Saturday, July 11, 2015

Happy Feast of St. Benedict! How Do We Live It?

Today is the feast of the abbot Benedict of Nursia.

Inspired by Rod Dreher, himself inspired by St. Benedict, I've been thinking a lot lately about the so-called "Benedict Option," aimed at intentional Christian living in a post-Christian age.  Although more a set of questions than a real program, I think this conversation, which has been going on for a couple years now since Dreher's initial post, offers valuable food for thought.  I suggest you check out the following:

"Benedict Option," The American Conservative, the original blog post by Dreher from 2013.

"Christian and Countercultural," First Things, an elaboration by Dreher from 2015.

"Critics of the Benedict Option," The American Conservative, Dreher's latest blog post which addresses some misconceptions (and refuses to get drawn into greater specifics than the idea requires).

"Benedict Option Reading Suggestions (Updated)," Fare Forward, a guide to various comments on and critics of the Benedict Option.

O God, who made the Abbot Saint Benedict an outstanding master in the school of divine service, grant, we pray, that, putting nothing before love of you, we may hasten with a loving heart in the way of your commands. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

Saint Benedict, pray for us!

Today's image comes via the Saint Meinrad Archabbey.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Two Remarks on Obergefell v. Hodges

Justice Scalia, at the very beginning of his dissent in Obergefell v. Hodges, showed that he still is, and most likely will die, a legal positivist. Now, I have some sympathy for Justice Scalia’s position. Positive law is supposed to be about reaching logical conclusions. In any given case, the judge must ascertain what the applicable rule of law is and then apply it to the facts before him. Ideally, he should be able to summarize his ruling in a clear outline, with each conclusion following logically from the rules of law. The judge must also be able to justify the weight he gives to certain facts and his assessment of the various witnesses’ credibility in an intellectually coherent manner. Last Friday’s decision—as Justice Scalia is perfectly correct to point out—failed miserably as jurisprudence from the point of view of positive law; Justice Kennedy’s “rules of law” were, in Justice Scalia’s memorable insult, no more than “fortune cookie aphorisms."

However, Justice Scalia errs in foreswearing all notions of natural law or metaphysics, at the very beginning of his dissent. After all, where do the rules of law, the premises of our legal syllogisms come from? We lawyers are taught always to cite to the relevant authority, but we rarely admit that our citations to authority cannot regress ad infinitum. At some point we must discuss first principles. Justice Scalia’s solution to this conundrum is not the Catholic solution—he does not invoke natural law to supply him the premises for his arguments. Rather, he insisted last Friday, as he has throughout his career, that in a democracy these premises must be supplied by the people, as expressed in their legislation (Constitution and statutes). Vox populi, vox Dei is the supreme rule in Justice Scalia’s jurisprudence.

Justice Scalia’s solution, though, is false; it runs into two problems. First, it denies the fundamental insight of natural law that over and above positive law there is a transcendent justice which positive must respect; a positive law that contradicts this transcendent justice is null and void and cannot bind the individual conscience. Even though most Americans have a very skewed notion of this transcendent justice—and Justice Scalia is right to combat these errors aggressively—these same Americans are nevertheless correct in their intuition that an unjust law is no law at all, and that our nation’s highest court should say so.

Second, it is futile for Justice Scalia to protest against Justice Kennedy’s smuggling of quasi-metaphysical notions of freedom and equality into the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence when the 14th Amendment makes these same notions the very cornerstone of our law. Justice Scalia’s valiant efforts to limit the baleful influence of vague ideas of freedom and equality on America by resort to historical research and originalism have always been bound to fail because freedom and equality have been our dangerous ferment since the days of the Revolution. They have been acting throughout American history, sometimes quickly and sometimes slowly, but always there. Justice Scalia’s historical research ignores this fact.

In short, because of his own philosophical blinders—his legal positivism—and his own ideological commitments—to democracy—Justice Scalia will never actually address first principles, which was what our nation so needed to hear on Friday.

(Ed Peters makes a similar point in his post on Justice Scalia.)

The Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges also makes me ask whether ordinary legal processes are adequate for determining first principles. In fact, this gay “marriage” case illustrates perfectly why the answer to this question is “no.”

A cardinal rule of appellate litigation is that a reviewing judge is not supposed to consider any facts (except the most trivial) that are not contained in the record; likewise, the litigating attorneys may not refer to any facts (except the most trivial) outside the record, except by way of analogy. The record—for all you non-lawyers out there—is the documented proceedings and testimony taken in the trial court. It contains the parties’ pleadings, the sworn testimony recorded by the court reporters, and, in some cases, the physical evidence. Even in our increasingly digital age, all the case records I have ever dealt with in my law practice have been bound collections of paper documents. In other words, if litigating attorneys want the reviewing judges to consider certain facts, it must be introduced into evidence at trial properly and then included in the record. If something is not in the record, it does not exist for the judge and the attorneys.

But, when the question is as complex as the nature of marriage and its incompatibility with homosexuality, a question which could be studied over the course of an entire lifetime, how does a litigating attorney even begin to develop an adequate record and a reviewing judge to read and comprehend it? The issues involved are too complex and the required expertise too variegated for busy attorneys and judges to master these issues within their own lifetimes.

Our legal processes are well designed to deal with discrete incidents, but not with broad social policy or great philosophical issues. Nevertheless, if the law is to have a firm foundation, it must ultimately have recourse to philosophy. But woe to the nation that looks for answers to the most vexing questions of philosophy to Justice Kennedy.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Thomas More's Priorities

Today is the feast of St. Thomas More.  Seeing as how he's one of my favorite saints, I've written about him before and shared some clips from the excellent film, A Man for All Seasons.  

Today I wanted to share a short poem or prayer - a psalm, he called it - that he wrote in his final days.  It hangs on my cubicle wall at the office, as a reminder of the importance of the eternal things and the vanity of this passing life.  If the tone sounds a bit dour, remember that this was written while More faced the prospect of death.  But also recall that More was a man prone to jokes and laughter.  If there is seriousness here, it is the fruit not of a melancholy personality, but of deep reflection by a man who had come to understand his utter dependence on God.

Tower of London, 1534-35 

Give me thy grace, good Lord: 
To set the world at nought; 

To set my mind fast upon thee, 
And not to hang upon the blast of men’s mouths; 

To be content to be solitary,
Not to long for worldly company; 

Little and little utterly to cast off the world, 
And rid my mind of all the business thereof; 

Not to long to hear of any worldly things, 
But that the hearing of worldly phantasies may be to me displeasant;

Gladly to be thinking of God, 
Piteously to call for his help; 

To lean unto the comfort of God, 
Busily to labor to love him; 

To know mine own vility and wretchedness,
To humble and meeken myself under the mighty hand of God; 

To bewail my sins passed, 
For the purging of them patiently to suffer adversity; 

Gladly to bear my purgatory here, 
To be joyful of tribulations;

To walk the narrow way that leadeth to life, 
To bear the cross with Christ; 

To have the last thing in remembrance, 
To have ever afore mine eye my death that is ever at hand; 

To make death no stranger to me,
To foresee and consider the everlasting fire of hell; 

To pray for pardon before the judge come, 
To have continually in mind the passion that Christ suffered for me; 

For his benefits uncessantly to give him thanks, 
To buy the time again that I before have lost;

To abstain from vain confabulations, 
To eschew light foolish mirth and gladness; 

Recreations not necessary – to cut off; 
Of worldly substance, friends, liberty, life and all, 
     to set the loss at right nought for the winning of Christ;

To think my most enemies my best friends, 
For the brethren of Joseph could never have done him so much good 
     with their love and favor as they did him with their malice and hatred. 

These minds are more to be desired of every man 
     than all the treasure of all the princes and kings,
     Christian and heathen, were it gathered and 
     laid together all upon one heap.

Today's icon comes from Monastery Icons.  And a tip of the hat to the Center for Thomas More Studies at the University of Dallas, which provided the text.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Happy Solemnity of the Ascension (sort of)!

Thursday was the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord. But in most of the United States it is celebrated today. Ever wonder who gets to decide if it moves? No, it's not the bishop. It's actually the archbishop, so that an entire ecclesiastical province, composed of an archdiocese and its suffragan (i.e. affiliated/subordinate) dioceses have the same practice. So here in the Diocese of Richmond, we follow the practice chosen by the archbishop of Baltimore. In the ecclesiastical provinces of Boston, Hartford, New York, Philadelphia, Newark, and Omaha, the Ascension is celebrated on Thursday; everywhere else it is moved to the following Sunday.

Curious which ecclesiastical province you're in? Take a look! (Note that this map shows the archdiocese of each province in a slightly different color from the rest of the province. If that confuses, you, try this map instead.)

In the course of digging up the map above, I stumbled upon the historical map below, c. 1912, back when there were only fourteen provinces. You can see that the number of diocese and provinces has proliferated considerably in the past century, to thirty two Latin provinces in the continental US.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Davidic Origins of "The Last Shall Be First"

Jesus was a rabbi.  We sometimes forget the very Jewish nature of his ministry and teaching.  I was recently struck by this reality while reading the Book of Samuel. When David and his band were away, Amalekites raided the city of Ziklag, carrying off the wives and children of David and many of his men. David set off with 600 men in pursuit of the Amalekites, but along the way 200 men tired and were left behind, while the other 400 continued the pursuit. When David and his men finally came upon the Amalekites they rescued their family members and captured a large quantity of plunder.

When David came to the two hundred men who had been too exhausted to follow him, whom he had left behind at the Wadi Besor, they came out to meet David and the men with him. As David approached, he greeted them. But all the greedy and worthless among those who had accompanied David said, “Since they did not accompany us, we will not give them anything from the plunder, except for each man’s wife and children.” But David said:

“You must not do this, my brothers, after what the LORD has given us. The LORD has protected us and delivered into our hands the raiders that came against us. Who could agree with this proposal of yours? Rather, the share of the one who goes down to battle shall be the same as that of the one who remains with the baggage—they share alike.” And from that day forward he made this a law and a custom in Israel, as it still is today. (1 Samuel 30:21-25)

Thus, when Jesus told the parable of the vineyard workers, all of whom were paid the same wage irrespective of how long they worked, he was not introducing a new teaching.  Rather, he was reminding them of the long-standing Davidic practice.

Nor was this the first time that Jesus invoked David's example.  In Matthew 12 he compared his own disciples to David and his band, who ate of the sacred show bread reserved to the priests.  With these examples in mind, it is perhaps all the more fitting that in Matthew 21, the very chapter after the parable of the vineyard workers, the crowds acclaimed Jesus as the "Son of David."  Here was one who revived the forgotten teachings of Israel, who called the people to rededicate themselves to the holiness of God's covenant.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Fairyland amid the Factories

I’ve recently taken to reading my son poems each night. Among our recent reads were Chesterton’s “Song of the Children” and the poem below, “Modern Elfland.” I found it particularly interesting because Chesterton is often assumed – among other things, because of his advocacy of distributism – to have been an agrarian romantic.  And maybe he was.  But this poem suggests that, in city or countryside, among fields or factories, the spark of life exists and can be found anywhere. For those inspired by the Chestertonian vision, seeking out the “heart of fairyland” in the midst of modern life may be a more fruitful path than trying to rebuild a lost agrarian world which, for most of us, is probably out of reach.

Modern Elfland
By G. K. Chesterton

I cut a staff in a churchyard copse,
I clad myself in ragged things,
I set a feather in my cap
That fell out of an angel’s wings.

I filled my wallet with white stones,
I took three foxgloves in my hand,
I slung my shoes across my back,
And so I went to fairyland.

But lo, within that ancient place
Science had reared her iron crown,
And the great cloud of steam went up
That telleth where she takes a town.

But cowled with smoke and starred with lamps,
That strange land’s light was still its own;
The word that witched the woods and hills
Spoke in the iron and the stone.

Not Nature’s hand had ever curved
That mute unearthly porter’s spine.
Like sleeping dragon’s sudden eyes
The signals leered along the line.

The chimneys thronging crooked or straight
Were fingers signalling the sky;
The dog that strayed across the street
Seemed four-legged by monstrosity.

‘In vain,’ I cried, ‘though you too touch
The new time’s desecrating hand,
Through all the noises of a town
I hear the heart of fairyland.’

I read the name above a door,
Then through my spirit pealed and passed:
‘This is the town of thine own home,
And thou hast looked on it at last.’

From The Collected Poems of G. K. Chesterton (1927) via the Poetry Foundation.  Picture from the Chesterton Debate Series.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Boat Race Day!

Saturday 11 April 2015 is The Boat Race, the annual competition between Oxford and Cambridge on the Thames.  In the world of rowing, not to mention Oxbridge rivalry, it is as big as the Olympics.  And after last year's drubbing by Oxford, Cambridge has something to prove.

You can watch the Boat Race - or, rather, Races, since the men and women are rowing on the same day this year - online, courtesy of the BBC.  The women's race is at 16:50 (London time) and the men at 17:50.

To get in the mood, you might consider watching True Blue, a film based on the 1987 "Oxford Mutiny" and the Boat Race of that year.