed, the human task in general), is dealing with the real. Just as a person is real, so too can a problem be. Anderson tacitly recognizes the former (hence her emphasis on conversation and collaboration), but not the latter. I see the two as more interconnected.

Part of dealing with the “real,” everydaythomist would also encourage, is recognizing the need for at least some degree of teleology, which even Anderson makes room for in some of her anecdotal accounts. This means recognizing that real things have real purposes (teloi) and that the therapist can be more or less helpful in helping a client achieve these purposes. At one point, Anderson asks a client, “what does it mean to you to be a good mother?” In asking this, she is asking a teleological question, pointing a client to her telos, her end or purpose qua mother. Now, asking the question in itself is teleological—it points the client towards the telos that exists by virtue of the nature of the thing, in this case, the mother. If there are mothers, a teleological position posits, there are good ones and bad ones, and we know the difference by nature if something is not hindering us from this knowledge (like disease). Not that there are not different ways of being a good mother, but there are also clearly bad ways of being a bad mother as well. In many cases, the question itself will suffice for the teleological task (as it does in Anderson’s example, for reasons I would suggest pertain to natural law, but that is a tangent we don’t have time for in this post). But at times, it may require the therapist to softly redirect, as when a client answers something like “It means killing my children that I don’t think are good enough.” A therapist can try and find a prudent response, but prudence demands that the client be pushed a little towards a true telos (or at least restrained for straying too far from her telos).

In conclusion, everydaythomist is still a realist but hopefully has gained a more sensitive appreciation for the way in which post-modern philosophical critiques have contributed both to metaphysical theory and social and ethical praxis. I know that Anderson’s book has at least committed me to the importance of listening and the critical need for conversational humility. And to my friend, I am grateful for these lessons.

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.


Does Legalized Abortion Make Women More Free?

I receive weekly emails from an organization called Consistent Life, which opposes all threats to life from war, abortion, poverty, racism, capital punishment, and euthanasia. Each email always includes a relevant “quote of the week.” This week’s came from David Gushee’s reflection on the recent Princeton abortion conference, hosted in part by my friend Charlie Camosy as part of his overall “magenta” campaign. Gushee notes,

“I claimed that abortion places on women the burdens of the sexual revolution’s ‘liberation.’ But as a man I totally and viscerally understand that the availability of abortion and the leverage a man has to demand it of ‘his’ lover enables us to exploit our access to women’s bodies without having to pay the ultimate price if it results in an unwanted pregnancy. The pro-choice side can talk about women’s moral agency all day long, but moral decision making happens in contexts of power. To the extent that a man has power or leverage in a relationship with a woman, he can affect or sometimes even direct her decision to have an abortion.”

Inspired by the quote and the source (Consistent Life is a nice antidote to those who claim that “pro-life” people stop caring about life after birth), I decided to post the quote on Facebook. A firestorm of comments ensued (up to 37 now), which for the most part, I have not responded to. In order to provide a more thoughtful response than Facebook will allow, this blog post will attempt to give a response (names changed to protect the innocent).

The reason I liked Gushee’s original quote is that it lines up very well with my own experience. I teach in an urban community college. In my ethics class, which I have taught about eight times now, I ask my students on the first day of class to write about an ethical dilemma they have faced, and how they went about resolving that dilemma. My students, who are over 90% women, overwhelmingly write about abortion. What is interesting is that they also tend to focus on the different social forces that were at work in their decision.

Most recently, a student approached me (after I chided for texting in class) and apologized, telling me that her best friend was pregnant and her father had threatened her with physical violence if she refused an abortion (which she did not want to have). The girl was financially dependent on the father, with no job of her own, and no support from the father of the child. “What am I supposed to do for my friend?” my student asked.

Another student wrote that she lived with her boyfriend who threatened to kick her out of his house if she did not get an abortion. My student wrote about choosing to get the abortion because she had no place else to go, and could not imagine life without her boyfriend. While she regrets the abortion, she does not, in retrospect, feel that she had any other choice.

Another student wrote about a similar situation, but rather than getting an abortion, she chose not to. The relationship ended, and she struggles now to get the father to provide any financial support for her child while she tries to get through nursing school in order to get a stable job and become financially independent. She lives with her parents now and does not regret her decision.

There are a dozen more anecdotes that I could share, similar to these. Gushee’s point is that it is fallacious to call these women “liberated.” They have suffered, and the men who share the responsibility of their pregnancies have not. In a sense, it is true that these women at least have more options available post-Roe, even if those options are not ideal. But from a Thomistic perspective, more “options” does not necessarily equate with more “freedom.”

I have distinguished between the “freedom for indifference” and the “freedom for excellence” on other blog posts, but briefly, Thomistic theologian Servais Pinckaers emphasized in drawing this distinction that “freedom” is something far richer than simply “options.” True freedom is the power to choose wisely as a matter of habit those actions conducive to ultimate happiness (eudaimonia). Freedom of indifference reduces the concept of “freedom” to the ability to choose between alternatives, regardless of whether the alternatives are good or conducive to ultimate flourishing.

From this perspective, we can say that Roe made another “choice” available to women, but it did not make them any freer or any happier. In a recent study comparing post-abortion reactions of Russian and American women, researchers found that

29.4% of women received counseling beforehand and only 17.5% were counseled on alternatives
51.9% of women felt they needed more time to make a decision
64% of women felt pressured by others
50.7% of women felt abortion was morally wrong

Only 0.9% of women claimed that their relationship with their partner improved, 26.7% cited relationship problems, and 19.8% reported their relationship with their partner ended.
3.7% claimed to feel more in control of their lives.
53.9% of women reported feeling badly
36.4% reported thoughts of suicide
77.9% felt guilt

Supporters of Roe will often admit that abortion is not a “good” choice, as does this anonymous Roe supporter from the aforementioned Facebook conversation:

Anonymous G: “Suffice to say that NO WOMAN WANTS AN ABORTION, something is “forcing” her to make such a choice. Each woman’s story is “anecdotal”, because every situation is different, so we cannot discount anecdotal evidence. . . In the ideal world of every abortion provider, there is no abortion – and women are 1) educated enough about reproduction and contraception, and has access to contraception to prevent unwanted pregnancies, or 2) has the financial and emotional support to care for a child conceived in an unintended pregnancy. [T]he more concerning exertion of power over women would be to take away any possibility of choosing. More anecdotes, but ones that I’ve heard from honestly every gynecologist of a certain age who practiced before Roe, is that at any given time, there was at least one woman on the gyn units admitted for complications of back alley abortions, ranging from simple infection, to sepsis and death.

If women pre- and post-Roe are often pressured or coerced into getting abortions (as even Alan Guttmacher, the research agency of Planned Parenthood admits), and if abortion is not a good and desirable-in-itself option, then it seems odd that the solution would be the legalization of abortion.

According to a Thomistic concept of freedom as laid out by Pinckaers, the law is there to direct agents towards those things that will ultimately lead to their flourishing. The law is “coercive” in a way because it ultimately directs people to do certain things and avoid doing certain things that may not be consistent with their immediate desires. For example, the law “coerces” me to pay taxes, even if I do not really want to, because paying taxes leads to the sort of things (roads, public schools, libraries) that I really do want and really do ultimately make me happy.

This Thomistic attitude towards freedom and the implications for the abortion debate was expressed aptly on my FB wall by another Thomist:

Anonymous G: “It really is not that simple (more restrictions = less options). Yes, there is a certain truth to it. But there is another dynamic at work. Now that women are free to choose abortion, everyone from boyfriends to parents to taxpayers are increasingly free to see children as “her choice, her problem.” In the days before Roe (yes, many bad stories could be told), there were some pretty incredible networks of support that a woman in an unintended pregnancy could rely on. Funny, that was a world where more restrictions on women meant (oh, look!) MORE options for women who wanted to find a way to bring their children to term and/or keep them. Legalizing abortion added one option, and took away many.

As such, the appropriate legal reaction to the imbalanced power dynamics between women and men pre-Roe should not have been making another bad option available to women. Rather, it should have been stronger coercive measures that lead to the overall health and flourishing of women and men. Such measures might include stronger penalties for domestic abuse and back-alley abortion providers, increased availability of pregnancy resources like financial support, housing, counseling, education, and health care, easier access to adoption agencies and childcare, and better maternity leave options in both schools and colleges and the workplace.

Feminists for Life is a group focusing on exactly these issues. FFL works to provide real opportunities to college students, for example, who find themselves pregnant and want to both keep their baby and finish school (things like providing on-campus housing and healthcare for students and their babies, desks that can accommodate the bulging bellies of pregnant students, and on-site daycare). The FFL website effectively illustrates how its mission relies on a better concept of “freedom” and “choice than the pro-Roe crowd:

Most women do not want to have an abortion. Most women do not want to leave school. Pregnant and parenting students want, and deserve, other viable choices. Feminists for Life’s College Outreach Program is all about choices – the choices women truly want.

Still, Planned Parenthood refers to FFL’s College Outreach Program as “anti-choice:”

FFL’s College Outreach Program is “the newest and most challenging concept in anti-choice campus organizing” and “could have a profound impact” on college campuses “as well as Planned Parenthood’s public education and advocacy efforts.”

This brings us back to David Gushee’s original quote, in which he places “liberation” in quotes. The idea that I think he is appealing to is that Roe is necessary in a society where sex is normative and women and men are, at least on the surface, relatively equal. Pre-Roe, men could have sex with women, get them pregnant, and not suffer any financial, legal, or emotional consequences. The expectation with Roe was that women would now be able to do the same—have sex, get pregnant, but not suffer any financial, legal, or emotional consequences. This has not happened. The burden of both a pregnancy and an abortion still falls on women. Women are still suffering. And those gendered power dynamics have not really improved.

What about back-alley abortions? Well, according NOW (a pro-Roe organization), “during the 1950s and 60s, each year an estimated 160 to 260 women died from illegal abortions, while thousands more were seriously injured.” I am not denying that such deaths and injuries are not a tragedy (they are), but arguably, woman are suffering just as much as a whole post-Roe in light of all the other negative consequences associated with abortion (and a whole lot more abortions to boot—an average of 1.2 million a year now).

And rape and incest? According to a study cited by the NYTimes (by no means a “pro-life” establishment), just 1% of all abortions are due to rape or incest. Again, these are tragedies, but legalizing abortion is in no way a sufficient response to a woman who is pregnant because sex was forced on her against her will. In light of these tragedies, would it not be better to take economic and political steps to foster the true freedom of these and other women who have been victimized? Greater access to counseling and adoption resources, for example, so that women who are already victims do not also have to become victims of their own guilt? Giving a woman the opportunity to get an abortion after she was raped does not make the rape go away, but it may make it easier for a woman to hide the fact that she was raped or abused by a family member. The recent Planned Parenthood fiasco in which a woman was taped giving abortion advice to a man posing as a sex abuser just goes to illustrate this.

Now, I am not denying that Planned Parenthood and Roe supporters, both male and female, will still argue that the best way to empower women is to legalize abortion (my lengthy FB wall is a testimony to that). I am not arguing (and I do not think Gushee is either) that some women do benefit from easy and legal access to abortion. His point is that simply giving women another choice (and a bad one, at that, as so many pro-Roe people admit) in no way fixes the underlying root causes that women seek out abortion in the first place, and may even do more to exacerbate those root causes than to fix them. We can do better than abortion.

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.

March for the Life of Unborn and Women

Tomorrow, around 200,000 people will march in the frigid DC temps to protest the ongoing cultural and legal support for abortion in this country. Those who march, and those who support them in spirit, will have in mind especially the recent discovery of a Philadelphia abortion clinic where not only late term abortions, but also infanticide, went on for years, unchecked by any government oversight. Kermit Gosnell, who is being charged with eight counts of murder in the deaths of seven infants and a Bhutanese refugee who died in his care after a late term abortion in 2009, had been sued 15 times for malpractice and had two women die in his clinic without raising any neighborhood eyebrows about the practices going on his clinic. What is most disturbing about the story is the following quote from the grand jury report:

“We think the reason no one acted is because the women in question were poor and of color,” the report said, “and because the victims were infants without identities, and because the subject was the political football of abortion.”

“The women in question were poor and of color.”

The late Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago advanced what he called “the seamless garment” of life, recognizing that the protection of life is threatened on many fronts in our society, not only by abortion, but also by war and capital punishment, euthanasia and suicide, poverty and racism. Bernadin recognized that whenever one area of life is attacked, others will follow.

This is the message of Guadium et Spes, confirmed by John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae:

“Whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, or wilful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where people are treated as mere instruments of gain rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others like them are infamies indeed. They poison human society, and they do more harm to those who practice them than to those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are a supreme dishonor to the Creator” (GS 27, EV 3).

The grand jury report on Gosnell confirms supporters of a consistent ethic of life that abortion is not an isolated issue. A society that is ready to sacrifice millions of nameless unborn in the name of expediency is also a society likely to sacrifice poor and colored women in the name of expediency. The unborn and the women who bear them are related. Considering the following interview from Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

Q: If you were a lawyer again, what would you want to accomplish as a future feminist legal agenda?

JUSTICE GINSBURG: Reproductive choice has to be straightened out. There will never be a woman of means without choice anymore. That just seems to me so obvious. The states that had changed their abortion laws before Roe [to make abortion legal] are not going to change back. So we have a policy that affects only poor women, and it can never be otherwise, and I don’t know why this hasn’t been said more often.

Q: Are you talking about the distances women have to travel because in parts of the country, abortion is essentially unavailable, because there are so few doctors and clinics that do the procedure? And also, the lack of Medicaid for abortions for poor women?

JUSTICE GINSBURG: Yes, the ruling about that surprised me. [Harris v. McRae — in 1980 the court upheld the Hyde Amendment, which forbids the use of Medicaid for abortions.] Frankly I had thought that at the time Roe was decided, there was concern about population growth and particularly growth in populations that we don’t want to have too many of. So that Roe was going to be then set up for Medicaid funding for abortion. Which some people felt would risk coercing women into having abortions when they didn’t really want them. But when the court decided McRae, the case came out the other way. And then I realized that my perception of it had been altogether wrong (pgs. 3 and 4).

Note what Justice Ginsburg says: “I had thought that at the time Roe was decided, there was concern about population growth and particularly growth in populations that we don’t want to have too many of. So that Roe was going to be then set up for Medicaid funding for abortion.” Ginsburg is admitting that there was an association at the time of Roe with “reproductive rights” and what we might call “eugenics policies” (curbing the reproduction of poorer women).

As we remember the anniversary of Roe v. Wade tomorrow and the millions of victims of abortion that have resulted from that decision, we cannot forget the women that have also been victimized by abortion policies and attitudes. And we cannot pretend that by keeping abortion legal, we are also protecting women.

So as we march and pray and work for life, we will also remember the words of Sargent Shriver, who passed away this week, and others who work to promote a consistent ethic of life for all, especially the most vulnerable:

“The advocates of abortion on demand falsely assume two things: that women must suffer if the lives of unborn children are legally protected; and that women can only attain equality by having the legal option of destroying their innocent offspring in the womb. The cynicism of these assumptions reflects a terrible failure of moral imagination and social responsibility and an appalling lack of respect for women.”