Saturday, May 31, 2008

Leo Strauss, History and Natural Right - Introduction

"This means that people were forced to accept a fundamental, typically modern, dualism of a nonteleological natural science and a teleological science of man. This is the position which the modern followers of Thomas Aquinas, among others, are forced to take, a position which presupposes a break with the comprehensive view of Aristotle, as well as that of Thomas Aquinas himself. The fundamental dilemma, in whose grip we are, is caused by the victory of modern science"

On the one hand, this little aside from the introduction describes quite nicely the situation of many modern Catholics. They have a two-story universe, as it were, where the physical or natural world serves no directed purpose or end, and can be engaged, used, or manipulated as each individual sees fit, since there is no ultimate purpose behind merely material things. Only the relatively small corner of the world known as "the human soul" is subject to purpose and meaning. Divine revelation and Divine law are directed only towards the interior world of the human soul, and the purely material world is left to fend for itself, as it were. Oddly enough, it can be argued that this peculiarly modern mindset is not a very Catholic one, since the very structure of sacramental theology supports the idea that physical objects are subject to Divine purposes and can reveal or even contain Divinity itself.

On the other hand, does any intelligent Thomist believe such a thing as Strauss says here? Just because scientific methods can very capably describe the efficient and material causes of the natural world, does that really mean that modern Thomists now exclude formal and final (i.e. teleological) causes from the explanation of the natural world? I smell a a whiff of old-fashioned Enlightment-era hyperrationalism in this particular passage. Richard Dawkins would be proud.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Summer Reading List

Here is what I plan to read this summer. I just finished a winter-long Aquinas reading project, so these are my "fun books." Sad, isn't it?

Leo Strauss, History and Natural Right

I've lately become interested in various critiques of Natural Law theory. Leo Strauss' account is supposedly one of the more penetrating, and he is apparently critical of both the Enlightenment-era natural law tradition as well as the Scholastic formulation. This is interesting to me, since, in my view, those two natural law theories are diametrically opposed. I'm very interested to hear what Strauss has to say.

This book also contains a fairly extended critique of historicism, and reading it is part of my effort to understand the influence of Hegel and all his disciples on Western thinking. I've seen several intelligent critiques of contemporary Catholic theology which rest on the proposition that modern Catholic theology is deeply (and erroneously) dependent on historicist assumptions. This book occasionally gets invoked in those critiques, so I am very curious to see what all the fuss is about.

Philip Rieff, Triumph of the Therapeutic

This is one of those books that I've read about for a long time, but never actually got around to putting eyes on paper. It is a classic work of cultural analysis, and, from what I hear, gives one of the most damning critiques of contemporary Western culture that can be found.

Germain Grisez, Contraception and Natural Law

I'm perpetually of two minds on whether or not the Church's teachings on contraception are more coherently explained by natural law theory or by JPII's more biblical-patristic account, commonly referred to as "Theology of the Body" (readers take note - I despise that phrase, and henceforth will not use it in this blog)

This intellectual waffling of mine, combined with my questions on natural law theory in general (see Leo Strauss above) should make for a interesting read.

Leo Steinberg, The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion

Don't laugh. Several people for whom I have deep intellectual respect claim that this is one of the best books they've ever read.

As time permits, here's what else might be on tap:

Jean-Luc Marion, God Without Being

Supposedly contains a defense of Aquinas from Heidegger's "ontotheology" critique. Marion also has a (perhaps undeserved?) reputation as a "postmodern" philosopher. Should be interesting.

If Wikipedia is any indication, Marion seems to intersect a number of topics that have been on my mind lately....patristics, neo-Platonism, ontology, phenomenology/Personalism, Aquinas, La Nouvelle name it, he seems to be connected to it somehow

George Bernanos, Diary of a Country Priest

I am woefully inadequate in my reading of good literature. This book has a good reputation amongst intelligent and orthodox Catholics.

Anonymous, Meditations on the Tarot

Written by Valentin Tomberg, a convert to the Church from neo-pagan esotericism. Forward by von Balthasar. How much weirder can you get? A perfect "beach read" for philosophy/theology nerds.

Catechism Catholicism

In recent months, there has been much discussion in the Catholic-oriented media about the possibility of a solemn papal declaration for the so-called"fifth Marian dogma"

Now I generally oppose this effort, not because the dogma is not true, but because it reinforces what I perceive to be a wholly negative trend in the modern Church, namely, the perceived dependence of Catholic dogma on papal authority. Included below is a portion of an email I sent to some friends discussing this issue. As I argue below, I think this trend in ecclesiology reinforces the more destructive trends occurring in the life of the modern Church.


Generally speaking, I "oppose" the declaration, not in the sense that I think it is untrue, but rather because I can't make real theological sense out of it, nor can I see how it would be a good idea, ecclesially speaking.

a) My current theological understanding is that the "mediatrix" and "co-redemptrix" titles derive from the common nature which the Blessed Virgin shares with Christ, and through which we were redeemed, receive grace, etc. I think this is the Thomist formulation, and I haven't seen any other strong arguments for the titles that aren't essentially lists of (necessarily imprecise) quotations from the liturgy, papal documents, etc.

Now the problem here is that if this is the theological basis for the mediatrix/redemptrix, then it would seem to be simply a consequence of an already-defined dogma, namely the theotokos. As such, it is hard for me to see the necessity of an additional dogmatic declaration.

Since canon law currently requires us to invoke Ratzinger in these types of discussions, I will additionally note that I believe this was part of Ratzinger's earlier views on the topic, namely that the doctrines, while true, are theologically vague and subject to confusing interpretation.

b) my second concern is a more practical one - I'm concerned that a papal declaration would simply reinforce the "pope = Catholic CEO" model of ecclesiology that seems to exist in the minds of modern Catholics...that is to say, can't we all just believe something without the pope having to officially say that it is true? The mediatrix and coredemptrix titles exist in the liturgy, they exist in tradition.....can't we just believe them, as part of the ordinary magisterium? Is there really a Marian crisis within the Church that requires solemn proclamation? Wouldn't a proclamation simply re-inforce one of the more negative trends in the modern Church, namely the phenomena of "Catechism Catholicism"...i.e. the attitude that "I believe doctrine X because the pope and the Catechism say so," as in opposition to sacred tradition and liturgy?

I think in some ways, too, that this phenomena of "Catechism Catholicism" is part of the ongoing story of the Church's struggle to fully understand the implications of Vatican I. Regarding Vatican I, it seems clear that a strong papal primacy is part of the dogmatic patrimony of the Church...but there is a strong argument to be made that the pronouncement came at a time when Catholic culture worldwide was in the initial stages of its collapse, due to the rise of secularism/modernism, etc......the strong formulation of papal primacy allowed the average Catholic, whose grasp of liturgy and tradition was becoming more tenuous, to begin formulating the Faith in more strictly hierarchical/monarchical terms. This led to the ecclesial mess we have today, where the average orthodox Catholic formulates their ecclesiology, not primarily with reference to Scripture, liturgy, tradition, but to "canon X of CCC", or "papal document y." This is the "pope=CEO of the Church" model of ecclesiology, and one sees it in both liberal and conservative factions...conservatives, when they say things like "I wish the pope would just fire Cdl Mahony," and in liberals when they say, "I wish the pope would hurry up and ordain women,gays,dogs, etc"

In some ways, even the cultural mess that followed Vatican II can be seen as part of the outgrowth of the development of "Catechism Catholicism." I think many of the Vatican II promulgations can be seen as an attempt to undo the mess caused by the misappropriation of Vat I teaching. Hence all the emphasis on the collegiality of bishops, and the function of the laity, and the returning of the liturgy to the people and their cultures, etc......all of which is well and good, except that the laity and bishops were in full-blown cultural collapse at the time. I don't think I need to elaborate on the many unfortunate results that came from the conjunction of V2 teaching with modern Western culture of the late 20th century...

To illustrate more clearly what I am referring to here, check out this blog post and its long chain of comments. It highlights quite nicely what I am trying to get across - namely, that misuse of the Petrine privilege can have the unintended effect of weakening the Church's authority. In the post, a conservative Catholic argues with a fairly standard paint-by-numbers liberal theologian over the subject of Church teaching.

The interesting thing is that the crux of the liberal theologian's argument for rejection of many critical Church teachings, such as Humanae Vitae (HV), is that they were not infallibly proclaimed, and thus subject to "development," by which he means "negation. And in a strict technical sense, he's correct - HV was not infallibly proclaimed.

It's an interesting exchange, because it shows how the misuse of dogmatic authority can contribute to all sorts of unforeseen problems. I think it would have been unfathomable to theologians 200+ years ago to make the argument that "well, it's not infallible, so we can believe what we want." Thus, one dogma (infallibility) is played off of another (contraception), because there is a mindset, rampant in both conservative and liberal circles, that the only important dogmas are ones defined from the extraordinary magisterium. The movement for the fifth Marian dogma only reinforces this unfortunate trend, in my opinion, since it seems to reinforce, this time from a "conservative" standpoint, the idea that that "it only really matters if the Pope says its true!"

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Dear "Just me"

Dear "Just me" (from this comment),

I hear what you are saying my friend. I congratulate you for the virtue showed first in making the trek and now in staying on the path. Eventually, your stock of good Catholic friends will grow, but you might have to endure a "dark night of the soul" (or at least a few more quiet evenings). There is a vibrant Catholic community on line which, though not ultimately a substitute for face-to-face interaction, can be life-sustaining and joy-filled.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

I'm baaaa--aaaak!

The semester is O-V-E-R! Looking forward to summer blogging!