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

Monday, December 31, 2007

Tolstoy, Happiness and the Holy Family

Tolstoy opens Anna Karennina by observing, "Happy families are all alike, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Perhaps its a sign that Tolstoy is indeed a very good writer that despite the fact this quote strikes me as both wrong and annoying, the line is sufficiently descriptive and well turned that one can't escape the idea that somehow it's saying something important.

I was thinking about this yesterday as I spent the gospel for the Feast of the Holy Family standing in the vestibule with a squirming, squealing 21-month-old. The facts of the Holy Family's history to not necessarily point to the uniform ease which Tolstoy seems to attribute to happy families: inexplicable pregnancy, birth under difficult conditions (and with strange visitors), fleeing death at the hands of the political authorities, Joseph's death before Jesus turned 30, etc. I hadn't thought about this before, since if anything the Holy Family often seems too distant to be much of a practical exemplar. I mean, you've got one person who's sinless, one person who's God, and even the weakest link, Joseph, always seems able to do God's will without question. And yet, most of us, if we'd gone through half the difficulties the Holy Family did would feel ourselves rather ill used.

No family, I suspect, if put under sufficient scrutiny can claim to have experience universally happy events. What makes all happy families the same is, instead, one's choice to view them happily. Similarly, what makes all unhappy families the same is one's choice to feel miserable about them. Often, the same family, with the same history and characters, is seen as happy and unhappy by different people, not necessarily just because some "came out ahead" but rather because some people choose to focus on the happy, and others on the unhappy.

One area in which this is particularly evident is in how people view their childhoods, and periods within living memory. It's a commonplace among many people right now that it was much easier for a family to make a living in the 1950s-1970s than it is now. Perhaps in some objective sense (if you were white and middle class) it was, but I suspect that most of this is that that period is currently seen through the filter of people's childhood experiences, or even their parents' childhood experiences.

My own memories of how our family situation seemed to me when I was a child clearly clash with my adult knowledge of how it took my parents ten years longer to afford a (smaller) house, my father's fears fears about his job, a city college salary that tended to grow slower than inflation, and various other forms of adversity. Parents try hard to make their children feel secure, and children have an amazing capacity to feel stable and secure, even in very difficult circumstances. Most adults lack this capacity, and so our adult experience of the world can seldom compete with our childhood experiences when it comes to a feeling of security.

Tolstoy's heroine has a family no more individual in its circumstances than most, but she has the gift of being able to be unhappy in any situation, and longing for what she does not (and arguably should not) have.

All happy families, I think, are alike in that they possess people able to be happy in them, and all unhappy families are alike in that they contain those of the opposite disposition.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Quick post so our readers don't give us up for dead

Sorry to be incommunicado lately -- as Darwin said, we've been enjoying our Christmas vacation. Darwin put in a burst of work and finished the playhouse for the small fry (pix later) and we picked out a fine kitten who is loved by all and who patiently submits to being carried around by the toddler.
Lucy the Christmas cat

We've also been busy rounding up stockings and fancy shoes and dresses and getting hair trimmed for the wedding of some dear friends this afternoon. Please remember in your prayers as they start their new life together.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

A Merry Christmas to All

A merry and blessed Christmas to all, and if this greeting is a little late, at least there are still ten more days of it to enjoy!

Things will probably continue fairly quiet on the blog through the 1st, as the corporate holidays are giving me a chance to catch up on a number of projects, though I can promise at least a couple posts by the end of the week.

Friday, December 21, 2007

The Nutcracker in Ten Minutes

For those of you with little girls who love ballet but don't have the attention span to sit through an entire production of the Nutcracker (and have parents who are in shock at the financial impact of such holiday fare), we present The Nutcracker in Ten Minutes. Kid tested, mother approved.

h/t Teeny Manolo

Materialism Requires Material Comfort?

John Farrell has a brief review of Brother Guy consolmango's new book, God's Mechanics, from which I loved the following line:
Atheism is a luxury of the well-to-do; it goes hand in hand with flush toilets.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

And Now For Some Serious Political/Moral Commentary

Science fiction author John C. Wright helps us examine the really important questions, like truth and beauty.
So there you have it! The beauty contest method of choosing sides works roughly half the time without error! Considering how often folk are led astray by more complicated and profound processes of cognition, this shallowest of methods, judging the merits of the case by the surface appearances, cannot be dismissed out of hand.
This one's for you, Rick.

Faith in an Orderly Universe

It's not only Catholic cardinals who manage to create a firestorm when they write NY Times op-eds about science and philosophy. Physicist Paul Davies landed quite a bit of attention last month with an editorial titled Taking Science on Faith. His point is one that has always struck me as deeply compelling: that science as a discipline relies on an implicit faith that the universe acts according to knowable laws.
Clearly, then, both religion and science are founded on faith — namely, on belief in the existence of something outside the universe, like an unexplained God or an unexplained set of physical laws, maybe even a huge ensemble of unseen universes, too. For that reason, both monotheistic religion and orthodox science fail to provide a complete account of physical existence.

This shared failing is no surprise, because the very notion of physical law is a theological one in the first place, a fact that makes many scientists squirm. Isaac Newton first got the idea of absolute, universal, perfect, immutable laws from the Christian doctrine that God created the world and ordered it in a rational way. Christians envisage God as upholding the natural order from beyond the universe, while physicists think of their laws as inhabiting an abstract transcendent realm of perfect mathematical relationships.
This view ruffled quite a few feathers. A follow up article (the one that actually caught my eye the other day) by Dennis Overbye describes some of the flack that Davies has caught from other scientists, science enthusiasts, and anyone else who felt like writing to the Time letters column:

His argument provoked an avalanche of blog commentary, articles on and letters to The Times, pointing out that the order we perceive in nature has been explored and tested for more than 2,000 years by observation and experimentation. That order is precisely the hypothesis that the scientific enterprise is engaged in testing.

David J. Gross, director of the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics in Santa Barbara, Calif., and co-winner of the Nobel Prize in physics, told me in an e-mail message, “I have more confidence in the methods of science, based on the amazing record of science and its ability over the centuries to answer unanswerable questions, than I do in the methods of faith (what are they?).”
However, the attempts that Overbye quotes to explain science's reliance on an orderly universe without recourse to a leap of faith sound suspiciously like an attempt to do the same thing in different words:
Pressed, these scientists will describe the laws more pragmatically as a kind of shorthand for nature’s regularity. Sean Carroll, a cosmologist at the California Institute of Technology, put it this way: “A law of physics is a pattern that nature obeys without exception.”
That sounds very observational and pragmatic... except for the "without exception" part at the end there. True, we don't have to tune in every morning to the daily gravity report to see how fast things are falling that day, but saying that the laws of physics describe how the world behaves "without exception" based on a few hundred years of modern science (during most of which we interpreted our observations as pointing to laws other than our current understanding of physics) strikes me as taking something very like a leap of faith.

The issue, I think, is that some people who spend a lot of time and attention on science (I think this is actually more of an issue with science enthusiasts and low level science teachers as opposed to serious high level research scientists -- though one finds it at times there as well) have rather too much invested in the idea that scientific methodologies are The One Reliable Way of Finding Out How the Universe Really Works.

And yet, taken on their own, scientific methodologies are generally formulated to determine how things appear to work in a given set of situations and times. It's our faith that the universe works in a knowable, orderly, fairly universal fashion that allows us to turn five hundred years of modern science (or 2500 if you want to date science from the Greeks) into knowledge of how things work "without exception."

What's ironic, in a sense, is that Davies is not trying to advocate more respect for faith via his editorial. Rather, his last two paragraphs issue a call to seek a new, less universal way of understandings the "laws" of science:
It seems to me there is no hope of ever explaining why the physical universe is as it is so long as we are fixated on immutable laws or meta-laws that exist reasonlessly or are imposed by divine providence. The alternative is to regard the laws of physics and the universe they govern as part and parcel of a unitary system, and to be incorporated together within a common explanatory scheme.

In other words, the laws should have an explanation from within the universe and not involve appealing to an external agency. The specifics of that explanation are a matter for future research. But until science comes up with a testable theory of the laws of the universe, its claim to be free of faith is manifestly bogus.
If science were to be a totally self-contained discipline, I see the importance of what he's advocating. Though at the same time, I'm not entirely clear what these explanations internal to the universe would look like. The strong nuclear force works because... why?

That's the funny thing about "laws" in physics. Contrary to how my third grade science book tried to explain it, a law is not simply a hypothesis that has been tested many times. A law is something which seems to be universally the case, and yet has to be taken just "as is". There's not necessarily a "why" involved.

This is just fine if you simply consider science a methodology for explaining how material systems behave. It's rather more problematic if you have hopes of science being the one true method of knowing things for sure. Which is what leaves those interested in science who are comfortable with having a metaphysics in a better spot than those who imagine that one is better off without one.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

My Life as a Sanctuary Rat

In case the relative silence on my part hasn't been a give-away, things have been a bit on the busy side around here. The team is gradually shrinking at work as people decide to "work from home" until the break, and since I price consumer electronics, the work has remained fairly heavy. We also seem to find ourselves at the church, at least briefly, just about every day.

The fault for this is pretty well split between MrsDarwin and myself. I got a Liturgy of the Hours group off the ground about two months ago, saying Vespers on Monday and Wednesday nights. Now we're up to four nights, Monday through Thursday, and although we're starting to build a decent and loyal attendance, it's not solid enough I feel like I can skip. Plus, I've been typing up sheets for each night for those who haven't bought books yet. This would involve four weeks of work to get the cycle done, except that as soon as we got through a four week cycle, Advent started, with all sorts of Advent-specific stuff, so there's usually some change or other I have to make and reprint for each evening's Vespers.

Meanwhile, the chant schola which MrsDarwin helped start has taken over the 7:30 mass (once a month to start with), and did a Lessons and Carols last week, and has to sing for the penance service this week, and has the 10:30 on Christmas. So she's at practice 2-3 nights a week.

So as you can imagine, Advent has been quite penitential indeed and we're very much looking forward to some quiet sailing during the Christmas season.

This is somewhat familiar ground for MrsDarwin, whose family was always deeply involved in church related activities, but the sanctuary rat routine has been quite new to me, as my family was never involved in "parish stuff".

Thus goes life around here. One way or another things should be calming down soon.

Upcoming priorities:
  • Finish getting Christmas presents before they all become Epiphany presents.
  • Get walls up on the playhouse.
  • Finish reading Duffy's Stripping of the Altars and Waugh's Decline and Fall. (There's a good contrast for you.)
  • Buy a kitten. (We've decided that the cat needs a hobby.)
  • Finish my bottle of Macallan 12-Year.
  • Conduct the annual viewing of George C. Scott's A Christmas Carol (because there's only one that good).
  • Oh, and write some substantive posts...

Monday, December 17, 2007

Bonfire of the Disney Princesses

I could care less for the Disney Princesses phenomenon, but at least my distaste hasn't crossed the line into conspiracy madness. Barbara Ehrenreich, writing in The Nation, examines the Princesses and concludes that they're just a tool of the man to force little girls into skewed gender roles.
Contrary to the rumors I have been trying to spread for some time, Disney Princess products are not contaminated with lead. More careful analysis shows that the entire product line--books, DVDs, ball gowns, necklaces, toy cell phones, toothbrush holders, T-shirts, lunch boxes, backpacks, wallpaper, sheets, stickers etc.--is saturated with a particularly potent time-release form of the date rape drug.

We cannot blame China this time, because the drug is in the concept, which was spawned in the Disney studios. Before 2000, the Princesses were just the separate, disunited, heroines of Disney animated films-- Snow White, Cinderella, Ariel, Aurora, Pocahontas, Jasmine, Belle, and Mulan. Then Disney's Andy Mooney got the idea of bringing the gals together in a team. With a wave of the wand ($10.99 at Target, tiara included) they were all elevated to royal status and set loose on the world as an imperial cabal, and have since have busied themselves achieving global domination. Today, there is no little girl in the wired, industrial world who does not seek to display her allegiance to the pink- and-purple clad Disney dynasty.

Disney likes to think of the Princesses as role models, but what a sorry bunch of wusses they are. Typically, they spend much of their time in captivity or a coma, waking up only when a Prince comes along and kisses them. The most striking exception is Mulan, who dresses as a boy to fight in the army, but--like the other Princess of color, Pocahontas--she lacks full Princess status and does not warrant a line of tiaras and gowns. Otherwise the Princesses have no ambitions and no marketable skills, although both Snow White and Cinderella are good at housecleaning.

And what could they aspire to, beyond landing a Prince? In Princessland, the only career ladder leads from baby-faced adolescence to a position as an evil enchantress, stepmother or witch. Snow White's wicked stepmother is consumed with envy for her stepdaughter's beauty; the sea witch Ursula covets Ariel's lovely voice; Cinderella's stepmother exploits the girl's cheap, uncomplaining, labor. No need for complicated witch-hunting techniques--pin-prickings and dunkings--in Princessland. All you have to look for is wrinkles.

Feminist parents gnash their teeth. For this their little girls gave up Dora, who bounds through the jungle saving baby jaguars, whose mother is an archeologist and whose adventures don't involve smoochy rescues by Diego? There was drama in Dora's life too, and the occasional bad actor like Swiper the fox. Even Barbie looks like a suffragette compared to Disney's Belle. So what's the appeal of the pink tulle Princess cult?

Seen from the witchy end of the female life cycle, the Princesses exert their pull through a dark and undeniable eroticism. They're sexy little wenches, for one thing. Snow White has gotten slimmer and bustier over the years; Ariel wears nothing but a bikini top (though, admittedly, she is half fish.) In faithful imitation, the 3-year-old in my life flounces around with her tiara askew and her Princess gown sliding off her shoulder, looking for all the world like a London socialite after a hard night of cocaine and booze. Then she demands a poison apple and falls to the floor in a beautiful swoon. Pass the Rohypnol-laced margarita, please.

It may be old-fashioned to say so, but sex--and especially some middle-aged man's twisted version thereof--doesn't belong in the pre-K playroom. Children are going to discover it soon enough, but they're got to do so on their own.

There's a reason, after all, why we're generally more disgusted by sexual abusers than adults who inflict mere violence on children: we sense that sexual abuse more deeply messes with a child's mind. One's sexual inclinations--straightforward or kinky, active or passive, heterosexual or homosexual--should be free to develop without adult intervention or manipulation. Hence our harshness toward the kind of sexual predators who leer at kids and offer candy. But Disney, which also owns ABC, Lifetime, ESPN, A&E and Miramax, is rewarded with $4 billion a year for marketing the masochistic Princess cult and its endlessly proliferating paraphernalia.

Let's face it, no parent can stand up against this alone. Try to ban the Princesses from your home, and you might as well turn yourself in to Child Protective Services before the little girls get on their Princess cell phones. No, the only way to topple royalty is through a mass uprising of the long-suffering serfs. Assemble with your neighbors and make a holiday bonfire out of all that plastic and tulle! March on Disney World with pitchforks held high!

There are certainly things to object to about the Disney Princesses. The blatant attempt to make brand-conscious consumers out of three-year-olds? The bastardization of the original tales by Grimm and Perrault? The sheer amount of junk turned out under the Princess line? These are valid concerns. I can't really get upset about girls wanting to wear pink frilly stuff, though. Ms. Ehrenreich's shrill attempt at humor falls about as flat as the three-year-old after the "poison apple".

Ms. Ehrenreich fusses about the hyper-sexualization of young girls, but she's upset that there's no Pocahontas dress? Hello! But perhaps she'd rather have us stick it to the man at Disney by supporting the competition. Bratz dolls, anyone? Now there's some wholesome goodness unaffected by "some middle-aged man's twisted version" of what's hot on tots.

Her protestations aside, I have to believe that Ms. Ehrenreich is unencumbered by acquaintance with young girls, or she'd know that all their dress-up clothes fall off their shoulders, because they like to dress up in clothes that are too big for them. And then they fight like cats and dogs and throw high heels and climb trees. Frankly, I'd find it disturbing to have my children around someone whose proclaimed philosophy is that "one's sexual inclinations--straightforward or kinky, active or passive, heterosexual or homosexual--should be free to develop without adult intervention or manipulation." No wonder the three-year-old plays dead.

Death of a Fruitcake

This is for my brother, who told me he once was bested in a battle-rapping contest:

h/t Teeny Manolo

Lyrics in the combox.

Saving for the future

The WSJ had a special section today about people saving for retirement, profiling various couples and individuals. Although the article was intended to be a snapshot of how different kinds of financial investments were right for different situations, I found it particularly interesting that of the three featured families with children, all the mothers were either full-time stay-at-home moms or else were currently taking time off from their jobs to be at home. Investing in the future, indeed.

WaiterRant recently had up a post on the topic of the right kind of investing

The old man glares at his son but says nothing. I feel bad for both of these guys. It’s tough when parents and children reverse roles. When I worked in geriatric psych I saw it all the time. Old age, with its frailties and vulnerabilities, makes many elderly people fearful and nervous. One of the most common manifestations of this anxiety is worrying about money. Sure, people on fixed incomes need to be careful, but I’m talking about unnecessary worry. I once knew an old man who lived in a dilapidated old house, never turned on the heat, and, despite being sick, avoided going to the doctor because he was afraid of the bills. After his bloated corpse was found two weeks postmortem, detectives discovered he had close to a million dollars in his savings account.

Everyday I see television advertisements from financial firms pitching “wealth management” to aging Boomers worried about retirement. Maybe they should talk about growing human capital as well. Having a robust financial plan isn’t going to mean shit if no one’s around to love you. That was the tragedy of the old hermit. His million dollars might have well been Monopoly money.

Several years ago we moved in with Darwin's 93-year-old grandmother, who was determined to finish out her days in her own house and not in a nursing home with "those damn old people". Grandma was a tough old bird. You can take the girl out of Iowa, but you can't take Iowa out of the girl: she had an abrasive streak a mile wide and never met a topic she didn't have a strong opinion on. Depression was a favorite topic of hers. She had lived through the historical Depression in the 30s (Darwin's dad used to joke that Grandma had grown up during the Depression, and so had he), and in her later years she suffered from the medical condition. (Of a cousin's daughter, Grandma once confided to me in admiring tones that "She had the very worst kind of depression -- the kind you can't cure!)

But Grandma had made the right kind of investment in the future, and she died in her own home, having been able to cuddle her great-granddaughter daily and attended at the last by her beloved grandson. Everyone should be so fortunate.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Gadget News

A couple of readers have asked which camera we ended up getting.

I read around a bunch about the Canon point-and-shoots (and even their mega zooms) but eventually went ahead and bought the Fuji S700.

It's got some features that I've already really got to like. Notable so far, the Natural/Flash function -- available via the default mode wheel on top -- which takes two photos in rapid succession: one natural night at appropriate exposure, and then another with flash and a faster exposure. On film cameras, I'm very much a natural light fanatic (in fact, I don't own a flash for my SLRs) and even with something like this the natural light values are often better. On the other hand, the flash can clean up weird shadows and such. And the photos are taken within a second of each other, so even with squirming kids the lighting is pretty much the only variable.

Here's an example from some fooling around the other night with Monkey #2 in very low light conditions (at night with a single overhead incandescent on):

Natural Light (I believe 1600 ISO and f3):


In this case, obviously, flash is the way to go. (And even with my lens that goes down to f1.2, this is a shot I couldn't have taken with my SLR at all, given I've normally got 400ISO film in it.)

It's not as large and heavy as I like a camera to be in order to feel "real", but the extra size vs. the point-and-shoots is probably going to be a plus in the Darwin family where things that look like toys tend to come to unfortunate ends.

There are a few things that aren't quite what I could have wished. For instance, it has manual focus, but you have to use the zoom switch (which in focus mode) to do it, which is far less intuitive than simply turning a focus ring. Still a point-and-shoot wouldn't have solved that problem for me by a long shot. Overall, I'm pretty happy with it so far.

In other gadget news, I've been experiencing life without a cell phone for the last week. My Motorola Razor -- which I'd picked up last spring because they were finally old enough that Verizon would give me one free in thankfulness for my many years of giving them lots of money every month -- decided to take itself on an unauthorized, one-way exploratory expedition out into the world from the safety of its holster while we were walking along a mile long stretch of road, in the dark, with a few thousand other people at a Christmas parade last weekend. Subsequent expeditions over the same ground later that night and the next day did not succeed in bringing the prodigal electronic device home, so I decided to get tough on it and reported it missing (lest someone decide to make all their holiday calls home to Mongolia or Botswana on it.)

I wandered into the Verizon store a few days later to see what my options are. When the salesman saw someone in "casual business attire" sporting a badge from a large corporation walk in and say that he'd lost his phone, he probably figured he had the chance to sell something nice and expensive at retail price.

"So what do you need from a new cell phone?" he asked me.

"Not a whole lot," I confessed. "I don't have to use it for work any more. I need it to have a vibrate setting for when I'm at work or church, and I'd prefer it to have Bluetooth in case I ever get around to buying accessories."

A "how did you get in here" look came across his face, and he said, "Well, maybe you should ask around with friends and family and see if someone has an old cell phone you can activate to your number. We don't have any deals for people who've lost their phones and have more than a year left on their contracts. Feel free to look around at the prices, though."

Well, of course, at that point I didn't. I went back to work and spent my lunch break browsing eBay instead. From this I have learned four things:

1) There are over 10,000 Verizon cell phones available on eBay. (I can't help darkly wondering if mine is one of them.)
2) Motorola Razors are moderately expensive without a contract.
3) Most other cell phones look kind of dumpy after having a Razor -- which makes you reluctant to pay for them either.
4) eBay is cluttered with old BlackBerrys, because you can't use one without a data plan, and people willing to spring for the extra 20-40/mo buy newer BlackBerry's. (Thus finally proving that people are in fact elastic to cell plan pricing.)

So before I dig into trying to figure which of 10,000 people on eBay to trust, I thought I'd ask the digital assembly of friends and family:

Do any of you have an old Verizon cell phone (that has something like decent battery life left and a vibrate mode) that you'd be willing to part with? I'd be happy to pay up to around $50 via paypal (for the phone, charger and shipping) depending on what it is. Or, if barter strikes your fancy, I have (courtesy of the office "holiday party") a gift certificate for $100 off a minimum two night stay at any Marriott hotel or resort. (Expires in March.)

Email to the darwincatholic @ gmail address if you're feeling helpful in this regard.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Free Will and a Conservative Take on Social Teaching

The world of blogs is a highly text-based world, and the world of Catholic blogs is populated by a certain number of characters with favorite texts. Such a character may throw out a favorite line from the Catechism or the Council of Trent of Gaudium Et Spes or what have you again and again to make a set point about Catholicism and the world. One reaction to these people who have found a textual hammer and wander about in search of nails is to get annoyed with them and eventually tune them out -- the other is to eventually get motivated to go read their quote in context.

One such oft-thrown-about quote I had been running into lately was from Pius XI's 1931 encyclical on Catholic social teaching Quadragesimo Anno (on the 40th anniversary of Rerum Novarum) and was reputed to describe capitalism and socialism as "twin rocks of shipwreck" -- which the speaker generally took to mean a via media which involved a partial redistribution, but not wholesale collectivization, of goods.

I was pretty sure that Pius XI had not in fact meant to mandate a welfare state as the proper compromise between collectivism and Randian individualism (indeed, my assumption was that Pius XI did not mandate any specific form of political governance -- that is something from which the Vatican wisely holds itself aloof) but it wasn't till recently that I put surfed on over to the Vatican website to wee what Quadragesimo Anno actually said about twin rocks of shipwreck. Here's the actual quote:

46. Accordingly, twin rocks of shipwreck must be carefully avoided. For, as one is wrecked upon, or comes close to, what is known as "individualism" by denying or minimizing the social and public character of the right of property, so by rejecting or minimizing the private and individual character of this same right, one inevitably runs into "collectivism" or at least closely approaches its tenets. Unless this is kept in mind, one is swept from his course upon the shoals of that moral, juridical, and social modernism which We denounced in the Encyclical issued at the beginning of Our Pontificate.[29] And, in particular, let those realize this who, in their desire for innovation, do not scruple to reproach the Church with infamous calumnies, as if she had allowed to creep into the teachings of her theologians a pagan concept of ownership which must be completely replaced by another that they with amazing ignorance call "Christian."
In the following paragraphs Pius goes on to outline the idea that, while the principle of private ownership remains essential, it must be recalled that in Christian virtue one's possessions (especially when they go beyond the necessities for housing, feeling and clothing one's family) may bring with them certain responsibilities to the wider community.

In regards to these responsibilities, Pius points out:
50. Furthermore, a person's superfluous income, that is, income which he does not need to sustain life fittingly and with dignity, is not left wholly to his own free determination. Rather the Sacred Scriptures and the Fathers of the Church constantly declare in the most explicit language that the rich are bound by a very grave precept to practice almsgiving, beneficence, and munificence.
However, in the preceding paragraph he has already said:
The natural right itself both of owning goods privately and of passing them on by inheritance ought always to remain intact and inviolate, since this indeed is a right that the State cannot take away: "For man is older than the State,"[34] and also "domestic living together is prior both in thought and in fact to uniting into a polity."[35] Wherefore the wise Pontiff declared that it is grossly unjust for a State to exhaust private wealth through the weight of imposts and taxes. "For since the right of possessing goods privately has been conferred not by man's law, but by nature, public authority cannot abolish it, but can only control its exercise and bring it into conformity with the common weal."[36]
All to often, especially in this age of "liberation theology" and other politicizations of the Christian message, "Catholic social teaching" seems to be used as a code phrase for "how the Church says nations should be run". There is, of course, an element of that, but in general I think that conceiving of "social teaching" as being primarily political in application represents a mis-understanding of what Catholicism is and how it views the human person.

In this regard, I think we might do well to turn to a much more recent encyclical, and one dealing not with social teaching per se, but rather with virtue: Benedict XVI's recently released Spe Salvi:
Christianity did not bring a message of social revolution like that of the ill-fated Spartacus, whose struggle led to so much bloodshed. Jesus was not Spartacus, he was not engaged in a fight for political liberation like Barabbas or Bar- Kochba. Jesus, who himself died on the Cross, brought something totally different: an encounter with the Lord of all lords, an encounter with the living God and thus an encounter with a hope stronger than the sufferings of slavery, a hope which therefore transformed life and the world from within. What was new here can be seen with the utmost clarity in Saint Paul's Letter to Philemon. This is a very personal letter, which Paul wrote from prison and entrusted to the runaway slave Onesimus for his master, Philemon. Yes, Paul is sending the slave back to the master from whom he had fled, not ordering but asking: “I appeal to you for my child ... whose father I have become in my imprisonment ... I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart ... perhaps this is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back for ever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother ...” (Philem 10-16). Those who, as far as their civil status is concerned, stand in relation to one an other as masters and slaves, inasmuch as they are members of the one Church have become brothers and sisters—this is how Christians addressed one another. By virtue of their Baptism they had been reborn, they had been given to drink of the same Spirit and they received the Body of the Lord together, alongside one another. Even if external structures remained unaltered, this changed society from within. When the Letter to the Hebrews says that Christians here on earth do not have a permanent homeland, but seek one which lies in the future (cf. Heb 11:13-16; Phil 3:20), this does not mean for one moment that they live only for the future: present society is recognized by Christians as an exile; they belong to a new society which is the goal of their common pilgrimage and which is anticipated in the course of that pilgrimage. (para. 4)
This, I think, underlines a key point which is too often forgotten in our modern society where funerals are infrequent and quiet (though mortality stubbornly remains at 100%) and "community" is considered one of the most important aspects of organized religion: At root, the most important point in any Christian's life is after death, and his most important community is not the body politic but the Body of Christ.

As such, moral teaching (including social teaching) is, I think, more concerned with personal virtue than with achieving a particular end state organization of society. Paul was more concerned that Onesimum and his master Philemon both treat each other as brothers in Christ than that an end be put to the slave owning culture of Roman society.

One of the difficulties with exhorting people to virtue is that often they don't listen. A rich man is exhorted to use his riches for the good of his fellow creatures and he instead uses $100 bills to light cigars and throws champagne parties while the poor starve at his gate. What is to be done? Certainly, no degree of government intervention can cause this man to behave virtuously against his will. At most, he may be taxed, and those tax receipts used for the common good.

To a certain extent, I think this is justified. The government is charged, among other things, with protecting the common good, and I think it is justified in taxing those who have money in order to make sure that there are not starving people in the streets. However, when the government (which its size enforcing a one-size-fits-all approach) goes beyond alleviating hunger and homelessness to trying to assure some sort of economic equality or "minimum standard of living" it is my opinion that it runs the serious risk of setting up unintended incentives for people who consider their chances of making their own way in life to be marginal at best. This, combined with the necessity of respecting the property rights of individuals, seems to me to preclude using the governments powers for much redistribution beyond the alleviation of catastrophic need.

In this sense, what I see as the correct conservative approach to social teaching does not have nearly the warm and comforting glow as the "progressive" approach. And yet, I think it more correctly accounts for the reality of our nature as moral and mortal beings, living out our time on earth in expectation of what is to come.

The phrase "you cannot legislate morality" has been very much overused, and yet in this instance there is a very real truth to it. We cannot achieve the twin aims of respecting people's natural right to property and leaving room for people to behave in a virtuous manner by helping their fellow men unless we simultaneously allow people the opportunity to sin against their fellow men by refusing to help anyone.

Perhaps it is not surprising that in a society in which many loudly blame God (or suggest that he does not exist) for having given us the freedom to sin, many also feel reluctant to leave individual citizens the liberty to sin, or be virtuous, in their use of their personal wealth.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The digital camera has arrived!

Baby Darwin says, "I like."

Have computer, will watch

It's common wisdom that new technologies are absorbed fastest by children. We had thought that since we'd discarded the television we could wean the kids off videos. And truly, less video is watched, but not much less. The girls quickly discovered how to load DVDs into the computer and much viewing ensued.

No matter, no matter; Darwin set up a login for the girls that wouldn't automatically open the DVD player when a DVD was inserted. (They like to take pictures of themselves with the built-in camera, which is generally a harmless occupation.) They found this frustrating for a day or so, and then discovered the games. I had never paid much attention to the entertainment that came pre-loaded on the Mac (no solitaire, you see), but apparently they involve a sun god and moon goddess duking it out over tic-tac-toe, checkers, backgammon, and other board games. Vaguely celestial music plays in the back ground. Whenever your opponent thinks you've make a particularly stupid move, he talks trash about your game. I'm uneasily anticipating the day when one of the girls announces in public, "You've been mooned!" or demands of someone, "Would you like your spanking with habaneros sauce?"

And of course as I write this, the five-year-old is bouncing on my lap, reading it aloud and laughing...

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Fun with Introits

The 11:30 Mass at our parish this past Sunday was probably one of the only Masses in the country which used only the Introit to open the liturgy, and it was unintentional.

The introit was supposed to be chanted before the entrance hymn, but the celebrating priest was apparently not aware of that, and so he began processing up the aisle. Everyone stood, the introit with verse was just long enough to get him up to his chair, and after that, there wasn't any point in delaying things with a hymn, so the Mass proceeded. It was actually rather elegant, if you didn't know that it was unplanned.

Science & Faith: Different Ways of Knowing

An interesting discussion broke out over the weekend on a somewhat older post linking to a John Farrell post regarding his book on physicist Fr. Lemaitre. It touches on an interesting and important principle, though I wanted to bring it up and add my $0.02.

Commenter Jnewl says:
...[O]ne thing that does stick out like a sore thumb to me (presuming I'm not misunderstanding it) is when Farrell quotes St. Thomas in support, evidently, of the notion that scientists can take no position on questions that find an answer in theology. This is preposterous.

While St. Thomas certainly denies the possibility of demonstrating that the world had a beginning, it does not follow from this that he thought it could not be known. It can be known--indeed, more certainly known--according to the light of that higher science known as theology, which derives its principles from Scripture, which is inerrant. From the little bit he says here, it seems as if Farrell considers Faith to be something more akin to a tentative hypothesis than a firm and unwavering belief in things not seen. If so, this is very far from what St. Thomas himself believes.

The quote from Lemaitre that Farrell provides immediately following this seems to validate my interpretation, as Lemaitre there seems to be saying that it is illegitimate for a scientist to hold an opinion about a matter from Faith that he also investigates as a scientist. But this is, again, preposterous. If he has faith, then he doesn't just opine that the world had a beginning. He KNOWS it.
John clarifies his and Lemaitre's position a bit in the subsequent comments, which I won't quote here. What I wanted to address was the question of what we know about the world via science versus what we know about the world via faith.

The example of St. Thomas Aquinas and his understanding of the universe's creation is an interesting place to start off. The best science of Aquinas' time (Aristotelian physics and natural philosophy) suggested that the world had always existed in the same form that it did then. Obviously, this presented a problem for Christian theologians and philosophers who believed that, In principio creavit Deus caelum et terram. St. Thomas of course held that the results of faith and reason could not be different, and so (and if remembering back to medieval philosophy reading ten years ago is fuzzy, please correct me) he concluded that even if in a temporal sense the physical universe had always existed, God (who is himself eternal) was still its final cause to willed it constantly into being, and so in an ontological sense the world was created by God "in the beginning" even if one could not find a temporal beginning to the universe. The universe was no less created by God for all that he had always created it rather than having created it at some fixed point in time as we understand it.

What is, I think, important in all this is to understand what it is that we learn from our faith, versus what we learn from science. Christianity tells us, though the Bible and through the teachings of the Church, certain things about the universe, ourselves, and the history of salvation in the world:
  • The world was created by God.
  • We are made in the likeness of God and thus have rational minds, free will, and immortal souls which are capable of happiness forever in union with God or of rejecting God and receiving final damnation.
  • Christ came into the world to suffer and die for the remission of sins.
And many more...

Science can tell us what sorts or results normally take place in certain kinds of repeatable situations involving materials objects and/or forces:
  • Light behaves both like a particle and like a wave and travels at 299,792,458 m/s.
  • Gravity acts on two objects with a force proportional to their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them.
  • Once the human brain "dies" it generally doesn't "revive" and the rest of the person appears mentally inert

And so on...

Now clearly, sometimes the claims of science and our faith may come into conflict. They are not describing two hermetically sealed areas of knowledge. I am not an expert, but it seems to me that those strands of neuroscience which deny the existence of free will are explicitly in conflict with the tenets of our faith. But then, I'm fairly confident that those scientists who claim to be proving complete determinism in regards to our minds are not going to be successful in the end.

But there are a number of areas in which the two do not necessarily touch as much as some might imagine.

Our faith includes the knowledge (I think Jnewl is quite correct in saying that faith does involve knowledge) that God created the universe. However, it does not tell us when (other than "in the beginning") or how or what the universe looked like then or now. Science has provided us with a number of answers over the millenia as to when the universe began and what it looks like. In each age, there have certainly been those who have built the current scientific understanding of when the world was created too much into their religious beliefs, and also those who have attempted to simply use the bible as a science text book, but on due consideration I think the two fields provide us with fairly separate pieces of information.

Certainly, since the Big Bang is our current understanding of the physical origins of the universe, and since it has a certain "in principio" dramatic flair to it, we Christians tend to strongly identify the moment of creation with the Big Bang. However, if in another few decades some compelling piece of evidence were to come along for an oscillating universe or for some completely other cosmological model, I don't think one would be right in any way to say that the Christian understanding has been "disproved". While faith and science both provide us with knowledge about the origins on the universe, they provide us with very different kinds of knowledge.

This, I think, is where it's important to keep our scientific and faith knowledge separate. Not because there are two realities, one of faith and one of science, but rather because faith and science are generally telling us rather different things about our one reality. At the cosmic level (as opposed to questions of morals and salvation history) our faith tells us about what things are, about their natures. Science, on the other hand, tells us about how things work and about their history in a strictly physical sense.

To the human experience, I think that in most ways what faith tells us is actually rather more important in this respect than what science tells us. And in that sense, it's important not to overly shackle our faith to our current understanding of science.

Monday, December 10, 2007

A Christmas Confession

On Saturdays, I usually make pancakes for family breakfast. (If you have the misfortune to normally make pancakes from a mix, try switching to doing it from scratch -- it only takes five minutes longer and is infinitely better.) A couple weeks back, I must confess, I pulled up iTunes and put the Christmas category on shuffle. Yes, it wasn't even Advent yet, and I had Christmas music on. I am part of the problem. For all of the "time of waiting", I for one never make much of an effort to keep the Christmas music off until the twelve days themselves.

However, I've often found that when I say, "Christmas Music" I'm not talking about what others are talking about. Last year when I mentioned liking "traditional carols" to a co-worker, she replied: "Yeah, I like some of the newer stuff, but those Perry Como and Bing Crosby songs are really good too."

Ummm... Not so much.

So here's a sampling of some of the Darwin Christmas favorites.

Unfortunately, one of my favorite Christmas CDs is currently out of print so far as I can tell, it's called A Victorian Christmas and features the only version of Jingle Bells (as it calls it "The One Horse Open Sleigh") that I've ever liked. It looks like there might be some used copies here, but as it's been OP for a while, I can't swear they're categorized correctly. Also great on this CD is "I Saw Three Ships", "The Seven Joys of Mary" and the "Wassail Song".

Another favorite that I grew up with was: Sing We Noel: Christmas Music from England & Early America Especially good on this one are "Nowel, Owt of Your Slepe", "Nova, Nova; Aue fitt ex Eva", "While Shepherds Watched" and "Lullay, Thou Tiny Little Child".

A lot of my early Christmas memories center around going to the annual Christmas Star show at Griffith Observatory, where my father was a planetarium lecturer. Several of Eugene Ormandy's exuberant orchestrations of Christmas carols were on the soundtrack there year after year, which eventually led me to track down and buy a couple of Ormandy Christmas CD's. Joy to the World features a great "Carol of the Bells" and Greatest Christmas Hits of the Philadelphia Orchestra has a splendid "We Three Kings". Between the two, there are also great versions of pretty much all the standards, some strictly orchestral, some orchestral with chorus. When it comes to no-hold-barred full orchesta christmas music, you don't get much better than Ormandy's stuff.

Speaking of great versions of standard carols, another great album is Christmas Star, Carols for the Christmas Season by the Cambridge Singers. This is simply as good as it gets for most traditional carols that you want to hear sung by a large corale, though the english voices can get a bit odd when they attempt something like "Go, Tell it on the Mountain". Still, this is great for "Silent Night", "Good Christian Men, Rejoice" or "Joy to the World".

Getting back into the carols which are no longer heard, two great collections of historical Christmas music are:A Baroque Christmas, by the New York Ensemble for Early Music and A Medieval Christmas, by the Boston Camerata The latter opens with a medieval Jewish setting of Isaiah's prophesy of the coming messiah in Hebrew, and then moves through a series of alternating readings and medieval music (chant, polyphany, and accompanied styles not so often found in mass settings, but common in popular music from the time).

Friday, December 07, 2007

A Day That Will Live In Infamy: Catholic Edition

A plane suddenly spun out of the sky and shot across his right shoulder. It carried a thin, glistening torpedo. The plane leveled out about twenty feet above the water headed for a battleship. It "dropped the torpedo and pulled up sharply, nearly hitting the upper works of the ship. Following instantly came another plane." Looking carefully at its marking, the two men could see a round patch of red paint on the plane's fuselage -- these were Japanese aircraft, they realized with a start, not their own. Then came the sound of bombs exploding nearby, and moments later a hue geyser of water erupted near the battleship. The shock make him strangely sick. All he could say was, "We're in it. We're in it." He braced himself against the railing of the craft, which was now pitching wildly in the waves sweeping the harbor. "God help us, we're in it." He was Fr. William A. Maguire, Pacific Fleet Chaplain of the Chaplain Corps, United States Navy, in the Hawaiian Islands. The time was 7:55 A.M., December 7, 1941, and the place was Pearl Harbor.

Maguire had weathered the first of many close calls he would experience that Sunday morning. It suddenly occurred to him that if he left the shore only a minute earlier, the Japanese planes might well have blown him to pieces, but there really wasn't time to think about such possibilities now. Japanese airplanes continued to swarm over the harbor, torpedoes skimming only forty feet above the water, while still more aircraft streamed in from the west and northwest. Peering intently through the billowing haze, Maguire could see the dim outlines of an appalling scene: dozens, perhaps hundreds of men were swimming in the harbor trying frantically to escape the savage fires now gutting the California and her sister ships the West Virginia and the Arizona. A few sailors, the lucky ones, had climbed onto rafts, and motor launches had picked up a few others. Most, however, bobbed up and down like corks in the fire-swept waters, and there would be many who could not escape a terrible death in the lagoon. Maguire could do little for them except impart a general absolution.

Once he had managed to board the California, his home ship, Maguire headed toward the officers' wardroom, where a large number of seriously wounded men were waiting for treatment. As he looked at them, they seemed so courageous in the face of their suffering and uncertain fate: Most lay quietly on the floor, asking no favors, making no complaints. Navy corpsmen moved quickly among the injured, quietly administering morphine and blood plasma and bandaging open wounds. The priest first administered the Last Rites to the dying, then gave them to everyone else who asked for them.

Meanwhile, the grim business of war went on. From the ammunition rooms below the deck, a steady stream of sailors, black with oil, carried boxes of ammunition up the ladders to the anti-aircraft guns. At the same time, motor launches from the ship ferried wounded personnel to the shore, where waiting trucks sped them to the dispensary at nearby Hickam Field. No one doubted that the California was in deep trouble. Four torpedoes had slammed into the side of the ship, causing it to list sharply. Sensing that the end was near for the dying vessel, Maguire moved as rapidly as he could among the wounded men lying on the deck and in the corridors, and he could not keep up with the growing tide of burned, lacerated, and dying sailors. They made a "grim tableau," he would recall years later; still, none would complain. He heard as many confessions as he thought there was time for and then imparted a second general absolution, this time to the ship's entire company.

All too soon, he heard a grim-faced young officer give the dreaded command, "Abandon Ship."

Excerpt from: Battlefield Chaplains: Catholic Priests in World War II, by Donald F. Crosby

What I saw at the fights

So we went to the HOA meeting last night...

Frankly, the problem with the HOA is that the four or five houses that are in gross violation of all rules are untouchable, mainly because the properties are abandoned and the owners untraceable. Assessing fines is just a waste of money because the fines go on the books as unrealized income, which has to be made up for by jacking the rates on the compliant homeowners who pay their dues. Looking over the budget, what leapt out was a) the immense cost of maintaining the property management company (insurance, personnel, mailing costs, whatever), and b) the ridiculous cost of maintaining our itty-bitty pool. The pool eats a vast amount of money, and even if we drained it and shut it down, we'd still have to pay liability insurance on it.

As to inspections and "architectural committees": the property management company hires the inspectors, but as of now the inspections have been halted because the HOA ran out of money. The idea of an architectural committee was so universally reviled that I don't think there's any future there.

Naturally there weren't enough owners there to provide a voting quorum, but the people who did attend were in a distinctly hostile mood. There were about twenty homeowners there (out of a 150-house HOA, though more and more of those houses are becoming rentals). I wasn't the first one to put forth the idea of dissolving the HOA, but I seconded it. The five board members seemed to seize on the idea with relief. The property management representative, a heavily made-up sixty-some with a shrill voice, pursed her lips as she gazed on the petulant children she had to deal with.

So the next step is surveying the neighborhood to find out who actually uses the pool, who'd be in favor of selling that piece of property, and who'd be in favor of dissolving the HOA. Judging from the number of homeowners who could care less about attending HOA meetings -- and I include myself in their number -- I'd think feeling would run high in favor. Of course, then one has to factor in the landlords.

The drama continues...

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Pastor of Souls/Pastor of Soldiers

Quite a discussion raged over the last couple days over at Pro Ecclesia in the comments of a post in which Jay criticized a post at Vox Nova in which "Catholic Anarchist" (that sound you heard was G. K. Chesterton rolling over in his grave) Michael Iafrate expressed disappointment with the Vatican for appointing a new archbishop to the US military archdiocese.

Iafrate (a paradoxically combative pacifist) opined:
I was secretly hoping that the Church would use the opportunity to quietly get itself out of the business of serving as chaplain to the American war machine.

No such luck.
He went on to describe the chaplaincy as,
[I]n effect supporting the war effort through sacramental means
And perhaps the kicker:
What is the Church to do in the case of unjust wars? Deploy their warrior shepherds right along with the Catholic faithful who decide to participate in such wars? In these cases, if the Church DOES offer chaplaincy services, then the Church's message of peace and her judgment on particular wars is undermined.... The Church has no trouble denying communion to those who are theoretically in favor of the unjust killing of persons through abortion, but follows persons who participate in unjust killing [in war] around with the ciborium!
Now the fact is, that almost any foolish position one can conceivably imagine has been taken stridently by someone, somewhere on the net. Why, one might ask, bother to highlight this particular example, especially when much of the author's ire stems from an elsewhere stated complete pacifism and rejection of 1700 years of Catholic "just war" doctrine -- a viewpoint which will doubtless result in different conclusions than others might draw.

As I thought about it, though, I realized there was a deeper issue going on here, which underlined one of the very human aspects of Catholicism.

The US Military Archdiocese has a brief history of chapliancy throughout Christendom on its website. John the Baptist and the Apostles counseled soldiers who came to them to be just and merciful, but are not recorded to have asked them to leave the military profession, even under the institutionally pagan Roman empire. The presence of a number of Roman soldiers among the lists of early martyrs shows that Christians continued to serve in the Roman military throughout the period of persecution up until the 4th century, and then under the Christian empire, priests were specifically brought along with the legions to serve the spiritual needs of the troops.

One section of which particularly struck me as underlining something about the nature of the Church's understanding of ministering to soldiers was from the section dealing with the Catholic chapliancy during the US Civil War:
Volunteer units from various states often had a preponderance of Catholics and were accompanied by their local priests. It seems that about forty priests served as chaplains with the Union Army (probably about twenty at any given time). Approximately six hundred chaplains served with the Confederate troops and, of these, twenty-eight were known to be Catholic....Faculties were given to priests by their own bishop for their own diocese, and further faculties had to be requested in each diocese through which the army traveled. So, for example, Archbishop Kendrick of Baltimore delegated Archbishop Hughes of New York to sub-delegate faculties to the chaplain of the N.Y. Irish Brigade. And Navy chaplains would need new faculties from port to port. A re-script from Pope Pius IX for both Union and Confederate chaplains extended chaplains' faculties beyond their diocese, at least temporarily, and granted a variety of practical concessions that civilian priests did not enjoy. But the Holy See did not intend a canonically independent and permanent chaplain corps; it merely provided overlapping jurisdiction for the duration of the war.
With significant numbers of Catholics serving on both sides of the war that consumed more American lives than all other wars we have fought combined, the pope's concern was to assure that chaplains were able to provide the sacraments to men close to death on both sides of the conflict: not to pick which side to provide "sacramental support" to.

I imagine that any student of American history has his own ideas on which side in the Civil War was right, and yet for many of the individual soldiers who fought and died in that (or any other) war, their service was determined not by a dispassionate examination of the issues behind the war, but rather because they lived in a particular place (North or South) and they were called up to go and fight in that region's army.

Far be it from me to suggest that there is not a "right side" in most wars, but the fact that the leaders of the "wrong side" were wrong to start a war for the reasons that they did does not necessarily mean that all those soldiers serving in their armies share fully in their guilt. At an individual level, war is often a vast human tragedy, and the Church has historically recognized the importance of providing priests to provide the sacraments to the soldiers and urge them towards justice and mercy within their duties as soldiers.

Perhaps no where is this better underlined than in the Great War, when (as the modern nations of Europe were locked in a death struggle that resulted in death at a previously unimaginable level) the Catholic Church sought to make sure that Catholic soldiers in all armies had chaplains available to them. According to the military archdiocese history page, "The Holy See, therefore, set out to appoint a bishop for each country to be the Ordinarius Castrensis, or Bishop for the Military."

One of the elements of Catholicism which sets it apart from our Protestant bretheren is its emphasis on sacraments as channels for grace, and thus salvation. This emphasis (and particularly the importance of absolution and last rites for those in danger of death) led Catholic chaplains into the thick of battle to minister to their men. Unarmed, moving about the battlefield under enemy fire to provide help (both sacramental and also at times medical) to men in danger of death, military chaplains provide a vivid image of the sense in which Christianity is "not of this world". (One such was Fr. Vincent Capodanno, a chaplain killed while ministering to men on the battlefield in Vietnam, for whom a cause for sainthood has been opened.)

One other very interesting article I found in reading up about military chaplains was this paper by a student a US Santa Barbara, which examines the experience of Catholic chaplains in the German army of WW2. The paper draws heavily on the personal diaries of two priests Fr. Perau and Fr. Tewes, both of whom were drafted into the German army and became chaplains, in which capacity they ministered to troops on the Eastern Front throughout the war. The author observes that in these priests' dairies (as in others) it is clear that their loyalties were first to the Church, then to their men, and lastly (if at all) to the Nazi state. Both priests were revolted by Nazi anti-semitism and made efforts to help both Poles and Jews they came in contact with through their ministry, including providing sacraments (against orders) to Polish prisoners and civilians.

The paper is worth reading in that it underlines the conflicts that these chaplains felt in serving the German army in any capacity, and yet at the same time their conviction that making sure that the sacraments and Catholic moral teaching were available to Wehrmacht soldiers, many of whom themselves were conscripts serving against their will. Fr. Tewes wrote in his diary:
Suppose an ambulance comes to the corner where you are standing, with badly wounded men inside, some lying in their blood on the floor and you call for a doctor to help. What would you do if the doctor said to you "I will only provide medical assistance once the question of guilt is completely resolved." The situation of that doctor is my situation.
I bring the Wehrmacht example up not to make any moral equivalence between the US Military Archdiocese which Iafrate objected to and the WW2 German army, but rather to underline the importance of ministering to all Catholics. There's a certain immanentizing character which infects certain more activist forms of Christianity (often "progressive" but certain kinds of "conservative" as well) which sees the Christian mission as to achieve a specific worldly end-state as soon as possible: end poverty, establish the right government, enact just laws, etc., etc.

These are not unworthy goals, but the central Christian message is much simpler than that: save souls. Wherever men and women are in the midst of suffering an death, there the Church and her priests should be to minister to those souls and prepare them for the last things. In that sense, the purpose of chaplains is not at all to support one side in a war by sacramental means. Their purpose rises above all sides and touches upon that which unites us all as humans: our immortal souls, our sin, and our need for the graces of salvation.

I went to the fights last night, and an HOA meeting broke out

This evening is our annual homeowners' association meeting. The thought of it has leached all the joy from my week, casting a pall even over my last birthday before I descend into the abyss of being thirty. This year seems especially onerous because They want to impose a "special assessment" that is a de facto 25% increase of our fees, not to mention forming an "architectural committee", hiring inspectors, and otherwise bringing the nanny state to fruition. To combat this, Darwin and I has decided to both attend, which means that on top of all the frustrations of arm-wrestling people who want to bilk us out of our hard-earned money, we'll be wasting a perfectly good evening of baby-sitting. And you can bet that everyone will be in a swell mood because the city has been replacing the water pipes in our neighborhood, with the necessary but still irritating result that our water has been out every other day this week.

I find the very concept of HOAs offensive, so I'm predisposed to be disruptive. Let's hope the evening ends in minimal bloodshed...

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

I Remember MrsDarwin III: Not-Yet-Thirty Edition!

Well, kids, it's that time of year again! In honor of MrsDarwin's birthday, we haul up an annual favorite: I Remember MrsDarwin!
If you read this, if your eyes are passing over this right now, even if we don't speak often, please post a comment with a COMPLETELY MADE UP AND FICTIONAL MEMORY OF YOU AND ME.

It can be anything you want--good or bad--BUT IT HAS TO BE FAKE.

When you're finished, post this paragraph on your blog and be surprised (or mortified) about what people DON'T ACTUALLY remember about you.
Want to brush up on the egregious falsehoods from years past?
I Remember MrsDarwin 2006
I Remember MrsDarwin 2005

Confidential to Big Tex: Happy Birthday, Oldster!

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

New and Used Books

Catholic Bibliophagist quotes Virginia Woolf on used books, who said:
"Second-hand books are wild books, homeless books; they have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack."
Our Bibliophagist friend is not sure she agrees with what Woolf has to say.

I suppose I can sort of see it, but I might say, "I feel sorry for my new books when I release a batch of used ones upon them. They slouch in, dogeared explorers and veterans of many campaigns. Scruffy, down at the heals, but experienced, world-traveled and sage. The new books eye them uneasily, young creatures -- new novels and academics still wet behind the ears, full of ideals and pretense, yet untested by the ages. I think perhaps they resent my introducing in these aged rivals, already victorious over dozens of readers -- their ideas tested and found worthy of retention. The used books sit down, confident of their places, having sat on countless shelves before. And the new books shuffle closer together and look around, wondering if they will be displaced and sent to the discard pile."

A Latin Question

From 8th grade through college I took nine years of Latin and four of Greek, so even though that time is fast receding into the past, I generally consider myself up to figuring out Church Latin pretty well, with the occasional help of my Collins Gem pocket dictionary. (For such a tiny thing, the Collins Gem is pretty much the most useful dictionary you can have short of Lewis & Short. It looks a little silly sitting next to Allen and Greenough's Latin Grammar, but it's worth every penny of the 6.95 it costs you.)

However, as MrsDarwin was prepping the introit for next Sunday the other night, I found myself confronted by several difficulties. The introit is: Populus Sion, ecce Dominus veniet ad salvandas gentes: et auditam faciet Dominus gloriam vocis suae, in laetitia cordis vestri.

The first thing that struck me as a bit odd was the veniet ad salvandas gentes construction. "ad" normally carries a meaning of "to or for", but using a verbal adjective "salvandas" seemed a bit odd. By the details of verbal clauses are one of those things that's probably fading in my memory, so although I wasn't sure that this was a very classical construction, I had a rough idea of what it was saying. Literally it would be something like "come for saving the peoples". The translation of the gradual gives "come to save all nations".

Am I right that that's a bit odd, or am I just forgetting stuff?

However, when we come to the second half of the sentence we really go crazy on the verbal clauses. "et auditam faciet Dominus gloriam vocis suae, in laetitia cordis vestri." Conjunction, subject and verb are all pretty easy: et Dominus faciet -- and the Lord makes/does.

"vocis suae" clearly go together as singular genitives -- "of his (reflexive referring back to Dominus) voice"

"auditam" could be a future subjunctive first person "I shall hear" or it could be the feminine singular accusative of the verbal auditus, -a, -um. I'm taking it to be the latter, since we're about to run into a second person pronoun in the next bit, and so throwing in the first person seemed very strange. Thus, auditam goes with gloriam and is something like "hearing the glory of his voice". This would fit in with faciet, which can take a verbal clause as something that an agent allows or ordains.

However, we have complications, because next we get "in laetitia cordis vestri." which is pretty simply "in the joy of our heart".

Please tell me this is at least a bit odd? Or have I simply lost my classical mind?

The best I can come up with is something like "The Lord makes your hearts rejoice, with the glorious sound of his voice", but that's working completely at gut level and invoking the principle that "facio" can mean just about anything.

UPDATE: American Pheonix put up a post specifically to answer this, and cites the relevant Wheelock.

Slowly Reading Spe Salvi

I've been slowly working through the pope's new encyclical, Spe Salvi. Slowly is the only way anything has been happening around here lately, outside of work and church commitments. One of the early sections particularly struck me, though I'm sure this is something I've written about here before:
Paul reminds the Ephesians that before their encounter with Christ they were “without hope and without God in the world” (Eph 2:12). Of course he knew they had had gods, he knew they had had a religion, but their gods had proved questionable, and no hope emerged from their contradictory myths. Notwithstanding their gods, they were “without God” and consequently found themselves in a dark world, facing a dark future. In nihil ab nihilo quam cito recidimus (How quickly we fall back from nothing to nothing): 1 so says an epitaph of that period. (Spe salvi, para 2)
The gentiles to whom Paul brought the Christian message were not irreligious. However, they were used to a dichotomy between religion and philosophical moral systems (such as Stoicism, neo-Platonism and Epicurianism). The gods of the ancients were not holy (though piety towards them was often seen as a virtue) and many of their actions could be seen as violating what was generally considered to be moral law. The gods could be powerful friends or very, very dangerous enemies. They embodied natural qualities and forces which dwarfed human concerns, and seemed to be permanent parts of the world's landscape. But they were generally not the most admirable creatures, and you were almost certainly better off if the gods never noticed you. (How many mythic heroes ended up by "living happily ever after"?) One of Plato's earliest and most accessible dialogues in Euthyphro, in which Socrates argues with a pius young man that The Good must be something higher than the gods.

In this sense, Christianity represented a rather radical departure from the other religious traditions of the time. When Paul told the Greeks that the had worshipped God all the time at the altar of the unknown god, one might play upon his words and point out that the kind of God he told them of had been unknown up until that time.

We've very much lost the sense of the enormity of this in our day and age. People are so certain that they know what The Good is these days that athiests criticize God for not being good enough. Most neo-pagans seem not to realize that the old gods were more often feared than loved. The Christian message, even when rejected, is implicitly used as the backdrop for its rejection and for alternatives to it in this day and age.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

On the making of Advent wreathes

I've long held that fake greenery is an abomination. Fake Christmas trees, for instance -- the contradiction of celebrating the birth of Christ by putting up a pseudo tree is ludicrous, which is something I tell myself every year while wrestling with our 3' wire 'n plastic abomination. But no more! This year, we're going green: a live tree (though not until a few days before Christmas) and real greenery on the Advent wreath.

Having never constructed a wreath before, we consulted the internets and were provided with these handy instructions for making all kinds of elegant wreathage. We already had the bare-bones four candle holders on a double-wire framework, but pine boughs seem to be in short supply in our back yard. Fortunately, Lowe's sells pine garlands, which (along with some thin florist's wire) worked up just fine. I had envisioned this as being a nice mother-daughter project, but the girls decided they'd rather sit all afternoon in front of a movie while I fussed with the wire and the sharp pine needles and scratched myself more than once. But I kept my thoughts to myself, and so bear no responsibility for the incident at dinnertime tonight, in which the five-year-old mildly observed, "Oh, a little ketchup spilled on the table. Dammit."*

With the wreath assembled, we followed the Blessing of the Wreath ceremony from the Magnificat Advent Companion. Then, everyone's favorite moment: The Lighting of the First Candle, followed by the Keeping of Your Sister From Blowing Out the Candle.

Yes, we're using last year's candles again.

*MrsDarwin was seized with a sudden fit of coughing, while Darwin choked out, "That's not a nice word for little girls to say." We believe we have traced the source to this hilarious video, though we don't blame Julie D. for posting it because it was so delightful.