Friday, June 27, 2008


The world does not need words. It articulates itself
in sunlight, leaves, and shadows. The stones on the path
are no less real for lying uncatalogued and uncounted.
The fluent leaves speak only the dialect of pure being.
The kiss is still fully itself though no words were spoken.

And one word transforms it into something less or other—
illicit, chaste, perfunctory, conjugal, covert.
Even calling it a kiss betrays the fluster of hands
glancing the skin or gripping a shoulder, the slow
arching of neck or knee, the silent touching of tongues.

Yet the stones remain less real to those who cannot
name them, or read the mute syllables graven in silica.
To see a red stone is less than seeing it as jasper—
metamorphic quartz, cousin to the flint the Kiowa
carved as arrowheads. To name is to know and remember.

The sunlight needs no praise piercing the rainclouds,
painting the rocks and leaves with light, then dissolving
each lucent droplet back into the clouds that engendered it.
The daylight needs no praise, and so we praise it always—
greater than ourselves and all the airy words we summon.

from Interrogations at Noon
© 2001 Dana Gioia

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Catholic Experience and Contraception

A recent comment I posted on the thread to this post.

"Having foundered on fundamental disagreements regarding first principles, it seems that this discussion has inevitably turned to an existential exchange of claims regarding the "authenticity" of Church doctrines on contraception, especially insofar as those doctrines have an "experiential" basis.

While a combox is rarely a suitable form for this sort of existential discourse (one's college dorm discussions at least took place with actual people, with whom one lived and regularly interacted), it seems that there is perhaps some benefit to discussing the "real" experiences of Catholics in regard to the matter. Moreover, it seems the commenters in this thread who seem the most concerned about "hearing the voices of women" on the issue, are in fact very poorly acquainted with any actual Catholics, men or women, who have accepted the Church's stance on these matters. With that in mind, I offer the following thoughts:

My wife is a cradle Catholic who grew up, like most women of her generation, being taught that "theological development [should be] based on the actual experiences of men and women rather than on the ideal experience that no one has." Upon leaving her parents' house, she followed that premise to its natural conclusion, and promptly left the Church, a pattern her two sisters repeated also, and which was shared by most women of their generation. Naturally, she rejected the Church's teaching on contraceptive acts, both in theory and in practice. However, a time came in her life when she was forced to re-evaluate her relationship to the Church, as well as consider the significance and status of its teachings on contraception. The interesting part of her story is that she was firm in her rejection of the former until careful study of the latter. Her reconciliation with the Church came only through an acceptance of the Church's teaching on the meaning of the marital act. Indeed, it was a close reading of Humanae Vitae (from a tract containing an introductory essay by the aforementioned Janet Smith) that first captured her moral imagination on the subject. In understanding the Church's teaching on the meaning of the human person, and its embodiment in the most intimate of human acts, as well as its "obstinacy" in the face of popular opinion on the matter, she came to realize that, just perhaps, the Church had a vision for human existence that is somewhat deeper than the cultural currents of our time.

We now live in a suburb of St Paul, MN, and she is connected to a wide network of Catholic familes, nearly all of whom accept the Church's teachings on contraception, with varying degrees of understanding and practice. Interestingly, the women and families with whom she is connected here make up the majority of mass-attending Catholics at their respective parishes, at least for their generational group. For none of them is the "rhythm method" the "sacred pillar of Catholic identity," and none of those women would recognize the snide and facile conflation of theology and practice that lies behind such remarks. Indeed, most of them are adamant about the fact that they do not practice the "rhythm method," and are equally adamant about the non-negotiable role of the Church's teachings on contraception, especially as it shapes their own lives and marital acts. Most of them see and understand, even if they cannot fully articulate it, the right order of theology and practice in this area, and choose to not contracept, not because this or that practice or method is somehow formative of their identity, but because contracepted sex would be a repudiation of their existence as human persons. They realize contraceptive acts are not the acts of human beings - they are they the acts of a consumer, using persons as mere products for the fulfillment of sterilized pleasure. And most of them understand these things, not from careful consideration of theological propositions, but from that lived experience which some commenters in this thread regard as a theological fetish. Indeed, most of them have gained these experiences in as "authentic" a manner as one could hope for, either through extensive use of contraceptives followed by non-contraceptive practices, or from hard and bitter divorces which resulted from contraceptively sterilized marriages.

While I do not expect that anecdotal evidence such as this will be sufficient to change the opinions of some on this matter, I hope that those who have expressed concern about the experiences of "real Catholics" on the issue will at least take time to meet, interact with, and understand the large and growing number of Catholics who have actual experience in the matters at hand."

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Quebec, the Cube and the Cathedral, and Leo Strauss

George Weigel has a book called The Cube and the Cathedral, in which he uses two architectural landmarks in France as an analogy for the contrast between modernist-nihilist and cultural-religious visions of the world. When I was in Quebec two weeks ago, I discovered that the Old City district there has its own version of Weigel's analogy.

The first landmark is the site of the oldest market in North America, anchored by the Church of Notre-Dame-des-Victoires.

The second landmark lies a block or so down from the Church, and is a sculpture given as a gift from France to Quebec in 1987.

One of the more persistent questions of my life is to try and understand exactly how Western culture got from there to here. How does a culture come to the point where it decides to stop building churches, and starting building formless arrangments of aimless lines? It's not enough to simply trace the problem, as Weigel does, to 19th-century atheistic humanism and the ensuing rise of secularism. The problem must lie deeper than that, since after all, the 19th century cultural trends that Weigel deplores did not come from nowhere - they are themselves the product of other trends and cultural philosophies which must be explored if the full context of the problem is to be understood.

I do not pretend to have a full answer to the question posed by the cube and the church. I do think, though that one clue is provided by the purpose of La Grand Arche, the modernist cube referred to in Weigel's book. It is built to house the International Foundation for Human Rights. In other words, if we seek to understand the Cube, and why an entire culture would celebrate itself through such a monstrosity, it would perhaps be worth our time to understand what is intended by the phrase "human rights."

Which brings me to Leo Strauss, and his exploration of the modern doctrine of Human Rights, as explored in History and Natural Right. If Strauss' account is in any way correct, it seems that the anthropology and metaphysics implied in the modern doctrine of human rights is indeed in profound conflict with that authentic Catholic anthropology which leads to the building of churches. By tracing the problem back to early-modern philosophy, Strauss shows that the rise of 19th-century secularism is a direct descendant of philosophical trends that were on their face seemingly compatible with the existing Christian order, but in were actually in a position of radical discontinuity with that order. Of course, I would argue that this disconinuity has its roots in an even earlier time, which coincided roughly with the Renaissance, but that is a post for another time.

I would also note in passing that Catholics who consider themselves "politically conservative" generally accept Lockean natural right theory wholesale. A close reading of Strauss should make such persons a bit uncomfortable. I myself am generally appreciative of Edmund Burke, and found Strauss' critique of Burke to be rather intriguing, and a bit unsettling.

Leo Strauss, History and Natural Right - Chapter 5

[begin quote]
Locke is a hedonist: "That which is properly good or bad, is nothing but barely pleasure or pain." But his is a peculiar hedonism: "The greatest happiness consists" not in enjoying the greatest pleasures but "in the having those things which produce the greatest pleasures." It is not altogether an accident that the chapter in which these statements occur, and which happens to be the most extensive chapter of the whole Essay, is entitled "Power." For if, as Hobbes says, "the power of a his present means, to obtain some future apparent good," Locke says in effect that the greatest happiness consists in the greatest power. Since there are no knowable natures, there is no nature of man with reference to which we could distinguish between pleasures which are according to nature and pleasures which are against nature, or between pleasures which are by nature higher and pleasures which are by nature lower: pleasure and pain are "for different men...very different things." Therefore, "the philosophers of old did in vain inquire, whether summum bonum consisted in riches, or bodily delights, or virtue, or contemplation?" In the absence of a summum bonum, man would lack completely a star and compass for his life if there were no summum malum. "Desire is always moved by evil, to fly it." The strongest desire is the desire for self-preservation. The evil from which the strongest desire recoils is death. Death must then be the greatest evil: Not the natural sweetness of living but the terrors of death make us cling to life. What nature firmly establishes is that from which desire moves away, the point of departure of desire; the goal toward which desire moves is secondary. The primary fact is want. But this want, this lack, is no longer understood as pointing to something complete, perfect, whole. The necessities of life are no longer understood as necessary for the complete or good life, but as mere inescapabilities.The satisfaction of wants is therefore no longer limited by the demands of the good life but become aimless. The goal of desire is defined by nature only negatively - the denial of pain. It is not pleasure more or less dimly anticipated which elicits human efforts: "the chief, if not only, spur to human industry and action is uneasiness." So powerful is the natural primacy of pain that the active denial of pain is itself painful. The pain which removes pain is labor. It is this pain, and hence a defect, which gives man originally the most important of all rights: sufferings and defects, rather than merits or virtues, originate rights.[...]The painful relief of pain culminates not so much in the greatest pleasures as "in the having those things which produce the greatest pleasures." Life is the joyless quest for joy.
[end quote]

Emphases in bold are my own. While I have reservations about Strauss, I think that his account of Locke and the modern natural law tradition poses a serious challenge to any Catholic who wishes to defend both classical liberalism and traditional Catholic political doctrine, which is typically grounded in the Thomistic natural law concept.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Adoration Chapel, St Jean de Baptiste, Quebec

Friday, June 06, 2008

Train Across the St Croix River

There is one story and one story only
That will prove worth your telling,
Whether as learned bard or gifted child;
To it all lines or lesser gauds belong
That startle with their shining
Such common stories as they stray into.

Is it of trees you tell, their months and virtues,
Or strange beasts that beset you,
Of birds that croak at you the Triple will?
Or of the Zodiac and how slow it turns
Below the Boreal Crown,
Prison to all true kings that ever reigned?

Water to water, ark again to ark,
From woman back to woman:
So each new victim treads unfalteringly
The never altered circuit of his fate,
Bringing twelve peers as witness
Both to his starry rise and starry fall.

Or is it of the Virgin's silver beauty,
All fish below the thighs?
She in her left hand bears a leafy quince;
When, with her right hand she crooks a finger, smiling,
How many the King hold back?
Royally then he barters life for love.

Or of the undying snake from chaos hatched,
Whose coils contain the ocean,
Into whose chops with naked sword he springs,
Then in black water, tangled by the reeds,
Battles three days and nights,
To be spewed up beside her scalloped shore?

Much snow if falling, winds roar hollowly,
The owl hoots from the elder,
Fear in your heart cries to the loving-cup:
Sorrow to sorrow as the sparks fly upward.
The log groans and confesses:
There is one story and one story only.

Dwell on her graciousness, dwell on her smiling,
Do not forget what flowers
The great boar trampled down in ivy time.
Her brow was creamy as the crested wave,
Her sea-blue eyes were wild
But nothing promised that is not performed.

Robert Graves, "To Juan at the Winter Solstice"

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Fr Adolphe Tanquerey - The Spiritual Life: A Treatise on Ascetic and Mystical Theology

II. Defects Born of Pride

"From the intellectual point of view, we think ourselves capable of approaching and solving the most difficult questions, or at least of undertaking studies which are beyond the reach of our talents. We easily persuade ourselves that we abound in judgement and wisdom, and instead of learning how to doubt, we settle with finality the most controverted questions."

As I further explore Leo Strauss, I have come to the realization that one of my comments below was a cheap and facile remark based on nothing other than my complete lack of familiarity with Strauss. It has been withdrawn accordingly.

I include the quote from Fr Tanquerey as a reminder to myself that doubt, properly understood, is one of the rarest and most difficult intellectual virtues to cultivate. I do not refer here to the more popular conception of "doubt," popular today in "Emergent" Evangelical circles and certain quarters of the Catholic world, where "doubt" is a signifier for emotional ambiquity regarding some tenet of the faith, and is typically used as an excuse for one's unwillingness to engage in the difficult tasks of shunning vice and cultivating virtue.

As Fr Tanquerey indicates here, doubt is nothing other than the virtue of humility applied to the operations of one's intellect, and whose particular focus is the relation of one's own judgements and opinions relative to those of others. May God grant us all the grace of such humility.