Tag Archives: Philosophy

Pre-Existent Soul?

After studying a glimpse of Theology, I’ve come to realise that the most important prerequisite which one needs to seriously study the Faith is Christian Philosophy.

Why? Because Philosophy is the LANGUAGE in which God uses to communicate Revelation to us. One cannot do Bible Exegesis without at least a basic understanding of Aristotelian Metaphysics.

Just this afternoon, a friend in one of my group chats made a ‘theologically’ incorrect statement which was innocent by nature, but actually disastrous to the Christian Faith. He said, “Oh, back in 1980 I wasn’t on earth yet. My soul was still floating around in heaven.”

This is why Metaphysics is crucial. Such statements reflect the lack of understanding in even the most fundamental ideas of our Faith. I immediately corrected him and said that we do NOT have pre-existing souls. It is in fact, a heresy from the early 4th Century!

The notion of us having pre-existent souls would imply Reincarnation, or that God sent us to earth as if it were some sort of test. It is completely incompatible with Christianity.

“If anyone asserts the fabulous pre-existence of souls, and shall assert the monstrous restoration which follows from it: let him be anathema.” (Second Council of Constantinople)


Originally posted on Instagram.
Image: PD-US

The Great Lie: Relativism and False Freedom Left Me Depressed

The saddest I have ever been was when I was living on the beach in Destin, Fl. I had the beach as my front yard with the Gulf of Mexico beyond that and nothing between my view of the water but the white sand. On top of that, I had money, drugs, alcohol, parties, and total freedom to do what I wanted when I wanted. Basically, everything the world said was needed for true happiness and fulfillment. Only, even in my tolerant and self-declared open-minded mindset, what we are told we need for peace and happiness, I was utterly depressed.

I could get out of bed in the morning, so maybe it was not as bad as some have it, but my life, for me, was at the lowest I have ever been. I was seeking the thing I grew up believing would make me happy: pleasure, enjoyment, the rockstar lifestyle I modeled after the icons I watched on MTV and in movies as a young suburban teenager.

My philosophy was the new classic, “People should be able to do what they want, as long as they don’t hurt others”. My slogan: “Do what feels right.” And that I did; even putting my desire for what feels right before others. I was utterly selfish. My comfortability and drive to feed my senses was the compass I used to navigate through each day and, without any inner or outer constraints, I did whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted.

However, the compass and false freedom I had did not lead me to the happiness and fulfillment that was promised. The more I chose to serve myself, the more depressed I became. The more depressed I became, the more I served myself. A vicious cycle of actual vices and, unlike what some might declare, I was unable to break it. I was a slave to it. In my false freedom, I was the least free out of many of my classmates at the college I attended, who still lived at home with their parents. It was the opposite of what I perceived when I was younger.

Things picked up a little bit when I found Jesus during a long drive to a new apartment in Fort Walton. I realized that everything I tried in my search of happiness was leaving me more empty, but I never gave Jesus a true chance. (Now that I type this, I think this might not exactly be true, I did have moments of faith in childhood and my early teens, but never a deep, more mature faith in Him).

So I determined to give Jesus a firmer try and felt something that night that was big enough to lead me back through the doors of a Catholic Church and attend Mass on Sunday. I believed in Jesus and things were looking up. However, my understanding was still flawed as I thought that I could continue to do whatever I liked as long as I loved Jesus. My misunderstanding of Jesus and what love is would lead me down a path that was strikingly similar to the one that I thought I left behind.

I still had the same false notion of freedom. I thought that I was free of the rules placed on me by others. I thought that without these rules, I could finally be happy. I thought that I knew Jesus and that He would not set any rules for me other than to be happy.

Looking back, I see the error in the ideology that I followed. If only I knew the teaching of St. John Paul II. If only I were present when he said, “While it is true that we ourselves decide what paths we will take, our decisions will lead us to true joy and fulfilment only if they are in accordance with God’s will” (PASTORAL VISIT IN NEW ZEALAND, 1986). If only I understood that true freedom is the ability to choose the good and that external constraints placed upon us in order to lead us to the good and defend us from evil are necessary to protect us from internal restraints that will enslave us.

I would slowly come to understand this through experience (a.k.a. the hard way) after continuing down the road of selfish pleasure seeking. After a bad Spring Semester, I finally agreed to attend a Catholic College where I still had another bad Spring Semester, after a slightly better Fall semester, but slowly began to understand that God had more in mind for humans than just intellectual acceptance of Him.

I took a Theology class in which I learned that the Catholic Church was not like what many people say it is. Furthermore, through praying the Rosary everyday, attending daily Mass, having deep Philosophical and Theological conversations with others, and reading the words of the Saints, I learned that God wanted me to love Him and show my love for Him through obedience. Moreover, obedience to God was not merely a power grab by Him, but the path for true happiness. Directions on how to live as a human, found in the Bible and sacred Tradition.

It was in following these directions that I finally found what I had always longed for. Jesus. Not just the idea of Him, but a personal relationship, a true friendship full of memories that I can look back on. My days were filled with miracles, my life was being put back together before my eyes.

Through the help of the Holy Spirit, I eventually quit my deadly vicious cycle on April 24, 2007 and I have gone without drinking and drugging ever since. Each day since then has been better than the one before it. I realize the truth now that through placing upon myself the external restrictions, I am able to be loosed of the internal shackles of addiction, bitterness, and misery.

I thought I had everything on the beach, but in reality I had nothing. It was in giving up what I thought was everything, that I truly gained it all. I still go back to Destin and the beach for vacation, but I will never got back to a life without knowing Jesus. Nothing could be worse than a life without Jesus. I know from experience. Praise Him.

Science and the Evidence for God

Still from the movie "Father Brown the Detective," based on the stories by G.K. Chesterton and starring Alec Guinness as the titular character.
Still from the movie “Father Brown the Detective,” based on the stories by G.K. Chesterton and starring Alec Guinness as the titular character.

One of the more memorable G.K. Chesterton’s “Father Brown” stories is The Resurrection of Father Brown. In this short story the titular character is “murdered” and then appears to return to life at his own funeral, shocking the mourners present. And though he is somewhat dazed in the aftermath of being attacked and then finding himself suddenly awakening and arising from his coffin, he keeps about him the presence of mind to declare to anyone who will listen that no miracle has transpired. His first move is in fact to telegraph the bishop to warn him against the fraud which has been perpetrated—for he was only drugged, and not actually dead.

I have recalled this story, because I have seen that a recent article is making the rounds: it claims that a well-known scientist has discovered “definitive proof that God exists.” When I read headlines of this sort, I usually regard them with at least some suspicion. A part of this suspicion can be summarized by a brief reaction from one of my friendly acquaintances, philosophy professor Rob Koons, whose initial response to this article was to write that “I always get nervous when physicists try to do metaphysics without bothering to get grounded in the literature.” To be fair, my suspicions are equal-opportunity: these articles are sometimes posted by people with some grounding in philosophy and none in science.

Michio Kaku. Image source.

In reading the actual article I see that the well-known scientist is string-theorist and CUNY professor Michio Kaku, who is indeed a reasonably well-known scientist [1]. Setting aside the exotic and never-before observed particles and untested conjectures which are the cornerstone of String Theory, what Prof. Kaku has allegedly done is to hypothesize that we live in a sort of “Matrix”, a non-base reality of sorts. The article quotes Dr. Kaku as saying that

“I have concluded that we are in a world made by rules created by an intelligence… Believe me, everything that we call chance today won’t make sense anymore.”

“To me it is clear that we exist in a plan which is governed by rules that were created, shaped by a universal intelligence and not by chance.”

Unfortunately, neither version of the article which is making these rounds gives any link or other reference to original source material. Indeed, Dr. Kaku’s website and twitter feed make no mention which I have found of this supposed discovery of a Matrix-like reality, or the intelligence behind it. Assuming, however, for the sake of argument that this news is real and not the next round of Snopes-fodder for the internet [2], what then?

A Gnostic’s fairytale.

The first thing that I notice is that the headline of the article is somewhat misleading with respect to what is actually being claimed—this is, I suppose, to be expected. Indeed, what Dr. Kaku is actually quoted as claiming is that we inhabit a “Matrix” reality which is “shaped by a universal intelligence and not by chance,” which certainly does sound like there is a God behind the scenes.

However, theory is always under-determined. Thus, there is more than one possible interpretation (e.g theory) which can explain a given set of data (e.g., “evidence”). Christians and other theists could point to this discovery as possible evidence for the existence of God, just as some of us have pointed to other findings in the past; yet, we should not be surprised when the skeptics, the atheists and the agnostics, remain unconvinced. Even assuming that Dr. Kaku’s quoted interpretation does make sense of the data—or at least of the existing theory [3]—this interpretation is subject to modification. Barring that, the interpretation itself may be further interpreted to include God, gods, other intelligences, or additional realities.

Parallel Universes: great for "Star Trek," but not as experimentally verifiable science.
Not exactly what we mean by “multiverse” or the more explicit yet oxymoronic phrase “multiple universes”

This is in fact what has happened, to some extent, with other theories which have been pronounced “proof (or evidence) of God’s existence.” The Big Bang theory of Fr. Georges Lemaitre was at first rejected by the overwhelming majority of “steady-state” theorists (often though not always on religious, that is unreligious, grounds), then grudgingly accepted. But by the time it had been accepted, additional interpretations of the theory had sprung into existence, most of which denied the Big Bang as the beginning of the universe, or at least of its beginning in time. A theist might point to the fine-tuning of the physical laws of the universe, yet an atheist will happily posit the existence of an infinite number of universes (e.g. a multiverse), each with its own laws, as a possible alternative to the existence of one God of infinite power [4].

Indeed, even at the time of the early scientific revolution—indeed, before then—the evidence of nature appears to point one way for the theist, and another for the atheist. The very orderliness of the universe is for the Christian more evidence of Providence, and for the skeptic it is the “proof” that we need no God, on account of the universe’s working fine on its own [5].

We should never take the latest physical theory—or worse, conjecture—to be the last word in proving (or disproving) the existence of God. For one thing, this can lead us into the trap of clinging to a wrong (or outdated and since supplanted) theory long after it has ceased to hold sway. Such was the sin of some—though by no stretch all—of the actors in the drama which was the Galileo Affair. Similarly, if we attach our faith too strongly to one or another scientific theory, we may be too slow in accepting a better (more accurate, more complete) theory when it is developed.

Caesarea Philippi, the former temple of Pan, and the site at which Jesus told Peter that he was the rock upon which the Church would be built.
Caesarea Philippi, the former temple of Pan, and the site at which Jesus told Peter that he was the rock upon which the Church would be built. Image source.

Worse still, we may fall into the tap of losing faith altogether if the right theory should be proven wrong, or if the wrong theory should be demonstrated as more reasonably right [6]. Our faith should be grounded on the Rock of Christ, and the smaller rock of St. Peter, rather than the shifting sands of natural science. Conversely, the study of the sciences should not be for the purpose of finding evidence of God—we often find that whenever and wherever we sincerely look for it, and seldom otherwise—but rather for the sake of appreciating and understanding His creation.

Faith, for its part, is a gift of the Holy Spirit, something which we merit only by supernatural grace. In his essay “Our Awesome Creed,” the philosopher Charles de Koninck states that

“If we truly appreciated the mysteriousness of the truths that faith enables us to accept, and how inscrutable is this power to accept them, we could never show anything but understanding towards those who cannot join us, a humble gratitude for the light in which they do not share and which we ourselves have in no way deserved—ever mindful that this gift does not confirm us in the good…. The utter impenetrability of mysteries like the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Eucharist, the authority of the Church, the primacy of Peter and of his successors, is so great that the gap between them and man’s ordinary powers may be truly called infinite.”

There is, to some extent, a leap of faith involved in looking at the evidence, seeing that it points to a Creator, and then concluding that God exists and that the other tenets of our religion are also true. Later in that same essay, de Koninck states that

The Temptation of St. Thomas Aquinas, Diego Velazquez, (1631-32).
The Angelic Doctor. “The Temptation of St. Thomas Aquinas,” Diego Velazquez, (1631-32).

“It should help us to realize how unreasonable we are if we appreciate that everything we are saying for the entire Creed holds good, to a considerable extent, for mere belief in God, a thing which need not be taken on faith alone, but which actually can be proved… St. Thomas teaches that even though he existence of a Deity can be demonstrated, the task of doing so is extremely difficult: so difficult as actually to serve as one reason why it was right that God should make even His very existence the substance of a special revelation. What the Angelic Doctor is maintaining, then, is that, if God had not told man of His own existence, only a very few human beings could have come to know Him, and these only after a long time, and at the conclusion of researches and reasonings which would be sure to be mingled with many mistakes.”

In other words, there may exist some proofs and demonstrations of God’s existence, but these are likely to be really understood only by those who dedicate time and expertise to studying and understanding them. Said proofs will also be recognized and accepted as such only by those who are at least somewhat inclined to seek them out. “We see as through a glass, darkly,” writes St. Paul of this life. This admonishment is as true of making sense of natural evidence when it points to supernatural conclusions as it is of supernatural revelations themselves.

Upon arising from his drugged sleep—and appearing to rise from the dead—Fr. Brown says in response the reactions of the crowds:

“‘Oh you silly people,’ he said in a high and quavering voice; ‘Oh you silly, silly people…No; of course it’s not a miracle. Why should there be a miracle? Miracles are not so cheap as all that… Bless you, bless you,’ said Father Brown hastily, ‘God bless you all and give you more sense.'”

Indeed, a miracle is rarely so “cheap” as this—and neither should we expect the miracle of faith to come so cheaply as the latest conjecture by a well-known scientist.


Richard Feynman
Richard Feynman (Image source: Richard Hartt/Caltech Archives)

[1] Then again, so is Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who is a scientist with some accomplishments who is much more well-known for being a popularizer of science than for his actual contributions to science. There is nothing wrong with this, per se, and of course a person can be both (Stephen Hawking and Richard Feynman are two examples of this).

[2] Catholic Online is also carrying this story, and gives slightly more details (though none of substance). Intellectual Takeout also caries the story, and claims that the source is a Big Think video–but they embed the same Big Think video as all the other sites, which makes no such claim. Thus, I can’t shake the suspicion that this is akin to Father Brown’s “Resurrection.” The original sites both look like a hoax-news sites akin the World News Daily tabloid, complete with fatuous and fanciful articles about UFOs and man-beast hybrids. As for the embedded video, I think it is best left as grist for another day.

[3] This latest conjecture is based on String Theory, which perhaps is the most untested theory as such in all the sciences. For all of the work done by String Theorists, there is not one single “String Experiment” that I am aware of, and indeed not one new prediction made by String Theory which we can test at this time.

[4] I am here simplifying both sides arguments due to time constraints. I also do not wish to imply that the only reason to hold a theory of a multiverse is for religious (that is, nonreligious) reasons—it may well be the right theory! Conversely, we should not hold to one or another scientific theory only for religious reasons, because it may well be the wrong theory.

[5] Saint Thomas specifically addresses this very argument, I think satisfactorily but apparently to others unconvincingly.

[6] Theories are by their nature difficult or even impossible to actually “prove” as being right, but they can often be shown to be wrong, or inadequate, on the one hand, and good at making accurate predictions on the other.

Resolutions and Virtues Part 2: Virtues as Moral Help

In my previous column, I discussed the cardinal virtues and stated that they could be of some benefit to us in keeping our New Year’s resolutions [1]. I did not, however, discuss how (or why) the virtues are beneficial t us in this way.

Wasn’t that a party?

So where do these virtues tie in to our new year’s resolutions? I have already given a brief description of which of the cardinal virtues might tie in to some of the more popular new year’s resolutions. I think that there are three more things to be said about virtues, and how they aide us in our resolutions.

The first is that the virtues are powers (ST II-II.56.1). Specifically, they are powers of the should which enable us to act as we ought. Now, the New Year’s resolutions which are more commonly made largely concern things which we ought to do, but which require some sacrifice on our part to do them. This sacrifice largely pertains to temperance: be it a sacrifice of time for doing something else that in the moment we would rather do, or of money that we are tempted to spend elsewhere, or of pleasures which we can do without. In some cases, it pertains (“in a restricted sense”, ST II-II.123.4R1) to fortitude.

GPHR 45/7702: Bernard H.B. Lange, CSC, in gym with students weightlifting.
Do you even lift?

Let us consider the very specific resolution of dieting, exercising, and losing weight. Dieting as dieting pertains to abstinence, a part of temperance. Getting up early to exercise (if in the morning) also pertains to temperance, in that it limits the pleasure of sleep. But returning to the exercising after feeling sore from the first (or hundredth) workout is an imperfect, “restricted” form of fortitude. So is cutting back portion sizes (or cutting out snacks between meals) when one feels hunger pangs. So, for that matter, is increasing a workout’s intensity (or load) when the last one seemed difficult. So much for the virtues as powers.

Second, then, is that the virtues are also habits (ST II-II.55.1-3). In considering habits in general, and virtues and vices (bad habits) in particular, the philosopher Mortimer J. Adler writes

“You know how habits get formed. To form the habit of being on time for appointments, you have to try to be punctual over and over again. Gradually, the habit of being punctual gets formed. Once it is formed, you have a firm and settled disposition to be on time in getting where you promised to be. The stronger the habit, the easier it is to act in that way and the harder it is to break the habit or to act in the opposite fashion.

When you have formed a habit and it is well-developed, you take pleasure in doing what you are in the habit of doing because you do it with ease—almost without effort. You find acting against your habits painful” (Aristotle for Everybody).

adler in libraryVirtues are habits, good moral habits, and they can help us to fight bad habits. They can, moreover, help us to develop the skills or abilities that we desire, as Adler notes in continuing his discussion:

“Having temperance enable us to resist what appears to be good in the short run for the sake of what is really good in the long run…Just as temperance is an habitual disposition to resist the lure of pleasures for the sake of more important goods that overindulgence in pleasure would prevent us from getting, so courage [fortitude] is an habitual disposition to take whatever pains may be involved in doing what we ought to do for the sake of a good life.

For example, we recognize that getting knowledge and developing certain skills are intellectual virtues that we ought to have. But acquiring knowledge and skills may be painful.Studying is often hard to do; learning how to play a musical instrument well, how t write well, or how to think well involves practicing that is often irksome” (Aristotle for Everybody).

There are several ways in which this ties into our New Year’s resolutions. For one thing, many of the resolutions in questions can be met once—and then forgotten. I can diet and exercise to lose weight, but once the weight is off, will I continue to diet and exercise to keep it off? If dieting and exercising have become habitual, and if the fortitude to face another workout and the temperance to resist the desire to stay in bed (or to have an extra helping at dinner) have all become habit, then my odds of keeping the weight off are good. I will not need to make losing the same 15 pounds my resolution again next year.

Total Money MakeoverTo pick on another resolution, consider the popular goal of saving money. For many people, this goal might as easily be stated as To pay down my debts. Now, one popular method of doing this is to use debt consolidation: a seeming short-cut to paying less money each month to get rid of old debt. Concerning this practice, popular financial advisor Dave Ramsey writes that

“Debt CONsolidation—it’s nothing more than a con because you think you’ve done something about the debt problem. The debt is still there, as are the habits that caused it; you just moved it! You can’t borrow your way out of debt. You can’t get out of a hole just by digging out the bottom. Larry Bucket says debt is not the problem; it is the symptom. I feel debt is the symptom of overspending and undersaving.

A friend of mine works for a debt-consolidation firm whose internal statistics estimate that 78 percent of the time, after someone consolidates his credit-card debt, the debt grows back. Why? He still doesn’t have a game plan to either pay cash or not buy at all, and hasn’t saved for ‘unexpected events,’ which will also become debt” (The Total Money Makeover: A Proven Plan for Financial Fitness).

I would emphasize here that the key point is contained here: this trick doesn’t work largely because the underlying habits which caused the problem—too much debt, in particular consumer [2] debt—are still there [3]. The same thing can be said for the latest “miracle” diet drug with respect to weight loss, or for that matter to saving water and electricity (go green) by only changing to a more efficient version of a frequently-used appliance (though this can help!). Ultimately, any of these “shortcuts” may technically help us to keep our resolutions short-term, but longer-term it will be in vain. I may save some money this year, but if I then go into debt (frivolously) next year, what have I gained? Or if I lose 15 pounds by June, and then regain them by December, is my resolution actually a success?

conan best in lifeI would like to turn now to the third, and final, thing which is left to be said about the virtues. The virtues are important to our living a moral life, that is, to living a good life. However, they are not the only thing to living a good life, and indeed the cardinal virtues are improved on by the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. Just as we might build upon a successfully kept resolution in our own lives, God can build upon the virtues with the gifts of and with the fruits of the Holy Spirit. Philosophy professor Peter Kreeft writes of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance:

“These four are called ‘cardinal’ from the Latin word for ‘hinge.’ Al other virtues hinge on these four. That includes lesser virtues, which are corollaries of these, and aso greater virtues (the three ‘theological virtues’), which are the flower of these.

These four virtues are not the only virtues, or even the highest ones. As Einstein surpassed Newton, Jesus most certainly surpassed Plato. But just as Einstein did not contradict Newton but included him, presupposed him, and built on him, so Jesus’ supernatural virtues do not contradict Plato’s virtues but presuppose them. Plato gives us virtue’s grammar; Jesus gives us virtues’ poetry….

Of course natural [e.g. the cardinal] virtues are real virtues, just as natural reason is real reason and natural beauty is real beauty.

True, it does not save you [to be virtues in the merely natural sense]. You do not get to heaven by being a little more just, wise, courageous, and temperate, That is not enough. But it is good.

It is also a foundation for the supernatural virtues, which do get your to Heaven. A person who is unjust, foolish, cowardly, and uncontrolled will find it harder to believe, to hope in, or to love God. The natural virtues are the seedbed, soil, or fertilizer for the flower of supernatural virtue [e.g. the theological virtues]. Ethics is preparatory to religion, because ‘the law is our schoolmaster to bring us to Christ'” (Back to Virtue).

Slapping Batman Pelagianism nd virtueI include this long passage because because it show that we need not stop with cultivating the natural virtues: we in fact ought to allow God to cultivate in us the supernatural ones. God does in fact build on whatever foundation we lay, if we will allow him to [4]. Venerable Louis of Grenada writes that

“The gifts of the Holy Ghost also facilitate the operations of the virtues, animating them and strengthening them so that they will always be ready for the performance of their proper acts. Faith, hope, and charity are perfected by the gifts of wisdom and understanding; prudence, by the gifts of knowledge and counsel; justice, by the gift of piety; fortitude, by the gift of fortitude; and temperance, by the fear of the Lord” (Summa of the Christian Life).

In a similar manner, we can build on the success of keeping our New Year’s resolutions. If you ultimately want to lose 40 pounds, start with the goal of losing 15, then try for another 25 next year when that is successful. Or if you only lose 5, try to loose another 15 pounds next year. If your goal is to save up a third of your income as an emergency fund, but you save up only half of this, make saving up a third your goal next year (and then you will have a slightly more substantial emergency fund).

Remember that these New Year’s resolutions are not in themselves sufficient to make us truly happy in life, or truly fulfilled, or successful. Neither are the natural virtues by themselves sufficient to make us happy, nor saintly, nor will they get us into heaven. But, just as the New Year’s resolution (and its keeping) is a good start,so are the virtues a good start for us. They will make it easier for us to keep our resolutions, and to better our own lives. More importantly, they will enable us to allow God to work in our lives in such a way that we are able to live a good life in this world and enter into the joy of heaven in the next.


[1] Once, these may have been “Lenten Resolutions!”

[2] Consumer debt—there’s also student loan debt, and the mortgage. These are topics for another day, but it seems to me that there is a difference in habit between the poor college student who is $25k in debt from paying for tuition and the one who sailed through with scholarships but wracked up $20 k in debt from buying the latest in consumer electronics, etc.

[3] Dave Ramsey also notes that many of these loan consolidation companies do lower your monthly payments, in exchange for extending the period of the loan. This means that while the monthly payment may be a bit less, the period over which the payment is to be made will be extended by years, and so the total amount paid may also be greater. It’s also more difficult to attack debt one item at a time when all the debt is consolidated into a single large loan.

[4] He even offers us the perfect foundation, who is Christ.

Resolutions and Virtues Part 1: Cardinal Virtues

“The object of a New Year is not that we should have a new year. It is that we should have a new soul and a new nose; new feet, a new backbone, new ears, and new eyes. Unless a particular man made New Year resolutions, he would make no resolutions. Unless a man starts afresh about things, he will certainly do nothing effective.”
G.K. Chesterton

Deserter Rainbow
What 2015 brought.

The new year is upon us. This fact alone may not necessarily be cause for celebration, though it is the progressivist’s most sacred holy-day, being the day of change. The wise pessimists among us may be bracing for a new year with the prediction that it will bring more change for the worst. Meanwhile, the more optimistic observers are writing their resolutions with the aspiration that this change will be for the better.

ResolutionIt is the last of these which is of interest to us today: the new year’s resolution. Lists and advice for such resolutions abound: the most popular resolutions, the most commonly broken resolutions (a very similar list); some media sources go so far as to offer blanket coverage of new year’s resolutions. “You are never too old,” C.S. Lewis once observed, “to set another goal or dream a new dream.” Moreover, since we liven in a fallen state of original sin, it is right to add that we are never so good that we do not need nor can bear some further improvement.

In particular, we can all stand to improve morally. This means ultimately becoming more virtuous. Indeed, five or six of the ten most popular resolutions [1] linked above would be aided by improving our moral virtues:

  • Are you resolving to help other more? This should help you to become more just.
  • Are you trying to save money this year? Prudence and justice [2] will help with that.
  • Are you hoping to accomplish your life goals [3]? This will likely be helped by some combinations of the four cardinal virtues.
  • Are you planning to go green? Temperance will help with that by reducing your level of consumption, in particular your consumption of non-essential or “luxury” items and hence of the resources to produce them.
  • Are you resolving to quit smoking or drinking (etc.)? This is another goal which is helped by temperance.
  • Finally, did you resolve (as so many other did) to diet, exercise, and/or lose weight? Temperance will certainly help with this by moderating your appetite. Fortitude can also help with exercise: against the “fear” of going to fast of pushing too hard, and by extension against the fears of not pushing hard or fast enough. By extension, you would need to know how hard and how fast to push yourself in exercising, or else recognize that you don’t know the answer to this and thus that you need a reliable trainer (prudence).
From this source.

What are the virtues, then? I am here focusing on the cardinal (moral) virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. Let us consider each of these briefly in turn, before considering them collectively. To do this, I will turn a bit towards one of the great doctors of the Church, St. Thomas Aquinas. Tally ho!

Prudence is actually an intellectual virtue. Nevertheless, it also functions as a moral virtue in the sense that it is knowledge of what to do and how to act and what to say to be moral and virtuous in any given situation. Thus, it is knowledge, but practical knowledge, in the words of St. Thomas Aquinas (echoing Aristotle), “right reason applied to action” (ST II-II.47.4). The other cardinal virtues, the ones which are properly moral virtues, because they govern or appetites (that is, out will) so that we may have the right intentions. But the road to hell is paved by good intentions, if those intentions are misguided: prudence then is the right guidance of our intentions. The Catholic Encyclopedia gives the following definition of prudence:

“[Prudence is] an intellectual habit enabling us to see in any given juncture of human affairs what is virtuous and what is not, and how to come at the one and avoid the other. It is to be observed that prudence, whilst possessing in some sort an empire over all the moral virtues, itself aims to perfect not the will but the intellect in its practical decisions. Its function is to point out which course of action is to be taken in any round of concrete circumstances.”

Or to summarize, prudence means knowing what is right in a given situation, and while in situ.

Having right reason does not mean that we will necessarily act rightly. This is where the other three cardinal virtues (and their parts) come into play. Justice governs the will, fortitude the irascible powers and temperance the concupiscible powers of the sole.

4-cardinal-virtues1Justice “is a moral quality or habit which perfects the will and inclines it to render to each and to all what belongs to them.” It is the habit or power of desiring what is right, as contrasted with prudence which is the habit or power of knowing what is right. In particular, it is the right ordering of our desires towards others, “the proper act of justice is nothing else than to render to each one his own,” as St. Thomas notes (ST II-II.58.11). It is the virtue by which harmony in society is achieved.

Fortitude is about overcoming our fears, in particular as they prevent us from doing what is right. Saint Thomas says of fortitude that

“it belongs to the virtue of fortitude to remove any obstacle that withdraws the will from following the reason. Now to be withdrawn from something difficult belongs to the notion of fear, which denotes withdrawal from an evil that entails difficulty…Hence fortitude is chiefly about fear of difficult things, which can withdraw the will from following the reason. And it behooves one not only firmly to bear the assault of these difficulties by restraining fear, but also moderately to withstand them, when, to wit, it is necessary to dispel them altogether in order to free oneself therefrom for the future, which seems to come under the notion of daring. Therefore fortitude is about fear and daring, as curbing fear and moderating daring” (ST II-II.123.3).

Fortitude means risking discomfort, pain, suffering, and even death that we may do what is required of us by justice and prudence, to say nothing of the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity.

Temperance is the last of the cardinal virtues; it governs the lowest of our appetites, and so in that sense is often counted as the least important [4]. On the other hand, it may well be the most important, because when it is lacking—as it so often is today—the other virtues can very quickly come to naught. Fortitude governs our fears—ultimately, our attachment to this life at the expense of what is right—and justice governs right conduct in regards to others, prudence with practical knowledge of what is right. But temperance governs our pleasures, and prevents our over-indulging them. And it is our pleasures run amok which make it difficult to sacrifice, be it for our own sake or for the sake of others: “Temperance it is which restrains the undue impulse of concupiscence for sensible pleasure, while fortitude causes man to be brave when he would otherwise shrink, contrary to reason, from dangers or difficulties.”

The Prodigal Son after leaving home: intemperance following from injustice.

Temperance is, alas, a very unpopular virtue, and it counts among its own many unpopular parts: chastity, modesty, decorum, abstinence, humility. It is unpopular, perhaps, not because it has been tried and found wanting, but because it has been found difficult and thus left untried. And, moreover, it is in some way the virtue which needs the most continual practice [5]. On the bright side, it is the simplest virtue to cultivate in that it is most easy to understand what we must do to cultivate it.

Now that we know what the virtues are, we can turn to how they might help us (and, conversely, be helped by!) our resolutions. Stay tuned!


[1] For what it is worth, three more of these resolutions are meant to improve our intellectual virtues, a process which is aided (if indirectly) by the moral virtues.

[2] Magnanimity (liberality) is one of the subjective parts of justice, and guards against avarice and envy.

[3] This is one of the odder resolutions. The goal in question usually is “run a marathon,” “write a book,” etc. These are life goals, in other words. For example if the goal is to run a marathon, a combination of temperance (in dieting) and fortitude (in not giving in to self-doubts or fears) may be required.

[4] Here is the Catholic Encyclopedia‘s remark on the matter:

“[Temperance] is called a cardinal virtue because the moderation required for every righteous habit has in the practice of temperance a specially trying arena. The satisfactions upon which it imposes a check are at once supremely natural and necessary in the present order of human existence. It is not, however, the greatest of moral virtues. That rank is held by prudence; then come justice, fortitude, and finally temperance.”

It is in many ways the most difficult of the four cardinal virtues to inculcate and to practice, and it must be practiced constantly.

[5] Though fortitude needs this continually in battle, spiritual or secular; and justice is to be practiced at any time when we are dealing with another person; and prudence must be almost constantly practiced as well at any time that a moral decision must be made.

Heavenly Bodies: On the Resurrection of the Flesh

The resurrection of the dead is among the central tenets of Catholicism, and indeed of any branch of “mere” Christianity which could be called “orthodox” [1]. It is the central point of the Gospels, that Christ came to die and then that he rose again from the dead; it is a point mentioned both in connection with Christ and then again with us in the historic creeds. And indeed, it is a central enough point that St. Paul tells us,

“Now if Christ is preached as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:12-15).

The general resurrection is thus intimately connected to the other doctrines—and speculations—concerning eschatology. Our bodies are intimately a part of us—and if our souls are to be separated from our bodies at death, then we are incomplete until body and soul are reunited in the resurrection. As Dante Alighieri writes in his Divine Comedy,

When, glorious and sanctified, our flesh
Is reassumed, then shall our persons be
More pleasing by their being all complete;
For will increase whate’er bestows on us
Of light gratuitous the Good Supreme,
Light which enables us to look on Him;
Therefore the vision must perforce increase,
Increase the ardour which from that is kindled,
Increase the radiance which from this proceeds.
But even as a coal that sends forth flame,
And by its vivid whiteness overpowers it
So that its own appearance it maintains,
Thus the effulgence that surrounds us now
Shall be o’erpowered in aspect by the flesh,
Which still to-day the earth doth cover up;
Nor can so great a splendour weary us,
For strong will be the organs of the body
To everything which hath the power to please us.”
(Paridiso, Canto XIV, Longfellow Translation)

Thus, the beatific vision of heaven—and for that matter the torment of hell—will prove ever grater to us when we are whole, body and soul. We may “experience” these as souls, but that experience is not complete when we lack our bodies, through which we experience the world.

Here is a speculative answer as to why that may be. As Saint Thomas Aquinas teaches us, all that is in our minds is first experienced through the five senses (ST I.84.6). Now, our souls may be separated from our bodies at death [2], with the result being that we have in heaven mind and memory and intellect and even will, but not those things which are proper to the body such as the senses. It seems to me that, deprived of the sense, we cannot gain new experiences in their proper entirety.

I’m not necessarily citing this book here, but I generally recommend reading Mortimer J. Adler.

What does this mean heaven will be like for us? Perhaps we can look to the angels—though it seems to me that we don’t actually know much about their experiences of heaven. Again, we have deduced that they do not learn in the same way that we do: rather, they are able to instantly grasp and understand new knowledge, conveyed not so much be sense as by intuition. Will our intellects be heightened in this manner? It is certainly within the realm of possibility, and would speculate that this must be so if we are to judge the angels themselves (see 1 Corinthians 6:3). Perhaps we will experience a heightening of this sort, and then we can apply these heightened intellects to intuit heaven’s joy: but again this is not so much an experiencing of heaven as an understanding of it. It would be good, and exceedingly so, even under these conditions, but how would we experience that goodness? Perhaps through memories of the good things we experienced in this life, but elevated and perfected by heavenly grace [3].

Yet, without our bodies, are we really experiencing the fullness of heaven, or is the whole thing little more than a dream-like state until the resurrection [4]? Reunited with our bodies, we may finally actually experience heaven, and in so doing move beyond memory and imagination to actually participate in the real thing. It is one thing to understand the joy of heaven, and even to have that as our single thought, to take delight in it as it fills our minds, our souls; it is another thing still to be fully present in heaven, to experience it and delight in the experience.

Speculation aside, we are told another thing about our bodies in heaven:

“But some one will ask, ‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?’ You foolish man! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body which is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body….So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body” (1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-44).

From this, and from the resurrection accounts of the Gospels, we can draw a few conclusions about our bodies in heaven:

  1. These bodies will in fact be our bodies, that is, they will be the body we have on earth, albeit perfected. For example, Christ’s risen body still retained the wounds of his crucifixion (John 20:24-29). The resurrection is not a repudiation of earthly man, but rather it is his completion and perfection.
  2. Our risen bodies will be whole. Each of us will have our entire body restored to us (Luke 12:17).
  3. The bodies in their perfection are “spiritual bodies” [5]. Saint Augustine explains in his City of God that this means they are perfected beyond even what our first ancestors (Adam and Eve) had in the garden before the Fall and the entrance of Original Sin. For example, Adam and Eve still required sustenance (e.g. the tree of life, Genesis 2:9, 16), but our resurrected bodies will not. One result of this is that our risen bodies will be immortal.
  4. Our risen and glorified bodies will be impassible. This means that they will be incorruptible (1 Corinthians 15:42) but that they will also be free from inconveniences, such as the pain of heat or cold or physical barriers (John 20:19).
  5. Our glorified bodies will shine with brightness (or glory). They will have different degrees of glory (1 Corinthians 15:39-42).
  6. Our bodies will have perfect agility. This means that we will be able to move with the swiftness of thought, and so space will prove no barrier to our movements. The body can move instantly to any place the soul desires.
  7. The risen body will be absolutely obedient to the soul, and the intellect will govern the will. This obedience is called “subtility,” and was among the gifts enjoyed by Adam and Eve before the Fall but since then lost.

Suffice it to say that the resurrection is something to look forward to (as the Nicene Creed states), and this as a joyous part of the life in the world to come.

[1] Orthodox: here I mean that there are certain doctrines which the various branches and schisms of Christianity have traditionally held in common. I will not list all examples here, but some include the doctrine of the Trinity, or that Christ was both true God and true man, or that He died and then on the third day resurrected from death to life. Basically, anything contained in the historic creeds, and a few other points of doctrine or common morality.

[2] This is certainly the bulk of opinion among Catholic thinkers. I suppose that the Orthodox opinion of a general dormition until the resurrection would be one alternative to this. The idea of form (soul) without matter (body) is a difficult one to fathom, so I won’t attempt to discuss it much more here.

Cover from Out of the Silent Planet. In the boat is Ransom with a hross (plural hrossa).

[3] Here I am reminded of a passage from C. S. Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet, in which the main character (Ransom) questions the alien hrossa about their mating rituals. The hross which he questions explains that they mate for a single season of life. Ransom asks whether there is pleasure for them, and if so how they can bear to remember it without returning to it. The surprised hross replies that there is as much pleasure in the memory as in the thing itself, and that only in memory can pleasure be completed.

[4] Perhaps there may be something to the Orthodox interpretation, and yet we need not give up the Catholic interpretation to get there!

[5] Note that the fact that the glorified body is a “spiritual body” does not necessarily mean it won’t be “material.” The body s still the matter of which the soul is the form.

On Sloth and Wonder

Every Christian shares in the universal call to partake in the Beatific Vision.  His baptism gives him this vocation.  The Gospel calls all men to be contemplatives.

Sloth and dissipation distort modern connotations of leisure, which formerly meant contemplation in rest.  The Greeks called leisure schole, whence we derive “school.”  School provides the place where teachers invite students to contemplate, to enjoy, to wonder.  It trains the heart to love aright.

We can take this meditative disposition into all of life.  A person who enjoys a sunset for its own sake participates in contemplation.  A parent delighting in the mere sight of his child partakes of wonder.  This principle helps to distinguish between drinking to get drunk and loving the taste of wine.  One tends toward gluttony, the other toward a love of beauty.  Rest for Christians should aim not at amusement but at musing.

The vision of beauty has elements of both fear and joy in it.  James S. Taylor writes of “the precise moment suspended between wonder (fear) and possession (joy), for the be-hold is to possess, to hold with the cognitive sense of the sensory-emotional response of near-simultaneous, fear-joy: the sensation of one’s heart leaping up in the chest” (Poetic Knowledge, 50).  He speaks of a knowledge which sees the essence of a thing and delights in its existence.  This vision of the world draws the gazer into union with the things which he sees and loves.  When the wonderer glimpses the gratuitousness of the universe, the fact that God did not have to create, but He did, his soul leaps in appreciation.  The one who muses walks a fine line between poetry and philosophy, as Josef Pieper observes: “The philosopher, [Aquinas] . . . says, is related to the poet in that both are concerned with mirandum, with wonder, with marveling and with that which makes us marvel” (qtd. in Poetic Knowledge, 79).  The eyes of the poet-philosopher see the world “as a vibrant arena of visible and invisible reality” (35).  Through faith we glimpse the spiritual meaning of the material world.

St Thomas Aquinas 2

When we make “linking earth to heaven” the goal of our thoughts, we transcend time (40).  Taylor points to “the time lost in childhood play; the time that seems to vanish when lovers are together, alone; the hours that have simply slipped away during a meal where there was wine and lively conversation” (76).  When we approach life from a place of rest and gratitude, we will be able to see the truth, beauty, and goodness of everyday life.  Taylor observes that “we learn to love what is beautiful and in this way know also the true and the good” (75).  Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.  Where charity and love are, God is there.

Curiosity, Wonder, and Wisdom

In a short but provocative reflection, Prof. J. Budziszewski calls curiosity the enemy of wonder. In so doing, he is drawing a distinction between the desire for knowledge—itself a good thing—and the elevation of that desire to the highest good, one which can then seek fulfillment at all costs:

The problem is that the curiosity-as-holiness line is carelessly undiscriminating, and at best half-true.

Here is the true half: In itself, the knowledge of truth is good. Aristotle says philosophy begins in wonder. John Paul II says everyone wonders, and in that sense everyone is a philosopher. Thomas Aquinas says it is man’s natural vocation to seek truth, especially the truth about God. We are made, among other things, to know, as no other animal is made to know.

But the way one goes about pursuing knowledge may be right or wrong….

Mere curiosity is to the tender love of truth as voyeurism is to marital love. That is why the ancients made distinctions. They accounted wonder a natural inclination, and the humble pursuit of knowledge to be a high virtue. But they reserved the word curiositas for seeking knowledge in ways it never should be sought.

At most universities—and especially in most science departments—the party line is that education should be about awakening a person’s natural curiosity, that is, their desire for knowledge []. There is not, in principle, anything wrong with awakening a desire to know in a person, and indeed, the actual desire to know itself is a good thing. Indeed, knowing may be counted among the highest human goods (along with loving).

However, although knowing itself is among the highest goods of man, it cannot be the final end of education. Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of knowledge, one which is theoretical and one which is practical. The former should lead to understanding and then to contemplation and at last to loving; the latter should lead to right action. Therefore, inculcation of virtue is an important part of a true education, yet this is at best ignored entirely, but more often outright contradicted (as being old fashioned, or as forcing morality on others) or otherwise undermined (e.g. by being replaced with some other moral system) in many of the hallowed halls of education.

Curiosity itself cannot therefore form a sound basis for education, since it elevates the search for knowledge above the actual ends of knowledge. Worse still, knowledge can be sought licitly or illicitly, morally or immorally: it may be sought through good means or evil.

A few extreme examples should suffice. The experiments of the Nazis on their prisoners are fairly well known and documented. Closer to home, it is well known that there are “enhanced interrogation techniques” (torture) which have been in use by the US against Islamic militants as an attempt to gain knowledge about possible future terrorist attacks (or even to attempt to find other militants); if this is not sufficient as an example of “badly gained” knowledge, then one could easily imagine such techniques being used by a more corrupt regime to obtain less vital information, that is, to gain knowledge which is frivolous as a military matter: torturing men to learn answers to less pressing questions []. Finally, there are the various nuclear bomb tests which were conducted during the Cold War without concern as to the . All of this is to show that there is, in other words, such a thing as “morbid curiosity” in a very literal sense.

What, then, is the cure to curiosity, that is, the antidote to the desire to seek knowledge at all costs? Professor Budziszewski calls curiosity the enemy of wonder, and states that wonder—which leads to “the humble pursuit of knowledge”—is a high virtue. In his discussion of wonder as the basis for philosophy [], Josef Pieper wrote that

In wonder, there is something negative and something positive. The negative aspect is that the person who feels wonder does not know something, does not grasp something–he does not know, “What is behind it all”; as Thomas puts it, “The cause of our wonder is hidden to us.” He who feels wonder does not know, or does not know completely, does not comprehend. He who knows does not feel wonder. It could not be said that God experiences wonder, for God knows in the most absolute and perfect way. And, further: the one who wonders not only does not know, he is intimately sure that he does not know, and he understands himself as being in a position of not-knowing. But this un-knowing is not the kind that brings resignation. The one who wonders is one who sets out on a journey, and this journey goes along with the wonder: not only that he stops short for a moment, and is silent, but also that he persists in searching. Wonder is defined by Thomas in the Summa Theologiae, as the desiderium sciendi, the desire for knowledge, active longing to know.

But along with not-knowing, and not-giving-up, wonder is also… joy, as Aristotle said, and the Middle Ages agreed with him: omnia admirabilia sunt delectabilia–the source of joy and the source of wonder are the same thing. One might even venture to say that wherever spiritual joy is to be met with, the wonderful is also there, and where there is a capacity to feel joy, there is also a capacity to feel wonder. The joy of one who is astounded is the joy of a soul that is beginning something, of a soul that is always ready and alert for something new, for something unheard of.

Pieper continues by noting that the one who wonders and does philosophy has hope and so is superior the the one who doubts all knowledge, but yet he is inferior to the one who finally knows (or “understands”). Wonder is thus a counter to both curiosity—the insatiable desire for knowledge at all costs—and to doubt of all knowledge, which the epistemological despair which likewise ruins philosophy [].

So far, I have limited my discussion to the merely secular considerations of wonder or curiosity as opposing bases for the pursuit of knowledge. By this I mean that everything which has been said so far can be accessed by the light of human reasoning alone. However, as Catholics we can go a step further and look to the light of revelation. A good Catholic education will include a beginning with wonder, just as a good secular education would—but we must go beyond only wonder at not knowing. The end of a good secular education must be increase in knowledge and understanding, and hopefully the development of virtue. A good Catholic education also means a growth in wisdom with the hope of developing saintliness.

Therefore, a good Catholic education has an additional basis, a theological basis which aims it towards wisdom. Wisdom is ultimately a gift of the Holy Spirit (as are knowledge and understanding in the theological sense), and means desiring heaven and heavenly things above earth and earthly things. We are told, moreover, that the beginning of wisdom is another of the gifts of the Holy Spirit; we read in Sirach [] that

“All wisdom comes from the Lord and is with him for ever….The fear of the Lord delights the heart, and gives gladness and joy and long life. With him who fears the Lord it will go well at the end; on the day of his death he will be blessed. To fear the Lord is the beginning of wisdom…To fear the Lord is wisdom’s full measure…The fear of the Lord is the crown of wisdom” (Sirach 1:1, 12-14, 16, 18).

This, then, is a basis for the specifically Christian mode of education. If it is the more difficult basis, it is also the more important. Curiosity might be excited and wonder inspired, but fear of the Lord is a gift which can only be inculcated with the help of grace. Still, we must try and we must pray, and in the meantime we might wait in wonder.


[] Prof. Budziszewski has apparently observed this “curiosity as the highest aim of education” in the liberal arts (he is a professor of government and philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin). I have likewise noticed its prevalence in the various physics departments of which I have been a member as student, instructor, or guest, and have heard it in conversations with other instructors.

[] Perhaps this latter scenario is not too far-fetched, as it is debatable whether “enhanced interrogation” has been used with much success. On the other hand, one could easily imagine a criminal torturing an innocent person to gain access to something of value.

[] From Leisure: The Basis of Culture, pp. 106-107, translated by Gerald Malsbary. Italics and ellipsis both appear in the original.

[] The main discussion of wonder is in Leisure: The Basis of Culture, pp. 100-110, but he follows this up with a brief discussion of the specifically Christian mode (or modes) of philosophy as opposed to non-Christian philosophy. He counters the claim that Christian philosophy is content with simple (and therefore implicitly dismissable) answers to philosophical questions. He notes that good Christian philosophy possesses mysteries, which are in turn both true and yet not fully knowable by man, and which are hence a uniquely Christian source of wonder.

[] We read something similar in Proverbs: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction….The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.” (Proverbs 1:7 and 9:10).

Catholic Canines

TexIt’s a very long story, but suffice it to say, my husband and I are planning to bring home a dog at the end of this week.

Many people have expressed interest (to put it nicely) in why we are bringing home a dog when we do not yet have and are not currently expecting children.

Essentially, “why are you replacing a child with a dog?”

They have made it very clear that we are not truly Catholic because we are getting a dog before conceiving our first child.

This sparked some emotional turmoil in me, in part, because both my husband and I both feel called to bring home Tex (pictured right). As I began reflecting on it, I realized a couple of things:

1) We can never escape the fact that we care about what others think, nor should we.

We hear the mantra all the time about not caring what others think. It’s your life, do what you want. Be your own person. Make your own decisions.

We also know the repressing experience of peer pressure. It seems no matter what we do, we cannot escape the fact that we still care what others think.

In general, I actually believe this is a good thing. In the community of believers, we are all, in a sense, our brother’s keeper. We are all meant to help push and pull each other to greater holiness. Fraternal correction is one of the spiritual works of mercy, after all.

The fact that we care what others say to and about us reflects openness in us to receive the fraternal correction we all so desperately need. It is a good thing, and I believe a life lived hardened to others is a life of hardening your heart to the pleas of Christ.

However, just as we should be open to the advice, insight, and critique of others, so too should we develop prudence and recognize that we are all, ultimately, accountable only to our Lord and Savior. Shaking off what others say in a way that points us back to the Lord can be an incredible gift. If others remark on something in a way that allows us deeper insight into why what we are doing is indeed right, then that is an unexpected benefit. Without intending to, our brothers and sisters in Christ can form our souls to see beauty more intensely and strive to follow Christ more intently.

Likewise, those who intend to correct us by changing our decisions may still change us. In all of the comments on our apparent lack of Catholicism, I have learned more about softening my heart than ever before. Not simply to those people making such remarks, but also to the presence of God.

An openness to the beauty of and a love of creation I never thought possible has planted itself in my heart and begun to blossom. I understand more fully how many different ways there are to show Christ’s love, and in that sense, to be ever “more Catholic.”

We are the universal Church. If all of creation can groan under the weight of the fall, then surely all of creation can – in some way – long for resurrection and we can be a part of that resurrection with the rest of creation in sharing our homes with them.

We should celebrate our animals, not cast them off simply because they are not human.

2) Being pro-life means valuing and respecting all life.

I firmly believe in the pro-life side of things. If you’ve even glanced through my other articles or my personal blog, you will see that far and away the majority of my posts concern abortion. However, I also refuse to accept that the only way to be pro-life is to love people.

In fact, I argue that you are not truly pro-life if you flat out, blatantly, across the board dislike animals. I have addressed this idea in previous articles, so to save from being redundant, let’s just say that there is a proven correlation between cruelty to animals and cruelty to humans.

This makes sense.

If you cannot respect, value, serve, and love those creatures which are less than you and rely upon you, then you will not be able to respect, value, serve, and love those creatures which are equal to you, but who still rely upon you (the elderly, the unborn, the young, etc.)

In a previous article, I argued that animals help us to see and experience God more fully. Pope Saint John Paul II explores this idea in Theology of the Body, when speaking of Adam naming the animals. It is only in knowing the animals that Adam comes to know himself as different from them and to see his relationship with God and Eve as unique. If that is so, then in some way, animals help make us more human. It is in coming to know God ever better that we grow to be more human.

In this sense, how much more pro-life can you be than to see a life, rejected because it was not perfect, and decide to love and nurture it anyway? Tex is coming to live with us because he is a special needs dog and his previous owner did not, or could not, do the work necessary for Tex to be healthy and successful. Don’t many adoptive parents experience something similar with their children? Children who were rejected because they were, in some way, not perfect either health-wise or timing-wise?

All of this is to say that, since my husband and I are currently not able to have children, but we are in a position to offer an animal a life that he could not otherwise offer himself, we should at least consider it. If God deemed this creature worthwhile to make, then we ought to consider that in serving this animal, we are also serving God. In seeing that “it is good,” we are seeing as God sees. God did not create the animals and say “it is so-so.” Or “it is good, but less good than other stuff I make.”

He created and then said “it is good.”

God does not see anything as useless, but rather as a beautiful addition to the playground that is creation.

So too, we do not see this as a replacement for a child, but as a beautiful addition to the playground of our lives. An addition who will teach us to love more deeply, care more passionately, and truly celebrate every life just as Christ does.

New Language for Speaking about Homosexuality?

One of the more popular, misunderstood, and challenging problems Catholics face today is the topic of homosexuality. I think of the many great strides we as a Church and as a culture have taken in speaking about it. In the same way, neither side whether secular or religious, has spoken more clearly on the subject. Catholics, at the very least, have always been very good at making distinctions. The process of making distinctions is not just good philosophy and theology, but it also aids in our practical and charitable responses to what we experience.

When we respond to homosexuality we should know what it is. Moreover, when someone is homosexual it does us little good to categorize that person according to preconceived notions about their sexual activity, sexual purity, or moral state. In fact I’ve usually seen these reactions as one’s own personal, moral blindness than as a useful discussion geared towards understanding something so as to respond to it more effectively.

That being said, I also see among many Catholics, (more understandably, perhaps) secular homosexuals, and supporters of “gay rights” a departure from language such as “disordered.” A great deal of language focuses on “natural” sexual desire. It should be granted that the word “nature” (or “natural”) is not as clear as it first appears, but some have achieved a greater sense of clarity about it.

Part of my worry is that even good, Catholic homosexuals have found the language of “disorder” offensive and disheartening. My worry is not so much their individual feelings about the word, but it does bring forth the valid question as to whether or not our language about homosexuality is unsound, invalid, or ineffective.

This is also not as easy to determine right away. Our language could be unsound if it simply isn’t true or because we are operating under false premises. It may be invalid simply because what we do know about the human person and human sexuality is not properly expressed (i.e., our conclusions may not be properly derived from our premises). Our language may be ineffective as a result. Effectiveness is not only a matter of truth but also rhetoric. Speaking ineffectively is just as damaging to an argument as it is to be untrue or be lacking logically. This also accepts that, like Jesus, some people simply will not accept what is true—but this should stop us from pausing and considering our own words.

Should we discard the use of the term “disordered,” then? I am inclined to say ‘no’ for the time being. I say this for a number of reasons, some of which I’ll list:

(1) Scientifically speaking we do not know what causes one to be homosexual, in what way they are inclined, exactly, or to what degree one is a homosexual. Furthermore, as part of our species, what function or role does homosexuality play?

(2) The notion of “disordered” is often improperly univocated. There can be disordered states of being and there can be disordered acts. An act whose content or purpose is “good,” such as sex, but which is realized improperly is disordered. Thus both homosexuals and heterosexuals can engage in “disordered” sex.

Something that is disordered, however, is both simple and complex. An eye that cannot see is “disordered” insofar as it can not operate according to its purpose. A keyboard whose keys work except the “t,” “h,” and “e” is unable to fulfill its function adequately.

Thus something can be “disordered” either in execution (i.e., how it’s carried out) or through inability (i.e., it’s incapable of doing what it should).

Catholics hold that the purpose of sex is unitive and procreative. The act of sex is reserved as an expression of marital love. This does not mean that sex must result in procreation. Marital sex must be open to the possibility of procreation lovingly, otherwise that act of sex is disordered. Thus to be truly married and have sex according to the order established by God, the couple must execute the act in an “orderly” way (i.e., they must be married, freely have sex, truly love one another, and be open to (one of) the natural consequences of sex) and both must also be capable of fulfilling these criteria in order to be “ordered properly” in the first place.

(3) We should not be afraid to label ourselves as “disordered,” homosexual or heterosexual. Sin itself is a disruption of “order” insofar as all sin is contrary to God’s will. One who is addicted to masturbation acts in a disordered way. One who is prone to spreading rumors and gossip acts in a disordered way. Those of us who do not go to mass on Sunday act in a disordered way. Those who do not forgive others for their transgressions against us act in a disordered way.

Many of us, because of family history, genetics, or circumstance are also born into a state of greater probability for certain sins or vices, whether we want them or not. We are all born into an existence both ordered by grace and disorderly because of sin.

And so…?

My intention is not to “solve” the problem we have since I do not believe we have the full tools to solve it. I have some self-criticisms that I will briefly connect to my points above:

(1) Sifting through today’s science (biology, sociology, psychology, etc.) on the subject is at times biased, confusing, and willing to promote certain findings for reasons that aren’t always “scientific.” Nevertheless honestly engaging what we are discovering about human sexuality, along with their impulses, are necessary endeavors. Regardless of a lack of scientific clarity those of us who do minister to or interact with homosexuals (etc.) must recognize them as persons created in the imago dei.

(2) My hope is that there is still clarity and a lack of clarity in the term “disordered.” How do we call homosexuality, the state of being, “disordered.” For too long we considered someone who was openly homosexual as one who was by necessity sexually active and predatory to the same sex. This is simply untrue, otherwise we would have to bring the same complaint to heterosexuals.

Homosexuals, by virtue of their homosexuality, are still fully capable of practicing virtues, discerning right from wrong, and making rationally informed choices. Thus their homosexuality is not a disorder to their will and, perhaps one could even say with confidence, their souls.

Their biology is another matter. Their homosexuality does not affect their internal or reproductive organs. In fact we have seen cases of homosexuals who have a desire to reproduce yet, for obvious reasons, can not do so by means of their ‘native’ sexual inclination.

Sex has the ability to improve (or deteriorate) intimacy and trust, to procreate, and give pleasure. In what ways does our insistence on procreation cloud our understanding of sex. I remain, however, a firm believer in the premise that procreation is one of the biological purposes of sex, to which pleasure and intimacy aid in the realization of a new human life.

(3) Perhaps this is too negative a view of the current state which we live in. Some are more willing than me to speak of the goodness of the world/state/circumstance we live in. On the one hand any of us are capable of loving another and love is the only means to break the cycle of sin, since it is only love (according to Paul) that is eternal. Since we have the capacity to love does this mean we are more ordered than disordered? In many ways there is a greater confusion over the terms “evil” and “sin,” in my view, than terms such as “homosexuality” and marriage.

It would be good for all of us to consider more deeply the difficulties at hand with intentionality and patience.

To that end I would suggest two documents by the USCCB for your consideration:

The first is “Always Our Children: A Pastoral Message to Parents of Homosexual Children and Suggestions for Pastoral Ministers” (1997).

The second is “Ministry to Persons with a Homosexual Inclination: Guidelines for Pastoral Care” (PDF, 2006).

An Easy Essay

Peter Maurin
in teaching
ancient principles
to the man on the street
in the language
of the man on the street.

Peter Maurin
that the man on the street
could understand
and believe in
ancient principles
if someone took the time
to explain it to him
in his own language.

Peter Maurin
that the best way to learn
the language of
the man on the street
was to spend time with
the man on the street.

Peter Maurin
that academics
without action
were worthless,
that education
without unity of thought
was impossible
that Catholic Faith
without Catholic Action
was absurd.

Peter Maurin
that the Marxist
was the Catholic
who had remained
because the Catholic academic
would not spend time with
the man on the street
when the Marxist academic
was more than happy to.

Peter Maurin
that the Catholic Church
could easily become
the most dynamic social force
in the world
if only Catholics
would spend time with
the man on the street.

Peter Maurin
that theology today
is impotent
because it is divorced
from action.
Secular society
only acts on principles
that can be believed by everybody.

Peter Maurin
that most Catholics
are too good at being
of secular society.

Peter Maurin
that faith without works
is dead.

St. James
also believed
that faith without works
is dead.

Peter Maurin
that a culture
built around cult
and cultivation
could unite
and aspire
and build such things
as Chartres Cathedral
with volunteer labor.

Peter Maurin
that a culture
divorced from cult
and cultivation
could not unite
or aspire
to build anything more
than the whitewashed tomb
of a mortgaged church
with contract labor.

Peter Maurin
was a radical
because he believed
that our Vine
has roots
that run deep
and that its branches
need pruning
from time to time.

Are we conservatives
because we’re afraid
that our Vine
has no roots
and will die
if we touch it
or will fall over dead
if we, the branches,
grow an inch?

Abstinence, Chastity, and Purity — Part One: Drawing Distinctions

Who knew that you can ? I guess I’m not too surprised…

Abstinence may be a mere means to an end, but it’s often given a bit of a bad rap. Indeed, in the recent spate of posts on the subject here and throughout the Catholic blogosphere, abstinence is treated at best as the pesky little brother of chastity, and at worst it becomes the root of all that’s wrong with sexual morality (with “purity” coming in a close second and “premarital virginity” rounding out making the list a maligned trifecta).

I’ve noticed moreover, that whereas the Catholic writers have largely attempted to draw a distinction between chastity and abstinence, more secular commentators blur these distinctions. To be fair, blurring the distinctions is nothing new, and unfortunately the result is that chastity is reduced to abstinence, and purity is reduced to premarital virginity [1].

So, what is chastity, exactly?

Chastity is a virtue which aims for the state of being pure—both for men and for women—and it is, moreover, one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). The Catholic Encyclopedia defines it thus:

“Chastity is the virtue which excludes or moderates the indulgence of the sexual appetite. It is a form of the virtue of temperance, which controls according to right reason the desire for and use of those things which afford the greatest sensual pleasures. The sources of such delectation are food and drink, by means of which the life of the individual is conserved, and the union of the sexes, by means of which the permanence of the species is secured. Chastity, therefore, is allied to abstinence and sobriety; for, as by these latter the pleasures of the nutritive functions are rightly regulated, so by chastity the procreative appetite is duly restricted.”

So chastity is the virtue by which we moderate sexual desires, which means that for those in an unmarried state, chastity involves abstaining from sexual activity [2], and for those in the married state it may at times also involve such abstinence. In another column on this site, Stephanie Calis writes (emphasis in original):

Chastity sees rules, then, not as a burden, but as a path to true freedom, with the goal being a body, soul, and mind so integrated that the rules aren’t necessary anymore.  St. Paul knows it; he writes, “For the flesh has desires against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; these are opposed to each other, so that you may not do what you want. But if you are guided by the Spirit, you are not under the law” (Galatians 5:17-18).

It says yes. Chastity says yes to authentic love, yes to your future or current spouse, yes to purity in your thoughts, words, and actions. It’s not about what you can’t do, but what you can.”

Abstinence may mean not being one of these notches, but there’s more to chastity that having zero such marks on your own bed. Source.

Indeed, abstinence always says “no,” or at least “not yet,” while chastity can say yes. But abstinence is a part of chastity, sometimes a necessary part, so it would be more proper to say that chastity allows us to say “yes” or “no” as appropriate.

Indeed, a commenter on that same column notes that many people approach the whole chastity/abstinence until married thing with an attitude which basically says “Just wait until you’re married, and then you can release all that pent-up sexual energy!” Is it any wonder that so many scoff at abstinence (let alone chastity) when it is reduced to this sorry state? Said commentator writes

The problem with “Just keep it together until you’re wearing a ring, and then it’ll be a non-stop release of pent-up desire” is that it also suggests that the non-stop release of pent-up desire is okay, “because you’re married.” Making pleasure the highest good of sex is okay, “because you’re married” (I’m wondering if this is why many think that using contraception in marriage is okay, too). That somehow, what marriage is primarily designed to do is to “contain” all that, and make it “respectable,” without any real thought about sanctification, or even what it truly means to love and respect (which is another reason why our culture’s idea that love is primarily an emotion is dangerous). Lust in marriage, as Bl. John Paul II wrote, is still sinful. And he’s right.

It’s not exactly respectful to say that you’re “gonna save yourself for marriage” and then take your cues from pornography on the presumption that what you do in your bedroom is “private,” and somehow sanctioned by that wedding ring….Without any broad and deep sense of chastity enabling us to truly love (which applies both when you’re married or not), “saving yourself for marriage” sounds cute, quaint, and nice in an old-fashioned sense of bygone respectability, but– at the risk of sounding harsh here– ultimately deceitful, dishonest, and superficial (if only because the Church’s ancient wisdom is not about “going back to the ‘good old days,’” but is ever ancient, ever new).

Chastity is aimed at freeing the self to be able to say “yes” or “no” to sexual intercourse, and then choosing correctly when to say each. But it is also allied closely with the virtue of modesty, which is to show respect for the other person’s own struggle for chastity. When the two are combined, we stop treating the other as an object for our own gratification, and start treating them as a person to be loved, and the act of sexual intercourse as an expression of that love.

Yet the modern world seems to think that what he says is equivalent to “moo.”
Yet the modern world seems to think that what he says is equivalent to “moo.”

Chastity is itself an act as well as a virtue, as St Thomas notes. He also notes that it is a fruit of the Holy Spirit, and then explains that the list of fruits given by St Paul is not so much a definitive list concerning actions which are fruits of the Holy Spirit as a list of actions which could be of the Holy Spirit. The distinction is that fruits of the Holy Spirit are those virtuous actions which are undertaken out of charity, in joy, with an interior peace. Chastity, therefore, is rooted in these three things, that is, it is demanded of us by charity and yet when undertaken brings both joy and peace.

I’ve so far tried to draw a distinction between abstinence and chastity. The former is the act of saying either “no” or “not yet” to sexual intercourse, whereas the latter is both the virtue which allows us to say yes and no (potential) and the practice of that virtue (act). Where does this leave purity? Purity is a state of being, and it is to some extent unfortunately maligned by secular writers and even some faithful Catholics alike [3].

Purity is the state at which chastity aims. It is one of the beatitudes: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8). The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that

“‘Pure in heart’ refers to those who have attuned their intellects and wills to the demands of God’s holiness, chiefly in three areas: charity; chastity or sexual rectitude; love of truth and orthodoxy of faith. There is a connection between purity of heart, of body, and of faith:

The faithful must believe the articles of the Creed ‘so that by believing they may obey God, by obeying may live well, by living well may purify their hearts, and with pure hearts may understand what they believe.’

The ‘pure in heart’ are promised that they will see God face to face and be like him. Purity of heart is the precondition of the vision of God. Even now it enables us to see according to God, to accept others as “neighbors”; it lets us perceive the human body – ours and our neighbor’s – as a temple of the Holy Spirit, a manifestation of divine beauty….Purity requires modesty, an integral part of temperance. Modesty protects the intimate center of the person. It means refusing to unveil what should remain hidden. It is ordered to chastity to whose sensitivity it bears witness. It guides how one looks at others and behaves toward them in conformity with the dignity of persons and their solidarity.” (CCC 2518-2519, 2521).

Chastity, then, orders us towards this purity by which we see God. Specifically, chastity is ordered to the governance of our sexuality, towards “sexual rectitude.” And, in looking at the three parts of purity, we see that the three parts correspond loosely to the three theological virtues: love of truth and orthodoxy of faith to faith, chastity to hope, and charity to love. Purity of heart, then, is itself a blend of faith, hope, and love, with chastity playing the part of hope. It should be clear, therefore, that chastity itself is a beautiful act, for hope is often paired with beauty among the transcendentals.

It should also be more clear why abstinence itself is not a merely negative thing, even if it is only a means to the end of chastity, itself a part of purity. Abstinence is the denial of self, not simply for the sake of self-denial, but for the sake of being able to lift high one of our crosses to follow Christ, not just in suffering but into beatitude, and from there to glory.



[1] Indeed, virginity itself is reduced to mean only that a person hasn’t yet had sex. But a virgin is more than just a person who hasn’t had sex, or as the excellent Marc Barnes put it, virginity is sexual, and  there’s more to purity than merely a “lack” of sex.

[2] Oddly enough, abstinence per se would rather seem to apply to governing our appetites for food, at least as define in the Catholic Encyclopedia! In this column, I am using abstinence in its more modern/colloquial sense to refer to abstinence from sexual activity, however.

[3] Though in the case of the Catholics, it’s often “purity culture” which is maligned. I should add here that it seems to me that when a secular person writes against purity, said writer means to rail against purity as well as “purity culture” as hindrances to his hedonism, but the Catholic writer who does so is often going after only the poor cultural interpretation of purity while being somewhat careless with terminology.