Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Faithful Departed, II

Lawler really nails it in the last few chapters of The Faithful Departed. The bishops forgot their primary duty to God and began to put a perceived good of the institutional Church before it. Thus they could rationalize deception with respect to abusive priests (to prevent scandal). But while there may be such a thing as a Noble Lie (you can debate that with Plato if you wish), there is no such thing as a Holy Lie. God does not need our lies.

We are back to the root of all sin, pride. The bishops began to believe in their own indispensability; this was no more so than in the case of Cardinal Law. I remember not believing that the guy just wouldn't go. It never seemed to dawn on him that he was part of the problem and couldn't be part of the solution. I wonder if he even realizes that now.

The best paragraph in the whole book is the following:

"If the Catholic Church is nothing more than a human institution, it will not survive beyond the next generation or two. But then, if the Catholic Church is only a human institution, it does not deserve to survive. If, however, the Church is an institution founded by God - if it is the living Body of Christ - then she will certainly survive and flourish in spite of all earthly handicaps."

Things are only going to get worse for the Church, at least around here. Even though the Archbishop has closed a number of parishes, more still are going to need to be closed. And the number of priests is about to fall off of a cliff. My parish, for instance, has three priests in residence but that is deceptive. It's basically become a retirement home, with all three of the priests in their seventies or beyond. Young people have no interest in the faith and only go through the motions of Confirmation because it is demanded by their parents, most of whom are twice a year Catholics. What will these kids do when they are on their own? Will they even require their own children to go through the motions? Why should they?

We are about to find out if the Catholic Church in Boston is a merely human institution or not.

The Faithful Departed

I just finished The Faithful Departed by Philip Lawler. This is absolutely required reading if you wish to understand what has gone wrong with the Catholic Church in America. I could barely put it down. Lawler ends with an in-depth analysis of the sexual abuse scandal that has rocked the Church over the last decade; what is so outstanding about his analysis is his delineation of the roots of the scandal in the history of the Church, which he takes all the way back to the 18th century.

Something that has always puzzled me is how easily traditional piety was overrun in the wake of Vatican II. It is common knowledge by now that the official documents of the Council called for no such thing; most of the unorthodox innovations were made with reference to an undefined "spirit of Vatican II" that bore little relationship to the actual Council documents. But why did traditional believers put up so little defense? Why did bishops fail to hold the line and discipline obvious breaches in liturgical and doctrinal discipline? Something must have already been wrong with the Church, prior to Vatican II, that made it so weak in the face of rebels. What was the source of this weakness?

Focusing on the Archdiocese of Boston, Lawler shows that the bishops had, for a long time, been developing a bad habit of hiding problems rather than confronting them openly, "for the good of the Church" (which good was often hard to distinguish from the personal good of the bishop.) The Church in Boston had become a "good citizen", seemlessly intertwined with state and local government, and just as politicians prefer to hide problems rather than confront them, so the bishops developed a similar habit. This would have tragic consequences when the bishops later dealt with sexually abusive priests.

When the radicals began to remake the Church in the wake of Vatican II, the bishops had already developed the habit of dealing with problems by pretending they didn't exist. It wasn't the case that ordinary believers passively accepted the destruction of the Faith. They complained loudly and often to the bishops throughout the 60's and 70's, but their pleas fell on deaf ears. This is the answer to my puzzle about how the Church was so easily undermined in the 1960s. The bishops had already lost the will to oppose the radicals.

The sex abuse scandals were of a piece with the bishops failure to discipline doctrinal radicals. Just as they found it easier to pretend that liturgical abuse didn't exist, so they found it easier to believe that sexual abuse didn't exist, and just pass abusive priests from parish to parish. This was no more so than with the case of Cardinal Law here in the Boston Archdiocese. Publicly and in speeches, the Cardinal held to a doctrinally orthodox line. In fact, he was known as a "conservative" and vilified by the Boston Globe for being such. Yet, I wondered back in the 1990's, why did he allow heresy and liturgical abuse to flourish in his archdiocese? The assistant pastor in my parish, during a baptismal class in 90's, told me that there was no such thing as original sin or the Devil, those concepts having been discarded as "old theology." When I later confronted him the Catechism, he was genuinely surprised. He had been taught in the seminary - Cardinal Law's seminary - that there was no such thing as original sin or the Devil. The Cardinal seemed constitutionally incapable of disciplining any official in his archdiocese.

I'll have more to say on this book later. I highly recommend it.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Belief and Reality

Commenter Ben Franklin made the following remark in response to my post about the movie Expelled:

Reality is that which, after you stop believing in it, doesn't go away.

Ben attributes the quote to the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick.

As a thought experiment, suppose I try to stop believing in things, just walk out my front door, and with as innocent eyes as I can muster, just encounter things. What would I encounter? Initially, just streets of houses, more or less the same, with more or less well-tended lawns and pools in the backyard. (My house has one of the more poorly tended lawns and an oval patch of sand in the backyard where the previous owners had a pool.) The houses continue for a while until, a quarter mile down the street, I encounter a very peculiar building utterly unlike anything around it; a stone building built in the Romanesque style. But, it turns out, the architecture is the least peculiar thing about the building. Every day in the building, a two-thousand year old religious rite is reenacted, including the recitation of a dogmatic creed that has not, I am told, changed since at least the fourth century. The religious rite and the creed are far, far older than any of the houses in town or even the town itself; in fact, the rite is not only older than the town, but also of the state and the nation within which it exists. And that by a lot.

How has the religion endured for so long? Not everyone in town believes in it. And many of those who say they do, don't have much to do with the Church, visiting it maybe once a year. Even of those who do seem to visit the Church regularly, many seem to put little stock in it beyond that weekly visit. I wonder if they can be said to really believe in it. Here is something that very few people seem to truly believe in, yet hasn't gone away in two thousand years. It seems that, by Dick's test, I have encountered reality in the Church. I learn that the religion of the Church, the Roman Catholic religion, is far and away the longest surviving publicly organized institution in the world. The Church down my street has Romanesque architecture because its origin is in the Roman Empire; the priest inside wears robes because he is in effect a Roman Citizen living in the twenty-first century. Believers come and go; faith waxes and wanes; nations and empires rise and fall; tyrants proclaim the irrelevance of the Church (Stalin: "How many divisions has the Pope?") and yet the Church endures. What will reality be in one hundred, two hundred or a thousand years? Being of a skeptical mind, I am inclined to the view that was has long endured will continue to endure beyond the recently minted. Whatever people believe or don't believe, in a thousand years reality will still be the Church... it doesn't go away.

Expelled - The Review

So I saw Expelled yesterday at the matinee. Here is what I thought of it.

In one sense, it is very easy for Expelled to succeed. The standard Darwinist claim is still what it has been for the last one hundred years: That no one doubts evolution but the ignorant, the vicious, and the religiously fanatic. Several of the leading lights in Darwinism appear in the film and state this straightforwardly. But anyone who has seen or listened to Bill Dembski, David Berlinski, Richard Sternberg, Stephen Meyer or Jonathan Wells, among others, will have a hard time dismissing them as ignorant or religiously fanatic. So really all Ben Stein has to do is state the credentials of these gentlemen and put them on the screen, when the basic Darwinist line is shown to be the bluff that it really is.

In another sense, it is very difficult for Expelled to succeed. Stein wants to do more than just convince you that the Darwinist establishment is not being fair to Intelligent Design advocates; he wants to convince you that our basic freedoms are at stake. He references the Declaration of Independence and shows repeated footage of Khrushchev and other Communists. The film begins and ends with shots of the Berlin Wall. The implication is that we need to pay attention to the Darwinist/ID debate because our civil rights are ultimately at stake. First they came for your copy of The Design Inference, then they came for you. This is just way over the top. It’s really an echo of a similar hysteria on the Darwinist side: If we permit any criticism of evolution in science classes, then the scientific establishment will collapse and we will be ruled by a theocracy next year. Both scenarios defy common sense.

Let’s start with the Darwinist one. It turns out that the Haeckel embryo drawings that appeared in biology textbooks for most of the twentieth century (I have memories of them from the late 1970’s), and were regularly cited as primary evidence for evolution, were fakes. But, for some reason, to inform high school biology students of this is to somehow introduce religion into the classroom and put us onto the road to theocracy. How identifying a fake has anything to do with religion is something I will never understand. But this is the sort of thing Darwinists are adamant never be mentioned in school, and there are many other similar cases.

As far as ID goes: Yes, the Darwinist establishment systematically squelches any criticism of the reigning Darwinian paradigm. Yes, professors have been denied tenure for even raising questions about Darwinism. And, yes, Darwinism is about a lot more than just biology, as Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins are more than happy to tell you. Stein makes it sound like the Berlin Wall around evolution is a recent and peculiar phenomenon that signals a general attack on freedom. But it isn’t recent and isn’t peculiar. Doubts about evolution have been banned from polite conversation for a long, long time. He mentions Margaret Sanger and eugenics, but this was an American phenomenon from the early twentieth century. All the “best people” were progressively pro-eugenics at the time. Yet somehow our basic freedoms have survived. And they will survive the travails of Bill Dembski and Richard Sternberg as well. Nor is the Berlin Wall peculiar to the ID/Darwin controversy. Try getting hired at any major university if you publicly espouse conservative political opinions.

It’s a little anti-climactic when Stein puts Khrushchev and Stalin on the screen, then brings on his cases of people who have been persecuted for questioning Darwinism. What was the fate of these rebels? Mostly, they were denied tenure or denied grant money. Sorry, but that isn’t exactly the same as being sent to a labor camp. It’s not even a denial of civil rights. If it were, they could sue. But no one has a right to tenure. Private universities are private and they can hire and give tenure to whomever they wish, for whatever reasons they wish. If they wish to deny tenure to anyone who questions Darwinism, so be it. If any rights are at stake, it is the right of universities to hire whom they wish (which is really the right of free assembly.) Just as Catholic universities can hire professors because they are Catholic (something I wish they would do more of), so any private university can hire a professor because he is a Darwinist.

No one’s free speech rights are at stake here, despite Stein’s citations of the Declaration of Independence. Even the hardest of hardcore Darwinists don’t think ID advocates should be censored and they agree that anyone should be free to read their published works. Richard Dawkins, I believe, says this explicitly in the film. Darwinists have a lock on mainstream universities, and they use that lock to systematically exclude any deep criticism of Darwinism on campus. So what? The story is dramatic enough with Stein trying to promote it into an existential crisis with respect to freedom.

I’ve read some of the work of IDers (Bill Dembski, David Berlinski, Jonathan Wells, and Phil Johnson) and their criticisms of evolution are trenchant, penetrating and exquisitely non-religious. But the Darwinists have a point when they say that IDers need to move beyond criticism of evolution and present a positive research project of their own. This is what the conservative political movement did in the face of the liberal takeover of universities. They set up their own independent think-tanks that did end-runs around the universities, developing and publishing a positive conservative political philosophy that did more than just criticize liberalism; they presented a political philosophy of their own that triumphed in Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. They made the liberal lock on the universities irrelevant. Nothing is preventing the ID movement from performing a similar feat. But, in my opinion, the ID movement has not been particularly successful in moving beyond criticism of evolution to developing a positive research project of their own.

Thursday, April 17, 2008


Ben Stein’s movie Expelled is being released this Friday. The few reviews I’ve seen are predictable: Darwinists say it is anti-scientific propaganda, Intelligent Design advocates say it exposes the censorship that is the only thing keeping Darwinism afloat. I’ll reserved judgment until I see it (which I will.)

The film’s release has prompted me to reflect on just what it is about the theory of evolution that makes me uneasy. I don’t have a complete answer, but part of the answer is certainly the following.

The genius of the scientific revolution that occurred starting (roughly) in the sixteenth century has its origins in a disciplined limitation of thought. As philosophers like Etienne Gilson have pointed out, the inclination of the human mind is universal; we naturally want a complete explanation of being. This may be thought of in terms of Aristotle’s Four Causes, which are just a catalog of the questions we may propose about things. We see a tree in front of us and we wonder: Of what is it made? How was it made? What is the principle that animates it? What purpose does it serve? The questions radiate outward from the tree itself to its place in nature and ultimately to the universe as a whole. Putting any particular being in question is to put universal being in question, for we can only understand particular being in the context of universal being. An eye is really only an eye when it exists as part of the human body; the human body is really human only when it is part of a society of men; a society of men is really only itself in the context of nature. To understand the part, we must understand the whole, and to understand the whole, we must understand the parts. Thus the comprehensiveness of a classical philosophy like that of Aristotle.

Modern science decisively broke with the universal scope of classical philosophy by addressing itself to degenerate being rather than the fullness of being. This was a profoundly unnatural intellectual step, but nonetheless one of genius. Modern science filters being through method, and has discovered that the degenerate being that results is susceptible to universal laws that may be empirically discovered. Instead of addressing the question of the moon through Aristotle’s Four Causes, Newton instead ignored the moon and concentrated on mass, force and acceleration, three degenerate beings that are mutually related through the wonderful equation force equals mass times acceleration. Now the genius of Newton is that, when considered under the degenerate form of mass, the moon’s dynamics are described to an amazing precision through his Second Law (F=MA). This is a result of staggering and revolutionary proportions. But Newton did not forget, and neither should we, that he did not answer any of Aristotle’s four questions. He did not answer the question of how the moon was made, or of what it was made, or what the principle is that animates it, or what purpose it might serve, if any. Newton did not answer these questions for the excellent reason that he did not ask them, at least not in the context of his newly invented mathematical physics. Newtonian physics is not really about the moon as such, but only about the moon insofar as it is a mass susceptible to mathematical analysis. The moon may be far more than merely a mathematical mass, and there are certainly things worth saying about it other than describing its mass and acceleration; the genius of mathematical physics is the self-imposed limitation to only deal with being insofar as it appears under the mathematical forms proposed by science itself. It is this discipline to stick to degenerate being as it appears under method, and not be drawn into a complete explanation of being, that is the source of the extraordinary power of science. (Which is also why scientism – the conviction that the fullness of being is completely captured by the degenerate being of science – is a betrayal of science itself.)

The disturbing thing about Darwinism as a science is that it does not seem to display the discipline with respect to being that is the hallmark of modern science. It takes as its object being in its fullness rather than a methodically prescribed degenerate form of being. Newton was content to explain man insofar as he is a massive object; jump off a building, and the trajectory of your body will be described by the equation h= h0 + 0.5gt2. Newton was happy to concede that there was a lot more to you than merely your trajectory, things not dreamt of in mathematical physics. But Darwinism claims to have an explanation for man in his totality. There is nothing about you, actually or potentially, that escapes its purview. A system of thought, however, that addresses the fullness of being is not really science in the modern sense but philosophy. This is why Darwinists find statements like that of Pope John Paul II – that evolution may be fine as an explanation of the material aspect of man but not as a total explanation of man – utterly unacceptable. It is also why Darwinists are so fond of “just-so” stories. Everything must be shoe-horned into evolutionary theory, no matter how absurd the fit. To admit that anything, anything at all, might escape its net is to bring the whole system of thought crashing down, for it has taken as its object the fullness of being.

Darwinists often criticize IDers by saying that, instead of pointing out flaws in Darwinism, they should propose their own alternative scientific theory. Whether IDers have actually already done that is a point I will leave for others to decide. My point here is that there can be no rival scientific theory to Darwinism because Darwinism itself isn’t really a scientific theory. Darwinism is a philosophy, and the rival to a philosophy is not a science but another philosophy – specifically, Aristotelianism. Unlike a genuine scientific theory which does not address Aristotle’s Four Causes because it does not address being in its fullness, Darwinism addresses itself directly to Aristotle and provides alternative answers: Of what is man made? Mud. How was he made? Through random mutation and natural selection. What is the principle that animates him? Survival of the fittest. What purpose does he serve? None, other than his own survival. Are these answers better than the answers provided by Aristotle? That is really the question at stake in the debate over Darwinism.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

The Subjective and the Objective

I am reading The One and the Many by W. Norris Clarke, SJ, a book on Thomistic metaphysics.

In Ch.2 (p.36-37), Father Clarke characterizes the relationship between the objective and the subjective in this manner:

"Ancient philosophers tended to look on the world from an impersonal, objective viewpoint, as a kind of spectacle spread out before them, outside of them, so to speak... the medieval approach still tended to focus more on what is common to all human beings, rather than on the uniqueness of the individual person, the 'I'... In modern philosophy, with Descartes, the focus of attention shifts dramatically toward the subject and the subjective side of being, as seen and experienced from within, not just as an object in front of us to be captured by abstract universal concepts. In fact, the whole history of philosophy, including metaphysics, in the West can be seen as the slow emergence of the subject over the object as the center of focus and intelligibility...This modern highlighting of the subject, the autonomous, self-conscious 'I', has resulted in rich phenomenological descriptions in contemporary philosophy of the inner life of the person as experienced and lived from within, which the medievals left undeveloped or took for granted... But the balance has swung too far toward the subjective as opposed to the objective to allow a properly balanced comprehensive metaphysical vision of reality as an intelligible whole... The subjective and objective dimensions of being should come together in a harmonious balanced whole in the human person, a being with an inside (not fully objectifiable in universal concepts) and an outside (more amenable to such analysis)."

Father Clarke is far more learned than I am, and it is a bold move to say that someone of Father Clarke's erudition has missed the boat on something as fundamental as the relationship between the subjective and the objective, but I do say it. My objections are based on my reading of Plato, Aristotle and, especially, Kierkegaard.

The relationship between the subjective and the objective is not really that of two sides to being but of two approaches to being. An objective approach "cancels out" the subject in his thought; it is thought abstracted from existence. A subjective approach refuses to cancel out the subject in his thought; it is the thought of a man who refuses to forget that his thought is a fact in his life; it is thought that happens at a particular time and place and by a particular man, namely himself.

If this sounds confusing, a simple (and admittedly silly) example will help to clarify it. You are at work on the fourth floor of an office building. You smell smoke, get up up to check it out, see that the building is on fire and has been for a while. You pull the fire alarm but it doesn't work. Bursting into your co-worker's office next to your's, you breathlessly tell him the building is on fire but the alarms aren't working. You expect your co-worker to stand up and leave the building, but instead he leans back in his chair, apparently pondering something.
"Is, in fact, the building on fire?", he says. "How can I know? Maybe you are just joking with me. I do smell smoke, yes, but it is suspicious that the alarm has not sounded. This is an interesting problem. How can a man, sitting at his desk like me, determine whether the building is actually on fire?" He continues to ponder with apparently no intention of exiting the building.
"It doesn't matter if you are sure or not," you say, "you've got to get up and leave."
"Ah, yes, leaving; that may be the best course for a man in this position. But not, perhaps, the only course. What other options might he have and how will he know them?" Your co-worker continues his pondering with still no thought that he should leave the building. You give up and leave yourself.

What has happened is that your co-worker has taken a purely "objective" approach to the question of the state of the building (or the being of the building.) He has "cancelled out" his own particular existence as relevant to the question. He has forgotten that his thought is the thought of himself, a man in a particular building that may be on fire, and that such a fire will have dramatic consequences for him. You have tried to get him to take a "subjective" approach to the question of the being of himself and the building. You want him to recognize that the most significant fact is that he himself is the man in a building that may be burning.

Now the point of the example is not that people tend to forget how to respond to a building on fire. It is to give an exaggerated case, for the sake of clarity, of what it means to take an objective rather than a subjective approach to being; or, what it means to lack subjectivity in thought. Notice that in the case of your own thinking (you being the one who leaves the building) your own subjectivity does not appear as a distinct element in your thought. The difference between your thinking and your co-worker's is not anything specific we can point to. We can't point to anything in what you said and say "There is subjectivity!" No, the subjective aspect of your thought is manifested by what you did, the fact that you got up and left the building. This shows that you understood yourself subjectively; you understood that you are the man in the possibly burning building. No matter what your co-worker says, it is what he does that shows that his thought lacks subjectivity. Until he actually gets up and leaves the building, his thought lacks subjectivity no matter what its content.

The "subjective side of being" is... subjective. An objective account of subjectivity does not communicate subjectivity but rather objectivity; subjectivity cannot be directly communicated at all but can only be hinted at through indirect communication. The modern "turn to the subject" was not the discovery of the subject but the discovery of an objective analysis of the subject, which is quite a different thing. Father Clarke is right that the ancients did not have this objective science of the subjective; but they also understood themselves subjectively (the only true way to know the subjective), something we moderns often fail to do. The Original Sin of modern philosophy is in thinking that Descartes replaced the ancient understanding of subjectivity with the objective analysis of subjectivity, and that this replacement was an improvement in philosophy. In fact it was the loss of a genuine understanding of subjectivity.

Father Clarke is simply wrong that the ancient philosophers "tended to look on the world from an impersonal, objective viewpoint, as a kind of spectacle spread out before them, outside of them, so to speak..." No, this is really a description of the modern philosopher. It is the modern philosopher who looks on everything as a spectacle, including even his own personal existence. He thinks "real thought" only happens when he is disinterested, abstract, and aloof; when he is "objective." We might parody the modern philosopher by saying that he is distinguished by being the philosopher whose thought has to do with everything but himself. The ancient philosopher philosophized in the context of life, of true subjectivity. This is most dramatically realized in the case of Socrates, for whom philosophy was life, and eventually the end of life. But it holds true for other ancient philosophers like Aristotle even if it is not manifested so dramatically.

What is really missing in modern philosophy is not the objective but the subjective. The ancients did not have an "objective science of being" in the modern sense; that is, an objective science of being that involves the philosopher forgetting that he is the subject of thought. They had a universal philosophy of being that was subjectively taken, and in the subjective approach to philosophy they took account of the "I" in the only genuine manner possible.