Monday, August 26, 2013

New Arms for Albemarle County, VA

Readers of this blog will know that I am interested in designing better heraldry for my local institutions in Virginia.  Today I would like to consider the Albemarle County seal.

The biggest shortcoming of the seal is that it is not readily identifiable from a distance.  While it includes symbols of the University of Virginia and the local countryside, as well as the state flower (dogwood) and the scales of justice, what is most obvious from any distance is the yellow border and yellow circle, with some blue/green things going on in between.  Most of the details are lost.

In place of this seal I offer the following mock-up of arms:

The blazon, the technical description, is: Argent, between a pall Azure three scallops Gules.

The blue Y-shaped design (called a pall in heraldry) represents the Rivanna River, whose North and South Forks come together in Albemarle County.  The three red shells are drawn, with reversed coloration, from the arms of the Earls of Albemarle, for whom the county is named.  Red and white represent the blood that was shed here during the War of Independence and the Civil War, and the peace which now reigns.  Red and white are also the heraldic colors of Sir Walter Raleigh, founder of the Colony of Virginia, while Thomas Jefferson, founder of the University of Virginia, used red, white, and blue, in his arms.

If one wanted to include elements of the current seal - e.g. the "Founded AD 1744" or the dogwood flowers - these might be incorporated onto a motto banner, a crest, or a compartment.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Against Rejectionism


"This Is [Still] the Best School That Is"

It seems to be vogue to reject one's past: "Oh, I use to do/believe X, but now I do/believe Y."  John Maynard Keynes is reported to have said that when the facts change he changed his mind.  Certainly there is nothing wrong with one's views changing as one grows in wisdom.  But it seems the zeitgeist now presumes a rejection of past views.

One manifestation of this general trend is the rejection of past institutions, particularly educational institutions, most especially those with unique characteristics.  I think I speak for many, perhaps most, of the University of Dallas' graduates when I say that some of my views have changed since attending that school.  But on the whole I am struck by the solidity of the values I imbibed there.  In answer to the broad trend of rejectionism, let me offer a specific defense, a defense of my own alma mater.

Should I reject UD's politics?  I came to the school as a self-consciously conservative Republican.  I attended the 2000 Republican National Convention and was on the floor when George W. Bush was nominated for the presidency.  Did UD embrace and foster the political views I brought?  The Princeton Review ranks UD the 6th most conservative school in America.  (Though UD did not appear on recent lists from the Young America's Foundation or The Daily Beast.)

In my four years there I would not say I became more or less conservative, but more smartly conservative.  It was at UD that I was introduced to the writings of Russell Kirk and first attended a meeting of the Philadelphia Society.  I became less interested in the views of the Republican Party.  In the years since graduation I have come to shed the language of left/right, liberal/conservative almost entirely.  I would now describe myself as an integral Christian humanist and I try to take my cues from the Church's social teaching, including Rerum Novarum and Centesimus Annus, works I first read at UD.  Have I rejected UD's politics?  Not exactly.  My views have evolved, based largely on UD's own education.

Should I reject UD's theology?  Some might describe UD's theology as conservative.  I think orthodox - that is, in accordance with the teaching of the magisterium, the pope and the bishops in communion with him - is a more accurate description.  But let us investigate this notion of conservative theology for a minute.  If one uses the term "conservative" in the literal sense of preserving something from the past, this is an accurate description: UD teaches the Bible as well as dead theologians like Augustine and Aquinas.  Even more recent figures studied look back to such historic thinkers. (I recently re-read Joseph Ratzinger's Theology of History in St. Bonaveture, a book assigned to me my senior year.  The title theologian died in 1274.)

One sometimes hears today that Christianity is not necessarily conservative or even that it ought not be.  If by this one means that Christianity ought not be identified with the Republican party, a party supportive of the death penalty and often ambivalent about aiding the poor and migrants, I would agree.  (Though it would be naive to make such a criticism and overlook the Republicans' defense of unborn children, support for traditional marriage, and pro-growth policies aimed at creating jobs, yes, even for the poor.  Likewise, the opposite observations could be made of the Democrats.)

If, however, one means that Christianity ought not be attached to the idea of conserving things from the past, this is a more dubious claim.  If one rejects the ancient scriptures of the faith and the historic teaching of the Church's bishops, one does not cease to be conservative; one ceases to be a Christian all together.  (If one rejects only the authority of the bishops, while retaining the Bible, one becomes Protestant.  There is, of course, great overlap between the two bodies of teaching.  In 325 the Council of Nicaea affirmed the Incarnation, the notion that Jesus was fully God and fully man.  Any Protestant would accept this doctrine not because he accepts the authority of the bishops gathered in council, but because the prologue to John's gospel says as much.)  While there is a progressive quality to Christianity - just look at the unfolding of God's grace and revelation in the Old Testament - a Christian cannot be so anti-conservative as to throw out stuffy old doctrines like the Incarnation and the Trinity, such historic practices as fasting and observance of weekly communal worship, and such hierarchic notions as leadership.

Should I reject UD's spirituality?  Spirituality is not exactly the same thing as theology; the latter is a system of beliefs; the former is the personal practice of those beliefs.  My spiritual life has followed an interesting trajectory: toward traditionalism while at UD, away from traditionalism afterward.  I might be tempted to dismiss the Gregorian chant, polyphony, monastic vocational discernment, and the rest as a passing fad, something beyond which I have now moved, except that, as my wife and I settle into family life together, those things from UD have taken on new meaning.  We recently changed parishes, for example, for a more traditional liturgy and Thomistic teaching.  Time appears to be proving the resonance of the spirituality I acquired as an undergraduate.

Should I reject UD's demographics?  Without a doubt the University of Dallas is a white upper-middle class school.  Having subsequently lived alongside Salvadorians and African-Americans in some of Greater Washington's less affluent neighborhoods, the narrowness of UD's demographics has become more obvious to me.  A greater diversity of races and classes at UD would not be a bad thing.  However, I am now struck by two things.  First, UD was - and, by all accounts, still is - an extremely diverse place.  Some of my closest friends had parents with MDs, JDs, and PhDs.  Their incomes were often similarly elevated.  But I also spent a spring break in Arkansas with a friend whose family lived in a mobile home heated by a wood stove.  Second, having spent four years at a large public university, I have seen the lack of diversity which programs aimed at producing it create.  The statistics for race and class may look better on paper, but intellectual diversity or vitality does not necessarily follow.  In contrast, Princeton Review writes, "What truly sets [UD's] curriculum apart... is not the challenge, but rather the scope and diversity of it. As one student enthused, 'I never thought I'd have so many different takes on all the subjects I've studied.'"

One of the simplest measures of diversity which affirmative action and its watered-down variants ignore is geography.  I grew up in Arizona with parents from the Great Plains; I instinctively believed that New York was some distant den of iniquity and pollution which no one would ever want to visit.  That view changed when I became friends with a New Yorker at UD.  Likewise, my classmates came from public, private, and home schooling in roughly equal measure, a diversity unlikely to be matched by most schools professing to promote diversity.  I do not believe in placing people in racial boxes; whenever I can, I skip the race section on forms.  UD's admission form did not even ask about my race.  That seems to resonate with a world in which people are not "judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."

Should I reject UD's social worldview?  The phrase "social worldview" may not be the best, but I could not think of another to address the broad charge of closed-mindedness.  Let me consider two particular issues which may elucidate this vague criteria.

I came to UD in 2002, in the shadow of the fallen Twin Towers.  Iraq was invaded in my second semester.  There were many discussions about Islam and the threat from Islamic terrorism.  I regret that not all of those discussions were as well informed as they might have been.  In the last few years I have learned a great deal more about Islam and developed considerable respect for its adherents.  I would, however, add two qualifiers to my regrets about some misdirected notions of Islam that may have circulated.  First, there is a kind of apologia for all things non-Western which can be every bit as blinded as pro-Western jingoism.  There are real shortcomings in the Islamic world, like the widespread prevalence of pederasty in Afghanistan and Central Asia.  A frank discussion of Islam and Christianity should recognize the virtues and shortcomings of each.  One is at least as likely to find that at UD as anywhere else.  Second, UD equipped me with the tools - historical, philosophical, spiritual - to come to a greater appreciation of Islam.  Although that development did not happen while I was there, the connection is quite clear in my mind.

Princeton Review recently placed UD on its list of schools least friendly to gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered persons.  As I have written before, the Catholic Church teaches that homosexuals "must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided."  If this fails to occur at UD, I regret that, deeply.  However, the Church also teaches that, "basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered."  I suspect that those answering the Princeton Review's queries likely assumed that such a condemnation is unfriendly.  Certainly it must be proclaimed with sensitivity.  But if the Church is correct in its teaching, sharing this truth, however painful it may be to many, is an act of charity; to hide the truth and proclaim falsehood is no act of kindness.  That UD hosts the Courage program is little known, but proof that the school supports both teaching and practice.

"This is the best school that is."  With these immortal words Dr. John R. Sommerfeldt endorsed the University of Dallas.  (Why make an ordinary statement when you can make it existential, right?)  I have attended several schools, visited several more, and met students from a variety of others.  I have spent a fair bit of time thinking about higher education.  And the longer I am away from UD, the more convinced I am of the truth of this endorsement.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Pope Francis Said WHAT?

There has been plenty of media attention of late given to comments made by Pope Francis regarding the ordination of gay men to the priesthood.  Yet, so far as I can tell, there has been little cause for fuss.  But what exactly is the Church's teaching on the ordination of men who experience same sex attraction?

An analogy may help clarify the situation.  (Like all analogies, of course, it breaks down at points, but I hope you'll find it useful.)  Does the Church ordain alcoholics to the priesthood?  The answer is, well... sort of.

If an alcoholic has confronted his problem, learned to resist his temptations, and has been sober for several years, yes, most bishops would be comfortable ordaining him.  What if he were just entering Alcoholics Anonymous and the long road to recovery?  A bishop would likely ask him to persevere in this important work for some time before coming to the diocese for the discernment of a priestly vocation.  What if our alcoholic suffered frequent lapses into drunkenness, but hated his sin, wanted to be free of it, and wanted to serve the Lord?  A bishop would likely encourage his sense of contrition, encourage him to seek help, and persist in prayer.  But to ordain, or even suggest the possibility of ordination, to such a man would be imprudent.  Finally, what if a man who routinely got drunk, encouraged others to do likewise, and contended that drunkenness was not a sin (contrary to the teaching of the Church) desired ordination?  Clearly, no bishop would consider him for ordination.

The Catholic Church considers homosexual acts sinful.  Whether one agrees with this position or not, it is clear and easy to understand.  However, the Church makes a distinction between sin (which is a moral error) and the inclination to sin (which should be discouraged, but is not itself an error on the individual's part).  Thus, the mere experience of same sex attraction is not sinful and those who struggle with such a temptation are not ipso facto barred from ministry in the Church.  But prudence does require that bishops and those responsible for priestly formation carefully consider whether a man seeking ordination has overcome his temptation or whether it is likely to be a serious struggle for him, one which might be a cause for scandal or impair his ministry.  Precisely delineating such a distinction in the form of administrative policy is apt to be tricky, but I think the general concept is fairly clear.

The one category of men experiencing same sex attraction who are unambiguously barred from ordination are those who claim that homosexual acts are not sinful or behave in a manner which indicates the same.  They are prohibited from being ministers of the Catholic Church because they do not believe the Church's own teachings.  Again, whether one agrees with the Church or not, this position on ordination is commonsensical.

As Pope Francis noted, the Church's teaching on the ordination of women is straightforward: "The Church has spoken and says no."  The Church's teaching on the ordination of men who have experienced same sex attraction is more complicated and therefore it is unsurprising that when several people (e.g. John Paul II, Benedict XVI, Francis) explain this position, the explanation is made in a slightly different way.  Does that mean that the Church's position has changed?  Doubtful.

Finally, a word on Francis' actual comment: "If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?"  This reminds me of Augustine's well known line: "Love and then do as you will."  People sometimes interpret Augustine's comment as libertine, permitting all manner of behaviors so long as they are done with a loving intention.  In fact, love is a very specific notion for Augustine; while there may be a great many ways to express love (as Augustine emphasizes), many behaviors are intrinsically at odds with love, and thus would be utterly rejected by one who is moved by love.  Only someone completely unfamiliar with Augustine would make the mistake of assuming that he saw no place for rules or limits.

In a similar fashion, let me break down Pope Francis' comment for those who might lack a broader understanding of the Catholic Church.  "If someone is gay..."  Francis certainly refers here to one who experiences same sex attraction, not someone who commits homosexual acts.  The Church, following St. Paul's lead, does pass judgment on particular acts.  "If... he searches for the Lord and has good will..."  Such seeking is not a casual matter but the total giving over of one's life to the Almighty and His ways.  The proof of such good will in the life of someone experiencing same sex attraction would be the practice of celibacy.  Thus, we might paraphrase Francis' comment as follows: "If someone experiences temptation, but gives his life over to God and resists that temptation, I would not withhold ordination simply because he had been tempted."  That's not really such news, now is it?

PS  I must make brief mention of the FT's coverage of this story.  While it reported the buzz among Vatican watchers, it also highlighted the continuity: "In line with Church teaching, Francis said gays should not be judged or marginalised but integrated into society, while maintaining that homosexual acts are a sin."