Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Hear Ye

Seven or eight months ago, it looked as if the next big thing, in the intellectual life of the Church, was going to be a showdown over the intellectual and theological compatibility between the American experiment and Catholic orthodoxy: Patrick Deneen called the disciples of John Courtney Murray out on the mat, John Zmirak was pulling out the long knives for traditionalists on social-policy grounds, I got banned from The Catholic Thing combox (apparently for my comments here), and it looked as if there was going to be a rumble. The Francis pontificate, with nothing good to say about existing economic systems, seemed a good time for it.

But then Cardinal Kasper crawled out of his hole. This topic does not need restating at length: suffice to say that there are persons within the Church, aided by secular agitators, who have mounted an attack on the truth of Christ's express teachings on the nature and indissolubility of marriage (as reaffirmed by, inter alia, the Council of Trent, Pius XII, and St. John Paul II). Their error incorporates ancillary assaults upon St. Paul's clear statement on the conditions for reception of the Blessed Sacrament and the Church's unchanging teaching about the nature of repentance. The confusion Kasperianism has already wrought has been substantial. The fact that it has been the topic of official discussion within the Leonine Walls has led, in places, to concern among the faithful over the nature of the Church's indefectibility. It is a pernicious heresy masquerading as an antinomianist canonical reform movement. The chicanery of the 2014 Special Synod was not its end: Kasperianism has plenty of dry powder.

The time has come, then, for all those who will withstand this error to do so. In order to do that in good array, orthodox Catholics need to lay aside their own disputes. This is no longer the time to revisit the merits of John Courtney Murray. It is no longer the time to play "I-told-you-so" over liturgical matters, or to throw bombs at people because of the perceived box in which they sit. Now is the time to pull together against a common foe.

Joseph Shaw had a series of articles on the nature of divisions amongst orthodox Catholics at his LMS Chairman Blog (here, here, and here). His thesis is that the heterodox are able to present a united front because their aim is destruction: who cares how the edifice is pulled down? The conservative, on the other hand, are divided, because before one may preserve a thing, he must decide what it is he wants to preserve, and there is disagreement about that.

Anyway, Modestinus picked up this idea over at Opus Publicum, and raised the prospect of a unilateral Traditionalist disarmament in pursuit of the fight against Kasperianism. He then announced such a move on his own part.

This page does not attract readers; I keep it for my own edification. But let me say, for the record, that Modestinus's proposal should be adopted across the board. That means you, Rorate Caeli: stop sneering at "neo-Caths" and "conservative Catholics" when something bad happens. Just report the news and write about goings on (a necessary service your blog does very well), but save the barbs for the common enemy. It also means you, writers and editors of The Remnant. The various interlocutors who have crossed swords with the traditional movement may not be correct; their errors may be dangerous in certain ways. But they are not as dangerous as the Kasperianists. Points of disagreement with them can almost certainly be discussed, when necessary, without resorting to epithets. But the internecine fighting amongst the orthodox needs to stop, and this has to be a first step.

Of course, one would hope for reciprocation. One could hope that Fr. Longnecker, Elizabeth Scalia, Matthew Schmitz (was I supposed to have heard of this man before he started making snyde comments about Rorate Caeli?), and even (mirabile dictu) Mark Shea and John Zmirak might stop hyperventilating over the perceived excesses or peccadilloes of those attached to the Old Rites and (or) a less Americanized view of Catholic Social Teaching. 

The time has come, at least for the time, to take a phrase from the parents' handbook: "Just Drop It, Y'all."

So let's. Just drop it. Stop it with the internecine squabbling, backbiting, and name-calling.

Postscript: "But, but, what about Vatican II?" you ask. What about it? The Council issued no anathemas, it defined nothing. You are free, so far as the Council itself appears to be concerned, to believe anything you like about it. It took place, it was an ecumenical council, and it did not definitively teach error: that's what we know. Beyond that, who cares? Even if we care for other purposes, the Council---or at the very least its contentious passages---have nothing to do with the present problem. So fights over the interpretation of the Council (which, given that the Council did not itself demand that we believe anything in particular, I find a futile endeavor) are irrelevant for the present. Lay them aside.

Thursday, June 12, 2014


One sees "estopped to" and "estopped from." Which is right?

Well, both get you the maximum 10,000 hits that Westlaw can process on all-states/all-feds. The oldest result for "from" is McDonald v. King, 1 N.J.L. 432 (N.J. 1791). For "to," you have Holmes v. Kennedy, 1 Root 77 (Conn. 1775).

Bad Tennessee Decisions: State v. Marcum

The idea has been advanced recently that it is an attack on the independence of the judiciary to suggest that members of the appellate courts should be dismissed via retention election. I submit that most Tennessee appellate judges should be so dismissed, on the basis that our appellate courts routinely demonstrate legal reasoning so poor as to shock the conscience.

Here is an example: State v. Marcum, 109 S.W.3d 300 (Tenn. 2003). This is a criminal appeal involving the proper interpretation of a statute that is not exactly fit for mixed company, Tennessee Code Annotated § 39–13–501(7). That statute provides:
(7) “[Defined Term]” means [A], [B], [C], [D], or any other intrusion, however slight . . . .
In the statute, the terms that have replaced by letters are assorted acts. The Supreme Court holds, in Marcum, that act [C] can be committed without an "intrusion": "The phrase, 'or any other intrusion,' has no modifying effect upon the defined . . . acts. The word 'or,' as used in the statute, is a coordinating conjunction that functions merely to introduce a generic non-specific alternative."

This is nonsense. The word "or" is certainly disjunctive, but the court has read the word "other" out of the statute. The word "other" is certainly descriptive of the preceding list. Conversation would become impossible otherwise:

Q: Do you have any pets?
A: A dog, a cat, and a fish.
Q: Do you have any other animals?
A: A dog, a cat, and a fish.

Rinse, lather, repeat. The word "other" means that A, B, C, and D are all acts that involve "intrusion," but if the legislature left any off, they count too. Ejusdem generis and Noscitur a sociis both suggest this result: you do not read words in a statute in isolation. (Those principles also reinforce the conclusion that "intrusion" should be an element of each act, given the Defined Term, which, let us say, suggests such an element.) And each word in the statute should have a meaning. Deleting the word "other" yields precisely the result that the court reached: reaching the definition of each item without reference to the "intrusion" element. What we have here instead is sloppy, results-driven adjudication. If the court wants to adopt a "the sonofabitch had it coming" rule for criminal cases, let them do that and then take the consequences. 

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Gee Willikers

Rorate Caeli has a transcript up of a pair of talks by a very earnest, very well-intentioned priest on the works of Tolkien and Lewis.

Several brief comments.

First, the good father seems to be responding primarily to Joseph Pearce's somewhat hyperbolic treatment of Tolkien more than to Tolkien himself. I don't know (although it is, I suppose, possible) that Tolkien himself discussed his work in the exuberantly theological terms that Pearce has employed.

Second, insofar as Father wants to criticize Pearce's gloss, the criticism may be warranted. (I haven't read Pearce's works on Tolkien, simply seen bits, snatches, and summaries.) Middle Earth is manifestly not the actual universe and Iluvatar is manifestly not the one true God. Implying otherwise quickly, and for the reasons Father notes, places the basic underpinnings of the story at odds with the Truth.

Third, however, the fact that Middle Earth and its universe are not our actual universe seems to deflate much of Father's criticism. It is one thing, and quite an understandable thing, to criticize a work for presenting a false idea about the world. It is something else entirely to criticize it for presenting an idea at all about some other world. The Church has always condemned witchcraft and the occult because these things either present false explanations for the reality of our world or represent efforts to wield diabolical powers. But if we posit, simply as an exercise of the imagination, a world other than our own, in which the laws of nature and the the universe are not the same, and if the workings of that world involve what we would term "magic," we're not invoking the same set of underlying assumptions and errors that make actual attempts to invoke magic in this world quite wrong.

One could, I suppose, posit that it is impious to imagine things that do not exist or universes governed by beings other than the true God. There might be some validity to that position. But in its most extreme (but perhaps logically necessary) variant, it would clearly exclude all exercises of the imagination and condemn all fairy tales. It is likely that there were never such things as dragons: is it wise, under this manner of thinking, for Catholics to read The Golden Legend? This strikes me as Catholicism meets Common Core: a lamentable flattening of the scope of human thought, even beyond the condemnation of errors or limitations made for pedagogical reasons.

Four, Father criticizes Lewis's Narnian and Space Trilogy tales. The latter, indisputably, present a view of the universe that is almost certainly incompatible (at the very least) with Catholic teaching on the effects of the Fall. They are not rigorously theological books, although, like many of Lewis's works, they are fun and contain some food for thought. His criticism of Narnia is rather weaker, I think: there is no reason (that I have ever discerned in Catholic teaching, at least) that God should not have created multiple worlds, although (as Lewis himself posited somewhere in the Space Trilogy, oddly enough) the idea of a second incarnation is probably totally false. The idea that children (and these are children's stories) are going to be inclined towards scientific materialism by The Magician's Nephew or the occult by the presence of an anthropomorphized star in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is a stretch at best. (How many children associate "fallen stars" with the diabolical?) The idea that it was monstrous for Lewis to present a race of gnomes in The Silver Chair as preferring to live in the bowels of the earth simply takes the cake: if the things were made to live there, it's just good teleology that they would want to return. Hell, after all, isn't actually in the earth's core. Narnia isn't a substitute for the gospels, or even a good grade-school Catholic religion text, but it's a shade better than Father gives it credit for, I think.

Is it a little disconcerting that hippies and freaks have always gobbled up Tolkien? Yes, one has to admit it is. But that fairly stands merely for the proposition that the books don't deserve to be canonized: they are not a great new Catholic myth. They're merely literature, literature that takes place in a world apart and in which virtue and vice are presented in, I think, a compelling fashion. We could quibble over the import of plot elements, but even getting to that insider-baseball level of detail undermines a thesis that the works are, per se, unwholesome.

One final note: Father's essay touches on a Catholic assessment of the Renaissance, and the dispute over whether or not the reclamation of pagan styles, forms, and works was an improvement upon or a degradation of Catholic medieval culture. Chesterton, who Father cites, was certainly correct in this regard. But that does not mean that the culture of classical antiquity is bereft of value to the Christian: Chesterton wrote to that effect at length in The Everlasting Man, and Father himself discusses Plato. Surely then, without giving them more credit than they are due, their arts and letters retain at least aesthetic and literary value that can be enjoyed in good conscience today.