Presidential Address: Convocation 2018

Due to some interest, I’m posting my Presidential Address for this year’s convocation. I can only assume the popularity is due to its uncharacteristic brevity.  Enjoy!

Your grace Richard Smith, Your Grace Sylvain Lavoie, graduands, and honored guests all. It is a pleasure to welcome you to this year’s convocation. Today we celebrate the completion of your degrees. Throughout your studies at Newman you have become, in diverse ways theologians. This may have a grandiose ring to it; nevertheless it is true.
The contemplative life is not an oddity for some privileged few in monasteries. No! Rather, it is the summit of the ordinary path to holiness for the Christian. Theology, as you have found, requires rigorous study, painstaking attention to detail, but beyond this a deep love. For theology is not merely an intellectual pursuit that we undertake to satisfy our curiosity or to show how clever we are. To the contrary, theology is a discipline that manages to be speculative and practical and the same time.

As you know well by now, our approach to theology at Newman is integrative. Since all that we teach is rooted in Sacred Scripture and the tradition of the Church, how could it be otherwise? As you leave the classroom and enter, or return to your ministries, the constant criteria of your theology should be: first, is it true?; second, can it be lived?; third, does it deepen prayer? and fourth, does it lead us to love more profoundly? A theology that answers in the negative to these vital questions is not worthy of a Christian.
Accordingly, any attempt to place knowledge and love at odds with one another must be set aside in no uncertain terms. While we must proclaim the truth of Christ fearlessly, we know all too well that if we do so without love we are but a clanging cymbal. Yet, if we profess to love by neglecting what is true, by being afraid to speak the wisdom of Christ in our hearts, then we are bargaining with our own conscience. This is not loving, but sinning against charity. As the great Thomist of the 20th century, Jacques Maritain put it: “Love must proceed from Truth, and Knowledge must bear fruit in love.”
Striking this balance is the task for which your studies have prepared you. Whether you practice your theology in the Parish, in the classroom, in hospitals or prisons, you are being called to share the knowledge you have gained with love. For your acceptance of this task in the midst of no few challenges today, we thank you deeply, and we pray for your every success. May you live what you have received. Thank you very much.


Pot: Legal, but still Immoral

Today marks the moment that the recreational use of marijuana becomes legal in Canada. This move has not been without controversy, even though opposing voices seem to be in the minority. (Note that I do not intend to address the distinct issue of medical marijuana in this post) For its part the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement some time ago noting its disapproval of Parliament’s move towards legalization.

The Bishop’s letter, however, largely argues against legalization on pragmatic and prudential grounds. It offers three reasons against this change in the law. First, it explains that many medical associations have stated that marijuana use is linked to a host of mental and physical health problems. Second, it notes that UNICEF has pointed to the widespread use of the drug among Canadian youth and stated that legalization will not reduce youth access. Third, it points to police chiefs and political leaders who have called for additional funding to enforce the new regulations. The Bishops conclude by arguing that we should not legalize crimes simply because the law is difficult to enforce. Instead they argue, that the solution to the problem is not just enforcement, but a wide range of social, family and medical supports as well as increased economic opportunity.


What is noticeably lacking in the Bishop’s letter is any articulation of a moral argument against the use of marijuana. In fact, virtually all of their arguments are supported by appeals to other authorities: UNICEF, medical associations, Police Chiefs, etc.  There remains a need for a robust presentation of the moral problems related to recreational drug use. While it may be helpful for the Church to remind us of the health risks, law enforcement challenges, or social programs related to drug use, presumably other authorities have direct responsibility to present the relevant data on this issue.  The moral standing of question, however, does pertain directly to the Church’s authority, and her theologians and philosophers have a responsibility to address it, which they generally speaking have not done.

What we do need in the midst of this debate is a clear account of the moral character of the problem. Given that the Bishops were intervening in a political matter, it is of course entirely understandable that they would focus on issues of health and social policy, for these can appeal to those who do not share our religious and ethical commitments. Nevertheless, now that legalization is a reality, the Church needs to work at explaining its teaching on the immorality of recreational drug use. On this topic there has been an unfortunate pastoral void.

If one turns to the Catechism of the Catholic Church on this topic it is, uncharacteristically, unhelpful. At CCC 2290 it advises that temperance requires us to avoid every excess with respect to food, alcohol, medicine, etc. It also notes that endangering others through speeding or drunk driving is a grave wrong. In the next paragraph it speaks of drugs directly:

“2291 The use of drugs inflicts very grave damage on human health and life. Their use, except on strictly therapeutic grounds, is a grave offense. Clandestine production of and trafficking in drugs are scandalous practices. They constitute direct co-operation in evil, since they encourage people to practices gravely contrary to the moral law.”

It is noteworthy that the Catechism also emphasizes the health risks of drug use. It explicitly condemns making and trafficking in drugs, yet it is silent about the recreational use of drugs beyond noting that they encourage people to practices against the moral law. This seems to leave open the question of whether this use is immoral in itself or just because it might lead one to do other evil things. With respect to the morality of recreational drugs we are left to extrapolate from a general admonition to avoid excess.

This is highly unsatisfactory. In contemporary discourse it is inadequate to simply lay down prohibitions or general sentiments. People rightful want to know not only whether the Church is opposed to recreational drug use or not, they want to know why. This is vital if the Church’s teaching is to be appropriated and applied in the life the faithful. Regardless of the state of the law in Canada, Canadian Catholics need to know how they should act in light of the new law. Does the legality of marijuana put it on the same level as cigarettes or alcohol, which can be morally used in moderation, or not?

In this respect it is helpful to turn to the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas for guidance. Although he does not address the issue of marijuana, his arguments explaining why drunkenness is a sin are instructive and largely applicable to this topic. He notes that whether or not drunkenness is a sin depends upon the awareness and intention of the agent. If someone ends up drinking too much because the drink is stronger than expected for instance or through deception, as Noah was tricked, there is no sin. But, if it results from a deliberate and inordinate use of alcohol then it is sinful. (ST, II-II, q. 150, a.1, c.)

In discussing whether drunkenness is a mortal sin he goes into further detail. He mentions three cases. The person who gets drunk thinking the amount they are taking is moderate, but not knowing that the drink is intoxicating does not sin at all. The person who drinks something excessively, but is unaware it is intoxicating commits a venial sin. This is a kind of gluttony, drinking too much of something because I like the taste for instance when it unwittingly makes me drunk. Finally, there is the person who is aware that his drinking is immoderate and intoxicating, but would rather be drunk than sober. In this case, the person is a “drunkard” properly speaking and commits a mortal sin. (ST, II-II, q. 150, a.2, c.)

Why does Aquinas think that this kind of drunkenness is such a grave sin? He argues that it is a grave sin because it deprives us of the use of reason. This is wrong because it is through reason that we act virtuously and avoid sin. Consequently, getting drunk makes it likely that we will commit grave sins because we lose control of our reason, and to knowingly and willingly put ourselves in situations where we are likely to to do grave wrongs is itself gravely wrong.

While it is more fully worked out, Aquinas’ argument is similar to that of the Catechism, which noted that drug use encourages grave offences to the moral law. However, it seems to me that we should emphasize Aquinas’ insight that drunkenness undermines the use of reason more than he himself does. This is the fundamental point to be made about the use of alcohol and recreational drugs.

As Aristotle taught the very nature of our humanity is that we are rational animals. Accordingly, I would argue that drunkenness is wrong precisely because it destroys our ability to reason. Why is this wrong? I certainly agree with Aquinas and the Catechism that this loss of reason makes it likely that other irresponsible and gravely immoral actions will follow. But, irrespective of this, the intentional destruction of one’s own ability to reason is wrong even if somehow the person were able to ensure no other irresponsible action would take place.

In this respect, we can see why the recreational use of marijuana is both similar to and different from drinking alcohol. Unlike alcohol, it seems obvious that one cannot use marijuana and other illicit drugs in moderation. One can enjoy a glass of wine with dinner or have a bottle of beer at the hockey game without getting drunk. One doesn’t typically smoke a joint without getting high. Accordingly, unlike alcohol marijuana cannot be used in moderation. This is, presumably, one of the reasons the two were treated differently under law for so long. On the other hand the immoderate use of alcohol is precisely the same as the use of marijuana in that both undermine one’s capacity to reason.

This is, in my view, the moral issue with the use of recreational drugs. To intentionally destroy one’s ability to reason is to attack one’s own humanity. It is to abandon the most noble and divine element of one’s life for the sake of pure escapism. It is to turn oneself, albeit temporarily, into a mere animal in order to avoid reality. If this isn’t gravely disordered action towards oneself, than it is hard to see what would be.

A healthy spirituality is one that promotes the physical, mental, and moral integrity of the human person. Acting reasonably is a necessary condition to attain any of these. Accordingly, the recreational use of marijuana remains gravely immoral for Catholics irrespective of its changed legal status.

Party Time: Spiritual Joy

Lately I’ve been pondering the importance of joy. There are a number of reasons for this. Last week my family experienced a great joy, as three of my children received the sacrament of confirmation. This is naturally a moment of celebration for each of them as well as our family. Further, the sacrament of confirmation entails receiving the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit, and preeminent among these is the fruit of joy.

Beyond this contingent circumstance, joy has been a central theme, if not the central theme of the pontificate of Francis. The Pope continually proclaims joy as the most obvious and normal expression of the Christian life. For the Holy Father joy is the most noteworthy characteristic of the path to holiness. In a homily in 2013 he expressed this evocatively saying, “You are invited to join in the feast, to the joy of being saved, to the joy of being redeemed, to the joy of sharing life with Christ. This is a joy! You are called to a party!”
francisThis is not merely a cute saying, it expresses a fundamental truth. The most profound and important truth of Christianity is that God is love. Christians are called to respond to that love by loving both God and neighbor. This is to be the most fundamental expression of our lives. And where there is no joy, there certainly is no love.

Yet, Christian joy is not merely natural cheerfulness or keeping a stiff upper lip. We are not supposed to put on a brave face and smile like an idiot no matter what tragedies might be fall us, as if we were Dr. Pangloss in Voltaire’s Candide responding to every horror by blithely recalling that we are fortunate that this is still the best of all possible worlds. Neither is this spiritual joy a question of good luck, a happiness wrought from good health, money, or mere pleasure.
catherineTrue Christian joy is not only compatible with the cross, but springs from the cross and nowhere else. In her Dialogue, St. Catherine of Sienna reminds her reader that it is not every suffering that purifies and has spiritual value, but only sufferings that are lovingly embraced and wanted in our acceptance of God’s will. The cross is not just to be borne no matter what, it is to be loved.

This joy is so important that St. Thomas Aquinas writes: “Anyone who desires to make progress must have spiritual joy.”  Here we find the central message of Pope Francis affirmed by the Angelic Doctor. Yet, Aquinas does not leave the matter here, he goes on to draw out four characteristics of spiritual joy in the discussion of Paul from Philippians (Commentary on Phil., Ch. 4, lecture 1):

1. This joy must be about the right thing: authentic joy is directed towards the genuine good of the human person, namely God. Accordingly, it is joy about God and not rejoicing in created things. The new job, the unexpected return to health, the lottery we unexpectedly win are all fine and good, but they do not touch the deepest core of the person, and cannot ultimately be the source of our joy. If we place our hope in such things we are bound to be disappointed, for only God can fill the longing of our hearts.

2. This joy should be continuous: St. Paul tells us to “rejoice always”(1 Thes. 5:16). Aquinas tells us that this happens when our joy is not interrupted by sin. Yet, he also notes that joy is sometimes imperfect, for it can be lessened or interrupted by “temporal sadness”. When we suffer physical hardship, stress, when our loved ones suffer, we may be led to sadness. “For when a person rejoices perfectly, his joy is not interrupted, because he cares little about things that do not last.” This is not to say that the Christian is heartless and disregards such difficulties. Rather, the point is that having his or her heart rooted in God, such hardships are not isolated events. Rather, there is a broader spiritual context in which they become meaningful, which allows us to embrace the cross with joy even in the midst of great hardship.

3. This is a joy in many things: If one rejoices in God, one will be in a position to rejoice over all the goods we encounter. Why? If we rejoice in God, we will rejoice in the Incarnation, the Son of God become man. We will also rejoice over our own virtuous lives and our contemplative thought and prayer for we will take joy in our true good. Further, Aquinas reasons, if we take joy in our own good, we will be ready to rejoice in the good others attain or recieve. We will rejoice not only in the present goods we experience, but in those still to come. Hence, St. Paul says “again I will say, rejoice!”

4. This joy will be moderate: This may ring strange to contemporary ears. We tend to think that when it comes to good things, the more the better. The traditional sources of wisdom in our tradition, both Greek and Christian, know better. Virtue tends to be found in the mean between extremes. As we come to summer, we naturally think of BBQ season. The first burger is often a delight, but by the time we get to the third, fourth or fifth of the night, we don’t want to see another for a long time.

This unrestrained desire for more is one of the biggest threats to joy for us in the developed world, as Pope Francis has argued:  “The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades.” As we have seen, it is quite legitimate to take joy in creation, in our spouse, our children, our satisfying job, our content home, and so forth. But, genuine joy springs from these things when they are grounded in our love for God. Taken apart from God, as ends in themselves, created things tend to saturate us and weigh us down, rather than fulfill us.

If we find that our lives are lacking joy, that we are experiencing an ongoing sadness, then it is time to take stock. We are made for happiness, not sorrow. If we are sad, particularly over time this is a sign that our priorities are out of whack and need to be adjusted. We need to ask ourselves, if we truly love God, if we truly know the depths of Christ’s love for us, how can we ever really despair?

If we want to make progress in our spiritual lives, it is critically important that we take this to heart. We must be people of joy! We have to accept the invitation to the party. There is simply no other way.

Ash Wednesday: A Feast for the Soul

Today is, of course, Ash Wednesday on which we begin the holy season of Lent. This past Sunday I was struck by the reminders that this is a day of fasting and abstinence, and at the same time by how little was said of the meaning of fasting.

Today the Church invites us to spend the coming weeks in prayer, fasting and almsgiving. We are asked to deny ourselves of legitimate pleasures in the weeks leading up to Easter. Self-denial is certainly a hard sell in our consumerist culture. We are accustomed to fulfilling our every whim, whether it be for food or entertainment, not to mention the constant presence of illicit pleasures like excessive alcohol, the forthcoming legalization of marijuana, or casual sex. In this climate the Church’s call to take up the cross and deny yourself daily to follow Jesus is understandably hard to hear.

This also indicates that we cannot just assume that it is self-evident that the Christian should do these things. We may have a vague sense that we should avoid capricious indulgences that are widely recognized as immoral, but why should we also give up the legitimate pleasures in life? Why should we put ourselves out in this way? That is surely a counter-cultural practice, and one might be forgiven for wondering if it is merely a carryover from a past age that comforted people who had to go without, by conveniently suggesting it was pious to do so. What is needed to make sense of this seems to be a theology of Lent.

Lent is, at its root, an invitation to every Christian to unite him or herself more deeply with Jesus, specifically to unite with him in the forty days of fasting in the desert that he practiced in preparation for his public ministry. The temptations of Christ are described in all three synoptic gospels. It is striking that it occurs immediately after his baptism (although Mathew gives the genealogy of Jesus between the baptism and the fast). Once Jesus is baptized, all three accounts say that the Spirit “drove” him into the wilderness. This forty days of fasting culminates in the temptations.

The Fathers of Church see this episode in Christ’s life as recalling the forty day fasts of Moses and Elias. The fast of Moses culminated in receiving the Ten Commandments, while that of Elias gave rise to prophecy. In a similar way, Jesus’ fast ushers in the age of the New Law. In his Against Heresies St. Irenaeus reflects on the temptations of Christ at length. While also noting that Christ’s forty day fast is reminiscent of the fasts of Moses and Elias, his emphasis is on seeing Christ as the new Adam. Where Adam was tempted by Satan and fell, Christ is tempted by Satan and emerges victorious.

St. Irenaeus notes that Christ fasted for two reasons. His hunger after forty days of fasting shows that he was truly human, for all of us hunger and suffer when we fast. Secondly, it gives Satan the opportunity to tempt him. He ties these temptations into the theme of Jesus as the new Adam by pointing out that just as Adam fell by being tempted through food, Jesus is taunted through an appeal to food when he refuses to turn stones into bread. “The corruption of man, therefore, which occurred in paradise by both [of our first parents] eating, was done away with by [the Lord’s] want of food in this world.” In the second temptation Satan has appeal to scripture noting that it says the angels have charge of him, and that he should therefore be able to throw himself down the cliff without worry. Christ’s response is also scriptural, since he is human he should not “tempt God”. Accordingly, St. Irenaeus notes that the pride of reason found in the serpent is destroyed by the Jesus’ humility. Jesus replies to the third temptation, to fall down and worship his tempter, by identifying him as Satan and ordering him away. Throughout these temptations St. Irenaeus sees that Satan is defeated by Christ through an appeal to the law, this same law that our first parents had transgressed in falling to the serpent’s temptations.

St. Irenaeus’ treatment of Christ’s temptations situates his action in the context of a grand supernatural struggle that underpins all of history, from Adam’s fall to today. In this battle Jesus’ response brings victory over Satan deciding in a definitive way for God and ushering in the kingdom of God in his own person. Our means for joining ourselves in this victory are the age old ones of prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

These means are powerfully explained by St. Augustine in his Sermons on Lent. Throughout these Sermons Augustine emphasizes that the Lenten practices that unite us to Christ crucified are simply an intensification of what should be found in the normal Christian life. “In fact, the Christian ought to be suspended constantly on this cross through his entire life, passed as it is in the midst of temptation.” We are invited to a cross not of forty days, but of our whole life. (Sermon, 205)

He also insists that it does no good to give up things in Lent, but replace them by indulging in other luxuries that are extraordinary.  If we give up meat on Friday only to have fish at the best restaurant in town of forego wine only to indulge in exotic liquors we usually wouldn’t drink, then we simply changing rather than eliminating the pleasures in question. If we do this we are missing the point and value of the exercise.

Genuine fasting involves giving up legitimate pleasures. It is not a question of things that are prohibited, in which we should never indulge. Rather, fasting involves a free decision to abstain from what is licit and in itself good. Why would we do this? The most obvious reason is that if one never deliberately refrains from things that are permitted, we develop a habit of self-indulgence. The practice of fasting and moderate mortification of the body trains our will to say no to things that we want. This will make it all the easier to say no to ourselves when we are tempted by something sinful. If we always enjoy the legitimate luxuries that present themselves, how can we expect to suddenly have the fortitude to turn away from the illicit ones that cross our path?  Fasting is a particularly appropriate form of penance as in denying legitimate food, we symbolically sseparate ourselves from that fault of original sin at the root of our illicit desires that has its source in Adam and Eve’s indulgence in the food that was forbidden.

This fasting is integrally related to almsgiving and prayer. As we have said when we fast and abstain from legitimate goods, this should not lead us to spend on other luxuries. Rather, this savings should be given to help those who are in need. Assistance to the poor is a grave obligation. As St. Augustine argues, a person who doesn’t help the poor, but expects a generous response from God is like a farmer who sows no seed but expects a bountiful harvest. In the person of the poor we are, in fact, feeding Christ, who no longer has any hunger or need. “Therefore, let us not spurn our God who is needy in His poor, so that we in our need may be filled in Him who is rich.” (Sermon, 206) St. Augustine also points out that forgiveness is itself a form of almsgiving. Servants can be reconciled with one another, and thus they too can practice a form of almsgiving in which no one is poor. Even the person without any possessions can give this alms of forgiveness.

This suggests that the Lenten fast should also give rise to prayer. We are, after all, not merely to fast from food but also from “strife and discord”. As St. Leo the Great says:

Enter then with pious devotion upon these holy days of Lent; and prepare for yourselves the works of mercy, that you may merit the Divine Mercy. Extinguish the fires of anger, wipe away all hate . . . give way to each other in the simplicity of true humility.” Let offenses be forgiven. Let harshness be changed to mildness, disdain to gentleness, discord into peace . . . so that our fasting may be pleasing to God.

True fasting naturally gives birth to prayer. In building the virtues that are cultivated in a spirit of penance through self-denial and mortification we put ourselves in a situation that allows for prayer. We are better able to implore mercy from God when we have been merciful to our neighbors and our intention will be pure when our mind is not enslaved to desires for food and pleasure.

Fasting and almsgiving frees us from the worst parts of ourselves, leaving us open to God. “Just as we are rendered fit for prayer by almsdeeds and fasting, so our prayer itself gives alms when it is directed and poured forth not only for friends but for enemies as well and when it refrains from anger, hatred, and harmful vices.” (Sermon, 207)

This type of fasting offers “feasts for the soul” (Sermon, 210, 3) “For Prayer, supported as it were, on the wings of the virtues, speeds upwards and is easily borne into heaven wither Christ, our peace, has preceded.” (Sermon, 206)


The Impoverishment of our Discourse (Part II: Cures)

In my last post I analysed some of the phenomena associated with, and reasons for, a current crisis in our discourse. Increasingly, dialogue and healthy debate is being replaced with invective and polemics. People not only disagree about fundamental matters, they no longer understand how any reasonable person could hold positions radically opposed to their own. In this situation disagreement cannot be intelligently addressed. The one who disagrees is not just in error but wilfully obstinate, unamenable to persuasion. The only solution to such disputes is recourse to law or violence: in short, to force. Accordingly, in this post I would like to suggest three priorities that can help inoculate us against the increasing polarization of our discourse. Each of these has to do with elementary critical thinking, but each is easy to forget in the heat of a passionate dispute.
1. Seek truth before usefulness
The most notable characteristic of the polemicist is his or her disregard for truth. Here I don’t have in mind any technical philosophical notion of truth, but merely that of common sense. Neither am I particularly concerned to show how we know we have found the truth. That is something to be determined by the subject matter and the methods of the appropriate discipline’s inquiry. Rather, I am concerned with the intention of the inquirer. When we enter a discussion on something important we may have two very different attitudes. The person whose priority is truth is concerned to figure out what the hell is going on in the matter under discussion. The person who is only concerned with how he or she might use information or aspects of the discussion to further his or her own interests is not concerned to find the truth, but to use whatever appears to be the case to further a cause. To such a person, every fact, every turn of logic is assessed and brought to bear to further one’s own interests or those of one’s ‘team’.
If we are to get beyond the polarization that plagues us today the first task is to purify our intentions in order to seek what is true before what is useful. As the great Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain liked to point out, “We do not need a truth to serve us, we need a truth that we can serve.”

This is not to take on an idealistic altruism that ignores one’s own best interests. It is just to say questions of interest and benefit need to arise only after we have determined what is relevant, what the significance of various factors is, and what we take to be true. If each interlocutor begins from what is in his or her interest, and evaluates the truth of what is under discussion only in light of those pragmatic concerns, we can scarcely be surprised if intractable conflict results. The very fact that our interests are not aligned will inevitably lead to unmanageable disagreement, an all too familiar phenomenon.
2. Criticize oneself before others
Whenever we engage a contentious topic it is prudent to begin with a deep and critical examination of our own presuppositions, biases, and convictions. The medieval method of disputation is a model of this. This approach is exemplified in a work like Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae, in which the treatment of every question begins with a list of objections that argue against the position that Aquinas prefers.


Every position adopted by reasonable people has its strengths and weaknesses and we do well to try to carry out an honest appraisal of them. Likewise we need to extend this critique to the positions of others who agree with the positions that we reach. All too often people assume that a person’s argument makes sense because the conclusion agrees with their own prejudices. Likewise, it is easy to take for granted than an opponent’s reasoning is faulty just because they have a view we find untenable. Yet, it is obvious that one can find fault with the cogency of someone’s reasons for believing a claim that one actually agrees with. I once had an unfortunate student who on a philosophy exam wrote that St. Thomas Aquinas was an atheist since he rejected St. Anselm’s argument for God’s existence. This would be an odd saint indeed! Of course, the reality was that Aquinas rejected the coherence of Anselm’s reasons, not the truth of his conclusion. To this student, it was simply inconceivable to agree with a person’s conclusion without lining up behind the reasons presented for it.

Science has taught us the existence of confirmation bias. If we expect to find a certain result, we tend to unconsciously interpret the evidence in a manner that supports our expectation. We can guard against this by attempting to apply the same rigor to the reasoning of our friends as we do to those who disagree with us. Until we know the weaknesses of our own position we have no business lecturing others on the limitations of theirs.


Here the motto of the University of Alberta Quaecumque Vera “Whatsoever things are true”, itself a reference to Philipians 4:8 is instructive of the attitude that we ought to have. Our concern should be whether what is said is true, not who happened to say it. This entails that even those we disagree with most passionately may also take on the role of teachers from whom we would do well to learn from time to time. The Church Father Justin Martyr famously made this point surveying conflicting schools of ancient philosophy he found that each had some aspect of the truth. In view of this he argued that Christians should accept everything that is true, regardless of the source. This is undoubtedly a good practice, for anyone who sincerely inquires will be right at least some of the time, and those who differ from us the most are likely to discover things to which our own presumptions often blind us.

3. Evaluate reasons before conclusions
The greatest cause of polemics is the tendency to stop thinking once we have established that our interlocutor agrees or disagrees with our conclusions. If I am pro-life it would seem all I need to know is that the one I am engaging is pro-choice to know that we are going to disagree and vice versa. However, as any credible professor who has graded argumentative essays knows, a person’s reasons are usually far more important than his or her conclusions. As we have seen one can certainly hold a true conclusion for illegitimate and irresponsible reasons. Likewise, one may be led to hold a false position for perfectly understandable reasons. Accordingly, it is critical to avoid rejecting a person simply because they disagree, or worse yet because they are on another ‘team’. We have to look at why he or she disagrees. Perhaps if we had the information or experiences that he or she does we would feel the same way?

As philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has eloquently shown, the underlying obstacle in this effort is the deeply ingrained emotivism prevalent in our culture. Emotivism is a moral theory that holds that moral judgments and reasons for acting are really just expressions of feelings. On this view, to say that a kind of action is right or wrong is not a statement of fact that can be good or bad, but a statement of one’s preference. To say ‘stealing is wrong’ is not to make some statement of fact, but simply to express your moral sentiments about stealing. It is the logical equivalent of howling “Down with stealing!” If true, this theory would explain why moral arguments are intractable, for there would simply be competing sentiments. In a similar way, I might say “Chocolate ice cream is the best”, and it sounds as if I am making a factual statement that should be true or false.
However, if someone inexplicably replies “You’re crazy clearly strawberry is the best,” we obviously have no way to resolve the dispute. This is because when I call chocolate the best, all I mean is that I like it the most. Those who have different preferences will clearly disagree and there is nothing that can be done about that.


For Emotivism arguing whether a theft was justified or not is merely expressing an emotional feeling about the matter. However, if this is true, one’s reasons for acting in this or that way become irrelevant and it becomes impossible to subject them to criticism. We can only point out that we don’t like them or that they are inconvenient. This theory presents a serious problem when it comes to moral and social discourse, for if my moral and political positions are merely sentimental preferences, there is no way of arbitrating between them. The only mode of resolution left to us is force, whether that of law or of violence.

Furthermore emotivism twists the meaning of ordinary moral discourse beyond recognition. Quite clearly the person who says “rape is wrong” does not merely intend to convey a personal distaste for rape, the way one might turn one’s nose up at the thought of wearing an unfashionable outfit. Surely, he or she intends to signify that the action is always wrong irrespective of the circumstances or the feelings of anyone in particular.  Likewise, if I say “The holocaust was a horrific injustice”, I’m not just expressing my emotions about this, I expect others to recognize this as a fact, and would find someone who did not either blameworthy or inexcusably ignorant.  Moreover, as MacIntyre has argued at length the mere fact that I have a desire to do something is never a sufficient reason to think that the action should be done or that it is morally praiseworthy, for the fact that I have this desire calls for an explanation. Clearly, there are reasons why I find this course of action desirable, and those reasons may be good ones or poor ones. To simply say I am doing it because I want to is to cut short the inquiry and obscure the real reasons motivating my actions.

The polemics of our contemporary discourse shows no signs of abating any time soon. I am not so naïve as to think it can be subverted easily. In all likelihood the person who practices these priorities will merely provide new occasions for ridicule to those they dispute. However, the human person seems designed to inquire and seek after the truth. A broad view of history shows that while demagogues arise, they do not tend to last. Other cultures have opted for ridicule and Machiavellianism for a time, but sooner or later they tend to wither and die.  In itself this is reason to hope that saner minds will eventually prevail.

The Impoverishment of Our Discourse (Part I: Diagnosis)

It is no secret that there is a profound sense of disagreement and polarization in our society over moral and political issues. While the election of Donald Trump and the subsequent polemics on all sides of the political spectrum are notable signs of this, the symptoms had been emerging decades before. There is a sense that something new has been happening in our moral and political discourse for the past several decades and that its implications are rapidly getting more severe.
Certainly every society and historical age has experienced moral disagreement in various ways. What is it that is so unique and difficult about the way this surfaces in the contemporary world? One key element is that in the past interlocutors could have profound disagreements with one another, and yet still accept that their opponents’ position, as wrongheaded as it may be, was an intelligible position for which reasons could be given.
Consider the noteworthy debates between the renowned playwright and atheist George Bernard Shaw and the journalist and author G.K. Chesterton. It is hard to imagine two more opposed positions on any number of religious, moral and social issues. Yet there is no doubt that each had a decent understanding of what the other argued and why.

Compare this with the more recent debates between “new atheists” such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris and any number of Christian apologists and theologians. In these more recent cases the views of the opposing party appear to be utterly unintelligible to the other party, and what passes for argument tends to be lists of accusations of historic wrongs when it does not descend to downright name-calling.
In this respect it is quite interesting to note that Vatican I at the close of the nineteenth century had to warn against a rationalism that threatened to eliminate any role for faith, while at the end of the twentieth John Paul II in his encyclical Fides et Ratio needed to marshal a defence of reason against the forces of relativism.
In the face of this problematic situation two questions present themselves: first, why has this unfortunate situation come about? Second, what can be done about it? Today I will simply address the first. My next post will address the second.
One of the key factors in this development is the growing Machiavellianism of our social discourse. There seems to be a growing pessimism that underlies this inability to understand the other. Our society is one in which there is a general sense that people are bad. We seldom pause to reflect that when we act on this often unarticulated presupposition, that we generally mean other people, those who are not part of the group or community which with I most readily identify, are bad, duplicitous or not to be trusted. This conviction is the basis of Machiavelli’s original advice to rulers:

“A prince must imitate the fox and the lion, for the lion cannot protect himself from traps, and the fox cannot defend himself from wolves. One must therefore be a fox to recognize traps, and a lion to frighten wolves. Those that wish to be only lions do not understand this. Therefore, a prudent ruler ought not to keep faith when by so doing it would be against his interest, and when the reasons which made him bind himself no longer exist. If men were all good, this precept would not be a good one; but as they are bad, and would not observe their faith with you, so you are not bound to keep faith with them.”

One might initially think that his position is that a ruler need not keep faith because circumstances change, i.e. the reasons he made a commitment no longer exist. But clearly he means more than this, for he says that if people were good the rule wouldn’t apply. But surely circumstances change in a community of the good every bit as much as in a community of the bad. What he is suggesting is that since people are bad, the ruler’s commitments are only binding insofar as they serve his or her interests. On this view every political commitment is ultimately contingent; in society everyone is fundamentally out for number one. It is safe to assume that others will not keep faith with us, so we are entitled to not keep faith with them. Nothing could be further from the Catholic view of the person as fundamentally good, created in the image of God, living in the gift of grace, yet in spite of the fundamental vocation to goodness, a subject of competing desires and inclinations to selfishness and evil to be overcome.

Machiavelli’s position is problematic enough. It is his principle that rulers “ought not to keep faith” when it is inconvenient that gives birth to the politics of “alternative facts”. But this approach has extended beyond rulers, for whom there has always been a healthy cynicism, to society in general. Where there are passionately held commitments we don’t agree with or understand, we stop looking at the reasons and instead only note the fact of agreement or disagreement.
This has its roots in a distrust of reasoning itself. In a media based culture in which every view is presented alongside the opposing view, it is easy to believe that the differences between any strongly held position is a matter of opinion. In this context, reasoning comes to be seen as just a way of thinly veiling our biases and allegiances which, it is suspected, are what are really determining our positions.
In some ways this is not a new problem. The ancient Greek sceptics held that for any thesis equally compelling arguments could be constructed on either side of the issue. Yet, unlike our contemporaries who see this either as a reason to be more partisan and disregard the reasons of opponents as irrational, the sceptics argued we should suspend judgment with respect to any position. Unfortunately this is not a tenable solution. Theoretically it is self-refuting, for should be not also suspend judgment about whether suspending judgement is best? Further, it is not very practical as life requires that we make decisions about all sorts of circumstantial matters, so the sceptic finds him or herself in a lived contradiction.
Notwithstanding the ancient roots of scepticism, I do think it is fair to say there is something new and dangerous about our contemporary situation. Our scepticism is so often partial. We find it easy to be sceptical of the positions of others, while being dogmatic about our own. This is, of course, only to diagnose the problem. I have yet to engage the more important task of proposing a cure. That will be the topic of the next post.


The Hiddenness of the Ever-present God

Having completed the liturgical year with the celebration of Christ the King and looking forward the First Sunday of Advent, it is an appropriate time to reflect on the need to break from the “ordinary”, the sense of routine which can often accompany our spiritual life and religious practice. This regularity no doubt has its place. It provides order and carries us through the highs and lows of enthusiasm, tragedy and monotony. But, it can also obscure.

God has not called us to be Christian for the sake of attending mass, saying the rosary, reading scripture or even doing good works. Rather, these are all important means to human fulfillment, the life of the blessed, towards which we are genuinely called. As Christ constantly reminds the scribes and Pharisees people were not made for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath for people. In the midst of routine, and the struggle to fit our spiritual life into what remains of the day when our work and family obligations are completed, it is easy to lose sight of the grandeur of an authentic Christian life. Advent reminds us that we are called to be saints. We are called to make a home for the transcendent God here on earth, here in our hearts.

The theological vision of Pulitzer Prize winning writer Annie Dillard often highlights this paradoxical tension between divine hiddenness and the expansive awe-inspiring power of God. In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek she reflects on Pascal’s pessimistic phrase Deus Absconditus that describes God’s creating the universe only to turn away from it. Dillard asks rhetorically: “Is this what happened? Was the sense of it there, and God absconded with it, ate it, like a wolf who disappears around the edge of the house with the Thanksgiving turkey?”

In our lonelier moments we might, no doubt, be tempted to think this could be the case. But, she presents an alternative thesis: “It could be that God has not absconded but spread, as our vision and understanding of the universe have spread, to a fabric of spirit and sense so grand and so subtle, so powerful in a new way, that we can only feel blindly of its hem.” It seems to me that much of our life wavers between these two visions of God, and it is all too easy to fall into believing, if only implicitly, Deus absconditus, God has left the building, all the while carrying on the external trappings of our prayer, our ministry, our good works…

In her later collection Teaching a Stone to Talk, Dillard returns to this notion in a provocative way. In one of her most quotable passages she writes:

Why do people in church seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? … Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning.

This hidden God lies just below the surface, and even a glimpse of him can unleash dangerous and unforeseeable forces. C.S. Lewis captures the same notion in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, when he describes the lion Aslan, who is presented as a figure of Christ: “He’s wild, you know. Not like a tame lion”.

annie dillard

How often do we try to tame God’s action in our life? If we truly heard what we profess in the Creed and lived out what we read in the Gospel, how different would our lives, and indeed our world, be? As Dillard continues:

It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us to where we can never return.

Reading this passage always reminds me of my own conversion. As an atheist in grad school I became fascinated with the thought of St. Augustine. Eventually I realized I knew nothing about his life as a Bishop. I had no experience of the Church that gave the genuine context to his thought. To remedy this deficiency I asked a friend and colleague who I knew was Catholic if I might tag along with him for mass sometime. Experiencing the liturgy for the first time was quite moving, so the next week I looked up the Church nearest to my apartment and went on my own.

As I was leaving after the celebration I happened to pass by a priest in the lobby greeting parishioners and when we shook hands, without any prior intention of doing so, I found myself saying, “Can I talk to you sometime about joining the Church?” To this he gave an answer I will never forget: “The forms are over there.” From the expression on my face he quickly realized I meant something deeper than how to sign up in the parish and get tax receipts. He paused in a moment of prayer and we arranged to start meeting to discuss how I could become Catholic.

This was a moment in which God awoke, drawing me to a place from which I could never return.  Yet, it is just a small example of the way God can burst into one’s life and unleash profound grace when one opens up to the possibility that new and unexpected things can and should happen.  But it also reminds us how these tremendous moments in one can be seen as utterly ordinary from another perspective.  In a paradoxical way God’s presence can’t be separated too much from his absence; they tend to be a package deal.  It is a matter of our own habitual outlook and disposition, a matter of keeping an alert awareness to the fact that the supernatural is more real and powerful than the comfortable and familiar world of what comes naturally.

The Incarnation did not shrink the divine to human scale, rather it elevated Christ’s human nature through a unique union with a Divine Person, the Son. The time of Advent will be well spent if we draw closer to him, making a deliberate effort to cultivate a more supernatural perspective. If we look beyond our routine and expect that Christ can and will enter into the fabric of our lives and world, moving them in new and wonderful ways, he just might begin to do so.