How standards of justice can change

In a previous post, I said that what was not an attack on human dignity in one situation could be in another. I further claimed that such could be the case with the death penalty. I think I owe it to anyone reading to go back and flesh out what I had in mind.

St. Thomas has an interesting perspective on the purposes of punishment in any human community (thanks to Fr. Joseph Bolin for collecting these texts): Continue reading “How standards of justice can change”

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Justice and Punishment

A few thoughts occurred to me last night about the death penalty debate. Leaving open the ultimate prudential question of whether the death penalty can be morally used in our time, I want to examine the arguments used in the CDF’s letter explaining the recent change to the Catechism. (Please see my last post for context.)

The central thread in this debate is justice.  Now, justice only exists between rational creatures, i.e., creatures made in the image of God.  We don’t seek to restore the scales of justice against a tree that fell on someone. We try to prevent animals from stealing, but we do not incarcerate them for it.  Justice has to do with the relationships between persons as such. Continue reading “Justice and Punishment”

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The new Catechism text on the death penalty

While I have not blogged in a long time, I have been reading and thinking.  I never did finish my series on the death penalty, because I reached a point where I needed to complete my own ethical philosophical formation.  But in light of the recent news that Pope Francis updated the Catechism to oppose the death penalty more clearly, I thought I should toss up a few comments. Continue reading “The new Catechism text on the death penalty”

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Thinking hard about the Incarnation

I was near the end of my oral exams with the juniors when I began to realize how far I could push them. I would start from basic definitions regarding the Incarnation and gradually force them to think more and more, and they held up—not just the star students, but all of them. Actual excerpt from one of the orals:

What is a suppositum?

How does being a suppositum differ from being an individual?

What is the difference between the terms “suppositum” and “person”?

Are you a suppositum?

Is a tree a suppositum?

Is a dog a suppositum?

Is my nose a suppositum?

Is Christ’s human nature a suppositum?

Why not?

Is Christ’s divinity a suppositum?

Why is that?

Tell me about the heresy of “monoenergism”?

What does “energy” mean in this debate?

What did Maximus the Confessor mean by “theandric energy”?

What would happen to theandric energy if you were a Nestorian?

What would happen to theandric energy if you were a Monophysite?

…and so on.

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Happy . . . day!

Happy Ascension Sunday Thursday, everyone!

And what, you may ask, is Ascension Sunday Thursday?  It is the Thursday we observe while waiting for Ascension Thursday Sunday.  It is the day that was almost Ascension Thursday, and that still bears the minutest traces of its former character, like the almost-unobservable oddness of a picture in which someone has been photoshopped out.

We can’t help it.  Obedient children, we want to do whatever our Church is doing and have this be just another day in the Easter season.  But because of the way we experience sacred time, the transferal-here-but-not-transferal-there process leaves behind a snatch of music we can almost hear but can’t make out, a sense that this day is not Ascension Thursday but is also not a Thursday in Easter.  It is a day that lacks something of its own identity.

It is—Ascension Sunday Thursday!  Have a good one, y’all!

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Holy Saturday and the End of All Things

Holy Saturday has always been for me a day of subdued joy. It is not yet the day of resurrection, but we are past the time of agony; the contest has been decided, but the victor not yet announced.

The Christian’s life is one of following Christ’s pattern. Even though he was the Son of God in person, he took on himself weakness and weariness, a life of loneliness and wandering; even though we are baptized into the Trinity and have become adopted children of God, freed from the sin of our parents, we live this life in frailty and sorrow. Christ died as a sacrifice for the world’s sins, and then rose in triumph over death; we will all die in union with him, offering ourselves to God, and on the last day we will rise in the likeness of his risen glory.

But between our bodily death and the day of judgment, we will live in Holy Saturday. The world will be unaware of our victory in Christ. Our agony will be over, the time of weakness and loneliness gone, but our triumph will not yet be apparent.

Easter is when we pre-live the end of the all things. This may be one reason why so many people feel more emotion at Christmas time, which has become wrapped up with family and gifts and wreathes and trees and on and on: Christmas is more in this world, because recalls the entering of God into this our vail of tears, and it brings us the solace of Christ here with us now. Easter is more glorious in itself, and of course it commemorates something that has already happened, but Easter is more about the future. Right now we are alive in the spirit, but still dead in the flesh, as Christ was during his earthly life. Of course the risen Christ is brings the resurrection of our souls, but the fact is that our ultimate conformity to the risen Christ will come on a day whose glory we cannot yet comprehend, with a joy we cannot yet comprehend.

Today, we contemplate the end of everything familiar to us and the expectation of unimaginable glory. It is not quite sad, but not yet the exhilaration that awaits us—a few hours from now.

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How “Lucifer” became a name for the prince of darkness

One of my students needed to know how “Lucifer” became a name for Satan.  I thought there would be an easy dictionary entry somewhere, but neither she nor I could find one source that tracks the evolution of the name, so I spent a few minutes this morning pulling the facts together from various places.  It was an enjoyable time—I haven’t had many opportunities over the past decade to indulge in my specialization.

It all starts with the idolatry of the Babylonians.  They worshipped the morning star (Venus in her rising before the sun) under the name of Istar.  So when the prophet Isaiah speaks the rise and fall of the king of Babylon (Isaiah 14), he refers to him metaphorically as haylayl, ben mishawmayim, literally, “shining one, son of the morning,” that is, the morning star (Isaiah 14:12).  The Septuagint translated haylayl as heosphoros, “morning bearer,” another name for the morning star, which in Greek is also called phosophoros, “light-bearer.”  The Vulgate translated the word as Lucifer, which is a Latinization of phosophoros and also names the morning star as “light bearer”.  When the Bible began to be translated into English, this word was simply carried over, so that until 1611 English Bibles also rendered the term as “Lucifer” (so says the OED).

Early Jewish traditions, which seem to pre-dating Christ, understood Isaiah 14 as speaking about the rise and fall of Satan.  We can see this interpretation reflected for example in the Apocalypse of Elijah 4:11 and in Life of Adam and Eve 12:1 and 15:3, and many other places.  While the term “Lucifer” or heosphoros occurs in the New Testament only in a positive sense (2Peter 1:19), the Jewish traditions regarding angels and demons are clearly reflected, and the general Jewish interpretation of the meaning of Babylon in Isaiah 14 comes out in Revelation (see especially 18:12, but it’s present throughout).  In the early centuries of the Church, the name “Lucifer” was not yet exclusively associated with evil, so that we even have a “Saint Lucifer” from the 3rd Century who died for the Nicene faith (celebrated in the Church’s calendar on May 20).  But Jerome passes on the traditional interpretation of Isaiah 14:12, and Augustine takes “Lucifer” as a proper name for Satan in his description of how one who was enlightened became dark.  So at least by the 4th and 5th Centuries “Lucifer” had become one of the Adversary’s proper names.

And there we have it!  There is more to the story, for sure, but that’s what came to hand from my personal library.

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St. Thomas Aquinas on a bizarre marital situation

Amidst the Amoris Laetitia debates, one thing I have wondered about is how people find themselves in the difficult situations everyone is discussing.  How does it happen that someone (a) enters a second civil marriage and (b) is obliged to keep up sexual relations and (c) requires the Eucharist to keep going?  I don’t have the pastoral experience to rattle off examples.

But while editing a translation of St. Thomas’s Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, I came across one such case—not likely in this day and age, but a possible scenario nonetheless.  St. Thomas holds the position that exterior words expressing consent do not result in marriage if interior consent is lacking, but he raises this objection to his own view (Scriptum IV.27.1.2, quaes. 4):

Obj. 3: If someone is proved to have consented to someone else through words about the present, he is forced to have her as his wife, under pain of excommunication, even if he says that mental consent was lacking; even if he has afterward consented to another with words expressive of his mental consent. But this would not be the case, if mental consent were required for marriage. Therefore, it is not required.

Let’s pause and absorb this amazing scenario.  Billy Bob went through a wedding ceremony in which he did not intend to get married but managed to fool everyone there.  Despite all apperances, Billy Bob’s conscience requires him to admit that he did not marry that woman.  Later, Billy Bob went through a second wedding ceremony in which he did sincerely intend to get married, and his conscience requires him to admit that he is married to that woman.  But in the eyes of the law and of the Church, which can only go by what is perceptible from the outside, Billy Bob is married to the first woman and not to the second, and (at least under medieval law) he could be subject to severe penalties if he refused to live as a married man with that first wife—including physical intimacy.  He has not just a shadowy, self-judged duty to keep up his marital status with her, but an objective, legal, and ecclesially enforced obligation!

Now, surely Billy Bob is under unimaginable pressures.  The direction of today’s debates would suggest that he can arrange with his priest to receive communion while continuing in what his conscience tells him is an adulterous union:  this is the best that he can offer God in the circumstance.  But St. Thomas has a different pastoral suggestion:

Billy Bob could flee the country.  Or, if that’s too harsh, he could just submit to excommunication from the Church:

Reply Obj. 3: In such a case the Church compels him to stay with his first wife, since it judges based on what appears externally. Nor is it deceived in justice, although it may be deceived in fact. But that man should undergo excommunication rather than be intimate with his first wife, or he should flee to some other distant region.

Zowie.  I’m not sure how long the Angelic Doctor would last in today’s climate.

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Mysteries of the Holy Family

Immanuel Kant’s essay, What Is Enlightenment, explains for the modern world what “enlightenment” means.  To be enlightened, he says, is to become entirely independent in thought.  Children grow up depending on others for everything, of course, and even for their thoughts and opinions, but to be enlightened means that one throws aside childish dependence and thinks entirely for oneself. Something about the claim rings true, especially for our ruggedly individual age.

Yet without saying so explicitly, Kant’s position casts the family as a necessary evil.  We have to grow up in families, but they train us to live below our dignity by thinking like slaves.  To reach human perfection is to shake off the effects of family life.

Yesterday’s feast and today’s solemnity remind us that the family is a path to enlightenment; that childhood as such is a path to humanity and even beyond; that the bonds between parent and child are bonds indeed, but not fetters.

Along these lines, let me toss out three mysteries relating to the Holy Family:

  1. A parent can stand in for the child’s own will.

This is just a natural reality, but isn’t this a remarkable thing?  When my son had a life-threatening medical condition, I had to decide—on his behalf—what would be done to his body, what course would determine all.  Before my children were ever aware of their surroundings, I chose where they would live, and consequently what nation and what state would claim their citizenship, and as a result what laws they would be under.  Extending this natural reality, I even committed my children to God through baptism, and by so doing I brought on them all the obligations of a Christian.  It is an astonishing and wonderful thing that one human person can be so entrusted to another.

  1. The child Jesus had both a divine and a human will.

When I teach about the mystery of the Incarnation, students are typically ready with the formula they learned in their catechisms:  Jesus is one divine person in two natures, one divine and one human.  But they are typically shocked by the obvious implication that Jesus has a divine will and a human will, two roots of love, two ultimate centers of desire.  Of course, even Jesus’ human will is the human will of a divine person:  the life of the Word of God extends into time and space through the Incarnation, such that anyone who has seen the man Jesus has seen the Father.  Consequently, the love of the Word of God is replayed in the love of the man Jesus:  this man loving the Father is God’s own Son loving him through a human nature!  A human nature has been caught up into and, so to speak, included in the inner life of the Trinity.

  1. The previous two mysteries together make a third.

Joseph acted as foster father and Mary as the natural mother of the child Jesus.  When they circumcised him—an event commemorated as part of today’s feast, according to the current Martyrology—they chose God on behalf of the Word of God.  When they committed Jesus to the faith of Israel, they turned toward the Father on behalf of his own Son.  They were caught up into the mystery of the Incarnation, and for the brief period of his infancy they stood in for the theandric will of the God-man.  Now that just makes this parent break out in goose bumps.

God be praised for the family!  God be praised for the mystery of the Incarnation!  God be praised, I say, for the mystery of the Holy Family.

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Non-infallible teachings of the Magisterium

This is just a quick note to let my subscribers know I published this article over at the Catholic World Report:

Sometimes “religious obsequium” is translated “religious assent,” at other times “religious submission,” and at other times “religious respect”. What exactly are we being asked to do?

(Nils @nilshuber/Unsplash.com)
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