Month: February 2003

“Making Mary Cry”

Jack Chick’s crusade to proclaim the true faith to Catholics has infiltrated New York! — these fundamentalist tracts are found in abundance down South and were a regular staple of my childhood in North Carolina. It’s such a rare occasion to encounter them here in New York city that I felt compelled to report the occasion.

This past week on my usual subway commute I noticed a woman walking from car to car, distributing tracts in a most diligent fashion. She had a wide variety in her possession, suitable for all kinds of recipients (atheists, Jews, Muslims, Catholics, etc. — we’re all in the same boat). Perhaps she noticed me reading De Lubac’s Catholicism, but it took her all of a minute to size me up and decide that I ought to learn why Mary is crying.

Now, while I’ll admit to find out that Mary is not the Queen of Heaven but rather the ancient pagan goddess Semiramis of Babylon provided a great deal of comic relief, it was not as amusing as learning about THE DEATH COOKIE.

(Perhaps we can all say a “Hail Mary” for her and Jack Chick in return?)

Making Mary Cry . . .

Jack Chick’s crusade to proclaim the true faith to Catholics has infiltrated New York! — these fundamentalist tracts are found in abundance down South and were a regular staple of my childhood in North Carolina. It’s such a rare occasion to encounter them here in New York city that I felt compelled to report the occasion.

This past week on my usual subway commute I noticed a woman walking from car to car, distributing tracts in a most diligent fashion. She had a wide variety in her possession, suitable for all kinds of recipients (atheists, Jews, Muslims, Catholics, etc. — we’re all in the same boat). Perhaps she noticed me reading De Lubac’s Catholicism, but it took her all of a minute to size me up and decide that I ought to learn why Mary is crying.

Now, while I’ll admit to find out that Mary is not the Queen of Heaven but rather the ancient pagan goddess Semiramis of Babylon provided a great deal of comic relief, it was not as amusing as learning about THE DEATH COOKIE.

(Perhaps we can all say a “Hail Mary” for her and Jack Chick in return?)

Salvation Outside the Church(?) — and of Jews in Particular

The fan club mailing list has played host recently to a rather provocative debate on the salvation of those outside the Church, and the salvation of Jews in particular. It’s a topic that has been frequently discussed in our online discussion lately, spurred in part by the flawed and confusing document “Reflections on Covenant and Mission” which seemed to promote the conclusion that it was no longer necessary to envangelize the Jews.

Following is a condensation of several posts of mine to the mailing list expressing my (somewhat muddled) thoughts on this issue, and which I wanted to share with readers of this blog in general:

The Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews says that Christians must “strive to understand the difficulties which arise for the Jewish soul — rightly imbued with an extremely high, pure notion of the divine transcendence — when faced with the mystery of the incarnate Word”, and note as well that “it is true that a widespread air of suspicion, inspired by an unfortunate past, is still dominant in this particular area”. [Guidelines and Suggestions for Implementing the Conciliar Declaration Nostra Aetate (n. 4), Jan. 1975].

The doctrine of God-made-man in Christ is difficult to comprehend even for believing Christians, as demonstrated by centuries of theological deliberation as the Church defined its belief in response to numerous heresies with a disproportionate emphasis on Christ’s humanity and divinity. Thus it should come as no suprise that such doctrines will be confusing for Jews as well, whose emphasis on absolute monotheism, together with justifiable suspicion arising from centuries of persecution, may very well present a severe impediment to arriving at an understanding of the gospel.

The Vatican’s call for Christians to seek to understand the “difficulties arising in the Jewish soul” is relatively new — and in response those ‘traditionalists’ insisting on a literal interpretation of ‘outside the Church, no salvation” (some moreover harboring extreme animosity towards the Jewish people) have offered citations from the early fathers of the church, and church councils, which quite clearly refer to the damnation of Jews, pagans and infidels, and all those outside the Church, with no exception.

For example, traditionalists often quote the teaching of the Council of Florence in 1442: “It firmly believes, professes, and proclaims that none of those outside the Catholic Church, not only pagans, but also Jews and heretics and schismatics, can become participants in eternal life, but will depart “into everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels” [Matt. 25:41]”. How does a contemporary Catholic, wishing to remain orthodox and faithful to the Church, square or reconcile this with the subsequent teaching of Vatican II?

I think it is important to recognize the logic behind the teaching of Florence, because such insistence on a literal understanding of this saying springs from an insistence on God’s justice. In Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism, an extensive study of this very topic, Jacques Dupuis cites Francis A. Sullivan’s commentary on Florence:

We have good reason to understand [The Council of Florence] in light of what was then the common belief that all pagans, Jews, heretics, and schismatics were guilty of the sin of infidelity, on the ground that they had culpably refused either to accept the true faith or remain in it. . . . Their [the bishops fo Florence] decree cannot be understood except in the light of their judgement that the culpability of all those who they declared would be condemned to hell.

. . . The bishops of the Council of Florence certainly believed that God is good, that being a good he is just and that a just God does not condemn innocent people to the fires of hell. The conclusion is inescapable that they must have believed all pagans, Jews, heretics and schismatics to be guilty and deserving of eternal punishment. [Salvation Outside The Church: Tracing the History of the Catholic Response, Paulist Press, 1992].

St. Augustine said: “When we speak of within and without in relation to the Church, it is the position of the heart that we must consider, not that of the body . . . All who are within the heart are saved in the unity of the ark” (Baptism 5:28:39). He was referring specifically to the Donatists, but I also think his statement has a universal application.

It seems that over the course of time the Church’s position evolved from the consideration that all non-Christians were guilty to the recognition that they could in fact err in good faith due to psychological and intellectual barriers to understanding — that one could be presented with the teaching of the Church and yet fail to comprehend its truth and necessity for salvation; and that such could be distinguished from the conscious acknowledgement of and willfull rebellion against the Church. (This would certainly be the case with a religious Jew, “rightly imbued with an extremely high, pure notion of the divine transcendence — when faced with the mystery of the incarnate Word”).

And yet, in spite of such empidents to understanding, if they persist in observing natural law and living according to the dictates of their conscience, by what light of truth they have available to them, they are in some mysterious way linked to the Church and enjoy salvation in Christ. And so Catholic apologists like Peter Kreeft can justifiably speculate that a virtuous pagan like Socrates (or even some very suprised atheists) may very well be in heaven, and the Holy Father, echoing the teaching of Vatican II, can assert in the encylical Redemptoris Missio:

The universality of salvation means that it is granted not only to those who explicitly believe in Christ and have entered the Church. Since salvation is offered to all, it must be made concretely available to all. But it is clear that today, as in the past, many people do not have an opportunity to come to know or accept the gospel revelation or to enter the Church. The social and cultural conditions in which they live do not permit this, and frequently they have been brought up in other religious traditions. For such people salvation in Christ is accessible by virtue of a grace which, while having a mysterious relationship to the Church, does not make them formally part of the Church but enlightens them in a way which is accommodated to their spiritual and material situation. This grace comes from Christ; it is the result of his Sacrifice and is communicated by the Holy Spirit. It enables each person to attain salvation through his or her free cooperation. 

For this reason the Council, after affirming the centrality of the Paschal Mystery, went on to declare that “this applies not only to Christians but to all people of good will in whose hearts grace is secretly at work. Since Christ died for everyone, and since the ultimate calling of each of us comes from God and is therefore a universal one, we are obliged to hold that the Holy Spirit offers everyone the possibility of sharing in this Paschal Mystery in a manner known to God.”

Dupuis also notes that the discovery of the New World in 1492 (50 years after the Council of Florence) was a turning point — prior to which it was assumed that the gospel had in fact been promulgated to the world. According to Dupuis, the notion that untold masses of savages would be damned for no other reason then their ignorance of the gospel provoked some Dominican and Jesuit theologians to reconsider the requisites for salvation by proposing an implicit faith in Christ, and that the Council of Trent in 1547 would formally define the dogma we now know as “baptism by desire”.

I was reading De Lubac yesterday and he says “if it is thought that ‘outside the Church, no salvation’ has an ugly sound, there is no reason why it should not be put in a positive form and read, appealing ot all men of good will, not ‘outside the Church, you are damned’ but ‘it is by the Church and by the Church alone that you will be saved.’ [Catholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man]. I think John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger , echoing Vatican II, have done precisely this, the most recent manifestation of which is Dominus Iesus.

Nevertheless, it’s a subtle and complex distinction, and completely lost on Feeneyites who take ‘outside the Church, no salvation’ in the literal sense without exception, and why people like Peter Kreeft or even the Pope can be seen as speaking heresy from the standpoint of a ‘traditionalist’.

So . . . what about the Jews? — Regarding “Reflections on Covenant and Mission”, I do not feel compelled to offer any thoughts of my own, given the excellent responses by a symposium of the National Catholic Register and Cardinal Avery Dulles. However, given that this blog is linked to a website devoted to a certain Cardinal,, I think it is fitting to close with some words from Ratzinger himself.

Every now and then I’ll receive an inquiry regarding Ratzinger’s view of Judaism, to which I like to refer them to two of his writings in particular — the first being the concluding chapter in the book Many Religions, One Covenant: Israel, the Church and the Jews, a version of which is available here. The second is the article The Heritage of Abraham: The Gift of Christmas, published in
L’Osservatore Romano, in which the Cardinal describes a “new vision” of Jewish-Christian relations, undoubtedly shared by many Catholics today:

We know that every act of giving birth is difficult. Certainly, from the very beginning, relations between the infant Church and Israel were often marked by conflict. The Church was considered by her own mother to be a degenerate daughter, while Christians considered their mother to be blind and obstinate. Down through the history of Christianity, already-strained relations deteriorated further, even giving birth in many cases to anti-Jewish attitudes, which throughout history have led to deplorable acts of violence. Even if the most recent, loathsome experience of the Shoah was perpetrated in the name of an anti-Christian ideology, which tried to strike the Christian faith at its Abrahamic roots in the people of Israel, it cannot be denied that a certain insufficient resistance to this atrocity on the part of Christians can be explained by an inherited anti-Judaism present in the hearts of not a few Christians. 

Perhaps it is precisely because of this latest tragedy that a new vision of the relationship between the Church and Israel has been born: a sincere willingness to overcome every kind of anti-Judaism, and to initiate a constructive dialogue based on knowledge of each other, and on reconciliation. If such a dialogue is to be fruitful, it must begin with a prayer to our God, first of all that he might grant to us Christians a greater esteem and love for that people, the people of Israel, to whom belong “the adoption as sons, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; theirs are the patriarchs, and from them comes Christ according to the flesh, he who is over all, God, blessed forever. Amen” (Romans 9:4-5), and this not only in the past, but still today, “for the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11:29). In the same way, let us pray that he may grant also to the children of Israel a deeper knowledge of Jesus of Nazareth, who is their son, and the gift they have made to us. Since we are both awaiting the final redemption, let us pray that the paths we follow may converge.

This post is an attempt to address two separate topics — the first being the traditionalist interpretation of “extra ecclesiam nulla salus“, the other being certain traditionalist perspectives on our relationship with the Jews (on both ends of the “progressive”-“traditionalist” spectrum). I’m still in the process of researching and exploring both of these issues, hoping that I haven’t presented these topics in too muddled a manner and that you’ve managed to get something out of it. If you have any good books on the topic to recommend, feel free to comment.

NOTE: Portions of the above were inspired by Shawn McElhinney and the Lidless Eye Inquisition and their commendable efforts to combat Feeneyism.

Fr. Jacques Dupuis’ Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism, although flawed in some respects and rightfully meriting a notification from the CDF, is nevertheless (in my opinion) a helpful study of the development of the Church’s thought on salvation and religious pluralism, and so I make a qualfied recommendation for those who wish to investigate this topic further.

Respecting Peter Singer . . .

The feature story of this Sunday’s edition of the New York Times magazine contains the essay “Unspeakable Conversations” by Harriet MacBryde Johnson, describing an encounter with Peter Singer, Princeton University’s ethicist, defender of animal rights and advocate of killing the disabled.

Born with a muscle-wasting disease, her body mangled and confined to a wheelchair, Johnson is a living example of just the kind of person Singer would prefer to have benevolently euthanized. No small coincidence,then, that she received a personal invitation from Peter Singer to an exchange of views, first with his undergraduate class and then with the university as a whole.

Singer’s invitation to Johnson has put her in an awkward position, not only because her organization (Not Dead Yet) believes that one shouldn’t legitimate Singer by publicizing his views in a forum, but also because her role would by definition be that of “token cripple with an opposing view.” However, she doesn’t see herself as having any other option, believing Singer would only be too happy to take advantage of her refusal (”I offered them a platform, but they refuse rational discussion.”).

Many critics of Singer argue from religious motivations — claiming a respect for the God-given dignity of all human beings from conception to death, regardless of their “quality of life”. Being an atheist, Johnson is not in a position to appeal to such a universal standard, and the crux of her argument against Singer is that “the presence or absence of a disability doesn’t predict quality of life.”

Are we ”worse off”? I don’t think so. Not in any meaningful sense. There are too many variables. For those of us with congenital conditions, disability shapes all we are. Those disabled later in life adapt. We take constraints that no one would choose and build rich and satisfying lives within them. We enjoy pleasures other people enjoy, and pleasures peculiarly our own. We have something the world needs.

Johnson’s account of her life is as good a defense of her position as any, not to mention a lesson of the courage, patience and determination it takes to live one’s live as an invalid. She’s a disability rights lawyer, an activist and an eloquent writer to boot. She derives “a great sensual pleasure to zoom by power chair on these delicious muggy streets,” and claims to have no more justification to commit suicide than most people. If the burden of proof were on her to determine the “quality of life” (as she argues it should be), then she certainly has provided it.

One can, of course, find fault with this position, as it seems to be predicated upon one’s subjective, conscious ability to enjoy the pleasures of life — what would her response be to those who were rendered unconscious or comatose?

A student poses this very question to Johnson in the classroom. She responses by telling a story of a family she knew who “took loving care of a nonresponsive teenage girl, acting out their unconditional commitment to each other, making all the other children, and me as their visitor, feel safe”. This isn’t good enough for Prof.Singer, who takes the opportunity to challenge her later in private conversation. Assuming that one could prove that an individual is totally unconscious and never to recover, Singer asks, wouldn’t taking care of this person be burdensome? Johnson replies that such a responsibility, if done properly and by the right people, could quite possibly be “profoundly beautiful.”

Johnson’s second encounter with Singer is a discussion, over dinner, on the topic of assisted suicide. She sides with Carol Gill, that “it is differential treatment — disability discrimination — to try to prevent most suicides while facilitating the suicides of ill and disabled people.” The quality of life of disabled people is by and large underestimated, and the case for assisted suicide often based on precisely such stereotypes. To those who defend assisted suicide as an autonomous choice, she counters that:

“. . . choice is illusory in a context of pervasive inequality. Choices are structured by oppression. We shouldn’t offer assistance with suicide until we all have the assistance we need to get out of bed in the morning and live a good life. Common causes of suicidality — dependence, institutional confinement, being a burden — are entirely curable.”

I personally find such a position wanting, for ultimately it doesn’t appear to be any kind of argument at all: Nullify the burdens of life and one may still choose to defend his right as an autonomous individual to leave it. (Incidentally a philosophy professor notices this as well and calls her on it — she neglects to include her response to the professor in her article, if one is to be had).

Johnson’s description of Prof. Singer himself is interesting. He is ever the gentleman, polite, amicable, eager to assist — he helps her to eat, fetches her a container for her food, does all he can to make her feel comfortable in her surroundings. This is the same Professor who, theoretically at least, argues that Johnson would be better off euthanized at birth.

Singer’s warm demeanor provokes a startling change in Johnson — initially, she tells us, she is horrified by not only Singer but her audience as well:

    Even as I am horrified by what he says, and by the fact that I have been sucked into a civil discussion of whether I ought to exist, I can’t help being dazzled by his verbal facility. He is so respectful, so free of condescension, so focused on the argument, that by the time the show is over, I’m not exactly angry with him. Yes, I am shaking, furious, enraged — but it’s for the big room, 200 of my fellow Charlestonians who have listened with polite interest, when in decency they should have run him out of town on a rail.

But by the end of the article, she does something of an “about-face”. Responding to her sister, she confesses that she doesn’t exactly share the same sentiments as her colleagues:

”You kind of like the monster, don’t you?” she says.

I find myself unable to evade, certainly unwilling to lie. ”Yeah, in a way. And he’s not exactly a monster.”

”You know, Harriet, there were some very pleasant Nazis. They say the SS guards went home and played on the floor with their children every night.”

Mulling over her conversation in her mind, Johnson finds herself defending her position. Singer isn’t a monster; rather, he simply “has strange ways of looking at things. . . . It’s a twisted, misinformed, warped kind of beneficence [but] his motive is to do good.” Johnson’s confident that “it’s all talk”, that it won’t matter in the end, that ultimately good will triumph and we’ll establish a society “that has room for all of its flawed creatures”, and which will regard Singer as nothing more than an oddity. Hopeful thinking, but according to Johnson it’s less about hope than the need for practical definitions:

If I define Singer’s kind of disability prejudice as an ultimate evil, and him as a monster, then I must so define all who believe disabled lives are inherently worse off or that a life without a certain kind of consciousness lacks value. That definition would make monsters of many of the people with whom I move on the sidewalks, do business, break bread, swap stories and share the grunt work of local politics. It would reach some of my family and most of my nondisabled friends, people who show me personal kindness and who sometimes manage to love me through their ignorance. I can’t live with a definition of ultimate evil that encompasses all of them. I can’t refuse the monster-majority basic respect and human sympathy. It’s not in my heart to deny every single one of them, categorically, my affection and my love.

I disagree with Johnson’s conclusion in that I believe one may condemn Peter Singer’s philosophy as monstrous without necessarily defining Singer himself as such. But she does have a point: to the extent that we portray certain figures — a Peter Singer, a Dr. Kevorkian — as monsters, we risk losing sight of their humanity, losing the capacity for respect and sympathy that should be extended to every human being. As a Christian, I find myself obligated to believe Peter Singer’s life — and the life of every human being — is invested with far more worth and dignity than Singer’s own philosophy affords.

Blaise Pascal described the self as “detestable”. St. Thomas Aquinas referred to the person as “the most noble and most perfect being in all of nature.” Pascal was referring to the narrowness of the ego, consumed by self-interest and desire. Aquinas was referring to our true self, our true personality which is realized in selfless love for another, and according to which we reflect the image of God. Both Pascal and Aquinas are right in their own way, as it is within the capacity of each of us to model the angelic and the diabolical.

As an atheist I do not think Johnson would characterize it in this manner, but let us hope that she was able to glimpse something of what Aquinas meant, in her experience of the family which “took loving care of a nonresponsive teenage girl, acting out their unconditional commitment to each other”, and where Prof. Singer could only see such conduct as impractical and irrational, in seeing something “profoundly beautiful”.

Learning to respect Peter Singer

The feature story of this Sunday’s edition of the New York Times magazine contains the essay “Unspeakable Conversations” by Harriet MacBryde Johnson, describing an encounter with Peter Singer, Princeton University’s ethicist, defender of animal rights and advocate of killing the disabled.

Born with a muscle-wasting disease, her body mangled and confined to a wheelchair, Johnson is a living example of just the kind of person Singer would prefer to have benevolently euthanized. No small coincidence,then, that she received a personal invitation from Peter Singer to an exchange of views, first with his undergraduate class and then with the university as a whole.

Singer’s invitation to Johnson has put her in an awkward position, not only because her organization (Not Dead Yet) believes that one shouldn’t legitimate Singer by publicizing his views in a forum, but also because her role would by definition be that of “token cripple with an opposing view.” However, she doesn’t see herself as having any other option, believing Singer would only be too happy to take advantage of her refusal (”I offered them a platform, but they refuse rational discussion.”).

Many critics of Singer argue from religious motivations — claiming a respect for the God-given dignity of all human beings from conception to death, regardless of their “quality of life”. Being an atheist, Johnson is not in a position to appeal to such a universal standard, and the crux of her argument against Singer is that “the presence or absence of a disability doesn’t predict quality of life.”

Are we ”worse off”? I don’t think so. Not in any meaningful sense. There are too many variables. For those of us with congenital conditions, disability shapes all we are. Those disabled later in life adapt. We take constraints that no one would choose and build rich and satisfying lives within them. We enjoy pleasures other people enjoy, and pleasures peculiarly our own. We have something the world needs.

Johnson’s account of her life is as good a defense of her position as any, not to mention a lesson of the courage, patience and determination it takes to live one’s live as an invalid. She’s a disability rights lawyer, an activist and an eloquent writer to boot. She derives “a great sensual pleasure to zoom by power chair on these delicious muggy streets,” and claims to have no more justification to commit suicide than most people. If the burden of proof were on her to determine the “quality of life” (as she argues it should be), then she certainly has provided it.

One can, of course, find fault with this position, as it seems to be predicated upon one’s subjective, conscious ability to enjoy the pleasures of life — what would her response be to those who were rendered unconscious or comatose?

A student poses this very question to Johnson in the classroom. She responses by telling a story of a family she knew who “took loving care of a nonresponsive teenage girl, acting out their unconditional commitment to each other, making all the other children, and me as their visitor, feel safe”. This isn’t good enough for Prof.Singer, who takes the opportunity to challenge her later in private conversation. Assuming that one could prove that an individual is totally unconscious and never to recover, Singer asks, wouldn’t taking care of this person be burdensome? Johnson replies that such a responsibility, if done properly and by the right people, could quite possibly be “profoundly beautiful.”

Johnson’s second encounter with Singer is a discussion, over dinner, on the topic of assisted suicide. She sides with Carol Gill, that “it is differential treatment — disability discrimination — to try to prevent most suicides while facilitating the suicides of ill and disabled people.” The quality of life of disabled people is by and large underestimated, and the case for assisted suicide often based on precisely such stereotypes. To those who defend assisted suicide as an autonomous choice, she counters that:

“. . . choice is illusory in a context of pervasive inequality. Choices are structured by oppression. We shouldn’t offer assistance with suicide until we all have the assistance we need to get out of bed in the morning and live a good life. Common causes of suicidality — dependence, institutional confinement, being a burden — are entirely curable.”

I personally find such a position wanting, for ultimately it doesn’t appear to be any kind of argument at all: Nullify the burdens of life and one may still choose to defend his right as an autonomous individual to leave it. (Incidentally a philosophy professor notices this as well and calls her on it — she neglects to include her response to the professor in her article, if one is to be had).

Johnson’s description of Prof. Singer himself is interesting. He is ever the gentleman, polite, amicable, eager to assist — he helps her to eat, fetches her a container for her food, does all he can to make her feel comfortable in her surroundings. This is the same Professor who, theoretically at least, argues that Johnson would be better off euthanized at birth.

Singer’s warm demeanor provokes a startling change in Johnson — initially, she tells us, she is horrified by not only Singer but her audience as well:

    Even as I am horrified by what he says, and by the fact that I have been sucked into a civil discussion of whether I ought to exist, I can’t help being dazzled by his verbal facility. He is so respectful, so free of condescension, so focused on the argument, that by the time the show is over, I’m not exactly angry with him. Yes, I am shaking, furious, enraged — but it’s for the big room, 200 of my fellow Charlestonians who have listened with polite interest, when in decency they should have run him out of town on a rail.

But by the end of the article, she does something of an “about-face”. Responding to her sister, she confesses that she doesn’t exactly share the same sentiments as her colleagues:

”You kind of like the monster, don’t you?” she says.

I find myself unable to evade, certainly unwilling to lie. ”Yeah, in a way. And he’s not exactly a monster.”

”You know, Harriet, there were some very pleasant Nazis. They say the SS guards went home and played on the floor with their children every night.”

Mulling over her conversation in her mind, Johnson finds herself defending her position. Singer isn’t a monster; rather, he simply “has strange ways of looking at things. . . . It’s a twisted, misinformed, warped kind of beneficence [but] his motive is to do good.” Johnson’s confident that “it’s all talk”, that it won’t matter in the end, that ultimately good will triumph and we’ll establish a society “that has room for all of its flawed creatures”, and which will regard Singer as nothing more than an oddity. Hopeful thinking, but according to Johnson it’s less about hope than the need for practical definitions:

If I define Singer’s kind of disability prejudice as an ultimate evil, and him as a monster, then I must so define all who believe disabled lives are inherently worse off or that a life without a certain kind of consciousness lacks value. That definition would make monsters of many of the people with whom I move on the sidewalks, do business, break bread, swap stories and share the grunt work of local politics. It would reach some of my family and most of my nondisabled friends, people who show me personal kindness and who sometimes manage to love me through their ignorance. I can’t live with a definition of ultimate evil that encompasses all of them. I can’t refuse the monster-majority basic respect and human sympathy. It’s not in my heart to deny every single one of them, categorically, my affection and my love.

I disagree with Johnson’s conclusion in that I believe one may condemn Peter Singer’s philosophy as monstrous without necessarily defining Singer himself as such. But she does have a point: to the extent that we portray certain figures — a Peter Singer, a Dr. Kevorkian — as monsters, we risk losing sight of their humanity, losing the capacity for respect and sympathy that should be extended to every human being. As a Christian, I find myself obligated to believe Peter Singer’s life — and the life of every human being — is invested with far more worth and dignity than Singer’s own philosophy affords.

Blaise Pascal described the self as “detestable”. St. Thomas Aquinas referred to the person as “the most noble and most perfect being in all of nature.” Pascal was referring to the narrowness of the ego, consumed by self-interest and desire. Aquinas was referring to our true self, our true personality which is realized in selfless love for another, and according to which we reflect the image of God. Both Pascal and Aquinas are right in their own way, as it is within the capacity of each of us to model the angelic and the diabolical.

As an atheist I do not think Johnson would characterize it in this manner, but let us hope that she was able to glimpse something of what Aquinas meant, in her experience of the family which “took loving care of a nonresponsive teenage girl, acting out their unconditional commitment to each other”, and where Prof. Singer could only see such conduct as impractical and irrational, in seeing something “profoundly beautiful”.

Gregory Popcak of Heart Mind & Strength blog mentions on “on-air tussle” with CRISIS magazine editor Deal Hudson over some Catholic’s disagreement with the Vatican’s stance on Iraq. Hudson’s chief concern, according to Popcak, was the way various statements from the Vatican (not necessarily those of the Holy Father) were being presented as formal rulings rather than prudential judgements, allowing for differences on opinion.

Greg expressed the concern that a dismissive tone is likely to send a “dangerous and conflicting signal to all others who dissent”, that such disagreement should only follow careful consideration of their positions, and (perhaps more importantly): “it should hurt just like it would hurt if your father–whom you loved more than anything–strongly suggested that you do something, but you, after careful consideration, refused him.It is your right to refuse him, but it should pain you somewhat.”

Likewise, a recent contributor to the RFC mailing list notes that this dismissiveness may equally convey a less-than-Catholic conception of our bishops:

I think we are on dangerous ground when we start to reject out of hand what Bishops (whether in Iraq or anywhere else) say, for a number of reasons. Whilst no-one is suggesting that any particular Bishop is personally infallible, the Bishop is nonetheless Vicar of Christ in his own Diocese (an office, of course, exercised in hierarchical communion with the head of the College [the Supreme Pontiff] and its members [their brother Bishops]). We all too often fall into a Protestant mindset that sees Bishops as administrators rather than Apostles (Can. 375 ?1), among whom we are free to pick and choose. Well, thatâs just congregationalism. I do not suggest that Bishops never get things wrong, or never need to be corrected, but if we are serious about being faithful Catholics that can only be in unity with Peter, and our unity with Peter is through the Bishops. Unity is a gift given to us through the Church, the Apostles.

As the Canon Law of Latin Rite has it:
ãChristâs faithful [i.e. all the baptized, lay and clerical], conscious of their own responsibility, are bound to show Christian obedience to what the sacred Pastors, who represent Christ, declare as teachers of the faith and prescribe as rulers of the Churchä (Can. 212 ? 1)

We also have a right to make our views known to them, as is right and proper. I would also suggest that when the Bishops speak as an Episcopal Conference then we ought to take extra care to try to understand what they are saying.

It’s a very strange situation, to have a number of prominent orthodox Catholics (Hudson, Schall, Novak, Weigel, et al.) voicing their disagreement with the Vatican, and simultaneously to have liberal Catholics confess their suprise at agreeing with the likes of the Pope and Cardinal Ratzinger.

I can already imagine how some “progressives” might use this disagreement to their own advantage: If, after all, some Catholics can disagree with the Holy Father over Iraq, why can’t other Catholics voice their disagreement over other issues (abortion, divorce, sexuality, etc.)?

Knowing when it is permissible to disagree and remain in good standing with the Church utterly depends on proper recognition between formal rulings on faith & morals and issues of “prudential judgement”, hence Deal Hudson’s concern that some statements by the Vatican may be contributing to confusion of the two.

Thanks to Kevin Miller & Greg Popcak for providing insightful reading on this issue.

. . .the present situation is characterized by a strong polerization in the Church, so much so that a dialogue between “progressives” and “traditionalists” succeeds only rarely. The camp of the progressives seeks to conquer the center; that of the traditionalists holds the fortress tenaciously as if it defended the center. Both sides distance themselves from the men in office and the small number of theologians who seek to maintain the true center.<

Where should one look to see a dawn? One should look to where in the tradition of the Church something truely spiritual appears, where Christianity does not seem a laboriosly repeated doctrine, but a breathtaking adventure. Why is all the world suddenly looking at the wrinkled but radiant face of the Albanian woman in Calcutta? What she is doing is not new for Christians . . . but suddently the volcano that was believed extinguished has begun to spit fire again. And nothing in this old woman is progressive, nothing traditionalist. She embodies effortlessly the center, the whole.

Hans Urs von Balthasar
A Short Primer for Unsettled Laymen