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

Monday, July 30, 2007

A Tale of Two Missals

All this motu proprio talk had got me thinking that I should seek out our local Latin Mass group again, especially since I'd heard they were not down at the Cathedral which, as you can see, definitely has a good setting for it.

Past experience suggested this would not be the best move for the entire family, so we went to our own parish as a family at our usual mass, and then I drove down to the Cathedral on my own for the 3:30 Tridentine mass.

The celebrant of our parish mass was the pastor, rather than the new associate pastor about whom we've waxed eloquent a few times. Our pastor goes in for the basics. Unless you specifically ask for guidance, he does a 2-3 minute confession. In regards to liturgy, his philosophy is one of doing everything required by the GIRM and nothing more. The music leaders for the different masses has told me that pretty much his only guidance is to do what people like and not make the mass longer by continuing with extra verses after the entrance, offertory or receiving of communion are over. So while our pastor doesn't go on any quests for liturgical beauty, he also shoots down without a thought all the zany additions that well-meaning people sometimes suggest. "How about if we have the children do a skit as part of the homily, Father?" "No." "What would you think of some liturgical dance for Easter?" "Absolutely not."

So it was from a pretty basic novus ordo mass that I set out to experience the Tridentine mass.

I've done a fair amount of reading about the Tridentine mass over the last few weeks, so I think I grasped more clearly what options were being followed than in the past.

There were perhaps 150-200 people in the congregation, mostly young through middle-aged. There can't have been more than a dozen people there who were adults when the 1970 missal was promulgated. The cathedral organ was in use, but there was no choir, and I'd picked up enough recently to discern from the two candles lit on the altar that this was to be a low mass.

It proved to be a sort of half-dialog low mass. The congregation responded with "Amen" and "Et cum spiritu tuo" but with the longer responses only the servers spoke. This may in part have been because the priest celebrating (a fairly elderly one) was not using a microphone, and his Latin was very fast and quiet. Unless he slowed down and raised his voice, it could be difficult to know what he was saying, and thus when to respond. (If you had an Irish Catholic grandmother like I did, we're talking about the HailMaryfullofgracethelordiswiththee speed that you grew up with on the rosary.)

I wasn't clear from the instructions in the missal if it was an option for the congregation to join in saying the credo and the pater noster. It seems logical that it would be, since I believe it's an option for a choir to sing it instead of the priest speaking it, but whatever the options they were in this case said only by the priest. I understand, of course, that speaking is not necessary for participating in the mass. Still, I must admit to much preferring symbolism of the entire congregation saying these particular two prayers in union with the priest. (And besides, I was looking forward to getting to say "consubstantialem"; it's not a word you get to use every day.)

In the Eucharistic Rite (is that the right term in the old missal?), I was having enough of a challenge reading through all the Latin (my Latin is rusty but passable, and I was trying to read as much as possible on the Latin rather than the English side) that I didn't have the change to read all the rubrics written in the margins of the missal pamphlet I'd picked up at the beginning, so although I know that certain sections were supposed to be said silently by the priest, I'm not sure if all of them were, or if the priest was simply speaking so quietly that I thought he was saying them silently. The period was essentially silent (impressively so considering the number of children present) punctuated only by the ringing of the bells and the rustle of pages.

It was an interesting experience. In a sense, it struck me that this was very much to the old missal what our normal Sunday mass is to the new: follow the rubrics and do nothing more than is required by the rubrics. I'd kind of hoped that the group might have a schola, in that MrsDarwin is trying to help get one started in our parish and I was hoping to get some of that mutual enrichment between the missals that the pope wrote about. As it was, the quickly and quietly spoken Latin reminded me again how much I appreciate our new associate putting in the time to chant the entire ordinary of the mass. (Nothing special, just basic plainchant.)

Lurking somewhere in the back of my mind, when I head off to something like this, is the experience (perhaps grown with dimming memory) of attending Wednesday night masses with the Eastern Rite group during the college semester I spent in Austria. There were only 25 people present, and the huge, burly Slovakian priest would arrive just after dark, say mass for us, and wolf down dinner and a liter or so of beer before driving off again.

Still, for being a weekday mass for two dozen people in a side chapel, the priest chanted the entire liturgy, and the incense censor swung wildly about. The congregation sang the responses beautifully (MrsDarwin and I joined in as best we could phonetically, not knowing Old Slavonic) and though I could see there were sections that the priest was saying silently, there wasn't the ten-minute-total-silence experience that the Latin low mass seems to involve.

There are those I know who truly breath the air of the Eastern lung of the Church, but the fact is that I am Latin to the core. I feel like it would be mere liturgical tourism for us to join an Eastern Rite parish. And yet, I keep hoping that I'll run into the Latin Rite equivalent of those Wednesday night masses in the dimly lit, incense filled side chapel of the Kartause.

Playing chess with Death

Alright, I have to confess: I was a big fan of the Animaniacs back in the day, and to my mind the funniest episode was the one where either Yakko and Dot played checkers with Death, in a parody of Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal.

This is a fandub, but you get the idea.

Well, Ingmar Bergman has died, and to commemorate I provide you (again) with Iowahawk's homage to Bergman (ca. 2005), Hazardous Dukes.

Interior shot of a backwoods cabin in rural Georgia. The room is tastefully decorated with Bruno Mathsson lounge chairs, Eero Saarinen side tables, a rebel flag and moonshine still. An old bearded man lies on a vintage midcentury Alvar Aalto death bed.

NARRATOR (Gunnar Biörnstrand)
Just plumb about everybody in Hazzard County has a story to tell 'bout them Duke boys and their existential auto-didactism. This one starts back at the farm, where Bo 'n' Luke are about to find out that Uncle Jesse has a little surprise in store for 'em...

UNCLE JESSE (Max Von Sydow)
Bo, Luke. Come to my side, nephews.

(Cousins Bo and Luke, scions of Uncle Jesse's crumbling moonshine dynasty, enter.)

LUKE (Börje Ahlstedt)
What is it you want, Uncle?

(Bo and Luke exchange long, blank glance; a Hans Wegner clock ticks on a far wall)


BO (Ashton Kutcher)
Your despair has shaken our complacency. I shall bring your jug.

It is the same Blomvo jug that Aunt Bessie long ago bought for you at Ikea... when you were young and happy.

Its design is elegant; yet, like life, it brings me no joy. I am compelled to smash it, like my own existence.

But you must live, Uncle.

Why must I live? Life is a meaningless parade of pain, and loneliness, and revenuers.

(Bo and Luke stare; close-up of ticking clock)

You must live to see the outlaw dirt sprints at Hazzard County Speedway Saturday night. There is a $2000 prize, and Bo and I have entered the General Sundqvist.

(pan to kitchen table; close-up of Cooter bolting Holley Dominator carb to Edelbrock Torker intake)

Perhaps you are right, Luke. Your exegesis has taught me that the pain of life can be borne, if only for the nihilism of the dirt track.

(thinking) I am the one who has brung his jug, yet Uncle Jesse can only express love to Luke.

COOTER (Sean Penn)
(thinking) I am the one who has competely rebuilt their carb, yet I remain only an honorary Duke.

(Pan zoom to cabin door, where the Grim Reaper has been observing; he silently drops sickle, smashing the clock)

Well how 'bout that... looks like Ol' Uncle Jesse done stirred up the Duke social hierarchy and got ol' Death all riled up like a big ol' hive of yellowjackets!

Read the rest.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Having given some time for those likely to care most about such things to finish reading the book for themselves, I'm going to avoid any pretense and simply write an in-depth review with spoilers. Feel free to include spoilers in any comments.

If you haven't read it and don't want to see spoilers, consider yourself warned.

I can't by any stretch claim to have come upon the Harry Potter books "before they were fashionable", but given that I came upon the series back in 1999, I suppose I do at least have the dubious distinction of having been reading them since back when most writers in Catholic circles who had noticed them at all were still muttering darkly about temptations towards the occult and expressing shock (shock!) that a book about a bunch of kids at a boarding school often involved main characters breaking rules and such. These days things have moved around a bit, and while there are certainly still some dark mutterers out there, there are others who have gone to the opposite extreme and consecrated J. K. Rowling's series as a deeply Christian narrative second only to Lewis' Narnia books. Meanwhile, out in the real world there are roughly three groups of people: a large group who have found the series quite enjoyable, a somewhat smaller group which finds it boring or annoying, and the largest group at all which simply doesn't care, for one reason or another.

Now that the last book of the series is finally out, it's possible to take a look at the series as a whole and attempt to come to some conclusions. From that vantage point, it seems to me that Rowling has, in the end, written something quite good. And yet, at the same time, even in this last of the books (which I think was in many ways the strongest of the seven) there are some noteable plot/writing problems. Which leads me to take a step back and look for a moment at what exactly one may mean by "good" in relation to a novel.

Good can mean:

1) Fun: Escapist, inventive, scary, a who-done-it or what have you, these are the basic "good reads". Opinion can vary a great deal on these, since their enjoyment is sometimes very much a matter of what you're in the mood for. I tend to be neither a horror nor a romance reader, and so the mere existence of horror or romance does not make a book "fun" for me, but for some it does. Back in the day I read a lot of fantasy and science fiction, and with many of those "fun" books the attraction was essentially that they provided a different and evocative world to live in for a few hours. Some might say that to list this under "fun" is to downplay it too much, but I think I would also put in this category works that are "good" because they provide images that are lastingly evocative, like the lady with the birds in Bleak House. Such images may turn around and be examples of great prose, thus meeting 2) below, or reflecting life in some very clear way, thus meeting 3). But other times, the image, however interesting, goes no farther than being interesting in its own right. (Examples of this from the Harry Potter series might be the Dark Arts teacher in Philosopher's Stone who has Voldemort on the back of his head, or the pen in Order of the Phoenix that writes in one's own blood.)

2) Well written: Some books are just a pleasure to read no matter what is going on. Pick up Man Who Was Thursday, Emma, Barchester Towers, Three Men in a Boat or Brideshead Revisited and you stand a very good chance of opening it to a page which is simply a pleasure to read aloud, though each in a very different way. Whether by memorable turn of phrase, brilliant fit of words to subject, or ability to evoke things that few others can, some authors write in a way which is worth reading no matter what they're talking about.

3) Saying something about life: At its best, a novel is like life distilled. Extraneous detail is passed over, and only those feelings and events which best convey the essence of what is being described are included. Which books we see as such depends on what we believe about the world. Somewhere out there, there must be someone who thinks that The Stranger tells you a lot about the human condition, but I don't. For my part, I see books such as Brothers Karamazov, The Lord of the Rings, The Great Divorce, The Secret History and Keep the Aspidistra Flying as each in their ways displaying important elements of the human condition. In a good book, this is done in such a clear way that one can say, "It's like when..." and reference the scene to a fellow reader, thus conveying successfully what you mean much more clearly and succinctly than you might be able to in quite a few paragraphs of non-fictional description.

Having laid these three types of "good" out, I would tend to argue that the Harry Potter books are, in the end, good in the first and third senses. However, they are far from so in the second.

Starting with the first form of "good", Rowling has brought a whole host of images and ideas to delight, horrify, fascinate, and suggest over the course of her seven books. She's provided us with one of only two examples I can thing of where an imagined sport seems so fascinating you wish you could see it done for real. (The other being the zero-g wargames in Enders Game.) She's given us a visual example of the saving power of a mother's love, a darkly evocative image of how life can be extended by feasting on the blood of innocents, and a train that leaves from an invisible platform located between two real ones. And that's only in the first book.

Throughout the series, Rowling's wildly inventive imagination provided readers with a wide variety of situations, things and places which catch the fancy. 'Wildly' is the appropriate adverb here; although Rowling excels at coming up with images that range from the amusing to the terrifying, consistency and thoroughness are not her strong points. There are fairly major things about her world that simply don't make sense (like how it's somehow necessary to keep the knowledge of magic from Muggles, and yet it's clearly an open secret for people like the Dursleys or Hermione's family) and some things on which major plot points ride that are not treated consistently (such as the question of whether dead souls can "come back" or communicate in any real sense with the living -- we are told not, and yet Dumbledore is apparently forming now plans and issuing instructions for nearly a year after his death via his portrait in the headmaster's office.)

This leads into the question of good writing. Let's face it, the craft of writing is not Rowling's strong point. Her prose has a fairly middle of the road, transparent quality. Her dialogue can be a bit on the basic side, but perhaps that's simply a result of writing about characters in their teens. (Which of us really said much of anything quotable at that age?) Her real problems are with structure, and since it's the final book that I'm reviewing, I'll stick to discussing the writing in that one.

Perhaps some of the things that bothered me simply resulted from on-the-fly plotting near the end of writing a long series. For instance, we get a huge amount of backstory and motivation for Dumbledore in this last book. Generally, I thought that the story we got was interesting, though the character of Dumbledore who we know by the end is a proud and controlling creature, much less likable than we imagined before. This perhaps makes some things (such as his planning of his own death) more explicable, and less of a moral issue, than if he were the unquestioned good-guy and omniscient narrative force that he was in the previous books. When Dumbledore tells Harry near the end that Harry is the better man, we can believe him.

However, I think it's honestly too much change in a major character to bring up suddenly in the last part of the last book. It seems too much like a last minute attempt to do "grown-up" plotting with conflicted characters and deeper motivations. (And, indeed, I'm pretty sure it was just this sort of last minute attempt -- unplanned before this book was written.) To make things worse, Dumbledore continues to behave as if he were some sort of omniscient narrative force, rather than a all too proud and fallible character. His plan, formed apparently before his death in Book 6, plays out in unbelievable complexity and yet without a hitch throughout the final book. You just don't get away with making plans that complex if you're something other than an artificial token acting to move the plot along. And yet he does.

Another problem is just plain narrative structure. It's been Rowling's policy, and generally a good one given the type of books these are, not to allow the reader to know anything major that Harry does not. However, this means that in the last hundred pages who have two entire chapters where the action screeches to a halt and we get lengthy passages of exposition, first from Snape, then from Dumbledore. It's all interesting stuff to know, but from a writing perspective, it's clumsy. Far too much time is spent (for any stage, much less so late in the arc of the plot) on getting these things out via flashback and long stretches of dialog. I was interested in what I was learning, but I was groaning internally at the same time.

All of which is starting to make this last novel sound like a pretty poor showing. (It doesn't help that most of the problems are near the end.) And yet it's not. And that, I think, is because on the third type of goodness, Rowling comes pretty close to hitting a home run.

Throughout the series we've seen a strong contrast between the Death Eaters and the Order of the Phoenix (as I think one may call the 'good guys' in general, since the Order goes back to the original war against Voldemort.) Voldemort and his death eaters not only see the lives of Muggles and non-pure blood wizards as worthless, they also have a destructive desire to cling to life and power in this life. Voldemort has gone so far as to split of fractions of his soul and embed them in various hidden objects so that he can't be fully ejected from the world when his body is killed.

The Order, on the other hand, exemplifies a rightly ordered love for life and for friends and family. Harry survived Voldemort's original attack (and Voldemort's body was destroyed) because his mother's sacrifice of self to save him provided him with a protection against Voldemort's powers. The contrast comes into full focus in this final book. One of the first major events is the wedding of Bill and Fleur; and Tonks and Lupin got married just before the books action commences. Harry, still only seventeen, yet no older than many another young man in the real world, sent off to face the likelihood of death, is clearly feeling a war-time urgency about his own relationship with Ginny.

The clouds are gathering quickly in the wizarding world, and as wedding and war plans are both made, the characters clearly understand there's a likelihood of people ending up like Harry's parent's, or like Neville's. Nor is this just some pre-war sex craze. (In a move by no means standard in books for teens, the Harry Potter books are completely free even of references to premarital sex.) It's specifically marriage and family that these young people who may not have a future are seeking.

This makes all the more powerful the moment, near the end of the book, when Harry realizes that he is going to have to offer himself up to die in order to save the rest of his friends. To his great credit, the knowledge that this is the only way to defeat Voldemort turns into the determination to do it almost without consideration. And as Harry secretly departs on what he believes to be his last, brief journey, his thoughts are on those who have died already and on the family that he and Ginny will never be able to have.

What follows as Harry offers himself to be killed, humiliated, and then have his friends slaughtered anyway -- and his return and defeat of Voldemort -- could only get more Christological in its symbolism if... Well, if it was The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

This theme of having and protecting family is underscored again in the final battle with Mrs. Weasley's avenging angel moment, and ties off nicely with the epilogue. There are those who've seen the epilogue as a pointlessly "cute" add on. These are probably the same people who can't imagine why the end of LotR "wastes" all sorts of time talking about the Shire and Sam's family.

It's surprisingly unusual to find a book that sees family, that drama which is most common of all, yet ever unique in its details, as the foundation of happiness and peace. Harry Potter does it well. And in the end, I think that's one of the reasons why I found the final book so satisfying.

Is it "a masterpiece"? Is it literature? No. It's not well written enough for that. But it is a solidly good set of books, with a trove of fascinating imagery and a foundational set of human values that rings true. I'd have no problem recommending the entire series to kids from twelve or so on up, and also to those adults who don't have an inherent dislike of fantasy.

Oh, and the best line in the book: "NOT MY DAUGHTER, YOU BITCH!"

Never, ever mess with a mother of seven...

Friday, July 27, 2007

Pope Calls Creationism/Evolution Debate "An Absurdity"

I hope an English translation of the Pope's remarks becomes available, it sounds like an interesting talk:
Pope Benedict XVI says the theory of evolution is backed by strong scientific proof - but the theory does not answer life's "great philosophical question."
Benedict told 400 priests at a two-hour event that he's puzzled by the current debate in the United States and his native Germany over creationism and evolution.

Debaters wrongly present the two sides "as if they were alternatives that are exclusive - whoever believes in the creator could not believe in evolution, and whoever asserts belief in evolution would have to disbelieve in God," the pontiff said.

"This contrast is an absurdity, because there are many scientific tests in favor of evolution, which appears as a reality that we must see and enriches our understanding of life and being.

"But the doctrine of evolution does not answer all questions, and it does not answer above all the great philosophical question: From where does everything come?"

A transcript of the Tuesday event was posted in Italian yesterday on the Vatican's Web site.

From the NY Post.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Hey! I'm sexually active!

Here's a problem I never faced in college: apparently, the price of birth control on campus is skyrocketing.

For years, drug companies sold birth-control pills and other contraceptives to university health services at a big discount. This has served as an entree to young consumers for the drug companies, and a profit center for the schools, which sell them to students at a moderate markup. Students pay perhaps $15 a month for contraceptives that otherwise can retail for $50 or more.

But colleges and universities say the drug companies have stopped offering the discounts, and are now charging the schools much more. The change has an unlikely origin: the Deficit Reduction Act signed by President Bush last year. The legislation aimed to pare $39 billion in spending on federal programs, from subsidized student loans to Medicaid. And among the changes was one that, through an arcane set of circumstances, created a disincentive for drug makers to offer school discounts.

The contraceptive prices offered to schools are now included in a complex calculation that determines certain Medicaid-related rebates that drug makers must pay to states. In this calculation, deep discount prices would have the effect of increasing drug makers' payments.

Colleges and universities say the change is having a significant impact on their health centers and the students they serve. Prices have begun skyrocketing for many popular brands of birth control. Health centers are having to reconfigure their offerings and write new prescriptions. And college students are making some tough choices, such as switching to cheaper generic brands or forgoing their privacy in order to claim their pills on their parents' insurance.

"Forgoing their privacy": that phrase caught my attention. I'm assuming that it means that a co-ed thinks that it would be a violation of her privacy if her parents were to discover that she was sexually active. I would challenge that assumption. After all, the student knows her parents are having sex -- where's their right to privacy? Heck, not only my parents, but my in-laws, and my siblings, and all my friends and acquaintances and even people I see on the street know I'm sexually active, and that I've had sex at least THREE times. The government knows.

Now, I'm all for people seeking privacy when they're having sex. (It's not something I want to watch other people doing.) But I don't think there's some right to privacy regarding whether one is known to be sexually active, because sex is an act that has social ramifications. It creates a bond between the actors (whether acknowledged or not). It's the cheapest, most efficient way for societies to obtain new citizens, so in a sense I find it rather odd that the government should have been subsidizing this in the first place. If anyone should be subsidizing birth control for female college students, it's the guys who benefit from it.

College Guy: Hey, you wanna hook up Friday night?
College Girl: Sure. That'll be $50 upfront.
College Guy: WTF? That's prostitution!
College Girl: No, that's economics.

Perhaps the objection is that students forfeit their medical privacy if they use their parents' insurance to obtain birth control. Guess what? If someone else is paying for your medical care, they have a right to know what they're paying for. It's basic. You get as much privacy as you pay for. Simply being a college student doesn't entitle to you no-strings-attached, child-free, privacy-protected sex. In fact, contrary to the unwritten assumptions of the WSJ article, being a college student doesn't entitle you to have sex, period.

But for all the college girls out there who can't afford birth control, here's my tried and true method for avoiding pregnancy in college: Keep your pants on.*

*Like all birth control methods, this only works if you use it every time.

Why Vatican II and What Happened After?

Catholic Cave Man asks in a recent post, what exactly was the point of Vatican II?

The Council of Nicea fought the heresy of Arianism.
The Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon fought the heresy of Nestorianism.
The Council of Trent fought the heresy of Protestantism.
The First Vatican Council fought the heresy of Rationalism.

And with all that said, the fruits of those councils are multiple and manifest. The Church always emerged stronger. And I think we all know what the fruits of Vatican II have shown themselves to be.
I don't know that I'd put it so combatively (I couldn't pull it off anyway; I'm not a marine) but the question remains: How did we get from where we seemed to be fifty years ago to where we are today?

This question has bothered me for quite some time, and it was in seeking answers to it that I bought The Church and I by Frank Sheed. Written in 1974, during the height of what Sheed bluntly calls the "chaos" after Vatican II, The Church and I is a history of the Church in the 20th century English-speaking world, as Sheed knew it through his work with the Catholic Evidence Guild (stand-up apologetics in Hyde Park on on street corners) and running the Sheed & Ward publishing house along with his wife and fellow apologist Maisie Ward.

Sheed arrived in London from Australia in 1920, not by his own account a very educated Catholic, but like many of his contemporaries fully convinced of the truth of the Faith and eager to spread it. Working with the Catholic Evidence Guild, he quickly found that the catechism lessons he had so dutifully memorized did not necessarily help him to explain his faith to others, and so he joyfully dug into theology, the Father of the Church, Aquinas, Church History, and much more.

The '20s through the '50s were the period of the Catholic Intellectual Revival in Britain, with characters such as Belloc, Chesterton, Knox and Waugh dominating the landscape. It was an exciting time to be involved in apologetics. The initial outburst of Modernism in the Church seemed to have been quelled (though in retrospect, Sheed says it was simply driven underground and ignored rather than being effectively fought and defeated on the intellectual field) and as mainstream Protestant sects seemed to be finding themselves increasingly without direction in the modern world, Catholicism seemed to soaring to unheard of heights.

It was also a period of rebirth of intellectually robust Catholicism in the English-speaking world. Sheed describes the atmosphere growing up in Irish Catholic circles in Australia as being one in which it was felt that "The Church had the truth, but the Protestants had all the arguments". Catholics had memorized their catechisms and believed firmly in the sacraments, but had found it difficult to explain their beliefs to others, much less perform effective apologetics. Belloc and Chesterton changed this with a vengence, and a small flood of other Catholic writers and intellectuals followed in their wake.

However, through his work doing apologetics in parks and on street corners, Sheed was in a particularly good position to see what the see the intellectual state of the average Catholic, as well as the intellectual. And what he saw, it seems, worried him. Throughout the '30s, '40s and '50s he spoke to bishops about the state of catechesis (which he generally considered to not be at all good -- in part because those doing the catechising were not themselves sufficiently knowledgeable) and addressed numerous groups of seminarians and teaching sisters.

What he found was that all too often even the priests and nuns tasked with teaching the laity were not able to deal well with questions that went beyond the memorized questions and answers in their catechisms. This was not, he said, through any lack of faith (far from it, there was in intensely strong belief in the teachings of the Church and if anything an overly strong belief in infallibility, which attached the stamp of dogma equally to the everything from abstaining from meat on Fridays and women covering their heads in church to the immaculate conception and purgatory) but rather through a defensive posture which the Church had taken in much of Europe since the Reformation, emphasizing memorization over argumentation and discipline over education.

One of the examples of the kind of "beyond the catechism" questions that Sheed would pose is as follows:
Sheed: "Does the pope need to go to confession?"
Other: "Yes, of course. The pope must go to confession regularly to receive forgiveness for his sins."
Sheed: "But if the priest's authority comes from the bishop, and the bishop's authority comes from the pope, who has the authority to forgive the pope?"

The answer, of course, is: Christ. And since our sins are forgiven through the power of Christ by the priest who acts in persona Christi, any priest can grant the pope absolution. People knew this, Sheed says, in their hearts. They understood that the pope needed and received absolution. But far too often questions like this would stump not only Catholic school children, but also the nuns and priests who taught them, because they weren't used to thinking about what they believed meant.

This may seem a pretty harsh judgement, and I wonder if Sheed would have made it so forcefully in a book written in 1964 instead of 1974. Yet it does seem to tie in with some of what I've heard. My paternal grandfather converted in the '30s, as he was marrying my grandmother. My grandmother, who'd grown up Catholic in Iowa, educated for by Irish nuns, mentioned several times that it was perhaps mainly because her husband had received good instruction as a convert that they'd both remained Catholic. He told her so many things she hadn't known before about the faith, that after the war they both enrolled in adult catechesis classes, which she said taught her a great deal about Church teaching that she'd never learned growing up.

On the council, Sheed has several things to say. First, that as an attempt to deal with the issues raised by modernism, religious pluralism, communism, etc., it arguably came fifty years too late. He describes the council as providing a set of blueprints for rebuilding the Church, yet not taking into account the fact that the structure was already falling apart, and there were nearly a billion people living in it during the proposed construction. He applauds some of what the Council had to say on religious liberty, the role of the laity, etc. In other cases he worries that the documents were vague or skirted around the most serious issues.

What happened afterwards, however, seems to have taken even Sheed (with his first hand knowledge of some of the weaknesses of the Church before the council) by surprise. Seemingly overnight, he says, things went from a time where even the slightest questioning of authority went nearly undreamed of, to a situation where nearly any doctrine of the Church could be heard being publicly rejected by some priest or another, with seldom a word of discipline issuing forth.

There had, it seems, been some rumblings of this before the council. Sheed says that there was a known problem in some American diocese of a number of priests quietly leaving the priesthood to get married. In Europe, many of the priests who had entered the "priest worker" movement during the war (taking advantage of being put to work in heavy industry during the war to minister more directly to poor workers) became caught up in communist leaning unions, and a number of the priests had to be disciplined or left the priesthood. A number of European bishops had complained to Sheed as far back as the '30s that half the children who graduated from Catholic schools never entered a church again until they got married.

Somehow this combination of the media story that "the liberal element carried the council: everything is changing"; the cultural revolutions of the 60s; the pill; the sudden slackening in Church discipline; the changing of the liturgy which people had never imagined would change; the changing of practices such as the mandatory Friday abstinence, etc. created the impression that everything was up for grabs. Even Sheed, deeply knowledgeable in his faith and clearly trying very hard to "think with the Church" seems to have been affected by this. Writing in 1974, he mentions in his epilogue questions as to things that may change in the future. Will there to women priests? How will the Humanae Vitae controversy play out?

In an effort not to say "The Church will never..." about things that proceed to happen, Sheed seems to feel the necessity of being much more hesitant than an apologist circa 2007 would be, and I don't think that it was from any lack of orthodoxy.

It's hard to imagine what the Catholic world would be like today had Vatican II not been called. I don't think it would be the rosy view that some, perhaps, imagine. My suspicion is that, rather than the storm of chaos that broke in the late sixties and throughout the seventies, we would have seen a gradual falling away. Catholics would still have started using birth control. The encyclical condemning it would have been more polemical, and the storm of clergy resistance to it might not have happened, but a great many Catholics would have ignored it nonetheless. Vocations would have gradually dried up (rather than falling precipitously) as many Catholic families were smaller, and people fell prey to the sexual revolution. Mass attendance would have fallen gradually, as people left church-going to mothers, grandmothers, children, and "the devout".

The average Catholic parish of today would look more like some of the more affluent Eastern Orthodox parishes, of the variety that is heavy on ethnic members and low on converts.

I suspect that, for all the chaos, we are intellectually richer than we would have been without the council. The culture of discussion has, among orthodox theologians, produced deeper work than the culture of suspicion that landed all too many works (by people ranging from Newman to St. Therese to John Courtney Murray) at least temporarily under suspicion. On the other hand, we would have been spared the embarrassment of the Fr. McBrien's and Sr. Joan Chittisters of the world, and I'm sure that must be worth something.

I, for one, am grateful for the council, for all that its implementation by the human element of the Church has been the usual mixed (and often mixed up) bag. For all that it's pointed to as the anti-thesis of Vatican II, I wonder how much better things looked thirty or forty years after Trent, as the Queen Elizabeth made the Protestantization of England permanent, and the 30 Year War got ready to decimate northern and central Europe, laying the foundation for rationalism as "wars of" became a phrase long to be associated with "religion".

Protecting the Best Seller List

From Orson Scott Card's column on the final Harry Potter book:
In the stupidest maneuver in the history of literary criticism, the NYT succumbed to the whining of the poor, poor "adult" authors during the era when the first three or four spots on the list were all occupied by Rowling's Harry Potter series.

They created a new "children's literature" list and ghettoized the Harry Potter novels there, which amounts to a footnote. So the supposed "newspaper of record" will now show the bestsellers of the year 2007 without any mention of the conclusion of the single largest publishing phenomenon in history.

This is so typical of The New York Times. If they think something shouldn't have happened, then by not reporting it, they make it so it didn't happen.

But it did. And by removing Harry Potter from its bestseller list, The New York Times reveals itself as the toady of the elitists.

And what will occupy the top of the list instead? James Patterson in a sad little collaboration, followed by a Nora Roberts thriller. Not until we get to Khaled Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns do we get to a book that the NYT is likely to be proud to have on their list. And then there's Janet Evanovich, proving that she's incapable of having a new idea in Lean Mean Thirteen, followed by the latest Danielle Steele.

Wow. It's a good thing Harry Potter won't interfere with that!

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

I hate the same things everyone else hates

Like smacking a mosquito and getting blood all over my hand. Probably my own blood, too.

Ah, Texas in July! Gotta love it.

When To Review

I'm thinking I'll probably put up a full length review (with spoilers) of the final Harry Potter book at some point, but I don't want to be a punk by putting it up when most of those likely to read it right off aren't done yet. Would this coming weekend be a fair time?

And for those who couldn't care less about Harry Potter... Well, it can't all be evolution, philosophy, just war, literature, guns, homeschooling and hot babes, now can it?

Though now I think about it, that does seem to cover most of what a person needs in life...

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Wise War vs. Just War

Burrowing back through a chain of links the other day, I found myself on the blog of the Chronicle of Higher Education, on there I found a post which quoted a post by "a poet and humanities professor" who had written on "Why I don't 'Support The Troops'":

The phrase is a cliché & buried in the cliché are a pair of pernicious ideas: 1) That individual soldiers are without moral, existential, responsibility for their acts; 2) that to argue the Iraq war is wrong, misguided, ill-conceived, badly managed, stupid, indecent, horrifying, & damaging to U.S. interests is to somehow wish harm to 'the troops.' Each 'troop' is a moral agent & though we make certain allowances for individuals acting under military orders, one of the benchmarks of civilization is that we hold soldiers to a moral standard of responsibility. ... I hate the war & I understand those fighting it to be participating in an immoral undertaking; that does not mean I wish them harmed. On the contrary, I wish that they would come to their moral senses.
(His original blogpost is linked to on the Chronicle post should you wish to read the rest.)

Now first off, while I strongly disagree with this guy, I think there's a basic consistency to what he's saying. If one believes that the war in Iraq is clearly and obviously wrong at a moral level, than one necessarily believes that it is sufficiently wrong that the troops should realize that and make known or act on their realization. (This doesn't mean I agree with or even respect his position all that much -- but given his assumptions he's being consistent.)

Two things struck me reading this, the one following upon the other.

First off, I found myself wondering if the author supported "doing something" about Darfur. It seems terribly fashionable right now -- one of those rare occasions on which the fashion of the world seems to have things right. However, while I myself would strongly support "doing something" about Darfur, I often wonder if those who call for such things have thought much about what "doing something" would require.

Our experiences in Bosnia and Rwanda have both underscored the difficulties of intervention which does not seek to decisively defeat one side of a "situation". One either tries to place oneself between the warring parties and ends up (if one has the courage to stay put) absorbing the blows of both, or (if as on key occasions in both Rwanda and Bosnia, the peace keepers are ordered to step back when things get hot) one simply ends up herding all the victims into one place and thus making them easier to wipe out. Nor did the approach of high-altitude-bombing-as-peacekeeping seem to be very successful, unless someone out there considers bombing the Chinese embassy a success...

If we were to intervene in Darfur and be any use, we would essentially have to do the same sort of thing we're currently engaged in doing in Iraq: try to identify the small bands of bad guys causing trouble and then kill or capture them. Why exactly would doing this in Darfur be so much more PC than doing it in Baqubah Province I'm not entirely clear. But I do have a theory: Liberals and conservatives in our current body politic are often typified by different feelings as well as different ideologies. I think that the idea of invading a country and getting rid of its brutal dictator seems inherently "bully-ish" and "mean" to people of a sort. However, swooping into an equally foreign, sovereign country to protect the weak from the strong (especially if there are no stated political objectives of getting rid of the regime that allowed this to occur in the first place) is seen as noble.

This in turn brought to mind something about the question of when waging war is right that I've been turning over in my mind for some years. Back when I was trying to get into the Air Force Academy (mid nineties) Bosnia was still the war of the day, and not a popular one with many conservatives. The argument was not so much that trying to end the fighting there was in inherently bad idea. Rather, the claim was that going in with no clear objectives would neither serve our interests nor help the locals.

In the process of thinking that over, I tentatively came to the following conclusion: there are many occasions when a head of state (whether king, congress or president) might be wrong to enter into war for a host of reasons (unlikely to succeed, situation might be resolved by other means, none of that country's business, etc.) and yet the aims of the war itself might in fact be good, and thus not unworthy of individual soldiers' efforts.

This is where I think the author above goes clearly over the line in suggesting that our soldiers in Iraq need to come to their moral senses and refuse to serve. Clearly, one can have reach varying conclusions as to whether or not it was the business of the US to invade Iraq. One can argue as to whether the aims we are trying to achieve are worth the suffering that has resulted from the destabilization of the region. (On the same principle, one could could question whether overthrowing communism was really a good idea in some countries, given the suffering that has resulted in the power vacuum created.)

However, it does not seem to me that one can reasonably content that getting rid of Hussein's dictatorship and defeating the Al Qaeda and radical Shiite/Iranian militia groups which have been causing trouble since are not inherently worthwhile things to strive to achieve by force of arms. Without denying that there have been individual wrongs done (some of them pretty appauling) by some individual soldiers and groups of soldiers at given times, the actual things that they are striving to accomplish on the ground on Iraq seem to me to be pretty clearly good.

It seems to me that this may be particularly important to keep in mind in some of the conversations that go on in Catholic circles about the morality of the war, where the phrase "unjust war" is thrown around a lot. In the context of the moral theology in question, a war might be "unjust" in the sense that -- given proper weighing of the proportionality between suffering likely to occur, the good being sought, the likelihood of success, etc. -- it is determined that declaring war would not be a right decision for the ruler to make. However, this is not necessarily the same thing as the war actually being waged to achieve unjust aims.

This, I think, is where the changes some people have made in the weight that they assign likelihood of success and proprotionality of good sought versus suffering caused have got ahead of the terminology that is traditionally used. And I think it would be a good thing for people to keep in mind in regards to such debates.

Monday, July 23, 2007

The Illustrated Homer

It took a while for our artist to get the first of the illustrations for the Elementary Humanities Program to get his first piece ready for publication, but I'm proud to say it's now up.

The first one ready in on the story of Helen of Troy.

Learning From Lions

We don't rent the girls that many Disney movies -- mainly because we don't like most of them. They very much enjoyed Bambi, which I think was quite a good one. They also enjoy Beauty And The Beast, which I don't like at all, but we agreed to borrow it for them after they watched the beginning at a restaurant.

Just recently, however, we let them see The Lion King. I'd been a good 10+ years since I'd seen it, but I'd remembered it being a pretty good movie. On re-seeing it, I again pretty impressed.

It seems like I heard Lion King summarized as "Hamlet meets Bambi with lions". This may have points in its favor, but one could double up on the bard and avoid the dear by putting it slightly more accurately: "Hamlet meets Prince Hal with lions."

And really, what is there not to love about a movie that provides important childhood lessons like "Avenge your father, while remaining more virtuous than his killer." This is exactly the sort of lesson we all need more of if we're to be ready to move on to sound advice like that of Njal ("Never kill twice in the same family, and if you do, keep the settlement") by the time you're twelve or so.

Joking aside, there's something pleasingly elemental about the issues that young Simba has to figure out. None of this "I'm a spoiled princess and I want my way" stuff (ala Little Mermaid). Simba gets put up against dealing with the death of a loved one, guilt, the importance of accepting one's duty, and dispensing justice. Then he settles down and has kids.

None of the Disney movies about human characters seem to be able to buckle down and deal with basics like that.

The Lost Weekend

It stretched out ahead of us. Now it's gone.

Originally my resolution going into the weekend was to do lots of work on the bookshelf, shich seems to be more needed with every week. (What, you mean we could stop buying books? We can stop any time. I'm sure of it. Besides, sometimes you don't exactly buy books, they just kind of show up and announce that they're at home.)

Instead we:
  • Read Frank Sheed's The Church and I, which provided lots of food for thought. I'll doubtless do a post or two on that in the coming days.

  • Switched gears and read Harry Potter (Fast reads like this are awkward for those like me who simply can't read faster than about 50 pages/hour. MrsDarwin finished the book in five hours reading time, I probably took about fifteen.)

  • Read aloud a collection of Irish myths to the girls, and started on a children's collection based on the Arabian Nights. They are now properly warned as to the dangers of being turned into swans, trusting strangers who want you to retrieve lamps, etc.

  • Continued to be impressed by our new associate pastor, who is making definate noises about offering a class in Gregorian Chant for the music groups.

So having finished both books and got a total of about eight hours sleep over the entire weekend, I think it's time to get back to normal now...

I suppose one of us will probably post a review later in the week. Right now, I'd just say that I think Rowling probably falls in the Heinlein camp of being a great storyteller, though not always a very good writer.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Yeah, we're still reading

Note to the US Postal Service: As you deliver mail to the postal boxes at the end of our street, please remember that the side of the box that you shove the mail into is wider than the doorways through which we, the recipients, take our mail. So, for example, if you're having difficulty wedging the box from Amazon containing the latest Harry Potter novel into my box, just imagine how much trouble I'll have getting it out! It was only with the greatest difficulty that I managed to extricate my book, after removing it from the packaging while it was still in the box. Unfortunately, it was still such a tight squeeze that the dust jacket of my brand new book looks like my five-year-old ran a knife down the outside of the back cover. Thanks.

After several hours of concentrated reading (made possible by my skills at blocking out ambient noise, honed by years of toddlers and younger siblings), I finished at 8:00 last night and passed it on to Darwin. He stayed up until almost 4 AM, and has spent all his free time today cloistered with the tome. So perhaps late tonight we'll be able to discuss it.

No spoilers here, but I will say that Rowling has definitely closed out the series. C'est fini, sports fans.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Weekend Reading

I was up reading last night till around 2am.

Another potter fan tearing through Book 7? No, our copy of Harry Potter is still somewhere in Amazon's keeping, likely to arrive today or Monday.

I was reading Frank Sheed's The Church and I.

I'll write more on it when I'm finished, but for those with an interest in what happened in the forty years leading up to Vatican II, and how that somehow lead to the chaos of the 60s and 70s, go find a copy.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Things That Make You Think... and Shudder

I did some math this morning to support a combox debate on whether or not banning guns reduces violence. I compared the murder rates in the US and UK, and then the murder-with-gun rates in both countries. The results:

The US murder-with-gun rate is 34x the one in the UK. The overall US murder rate is 3x that of the UK. That means that if you look only at murders that don't use a gun, the UK rate is over 6x the US rate.

Now, dead is dead, but compared to some options, a gun is not the worst way to go. (I still remember vividly a story out of Rwanda of a man describing how a mob forced him to kill his wife -- she was from a different tribe -- with a garden hoe.) But what should I run across a few minutes later but this link on CatholicCaveman to a story from the Daily Mail about one of those non-gun UK murders: a 20-year-old woman or Kurdish origin who was strangled and stamped to death over the course of several hours with her family's approval as an 'honor killing'.

A gun would make this worse how?

The murderers got around 20 years a piece in prison. Call my barbaric, but I can't help thinking that the Britain of Dorothy Sayers' novels had its priorities better sorted out in dealing with these situations with hemp.

Law, Free Will, Choice and... Guns

In my mis-spent youth, I used to listen to NPR's Morning Edition every morning while doing my math (yes, that's the kind of thing we wacky homeschoolers get away with). One morning (this was probably around '93) they were covering a "guns for toys" program, where people were being encouraged to bring real or toy guns down to their local police station and pick up stuffed animals in exchange.

How warm and fuzzy can you get? (And seriously, how many hardened criminals did the people staging this imagine would repent and come get a teddy in return for their gat?) They interviewed a few kids who dutifully said that they knew it was better to play with animals than with their toy guys they'd turned in. Then they interviewed an eighty-year-old woman who'd just turned in the police revolver that her grandfather used to carry in the 1870s and 1880s. "I've never shot it," she said. "But I'd kept it all these years as a piece of family history. But you know, things aren't the same anymore. I heard about this exchange and I thought: It's not the wild west anymore. I'd better go turn this in to the police where it belongs. I think we'd all be a lot safer without so many guns around."

Maybe in some abstract sense we would -- but I'm not sure we got any safer when that old lady turned in her piece of family history.

However as I was thinking the other day about the enthusiasm for gun control (or just outright banning guns) on the left, this clicked into place as half of the puzzle. Here's the other half:

We've all run into the argument that outlawing or restricting abortion would not cut down on the number of abortions, just drive the industry underground. What we need to do instead, we're told, is simply to abolish poverty, injustice and bad relationships. Then no one will want an abortion.

Now since many of the same people who make this argument are strongly in favor of gun control laws, my first instinct was to counter: So if banning abortion won't decrease abortions, how will banning guns decrease gun ownership?

But this actually wouldn't be a good comparison. Getting an abortion is the sin itself. Owning a gun isn't. It's what might be done with a gun that people are worried about. The equivalent sin involved with owning a gun would be murder or suicide. So in a certain sense, a pro-choicer who was in favor of gun control is being consistent: He doesn't think that the laws against murder will do anything to stop people from committing murders, so he wants to ban the means that people might use to commit a murder. This would be like someone who was pro-life saying: "I think we need to outlaw abortion, but of course that won't work. So then we need to outlaw OBGYNs and coathangers and alcohol and medical instruments and..." And yet I find it rather hard to imagine the pro-life movement engaging in that kind of advocacy.

At root, the gun control idea (or at least, the extreme form of essentially eliminating guns from society) stems from a lack of willingness to allow for the existence of free will.

Your prototypical example of law might be the ten commandments (or if you want a non Judeo-Christian example: Hamurabi's code): a list of "thou shalt not" statements carved in stone. These don't take away free will, but they seek to form it by setting forth standards and sometimes prescribing specific punishments (costs) for violating the stated norms.

Banning guns, however, is not an attempt to directly ban unlawful behavior. Rather, it's an attempt to remove the means of doing so. If the normal approach to law giving is symbolized by the stone tablets, gun control could be symbolized by the straight jacket: We can't trust you to follow the laws you've been given or be motivated by fear of punishment, so we'll simply restrict your ability to act.

Now, we do this to an extent as it is. People are not allowed to possess nuclear weapons, land mines, machine guns, etc. because it seems like there are few responsible reasons for wanting such things as a private individual (thus the lack of freedom imposed is minimal) and the potential destruction from misuse is high.

There are other areas where no sane person would attempt to go. For instance, cutting off the genitals of all men would do a lot to stop the spread of AIDS (unless everyone turned to injecting drugs out of despair) -- but I don't think anyone is going to start advocating it. The loss of function/freedom would not be proportional to the intended good.

So I think that a lot of how people feel about gun control boils down to how people feel about guns. To some people, this is the 1911 Colt .45, one of the best built guns ever designed, and still going strong after nearly 100 years.To others its just a scary and evil hunk of metal which is liable to get up and make someone kill someone else.

To those people, banning guns seems like a pretty good idea. If they have absolutely no positive value, and are sometimes used to kill people, why not ban them?

These same people do not advocate banning swimming pools, despite the fact that 7x as many children die each year in drowning accidents as in gun accidents. Nor do they advocating banning cars (or putting the maximum speed limit as 25 miles per hour), because most people have built lifestyles that rely on the availability of cars and aren't prepared to change that lifestyle in order to avoid the 40,000+ deaths per year in the US as a result of auto accidents.

In a sense, it's interesting that in general the liberal side of the political spectrum in the US right now is in favor of lighter punishments for those who actually commit murder, but wants to confiscate one particular means of doing so; while the conservative side supports much stiffer penalties for murder, but keeping guns moderately available. In a world full of thinking persons, this would indicate some very interesting things about how the two side view the human person.
In reality, however, it may just be that the younger, more urban and childless demographics which are the mainstay of liberal activism have a personal distaste for guns, while the older, more rural demographic that in votes most conservatively sees the benefits of guns as well as their cost.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Jubilate Deo!

Thanks to Ana Braga-Henebry's suggestion in the comments box, I was directed to Cor Immaculatae, a blog by a director of a Schola in Lincoln, NE. On her sidebar I found an excellent link that is just what I'd been searching for: Jubilate Deo, a printable booklet of the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship's "minimum chant repertoire" for every parish, and the companion to our aging cassette of chant. I've already printed off a copy to put in a binder for our own use, and I plan to print one for our choir director as well. For them as can't read neumes, there is a shorter version with modern notation.

On Liturgy and Music

Things tend to get chewed over in conversation a lot in the Darwin household. One of the frequent topics for the last couple weeks has been liturgy, most specifically in regard to music. (Indeed, now I see that MrsDarwin has proved this point by already posting on the topic of liturgical music today...)

All this started, perhaps appropriately enough, with the coming of the motu proprio. Now, we we've only gone to Tridentine masses together twice (both low masses) and I can't say it was love at first sight. So it's not particularly that we're eager to form a "stable group of faithful who adhere to the earlier liturgical tradition", but rather that all the reading up about the pope's letter inspired a lot of discussion of liturgy at our church and in general. (Which, after all, was one of the pope's stated purposes, wasn't it?)

We've both got into listening to sacred music from all periods of the Church's history, and some of the Eastern as well as the Western variety. (Hint: has some great Orthodox sacred music.) However, we've been to masses (while traveling in Europe) which are full concert productions using a mass composed by Mozart, or even Schubert. You'll hit something like the Gloria and everyone sits down for ten minutes and listens, concert style, then everyone stands up and resumes the mass. It seems rather like a mass with concert interruptions.

I don't think that a "big production" mass of this sort is never appropriate (though I'm not sure about the sit-down-and-listen approach). I could see it as much more fitting on certain big occasions (papal visits, diocesan conferences, major sacraments, etc.) than some of the special liturgies that I've seen people try to pull off in recent years. (Going to LA Archdiocese youth conferences certainly gets you the whole range of potential liturgical abuses...)

However, it seems to me that in the regular parish setting, it is best for the liturgical understanding/participation of the congregation if the music is of a sort that the entire congregation can join in. This certainly doesn't mean that it has to be some sort of modern pop-hymn, but it does seem to mean that it can't be five part polyphany (sorry Palestrina) or chant with so much melisma (when a single vowel is drawn out across many notes) that it becomes hard to tell what the notes are.

Embarrassingly, what sticks in my head in regards to this is something I recall from the music course that we listened to, in which the instructor talked about Lutheran congregational singing being rooted in Martin Luther's insistence that the entire congregation pray together through song. (And while at one level I object to the concept, I have to admit that it's always a relief (to the ears at least) when something written by Luther or one of the leaders of the English reformation shows up at mass.

I suspect that the best solution to this is the use of the basic chants (which will probably found familiar to nearly all ordinary Catholics) in either English or Latin for the parts of the mass. These aren't exciting pieces to work up, but then I'm not sure that parish music direction ought to be exciting. Generally speaking, if something is a really exciting performance piece, it's probably something that most of the congregation has to just listen to rather than joining in.

I know that I've heard these settings used, and we found a recording on an ancient Daughters of St. Paul cassette tape that had come over from my parents' house, along with various relics of childhood, however we haven't run across them in a modern (preferable electronic) format. Does anyone know where a CD or (even better) MP3 of the basic chants of the ordinary of the mass can be found?

The Singing Priest

Our new associate pastor, Fr. J, celebrated his first mass at our parish this past Sunday. Things look quite encouraging. He was just ordained a month ago, so we're his first assignment. He's a fine singer, and it turns out that he performs with classical and renaissance music groups around Austin. He did an excellent job chanting the Eucharistic rite -- which just highlighted the banality of the service music.

I greeted him before Mass and told him I'd heard he was a skilled chant teacher (one of our friends is a seminarian for the diocese of Austin and knew Father there). Was he planning on starting a Schola? He said that at this point he was playing his cards close to his vestments, but that perhaps once he's settled in he might look into putting something together. I expressed interest in participating in such a group, should one form.

I know that there are a number of fine singers in our parish who don't regularly participate in any of the choirs because of the music selections at the various masses. I myself sang with the choir at Christmas and Easter -- perhaps that's cherry-picking for the best music of the year, and yet those are also solemn times when the choir should add good voices to swell the song. It would be easier to retain those extra voices if the music during the rest of the year were taken as seriously as at Christmas and Eastertide.

And yet, I don't want beautiful music just for the sake of beautiful music. It has to serve the Mass. A choir director must have the humility to know, for example, if not all of a carefully practiced hymn should be sung after communion if performing the song in whole will hold up the Mass. This is a trend I've noticed at several parishes I've attended. Music that stops the Mass at key points -- overly long offertory hymns or post-communion selections -- becomes performance music, and has the unfortunate tendency of inviting applause from the congregation. It draws attention to itself.

So here's to Fr. J and his chant. May his example on the altar have a strong influence on the liturgical life of the parish. He's in our prayers.

John Farrell on Kenneth Miller Talk

John Farrell provides an in-depth, glowing review after attending a lecture on Faith, Mathematics and Science by biologist Kenneth Miller, author of Finding Darwin's God. Very much worth reading.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Story Time - Trojan War Edition

As regular readers doubtless recall (perhaps with some fatigue) I've been working on a long term project of writing a collection of the "great stories" from history (and mythology and literature) for children.

For the last month and change (shocking how long these things can take) I've been struggling over turning the Iliad and Odyssey into short childrens versions. In some ways, this has been made more difficult by the fact I've been re-reading the Iliad as I go along, which results in lots of "I can't leave that out!" thinking.

Anyway, I finally got this to something like a finished state, and I've been going through reading the stories aloud to our eldest daughter as bedtime material. However, she's five (at the bottom of the intended age range) and is willing to sit back and listen to anything from Goodnight Moon to selections from Njal's Saga, so I'm not sure that the fact she keeps listening is actually a sign of success, or just general receptivity to reading. Plus she doesn't really have any feedback on whether everything makes sense, is exciting, etc.

So, a request for anyone out there with kids somewhere around 5-9 who's willing to do some experimental reading: I'd very much appreciate it if you'd read over some or all of the following and let me know if these seem like something that your child would enjoy. Better yet, if you can read them aloud to kids and let me know what their feedback is, I'd appreciate it even more.

The Trojan War: A Blind Poet Named Homer

The Wanderings of Odyssues:

The one thing I haven't finished yet is adding a list of good outside reading (picture books, story books and chapter books dealing with the Trojan War and Odysseus which are recommended if one wants to read further). I have a few old favorites from my childhood, and a bunch of stuff I picked up at the library that I need to look through, but if you have suggestions, do let me know and I'll include them. (Do please note the length and age level.)

Monday, July 16, 2007

On a lighter note...

This sounds like a heck of a girl.

More on Catholic Social Teaching and the Living Wage

My previous post which touched on the issues of 'living wage' and open borders seemed to touch off a lot of interesting discussion, some elements of which required a new post to really flesh out.

Some years back I was discussing politics with a senior co-worker, someone who lived in an million-dollar home in the Santa Monica Mountains, and hired a yard guy, a pool guy, a maid, etc. to keep it up for him.

"This 'trickle down economics' thing is idiotic," he announced. "Why do they think that giving the rich more money will help anyone other than the rich?"

"So if you and your wife both lost your jobs," I asked, "would you keep the yard guy and the maid, or would you start to mow your own lawn and vacuum your own house?"

Now, I mow my own lawn, and we clean our own house, and that's not merely because I still make less than a third of what this guy made, but also because I take a certain old-fashioned American pride in taking care of my own homestead. But the point I'm trying to illustrate is what strikes me as a two-fold economic truth:

1) Many job niches rely, for their existence, on economic disparity. (If we all made exactly the same amount of money, probably no one would have a maid.)
2) Certain economic laws will make themselves felt, no matter how good one's intentions may be.

I may have just made my old co-worker sound like a rich jerk -- and he could be one at times. But to give him credit, he also took a lot of interest in the people who worked for him (though since at the time I was making an eighth of what he did, it seemed awful lord-of-the-manor-ish to me). He was the kind of guy who still went to the same barber that his father had gone to, and gave the guy a twenty dollar tip every time. And he'd searched out a maid who would work for him directly, because he didn't think it was fair that places like Molly Maids paid their people so little.

In that sense, he was a perfect example of trickle-down economics. I, on the other hand, am much less helpful to the rest of the economy. We do all our own yard and house work. My commuter car is over ten years old. We almost never eat out, and we try to keep excess buying to a minimum.

Why all of this anecdote?

One of the big issues for those who are big into Catholic Social Teaching, especially as regards to economics, is the "living wage". The idea is that it is unjust to hire someone and then pay them less than the amount of money it would take to support their family at a decent level of human dignity. I see what's being aimed at with the living wage idea, but I have a couple of issues with it. First of all, there's the question of what level of life a "living wage" is meant to support. It seems to me that most people who use the phrase generally mean a mainstream American middle class life, with a single income, a stay at home mom, and a number of kids. (This may seem pretty normal among Americans and to an extent Europeans discussing all this -- but it strikes me as important to recall that this level of existence would be considered fabulously wealthy at nearly any other time or place in history.)

There's another concept that often gets mixed up with the "living wage" which is the "just wage". A just wage is a wage that accurately reflects the value which the employee creates. So for instance, if an employee at a furniture workshop is single-handedly turning a $100 pile of lumber into a $800 dining room table -- one would imagine that his just wage would include a fairly decent portion of the $700 in gross profit that he helped create. If it takes him ten hours to make the table, but his employer is only paying him $5/hr, we probably have a problem here in regards to just wage.

Now, the above example of the table-maker is a situation dealing with craft. And I think this is an important distinction to make, because I think there's a tendency (and perhaps not a surprising one given history) of some expressions of Catholic Social Teaching to treat all manufacturing work as if it were craft.

Now, by "craft" I mean work that meets the following criteria:
-It turns a set of raw materials of much lower value in a finished product of significant value strictly through the creativity and skill of the craftsman.
-Success relies on significant skill and/or time investment, such that another (largely untrained) worker could not be substituted into the process with little loss of productivity or quality.
-The design of the finished product is, in detail or in whole, the work of the craftsman.

In a situation that meets those criteria, much of the value of the finished product is created by the craftsman, and so it clearly is a matter of justice that the craftsman receive the majority of the profit from the sale of his work.

One of the difficulties with craft-made work, however, is that many people are not very good craftsmen. Also, crafted products take a long time to produce, and so are very expensive. A successful "middle class" (to the extent the term pertained) farming family in the 1870s might bring in a tailor once or twice a year to make clothes for the family, with the result that each person had perhaps two everyday outfits and one Sunday outfit to last (along with the left-overs of past years) throughout the year. You might also buy a single pair of every day shoes to last each year -- if that often. Thought of in cost-of-labor terms, these items were incredibly expensive. You're probably talking roughly the same cost that bespoke clothes still demand: $300-500 for a shirt; $3000+ for a suit; $300+ for shoes.

I'm not a fan of the "buy tons of clothes at WalMart for under $10 a piece and throw them away like toilet paper" approach to things, but you can see why "clothe the naked" was a much more frequent need in a pre-industrial society than our own. Mass production means that when we (as a middle class family) pack up a bag of donations for St. Vincent de Paul, it contains shoes that are worn, but still quite intact, and jeans that may be a little frayed at cuffs of pockets, but are still solid (indeed only beginning to look "distressed" enough for your average teenager). But when it would take a skilled cobbler several days of work a produce a single pair of shoes, the poor really did find themselves wrapping their feet in rags, rather than wearing the old tennis shoes of the middle class.

What mass production does is reduce the amount of time and skill required to produce a finished product. Let's go back to our table example. What if, instead of a craftsman who takes unfinished lumber and makes a table, we have an assembler who takes a set of pre-cut, pre-finished, numbered parts and bolts them together to make a table. Perhaps it takes him 30 minutes to put a table together. And the people back in the factory were also doing simple, repetitive tasks such as feeding unfinished pieces of wood into trimmers, assembling standardized pieces, etc.

While it might take months or years of training for a craftsman to learn to do his trade with maximum skill and speed, a new worker factory-style table shop might only take one day to train and be eminently replaceable. Standardization has allowed the creative skill in designing a table once to be used to produce any number of exact copies.

Similar techniques are employed in service industries. If you go into a McDonalds (not something I would recommend, but if you do...) you encounter a checker using a cash register that uses pictograms of the products in order to avoid not merely the need of mathematical knowledge, but also of good language skills, and a cook who is specifically expected not to deviate from the by-rote method of preparing the whole dingy catalog of fried delights.

This means that you can expect food to taste the same in all McDonalds, and that when the employees quit without notice (or simply don't show up) it's easy to move people around and bring new employees in. The process of standardizing fast food cooking and selling has not only removed from the employees the responsibility of deciding what to cook and what supplies to order (and the pitfalls of unpopular food, waste and bankruptcy that lie therein, and do in so many small, independent restaurant owners) but has also allowed the restaurant to hire unreliable staff without destroying the operation in the process.

Is this a good thing? Well, it's hard to say. I don't like the approach. It's not the kind of business I would want to run. But, the fact is (as least so far as my observation would seem to suggest) there are a lot of unreliable people in the world: people who have a tendency to show up a couple hours late for no terribly good reason, or quit without notice, or just tend to fool around a lot at work and not follow instructions well.

So the quandary, from my point of view, is that standardization allows a company to create service or manufacturing jobs which manage to keep the company moving along more-or-less forward while at root being very low value jobs: jobs requiring little skill or commitment. The just wage for such a job is, arguably, pretty low. Low enough that if a head of household is making that wage, he isn't going to be able to support his family at a decent, middle class level. However, the reason that a just wage for that work is so low, is that it's a job that is not very productive and requires very little responsibility. So my tendency is to think that if you want to be the head of a household, it's your duty to find a job that is sufficiently responsible and productive that its just wage is enough to support your family.

(I'm not denying that there are employers who perhaps get away with not paying a just wage for the work they get -- but I certainly don't think it's universally the case with low wage jobs that the wage is not commensurate to the work.)

Now, if you turn around and insist that you pay a living wage instead of a low, just wage in all these positions you do two things: you fail to provide any incentive for people to assume more responsibility and productivity and actually earn more rather than simply being given more, and you also cause what is effectively inflation.

Say you mandate that everyone at McDonalds be paid at least $15/hr (at a full time rate, that 30k, which is a pretty base-line household income in most parts of the country.) Now you can do one of two things: you can get rid of half the staff and expect the remaining staff to be more productive to cover for having fewer people (which increases unemployment if it happens on a wide scale) or you can raise the prices to make up for it. Say you raise the prices. Now instead of paying $5 for a value meal, you pay $12. Many of my co-workers eat fast food of one sort or another for lunch every day rather than bringing left-overs. That means that their cost per month would go from $100 to $240. Now I would imagine that in at least a number of cases, that would mean that they'd decide to scale back on eating fast food, and eat leftovers or food from the grocery store instead. Unless someone raised their wages as well, they couldn't afford to pay 2.5x as much for lunch as they used to. So fewer people would buy fast food. Which would in turn hit the fast food places again, and they'd need to either raise prices higher (which would further decrease demand) or cut costs. Hint: the biggest cost for most businesses is paying their employees.

The current frequency with which people buy fast food and other services and product produced by low-wage labor is a result of the relative imbalance between the incomes of the customer and the provider. If you want to pay the provider more, you need to either increase your employee productivity (and trim some employees) or bring more money in by charging more. And yet, you can only bring more money in by charging more if your clientele makes more money, you increase the value of your service to them (thus making them reluctant to stop buying despite the increased cost), or you find yourself a more well-healed clientele.

My preferred response to all this is to buy fewer products and services (and do more things for myself) but on the things that I do buy, try to buy them from slightly better venues which sell better things and pay their people better. However, I hesitate to suggest that everyone must do this because a) I realize I can only do this because I make a certain base-line amount of money to start with and b) if everyone did this it would leave those people who for whatever reason are low productivity workers by nature out of a job. If everyone took my approach, many low skilled and low reliability workers would be even poorer than they are now, although those up to building skills and being reliable would make more. And since I'm hesitant to say that's better, I find myself hesitant to make sweeping suggestions on reforming the economic order.

Happy Birthday to the Opinionated Baby

Long time reader The Opinionated Homeschooler is having a C-section this morning to usher Offspring #3 into the world. Please keep her and baby and family in your prayers.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Samuel Johnson: A Brief to Free a Slave

I've been on a kick of reading the writings of Dr. Samuel Johnson this weekend, in part as a result of working on a section of Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson for LibriVox.

You can find a quite complete collection of Johnson's works in electronic form on this webpage. If reading aloud is your fancy, I quite recommend his essays from The Rambler.

Among his works, I stumbled upon this, a 1777 legal brief filed on behalf of a slave seeking freedom:
It must be agreed that in most ages many countries have had part of their inhabitants in a state of slavery ; yet it may be doubted whether slavery can ever be supposed the natural condition of man. It is impossible not to conceive that men in their original state were equal; and very difficult to imagine how one would be subjected to another but by violent compulsion. An individual may, indeed, forfeit his liberty by a crime ; but he cannot by that crime forfeit the liberty of his children. What is true of a criminal seems true likewise of a captive. A man may accept life from a conquering enemy on condition of perpetual servitude; but it is very doubtful whether he can entail that servitude on his descendants; for no man can stipulate without commission for another. The condition which he himself accepts, his son or grandson perhaps would have rejected. If we should admit, what perhaps may with more reason be denied, that there are certain relations between man and man which may make slavery necessary and just, yet it can never be proved that he who is now suing for his freedom ever stood in any of those relations. He is certainly subject by no law, but that of violence, to his present master; who pretends no claim to his obedience, but that he bought him from a merchant of slaves, whose right to sell him never was examined. It is said that according to the constitutions of Jamaica he was legally enslaved ; these constitutions are merely positive; and apparently injurious to the rights of mankind, because whoever is exposed to sale is condemned to slavery without appeal; by whatever fraud or violence he might have been originally brought into the merchant's power. In our own time Princes have been sold, by wretches to whose care they were entrusted, that they might have an European education; but when once they were brought to a market in the plantations, little would avail either their dignity or their wrongs. The laws of Jamaica afford a Negro no redress. His colour is considered as a sufficient testimony against him. It is to be lamented that moral right should ever give way to political convenience. But if temptations of interest are sometimes too strong for human virtue, let us at least retain a virtue where there is no temptation to quit it. In the present case there is apparent right on one side, and no convenience on the other. Inhabitants of this island can neither gain riches nor power by taking away the liberty of any part of the human species. The sum of the argument is this :—No man is by nature the property of another: The defendant is, therefore, by nature free: The rights of nature must be some way forfeited before they can be justly taken away : That the defendant has by any act forfeited the rights of nature we require to be proved; and if no proof of such forfeiture can be given, we doubt not but the justice of the court will declare him free.
Johnson was a staunch Tory, conservative by temperament, and had little sympathy for the aspirations of the American colonists. In his tract Taxation No Tyranny he combined his dislike of radical politics with his dislike of slavery in commenting, "How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the driver of Negroes?"

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Protect Thyself

Every time we haul the whole gang out to go shopping, we ask ourselves why we do these crazy things. This was doubly true today, as in the chaos of trying to herd hungry girls out of Target my purse was left in the shopping cart in the front of the store. We rushed back as soon as I noticed it was missing, but in the five minutes we'd been gone, someone had already picked it up. About half an hour later, I received a call from the store, saying my purse had been found on the floor in the lingerie department.
"Did you have a wallet in there?" asked the clerk. "There wasn't one in the purse when security picked it up."

The sound of my primal scream is echoing in my head.

Here's what I did:

1. The first thing I did was to call the police department to file a report.

2. While I was waiting for an officer to call me back, I canceled my credit cards. Darwin and I share all but one of our cards, so unfortunately neither of us will have an active credit card for the next five days -- except the replacement card for an old unused account that's been sitting around for about six months waiting to be activated. Inertia pays off!

3. Darwin went back to Target and talked to the head of security there. They pulled up our receipt to see at what time and on what aisle we'd checked out, so they knew what security camera footage to review.

4. I pulled copies of the credit card bills so that when the officer called back, I could give him the numbers. I also gave him the name of the Target security guard. Unfortunately, I didn't know my driver's license number

5. Since my social security card was in my wallet (word to the wise: don't carry your social security card in your wallet. You also don't need to carry your eight-year-old passport registered to your maiden name. Just sayin'.), I contacted one of the major credit bureaus and put a fraud alert on my account. In the case of a fraud alert the three credit bureaus -- Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion -- communicate with one another, so you only need to call one. The alert will stay on my report for ninety days.

6. On Monday morning I'll go down to the DMV to deal with getting a new license. I'll also go down to the post office, just in case anyone tries to use my address for... well, whatever. Fortunately, our mail box opens with a key, and my keys were recovered safely with my purse.

At least my gym membership card wasn't in my wallet, which would have done me worlds of good if I hadn't showed up five minutes after it closed. The primal scream echoes on in my head...