Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Sixth Grade Catechist Confidential

I did not want to teach religion this year. I did not want to put my kids in the religion program. I did not want my Sundays eaten by afternoon classes, nor did I want to sacrifice my ability to leave town for a weekend for the course of the school year. And of course God had other plans. Never in my life have I received such a clear series of signs as I was constantly sent about being a catechist, to the extent that ignoring them would have moved past the level of spiritual culpability into spiritual blindness. Finally, I thought I would put the idea to the final test by running it past Darwin, who would also have to shoulder some of the burden of interrupted family time on Sundays, and who might be annoyed by my blocking out our weekend days, and who would have to watch the baby while I was gone.

"Oh yeah," he said mildly. "It sounds like they really need people."

Well.

So I went down to the office and volunteered, and I ended up in the middle school session with my two oldest. Our parish uses The EDGE program, and I am a small group discussion leader for 7-10 sixth graders (none of whom are my sixth grader) out of a group of perhaps 60 kids. The EDGE seems solid enough, and it's fairly scripted, so that I can look over the next week's lesson plan and have a good feel for how the class will run. We meet in the gym, a big impersonal space, but our small groups manage an almost intimate feel by tucking in next to a wall and sitting in a circle.

"These kids have so many questions," I was told in training. "Just listen, take their questions, and answer them as best you can, or look up the answers and get back to them. We want to make sure they know they can find answers to their questions here."

Hm. In my experience, sixth graders do not have a lot of questions. My group doesn't even know that they're supposed to have questions. They do not want to be put on the spot. It is a challenge to get anyone to speak, with one or two chatty exceptions. These kids desperately want to be told something. So I ask the prescribed discussion questions, and I get very short, very basic answers, and I redirect the child who has a breadth but not a depth of discussion, and I talk. The Socratic method isn't working much here. Here's what works: I tell them what I want them to know. And they listen, and -- what I did not expect going in -- they don't challenge me. They don't press me to explain myself. They soak it in, and they believe me. I feel daunted by this power, and I pray that I always say the right thing.

Our first class was on Revelation, and why we need it. After the "Proclaim" (the group teaching), we break into our discussion groups, and after a little introductory icebreaker, I start with the first question.

"Why did God give us the Scriptures?" I ask. My two chatty ones give answers that are serviceable enough (willingness to talk, I realize, is only an indicator of personality, not of greater knowledge), but then there is painful silence. Kids look at the ground, at their icebreaker papers, at their Bibles.

"Is anyone here an artist? Or a writer? Who likes creating things?" A few hands go up. "When you draw something, does it tell everything about you? When you look at a painting, or read a book, or watch a movie, do you learn everything about the person who created it? Are you suddenly an expert on that person's life?" Heads shake no. "When you read The Fault in our Stars," I said, turning to a girl whose icebreaker slip listed that as her favorite book, "do you know everything about John Green?" (Thank God for the WSJ profile of John Green several weeks ago.) "You can tell some things about him, can't you? By reading the book, you can discover some of his ideas about life? What sorts of ideas did he talk about in the book? The idea of life after death, and how the soul lives on?" (Oh please, WSJ profile, don't have led me wrong about the plot.)

My student seemed unused to having to draw ideas out of a text, but she was a fan of the book and articulated how the themes had resonated with her.

"So, in reading The Fault in our Stars, you can learn lots of important things about the author -- what he thinks about life, and death, and how we should face them. But does the book tell you everything about him? Can you learn everything there is to know about John Green by reading his book? Or does he have to reveal some things to you?"

The group thought that he might need to reveal some things.

"When we look at creation, we can see that it expresses a lot about God. But it can't tell us everything about him. No creation can tell everything about its creator. We need God to tell us some things directly, through revelation. And He does that two ways, through scripture and through the Tradition of the Church."

More silence, but at least heads were up now.

Next question: "How is God like our "secret admirer"? (This was an avenue of discussion I thought wasn't very fruitful, but since in the talk God had been called not just an admirer, but a "secret stalker", I better get a better message out there.)

A few quasi-answers. "Do you think God is like a stalker? Human stalkers are creepy, aren't they? But why isn't God creepy? Well, a human stalker doesn't truly know the person he's stalking -- or she! A human stalker creates an imaginary person out of a real person, and wants a real person to be just like the imaginary person in his or her head. But God knows everything about us, more than we know about ourselves -- we're the creation, remember? -- and so He doesn't stalk us, He constantly draws us to Himself through His love. And one way He does that is through His revelation to us in the Scriptures."

And so on. "What does it mean that God wants to be in relationship with us? Well, one thing it means is that God is a person. Who has a pet?" Several dogs, a guinea pig, a fish, some cats. "Do you love your pets? Sure. But can you have a relationship with your dog? Can he reveal his mind to you? You know him from the outside -- there's no way you can exchange ideas with him. Only a person can be in a relationship. And God is a person, and He can be known. He's not remote from us, or something we can never touch. He wants to be known -- that's why He reveals himself! That's why He came to us as one of us, as a human. That's why Jesus became incarnate. Where do we hear that word, incarnate? In the creed, right? Do you know what it means? It comes from the Latin word for meat. Anyone ever eat carnitas?" (This is Ohio, so of course not.) "It's just meat. God, a pure spirit, became meat, flesh, like us, because only a human can atone for human sins but only God can fully wipe out offenses against Himself."

This past week, I did have a question from someone, a "gotcha" question: "Is God male or female?"

"God is a spirit," I said. "He doesn't have a body."

"But you said, 'he'."

"Of course, because when God became human, He revealed Himself as a man."

"So God is a man?"

"He's a spirit. He contains everything within Himself. As a human, He's a man. But God is love. Is love male or female?"

Everyone shook their heads no.

"Is Justice male or female? Is Joy male or female? God IS love. He IS Joy. He's pure existence. He contains male and female within Himself because everything that exists exists in Him, through His will."

"Then why can't he make everyone be good? Why doesn't he show himself to people all the time instead of letting people do bad stuff if he loves us?"

"You mean," I said, "What if God came down to earth, and showed Himself to people in person, and they crucified Him? God gives us free will, and people are free to accept or reject Him even when they can see Him in person."

"Yeah, but...," said the student. "I mean, God could make us be good and keep bad things from happening."

"Well, if my husband gave me a love potion every morning, and then asked me to cook and sweep the stairs and give him a kiss, and I said, "Oh yes, dear!", would that really be love?"

"No!" said the group.

"God wants us to choose Him freely. He doesn't turn us into robots who are programmed to love and obey Him. But He does show himself to us. He did it today, in the Eucharist. He shows Himself to us in the Scriptures. He shows Himself to us through every act of love, because He IS love and all love participates in Him."

My same questioner wanted to know about how Jesus could be God if he was God's son and God created him.

"Ah," I said. "What do we say in the creed? Created by the Father? No, we say 'Begotten of the Father'. The Father generates the Son, but they've always existed. Think of fire and heat. What comes first, the fire or the heat?"

"The fire," said one.

"Both at the same time," said someone else.

"Yes, both at once, and yet the fire generates the heat, doesn't it? It doesn't create the heat, it generates it."

Then we discussed the Trinity. "Here," I said, drawing a triangle. "Here are three points on the triangle. They're all equal, right? But this point isn't that point, even though they're equal. And this point isn't either of those two. But the triangle is one. Having three points doesn't make it three separate triangles."

"But so, if you have the fire and the heat, then the fire definitely comes first and so the Son comes after the Father..."

"But you're thinking as humans think," I said. "Our minds are trapped in time, and we want to think in terms of before and after. But God is outside of time. He contains time within himself, just as He contains all things in Himself, but time has no power over him. Every time is now to God. So the Father generates the Son, but not in time."

"Wow, this is making my head hurt!" said one of the guys.

"Good!" I said. "It should make your head hurt. The greatest saints and the most intelligent people on earth have wrestled with these ideas. Welcome to the club."

My interlocutor was still chatty and wanted to carry the point about fire coming before heat.

"What came first, the chicken or the egg?" I demanded.

There was a moment of silence, and then a confused and circular explanation among several people. I turned to the girl next to me and said confidentially, "I did that on purpose." And she smiled, a real smile full of humor and understanding and the promise of adult engagement.



Friday, October 17, 2014

On Infallibility, He Errs

Kyle Cupp is stirring up a little Friday controversy with a post in which he has discovered The Loophole in papal infallibility. His basic argument is that the charism of infallibility comes into play when the pope intends to teach authoritatively on faith and morals -- but that this leaves open the possibility of "pretend infallibility" in which the pope teaches in a manner that appears to be authoritative teaching, but when he's intentionally teaching something he knows is untrue. Since there's no intention to teach authoritatively, he isn't protected from error. But, since we can never know for sure whether the pope is intending to teach authoritatively or is pranking the Church by only pretending to when he knows he isn't, we are left having to trust the Church authorities rather than knowing for sure that they are teaching truth.

To enjoy the charism of infallibility, the pope (or bishops in union with him) must intend to teach the faith authentically. Infallibility isn’t a magic power they can call upon when they want to teach; rather, it comes with the teaching. For example, if the pope intends to teach, by virtue of his office and to all the faithful, a doctrine of faith or morals to be definitively held, then he is protected from error by the Holy Spirit. So what’s the problem?

As presently formulated, the idea of infallibility assumes that the appearance of the intent to teach authentically means the intent is really there, but the formulation doesn’t entirely rule out the possibility of deception on the part of church leaders. The intent to teach, which is an interior disposition, can be made known by outward signs, but it could conceivably be faked by those outward signs. The means of expression a pope would use to indicate authentic teaching could be put to ill use: he could abuse his power, pretending to teach the truth when in fact he is not.
Kyle presents two possible solutions to this (the second of which is partially derived from my push-back to his earlier speculations on the matter) but I think his problems come in earlier in that he doesn't actually understand the doctrine of infallibility in the first place. Key to Kyle's argument is that the exercise of infallibility relies upon the pope's intention (or that of the bishops or a council in union with him) to teach the faith authentically. Essentially, he's seeing the doctrine as promising that the Church will not accidentally err when attempting to teach truly -- a sort of big fact checker in the sky. But what happens if the Church is acting in bad faith and doesn't even consult the fact checker?

The thing is, this is not how the doctrine is actually formulated. The doctrine of infallibility is not formulated in terms of intention. Here's the text from the original formulated in Vatican I:
[W]e teach and define as a divinely revealed dogma that when the Roman pontiff speaks EX CATHEDRA,
that is, when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole church, he possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals. Therefore, such definitions of the Roman pontiff are of themselves, and not by the consent of the church, irreformable.
The catechism fleshes this out a bit more, but the teaching itself is identical:
890 The mission of the Magisterium is linked to the definitive nature of the covenant established by God with his people in Christ. It is this Magisterium's task to preserve God's people from deviations and defections and to guarantee them the objective possibility of professing the true faith without error. Thus, the pastoral duty of the Magisterium is aimed at seeing to it that the People of God abides in the truth that liberates. To fulfill this service, Christ endowed the Church's shepherds with the charism of infallibility in matters of faith and morals. The exercise of this charism takes several forms:

891 "The Roman Pontiff, head of the college of bishops, enjoys this infallibility in virtue of his office, when, as supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful - who confirms his brethren in the faith he proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals. . . . The infallibility promised to the Church is also present in the body of bishops when, together with Peter's successor, they exercise the supreme Magisterium," above all in an Ecumenical Council.418 When the Church through its supreme Magisterium proposes a doctrine "for belief as being divinely revealed,"419 and as the teaching of Christ, the definitions "must be adhered to with the obedience of faith."420 This infallibility extends as far as the deposit of divine Revelation itself.421

892 Divine assistance is also given to the successors of the apostles, teaching in communion with the successor of Peter, and, in a particular way, to the bishop of Rome, pastor of the whole Church, when, without arriving at an infallible definition and without pronouncing in a "definitive manner," they propose in the exercise of the ordinary Magisterium a teaching that leads to better understanding of Revelation in matters of faith and morals. To this ordinary teaching the faithful "are to adhere to it with religious assent"422 which, though distinct from the assent of faith, is nonetheless an extension of it.

What's absent here is any mention of intention. The doctrine is somewhat more audacious than that. Rather than promising a sort of divine fact checker which will prevent the pope from erring when he intends to teach truth, the doctrine more simply says that when the pope speaks solemnly on a matter of faith and morals, he will be protected from teaching error. It doesn't matter whether his intention is to teach truth or not.

There is precedent for this in several of the sacraments. Perhaps part of the background for Kyle's thinking in regards to intention relates to the sacrament of marriage, in which it is held that if the couple do not intend to enter into marriage as teh Church defines it, then they do not actual confer a valid marriage on themselves. In other words, if a couple has no intention of remaining faithful until death and being open to children, no marriage takes place, even if they stand in church before a priest and say all the right words.

However, while in marriage the couple's intention is part of the matter and form which must be present for the sacrament, there are other sacraments that do not rely on intention. For example, the consecration of the Eucharist does not rely on the priest's intention. If a priest says the words of consecration over bread and wine, but that priest has actually lost his faith in God and does not believe that anything will happen as a result of his action, even if he's just going through the motions out of a cynical desire to keep his job, the Eucharist is still confected and becomes the body and blood of Christ. Similarly, in baptism, as long as water is poured on the person being baptized and the proper words are spoke, the graces of baptism are received. If Richard Dawkins would be prevailed upon to pour water and speak the words of baptism over a dying person who wanted baptism, the sacrament would still be conferred. Other sacraments do, however, require proper intent. In addition to marriage, one must actually repent of one's sins and have an intention of resisting sin in the future in order to receive absolution in confession. If you go to confession and provide a good appearance of repentance, but in fact explicitly intend to go right out and commit the same grave sin again, you aren't actually absolved. The priest will have no way of knowing that the graces were not given, but you as the recipient are a part of the sacramental act and if you don't intend to repent you aren't absolved of guilt.

If someone asked me why some sacraments do not require proper intent, I would say that it is essential to God's purpose in creating the Church that the faithful be able to know that certain sacraments (baptism, Eucharist, confirmation, holy orders, last rites) "work" if they appear to work, regardless of the intent of the person carrying out the action. In other cases (confession, marriage) it's essential for the graces to work that the person receiving/performing the sacrament have proper intent.

Papal infallibility is not, obviously, a sacrament. However, it is one of the means by which God fulfills his promise to his people that his saving word and sacraments will be available to us. So in addition to the fact that the actual doctrinal definitions of infallibility simply talk about the pope teaching ex cathedra on matters of faith and morals -- not whether he intends to teach truthfully -- I think it makes a lot of sense for papal infallibility to work this way. While Kyle's formulation might be of some comfort to the pope himself (If I mean to teach truthfully, God will inspire me not to err) it wouldn't actually be much help to the faithful, in that those who don't like a Church teaching could simply assume there was bad faith involved on the part of the hierarchy, and thus absolve themselves of any duty to listen to and obey the Church. There are people who's purposes that would satisfy, but I don't think that God is one of them.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Sin Is How We Hurt People

In a discussion of the Church's teaching on divorce (that leaving your spouse and attempting a second marriage is considered by the Church to be adultery) someone made the following comment:
I find it hard to believe people think God cares about this issue this much, given all the real sin in the world (ie social injustice and war) but anyway.
There's a certain tendency to see sin as "really bad things that happen out there", while things that ordinary people we identify with want to do (especially if they involve sex) are seen as things that "God doesn't care about". Some of this is simply that we often care much more about thinking well of ourselves than of other people. Things we do, and things our friends do, are no big deal. Things done by far away people, things of a scale that we don't normally encounter, those we can safely label as sins without disturbing our own comfort.

But let's be honest, most of us here and now have suffered more because of the "little" sins that we inflict upon each other than due to war or huge societal injustices. It's only possible to imagine that God doesn't care about sex and the many ways that we hurt each other with it and because of it if we narrow our frame of reference down to only the person we choose to care about, the person who wants to do something which is a sin.

Few of us have started wars, but many of us have started rumors. I don't have the ability to wipe away social injustice, myself, today. But I do have the ability not to commit some petty injustice that would hurt one or two people.

And let's be honest. Sex, marriage, and relationships are one of the main areas of conflict that we as humans encounter. Sex and relationships are important to us. Why is it that so many movies and stories involve sex and relationships? Because drama is built on conflict and one of the main areas in which we have personal conflict is around our relationships.

So unless we believe that God doesn't care if we treat people well, unless we believe that he doesn't care whether or not we suffer: Yes, God does care about sex and marriage. He cares about it because one of the main ways that you personally can either make others happy or make their lives miserable is your treatment of your family and loved ones.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Family Synod: Gradualism and Truth

There's a fair amount of buzz in the Catholic world at the moment about the Synod on the Family, which has released a summary document which outlines what the world's bishops are currently talking about in this first past of the synod proceedings. (They'll then reconvene in October of 2015, have further deliberations, and then the Vatican will at some indeterminate late date issue a document summarizing what they believe are the most important thoughts coming out of the synod. So don't expect any definitive headlines soon, whatever the noise machine may suggest.)

I have a morning open due to conference travel, so I had a chance to sit down and read through the whole document this morning (it's not long.)

The main thing that struck me is that this does not seem like a document much focused on theology or morality, it's focused on evangelization and conversion. In that sense, this seems like a very Pope Francis kind of document (with the strengths and weaknesses that implies.)
What rang out clearly in the Synod was the necessity for courageous pastoral choices. Reconfirming forcefully the fidelity to the Gospel of the family, the Synodal Fathers, felt the urgent need for new pastoral paths, that begin with the effective reality of familial fragilities, recognizing that they, more often than not, are more “endured” than freely chosen. These are situations that are diverse because of personal as well as cultural and socio-economic factors. It is not wise to think of unique solutions or those inspired by a logic of “all or nothing”. The dialog and meeting that took place in the Synod will have to continue in the local Churches, involving their various components, in such a way that the perspectives that have been drawn up might find their full maturation in the work of the next Ordinary General Assembly. The guidance of the Spirit, constantly invoked, will allow all God’s people to live the fidelity to the Gospel of the family as a merciful caring for all situations of fragility.

Each damaged family first of all should be listened to with respect and love, becoming companions on the journey as Christ did with the disciples of the road to Emmaus. In a particular way the words of Pope Francis apply in these situations: «The Church will have to initiate everyone – priests, religious and laity – into this “art of accompaniment”, which teaches us to remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other (cf. Es 3,5). The pace of this accompaniment must be steady and reassuring, reflecting our closeness and our compassionate gaze which also heals, liberates and encourages growth in the Christian life» (Evangelii Gaudium, 169).

The idea here is, I think, solid and important: Everyone is in need of hearing Christ's saving message message and receiving His graces. Many people are, for reasons that are their fault to greater or lesser degrees, living in ways that put them at odds with Christ's message, and yet there's a necessity that the Church connect with these people and gradually reel them in, with the hope that at some point before death they will fully unite themselves with Christ's graces and thus attain salvation.

This is something that traditional Catholic cultures did fairly well, and it served as a scandal to the more respectable splinters of Christianity. Perhaps it's hard to follow from a modern perspective, but in Brideshead Revisited, one of the things which is surely meant to be a sign of how disreputable Catholicism could be to the more respectable Anglo world is that Lord Brideshead's mistress Cara, the separated wife of some Englishman named Hicks, is herself fairly religious. This kind of devout semi-laxity (people who planned to make a good end eventually but in the mean time understood they were excluded from the sacraments because of living in grave sin of one sort or another) was a scandal to respectable Protestantism, and was attractive to flamboyant converts such as Oscar Wilde.

Our modern world isn't so good at this, however. In modernity, we consider our own goodness as a given and judge God on His willingness to accept us. Thus, stating that some given mode of life is sinful (say, living in a sexual relationship with someone you are not married to) is taken as "rejection". Too often, such "rejection" in the modern mind doesn't suggest "maybe I better pull my life together" but rather "no point in listening to that person", and so the fear expressed by the synod is that many people simply are not hearing Christ's message because as soon as they hear that their sexual relationships are considered sinful they stop listening.

The proposed solution is "gradualism". This gradualism is NOT (as you will hear in some commentary) the idea that the Church will gradually change its teachings on divorce, contraception, same sex marriage, etc. Rather, gradualism refers to the idea that the Church understand that people are on a gradual path to moral improvement and recognize the progress they are making along that path -- in particular recognize that there are elements of goodness in their current actions and that their moral progress involves their gradual growth of those positives and reduction of evils. The synod documents touches on this a bit here, and the quote shows some of the difficulties of this approach:
In the same way the situation of the divorced who have remarried demands a careful discernment and an accompaniment full of respect, avoiding any language or behavior that might make them feel discriminated against. For the Christian community looking after them is not a weakening of its faith and its testimony to the indissolubility of marriage, but rather it expresses precisely its charity in its caring.

As regards the possibility of partaking of the sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist, some argued in favor of the present regulations because of their theological foundation, others were in favor of a greater opening on very precise conditions when dealing with situations that cannot be resolved without creating new injustices and suffering. For some, partaking of the sacraments might occur were it preceded by a penitential path – under the responsibility of the diocesan bishop –, and with a clear undertaking in favor of the children. This would not be a general possibility, but the fruit of a discernment applied on a case-by-case basis, according to a law of gradualness, that takes into consideration the distinction between state of sin, state of grace and the attenuating circumstances.
As a pastoral approach, there's certainly good to be found here. A person is not to be reduced to his current state of sin. So a confessor might indeed help someone grow in holiness by consistently working to help them become more virtuous from whatever point they are currently at -- so long as there is no denial of what actually is and is not sin.

However, the above also underlines the serious problems with getting too carried away with this gradual approach. It's possible to grow in virtue (or grow in vice) in any given state, but that doesn't change the fundamental nature of the state. For example, in Anna Karenina, during the course of the affair between Anna and Count Vronsky we see him change from an essentially predatory character who simply wants to have Anna because she seems beautiful and unattainable to a character who genuinely seeks to care for Anna despite her increasingly prickly and difficult-to-love behavior (inspired by the social censure which her affair with Vronsky has subjected her to.) However, although Anna and Vronsky can treat each other more or less virtuously in the context of their adulterous affair, the fact that the affair itself is wrong and a source of moral destruction is not going to change. Treating each other less viciously isn't going to gradually make them married. And this is the basic truth which a gradualist pastoral approach must not lose sight of (yet seems, given our modern world's moral tendencies, to constantly lean towards): The basic moral facts of the situation will not change. Adultery is wrong. Fornication is wrong. Using contraception is wrong. Homosexual relations are wrong.

Gradualism must be a gradualism towards something, towards abandoning sin. It cannot be allowed to mean simply accepting sin. Depending on the person and the situation, that abandoning of sin may take a long time. People may take the risk of waiting until their attachment to it attenuates for other reasons. There's a scene in Zola's Nana where the title character, a high class courtesan, sees one of the famous courtesans of the era before, who managed to save enough money to retire in luxury to a country house where she is now a respected landowner and support of the local church. Nana yearns for this kind of respectability in retirement (though she lacks the self discipline to save for it), and in the spiritual sense we see that in the prayer for "Lord, make me good, but not yet." And yet, there is a serious moral danger to getting too comfortable even with that kind of delay, though it at least recognizes the current evil even if it fails to reject it yet. While God will accept our conversion, no matter how late, in the interim that person is essentially saying, "I am more attached to the benefits I believe I get from sin than I am to God." That is, however conditional, a rejection of God. And rejection of God leads us to hell.

Given the tendencies of our modern moral culture, gradualism is a difficult approach to take successfully.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Requiring Consent

Liberals have been catching some flack lately as they have sought to come up with new methods of making sure that people only have sex with each other's consent. Various commentators on the Right have questioned this, suggesting either that this takes all the spontaneity out of campus sex and turns it into something drab and legalistic, or that the this would still leave accusations that consent was not given in the realm of he-said-she-said conflicts judged by university kangaroo courts.

However, I'd like to point out that back in the good old days, we conservatives knew that it was the administration's job to stomp all the fun and spontaneity out of campus sex -- sending what scatters remnants could not be utterly defeated off to hide in Model T Fords in the woods away from all sight. However, since liberals haven't had the experience being sexual spoil sports that we conservatives have, I'd like to suggest a couple of tweaks to their proposed standards for consent.

First off, this idea of verbal consent is a good start, but let me tell you that long centuries have shown that letting that consent happen in private leads to all sorts of misunderstandings. The solution is simple. We'll just require that the parties wishing to have sex present themselves before a civil official (or perhaps in more religious climes, before a priest, rabbi or minister) and sign a document expressing their mutual consent to have sex. This arrangement seems kind of formal, so perhaps we should have a name for it. Anyone who has suggestions, do please mention them in the comments.

Next up there's the matter of enforcement. Since we'll now have a public record of who has consented and who hasn't, we can stop this silliness of selective enforcement and university committees. Enlightened souls may not realize it, but in more conservative parts of the country there are actually already laws on the books to deal with this issue of having sex without clear consent. We just need to enforce those and pass more in other parts of the country.

Of course, social pressure is a help as well. Even with all these clear bright lines people might stray a little close to violating these norms, so I'd propose we consider a custom of friends and family watching out for each other and stepping in firmly to prevent any improprieties. Remember, the best way to avoid lack of consent is to step in before consent is needed. If that fails, dueling and horsewhipping are, of course, long-tested means of gentle correction.

Monday, October 06, 2014

Of Failure

In lieu of learning notes this week, here's this week's pivotal incident.

In February the two big girls started taking organ lessons. I'd been struggling with how to keep their interest in music after a difficult year with a piano teacher who was a bad fit with our family. A friend had been taking organ at a local academy and was doing very well, and my girls thought organ was intriguing and that they might like to try their hands at it. So we signed up.

There were warning signs at first. The teacher was used to pupils who were striving for excellence, and that has never been a hallmark of piano ambition at our house. After our first week, I had an email which laid out, gently but firmly, that if the girls didn't improve their practice habits, then our money would probably be best spent elsewhere. I sat on them for a week, setting timers, supervising every practice, correcting posture and wrist position, advising on Hanon and fingering and tempos and All The Stuff. The next week was better; the teacher sent another email praising their improvement, and we went on. They did well at the recital, and I breathed a sigh of relief at the summer break.

During the summer, the kids did play. They just never practiced their organ music. Eleanor and Julia both fooled around with pieces from a Sound of Music easy piano book. Isabel, not taking organ, was trying to learn Jingle Bells. They had fun without working too hard, but it was optional fun. They did it or not as they pleased.

Now, music lessons aren't optional at my house. Whether they like it or not, they're going to have to take something, just as they have to go to religion classes or do their math. So as it came closer and closer to the new year of organ, I exhorted them to practice. They did, halfheartedly. And it turns out they took their halfhearted attitude right into lessons.

After their first lesson this week, I received another email from the teacher. This one was even more firmly worded, though still exceedingly polite. Usually students starting a new year of organ come back with some enthusiasm, some readiness to play. She'd not seen any of that in the girls. The one with the stronger work ethic had powered through her lesson, but there was no joy or eagerness there. The one with the lesser work ethic (my formulation, not the teacher's) was inattentive, vague, nonchalant, and, when sent to the piano to practice while her sister had a turn at the organ console, had spent the whole time folding origami rather than playing. When asked if she was still interested in having lessons, she responded that maybe she would take it this year and then try something else. The teacher was not cashing my check. She wanted me to think about whether organ was right for our family, or, again, whether our money would be better spent on something the girls would enjoy more.

Perhaps it was my daylong sinus headache, or perhaps I'm in the October funk, but I cried over this email. Not little sniffles, not a tear trickling down my cheek, but big wrenching ugly sobs that required a litter of tissues. When Darwin returned home, having picked up the girls from dance class on the way home from work, I said I needed to speak to Daddy in the library and shut the door in the children's faces. I wept big sobs against his chest as the door kept opening and a concerned four-year-old head popped around the corner to ask several times, "Why is Mommy crying?" Why was I crying? Not because I was embarrassed for myself, though I was. Not because dreams of organ weren't panning out, although they weren't. Not even because of a girl acting her age -- I was that age once; I remember how strange it seemed that people thought I was being disrespectful when I thought that I was paying perfect attention, etc. Because, perhaps of failures -- a failure of manners, of real courtesy on the part of the girls; a failure of scholastic endeavor; a failure of household culture, perhaps, that gave my children the impression that they could blow through lessons as carelessly as they blow through their work at home, and that no one would call them on it. I questioned my entire homeschooling project now that I'd seen it tried and found wanting in public -- every homeschooling parent's fear.

After dinner we called the girls in separately and spoke with them. The lesser offender was given a choice about lessons, which she wasn't ready to make right then. After a weekend of thinking about it, I think I'm going to invoke parental privilege and override the choice with my decision -- no more organ lessons, in the best interest of the family. The greater offender was read the teacher's email and told that she had lost the privilege of studying organ, but that didn't mean that she was going to get out of taking music altogether, and that her parents were disappointed in her for choosing to waste the teacher's time and hers by disobeying the instruction to practice, and by being rude, whether intentionally or not, in the way she responded.

She wept. She had not meant to be rude. She wanted to play the drums.

"Honey, any teacher will tell you that piano is the best foundation for percussion because you learn harmony and rhythm," I said.

The tears continued to flow. "I feel about organ the way I feel about the cats," she sobbed.

My lips twitched. I looked at Darwin and saw his lips twitching. I looked away. I bit my tongue sternly. I made the mistake of looking back at Darwin, and we both broke down howling with laughter. And so the evening ended well-ish, although I still continued to tear up at intervals, and my eyes stung the way they do when you've been crying, and I started to wonder if I needed glasses.

And it's Monday morning, and I'm going to write to the teacher and tell her that we're not going to continue with organ and apologize again for the girls' behavior, and we're still homeschooling, and I'm going to research a new piano teacher, and the kids are alternately cutting up the newspaper article about Gone With the Wind to combine the stills into new movie projects while I try to write this out while yelling, "Just give me half an hour to write!" every time someone barges in to show me their story line. And life goes on, I guess.

Friday, October 03, 2014

An Economy of Relationships

Yesterday's post on profit and risk ended up generating a long Twitter conversation with Matt Bruenig, whose post I had linked to. It suffered from all the problems of Twitter: the short length of post seems to result in chronic incomplete explanations and a tendency towards cuteness rather than explanation to which I am as subject as any.

Conversations in which the participating talk past each other have an odd pull to me -- I always have the idea that somehow I can get the other person to understand the way I'm looking at things, but in this case our differences seem fairly irreconcilable. As best I can figure out, Bruenig's issue is that he thinks proponents of capitalism need to come up with some sort of unified philosophical principle which explains why capitalism should exist (investors should be allowed to invest in companies and achieve profits in return, etc.) However, he holds a very abstract view of what's going on in an investment relationship. The question he kept coming back to was basically the same one which I'd quoted on him on in his discussion of risk in the post. Here he is via Twitter:

To my mind, the problem here is that he's seeing the action as "taking a risk" rather than "investing in Company XYZ".

Taking a risk, clearly, is not itself going to result in a result. If risks were guaranteed returns, they wouldn't be risky. Risk is simply a way of describing that the thing which the investor is actually doing (investing in a venture) has only a certain probability of working out.

This seems like an example of how trying to work in a totally abstract fashion when looking at an activity which takes place in the concrete world can lead you into certain confusions. Bruenig wants to look at the question as if "taking a risk" or "making an investment" is something which is done in an abstract sense, rather than being a relationship between the investor and some form of venture. Sometimes, admittedly, people are pretty abstract in their investing choices. For instance, my in 401k I have a lot of my money invested in an S&P 500 Index Fund. What funds do is simply invest money in the stock of companies listed on the S&P 500 Stock Index, thus mirroring the growth of the index as a whole. Clearly, in that situation, I haven't done a lot of thinking about the individual companies involved. However, I do still have a relationship, though a couple steps removed, in that I have given money to a fund, whose managers have committed to buying shares of stock in the various companies and balancing those holdings to reflect the return of the index as a whole. In other cases, decisions to make an investment are much more personal. I wrote a while back about the one "brilliant" investment I made in my life -- buying Apple stock back in 1996 because I had a deep belief in the quality of the company's products. (The fact that I put very little money in at the time and pulled a lot of it out later means I'm not rich by any stretch, though checking to write this post I see there's been a nice stock split since I wrote the post in 2011.) Again, though, it's significant that I invested in a specific company, I didn't merely "take risk". (Another time I invested money in a company I was fascinated by which built rocket boosters and it promptly went out of business. That's about when I realized that Apple aside I wasn't much of a stock picker.)

I'd tend to say that trying to come up with a unifying principle of what people should be rewarded for and then inventing an economic system that will reward that is itself a somewhat doomed endeavor. I have no real faith in invented economic systems. Indeed, I question where there is an economic "system" as opposed to a set of cultural institutions and expectations guided by applications of moral reasoning to various types of situation. One of the things that I think is good about "capitalism" is that it's a system which emerged gradually as people did this work of applying moral reasoning to different types of market transaction. If Malcolm invests in Jerome's venture and Jerome agrees to split any profits with him, then Malcolm profits if Jerome succeeds because Jerome, in justice, owes Malcolm the promised share of the return. You can't look at Malcolm's action of "taking a risk" and try to come up with a justification for why that should be rewarded in the abstract, because it's through Jerome's relationship with Malcolm and his just action in relation to him that the profit emerges.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Of Risk and Profit

I seem to keep running into discussions of risk and profit lately, so I thought it might be interesting to spend a few minutes on the topic. What got me started was a post by Matt Bruenig entitled "Capitalism does not reward risk" wherein he says:
Capitalism does not reward risk-taking. This is easily shown. Suppose Noah and I each invest in ways that are identical in all regards with respect to risk. If capitalism rewarded risk-taking, then each of us would get an identical return. But we don’t necessarily. Suppose Noah’s investment leads to him receiving a large return, while mine leads to me receiving nothing and even losing what I put in. In that possible scenario, even though we behaved in a relevantly identical fashion, capitalism distributed us different amounts. Noah was rewarded for risk-taking. I was punished.
This is true as far as it goes. Risk taking, in the abstract, is not rewarded by capitalism. What I would argue that capitalism does do is allow you to achieve rewards by taking calculated risks, if those risks work out. Let's think this out via a couple of examples.

Jerome is a carpenter. He thinks that he's come up with a clever idea that will allow him to build a mechanical lathe and make beautiful table legs, bedposts and banisters very quickly, much more quickly than his hand lathe. However, it's going to take an investment of $200,000 dollars in equipment and several months of experimenting for Jerome to get it to work. He talks to various rich men in town and finds an investor who provides him with $250,000 so that he can but his materials and take half a year off work to get it all right.

At this point, the world splits in half.

In world A) Jerome's invention works out. He can produce beautiful woodwork in minutes instead of hours. He sells it for just a little less than a hand carved piece, but because they take so much less time he makes much, much more money. Last year Jerome made $100,000 but this year he makes $750,000. According to their agreement, Jerome gives half the profits to his investor, and keeps the other half for himself. He expands his shop and makes even more money the next year, but not another shop is building a similar set of machinery and soon he has more competition, the prices begin to fall, and he has to work hard and come up with more innovations or else see his profits fall.

In world B) Jerome's invention fails to pan out, his investor loses everything, and he has to go back to spinning wood on his hand lathe.

In both worlds Jerome takes a large risk. In one, he realizes large gains, in another he loses everything.

He was able to find an investor willing to provide him with that money because there was the possibility of large gains. Perhaps the investor thought there was a 1 in 4 chance the investment would work out. He loaned money in return for a share in the profits. In the world where this worked, he got all his money back in the first year and started making profits too. In the world where it didn't work out, he lost everything. If he had ten or twenty investment projects going at a time, some fail and some work, and the end result is that if he picks good risks he makes a profit by helping these aspiring business men.

Now how is it that we say that capitalism rewards risks? Well, the idea that Jerome's investor can invest in Jerome's business, and that they can form a contract whereby they will spit the profits that result, is a capitalistic idea. The money produced by the venture they have put money and work into belongs to them. If they didn't get to keep the profits produced, there would be no reason for them to take the risk in the first place. The investor would have no reason to lend money if there weren't a way to get a return on his money, and Jerome would not be able to secure the capital he needed to do his project if he weren't able to promise a return on that capital. Further, the fact that they can enter into a joint ownership agreement where the investor's capital entitles him to a return on the profits allows both of them to engage profitably in risks that would not make sense in terms of a loan. If the a capital investment was not possible, and Jerome instead had to get a loan, he would need to promise to pay 300%+ interest to compensate his investor for a risk of 1 in 4. Jerome would probably not want to take on a debt of $250,000 at 300% interest if there was a 3 in 4 chance that his invention wouldn't work out and he'd end up owing massive amounts of money with no way to pay it off. So the structure of investment and return makes Jerome's innovation possible.

Another key element that allows this investment and innovation is the concept of profits based on market pricing. Jerome makes his money back because he can charge only slightly less than a hand lathe carpenter and win lots of business at huge profits. But what if we don't accept the idea that Jerome can charge based on what people expect his product to cost?

This piece lays out an alternative concept of profit which it argues is the true Catholic understanding:
For modern man - that is, for post-Enlightenment, laissez-faire, neo-liberal capitalist man - profit is the difference between gross revenue and expenses. It is the result of a simple equation; simply subtract expenses from revenue and the difference is your profit. Thus, in order to maximize profit, the difference between revenue and expenses must be made as great as possible, and he is the most savvy, most astute businessman who can figure out how to enlarge that gap. For modern man, Profit = Revenue - Expenses.

But for pre-modern man - that is, for the man living under Christendom and working within the traditional understanding of economic relationships - profit is defined as a just recompense for some particular work. The amount of the recompense is relative to the work done.

We see in the traditional understanding, labor and profit are linked - the fact of the profit and its amount are related directly to the work performed. This is why my friend had a guilty conscience about taking 90% profit. He knew that, relative to the quick, inexpensive work performed, there is no way 90% profit could be considered "just recompense" for the work performed. There is a moral linkage between the work done and the recompense for that labor.

Notice, however, that in the modern definition, this linkage is not there. If profit is simply revenue minus expense, there is really no moral or logical connection between the work done and the amount of profit gathered. This is why those who subscribe to the modern definition have no moral scruples about pocketing 90% profit, for they see no necessary connection between the profit and the work done. Profit is simply whatever the businessman is able to pocket - though no doubt they would feel quite ripped off had they found someone took 90% profit at their expense. The pre-modern medieval definition, on the other hand, maintains a moral and logical connection between work and recompense, ensuring that financial actions remain situated on a spectrum of justice (another example of the superiority of the harmonious medieval mind over the fractured worldview of the moderns).
(For the record, let me just note that I really don't care what the profit margins of someone I buy from are, so long as I get what I want for a price I'm okay with -- unless that seller has made some false representation to me about his costs in order to justify the price he's charging. But I digress.)

Now, Jerome lived in a world with this other conception of profit and price, he might be in trouble. If the price he's allowed to charge for his woodwork is based only on the amount of work that he does, and not in the perceived value to the customer, then if he can produce a piece of woodwork in ten minutes that takes another carpenter two hours, he can only charge 1/12th the price -- a price based on the amount of time that he spent. Now, maybe he'd make some up on volume (while putting lots of other carpenters out of business) but unless he's going to get into the business of shipping woodwork all over the world there's not going to be enough demand for him to make back his investment if he has to sell his woodwork at 1/12th the going price. So one of the things that rewards the risk-taking of Jerome and his investor is an understanding of market pricing in which they are allowed to charge basically the same as the process they are replacing. This means that inventions that vastly increase productivity will have a large potential return, and so it's worth taking risks to see if you can invent such a thing. If you're not allowed to charge based on perceived value rather than time invested, then people like Jerome won't be able to afford to invest the time to develop productivity increasing inventions.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Guilt-Free Learning Notes, Sept. 30

Thanks to Melanie, our hostess.

I tried to take notes by the day, in my handy-dandy planner, and I made up until Thursday of last week, so I'm just going to attempt to summarize by subject.

Religion

We've been continuing our daily Mass readings, along with the meditation from One Bread, One Body, a Catholic devotional booklet with a teaching based on the day's readings.We happen to use this, instead of Magnificat or any other of the fine devotionals out there, because my dad is one of the editors of One Bread, One Body, and has been for many years, and often if it states at the bottom of the page that the teaching was submitted by a member of the editorial team, there's a pretty good chance that Dad wrote it. So we learn more about scripture, and we feel close to Grandpa on days when we're reading his reflection on scripture.

Some people in this house feel that they've moved beyond reading their religion books, because they already know everything in them; these people would be well advised, then, to know the answers to the questions at the end of the chapter when Mother quizzes them.

Religion classes at church started this week; I'm writing up my reflections on teaching 6th grade religion class (yes, I'm a catechist this year) elsewhere.

Math

Still Khan Academy, but we had multiplication drill this week because come on, people.

Reading

Ah, my favorite. Jane Eyre is a big hit, and Mr. Brocklehurst a satisfying villain. The kids follow along well and are keen to spot the hypocrisy of the Misses Brocklehurst in their plumage and finery touring shabby Lowood. Jane is a great favorite with the girls -- Julia is ready to paint a Jane Eyre doll.

Reading it out loud causes me to pick up on new bits of the story I'd never noticed before, such as Mr. Brocklehurst forgetting the darning needles and then complaining a second later that the stockings are all in bad repair, or how young Jane exults in wild, romantic landscapes and the lonely howling of the wind -- the kind of atmosphere she will meet later, at Thornton.  Today we read the death of Helen, and I had to stop because I was all choked up. It's so simply and effectively done.

History

The girls finished independently reading Njall's Saga this week. (Eleanor's summary: "A bunch of people killed each other, and his wife didn't give him hair for a bow string.") On to William the Conqueror! I quote the driest bit of history from Alice in Wonderland all the time: "In 1066, William the Conqueror..." The kids really could care less. Perhaps we should do an in-depth study of the Bayeux Tapestry, since needle arts apparently have the ability to move where all other erudition fails. I even pulled out Alice in Wonderland to read about William the Conqueror there, and discovered that all these years, I've been quoting it wrong. "William the Conqueror, whose cause was favored by the Pope..." Where did I get the 1066? At least it's accurate, and if nothing else, the kids know the correct date.

Julia is on a painted peg doll kick, and I just bought her a bunch of blanks. A bright idea occured: "Julia, what if we painted dolls for history? You could make Charlemagne, and William the Conqueror, and we could research their clothes..."

"Would I still have to read the history?" she demanded.

Sheesh.

Spelling

This goes apace. People like spelling this year, a welcome change from the past I-don't-know-how-long. The girls are working hard and memorizing their words, and taking it as a challenge when they get one wrong, instead of an occasion to collapse in sobs or sulks. We're using an old Calvert spelling book that was my sister's; perhaps it has the right feeling of authority. Isabel is inspired by the older girls and is keeping a spelling notebook too.

Grammar

I like this part too, where we learn about adverb phrases and complex sentences and how language fits together. (Also, I just learned -- just learned! -- that when you write the plural of a letter or a number, you use an apostrophe: A's, 3's. All these years I thought that was incorrect. The more you know!) I am noticing better sentences from the young pupils since I've sat with them every day over Voyages in English and made them answer every practice exercise orally and complete every writing prompt.

Drama

We joined the Drama Club at the local Catholic school! This warms the cockles of my drama-major heart so much. The girls love it. In the fall, Drama Club is basically acting class, with a number of exercises I remember from my own acting class days, culminating in scenes at the end of the semester, and in the spring they do a play. The group is 6th-8th graders, and the girls have friends in the group, and everything is awesome.

Organ

Organ starts this week. Cue whining about practicing in 3, 2, 1...

The thing is, I wish I had all this time to play music now. Ever since Betty Duffy and I made music, I've been itching to be musical again. I dusted off (literally) my copy of Rhapsody in Blue and am getting almost proficient on the first few pages, even when it gets to that fiddly series of runs on the third page. I didn't used to play piano! I do play piano! Even though I have no time to play the piano! I still can't jam to save my life, but I can do a few sweet Gershwin moves. Here's to the kids feeling the same way in 25 years.

Isabel, Jack, Diana

I worry that I give these guys short shrift, so let's write up the week and see.

Isabel has been journaling, and she has a knack for storytelling and for writing a good sentence. I am happy to spell any word she asks me for, within reason; how do you learn a word without hearing it first? Her handwriting is improving too, which makes me happy. Both she and Eleanor have started curling the tails of their y's and g's, and I like to see it -- I'm all for small beautifications of handwriting. She's reading Harry Potter 1 right now, pushing through it slowly but surely, and she's picking up other chapter books and moving through them much more quickly. I'd issue a ban the execrable, content-free Magic Tree House books, except that she's picking up on that herself.
"Mom, why does every book start with, "Jack wiped his glasses"?"
"Because these books are formulaic, honey."
"Oh. Okay."
I took the younger ones to the park while the big girls were in drama club, and we looked at the fish in the surprisingly clear lake, and the ducks doing their ducky thing (everyone could identify which were male and which were female, so I was pleased), and feathers were collected, and creeks were splashed in, and waterbugs observed. Even William cooed at the ducks and tracked the progress of an ant on a rail and sweated amiably in my arms.

Jack and Diana just rattle around the house all day, playing and living it up. I did get a bit alarmed at the thought of Jack going to his first grade religion class and not being able to write his name clearly, so we did some drill there and touched up his a's a bit. He asked for some copywork the other day, and suggested the phrase, "Amen, amen, I say to you," which he remembered from our Bible readings. We had a protracted spat about the best way to lay out his copywork, but finally I was given to understand that he wanted me to write out the line darkly in pencil, then he would erase it so that it was just an outline, and then he would trace it. Okay.

Here's a note from last Monday: "Jack, Diana -- book about the solar system; talked about life int eh universe and God's love." Yep, did that. It was one of those Magic School Bus books, which I could also live without. Any book about education that has Magic as the series gimmick, I'm about done with. Parse that sentence.

Also: could Thomas the Train Engine be any more creepy? I don't care if it gets him reading. I'd rather put up with crappy Star Wars prequels than Thomas.

Love and Marriage

If you haven't already, take a few minutes to read Clare Coffey's piece on love and relationship in marriage over at First Things. There are various pieces that I'm tempted to quote, but the flow of the essay is part of what's delightful about it, so instead I'll just say: go read it.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

"O Abyss of Mercy": Reading Catherine of Siena

I've been reading along with Brandon's fortnightly book: Catherine of Siena, by Sigrid Undset. Catherine is my name saint, and yet I've rarely felt any devotion to her -- probably, in part, because of the spun-sugar painting of her in the children's book of saints we had. Undset does not spin sugar. Her Catherine is so vividly alive that it hard indeed not to love her, as those who knew her found.  Catherine was consumed, almost literally in the end, by the love of God pouring from the wounded side of Jesus, and her life of extreme penitence and sacrifice was a burning away of all earthly loves that might hold her back from sinking fully into the depths of His profound mercy.

Her most famous earthly work of her brief life (1347-1380) was her tireless crusade to call the Pope, then living in Avignon, back to Rome, the seat of his spiritual authority. She was infallibly faithful to the Pope and to the Church, always working to unify and restore the Bride of Christ both for the sake of Christ and because of the immense witness of the true nature of the Church. Undset, describing Catherine's Dialogues, uses a lovely formulation: "if the Holy Church should regain the outward beauty which is an expression of its eternal inner beauty, the whole world would be saved, for it would draw all men to itself so irresistibly that it would lead to the conversion of all men, both Christians and heathens." She worked ceaselessly for peace, writing letters to personages great and small, urging them to seek spiritual good over earthly good, or spiritual loves over earthly loves, or in the case of the virtuous but severe Pope Urban VI, to embrace God's mercy over harshness as he tried to weed out vice in the clergy and laity of his day. She was called at a young age to begin preparing for this great labor of holiness -- her first vision was at age seven -- and her penances and fasts were so complete that from the time she was 23, she rarely consumed anything but the Eucharist, a fact attested to by many witnesses. Catherine's life and her revelations were so extraordinary that she has been proclaimed a Doctor of the Church for the way in which her theology brings fresh insight into the Christian life and the nature of God, who is love.

Catherine often passed into ecstasies in which she experienced the consolations of Divine love and joy, and Undset's accounts of these is so compelling that I, reading them, felt drawn into these mystical experiences and yearned to understand this kind of love. I know about love, of a human sort. I've loved as a friend and as a lover and a wife and a mother, and each of these loves deepens and broadens over time. But Catherine's divine love is different, so consuming and so personal that it almost feels alien. How can we understand this kind of love, of which all human loves are merely a facet and the slightest glimpse, without it being revealed to us?

And Catherine sought this love tirelessly through the kind of prayer and fasting and penances that I instinctively shrink from. God, of course, can reveal Himself to anyone at anytime, but can a person see His face and live without a rigorous spiritual life like Catherine's? And can someone live such an intense life of union with God without being prepared from a young age? Catherine seemed called specifically to this particularly demanding life, stripped of much human consolation and comfort, and her mortifications were not just the necessary preparation for this life, but a response to the overwhelming love of God revealed in and through her prayers.

In fact, her life is so extreme that it would be easy to dismiss as an example, because if we were all virgins and mystics and visionaries and sources of great social and ecclesiastical change, who would build the churches Catherine prayed in? Who would finance the hospitals Catherine worked in? Who would make the clothes she wore, or grow the fibers, or tend the ground? Who would bear and raise and instruct the children? Who would carve the furniture, and who would support the carpenter so that he could carve good furniture? But these are, of course, false dichotomies, because the only way to holiness is the way that God calls each person to, individually, so that someone living a vocation in the world, experiencing God's goodness reflected in His creation, stewarding the resources He provides, has as much potential to plunge deep into the ocean of heavenly love, to borrow a favorite image of Catherine's, as she did. The potential, of course, is not the same as the actuality; Catherine is a saint because she answered the call to the fullest of her being, in a way that few people throughout history have done. And yet she is not the only model of holiness for Christians. The calendar is full of saints who have, in divers ways, responded to God's call.

Catherine would approve of that. Self-knowledge was a constant theme of hers: knowledge of our sins, knowledge of our faults, knowledge of the need for conversion. "Knowledge must precede love," she said in her book of Dialogues, "and only when she has attained to love, can she strive to follow and to clothe herself with the truth." Our whole spiritual journey is a process of coming to understand our life in God. Jesus told Catherine, "You must know that you are that which is not, but I am That Which Is." We are not, because we have no existence but in God, who is the totality of existence. We have no existence outside of God because He is existence itself: "In Him we live and move and have our being." He is the source of all goodness, being Goodness itself, and so sin, which is a rejection of God's goodness and love and mercy, is a nothingness, a rejection of being. Even in sin, though, God's mercy sustains us through the pull of our conscience. Every pang of guilt and desire for change, every dissatisfaction with our own inadequacy, is a sign of His grace drawing us back to Him and calling us to trust His mercy.

Catherine lived in turbulent times, the kind of turbulence which makes a mockery of those who wring their hands nowadays at potential schism in the church because every utterance of the Pope does not please. Undset has a word to say to about that in the last words of the book.
But in fact Our Lord has never made any promises regarding the triumph of Christianity on earth -- on the contrary. If we expect to see His cause triumph here, His own words should warn us: "The Son of Man, when he cometh, shall he find, think you, faith on earth?" He did not tell us the answer.  
But these words should make those who talk of the bankruptcy of Christianity in our time a little more careful. We have never been given any promises of a world where all men and women willing accept the teaching of Christ as their way of life. They have not even done so in a period when there were very few who doubted that He was the lord of heaven and earth: they still tried to escape Him or deliberately refused to listen to Him. For every man is born individually, and must be saved individually.

Brandon has his review up; go read it. 

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

I Don't Know Church Leaders

One of the things I haven't really written about at all lately is Pope Francis and his various statements and ecclesiastical appointments. I read coverage about it to a certain extent, but as reactions both for and against Francis have seemed to strengthen, I've found myself less and less inclined to say anything about such topics.

Part of the reason is that I feel like reactions to virtually anything in ecclesiastical politics and writing seem to have become ever more factional. The routine seems to go like this:

- Pope Francis says something or does something.

- Liberal Catholic pundits (yes, I know we're supposed to be oh-so-above such left and right labels as Catholics, but you know what, everyone knows what I mean even when they object to the terms) and the secular medial all announce "Another Setback For Conservatives As Pope Francis Stamps His Humble Boot In Their Face!!!"

- More or less simultaneously, one segment of conservative Catholics goes into full howl mode and announce that the Seventies are back, the Pope Benedict's "hermeneutic of continuity" is over, and the pope is probably a crypto heretic.

- The loyalty brigade (which consists mostly of another segment of generally conservative Catholic writers) gets started and declares that anyone upset by this doesn't understand that Pope Francis is behaving Just Like Jesus and that they are behaving like the prodigal son's older brother and all the worst of the Pharisees rolled into one.

Every single thing seems to go like this, and after a while the scripted nature of it all leaves me feeling disgusted.

This sense of distance, however, has helped me realize something I probably should have realized a long time ago: I really don't know much about Church leaders as leaders. Those of them who are writers, I can at least know as writers. As such, I really love Pope Benedict, who had the rare ability to write clearly and accessibly but also very deeply. He also has a profound intellectual, spiritual, and liturgical understanding of Christianity. As such, I was incredibly excited when he became pope.

However, I honestly have no idea how well he ran the Church in term of administrative matters. It seemed like he appointed some good bishops and did some needed things in relation to the abuse scandal. But no only do I not know how he ran things according to the criteria that his fellow bishops have -- I don't even know what those criteria are.

Similarly, while there are bishops whose public statements and actions I like more than others, I don't really know much about what makes a good or bad bishop in terms of actually running a diocese. I'm sure that some orthodox and pius bishops do bad jobs of administering their priests, planning projects, building vocations, and interacting with the numerous groups of faithful vying for their attention. I imagine that some bishops I would consider at root orthodox but honestly very squishy are actually pretty good at running their diocese. And I am pretty sure that I don't even know the criteria that would define these and other types in between.

I see a similar phenomenon at the company I work at. I currently work at a level where I see a certain amount of what the executives do. I interact with them and know what kind of questions they ask and how they make decisions. And although I'm not nearly as far into that world as the people a level above me, I am far enough in to start to realize that the popular impressions within a company of executives personalities, whether they're good at their jobs, and of the nature of their jobs, is often pretty far from the reality.

Knowing that about an organization I'm fairly familiar with, I become a lot more suspicious of my impressions of leaders of other organizations with the workings of which I'm less familiar: church leaders, politicians, etc.

That doesn't mean that no one knows. People who work in diocesan administration or in organizations that interact with diocese probably have a lot more of an idea about these issues. But for a lot of us, even people who pay far more attention to ecclesiastical politics and writings thatn I do, what we see is actually the publicity image of these figures: some combination of their writings and public actions, reactions to them by writers, and how they fit in the culture war paradigm.

These things aren't nothing. People learn from public images. They have to, since very few of us interact directly enough with leaders to have any clear sense of what they do in their actual jobs. But it does mean that there is probably a disconnect, perhaps often a large one, between the reasons why chuch leaders are actually chosen and how we perceive them. Indeed, bishops are probably perceived very, very differently by their fellow bishops than we perceive them based strictly on their writings, actions and media images.

All of which has led to me to have a lot less to say about all this. I'm curious about how it all works, and I care about what impact these decisions may have on the Church. I fear that some of the decisions being made probably aren't very good, but I also increasingly doubt my ability to know which decisions are good or bad except after the fact and in the most egregious or outstanding cases.

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Land of Might Have Been: Is Alternate History a Waste of Time?

Cass Sunstein has an interesting piece at The New Republic reviewing a recent book on counterfactual histories by Richard Evans. Along the way, some interesting examples of the genre get mentioned:
An anthology that was published in 1931 included an essay by Winston Churchill called “If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg,” which imagines a world in which the Confederacy had won the Civil War.
I'd never heard of this before, and haven't had a chance to real it myself yet, but this appears to be the text of Churchill's essay. I'll be curious to read it, though I'm skeptical of what is apparently one of its central conceits: Robert E. Lee successfully ends the Civil War by issuing a decree abolishing slavery, thus removing from the North its moral cause. This apparently results, eventually, in a union of English-speaking peoples uniting the United States and Confederate States to the British Empire. One can see how this would appeal to Churchill, but I find it a stretch at several levels.

Evans' book is apparently highly critical of the counterfactual endeavor, arguing that it's a waste of time and that the scenarios suggested are not well thought out. Certainly, it can be a bit of a waste of time, but I think Sunstein makes a good point that the evaluation of causes in history almost necessarily involves a certain amount of counterfactual thinking:
Yet the most fundamental problem is that Evans does not grapple sufficiently with the fact that historians do not only offer narratives; they also offer explanations. They say that some event—the rise of Nazism, the Vietnam war, the election of Ronald Reagan, the attacks of 9 / 11—had particular causes. It is not possible to take a stand on the existence of causes, or on their relative importance, without thinking about what the world would be like if one or another were removed. If we say that the Vietnam war or the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was “caused” by the Kennedy assassination, we must be imagining a world in which Kennedy was not assassinated, and hence making a claim about what would have happened in that alternative and historically unrealized world. And if so, we are engaging in counterfactual history. As Jon Elster puts it, historians “have been talking counterfactually all the time without knowing it.

Evans himself is no exception. In responding to Ferguson’s argument about the likely consequences of British neutrality in 1914, he offers some counterfactual history of his own. He suggests that if Britain had stayed out of the war, Germany would not have scaled back its war aims. And in responding to Charmley’s arguments about the potentially beneficial effects of appeasing Hitler, he suggests that Germany would have attacked Britain in any case, with a higher probability of victory. He appears to support Churchill’s suggestion that Britain could have become a “slave state.” True, his statements on these counts are qualified, but in explaining the rise of Nazism (an area in which he has great expertise), Evans writes more firmly, saying that the “key factor” was “the Nazi’s storm troopers’ escalating use of violence” —which is an unambiguous suggestion that in the absence of that violence, the Nazis might not have come to power. He even speculates that with “more skillful maneuvering by men like General Schleicher,” a representative of the army might have ended up running Germany, 
rather than Hitler.
He also provides a useful breakdown of three different types of problems with alternate history speculations:
It is important to distinguish among three quite different objections. Some counterfactual narratives are implausible, because they are inconsistent with what we know about the historical context. With respect to Germany, Evans offers precisely this objection to both Ferguson and Charmley. Or consider the speculation with which I began, to the effect that if Gore had become president in 2001, the United States would have ratified an international agreement to regulate greenhouse gases. The problem is that developing nations, including China, have long been unenthusiastic about such a treaty, and without their participation, it is highly doubtful that the U.S. Senate would ratify any agreement. Some counterfactual histories rest on an inadequate understanding of historical constraints.

Others suffer from a different problem. They are hopelessly speculative, because they depend on wildly elaborate causal chains that are best treated as the 
exercise of an active imagination. Some counterfactualists suggest that if some apparently trivial change had occurred, large consequences would follow (“the butterfly effect,” made famous by a short story by Ray Bradbury). As a matter of logic, it may not be possible to rule out such elaborate causal chains, but they require a large number of contingencies to come to fruition (and a large number of other contingencies not to do so). Much of Evans’s exasperation is reserved for narratives that fall into this category. As 
examples, consider Tuchman’s suggestion that if Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai had met with Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1940s, the wars in Korea and Vietnam might not have happened, or Parker’s claim that if the Spanish Armada had successfully landed in England in 1588, Philip II would have established Spanish rule in North America. OK, maybe—but who could possibly know?

Still other counterfactuals run into difficulties because they depend on a change that cannot logically be made without simultaneously introducing, or allowing for, other changes which the counterfactualist is attempting to bracket. Once we introduce some changes, all bets are off. Gloria Steinem offered a memorable counter-
factual: “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.” But if men could get pregnant, they would not be men, at least not in the same sense, and in a world without men we cannot say much about the legal status of abortion. The most fantastic counterfactual narratives fall in this category. If Nazi Germany had cell phones, Hitler might have won the war—but if Nazi Germany had cell phones, the world would be so unrecognizably different that it is not clear that we can say anything at all. If horses were smarter than people, they might rule the Earth. As Ferguson writes, “No sensible person wishes to know what would have happened in 1948 if the entire population of Paris had suddenly sprouted wings.” (Though come to think of it, that’s a pretty interesting question.)

That last does indeed sound like the premise of a potentially interesting absurdist novel.

Guilt-Free Learning Notes, Sept. 21

Thanks to Melanie for hosting.

On Thursday afternoon, I was laying in bed with a sinus headache, trying to nurse the baby to sleep, when Julia came in with a little wooden doll she'd painted. What's real big right now are doing these exchanges where you paint umpteen dolls as a saint of your choosing, and then you exchange dolls among umpteen people, and then you end up with a collection of umpteen different wooden saints. The girls had been involved in one of these, but since there were three sisters participating, we ended up with three complete sets of saints. The doll Julia brought in now had been a blank left over from the saint exchange.

"Mom!" she said, pleased as could be. "Guess who this is!"
I tried to focus through the sinus tears in my eyes. "I can't see, honey. Who is it?"
"It's Catherine!"
"Catherine of Siena?"
"Catherine Morland!"

My friends, I tell you now, I thought my heart would burst, I was that proud. I feel this is my crowning triumph as a homeschooling parent, that my daughter is painting Jane Austen dolls of her own volition, and not Pride and Prejudice dolls, but Northanger Abbey dolls -- a full cast, too, because she went on to sand down some of the excess saints and paint Henry and Eleanor Tilney, Isabella and John Thorpe, and General Tilney with his greatcoat and his scowl. Who cares what we did for spelling (somehow a week behind)? For math (khanacademy.org -- a great success)? For history (dragging their feet through their Charlemagne book)? We played Northanger Abbey all weekend with little wooden dolls!

Left to Right: Catherine Morland, Henry Tilney, Eleanor Tilney, General Tilney, Frederick Tilney, Isabella Thorpe, John Thorpe, and Elizabeth Bennet thrown in for good measure.


What I really ought to be taking notes on is our morning bible study, because each morning I'm finding new food for meditation there. I've had quite a few ideas that I wish I'd written up into blog posts, but I didn't do it at the time, and those insights have slipped away, hopefully into the minds of the young students.

Someone asked me last week, "Mom, what was that story about the house, and the fortune teller comes in, but he won't tell the man's fortune, and then he's horrorstruck and can't speak?"
The answer to this turned out to be a story by Oscar Wilde, but it sounded enough like an episode from Jane Eyre that a lightbulb flickered on in my brain: we should read Jane Eyre! And so on Friday afternoon we read the first three chapters, to rapt attention from the three big girls. Isabel, age 8, was a particularly good narrator of the story when I asked what we'd just read, and the two older ones felt keenly Jane's injustices.

I think this one is going to be a winner, despite all the child abuse at the beginning. That, in fact, is one of the reasons I want to read it aloud. I want them to grapple with the problem of malicious adults -- malice in general -- in a safe place, with me, so that when they encounter evil in the world they'll have a framework for understanding it. I don't want them to be so sheltered that they never hear of child abuse. We read the first third of David Copperfield last year for just this reason. Not all adults are good; not everyone will treat a child kindly; some children meet with cruelty and live in terror. These are hard things for children to hear, and I want them to hear of them first with me, in the context of fiction.

I remember when I first read Jane Eyre. I was 13 and staying at my aunt's house, and Jane Eyre was the book on the bedside table. I went to bed early. I picked up the book. I read. It was midnight. It was 1:00. It was 2:00. I wiped away tears as Jane declared to Mr. Rochester that she was not an automaton. I read the whole thing in one glorious go, and I was hooked for life. I hope the girls love it as much I do; the early signs are encouraging. Julia is considering painting a Jane Eyre doll.

I'm hauling Jack through 100 Easy Lessons slowly but steadily. He's on lesson 60-odd, and he does fine when he's not flopping all over the couch or staring into space, reciting the alphabet to remember what the "y" says. Our lessons go something like this:
Jack: "A bug was standing on the side of a l..."
Me: L what?
Jack: "l...a..." little.
Me: Not "little", Jack. There's no i or t in that word.
Jack: Lap? Log?
Me: No, let's sound it out together. "A bug was standing on the side of a lllllll...." Say it with me, Jack. Jack, you're not even looking at the page.
Jack: Lllll.... log.
Me: LOOK AT THE PAGE.
Jack: (flops around.)
Me: Son, sit up right here and eyes on the page. On the word. Right here, where my finger is. Let's start again. "A bug was standing on the side of the lllll..."
Jack: Llll aaa kkk....
Me: Silent e!
Jack: Lake. Can I read the rest of the story tomorrow?
Me: (thinking about it) Let's go to this next line, at least. Can you read this? I'll sound it out with you. Look at the page, son!

I do a lot of work keeping the older two on task, and I hope Isabel isn't falling through the cracks. I set her to journaling last week -- we went to the fair, and she wrote a nice entry about watching the goats run obstacle courses -- and she does handwriting and math regularly, and is reading Harry Potter and the A-Z Mysteries and generally floating through her day. She participates well in our Bible study, though, and is always the first one to summarize the reading or speculate on how the Psalm ties in to the first reading. She's also chugging through 3rd grade math on Khan Academy at a gratifying rate -- it's really just more fun to do math on the computer, though she, like everyone, needs to drill more with the memorization. We've been doing the Italics workbooks for handwriting, and I love the look, but I would like her to learn a more traditional cursive. Alas, the cursive workbooks I used for the girls seem to have gone out of print, so if anyone wants to recommend something, feel free.

I also worry that Diana gets lost in the shuffle. I can't think if I wrote about her and Jack playing War last time, but she's still content not to read her numbers yet. All the cuisinaire rods have been lost or vacuumed or eaten, so she doesn't have the benefit of those. She did show interest in writing her name last week, so I copied on a piece of lined paper and showed her how to make the letters. That's educational, right? She sits with us and hears the Bible and our books, and she sits with Jack when he helps me sound out those stupid Star Wars readers from the library, all about whiny Anakin and his non-canonical adventures. Was ever an origins story so boring? Whose bright idea was it to write a space opera all about politics? Who can get het up about the epic battles of the Separatists and the Trade Federation? Could the Jedi Council be any more boring? Yawn. And if I've told Diana once, I've told her fifty times that the girls have to wear more clothes than that when they fight, or they're going to get all bruised up. Look at all the padding Anakin wears, and then his Padawan apprentice with the face tattoos is in a miniskirt and a bandeau top. Think about that. So stupid. Even the evil assassin-ress has a strange outfit with odd cutouts, and it's just weird. No one wears this kind of stuff to fight. It's just not practical. Also, I haven't seen the Clone Wars series from Cartoon Network, but the easy reader books about the episodes make No Sense Whatsoever. And the character names, assembled from handfuls of scrabble letters tossed onto a table! I'll be so glad when the Star Wars phase of boyhood gives way to something else.

I spent my educational write-up beefing about Star Wars. But hey! Read the headline. It says NO GUILT.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

A Tragic Sense of History

A New York Review of Books piece from some years back, by Timothy Snyder, relates an event which gets at how difficult to untangle and judge historical events and resentments can be.
The hangings took place on the last day of August 1941, on the town square of Wierzbnik, in what had once been central Poland. Two years had passed since the joint German-Soviet invasion that had destroyed the Polish state; ten weeks before, the Germans had betrayed their ally and invaded the Soviet Union. Wierzbnik, home to Poles and Jews, lay within the General Government, a colony that the Germans had made from parts of their Polish conquests. As Poles left church that Sunday morning, they saw before them a gallows. The German police had selected sixteen or seventeen Poles—men, women, and at least one child. Then they ordered a Jewish execution crew, brought from the ghetto that morning, to carry out the hangings. The Poles were forced to stand on stools; then the Jews placed nooses around their necks and kicked the stools away. The bodies were left to dangle.

Demonstrative killing of civilians was one of several German methods designed to stifle Polish resistance. The Germans had murdered educated Poles: tens of thousands in late 1939, thousands more in early 1940. Since June 1940, the Germans had been sending suspect Poles to Auschwitz and other camps. Polish society was to be reduced to an undifferentiated mass of passive workers. German policy toward Jews was different, though the nature of the difference was not yet clear. Jewish elites had been preserved; some of them as members of the Judenrat (Jewish council) or as policemen directing the local affairs of Jews in a way that suited Germans.

Although fatality rates in some ghettos were high, Jews in summer 1941 had little idea that they had been gathered into ghettos in preparation for a “Final Solution.” The Germans had first planned to deport the Jews to a reservation in eastern Poland, or to the island of Madagascar, or to Siberian wastelands. As these schemes proved impracticable, the Jews remained in the ghettos. It was in that final week of August 1941 that the German “Final Solution” was taking on its final form: mass murder. Two days before the hangings at Wierzbnik, the Germans had completed their first truly large-scale murder of Jews, shooting some 23,600 people at Kamianets-Podil’s’kyi in occupied Soviet Ukraine.

“I knew I hanged the right people,” one of the Jewish hangmen in Wierzbnik recalled more than fifty years later. He thought that those who were executed belonged to the Polish Home Army, and as such were guilty of murdering Jews. The people in question died, of course, not because Poles were killing Jews, but because Poles were resisting German rule. The hangings at Wierzbnik were a typical German reprisal, aiming to spread terror and deter further opposition. If it were not for the testimonies of the Jews from Wierzbnik, this particular event would have been lost. For most of them, it was a first stark demonstration of German mass murder, if only a small foretaste of what was to come.
It's not hard to picture the ripples that went out from this event through the lives of those who experienced it. How did the Poles who had seen friends or family hanged by Jewish executioners that day react in the coming years when confronted with Jews who needed to be hidden from the Holocaust? Yet why did the Jewish man pulled from the ghetto and ordered to do the German's dirty work think he had hung "the right people" in doing the Nazis bidding? In part because some units in the Polish Resistance (of which the Home Army was the main non-communist group) did in fact kill Jews out of hand when they found them. And what was the reason that anti-Nazi resistance fighters were killing Jews? In part because some within the Jewish population had strongly supported the Soviets who invaded Poland just days after the Nazis did, and occupied the Eastern half of the country until June 1941 when Hitler turned on Stalin and attacked the Soviet Union. The Soviets had themselves engaged in mass killings of Polish officers and educated elites, but many Jews saw the communists as a far better bet than the Nazis (for obvious reasons) and aligned accordingly.

The other day I ran into a piece from the Jacobin Magazine taking strong exception to Snyder's brilliant (though incredibly dark) book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. The charge? Snyder is unfair in portraying Stalin as nearly as bad as Hitler, and even more so Snyder is unfair to the communist partisans. Snyder writes repeatedly about how the violence of the communist partisans and the Nazi occupiers became a escalating cycle of violence.
When Soviet partisans sabotaged trains, they were in effect ensuring that the population near the site would be exterminated. When Soviet partisans laid mines, they knew that some would detonate under the bodies of Soviet citizens. The Germans swept mines by forcing locals, Belarusians and Jews, to walk hand in hand over minefields.

In general, such loss of human life was of little concern to the Soviet leadership. The people who died had been under German occupation, and were therefore suspect and perhaps even more expendable than the average Soviet citizen. German reprisals also ensured that the ranks of the partisans swelled, as survivors often had no home, no livelihood, and no family to which to return.
The Jacobin author answers with a historical anecdote:
[O]ne can only wonder what Snyder would have had Jews do instead. Faye Schulman was a nineteen-year-old girl living in a small town in eastern Poland when the Wehrmacht massacred her family along with the rest of the Jewish population in August 1941. Temporarily spared because of her skills as a professional photographer, she fled with the partisans at the first opportunity and, to her gratitude, was accepted into their ranks:
The fighting had ended. The partisans were returning to their bases, and I was with them and alive. It felt like a dream. I had been accepted into the Soviet partisans! I wasn’t sure what was waiting for me now, what kind of a life I would have. But I knew I was very lucky. I was now a partisan, no longer afraid of the Nazis. I tore off the yellow star of David. We started our journey into the woods.
“I resolved to volunteer for active combat operations, to fight for my people — for Jewish dignity and honor — and for an end to the Nazi killing machine,” Schulman added in her memoirs. Does this make her a criminal?
The question -- What would Snyder have had the Jews do instead? -- shows a mentality which I think is very common when people address a historical situation. Thinking in Hollywood terms, we ask, "Which side should she have joined?" As if history represents a sort of moral sporting match in which the primary question is whether one backs the right side. Reading within Faye Schulman's context, one understanding completely why why joined the partisans and was glad to do it. We might do the same if we had the courage. But this doesn't change Snyder's point that the actions of the partisans often brought down massively disproportionate retaliation from the Germans. And at a certain level, the Soviet leadership understood the cynical calculation that partisan activity both hurt the occupation forces directly, wiped out potentially disloyal "collaborators" when the Germans carried out reprisals, and provided a stream of new recruits to the partisans as Nazi retaliations left people with nothing but a desire to exact revenge against the Germans.

What we too often lack is a tragic sense: an understanding that people often do terrible things for understandable reasons. The actions are terrible -- understanding why they seemed reasonable to the perpetrator makes them no less so. But they were, at the same time, understandable. The perpetrator had reason to think the action justified.

To have a tragic sense it is necessary to set aside the idea of "good person" and "bad person", and instead think simply of persons. Persons who perform good actions and bad actions, for good reasons and bad reasons. Persons who do bad things yet not simply because they are "bad people" but rather because the bad things seem justified, perhaps even seem good, at the time.

This does not mean moral relativism or indifferentism. Sin is sin. A heinous act is a heinous act. A tragic sense of history is not indifference to its evils, or a willingness to see everyone as "basically good". Rather, it is addressing the past with pity and fear. Pit and fear are the feelings which the Ancient Greeks said that tragedy was mean to evoke. Reading about an event like the Wierzbnik hangings, a tragic sense causes us to feel both pity for those involved, for all involved, and also fear at how easily people no so unlike ourselves can be pulled into such a cycle of hatred and violence. Having a tragic sense allows us to identify with people on both sides of such a situation without making excuses for either. It also allows us to address both sides of a conflict as human beings, as creatures who share an essential nature with ourselves, rather than seeing one side as good and familiar and the other as wicked and other.