Sex and persons

It is not good for man to be alone. “It is good” is the creation story’s idiom for what is finished or complete. And so masculinity and femininity are incomplete modalities of human personhood.

The two shall be one flesh is in keeping with this. As Augustine shows, flesh in scripture just means the person and so the two shall be one person, i.e. what normally gets called an individual is, on this analysis, not an individual but the source of one.

-The person is therefore the household or the minimum domestic unit.

-Man is concretely domestic. His political nature is an abstraction from this.

-Domestic existence is in a house, but not all members have the same ability to be separated from it. Children have no ability at all, men have a maximal amount, women have the problematic middle role.

-Human excellence is moral, but the source of moral obligation is the common good. The individual cannot have an excellence without a sort of excellence that is ordered to more than the individual.

-We’re attuned to human variety but we don’t always interpret it well. There’s probably some non-zero percentage of the wolf population that hates meat and eats it only reluctantly.  But one can’t draw any insights about wolves from the presence of the occasional non-carnivore. All you can conclude is is that a wolf is too complicated to be put together without some variation in all possible traits.

-So what if am the equivalent of the non-carnivorous wolf? I can’t view my own tastes as anything but fulfilling if I was born that way, can I? Maybe not, but personal fulfillment is ultimately derived not from personal particularities but, as with all moral things, the common good.

-Before one has a proper name he is related as child and sexed as born.

– God does not first make male animals and then say “it is not good” for them to be alone. Male and female animals do not rise to the level of being individuals. They might have proper names, but nothing corresponding to the word “person”.


Time and potential

1.) Time depends on eternity because mixed acts depend on the unmixed. This is simply the First Way where “potency” is understood in its temporal modality.

2.) temporal = an existence or life that cannot have all its perfections

eternal = an existence or life that must have all its perfections. 

Something that existed only for one instant – like light considered in its own reference frame – is a middle case. The accidents that a photon has aren’t very interesting (they can be here or there, I guess) but they make up for this by having them in a fascinating way.

2a.) Light exists all at once, given that it does.

2b.) For STA earth : heaven :: secondary cause : primary cause :: human : angelic :: created : creator. Earth and heaven, however, proved to be causally unimportant to the sciences, whereas the speed of light turned out to be an important component of causal action. Nothing that can convey information and so be useful in sciences is capable of moving faster than it, and things that move at this speed are structural to the accounts we give of things in motion.

3.) Time : eternity :: instrument : agent.

The Piarist Scandal

From the Australian Report on the Catholic sex abuse scandal:

In 1948, Pope Pius XII declared St Joseph Calasanz (1557–1648) to be the universal patron saint of Catholic schools. This pioneering Spanish priest eventually found himself in Rome, where at a time of social activism and growing consciousness that the masses needed to have some education, he established the first religious order to work in schools, the Order of Clerics Regular for the Pious Schools, otherwise known as the Piarists (Leibreich 2004; see also MacCulloch 2012). These priests have never worked in Australia. According to historian Diarmaid MacCulloch, ‘It was the first order in the Christian world to provide free education to the poor’ (MacCulloch 2013: 204). Eventually they would educate Mozart and Goya and, much later on, Pope Pius XI. Calasanz was a good friend of Galileo, which led to his schools being open to the teaching of mathematics and science.

But at the very core of this new religious order was the evil of child sexual abuse. Stefano Cherubini was the dandy son of a distinguished Roman family who was over promoted by Calasanz. When Calasanz became aware of Cherubini’s offending against boys in a Naples school, he did nothing. Nor did he try to limit Cherubini’s subsequent contact with boys. This inaction was prompted by a desire to defend the new order’s reputation, although this would be to the detriment of Calasanz’ own personal reputation. Nor was Cherubini the only Piarist offender in those early times for the order. The Piarists were temporarily suppressed in 1648, but more for their association with Galileo than their toleration of child sexual abuse. By careful manoeuvring, Cherubini became the head of the order in 1643, towards the end of Calasanz’s long life. The scandal was buried in the archives inFlorence until unearthed by Karen Leibreich (2004).

St Joseph Calasanz remains the patron saint of Catholic schools.

The dedicated and not

-Contemporary dedicated religious elites complain about popular religion being merely therapeutic in a way that their forebears complained about it being superstitious. Both superstition and therapy seek consolation without commitment, and to use anything in this way is to use it unlovingly. So the perennial complaint of the dedicated is that there are undedicated members of a religion. Well, duh.

-It’s not just that there are undedicated members but that there are so very many of them. There might be 2% of the congregation that meet the minimum requirements for orthodoxy. All surveys I’ve seen suggest that if you aren’t absolutely sure someone is orthodox, they aren’t. In a statistical sense, no one is religious for what the religion teaches. Everyone in a congregation is there for a different reason than the one dedicated person in their midst.

-The dedicated have scrupled forever over “many are called, few are chosen” or “the way is narrow that leads to heaven, and few find it”, when in fact it is impossible to fulfill the minimum requirements of Christ’s system and not be saved, since a minimum would not be a minimum unless it was sufficient and a failure in Christ’s system would be a failure in Christ. He was simply making a statistico-empirical observation about the congregation, and a fortiori about  those who can’t even be bothered to attend.

-So “the burden is light” and “the gate is narrow” since the minimum would suffice but the vast majority have no interest at all in meeting it.

-So of course a survey will show no difference in the lives of believers and non-believers. “A believer” is at best someone who can claim attendance at services, though they are normally much less than this, like someone who identifies himself as a believer in a phone survey.

-Christ condemns the rich because to be “rich” in the face of religion is to see it as not among the necessities of life, and so not to come before the altar as one who very much needs something from it. The further sense of “rich” is to see nothing in religion one might find fulfilling, but only a sort of insurance against the horrors of the next life.

-Even the dedicated can be at a loss to explain what Christianity has to offer beyond next-life insurance. Believe or burn. Christianity in fact is offering christ, the one in whom the fullness of divinity dwells in human form; a god born of woman so man could be born of God. This doesn’t mean lighting-up or smiling in clouds, or even “looking at” God (as though he could be across the room somewhere) but the possibility of whatever I mean by myself or my person to be the fulness of the divine nature. I say “be” and not the technical term “participate” since, for a creature, to be is always to participate.

-What is not ultimately divinized is a failure, and failure is either annihilated or falls into the trash heap (gehenna). For a long time, this was understood though a punishment metaphor, and this still has important things to say, but in our own time the punishment metaphor has to take second place to a rejection or refusal metaphor. We no longer experience our feelings for vengeance or inflicting pain as telling us something about God, and so they can’t tell us anything about Hell.



Notes on the sexes

Laqueur’s research shows there is an important sense in which we only discovered that there were two sexes very recently. Before the Twentieth Century the sexes were essentially masculine with the feminine as an incomplete form. So we literally just got accustomed to seeing sex as binary, and now want to go back and see it as a continuum, albeit without distinctions of value.

-As one Thirteenth Century thinker pointed out, if the woman is an incomplete man then the man is a complete woman. Like many important observations, it was probably seen as witty and so inoculated from affecting thought.

-The fact that “sex ed” is so mind-numbingly mechanical shouldn’t obscure that the human sexes as as such are objectively one of the most interesting things to study. It is baffling how something so central to our identity, structural to social relationships, and foundational to our existence got almost no systematic study until the Twentieth Century. There is no Aristotelian science of sexual difference, no extensive Medieval disputation on it, a modest but relatively non-existent amount of early modern stuff (and even here the study is heavily politicized). It is even more odd when one notices how interested students are in the topic. In my own experience as a teacher, there is nothing that holds attention better than an attempt to speak truth about the sexes. Seriously – nothing.

-So if the male-female opposition is not complete-incomplete, what is it? Our ideological commitments make it difficult to define it by fertility or reproductive power (since this would give us a complete-incomplete opposition between reproductive and non-reproductive sex acts).

-Our commitments prefer to see sexual activity as…what? A tool for bonding  individuals? No, since its power to bond is seen as a feature that we can turn off and on to make sex sometimes “serious” and sometimes “causal”. But sexual activity is likewise sexless, i.e. the sex of the persons is inessential to its exercise.

-Is it reasonable that anything be such that we have power over whether it binds us or not? To be bonded to another is to be held by something outside your control. If I wrap a wet noodle around your wrists, or something that you can turn into a wet noodle by just treating it as one (?) then I’m certainly not binding you. Giving us an ongoing power to determine whether something is binding is simply to deny it is binding at all.

-“But it’s marriage that makes sex binding, duh!” Can you square this with your experience, though? I can perfectly well understand how sex would make a marriage binding: people are extremely possessive over those they have sex with, and so tying sex to marriage (or anything else) would make us bound to the married other.

-“But marriage makes sex binding by foreswearing all others! Now you have to take it seriously because you have no other options!” Something smells fishy here too. Why is an activity causal or serious depending on whether we can do it with many persons or just one? I can imagine taking racquetball partners more seriously if I had to choose one and only one to play with, but I can’t imagine why doing this would necessarily make me more serious about playing racquetball. If I picked a goofy, casual player I might become more casual and goofy (or just annoyed) and if I picked a serious player I might be more serious, but just picking one and only one doesn’t make the activity any more serious.

-It’s a step forward that we can now be as critical of male irrationality as female irrationality, rolling our eyes as much at machismo as at hysterics.



Blood, kinship and diversity

-The sexual revolution has developed so as to insist that blood and kinship relationships are not more fundamental than legal and arbitrarily chosen ones. This is perhaps the definitive anti-nationalist move – the ultimate deconstruction of the nationalisms that were blamed for causing the wars between 1914-45.

-The more benign deconstruction was racial integration. Blood and kinship relations found racial distinctions, and there has been a campaign since the wars to minimize their significance. One sign that problems have arisen in this attempt has been the transition from integration to diversity, i.e. where as before we wanted all races to share a common life we now want them to live different lives, but put them on display for an alleged pedagogic value. “Separate but equal” returns as celebrated.

-Still, integration holds on in our ideals. While races stubbornly ghetto themselves in their own clubs, studies programs and neighborhoods our movies and television programs depict worlds where the races are oblivious to racial differences and are engaged in common tasks. A picture doesn’t look like a school-promotion packet or a movie cast without both sexes and three different skin tones. Whether this ultimately gets judged good art will depend on whether people find this sort of harmonious, racially indifferent co-operation possible, but, again, the shift from integration to diversity is an ominous sign.

-The tenacity of the integration ideal has motives from both the Left and Right: the Left seeks fulfillment in an internationalist cooperative, the Right (after the war) sought fulfillment in the legal unity that in the US was called “a proposition nation”. For the Left we will all integrate under a single worldwide law, the Right we will all integrate under our own legal traditions.

-In shortest form, we want legal ties to be more fundamental than breeding ties. Now in one sense they certainly are: spouses are chosen. One does choose his family if you’re talking not about who bred him but whom he chose to breed with, but to take this as the end of the story is clearly leaving something out.

-We can’t live without a political life, and we can’t have the shared life that politics demands without pride in a shared history. Diversity problematizes both the history and the pride we could take in it.

-The Olympics and the World Cup are nothing if not bald nationalism, though they’re the exception that proves the rule: every so often we vent unbridled nationalism, but only as a game. Our desires for nationalist domination and excellence are simultaneously satisfied (we crushed them / they only beat us by cheating!) and criticized (since we know that lives were not on the line). Local sports franchises play the same role in our desire for local communities.

-The sexual revolution shifted sex from being a source of blood and kinship ties to something essentially individual. One thing making this shift attractive were the horrors associated with nationalism after 1945, but, as everyone knows, there are just as many horrors done in the name of an internationalist brotherhood of all men. So what are we left with?


Methods to knowledge

Method originally meant a shortcut or simplest path to knowing something. It was often a response to a long series approaches to the problem by trial and error, dialectical fighting, etc. STA describes the problem that method seeks to solve:

 I have considered that students in of theology have not seldom been hampered by what they have found written by other authors, partly on account of the multiplication of useless questions, articles, and arguments, partly also because those things that are needful for them to know are not taught according to the order of the subject matter, but according as the plan of the book might require, or the occasion of the argument offer, partly, too, because frequent repetition brought weariness and confusion to the minds of readers.

Method in this sense takes knowledge of something for granted, and seeks to set it in order.

Somewhere along the way, however, method shifted from the ordering of knowledge taken as a given to a condition of knowing the subject at all. The idea that scientific method is a condition of knowing nature is simply the latest input into the “method is a condition of knowing” function that was a central theme of philosophy from Descartes through Kant to Positivism. Briefly, method goes from ordering the already known to being a condition of knowing at all. 

The two meanings share significant overlap: before one puts a method on knowledge the knowledge might well be so diffuse, confused, and primitive that it isn’t much different from knowing nothing at all. Before one has a method it is difficult to tackle a scientific problem cooperatively and so more difficult for  science to be progressive. Aristotle gave method to problems in logic, natural philosophy metaphysics, etc. and there is no comparison between what was learned in these areas before him and after him; STA gave method to moral theology and there is likewise no comparison between the moral science before and after him; Newton did the same thing for mathematical physics. Euclid, Ptolemy, Einstein, etc all did similar things. Biographers never tire of pointing out that Euclid or Einstein “discovered very little” and that most of their insights were already found before they came along. True, but these insights would have all gone fallow without their synthesis. Lorentz and Poincare knew about length contraction without relativity, but without the theory it be an equation that engineers would learn when they had to correct for the speed of satellites, and not much more. The point of the synthesis is not what it discovered, but what it allows us to discover and how it illuminates what is scattered in the field before it.

But it is a step too far to take method as an absolute condition for knowledge, since to do so ends up destroying method altogether. Method unifies given knowledge in an ordered procedure, and so it presupposes pre-method work of people spitballing, fighting, tinkering with arguments, mulling over ideas, etc. Methods presuppose that many persons have already known X without the method – it’s not as if one can set up a procedure to know X and then proceed to know X for the first time.

What I here call method has significant overlap with theory, and this is how it should be. Both are organizations of things already known, though calling it theory  focuses on its content while calling it method focuses on its praxis.

The problematic of CP and religious liberty

Ed Feser links to an article that draws an interesting analogy between the problems of CP and of harmonizing the history of the Church with religious liberty after Vatican II.

At it’s most difficult, the problem of religious liberty is whether persecuting heretics* is contrary to the heretic’s natural rights. Did Innocent III violate the natural rights of the Cathars when he attacked them and drove them out of France? Were even the minimal penalties of the Inquisition against the natural law? Should Augustine have abandoned the attempts to stamp out Pelagians and Donatists and rather have formed ecumenical councils with them in the spirit of respecting everyone’s natural right to practice religion as he sees fit?

Attempting to dismiss the problem by historical relativism is belied by our own sentiments. It’s impossible for most of us to sympathize with Innocent or the Inquisitors or Augustine or to suppress the feeling that all the energy exerted in crushing the heretics was wasted time or even a failure of charity and trust in God. From the time of the Fathers through Christendom until deep into the Enlightenment, however, this sort of response to heretics was seen at least as  permissible and more likely as laudable and necessary. The problem is that there doesn’t seem to be any easy way to make a single, unbroken tradition out of their convictions and our own.

One response to the problem is to say that in the pre-modern world there was no separation of civil and religious spheres, but this account just covertly justifies our sentiments. It rests on the twin ideas that persecution is justified only qua political, and that some people (i.e. most of Catholic history) conflated religious doctrines with political ends. The response therefore begs the question, since the basic problem is whether the unity of the civil and religious spheres is an improper conflation or the way things ought to be. We say no, the Fathers and Christendom say yes, and we again hit the problem of how to form one tradition out of their conviction that charity demands driving out heretics and our conviction that it is an uncharitable waste of time.

Religious liberty and CP share a common ground in the problematic of violence, i.e. the question of who can be justifiably violent and for what reason. We’ve shifted from believing that religion justified at least some acts of violence to the conviction that it doesn’t even justify harsh words from one sect to another. As Feser points out, the basic justification of CP is that our desire to inflict violence on wrongdoers is given by God and deserves satisfaction, and these desires clearly include wanting to see some wrongdoers die. In our own time, however, these feelings of vengeance are seen as exactly the sort of thing that religion should stamp out.

The basic problem seems to be what sort of violence God approves of, or whether our desires for vengeance against wrongdoers are the voice of God or the voice of sin.

*Two points: (1) I’m using the word informally as any deviation from some definable orthodoxy. So if Calvinism is a definable orthodoxy and I take some parts of it but not others – as all Catholics do – then I’m a Calvinist heretic as the term will be used in this argument. More importantly (2) I’m arbitrarily distinguishing heresy from religious practices like Moabite child sacrifice, Aztec religion, Mormon 19th Century polygamy, or even the use of peyote in sweat lodges. Whether such a distinction is sustainable is itself part of the problem of religious liberty, but one can’t even explain the problem without starting from the hypothesis that the distinction between Aztecs and Christians is different than the distinction between Lutherans and Calvinists, and which allows for, say, Calvinists to recognize that the Lutherans have a natural right that the Aztecs do not.

A literal reading of the updated CCC on CP

1.) The CCC provides no context for the meaning of “inadmissible”. As Pakaluk noticed, the word isn’t used anywhere else in the catechism. This throws us back on dictionary meanings and common usage, where “the inadmissible” is either (A.) What can’t be allowed absolutely or (B) what can’t be allowed anywhere it is now forbidden.  As an example of the latter, hearsay evidence is inadmissible in courtrooms but plays an important role in police investigations. So one literal reading of the new teaching is that the Church hopes for CP to be restricted to countries where it now exists, in a way similar to how Lincoln famously thought slavery was inadmissible for new states. This is a particularly attractive reading given that the CCC understands its teaching as ordered to the abolition of CP, and restricting X to places where it already exists is one of the most reasonable ways to work for the abolition of X.

2.) While we have no context for “inadmissible” we have almost too much for “the dignity of the human person”, so much so that Brandon wondered recently “if incompatibility with human dignity is really functioning not as an indicator of the kind of evil it is but as a way of saying something is wrong without having to say exactly how.” Unemployment, for example, is “almost always” against human dignity, and its being so is not a casual use of the term. One of the repeated principles of Catholic social teaching is that we must uphold “the dignity of work”, which means that unemployment, layoffs, factory closures etc all violate it – perhaps “inadmissibly”.

3.) So one perfectly literal reading of the new teaching that

“the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person”,


The Church teaches that there exist at least some contexts in which the death penalty cannot be allowed because it is wrong in a way that we do not here specify, but which falls somewhere between mass murder and unemployment”.


On renunciation

If the hardness of anything is measured by the resistance given to it, then the hardest truth of Christianity is attachment to creatures is opposed to attachment to God. There is a zero-sum game between the attachments: whatever you give to one you take from the other and vice-versa.

The hardness of the truth tempts caricature: we can say with Uta Ranke-Heinemann that Christianity is structured by a hatred of pleasure, and especially sexual pleasure; we can say with Steven Pinker that Christianity sets up unrealistic and ultimately unhelpful ideals of asceticism that take away from genuine human flourishing; we can say with Hume that Christian asceticism is the creepy and grotesque practice of “the monkish virtues” that leave one sanctimonious, unproductive, and smelly… The hard truth behind all these misprisions is that Christianity places the highest human happiness in an attachment to God that is apiece with renouncing attachment to the human desire for food, power, sexual pleasure, wealth, posterity, having one’s way, altering one’s consciousness, achieving renown, etc. Scripture calls all this “the flesh”, though it means by it only the things that humans want as humans.

Attachment to creatures is what Paul calls “making provision for the flesh“, i.e. structuring life around what humans want as humans (as Augustine points out, what scripture calls “the flesh” is simply what is human cf. chapter 4 here). The more one lives according to this sort of structure the more spiritual things are only present as an interruption or intrusion into life. Whether they are a pleasant or unwelcome intrusion is an open question, but at best the things of the spirit take us away from our normal routine and give it a pleasant garnish of mystery and meaning. For the saint, however, the goods of man are the intrusion or interruption of his routine, giving it the pleasant garnish of physical enjoyment.

Taking Christianity seriously demands a radical altering of life, even up to the cloister or monastary. If anything, the canonical vows are a half-measure: one can renounce sex, money and power but this leaves many attachments to human goods untouched: fame, honor by others, getting published or going to conferences, or even wanting peace on earth or relief from an illness. A fortiori, one is so much more at risk in the single-vow of the secular priesthood, or the complete absence of renunciative vows among the laity.

The good that Christianity has to offer is God found in renouncing attachment to human goods i.e. “the flesh”. This is properly the difference that God makes in life, it is how we verify the existence of the God of Christianity, and it is the good that God offers us in response to our prayers for wealth, a spouse, the ending of a sickness, the success of a trip, etc.

To draw out that last point – even if Christianity developed perspective paining, polyphony, and realism the good that it offered the world was not art; even if it gave us a doctrine of the fall that lead to scientific reasoning its good was not science; even if it was the only movement that unified the entire world on one calendar its good was not history. It offers us God known in the renunciation of attachment to the flesh, and anyone who wants to judge it by its own standard has to judge it in this way.

Again, The God of the philosophers differs from the God of Abraham in being known by practice – but the fundamental practice is not ritual or sermonizing or even careful reading of sacred texts but the renunciation of the flesh. If you want the God of Abraham, then show Abraham’s degree of detachment to the things of the world – like a son, for example. This is the wisdom of God that is folly to men.

Or again, if you want to determine whether God answers prayers you have to look to the actual good that he offers in response to them. “Ask and you shall receive” doesn’t specify what you will receive, and a fuller reading of the text shows that what we get is the spirit, i.e. that which drives out the flesh.

I’m not saying any of this because I like it. I like it to the extent that it solves various vexing puzzles about the value of faith, the efficacy of prayer, the value in tithing, etc. but I’d rather spend my days making provision for a good meal, a glass of scotch, having people like what I write, having my ideas accepted at work, enjoying the goods of marriage, etc than making provision for prayers, fasting, corporal works of mercy and all of that. So yeah, I’m a sinner.



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