Collect for the Solemnity of the Chair of Peter

O Almighty God, who by thy Son Jesus Christ didst give to thine Apostle Saint Peter many excellent gifts, and commandedst him earnestly to feed thy flock: make, we beseech thee, all bishops and pastors diligently to preach thy holy Word, and the people obediently to follow the same, that they may receive the crown of everlasting glory; through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Thoughts on Gay Marriage, Part Two: Loose Ends

I received such a volume of feedback on Part One, including a collection of very intelligent critiques and questions, that I am postponing my original plan to delve straight into the life and social implications of the traditional view of marriage, and will instead devote this post to responding to them to the best of my ability. I've tried to arrange them into a natural progression from one thought to the next. (Special thanks to my friends Dave Brown and Aaron Hershkowitz for their assistance.)*

What distinguishes civil marriages from sacramental marriages?

A civil marriage is a natural marriage rather than a sacramental one. Marriage as a sacrament is something specific to the Church, and was instituted by Christ (cf. Matthew 19.3-12Ephesians 5.25-32), to confer grace on the participants, which is the purpose of every sacrament. However, in so doing, He did not abolish the institution of natural marriage -- otherwise it would be immoral for anybody but Christians to get married, which is patently absurd. Every sacramental marriage is therefore a natural marriage, but not all natural marriages are sacramental. I am given to understand that there is debate among theologians as to whether a natural marriage can be dissolved by divorce; the laws laid down in the Torah suggest that it could. The Church teaches that a sacramental marriage cannot be dissolved by anything but death. (Annulments are something else again, which I touch on further down.)

The argument is that gay marriage (or, strictly speaking, its underlying assumptions) tries to alter the definition of marriage, but isn't that what the Catholic Church has done in making marriage a sacrament?

A very good question, to which the answer is, of course, yes and no. More simply, the answer is no. The principle here was enunciated by St. Thomas Aquinas: grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it (gratia non tollit naturam sed perficit, for you Latin fiends out there). The Catholic notion of sacramental marriage does not do away with natural marriage in its own right. More importantly, while it deepens the significance of marriage for Christians, it takes natural marriage as its premise: it adds meaning, but takes no meaning away. The modern idea of reducing marriage to a celebration of romantic love is precisely that, a reduction -- it takes away one of the purposes of marriage. The sacramental idea keeps all the previous purposes of marriages, and then infuses the institution with a supernatural in addition to a natural significance.

If man is made for love, then how can identifying marriage simply with love be a bad thing?

For much the same reason that identifying government with love is a bad thing. Love is a good thing (provided, of course, that we define what we mean by the term), and man is called to love in every circumstance and institution life involves; but this does not mean that everything draws its meaning simply from love, unmodified. I personally would go to great lengths to avoid the Ministry of Love, if it came to that. (I don't think there's a moral equivalency between this altering of the social significance of marriage and a bureaucratic "love," naturally -- it is the logical parallel that I am citing, not a similarity of degree.)

More specifically, it is the identification of marriage with romantic love that is problematic. Romantic love is of course a good and beautiful thing, but it is not intrinsically connected to either marriage or family (though I do think it a good thing to have is as a prelude to both): many, if not most, families in history have come into being without, or before, the intervention of romance in their lives. The love for which man is meant is supernatural love -- participation in the life of the Trinity, what the Eastern Orthodox (in the language of St. Peter) refer to as theosis or divinization. This is not identical with any kind of natural love, nor with any institution; they can serve as means to it, but only if we choose to use them in that fashion -- which means using them according to their natures.

Since the state performs civil marriages (e.g., between divorced parties) that couldn't be sacramental marriages, doesn't this mean that it could equally perform gay marriages even though these couldn't be sacramental?

No. The reason here is that it is precisely the character of natural marriage, according to the natural law thesis, that prevents couples intrinsically unable to procreate from entering it; the Scriptural prohibitions would reaffirm this, but the principle is derived from the essence of marriage with or without the sacraments, not from a specially religious imprint upon sacramental marriage.

If the appeal here is to natural law, as understood by the Catholic Church, should there be civil restrictions on contraception too?

I don't know. I am strongly inclined to say no, out of respect for personal privacy; but I don't know exactly how far the state ought to go in enforcing even natural morality upon its citizens. (This may seem like an ironical attitude in the first place for someone with professedly anarchist symapthies, but here, I'm working on the assumption that -- whether as affirmation or as concession -- there is a state, and trying to determine where its power to make a nuisance of itself needs to be stopped.) My general disposition is that, while society in general should acknowledge more ethical strictures than this, the law per se ought probably to recognize only two: consensuality and breach of covenant, i.e. adultery (this latter only on the grounds suggested by C. S. Lewis in Present Concerns, where he pointed out that it violates the principle that "men make their covenants"; that the violation happens to be sexual would not be the important thing). However, I am open to further education on this point, as I am ignorant of the consensus of theologians (if there is one) on the subject, and haven't worked out my own philosophy thoroughly on this point.

To digress slightly, it is worth saying that there ought -- not simply on Christian grounds, I think, but on grounds of common sense -- to be a much more serious attitude toward marriage generally as a secular institution, especially among Christians. The ease of divorce in this country has done considerably more damage to marriage than gay marriage is ever likely to, and it gravely discredits the Church's witness that she has done virtually nothing to encourage a stronger character for civil marriage in the face of rampant divorce. The harm done to society, especially to children, by this casual acceptance of divorce is profound, and will take generations to repair, even supposing we start right now and don't stop.

If marriage is intrinsically oriented toward the begetting of children, what about marriages that are never consummated, married couples who choose not to have children, or people who marry after childbearing age?

A very intelligent critique. Three distinct issues to be addressed.

Marriages that are never consummated are, from a Catholic perspective, open to annulment, i.e. a declaration that a supposed marriage never in fact took place, because one of the essential ingredients was lacking. These essential ingredients include but are not limited to: free consent, together with the age and maturity required to give such consent; sufficient biological distance between the parties that the marriage is not incestuous; the intention of fidelity; openness to children; and, after the union is performed, consummation -- which is why the word consummation is used. There are legal annulments as well, though I don't know their conditions, not being closely acquainted with American law (or distantly acquainted with it, actually).

Married couples who never intend to have children, in my view, are really entering into a civil union rather than a marriage properly so-called. Ideally, they would do so. I don't know how possible it would be for this principle to be enforced, though: it seems intrusive to ask a couple, before granting them a marriage certificate, whether they intend to have children. (In the style of the brilliant and neglected C. Northcote Parkinson, "How many children have you and why? Have you had chicken pox and why not? The penalty for a false declaration is life imprisonment.") Additionally, it would be perfectly easy for a couple in that position to lie, so that the practical prospect of enforcement seems a dim one.

Those who enter into marriage after childbearing age pose a more delicate difficulty. The Bible of course records multiple miracles of fertility, of which the most famous is probably that of St. Elizabeth, the mother of St. John the Baptist. But this would properly form part of a case in favor of the Church permitting sacramental marriages for those of advanced age, not a case for recognition from the secular state, since we have been working on the premise that revelation is outside the state's purview. I think the answer is that a medical advance could in principle redress the decay of fertility, and therefore it would in principle be possible for such a couple to have children -- though perhaps inadvisable. Conversely, a homosexual couple, whatever their other virtues, could not bring forth children no matter how much their health was improved, save by changing the terms of the problem (e.g. through surrogate motherhood, in vitro, or a sex change). Once again, I am quite amenable to further instruction on this point.

*Readers who notice that sort of thing may observe that I have left aside my usual habit of quoting from the King James, and instead made reference to the English Standard Version. This is because I quote the King James for aesthetic reasons rather than strict theological and linguistic accuracy. Though it regrettably doesn't have a Catholic edition (or, as I'm fond of calling it, the director's cut), the ESV is the most accurate translation of the Bible with which I'm acquainted, though the NAB and the RSV are more popular in many Catholic circles.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Thoughts on Gay Marriage, Part One: Framing the Problem

I approach the subject of gay marriage* with some nervousness, and rather more pessimism. My views probably go rather too far, from a traditional Christian perspective, and not nearly far enough from a gay perspective; and since gays, Christians, and Christian gays make up a decided majority of my friends, I don't see how I can address the topic at all without upsetting and angering people. So I take this opportunity, before the post proper has begun, to beg every reader to read with an open mind and -- more importantly -- an open heart.

As I've stated a couple of times before, I am gay, and my beliefs about homosexual conduct are those of the Catholic Church. Interestingly enough, I've rarely been taken to task for this by any of my lesbian, gay, or transgendered friends, or by allies. Most people are willing to accept it as a matter of personal belief and personal choice. The Catholic contention that it is not merely a religious obligation (religion being freely chosen), but a question of universal moral principles proper to all humanity, edges into more uncomfortable territory. And when we get to gay marriage, conceived of in strictly civil terms, things can get downright hostile, on both sides. The only time I was ever contemptuously called "sodomite," it was by a Christian pastor; while, when I was at the state legislature a couple of years ago, for a hearing on the gay marriage bill, a total stranger leaned over to me while a woman from the Maryland Catholic Conference was speaking and said, "So we should just allow them to be pedophiles?" Stay classy, America.

Though they didn't have to be, traditional mores -- and, I say with great sorrow and bitterness, nowhere more than in Christendom -- have been frequently accompanied by a hideously unjust suspicion of, and hatred for, homosexuals. There were worse and better times, and not always the ones you might expect; the authorities of the fastidious Victorian era often turned a blind eye to those who did not parade themselves (one of the many reasons the Oscar Wilde case made such a splash), while the Late Middle Ages, which saw a definite decline in the power of the Church, ranked homosexuals with heretics, and burned both at the stake. We've gotten out of both eras, for which I'm grateful, though I wonder whether it represents a real moral advance or a mere collapse. Charles Williams said of the rise of religious toleration that we fancied ourselves as having mastered charity, when in fact we were merely sick of the sight of blood. I prefer that to the prior bloodthirst, but it is no great advance to congratulate ourselves upon -- nor any great security.

The job of disentangling moral stands from their legal expression is a difficult one, even when not complicated by the task of distinguishing an authentic moral stand from a phobia dressed in theological language. Nor is it easy today. The casual assertion from many Christians that love for homosexuals demands disapproval of homosexuality, due to the actual attitudes displayed by many believers, is as unconvincing and repellent as is the tendency of many in the queer community to label absolutely any opposition to, or even uncertainty about, gay causes as homophobic.

Let's see if we can't clear away some of the smoke, and consider the issue from multiple perspectives, so as to approach a greater objectivity.

The case for gay marriage is straightforward enough: marriage is the legal union of two persons, and religious mores are not relevant, because of the separation of church and state. To obtrude a specifically Christian character into the civil institution of marriage is inappropriate; and, given that there is debate, not only between the churches and society in general, but among the churches themselves, about the gravity and even the liceity of homosexual practice, gay marriage can scarcely be rejected on grounds of a commonly held morality. Grounds for accepting that gay sex is moral vary, but most appeal to consensuality as the basic principle of sexual ethics, and point to the appearance of homosexual behavior throughout nature as a proof that there is nothing that weird about it.

It must be said that this does more or less demolish a case against gay marriage that we commonly hear set forth, that which appeals to Biblical prohibitions and Christian values as such. A lot of Christians, especially of my generation, on realizing that this case -- the only one, often enough, that they had ever heard -- was, truly, an appeal to the authority of revelation, which is outside the state's purview, have consequently abandoned opposition to gay marriage. I did so for several years (not that I ever opposed it very enthusiastically to begin with). Of course, there are also those who abandoned it out of the desire to be modern and fashionable; but equally, there are surely people who oppose gay marriage out of a general self-righteous disapproval of all things recent. I propose, at least for now, to ignore the motives of all segments of the population as irrelevant to the argument, and resume the discussion.

I find that many if not most people on both sides of this discussion are not acquainted, or only imperfectly, with the argument actually set forth by the Catholic Church. Her contention is that marriage as a natural institution (i.e., an institution arising from human nature both biological and spiritual, yet apart from that special divine intervention we call revelation) is oriented, not simply toward the romantic coupling of the partners, but toward the generation of the family. Romance is a beautiful, good thing, but it is not one of the essential qualities of marriage, as evidenced by the fact that most societies in the past, and many still today, arranged marriages, sometimes years or even decades in advance. Likewise, they all agreed on the nature of marriage: namely, that its purpose was to bring a family into being. If a couple found themselves infertile, of course, that was a saddening irregularity, but not one which affected the essential character of the institution. Nor was this necessarily due to ignorance of, or hostility to, homosexual couples, including monogamous ones; classical Greece is a good example. This being the nature of marriage, a couple that, intrinsically -- not simply by something reparable in principle, such as infertility -- cannot bring forth children cannot enter into a marriage, not even because of any question of its being wrong for them to do so but by the nature of the case. I don't like this doctrine, and never have, but I find it convincing and so I accept it.

Most contemporary Americans find it harder to swallow. Its characterization of marriage as something with a definite purpose in mind, and one that not all Americans are eager to engage in, is repellent to our sense of liberty. Moreover, the appeal to history seems rather backward: we've redefined so many things, made so much progress; why not this, too?

Speaking of the ancient Greeks, though, altering the essence of one of the basic institutions of human society strikes me as a little hubristic; that sort of thing tends to have consequences, and not nice ones. Moreover, it seems to me to miss its own aim. For what are we trying to do in redefining marriage? If we are trying simply to secure legal and social benefits for same-sex couples, I personally have no objection; that is why civil unions do -- and, in my view, should -- exist (not that they are everything they could be, but that's a story for another time). But in that case, why bother appropriating the term marriage?

I think the reason is because gay and lesbian couples want their love recognized and legitimated by society at large. Note that I have written love, not sex; I have yet to meet a fellow queer person who identifies primarily with their sexuality (much religious rhetoric aside), but I have met plenty of people, straight and gay, who want their relationships to be acknowledged as an integral part of them. And our culture has taken the institution of marriage and made it primarily a matter of the parties being in love -- which a lot of gay and lesbian couples are. (The palpably counterfactual claim that two people of the same sex cannot fall in love is, to my mind, beneath serious reply.)

Here, I believe, the churches have already fallen down on the job. Part of the reason the Catholic argument falls on such deaf ears is that the general Christian sentiments about marriage have exactly followed those of the culture at large, changing the definition from a deliberate, sacramental choice to pursue a family, to a social, symbolic affirmation of how deeply two people love each other. It is scarcely surprising; the shift has been taking place since the nineteenth century, and has been the cause of radically altered attitudes to divorce, contraception, and extramarital sex. American Christians, meanwhile, have tended more to oppose such things as they found them personally inconvenient or ideologically embarrassing, than on the basis of a consistently held philosophy of marriage. The idea of gay marriage hasn't redefined marriage, nor will it; marriage has already been redefined, as far as American culture is concerned. The Church has allowed the World to invade her, and the World has correspondingly elected to plunder her. For that, we have ourselves to blame, not gay activists, who are only carrying to their logical conclusion the principles that we found it too bothersome to examine or oppose.

"How shall we then live?" Two answers to that question are necessary. One is the answer regarding how we are to reinfuse our culture with a true understanding of marriage; the other, how we are to behave towards legally partnered lesbians and gay men; both are a part of the New Evangelization. I will answer them in my next, and commend myself and all who read this post to the Holy Family.

*A lot of writers will put a phrase like this in scare quotes. I find this habit unaesthetic, childish, and alienating, so I haven't; I feel that my views on the subject speak for themselves.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Art and Power

Particularly after reading (at the behest of a seminarian friend) this excellent post from the Dominican House in DC, I've been thinking about the subject of creativity. There are a lot of critical theories about how to interpret art, literature, &c.; the twentieth century has seen a proliferation of differing lenses through which to see art, from Marxism to feminism to queer theory to postmodernism. What many of them sometimes fail to reckon with, though, is the root impulse behind all art, and that is the basic human urge to create.

I take this to be one of the fundamental human impulses. In the beginning, we are told, God made the heavens and the earth and all their furnishings, culminating in mankind -- whom He then makes in His own image. The first thing we are told about God, at some length, is that He makes things; then, that He has made us in His image. Man was made for love, because God is love-in-Trinity from before time and space; man was made for truth, because he is rational, the Trinity Itself containing the divine Logos, the Word of John 1; and man was made to make. I don't think it at all coincidental that the duality of the sexes and the command to be fruitful is placed immediately after this. Nor do I think that this doctrine is simply a spiritualization of the sexual impulse -- I rather think that that is simply the biological form of the desire to create that animates humanity.

Now, this can be taken in a lot of directions. You could reflect on the significance of sex, the aim of art, the nature of evangelism, the propagation of philosophy. How about technology?

Technology is obviously one of the consequences of the inventive spirit that is itself one of the forms our creativity can take. And the creativity of humans as expressed in technology has never reached the Atlantean proportions that it has in our own age. I am sitting here, writing a blog post that, when I click the button, will be available in a matter of fractions of a second to be read by people all over the globe. That's beyond cool. It's beyond words.

But we also live in a fallen world, and our creativity -- like our desire for love and our desire for truth -- has been wounded and left incomplete by that fall. I don't mean simply that we may spend more time and energy playing with our techno-toys than those toys justify, though that's certainly true (as anyone who has had to endure my incessant quoting from can doubtless attest). But there is another, a subtler problem, which J. R. R. Tolkien suggested in his Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion, and made more explicit elsewhere:

"[T]he creative (or, as I should say, sub-creative) desire ... is at once wedded to a passionate love of the primary real world, and hence filled with the sense of mortality, and yet unsatisfied by it. It has various opportunities of 'Fall.' It may become possessive, clinging to the things made as 'its own,' the sub-creator wishes to be the Lord and God of his private creation. He will rebel against the laws of the Creator -- especially against mortality. Both of these (alone or together) will lead to the desire for Power, for making the will more quickly effective, -- and so to the Machine (or Magic). By the last I intend all use of external plans or devices (apparatus) instead of developments of the inherent inner powers or talents -- or even the use of these talents with the corrupted motive of dominating, bulldozing the real world, or coercing other wills. The Machine is our more obvious modern form though more closely related to Magic than is usually recognized." -- Letter to Milton Ward, 1951

This contrast between external apparatus and growth from within is an important one. It's part of what David Wong was talking about when he wrote this foul-mouthed and insightful article a few years ago: use enough apparatus, instead of interacting organically with the outside world, and your power to interact with the outside world atrophies. Every talent, every aspect of our interior selves, is like a muscle that needs to be exercised to stay in good shape.

Deep down inside, we know this. I rather think this is why, for instance, we make a distinction between the obsessive bodybuilder or athlete who works out way more than he needs to and diets insanely, and the one who uses steroids as a shortcut. Both, in point of fact, are behaving weirdly, doing things to their bodies that they were not really designed to sustain; but the one is overdoing the development of an inherent power, while the other is resorting to apparatus -- changing the terms of the problem, so to speak, rather than solving it. (Even if the solution is terrible.) And the point is not to pick on bodybuilders and athletes, because all of us do this. One of my externalities is my iPod: I don't like or am indifferent to most of what's played on the radio, and I don't like driving in silence, so I plug it in and listen to anything I want. Which means that, when my iPod is dead or wonking out, I am downright moody, vacillating between depression and anger -- because I have developed so little tolerance for having my will and my tastes thwarted.

Art is something different from power, from what Tolkien called the Machine. Art is something that works with reality, rather than trying to reshape it, and taking it to pieces if it won't assume the shape we want. Technology can go either way: buzzwordy though it all is, green energy (when it really is green energy) is a brilliant example of this, but our reliance upon a limited supply of fossil fuels seems to be increasingly destructive. The contrast between NFP and contraception is another good example: the one uses scientific observation to understand and work with the human body, the other uses the same observation to alter the body.

We need to get back to an organically creative approach to life. No period of the past was a golden age, but this is something our ancestors were better at than we are (if only because, having so much less technology, they had little alternative). I don't think we need to abandon technology as such, or I wouldn't be writing this blog. But we do need to take stock of things -- of our own actions, possessions, habits -- and ask ourselves whether they are tools we do, or can, use to develop ourselves, or Machines that we use as substitutes for personal growth. Because really, if we throttle our own power to grow, who wins?

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

On Being Right the Wrong Way

This past weekend, a friend of mine, to whom I was pontificating at great length on the subject of gayness and Catholicism, said something for which I was deeply grateful. He hadn't said much, which I had at first mentally put down to my bitter tone; but he happened to explain that he was saying little because he didn't know the matter from within (or words to that effect). For this honesty, I thank him.

A lot of people miss this: the necessity of maintaining not only honesty, not only charity, but empathy. It is perfectly possible to be right, and to intend to be loving, and fail completely to communicate love because you have not grasped the other person's experience. In short, being right doesn't mean you know what you're talking about.

This may sound like a frivolous, Wildean paradox, but it is a fact of human experience. Anyone who has been told a fact is, sensu stricto, right about that fact; and anyone who has spent time around someone who has lots of facts but no context, knows that it's still possible to make a bloody fool of yourself thereby. They may be right, but they do not know what they're talking about; which wouldn't much matter, if we were rational in practice (rather than having a capacity for reason that we rarely use -- "I give myself very good advice, but I very seldom follow it"). But unfortunately, if the people we are speaking to come off as idiots, then whether they happen to be right ceases to matter, ninety-nine times out of a hundred. It isn't fair or wise, but it is human nature.

This says more about me than about the dialogue in itself, I think, but nowhere have I seen this illustrated more plainly and painfully than in the relation between the gay community and the Christian churches. (In principle, this difficulty of dialogue could be illustrated from a number of issues; but I'll stick to this one because, about this matter, I know it from within, whereas if I tried another I'd probably only display my ignorance.) To avoid any ambiguity, my own beliefs about homosexual practice are quite traditional; they can be found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paras. 2357-2359. But, unlike a lot of the people who most reference these beliefs, I know what it is like to see the Church, her members, and her language from both sides of the Tiber. I have taken more flak from fellow gays for professing my faith than I have from fellow Christians for being uncloseted,* but I've been caught in the general crossfire nonetheless, and that doesn't seem likely to cease in the foreseeable future.

The problem is not the Church's teaching on sexuality. The problem is that, frequently, those who voice it do so without any understanding of the experience of those (like myself) whom that teaching challenges at a fundamental level. The assertion that it challenges everyone at a fundamental level, while true, is not useful here; for those who are heterosexually inclined to tell those who are not how "We're not that different, you and I" -- while it is a well-intentioned effort to establish respect and break down the sense of isolation many of us experience -- comes across, rather, as a tacit statement, "I have problems too, so quit your whining." That this comes from people who, often enough, have an earthly happiness which is almost invariably inaccessible to us, that of a natural family with the blessing of the Church, begins making it seem like a comfortable man lecturing a homeless one about how finances are always tight sometimes. The problem isn't with the thing being said, it's with the person saying it -- and with their failure to comprehend the perspective of someone with a completely different set of experiences, difficulties, and dominating concerns.

Again, this same principle could be applied to any number of problematic discussions. My journey from evangelical Calvinism to the Catholic Church was a humbling one, as I repeatedly discovered that I had been not only thinking privately, but telling other people, that Catholic beliefs and practices were this and that and the other, when in fact I not only didn't know what I was talking about, but had no reason to think I did. Men dealing with feminism, atheists dealing with religion, bourgeoisie dealing with poverty, Caucasians dealing with racial minorities, all are vulnerable to this same myopia -- as are the opposite problems of women dealing with the male mentality, &c. There is no person or group exempt from the duty of comprehending the other person's perspective; it is the intellectual application of the Golden Rule.

Melinda Selmys, author of the book and blog Sexual Authenticity, sees this with crystal clarity. In the introduction to her book, she explains that every homosexual author whom she quotes in her own work "is someone I think I would like if I met them in person. This, I think, is essential. It is impossible to comment meaningfully on another person's experiences if you think they are stupid, ignorant, dishonest, or evil." (Unfortunately I've lent out my copy, so my quote may not be verbatim and I don't know what page it's from.) I cannot claim to be a paragon of this, as my last post touched on briefly; but it is an ideal I think well worth pursuing in every relationship, of whatever kind.

So what is the upshot of all this? An exhortation to do one of the hardest things in the world, next time you are talking to someone who is unlike yourself. Listen.

*My reasons for not keeping my disposition secret will require a separate post to do justice to them; but a substantial part of those reasons is simply that I am lousy at keeping my mouth shut.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Mea Culpa

Listening to bizarre Christian folk-punk bands like mewithoutYou and the Psalters generally puts me in a brooding, elaborately conscientious mood, and this evening has proven no exception. (The Divine Liturgy of the Wretched Exiles is a fascinating album, by the way; I am seriously contemplating polluting myself with a MySpace account just so I can buy the rest of it.) In conjunction with the account of Christ's temptation in the desert, it has me thinking on the topic of spiritual evil.

Francis George, the Cardinal-Archbishop of Chicago, remarked a few years ago, "I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the Church has done so often in human history." It has widely (and, according to His Eminence, mistakenly) been interpreted as a reference to the HHS mandate, and specifically to its contraceptive provisions. Regardless of context, it is an eloquent overstatement (and was meant to be), and more or less went viral among Catholics, especially the fervent younger generation that, according to the media, has abandoned religion -- though, in my confessedly limited experience, it's becoming increasingly difficult to swing a cat without hitting half a dozen rosary-wielding, scapular-wearing, encyclical-quoting papists who have yet to clear their twenties.

And what does the Cardinal's mot have to do with spiritual evil? In itself, nothing. But there is something in the tone of the Young Papists that disquiets me when I hear them (okay, us) quote that -- a certain relish, bordering on enthusiasm. It would seem to be something distantly akin to the desire for martyrdom, something known to lunatics, saints, and lunatic saints. But the number of saints who have actively desired martyrdom doesn't seem terribly high, and many of those who did desire it were refused it: St. Francis is an outstanding example. St. Peter, on the other hand, though he accepted the cross, judged himself unworthy of it; and St. Thomas More, one of my favorite martyrs, did every morally licit thing in his power to avoid a death for which he had no desire at all. The tone of the Young Papists, on the other hand, has another element in it -- something that makes me think of this morning's gospel:

And the devil brought him to Jerusalem, and set him on a pinnacle of the temple, and said unto him, "If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down from hence: for it is written, 'He shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee: and in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone.'" And Jesus answering said unto him, "It is said, 'Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.'" -- Luke 4.9-12

I don't mean that we Young Papists are Satan, although it may be worth bearing in mind that the first Vade Retro was addressed to the first Pope.* But the significance of this temptation is the same as the danger that can animate the desire for martyrdom, literal or figurative: the craving for a remarkable display of one's holiness -- for the good of others, of course; and as a proof that our faith is as strong as we claim. Tolkien hit the nail on the head when, explaining a theme that recurs through all of his works about Middle-Earth, he wrote to a friend, "[T]his frightful evil can and does arise from an apparently good root, the desire to benefit the world and others -- speedily and according to the benefactor's own plans".

I actually agree with the generally conservative sentiment that Christianity is on the defensive in this country, and that it will likely be so increasingly over the next few decades; though it must be said that that is an educated guess, not a prophecy, and God has a way of confounding the philosopher and the scribe. (It should be, but isn't, unnecessary to add that I still don't countenance the hysterical paranoia that, sometimes quite prosaically, attempts to equate our political-religious situation with the persecutions under the Nazis.) But that makes me more concerned about spiritual corruption rather than less. We are accustomed to thinking of the early Church as being incomparably pure and virtuous because of the persecutions, and I dare say they were rather more impressive than ourselves, spiritually speaking; but an attentive perusal of the New Testament and the primitive documents of the faith will reveal that they too had their share of half-hearted camp followers, superstitionists, freelance syncretists, jealous backbiters, self-anointed apostles, intransigent fanatics, and just plain fools. And persecution, while it can purify, can also destroy; I shall be bold to say that there have been many Christians, holy in their own way, who would not have had the nerve required if they had had to live, and perhaps die, under a persecuting state.

Moreover, if we do suppose that we are approaching an era of implicit -- or even explicit -- persecution, and relish the thought, whom exactly are we congratulating? God, who (perhaps) found our stubbornness in sin so incurable that He was forced to resort to a persecution to knock some sense into us? Ourselves, who, if we did not court persecution, cannot exactly claim credit for it; or if we did, have thus provoked a terrible sin in others?

And there is one of the questions that is rarely considered. When persecutions do come, we are specially warned in the Beatitudes to pray for those who persecute us. For, if we are unjustly persecuted, then those who persecute are sinning against us. (And if it isn't unjust, then persecution is perhaps not the word we are looking for: a man I knew remarked that Jesus said those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness are blessed, but said nothing about people who are persecuted because they're jerks.) Dorothy Day, reflecting on the pacifist convictions and practice of the Catholic Worker Movement, addressed the question with stinging insight:

"On the other hand, to continue examining these subtleties: What about this business of letting the other fellow get away with things? Isn't there something awfully smug about such piety -- building up your own sanctimoniousness at the expense of the increased guilt of someone else? This turning the other cheek, this inviting someone else to be a potential thief or murderer, in order that we may grow in grace -- how obnoxious. In that case, I believe I'd rather be the striker than the meek one struck. No, somehow we must be saved together." -- Loaves and Fishes, p. 61

I can attest that there is definitely something smug about such piety. I was recently startled in a conversation with a few friends of mine by how self-righteous and disdainful I was being, merely on the grounds of the ideas that I held -- and I've barely done anything with those ideas except talk about them! Pride's roots go deep, deep down into the unlit and dripping places of the heart; it takes a hot and a persistent fire to scorch them out.

I don't think of this post as an accusation; certainly I haven't got anyone in particular in mind; or, to be more accurate, I am attempting to practice humility by remembering that the people I do have in mind do not necessarily suffer from the vice I'm talking about merely because I think they do, and/or dislike them. I prefer to think of this as a call to examination of conscience. Whether persecution is on the horizon, or beyond the horizon, or not, purity of heart is always worth having, and a pure heart is the fruit of (among other things) an examined life.

*The Vade Retro is a prayer against devils, beginning with the line "Get thee behind me, Satan" from Matt. 16.23.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Out of the Ashes

Since Pope Benedict XVI announced his abdication (I prefer this term to "resignation," which to me sounds like a career choice), my shock has given way to reflection. Lent is certainly the time for reflection.

When Blessed John Paul II died, I was still an evangelical, though definitely a "high church" one (although small, there is a substantial minority of such believers in the Calvinist tradition). I felt the momentousness of the event nevertheless; I knew almost nothing about him, and yet the force of his personality and devotion to God left such an impression on our culture as a whole that I could not help but pick up on it. I intuited that I was somehow involved in this, that even on the other side of the Tiber, the Bishop of Rome mattered -- and mattered in a way that the local Presbyterian synod or the Archbishop of Canterbury didn't; couldn't; made no claim to.

Benedict the academic theologian has been less popular with the world in general than the energetic, poetic, charismatic John Paul was, though he is dearly loved by myself and most of the Catholics I know. (I could not keep myself from laughing out loud when I read an article in the Washington Post yesterday morning averring that he had "failed to make an emotional connection" with the laity.) Yet his decision was a bombshell. A lot of people are claiming that this sets a significant precedent -- whether they think it a good precedent or a bad one seems to depend on whether they tend toward a progressivist or a conservative attitude toward the Catholic Church.

I'm a pretty impenitent traditionalist myself, but I'm not convinced it sets much of a precedent at all. Admittedly such abdications aren't, and shouldn't be, common; only two have preceded it: Celestine V's abdication in 1294 (the first of its kind, which, in most scholars' opinion, prompted a terrible rebuke from Dante in the Inferno); and that of Gregory XII in 1415, who was facilitating the Council of Florence. Plainly abdication isn't catching.

What is more important is that the office of Peter remains the same, through every change. The man who holds the office is of comparatively small import. If the Catholic belief is right, then it is the Holy Spirit who guides the Church through the Popes, so that who they are (in one sense) matters very little; and if the Catholic belief is wrong, then who the Pope is matters not at all. I will miss the Holy Father deeply -- he is the patriarch under whom I converted, one of the men who (unbeknownst to him of course) influenced me towards conversion, and whose wisdom, grace, and utter devotion to Jesus have truly inspired me. But his successor, whatever sort of man he is and whether I personally like and respect him or not, will equally be the Vicar of Christ.

The news coverage has, not altogether unexpectedly, consisted chiefly of a few neat historical tidbits (often wrong) and total, laughable failures to understand the nature of the Church. Journalists talk about this or that faction and its prospects for gaining control of the Church, as though it were a political office, and as though the papabili were candidates campaigning on the promise of policy changes. Never mind the fact that there are no serious dissensions on doctrinal matters within the College of Cardinals, a majority of whom were appointed by Benedict himself. I sometimes wonder whether the only thing most journalists understand is power. That would not be unnatural; it is what most of the sorts of things journalists report on revolve around. But if my acquaintance with postmodernism has taught me anything, it is to ask questions about the perspective of those who control narratives, and when I look at the media, I see a narrative dominated by people who -- irrespective of political affiliation -- have no conception of what the Church believes about herself. Of course, the mere fact that an institution believes something about itself does not make that thing true; I believe the Church's doctrine and credit her authority on other grounds (which, for the moment, need not detain us). But it does determine the nature of the decisions it makes, true or false. And the Church conceives of herself first and foremost as a family, the Mystical Body of Christ. Family does not translate easily into power politics; and families that do conceive of themselves in such terms, like the Julio-Claudian emperors, have a tendency to meet rapid and violent ends.

My own belief is that the reason the Catholic Church has persisted to the present day is that, even when she was manipulated and abused by her pastors, the revitalizing Spirit kept her real nature from being irrevocably wounded. The Word continued, the sacraments went on; the light was dimmed and cooled, but it never quite went out. Always it rose like a phoenix out of its own ashes. And phoenixes are not widely believed in by journalists. Yet --

"The colors of the Sistine will then speak the word of the Lord:
Tu es Petrus -- once heard by Simon, son of John.
So it was in August, and again in October,
in the memorable year of the two conclaves,
and so it will be once more, when the time comes,
after my death.
Do not forget: Omnia nuda et aperta sunt ante oculos Ejus.*
You who see all, point to him!
He will point him out ..." -- Bl. John Paul II

"And the Lord said, 'Simon, Simon, behold, Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat: but I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren." -- Luke 22.31-32

*All things are naked and open before His eyes.

Monday, February 11, 2013

News: Pope Benedict XVI Abdicates

The Holy Father has announced that he will resign the Throne of Saint Peter at the end of this month. The text of his announcement to the consistory can be found here. Farewell in the grace of God and the love of the Church, Holy Father.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Pacifisticuffs, Part Four: Kulturkampf

Every year at Christmas time, we are inundated with signs, commercials, and bumper stickers exhorting us to "Keep Christ in Christmas." Apparently we are also thus exhorted in early February, as I noticed when leaving Mass a few days ago. There are few things that annoy me more. I don't know whom these things are designed to convince: Christians who celebrate Christmas for religious reasons will presumably do so anyway, and I can't fathom the idea that non-Christians have an obligation to perform religious observances that pertain specifically to a religion they do not profess. As for those who are on the fence, or whose faith is habitual or residual, I cannot quite bring myself to believe that a bossy bumper sticker will fulfill for them the role that the light from heaven and the divine voice played for St. Paul.

This is one example of what has been dubbed, sometimes in cold prose, the culture war. Evangelicals are noteworthy for the gusto they devote to it, as are Catholics: forming political blocs, founding their own branches of the entertainment industry, hailing The Passion of the Christ as a masterpiece and branding Harry Potter with anathemas. It's us versus them, and the us are us because we are faithful to God.

This comes in harsher and in milder forms -- at its worst in collections of deranged fanatics like Westboro Baptist Church; possibly at its sappy best in many Christian bookstores, where every cover is in pastels and every decoration an American flag or a sentimental statue of Jesus, generally in Nordic mode. The essential quality of it, whatever its presentation, is the conviction not just that Christianity is true, but that Christians are right, a very different thesis. The former is, well, simply what it means to accept the faith, speaking intellectually. The latter is a first step on the road to spiritual pride, and one that nearly always comes with the corollary that "those people" -- whoever "those people" are: conservatives; secularists; Jews; pagans -- are the enemy.

I distrust any system or atmosphere of thought that makes another human being, as such, my enemy. That there are destructive, false ideas in the world, I readily accept, and I am (I hope) prepared to oppose such ideas; that people who embrace them are rendered less human by doing so, I will never accept. I have precisely one enemy, and that enemy is evil: evil is not a person, and therefore no person is my enemy. C. S. Lewis, in a passage I cannot now find, recounts that he once met a pastor from continental Europe "who had met Hitler, and had ... good cause to hate him. 'What did he look like?' I asked. 'Like all men,' he replied. 'That is, like Christ.'"

Now, I readily accept that our faith should inform our morals, our politics, our choice of entertainment, and so forth. But the idea of a culture war is not in my opinion a helpful one. It engenders and fosters an idea, a false idea, that Christians ought to believe all things that are in some vague sense "Christian" are better than things not so labelled. If the term had any content, as applied to anything and everything, it might be true, maybe; but even then I would be seriously skeptical. Right religious beliefs do not, in themselves, give someone an understanding of political science, or a talent for music (regardless of what the Christian music industry might have us believe), or any of the other things that make up a culture. The role of the Church is one of forming men's character so that they will be the right kind of men to hold public office, to make outstanding art, and so forth -- not to mass-produce such things as alternatives to what is already there. 

When a child is baptized, the parents aren't handed a new baby; they are given their own baby, who is now a baptized child. The change is interior and organic, not external -- which is, nearly always, related to superficiality or coercion. So here: the influence our faith should have in culture should be coming from us doing the things people do anyway, but doing them in a way that is suffused with the Holy Spirit. Thus the culture is changed, by being regenerated from within, not compelled from without.

To take a concrete example, one of the most hotly debated issues of our day is gay marriage. I don't say that the churches are wrong to say that gay marriage is wrong (the ones who do say that, anyway); I think so myself, though without relish. But -- while my political views on the subject will require a post of their own, later -- I really believe that democratic, legislative, and juridical action are beside the point. If we want reverence for marriage, we don't need to prevent gay marriage from being made legal in the remaining forty-odd states; we don't need stronger conscience clauses; we don't even need stricter divorce laws. What we need is reverence for marriage. And that comes from the heart.

I am a pacifist in the culture war because I do not believe that war is the answer to cultural problems. As long as our interaction with our neighbor is dominated by the thought of war, we who live by the sword shall die by the sword; or, if you throw a dead cat in your neighbor's back yard, he will probably throw it back into yours.

A good example of what I mean about a pacifist approach to the culture war is to be found in Acts 19. St. Paul was in Ephesus, and had made so many converts that the silversmiths, whose profits came in part from the sale of idols of the goddess Artemis, became worried that he would depress their trade, and bring Artemis herself into disrepute. The silversmiths started a riot, dragging two of the apostle's companions into the theater, where, for two hours, the crowd shouted, "Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!" over and over again. Finally they were quieted by the local governor, who made, in passing, the interesting remark that the Christians had neither robbed temples nor blasphemed the goddess. Dr. Glenn Parkinson, the pastor of my mother's church, said in a sermon that if the Moral Majority had been there they would have organized a boycott of silver idols, or tried to pass legislation making them illegal; but that as a result of St. Paul's message, and his love, "Thousands of people stopped buying little silver statues! Not because they wanted to hurt the economy, not because they were trying to make the pagans stop buying idols; they just didn't want them any more."

Change doesn't come from any external thing, from bumper stickers to legal reforms, even if they help. What it comes from is people aglow with the grace of God, a grace that animates their thoughts, their words, and their actions, in a way that those outside find irresistible. Violence is not the way, not even ideological violence. The way is to love God so totally that it fills every corner of our being, transforms it, and bursts our seams and floods everyone around us. And then, if they absorb it, they transform from within.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Pacifisticuffs, Part Three: "No One Can Breathe Against Their Will"

Christianity and the Republican party are almost inextricably linked in the American mind today. Even before the advent of the controversial HHS mandate, the nearly universal Democratic endorsement of abortion, and its friendlier attitude to gay rights, as well as to various forms of state intervention in the home -- all this made the GOP and the churches seem to be natural allies. Moreover, the more liberal disposition of Republicans to the rights of business, forming a strong contrast to Marxism and its ideological relatives, seemed to many (if only by being opposed to Marxism, which has never disguised its utter hatred of Christianity) a natural complement to Judeo-Christian values.

The idea of class warfare is largely a foreign one to our minds. Venerable Dorothy Day declared herself a pacifist in the class war, and it meant something at the time, since radical and even revolutionary sentiments were then by no means unknown in this country; today she would probably be met chiefly with blank stares, and perhaps one histrionic rebuke from an intensely conservative, but not traditionalist, Catholic.

I don't espouse the concept of class warfare as set down by Marx. Having finally read the Communist Manifesto, and having found it a puzzling mixture of insight, illogicality, eloquence, and colorlessness, I feel safe dissociating myself from it without undue prejudice: the notions that all conflicts among men are economic in origin, that the bourgeoisie are to be naturally and rightly mowed down by the proletariat, and that violence is an appropriate means of accomplishing this end -- I can accept none of these things. I am not a materialist, and even if I were, I can see little reason to view humanity through an exclusively economic lens; nor as a Catholic Christian do I believe that any kind of men are naturally or rightly opposed to any other kind.

But to say that the rich do not, in point of fact, make war against the poor, and that the poor do not at times respond in kind, seems impossible. Oppression is one of the salient facts of human existence, and that oppression very frequently takes the form of economic oppression. Or, to put it more simply, the rich exploit the poor. To call it war does not seem to me to be overstatement; for it is often precisely lives, through livelihoods, that are at stake. Or, to quote Ambrogio Ratti, better known as Pius XI:

"In the first place, it is obvious that not only is wealth concentrated in our times but an immense power and despotic economic dictatorship is consolidated in the hands of a few, who often are not owners but only the trustees and managing directors of invested funds which they administer according to their own arbitrary will and pleasure. This dictatorship is being most forcibly exercised by those who, since they hold the money and completely control it, control credit also and rule the lending of money. Hence they regulate the flow, so to speak, of the life-blood whereby the entire economic system lives, and have so firmly in their grasp the soul, as it were, of economic life that no one can breathe against their will. This concentration of power and might, the characteristic mark, as it were, of contemporary economic life, is the fruit that the unlimited freedom of struggle among competitors has of its own nature produced, and which lets only the strongest survive; and this is often the same as saying, those who fight the most violently, those who give least heed to their conscience." -- Quadragesimo Anno, paras. 105-107

His Holiness' words, penned in 1931, remain true, and relevant, in our own day -- succeeding as they did on Pope Leo XIII's famous encyclical on the rights of labor, Rerum Novarum, and since followed by others, such as Bl. John Paul II's Centesimus Annus, just after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Many Christians today give every impression of categorically dismissing such sentiments as these, and even of viewing capitalism as part and parcel with the faith itself. Those Catholics who do not dismiss the teaching of Humanae Vitae on contraception may well dismiss the repeated affirmations of the Magisterium that individualistic capitalism is not compatible with the faith either. Nor, with its Darwinian concept of the market and its divorce of economics from all moral considerations -- "as if it were for charity to veil the violation of justice which lawmakers not only tolerated but at times sanctioned" (Quadragesimo Anno, para. 4) -- could it be expected to be allied to Christianity. And in fairness, it is not only the Popes who have stated flatly that Liberalism (as it was then called) was in essential conflict with the faith; the free-market Liberals themselves said so.

Am I then professing socialism? No. To the extent that I sympathize with any political causes, the only two I much credit are anarchy (with qualifications that need not detain us) and monarchy; monarchy being, in my view, a close second-best to anarchy, and a cut above representative democracy, if only because kings are more easily caught than committees. One of the great falsehoods of the American political system is the notion that capitalism and socialism are the only two economic -- and, by extension, political -- systems on the market, or that at most any real organization of society will be some compromise between the two, as natural extremes.

What I do profess, with some warmth, is that the churches have been widely discredited by the commonplace acceptance of the economic theory of man -- an intrinsically utilitarian thing. Capitalism, from its inception, reduced man to the status of a machine for making profits, instead of a being with rights to be respected -- for instance, the right to a just wage and to decent conditions of work; something that no agreement can nullify: a man does not waive his right to what his humanity entitles him to, merely because he settles for the little he can get out of a desperate need to survive. And socialism (as Chesterton pointed out) simply took that view of man and reversed the status of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat in fulfilling its demented and disastrous course. In capitalist countries the poor have nothing; in communist countries it is the same, with the addition that there are no rich -- except the governors. The Catholic Church, virtually alone, has attempted to stem the tide of this diseased view of man; but her rank and file, at any rate in this country, have not been conspicuous for their prophetic alternative in economic life; and American Catholic politicians, from Ted Kennedy to Paul Ryan, have shown themselves more American than Catholic in their willingness to compromise on matters of justice in order to secure political support.

What does any of this have to do with pacifism? Well, the fact that radicalism in politics often issues, both theoretically and practically, in revolution, is no small matter. The still graver reality that there cannot be peace without justice ought to be a warning to us, too. But I am not espousing a revolutionary solution, for the simple reason that I do not believe revolutions solve anything whatever. I don't mean that they are invariably or necessarily unjust; but what is needed is a revolution of man himself. Aristotle wisely remarked that men do not become tyrants in order to keep warm. Men become tyrants because they are men who have the same passions and pleasures that we do, and wish to indulge them. There is no depravity inherent in the powerful that is not, at least, potential in ourselves.

I seek a pacifist solution to class war as well as to military war. That solution is conversion of heart. Only by mutual commitment to justice and charity can economic violence be solved; and there can be no mutual commitment to justice and charity except by a personal commitment to these things. Society will not do for us a job that we decline to do ourselves; for society is only a name for ourselves, considered en masse. Both inaction (as the capitalist may desire) and revolution (as the socialist may promote) leave the nature of things as they are. We must act -- but we must not be violent, for force does not produce peace.

Act how, then? I have said it here before, and I will say it again: Reform yourself. It is the only thing you can ever do, ever. Give to the poor, work for an equitable system, but above all, seek and pray for a just heart. It is out of just hearts that just societies are made. They aren't made of anything else.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Pacifisticuffs, Part Two: The Sword

There have been wars and rumors of wars throughout the world for all of recorded history, and there is no reason to suppose prehistory was any different. One of the first events of Genesis is a fratricide; that human beings kill one another is, ironically, a fact of life.

Nor is the Christian tradition a stranger to war. Since St. Augustine formulated a baptized theory of just war, as Christendom was beginning in the twilight of the Roman Empire, there have been wars tolerated, approved, and even encouraged by the Christian world. There has also always been a dissentient tradition within the Church -- not, or not always, repudiating Just War Theory, but always calling for peace and forsaking violence of every kind. For every St. Louis who was a willing soldier against the infidel, there was always a St. Francis who would sooner be killed than kill. Since the fracture of the Occident during the Reformation, there have been not only movements but entire denominations who incorporated strict pacifism into their practice and even their doctrine, notably the cruelly persecuted Anabaptists and the Quakers.

I accept Just War Theory in principle, as do most people -- in the sense that most people think wars can be justified, though of course there are unjust ones. However, as I mentioned in my last post, I mean to register as a conscientious objector (notwithstanding my profound respect for those who are or have been in the armed forces, including my father and one of my brothers-in-law) if the draft is ever resurrected.

But if wars can be just, why be a conscientious objector? One important reason is that I have exactly no confidence that our government, or most governments, will lead their country into just wars -- whether considered according to their cause or according to the way they are waged. And why not? Because, throughout her history and including our most recent conflicts in the Middle East and central Asia, the US has exhibited a distinct disregard for the criteria of just war; less, maybe, than other nations, and that is something to be profoundly grateful for, but injustice remains injustice also when other people are worse than we are.

But why am I saying that America has disregarded the criteria of just war at all? Plenty of people, including plenty of Christians, would bristle at such an accusation, as a mark of impenitent flower-childishness. Well, I have to admit I am from California originally, so any mud thrown from the well of hippiedom will likely stick. But let's consider just a few of the criteria for just war -- the criteria generally accepted by theorists on the subject.

One is the criterion of right intention, connected with the need for a just cause to go to war. Self-defense, or the defense of innocent populations who are unable to protect themselves, is such a cause; but maintaining an economy is not, whether through the economic activity of war, or through seizing the resources of another nation (either outright, or through establishing a satellite regime that will favor one's own nation in trade).

Another is that, in the conduct of a war, no means evil in themselves can be used to subjugate an enemy. This would include tactics such as forcing prisoners of war to cooperate in efforts against their own side, or using weapons whose effects are uncontrollable, such as nuclear weapons.

A third is that a distinction must be observed between combatants and non-combatants. Deliberately killing civilians is out of the question. Strikes, of whatever kind, that involve destroying civilian lives or property at a scale disproportionate to the direct, military advantage to be gained, are ruled out.

Now, this or that specific war or particular act of war can be debated on these grounds, or on others. But I at any rate cannot look at these things and fail to see my own nation staring back at me. And I cannot commit myself to obeying as a soldier a government which is capable of commanding such things, especially since the lives of fellow soldiers could easily depend upon my actions.

I have often heard these requirements of just war dismissed in conversation as an unattainable ideal. Wars simply aren't fought that way. Maybe, but that is scarcely the point. The ideal of a perfectly hygienic child is equally unattainable. Arguably more so, since non-combatants in a war generally do wish to live, whereas few children wish to be hygienic; yet I never heard of a mother who saw that as grounds to excuse her children from washing. Likewise in every pursuit of justice, whether we are discussing war or politics or any other thing. It is only in pursuing possibly unattainable ideals that anything ever gets done; only the idealist can be really pragmatic. And, especially from a Christian perspective cognizant of the four last things -- death; judgment; Heaven; hell -- the lesson could be drawn that the inevitable injustices of war are a lesson about the wrongness of war, not the wrongness of justice.

But there is, for me, another and in some ways a deeper reason for being pacifistic. One of the ideas at the core of the Christian religion is that all human life is sacred, that every human being is an image of God, sacrosanct. To reverence the image of God in man is therefore a holy thing. Now, there may well be reasons to disregard the sanctity of the image; it is not, on a typical Christian view, wrong to do violence and even to kill in self-defense. But to choose, as a vocation, not to take up arms and not to do violence, even when we are ourselves wronged, threatened, endangered -- not only is this also not wrong, it has been historically required of priests. It is a symbolic affirmation of the sanctity of the human person, which persists, despite any actions taken by the individual.

Is this vocation obligatory? Certainly not. That is what distinguishes a vocation from the moral law as such. But I think our culture -- what Blessed John Paul II called a "culture of death" -- is badly in need of such symbolic affirmations of life. The Lord Himself would have been justified in avoiding His death. But -- "Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish by the sword. Thinkest thou that I cannot now pray to my Father, and he shall presently give me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then shall the scriptures be fulfilled, that thus it must be?" It was a lesson the great St. Paul absorbed well: "With all boldness, as always, so now also Christ shall be magnified in my body, whether it be by life, or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain."

Nothing can convert a culture of death except a culture of life, and there can be no culture of life without a conviction of the sanctity of life. And as long as Christians are compromising and tolerant with regard to war, our professions of the sacredness of every human being are going to ring hollow.